All photos by Dan Medhurst
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Eastern Europe first presented itself as a viable alternative to the Alps, it's a lot easier to understand why. Once you’ve spent enough time battling the hordes of holidaymakers in the expensive super-resorts of France and Switzerland, a trip off the beaten path becomes pretty tempting.
For a while we’d had our sights set on a mission to Zakopane, a southern Polish town in the shadow of the Tatra mountains. Dripping in history, it's a world away from the purpose-built resorts further west yet has garnered a reputation as an overlooked gem, with plenty to offer those prepared to go looking for it.
To do this properly, we’d need to recruit some creative young riders willing to try something a little different. At the top of our wishlist was Cairngorm local Jamie Trinder who, when he’s not globetrotting with the British team, can be found tearing up his home mountain whatever the weather. He’d been spending the last few weeks lapping Mayrhofen’s Penken Park with Henry Shackleton, and the two of them made the short trip over from Austria. Rounding out the crew would be Jack Labbett, a rider with less snow time than the others but with a deep bag of mind-boggling dry slope skills.
Also joining us is Dan Medhurst - the long-serving Whitelines photographer who, despite a day job shooting supermodels, retains a commitment to British snowboarding that borders on masochism. He arrives in Poland straight from a Bulgarian music festival but takes everything in his sleep-deprived stride, not even batting an eyelid at our host’s uncanny resemblance to JP Walker.
After picking us up from Kraków, Gareth Nicholls explains how he first came to Zakopane from Hull for a one-off instructing gig, but put down roots and set up a business after meeting his wife, Monika. The two of them run White Side Holidays, offering accommodation and instruction to guests from all over the world. Having spent almost a decade in the town, no-one is better placed to show us around.
"Modern buildings sit alongside dilapidated, top-heavy houses that appear to be on the verge of collapse. Roadside oscypek stalls dot the pavements"
On the two-hour drive south it becomes apparent that there hasn’t been any new snow in a while. The wintry-yet-bare conditions make for striking scenes; modern buildings sit alongside dilapidated, top-heavy houses that appear to be on the verge of collapse. Roadside stalls selling oscypek – a smoked sheep’s cheese – dot the pavements. “Those guys are out there day in, day out. Rain or shine," notes Gaz as we pass by. “It’s a harsh existence."
Clearly, this is no ordinary resort town. We’re excited to be here though, especially once we find out that heavy snow is on its way. Gaz takes us to join Monika and some of their friends at an authentic Polish restaurant, where everything from the music to the decor celebrates the region's unique history. All of it's lost on Henry, though: “what kind of restaurant is this – Italian?" he asks.
By the morning, things have completely transformed. Several inches of fresh snow cover everything in sight, and it looks like we’ll be kicking off our trip with a powder day. Gaz checks the webcam of the steepest resort, but finds only a murky grey square. It’s a no-go; plus none of the parks below the clouds will be shaped until the afternoon, so our only option is to head straight for a street spot. Not the ideal warm-up, but at least the riders are in good spirits as they load the van.
"I ask Jamie and Henry what street spots they’ve ticked off this season. 'None', comes Jamie’s reply. 'Actually, neither of us has done any urban before'"
We pull up to a small wooden bridge and spy a beast of a handrail on the far side of the river; long, kinked and bending slightly to the left. An old man is digging out the stairs, and looks understandably miffed when we pile snow onto an area that he’s not long cleared. Gaz assures him that we’ll get rid of it as soon as we’re done.
It’s all gone a bit quiet, so to break the silence – and to encourage Jack, who’s in unfamiliar territory – I ask Jamie and Henry what Ziller Valley street spots they’ve ticked off this season. “None", comes Jamie’s reply. “Actually, neither of us has done any urban before."
My concern for starting the trip off in this way turns to panic – are we making these guys bite off more than they can chew? Clearly they aren’t as bothered, though, and carry on shaping.
It’s a long time before anyone manages the full length of the rail, but eventually Henry nails a frontside lipslide – we’re off and running. Other than the occasional break to help passers-by round our kicker, the guys are relentless – no-one watching would assume this was their first go. Jack bags a frontside 50-50, and even Gaz straps in and gives it a few hits. JP would be proud.
When we finally call time on the session (and demolish the kicker as promised), there’s still time to drive over to the nearby resort of Gubalówka. The weather hasn't improved, but the park there has plenty of rails and a dedicated draglift. As soon as we arrive the guys spot a giant pile of snow sitting under a balcony, and the opportunity for bomb drops is just too good to miss.
Once the landing gets pounded into the ground, it's off to the park where Jamie and Henry are instantly salivating over a massive kicker. For obvious reasons it's currently roped off, so after getting reassurance that we can come back on a clearer day, they join Jack over on the rail lines for some fast laps.
