February 2016. With no snow blankets to cover them, and no leaf canopies to shield them, the forests of the Malé Karpaty (Little Carpathians) stand exposed to the cold blue clouds. They await springtime wearing only the barest vestiges of moss.
Camping overnight at the trailhead did not sufficiently acclimate me for this hike’s altitude, so my progress is slow but patient. Much of the trail follows the hardened pahoehoe lava flows gently upwards, its surface as smooth as a paved nature walk. The lava is everywhere, and everywhere is lava. Only snow and the gasping thin sky overhead break its flows.
Four kilometers up and the remaining winter snow, which started as occasional patches, is forming large drifts. I haven’t seen a plant or animal all day.
At the summit crater, the mountain expands away, level in all directions. The dried surface may only be as old as I am. It resembles an abandoned parking lot in a forsaken city: roughly textured, glimmering black, carelessly crumpled and folded. Underfoot it crunches like crusted snow.
No other hikers are staying at the summit cabin. I am alone in this wasteland palace in the clouds.