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Ski traverse Făgăraș Mountains in the Romanian Carpathians, February 2008

Suddenly Stevie and I wake up in the middle of the night. Someone is trying to break into our compartment of the night train from Vienna to Brașov, Romania. Luckily, the conductor has already politely warned us in advance that in Hungary this almost certainly would happen. So, besides the built-in padlock we have additionally barricaded the door with our skis. It works out, after some in vain attempts the burglar passes on to try his luck at our neighbours.

Day 1 - Transylvania

When we wake up the next day the landscape looks completely different. Here in the heart of Transylvania most roads are still unpaved and transport often still takes places by horse and carriage. A local train brings us to Zărnești, a town situated at eastern tip of the Făgăraș mountain range. This east-west stretching range makes up a considerable part of the Southern Carpathians. Our aim is to traverse this chain from east to west, on skis.

After some unsuccessful hitchhiking attempts we decide to search for a taxi. The taxi driver guides his Dacia Logan, a fruit of Romanian national pride and French entrepreneurship, up the slippery road to Rudărița, the starting point of our tour. The driver has the strong belief that as long as you drive fast enough you will automatically jump over the potholes in the road. His tactic works out well, in most cases. Every time the driver clashes the front of the car into the side of a pothole for which apparently he is not driving fast enough, he starts mourning and begging for some extra money to support the presumed repair costs.

Bear prevention

As soon as the taxi disappears around the corner we start to feel somewhat lost and uncomfortable in the dense forest. Major reason for this is the presence of wolves and bears in the area. In our home regions these predators were eradicated already centuries ago, so we do not have any experience how to behave in areas where they are still omnipresent. Google searches had provided us with a large variety of tips ranging from carrying pepper sprays to singing loud and wearing cow bells to let the bears know you are approaching. So we did. We managed to connect our ski crampons with a cord to the bottom of our backpack so that with every step they started swinging and clashing into each other while making a sound similar to a goat bell. After a couple of hours walking, we decide to dig out a hole in the snow to put up our tent. Another somewhat unpleasant side effect of the potential presence of bears is the fact that we have to cook at a considerable distance from the place where we intend to spend a peaceful night so that we do not contaminate the place around the tent with leftovers. You should also avoid smelling like tonight’s dinner as bears in the first place tend to follow their nose in their search of food and may easily confuse you with the vegetable soup you have been preparing that night. So, every evening we divided our food over several plastic bags which we buried at different locations at considerable distance from our tent.

Day 2 - On the main ridge

After a couple of hours of climbing we leave the forest and gradually climb onto a broad flat ridge, the most eastern outlier of the Făgăraș chain. Leaving the forest immediately opens a spectacular view to the west on large part of the chain. The rest of the day we spend climbing up and down the main ridge which at this part of the range is still gently undulating, very similar to the top plateau of the Hochschwab range in Austria (for those who are not familiar: this is a mountain range situated in the north of Styria in eastern Austria). We really enjoy the views up here, and are particularly happy to be out of the bear zone for the coming week. At least, this is what we think...

Goal of day 2 is the Refugiu Berevoescu hut, located almost on top of the main ridge. Arriving at the hut we are very happy to have brought our own tent and not to have relied entirely on huts for spending the night. This hut is not more than a few remnants stuffed with snow. To protect ourselves from the wind we put up our tent directly next to one of the remaining walls, which we have freed after half an hour of snow digging. While I go for an evening ski to a small summit nearby, Stevie starts melting snow for our dinner. As the wind is blowing so strong, we already give up our bear-smell-prevention-cooking-measures on the second day and decide to operate our stove and pans from inside our warm sleeping bags. After all, bears do not travel that far up the ridge.

Day 3 - Getting stuck

Today is dedicated to going up and down along the main ridge. Our coarse scale map gives us some information about what the terrain should look like, but not that it would go up and down so often. During the day, the summits that we cross get increasingly steeper. In the late afternoon we have to traverse a quite steep west facing slope which at this time of the day does not feel very stable. One by one we cross the face and direct ourselves to safer ground. What is left for this day is a wonderful long valley, a lust for our skis. We braid our ski tracks with those of the bears residing in this valley to make beautiful woven patterns. We decide to ski down until we find a comfortable camping spot, if possible, fed by running water. Well, we manage to find the latter, but unfortunately at the expense of the first condition...