Like most of the resorts around Zakopane, the liftpass options in Gubalowka are flexible – you can opt for top-up cards that mean you only pay for the runs you take. This keeps the cost right down compared to a major Euro resort, and offers the freedom to visit more than one hill per day without spending a fortune on passes. A miscalculation means that our cards are tapped out earlier than we thought, but the lifty is good enough to give us one last ascent on the house.
On the way home, the difference the snowfall has made to the town’s appearance really sinks in. Under the fresh blanket, Zakopane is positively picturesque. Tall trees line the roads connecting the more built-up areas, as the occasional horse-drawn cart passes us by. We spend the evening walking around the town centre, and before long we’re parked up in another cracking restaurant. Directly upstairs, Gaz tells us, is Zakopane’s premier strip club. “We had some lads staying with us last year, and they headed in there", he recounts. “One of them wasn’t in his room the next day. Turned out he’d been picked up by the police, who found him walking through town in just his socks. Someone took a photo of him and he ended up in the national news!"
Keen to stay off the front pages, we instead make tracks for a sports bar. Ski jumping is massive here – the nearby Wielka Krokiew stadium can attract crowds of up to 40,000 – so it’s no surprise to see it on the every screen. A cheery drunk in the corner of the bar is attempting to predict the judges’ scores as he works his way through a carrier bag's worth of beer cans. Given how pleased he looks with himself, he’s presumably getting a few right.
The snow hammers down all night, and the next morning we head to another resort, Bialka. Bigger and closer to Krakow, it’s popular with tourists and weekend warriors, but compared to most European resorts it’s still relatively quiet.
"Once we get a good look at the rail, that stench turns out to be the least of our worries. Come off to the right and you’ll be landing on the set of Scrapheap Challenge"
There are only two downsides to Bialka’s well-stocked, Burton-branded park: the Polish radio blaring out of tinny speakers at full volume, and the weather. It’s still dumping and the clouds aren’t going anywhere, so despite the best efforts of Jamie, Henry and Jack, we’re not going to get many bangers. Clearly, Dan feels the same. “Can we go? This is rubbish..." he shouts from the knuckle of a kicker, barely visible through the blizzard. The laps have been fun, but he’s probably right; like yesterday, our best chances of getting shots will be at street level. Gaz shows us a rail that’s right at the base station, and won’t take much work to make rideable. It boasts a fairly big drop to flat that raises a few questions, but for now there’s a far more pressing one: where the hell is that smell coming from?
The prime suspect is a pipe sticking out of the opposite wall, which drops down into a skip below. Checking out the spot means walking right up to it, prompting a few dry heaves, but once we get a good look at the rail itself, that stench turns out to be the least of our worries. Come off to the right and you’ll be landing on the set of Scrapheap Challenge. There are old tyres, wheelbarrows, concrete slabs, and random pieces of machinery that all tick the boxes marked ‘rusted’ and ‘pointy’. Most of it looks impossible to shift, but some wooden pallets toward the far end of the rail could potentially be moved, depending on what’s being stored on them. Clearing away some snow reveals that each and every one is loaded with razor-sharp rocks wrapped in loose chicken wire.
Despite the potential for GBH, Jamie is as keen as ever and begins building a kicker before anyone can raise any objections. A couple of workers ask what we’re doing, but Gaz placates them and we’re good to go. Or at least, most of us are; Jack has gone very quiet. If he was feeling a long way from the dry slope yesterday, this is on another level. I was already holding my nose, but when he drops I’m holding my breath.
"In the corner of my eye the Grim Reaper is polishing his scythe, pulling a ‘Never Say Last Run’ T-shirt over his robes, and looking for a comfy spot near the shit-pipe from which to await the inevitable"
Once again, though, I needn't have worried; the guys are soon stacking shots. In the end it’s not injury that ends the session, but another official who can’t be persuaded to let us stay. It's a little disappointing, but the opportunity to quit while we’re ahead is one I secretly welcome. The instant that crosses my mind, however, the boys are permitted one final hit. In the corner of my eye the Grim Reaper is polishing his scythe, pulling a ‘Never Say Last Run’ T-shirt over his robes, and looking for a comfy spot near the shit-pipe from which to await the inevitable.
Mercifully, all three keep their heads and finish the session in style. Jack’s initial misgivings are clearly long gone, and he presses the hell out of a frontside 5-0 to close the show. A quick stop at a nearby oscypek stall later, and that's another successful day in the can.
