Slovak Attack: Snowboarding Slovakia
Words and Pictures By Sam Baldwin
Published February 2007
The SnowSphere crew heads east, to the rust of the iron curtain in search of Slovakian Snow in the Tatras Mountains, and ends up in Poland on a journey to the centre of the Earth…
The law of averages state that it had to happen eventually. After 10 years of snowboarding trips, which have taken me to mountains in 9 different countries across four continents, I finally hit bad snow. Europe had suffered one of the warmest winters on record, and many of the ski resorts in the Alps and Pyrenees were relying heavily on their snowmaking facilities to keep just a handful of runs open.
Reports were coming in from SnowSphere agents posted in various European countries that things were looking bad. One resort in the Italian Alps had just laid off 20 lifties, as only two lifts were actually running. From France we'd heard tales of sheet ice slopes. Austria brought stories of hospitalisation due to glassy kickers and boiler plate landings. So, it was with low hopes that we were welcomed aboard the Sky Europe flight by a trio of attractive hostesses, to fly east to the central European country of Slovakia.
The once communist state which has risen from the rust of the Iron Curtain is home to the Tatras Mountains, which make up part of the Carpathian Mountain range. Slovakia offers a number of smallish ski resorts, many of which have just a couple of lifts and a few short runs. However, we were en route to the more renowned ski resort of Jasna after reading many good things about this former Soviet secret.
The trip ran smoothly and we were picked up from Poprad-Tatry airport by our man with a Propaganda Van, Paul. He informed us that conditions were far from ideal, but assured us that there were plenty of other things to do, should we not find the snow acceptable.
On our first day, figuring things are rarely as bad as they seem, we caught the bus from outside our "penzion" in the small village of Demänová where Propaganda Snowboards are based. We were somewhat confused by the pricing system of the bus and it took us a while to realise that we had to pay for each snowboard, in addition to each passenger.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived and joined the queue to purchase a day ticket costing about 760 Slovakian Koruna (£14/US$28). Paul had not been joking when he said the conditions weren't great. Jasna - a place I'd heard so many good things about, had only enough snow to open one run and a single lift. However, the snow was sugar soft and we spent an enjoyable day cruising the slope and getting small air fixes from hits around the bases of the snow cannons.
As leader and organiser of the trip, I am always in the firing line when things aren't as perfect as they could be. People's memories can be short and past trips to powder paradises are quickly forgotten. The problem with going somewhere a little off the average snowboarder's radar, is that if conditions are bad, people tend to blame the location, rather than the true culprit: the weather.
"Why didn't we go to Whistler? - it's dumping over there - they've had record snow falls!"
Well yes, it's true, the entire west coast of America had enjoyed a stellar start to the 2006/07 season - but think back just a couple of years to the 2004/05 season. Have you already forgotten that the renowned number one destination in North America experienced its worst winter in 50 years, only 2 short years ago?
As if to back up my choice of Slovakia as a destination for a great snowboarding trip, our friendly neighbourhood Slovakian driver "Jonny" informed us that he'd never seen so little snow in the area - normally the mountains were covered in it, he told us.
Pete - a lad from England who we'd bumped into on the bus had similar stories to tell. Last year he'd spent a week in Jasna and was so impressed with the amazing snow and great value of the place that he immediately booked himself in for an entire month for the following season. He was now two weeks into his stay and had barely ridden a day.
This is the folly of being devoted to a sport that is completely at the mercy of the planet's weather systems. Even those who are still sticking their heads in the sand and denying the effects of global warming can surely see that weather is becoming more erratic, less predictable and less snow sure.
So, when faced with a snowboarding trip that isn't going to involve much snowboarding, what do you do? Well, I'll tell you what you do:
1. You go cross country skiing around the beautiful lake of Štrbské pleso, stop for some perogies and a beer in a lake side pub, photograph your mates sliding Slovakia steel, then go tubing.
2. You go go-karting and re-enact scenes from that Nintendo classic - Mario Kart. (Make sure you pack red and green turtle shells and a banana skin for this one).
3. You get banned from the karting track for crashing into a wall and breaking the wheel off a kart.
4. You go on a day trip to Krakow in neighbouring country Poland (why not?) and end up 200m below the surface of the earth in a salt mine, that resembled the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings, on a guided tour with a Borat look-alike.
5. And you drink plenty of 50p a pint Zlaty Bazant beer and gorge yourself on cheap, hearty Slovakian fodder, such as goulash and dumplings.
That is what you do, when the snow doesn't show.
On our final day in Slovakia, we were cruelly taunted by the snow spirits. Having kept a close eye on the weather reports, we excitedly rose early to see a snow plough covered in snow, rattling down the road from Jasna. Finally, the snow had come - we were going out on a high - Slovakian powder for all!
Jumping on the bus, paying for ourselves and our snowboards, we headed up the valley towards Jasna. As we approached, we wondered why so few others were out and about. Before, there had been crowds of wealthy Russian, Ukrainian and German tourists swarming over what little snow there was, but now the snow had arrived, they all seemed to have disappeared.
The reason why soon became apparent. In a final blow - we arrived at the resort to find the chair lifts grounded, the turnstiles shut and the mountain closed for business.
We left Jasna and Slovakia feeling that we hadn't experienced true Slovakian snow. We'd eaten the food, drunk the beer, seen the sights, even raced the karts and had a great time doing it - but for the first time in a decade, the snow had evaded us. However, the weather, like life itself, is unpredictable, and although we'd hadn't done much of what we came to do, we managed to find fun in the absence of the white gold.
A big thanks goes out to Paul from Propaganda Snowboards who made our stay possible. They provide great value accommodation, transport and food for the bargain prices - starting at around £240 per person per week.
Sam Baldwin is the editor and founder of SnowSphere Magazine and also writes for Snowboard UK and a number of other publications including White Lines, The Snowboard Journal, Future Snowboarding and the World Snowboard Guide. View Sam Baldwin's portfolio here.