What starts as a wide, open-spaced valley soon becomes increasingly steep and densely forested. The red marked summer path on the map directs us right into a deep canyon. As my experience with skiing down narrow canyons so far has always been very positive (See Ski touring in the Turkish Tauros - The Ala Dag) we decide to continue. In the beginning we manage to find our way down on the bottom of the canyon on top of ice shields and dense snow bridges connecting the single rock islands and banks of the current. But after an hour of struggling unfortunately, we finish on top of a four chute like meter waterfall. For a moment, we consider throwing all our stuff down and to follow ourselves on our butts, but the thought of spending the rest of the night in frozen underpants makes that we soon withdraw from this brilliant plan. Meanwhile, the day has turned into a night, which leaves us no other option than to search for a place to spend the night. Luckily, the snow island in front of the water fall leaves us just enough space to put up our tent. So we do. Needless to say that for the second time in a row we discard our strict bear prevention measures and stick to our 4 m2 island for cooking, eating, peeing and sleeping. After all, bears would never enter such a deep canyon.

Day 4 - Changing our route

Poor Stevie. The thought of a bear entering the canyon in search of our last night’s Thai noodle soups has kept him awake all night. Honestly, I was not very confident myself either that not a single bear would be interested in tasting this exotic cuisine. Having wrapped up our stuff we retreat through the canyon again until we find a steep gully through which we can escape from it. Shortly after, we bump into the trail that we missed the day before but which now guides us rapidly to the main valley shaped by the Valea Rea river. Looking back from the main valley up into the canyon it is frustrating to see that the water fall was the only thing that separated us from reaching the flat valley floor and a peaceful sleep.

What frustrates us even more is that from here we don’t see any way to continue the ridge or cross to the next valley. We are captured in a kind of cirque of which the spew out avalanches every few minutes. After an in vain attempt to escape through a hidden valley we decide to drastically change our plans and ski down the valley to the south and turn back to our starting point near Plaiul Foii along the Munții lezer-Păpușa range, which lies further south and parallel to the main ridge. The map suggests that this will be a tedious exercise as the valley floor only falls off a few hundred meters in height over a distance of 20 kilometres. Indeed, several hours of skating over a snow covered road follow.

It is getting already dark when we see an old wagon that in summer probably serves as a lodge for foresters. The only way to get over the wide torrent that separates us from the wagon is over a large tree trunk covered with snow. Armoured with an ice axe we manage to get on and over the trunk in a cowboy-like horse riding style. Inside the wagon everything is “quite humid” but at least it seems to offer us some shelter against the cold night and bears. Nevertheless we decide to cook and store our food 50 meters away from the wagon.

Day 5 - A day through the valley

Our bear prevention measures are not a superfluous inconvenience, as shown to us the next day. Only a few hundred metres away from our wagon, countless huge claw prints have been stamped into the snow. Judging from the fine details, such as single nails, still visible, the tracks are at the most a couple of hours old. This information makes us expand our bear-early-warning system to loud speaking and singing. I am pretty sure that my horrible vocal capacities will scare them off. Most of the tracks come down from the forest and gather at a point at the river, possibly to meet each other again after several months of hibernation.

After a couple hours we reach a monstrous barrage, probably a relic of Ceaucescu’s time. At least the dam provides us a bridge to cross the valley. While we are gradually entering the Văsălatu Valley, every half an hour a large number of noisy trucks piled up with wood passes on the dirt road. It really makes us sad that the idyll of spending a week in an almost untouched area is suddenly so roughly disturbed. After a while, the destination of the trucks becomes clear. At the junction of two valleys we bump into an enclave of woodchoppers who are hanging around a collection of wagons. Our first contact with human beings after five days is not very heart-warming. We are looked at with distrust. This is certainly not what we have expected, as to my experience travellers usually are welcomed with warm hospitality when travelling in areas with little tourism, especially aliens with skis like we. But after a while the ice seems to have broken, and we are offered two lemonade glasses full of rachiu. Our question if we can spend the night in the camp seems to cause some commotion but after several internal discussions they agree. From that moment the atmosphere seems to have turned radically to the good: they free an entire wagon for us, repair the light, heat up the wood oven until it is 50 °C hot, and even bring us dinner. Satiated and warm we fall into a peaceful sleep while barking dogs keep the bears at a safe distance.

Day 6 - The lezer-Păpușa ridge

Goal of the next day is the Refugio lezer hut located almost on top of the southern main ridge. After half an hour walking we start to discover the sad results of the woodchopper’s practices become visible. They have worked their way up through the valley, chopping every tree they encounter. The way they are doing this does not seem to be very sustainable. All parts of the trees that are not of economical interest are left in place, while the thick carpet of branches on the ground hinders a soon germination of young trees and thus a quick recovery of the forest. After a while we pass the tree line and climb to the col Curmătura Groapele which is the door to the Munții lezer-Păpușa ridge. We traverse over some minor summits before reaching the beautifully located Refugio lezer. This hut is in a much better condition than Refugiu Berevoescu, it contained even a couple of mattresses.