After dinner we hit a small piano bar, where given the quality – or lack thereof – of the current ivory-tinkler’s efforts, seemingly anyone can have a go. Already a pretty enthusiastic guy, Henry is now bouncing off the walls. Just as we’re wondering what’s got him so excited, he tells us; “I’ve guessed the pub’s wifi password!"
The next morning Dan makes it clear that he can’t abide another plate of scrambled eggs (the only breakfast option offered by the place next door to our building), so Gaz drives us to a more upmarket café across town that offers everything from pastries to pancakes. After pondering the menu for a minute or two, Dan orders an omelette. A Mexican Facepalm works its way round the rest of the crew.
"A gruff-looking security guard is keeping watch when we arrive, and even just the sight of us parked up is getting on his nerves"
The plan for today is to link up with local rider Adrian Smardz, who can show us a few more street spots around Zakopane. He says he’ll meet us at a some abandoned buildings near Salamandra. A gruff-looking security guard is keeping watch when we arrive, and even just the sight of us parked up is getting on his nerves, so we drive back to town to wait for Adrian.
Eventually he appears, along with fellow rider Oskar Szalas and filmer/photographer Krzysztof Zabski. They know a shortcut through some of the derelict houses, so we pick our way through rooms full of broken glass, empty cans and old mattresses. On the other side we find the perfect spot for building a kicker to gap on to a roof, and with so many hands on deck we're ready in no time.
Adrian then leads us to a handrail further up the hill. Other than us, the only sign of life is the solitary security guard we saw earlier, clearing the paths that connect the houses. “Don’t worry about him", says Adrian. “He’s not going to bother us when there’s this much snow."
“For this rail, it would be good if there was less snow" says Henry. He’s right; come off early and you’ll get bogged down in what we're calling the Channel Of Death, loaded with the crud cleared from the stairs. With a bit of luck you'll hold your line well enough to avoid the Tree Of Death, and come to a stop before reaching the Pit Of Death. The rail itself is a tricky donkey-dick, and a few heavy slams get logged; soon enough Jack’s picked up a limp, Adrian’s come close to wrapping himself around the tree, and we’ve almost lost Henry to the pit.
"Once the spotlights are set up and the snowmobile has arrived to take the boys up for their laps, they think they’ve died and gone to freestyle heaven"
Having already written off one board earlier in the trip, Jack looks crestfallen when he dings his backup deck in exactly same way. Gaz gives it a few bashes with an axe, and while the results aren’t pretty, it does at least look useable. Sure enough, Jack heads back up and nails a perfect backside boardslide on the very next drop.
Just in time, too; we’re due at a resort called Witów where they’ve arranged a private night shoot in the park. After a much-needed pizza stop – Rule #1 of shooting at remote street spots: bring more than one bag of crisps between six people – we head to meet Daniel Pulit and his team of expert park shapers, also known as Vodasodova. When they're not crafting the course at prestigious events like the Innsbruck Air & Style and X Games Oslo, they’re busy keeping their home mountain in good nick.
Given the lack of any steep pitches at Witów, there’s no scope for a mega-booter line or halfpipe. However, it’s not overstating things to say that what features they do have are sculpted to perfection. The park is all immaculate clean lines and corners, with nary a snowflake out of place. It all culminates in an amazing combo feature that offers more lines and transitions than some entire parks we've seen. Once the spotlights are set up and the snowmobile arrives to shuttle the boys up for their laps, they think they’ve died and gone to freestyle heaven.
Re-fuelled and re-energised, all three are unstoppable, linking up for doubles runs and generally having a blast. When the time comes to pack away the lights and head down, they’ve emptied the tank. It's been one of the longest days’ riding in recent memory, but also one of the best.
By this point we’re prepared to follow Adrian and his crew just about anywhere, and the next day we’re eager to see what else he has in store for us. He tells us to drive to Chocholów near the Slovakian border, where we’re going to try our luck on an abandoned ski jump.
“'It’s always like this in Poland' Adrian beams, taking a hacksaw to a loose bit of metal"
Fortunately for us, it’s not the size of the one we saw on TV the other night. It’s a training jump, built in the 1970s on the site of an animal graveyard. In the late 1990s the landing was fenced off by the owners of that plot, closing the jump for good. It’s not small, though, and with no other buildings nearby it cuts an intimidating figure against the sky. Then there’s the state of it; mostly rust and rot, with the impression that leaning one too many boards against it will send the whole whole thing crashing to the ground. Regardless, we climb to the top to enjoy a view that's as stunning as it is stomach-churning.
