Working in the heart of the Tatra Mountains

— 11 marzo 2014 | di Agnieszka Szymaszek

When Michał sets out for work, he can sometimes be away from home for a couple of days or even a week. Once, due to a huge snow storm, he was completely isolated from the world, trapped inside his office. For thirteen years Michał Trzebunia has worked at the meteorological observatory high in the mountains at the very top of Kasprowy Wierch, 1987 metres above sea level in the Tatra Mountains.

The observatory is the building standing at the highest altitude in the whole of Poland. To get to work, staff have to take the cable car at Zakopane and if it is closed, for instance in high winds, they have to cover the distance on foot, tackling a difference in height of 1000 metres. In winter, or when weather conditions are difficult, the climb can be a real challenge and it is actually quite easy to get lost in the fog or a blizzard. But Michał is not bothered by this, he is one of the best free riders in Poland, founder of the Freeskiing Academy and a climbing guide. So it is hardly surprising he feels at home on the mountains: the Tatra are his natural habitat. An office job or having to wear a smart suit would make him feel more awkward.

The first meteorological observations taken on Kasprowy Wierch date back to 1935 and three years later the observatory, which is still one-of-a-kind, was built. Thanks to its position in this pristine unspoiled location, it plays an important role in climate research and the meteorological data are shared with the Polish and Slovakian Mountain Rescue Teams and the Tatra National Park. They are also used to increase the safety of the people who visit the Tatra Mountains.

The staff at the observatory have to check the instruments day and night, irrespective of whether it is snowing or raining outside or if a storm is blowing. «The data collected on Kasprowy Wierch» explains Michał Trzebunia, «together with a handful of stations in Poland, are part of the international forecast system and after just five minutes they are sent to Cracow and Washington».

Michał currently works at Hala Gasienicowa, at the foot of Kasprowy Wierch. It is home to the Nival Research Station, which belongs to the Institute of Meteorology and Water Management. To get to his office, Michał has to take the cable car to the summit of Kasprowy Wierch and then walk down to the station. «It takes me about forty minutes to get down in the summer but in winter I can do it on my skis in just three minutes. Our job is to measure the snow. We did it for years using traditional methods, like digging snow profiles. A year ago our station invested in an ultra-modern piece of equipment, which allows us to examine the snow without ruining the layers. The device is buried under the snow and measures the humidity, temperature, weight and other characteristics» explains Michał.

The meteorological readings at the Nival Research Station have to be taken every three hours and then transmitted to a weather centre in Cracow, which conducts observations on the transformations of the layers of snow over the years. «In winter I have to get up quite early, before six, quickly get dressed and go around taking the snow readings so the data are ready before seven o'clock» explains Michał. «We work in accordance with Greenwich time and all the stations send the data at the same time. I have to control how much snow has fallen, check all the thermometers and melt the snow in the rain gauge. In summer we take readings every three hours up to 8.00 pm and in winter until 7.00 pm. I have some spare time in the evening. I also check the meteorological measurement points outside the station, near the Liliowe pass, at Lake Morskie Oko and in the Chochołowska valley».

The workers in the station have to do housework just like at home: keep the fire burning on the stove, clean, cook, wash and shovel the snow. Spare time is spent in front of the computer, watching the TV or reading a book. The station is a fairly comfortable place with a lot of amenities. Yet in his spare time Michał rarely uses the modern technologies available to him. He usually takes his skis or his camera and goes out into the mountains. He often goes up to Kasprowy Wierch. Near the station is a mountain hut where he can meet up with his climbing friends. When his shift comes to an end, he packs up his things, ready to go home or on another expedition in the mountains. «Nothing can beat the feeling of putting on your boots and setting out for the peaks» says Michał.

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