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Europe's last 'sherpas' going strong in Slovakia
by Staff Writers
Hrebienok, Slovakia (AFP) June 29, 2011

Barely visible under a keg of beer, bottles of water and sacks of heating coke on his back, Slovak Edo Liptak sets out on his gruelling daily climb as one of Europe's last mountain porters.

The High Tatras, Europe's smallest Alpine-type mountain range, are still home to this rugged breed of mountain men -- comparable to the famed Himalayan Sherpas.

In the Alps and other European mountain ranges, they have long been replaced by helicopters and cable cars.

"The key is not to think too much as you walk up. You have to free your mind and the rest will follow," chuckled Liptak as he prepared to trek 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) up the mountain from Hrebienok, a ski resort at 1,285 metres (4,215 feet) altitude and the last outpost of civilisation in this wilderness.

His loads can weigh far more than his own 82 kilos (180 pounds).

"It's a great job - it gives me freedom, energy and persistence," he said, deftly hoisting a 106-kilogram load strapped to a wooden frame resembling a short ladder onto his back.

At 37 years old, Liptak will soon celebrate 20 years as a sherpa -- as they are known in these parts -- carrying food, drinks, laundry, heating materials and all other essential supplies to remote, high-altitude cabins.

These cabins are located in strictly protected nature reserves where cable cars or roads are forbidden. Most of them have very limited storage capacity and there is no power, running water or refrigeration.

The Zamkovsky cabin where Liptak was heading was built in 1943 and employs four sherpas year-round. They hike up about three times a day, carrying at least 60 kilograms per trip, owner Jana Kalincikova told AFP.

"It would make more sense to rent a helicopter to transport the supplies but we have only three refrigerators powered by a water turbine so we need sherpas to carry smaller packages more frequently," she explained.

"It's a tough job for tough men who love nature," said Kalincikova, whose oldest sherpa is a former professional dancer, aged 58.

Besides carrying supplies, sherpas also do the laundry, dishes and cook at the cabins that are open all-year-round.

"A helicopter will fly only when the weather is good but my sherpas come no matter the weather," said Kalincikova.

-- 'It's like a drug for me' --


Though still back-breaking, the sherpas' job has eased up over the years as cabins have been modernised.

"We no longer have to carry coal bricks, and the wooden beer kegs we used to carry have been replaced with lighter aluminium ones," said Peter Petras, at 65 one of Slovakia's oldest sherpas.

"I'm addicted - when I don't hike for a while I get nervous," said Petras, who has been in the business for more than 48 years and believes there will still be sherpas in the Tatras 20 years from now.

On a windy Saturday morning, he was on hand to supervise the 10th annual sherpa competition hosted by the Zamkovsky cabin, in which about 25 men and a handful of women vie for sherpa glory.

"I don't compete any more, I've just taken up golf to relax instead," joked Petras.

The race commemorates sherpa Juraj Petransky, who died in 2000 at the age of 26 in an avalanche while carrying supplies to the Tery cabin, the country's highest cabin at 2,012 metres altitude.

Competitors hike up some 200 metres along a stretch that normally takes up to 80 minutes, but 12 of them, carrying 100-kilo loads, race up the hill in less than 45 minutes. This year's winner Branislav Karasa set the new record at 39 minutes 18 seconds.

"It's like a drug for me," university student Matej Fabsik, who works as a sherpa during summer holidays, said relaxing with a beer and a cigarette after clocking 40 minutes and 20 seconds in the race.

Unlike senior sherpa Liptak, his trekking strategy doesn't involve freeing his mind.

"It helps me to think about sex while walking," he said with a sheepish grin. "I usually manage three women before I reach the peak."

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