The others arrive and explain that by applying some plastic piping to one of the rusted side-railings, it’ll be possible to jib it before dropping down to the bank below. The temperature has shot up and a lot of snow has melted, so it’ll need some work to get it rideable, but the guys are up for it. In fact, despite the sketchiness, there’s no sign of any nerves from Jack, Henry or Jamie. Perhaps the long-overdue sunshine has lightened their moods. Or maybe it’s the fact that, after the events of the last few days, anything’s possible. Dan agrees: “Compared to what you done the other day, this looks easy – and it actually smells quite nice".
Adrian, meanwhile, is as chipper as they come, rocking a seemingly-permanent smile. “It’s always like this in Poland" he beams, taking a hacksaw to a loose bit of rusted metal.
Inspired by his positive attitude, the whole crew is soon stomping trick after trick. Jamie is going hell for leather on this one, riding the piping right to the end before spinning a backside 360 out. Unfortunately for him, this means missing the landing altogether and touching down in coarse bracken. He wisely adopts the others’ strategy of dismounting early, but even then he just can’t catch a break. On one arse-first landing, he makes contact with a jagged steel frame hidden just under the snow. There’s no permanent damage, but it’s a lucky escape.
The locals can't join us for our final day, although we make a plan to meet Oskar in Kraków on our way home. It’s another scorcher, and we find the Witów park is just as pristine in the morning sun as it was the other night. Still, it won’t be long before those clean angles melt away, so the guys waste no time. Even without the skidoo, it’s a quick lap on the solitary chairlift – which, given that it runs directly over the park, means our crew is giving the locals quite a show.
After saying a final goodbye to Daniel and his team, we head back to Gubalówka for a chance to try out the giant kicker we’d spied earlier in the week. Unfortunately the run-in has had a little too much time in the sun by the time we get there, so speed is a real issue. Jamie and Henry are disappointed not to be able to throw the double corks that they’ve been honing in Austria, but by bombing straight for the lip they can still bag some floaty backside 180s and rodeos. For the last hurrah, Henry dons a sheepskin vest he’d bought at the market, and the sight of it flapping in the wind overhead is a fitting way to end the week’s riding. The locals certainly thought so, grabbing Henry for a few selfies as we head back to the van.
Later that evening we're bound for Kraków, the city famous for tolerating British stag and hen parties on pissed-up weekenders. While there are no plans to further tarnish the reputation of the homeland, we’re barely out the door of our hotel before a police van stops us. Jamie and Henry get a citation for drinking in the street, and while both officers are good sports (even posing for Dan's camera), they won’t budge on the 100 zloty fine (roughly £20) - even after Henry’s bombarded them with every line of argument under the sun.
“It is small fine", one sighs eventually, rolling his eyes.
“It’s a small crime..." counters Henry.
Once penalties are paid, Oskar reappears to show us around some of his favourite night spots. In one bar the beer arrives ten pints at a time in giant self-serve towers, and the rest of the night passes in a blur. At one point a well-oiled Oskar is speaking passionately about life, the universe and everything – but mostly what it’s like to be a snowboarder in Poland. Clearly, they’ve got an inherent (and often necessary) knack for optimism, embracing the sketchiness they encounter with open arms. Look no further than Adrian’s latest edit to see how much it fuels their creativity.
As well as his friend, Oskar cites jib wunderkind Wojtek Pawlusiak as living proof of how far a Polish rider can go in snowboarding. “The town he’s from, it’s so tiny. If he can have a career, then there’s no reason why anyone else can’t."
At 5am the next morning I’m breaking into a hotel room to retrieve Jamie and Henry while their taxi waits patiently outside. Fortunately they've both crashed out fully clothed (jackets, hats, shoes and all), so it's just a case of getting them on their feet and pointing them in the direction of the stairs - but given the state they're in, even that takes some doing. They’ll tell me later that their flight back to Austria felt like a strange dream.
At least, I assume they're talking about the flight. It's as likely that they were referring to the whole week. Was it all just a bizarre, surreal head-trip, brought on by an overdose of oscypek? When you're lapping a private rail garden like rockstars one minute, and following a man with a Cheshire-Cat grin off a rusty deathtrap the next, it can make you wonder.
However, Zakopane is very real - and for snowboarders that is very, very good news.
How To Snowboard In Zakopane
GETTING THERE - Ryanair fly to Kraków from several cities in the UK. Return flights typically cost less than £80 (not including hold luggage/board bag).
WHERE TO STAY - White Side Holidays provide transfers from the airport and self-catered accommodation, and also offer packages including lift passes, equipment hire and instruction.
Special thanks to Gareth & Monika Nicholls (White Side Holidays), Daniel Pulit (Vodasodova), Maciek Heczko & Mateusz Lulek (Park Pirates, Bialka), Adrian Smardz, Oskar Szalas and Krystof Zabski.