The Mysterious Tatra Mountains
In 1925, on a summer morning, a Polish family set out on a planned hike through one of the country's most beautiful mountainous regions. Unfortunately, beset by uncharacteristically poor weather conditions, no one knows what happened to the family and it remains a mystery to this day. In this post, we delve into the enigma of the Tatra Mountains.
The lone hiker came to a halt in the center of the clearing, before unshouldering his pack and rummaging deep inside to recover his spare water canteen. The ground beneath his feet remained damp from the bad weather which had plagued the last few days. The faint trace of a chill still lingered in the air. But these were far removed from the worst conditions that Mariusz Zaruski had ever experienced, and in truth, he never felt more alive than when he was traversing this mountainous region.
A prominent public figure, Mariusz Zaruski had always been something of a restless soul, and he had spent most of his adult life exploring the various summits and valleys of the Tatra Mountain range. These were difficult times for the Polish people: their nation was still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Great War, and in doing so, struggling to define their own political identity. As a result, the former cavalry officer took every opportunity to escape the turbulent demands of his daily life, devoting any of his free time to fellow travelers who may require assistance.
As beautiful as this landscape was, it was also a place of great danger with various hunters and hikers having lost their lives over the years, due to exposure and other such hazards. And it had been during the previous evening, whilst having dinner at a local tavern, that he'd overheard the story of a family, which had yet to return from the mountains after setting out on a walk a few days prior. Having spent the rest of that evening consulting the various maps and sketches of the region he had compiled over the years, Mariusz Zaruski resolved to make his way up to an area named Bald Clearing, located at the base of the Sycamore Valley.
From his own experience, he had decided that this was the most likely route the family would have taken given their last reported sighting. Zaruski was standing in quiet contemplation, when there was movement at the far end of the clearing. A woman slowly emerged from the trees, bedraggled and displaying signs of possible hypothermia. Hurrying towards the floundering figure, Zaruski did not arrive in time to prevent her from falling heavily to the ground. He was again reaching for his canteen, when she gripped his arm tightly, preventing him from doing so. Wild-eyed and staring up at him in a mixture of confusion and terror, she mumbled something he could not quite understand. It was only when he lent in closer, he managed to make out her words: "Dead", She said. "They are dead."
The Features of Tatra Mountains
The Tatra mountains stretch across an area in excess of 300 square miles, rising up from sea level to form a natural border between Poland and the neighboring country of Slovakia. With an undulating landscape which is somewhat similar in nature to its Alpine cousins, the Tatra region forms the highest part of the wider Carpathian mountain range, which spreads out in arc around Eastern Europe.
The peaks of the Tatra mountains are generally considered more accessible to visitors, and over the years they have become popular with both seasoned hikers, and far less experienced winter tourists. And it was into the latter half of these two groups that a trio of visitors arrived in the region for a short trip, during August of 1925.
The Kasznica family's visit to the Tatra Mountains
Having traveled from the nearby city of Krakow, the party consisted of Kazimierz Kasznica, as well as his wife Waleriya and their 12 year old son. Kasznica was a criminal prosecutor of some national repute, and he had planned to walk with his family up through a region known as the Sycamore Valley and on through the resort towns of Zakopane. The route he had selected covered almost 16 kilometers. It was generally considered to be easily traversable, save for an arduous stretch known as the Ice Pass, which rose up at points to a height of roughly 2,500 meters (or just over 8,000 feet).
Having eaten their breakfast at a hillside shelter in the Valley of the Five Ponds, the family commenced their hike early on the morning of August 3rd, only for the weather to almost immediately closed in upon them. At lunch time, with the wind speed increasing and temperatures dropping, they encountered a group of four more experienced climbers at one of the mountain's shelters and asked if they could accompany them.
Although initially agreeable to this, three of the four climbers soon became tired of having their progress significantly impaired by the newcomers. This was largely as a result of Kasznica, whose spectacles kept steaming up, causing him to have to stop and clean them before then moving off again. A few hours further up the trail, the quartet came to a halt, and there followed some debate about whether they should move off on their own and leave the family behind.