Day 7 - Wolve tracks

Today’s plan is to traverse the rest of the Munții lezer-Păpușa range and ski down into the valley at its eastern side. It is going to be a long trip, so we start early. After a while we discover the fresh tracks of two wolves in the snow. These wolves have probably had the same idea as they follow exactly the same route as we do. “When would these wolves have crossed this ridge?” we ask ourselves. In the afternoon we reach the Mount Păpușa at the eastern side of the ridge and to our big surprise we are not alone! For the first time this week we meet other ski tourists. These Spanish guys, accompanied by two dogs, have rented a four wheel drive and undertake day trips from the valley.

When the Spanish ski down, strange enough their dogs stay with us. Actually, they even start to follow us when skiing down into the other direction! It seems that these two dogs do not have a fix owner and just stay with those who offer them something to eat. The presence of these vagabond dogs make us doubt whether the tracks we have seen this morning are really of wolves or rather originate from the domesticated version of this predator...

Skiing down from Mount Păpușa via Muntele Cascue reveals us the saddest Romanian experience so far. What on the map is represented as a dense forest, in reality looks like the result of the mysterious Tunguska explosion in Siberia. All that remains on the slopes are some lost trunks and isolated deciduous trees of low economic value. Through this desolate landscape we find our way down, still followed by the dogs. In the valley bottom we pass the raisers of this barren landscape in front of their wagons.

While we are sliding down at the last snow rests along the road, suddenly a jeep stops in front of us and a camera team and a high national official jump out of the car. These reporters of the commercial channel Pro TV make a documentary on illegal logging in Romania and want to interview us. A few days later we would meet these guys again in Brasov. While having dinner with them they will tell us all about the illegal logging practices in Romania. They tell us that on the day before they had an interview with the mayor of the town at the entrance of the valley. He appears to be the richest man in the area. All he has to do to get this rich is keeping his eyes closed for the continuous caravan of timber transports out of the valley.

The notice of illegal logging makes us very sad. If they continue logging in this speed, within several decades all primeval forests and the entire domain of the bears will have completely vanished from this part of Romania. It also makes us sad that the woodchoppers that accommodated us so friendly the other day are in fact a sort of criminals. Now it also becomes clear to us why in the beginning they treated/regarded us with so much suspicion.

Day 8 - Back into civilisation

We spend our last night in the mountains in an abandoned wagon. As the door of our wagon cannot be locked, we are really happy that the two dogs have followed us all the way down. They can keep an eye on the bears while we are asleep. To reimburse them we prepare them a nice couscous meal. The next morning, when I go into the forest to get rid of some of my digested food, one of the dogs follows me and keeps staring at me while I squat. Even though it is a dog I feel a little embarrassed. But even more embarrassing is the fact that as soon as I lift my butt the dog attacks my faeces as if it were a heap of chocolates and swallows it within a few seconds. Probably he really liked yesterday’s couscous... From this moment, for me the dog has lost most of its cuteness and should stay away as far as possible for the rest of the day.

After walking for a couple of hours the valley widens and the forests give place to small meadows and villages. Most of the wooden original houses are enclosed by kitschy new summer chalets erected by the nouveau riches of Bucharest. I really wonder what goes through the mind of the older people here when they see such rapid developments. After a while we realise that we have left the dogs. Probably they found some people that offer them better food than we do.

For me, entering again the urbane world after a long time up in the mountains is always a mixture of pleasure and sadness. Pleasure, because of the sudden abundance of food and the luxury of a good mattress or hot shower. Sadness, because I realise that the trip is over and I might never come back again to this beautiful piece of earth. But what remains above all, are memories of a beautiful and intense time and some nice anecdotes to report on the internet.

Fagaras Mountains - some tips

Climate: Romania has a continental climate with cold winters. We were there in the last week of February. A few days before we arrived, spring announced itself with milder temperatures.

Best time of the year: The end of February, first half of March is probably the best time. Earlier in the year, avalanche danger can be very high, whereas later in the year descents down to the valley will not be possible anymore. Probably the northern facing valleys will keep snow until late spring (beginning of May).

Estimated avalanche danger: moderate to high; spring conditions. On the eastern part of the ridge conditions were very safe because of the moderate slopes. Further west avalanche danger gets incresingly higher due to the steep slopes

Equipment: Usual cross country equipment, including crampons. There are no glaciers, so you can save youself a lot of weight by leaving your rope at home (unless you want to go climbing as well, of course). As there are no refuges, you have to bring your own camping equipment and food.

Getting there: There is a direct night train from Vienna to Brasov. From Brasov you can take a local train to Zărnești, situated at the foot of the impressive Piatra Craiului ridge. From here, you can hitchhike or take a taxi to Plaiul Foii.

Maps: Bel Alpin publishes a quite useful map: Munții Făgărașului; 1:75000. The map contains information on trekking routes, mountain huts etc and shows basic information on contours and rock formations. The map can be ordered on the internet or bought in some local book stores in Brasov.