After a brief discussion, Zbigniew Wasserberger was the only member of the group who felt obligated to remain with the Kasznicas, and simply watched on as his fellow hikers headed off up the Mountain at their own pace. As the three climbers later paused further on up the trail, they turned to see the family and Wasserberger falling further and further behind them, until they were swallowed up by a patch of rolling fog. It would be a further two days before they were seen again. And after they were finally located, the question over what had happened to them after being left behind would puzzle commentators for decades and remain unsolved to this very day.
Having successfully intercepted Waleria Kasznica on the afternoon of the 5th of August, Mariusz Zaruski carried her back down the trail in order to seek medical assistance, before heading back up the mountain with a search party. A little further up the Sycamore Valley from where he had encountered Waleria, Zaruski and his fellow rescuers went on to discover the rest of her party, lying dead in a patch of open ground known as The Frog Pond.
Kazimierz Kasznica was lying backwards across a rock near some water, eyes staring silently up into the clear skies above him. Not far away from where he lay, slumped against a boulder was his lifeless son. Neither body exhibited any indication of how they had perished, which was in some contrast to the remains of Wasserberger. His body was sprawled out well away from the other two, having apparently sustained a head injury and a broken arm as a result of the harsh fall. At a loss to explain what had occurred, the army officer documented the scene, before ordering the men accompanying him to retrieve the bodies and begin the slow descent back towards civilization.
It had been hoped that as soon as Waleria was able to recount her tale, the reason for the three men's deaths would become more apparent. And yet, once she went on to regain consciousness, the account offered by the prosecutor's wife only seemed to deep the mystery further.
The Bizarre Events at the Ice Pass
She explained how, as their group had pushed on the Ice Pass, their progress had slowed as both the weather and their strength significantly deteriorated. Eventually, Kazimierz had finally ceded to Wasserberger's pleas for them all to turn back, and amidst a howling gale, the four of them had begun to clamber back down the mountain. The first sign of the coming danger was when her son began to weaken and complained to his mother that he could not walk any further.
Keen for them to push on to a place of safety, Wasserberger had passed the boy's pack to Waleria, and then carried the youngster down the trail in his arms. But at this point, as they neared the Frog Pond, Kazimierz had dropped to his knees and stated that he was feeling extremely weak. Waleria had begun to assist him when she had suddenly heard a worried cry from behind her, and turned to see Wasserberger collapse, apparently afflicted in a manner similar to that of her ailing husband.
Amidst a state of growing confusion, she had turned and hurried back towards the climber, assisting both him and her son in getting to the shelter of a nearby boulder. Having sat them down alongside one another, Wasserberger had told her that he also felt extremely weak. Waleria administered some cognac which she had brought along with her in a hip flask, and then gave her son some chocolate before running back to help Kazimierz.
Once she had reached her husband, she had given him a sip of the brandy, watching on in helpless panic as he subsequently passed away in her arms. There was a sudden thump from behind her and Waleria turned to see Wasserberger at an odd angle on the ground, having apparently tripped and fallen whilst walking towards her. He too was now dead and when she returned to care for her son, she found that he too had passed away.
In despair, she had sunk to her knees, apparently unaffected by whatever it was that it killed the rest of her group. For the next two days, hemmed in by bad weather and unsure of what to do next, she'd huddled up with her blankets and the family's gas burner, before finally descending in search of help when the rain ceased.
Autopsies carried out on the remains of the three victims proved somewhat inconclusive as to the cause of their deaths, and with no evidence to support the any crime had taken place, the tragic event was not investigated any further. In the years that have followed, very few theories have been put forward to explain what might have taken place, and even those which have been suggested have proven woefully unconvincing.
Inferences from the deaths
When looking at this incident, there are two clear commonalities amongst the deceased.
The first is that they were all male. The second is that they all took a sip of the cognac from Waleria's hip flask. If we are to believe her account, she is the only member of the group who did not drink any of the brandy, and for obvious reasons, this has caused a great deal of suspicion to fall upon her in the ensuing decades. Commentators theorize that Waleria wished to do away with her husband and son, either in the hopes of inheriting her spouse's wealth or running to the arms of another man without hindering the stigma of divorce.
They speculate that Waleria spiked the Brandy with the intention of offering it to her family members at the most appropriate moment. The presence of Wasserberger foiled this somewhat and there is a possibility that he refused the Brandy entirely, at which point she bashed his head in with a rock so as not to leave any witnesses. It's a plausible explanation, but one which falls apart under closer scrutiny.
First and foremost, there is a clear lack of motive. If she really wished to inherit her husband's fortune or elope with a hidden lover, why kill her own son? By all accounts, Waleriya was a loving wife and doting mother, entirely happy in her marriage. After the deaths of her husband and child, she fell into a deep depression and didn't remarry for many years. There is no denying that Kazimierz was well off, but his alleged fortune often cited by many who believe this theory was non-existent.
There was no vast wealth for Waleria to inherit when she had neither the constitution nor motivation to murder her family in cold blood. So, instead, could the prosecutor have been targeted by criminal or even political elements within his community, who poisoned the drink without his or Waleria's knowledge? It is not hard to imagine the reasons behind killing someone of Kazimierz stature if he'd laid legal proceedings against "the wrong people", but this seems an awfully clumsy way to assassinate someone. Why go to the trouble and invite the risk of secretly poisoning a hip flask which belongs to the wife of your target? Surely it would have been easier to stage a robbery gone wrong in some remote mountain pass.
The Post Mortem Report
In any case, the real sledgehammer blow to this theory comes from the post-mortems. Whilst the contents of Waleria's hip flask were never tested, autopsies clearly showed that all three deaths were attributed to pulmonary oedema followed by cardiac arrest, with no toxic substances found in the bloods. Not to mention that all three of the deceased were exhibiting signs of a serious decline before they even consumed the brandy, although we can see that we only have Waleria's word to go on in this instance.
Another thing which was revealed by the post-mortem was that Kazimierz had an existing heart defect which had not been public knowledge, and that his son's heart also bore traces of the same disease. It may be that some biological factor, which arose during the trip, somehow triggered identical heart attacks in the father and son. And yet, the death of Wasserberger would seem to contradict this. He was fit and well, with no trace of an underlying health issue, yet died with the same symptoms.
Given the results of the autopsies, it would be fair to assume that the trio died as a result of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. Whilst this is more prevalent at much higher altitudes, the phenomenon has been known to occur even on smaller peaks like those of the Tatra Mountains. The symptoms for the deaths which emerge from the Waleria's account are similar to those found in severe cases of this condition.
However, the time scales are far too short, the time between onset and death is usually hours, not minutes and at lower altitudes, this process is even slower. As a result, death from AMS at such a low altitude is extremely rare, with less than 5% of cases proving fatal. Essentially, what we have is an extremely rare condition- taking into account the altitude- causing even rarer fatalities in three individuals, all at the exact same time.
This would be unheard of in mountaineering circles as pulmonary oedemas are very specific to each individual, it is not something that generally affects everyone in a group at the same time. Not only that, but Wasserberger, in particular, was a seasoned climber. As a veteran of the Swiss Alps, the Tatra mountains would have been a walk in the park for him, so why he was affected in this way is a complete mystery. If the deaths were caused by something environmental as opposed to biological, such as an aerosol or maybe even a vacuum created by the fierce winds, then why would it only affect the male members of the group and leave Waleria unharmed?
Could that be some unknown biological process in the male body which activates under certain conditions? Perhaps the administering of alcohol only served to exacerbate this phenomenon. Of course, this is completely speculative. But some of the more fringe theories point to the similarities in other deaths involving males, low temperatures and trace amounts of alcohol, such as those seen in the canals of Manchester, England and various parts of the US. Although intriguing, this is a tenuous connection at best, but one that perhaps warrants more investigation.
With so little evidence to go on, both because of the circumstances of the event and the passage of time, sadly theory is all that can be applied. Whatever the cause, be it naturally occurring or something more artificial, it is difficult to see beyond the tragic deaths of those involved. It is possible that as our understanding of mountaineering and the various hazards associated with it improves, in the future a new explanation may be offered for the deaths which occurred on that fateful summer's day. For now, all we are left with is an enduring mystery which makes little to no sense. May the souls of these unfortunate hikers rest in peace, with the hope that their passing may one day help in understanding other mysterious deaths, which occur in the mountains.