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Bucharest and Moldoveanu

August 19, 2012

Thomas flew back to Phoenix, while my dad and I flew to Bucharest. It was a hot day in Bucharest, in the low 90’s. We got a cab from the airport, North of the city to downtown, where we had rented a flat. The block housing in Romania was decrepit, covered in graffiti and made of bare concrete. Getting in the elevator was tough with duffel bags, a plywood box suspended a couple feet below the floor, but we jumped down into it and closed the door. After arriving at the seventh floor, we climbed out the two feet and dragged our bags out of the elevator. Inside the place was quite nice, with a washing machine and fridge.

Weaving through masses of parked cars on side streets beneath towering blocks, we made it to a Carrefour grocery store. Inside it was the usual grocery store, with the unusual addition of what appeared and tasted like rum rolls, and they were everywhere in there. The Hellenic influence was prevalent as well with fresh feta, Romanian soft cheeses, hummus and olives. Our hands full of groceries, we struggled to get the deadbolt on the block door open, but eventually got inside.

In the warm evening we went for a walk and grabbed some dinner. We found our way to Ceausescu’s Palace, took a few pictures, and went back to the flat.

The Palace, second largest building in the world.

The next morning we walked around what remains of Old Town Bucharest, because half of it was bulldozed for Ceausescu’s Palace. Walking around Ceausescu’s Palace took the better part of an hour, and we were not even able to get in there for a tour. We also made it through the pedestrian downtown and to the excavated fortress of Romanian leader and national hero Vlad Ţepeș (aka Vlad Dracul, and Vlad the Impaler). He is most famous because he is the basis for the character Count Dracula. Being in the Balkans is great, because cheap kebabs are always nearby.

Revolution Square, where Ceausescu made his last speech on 21 December 1989, was met with a rioting crowd, and had to be helicoptered out.

Statue for the revolution.

Bullet holes in an Orthodox Church opposite Revolution Square.

Vlad’s fortress.

At 7 pm my dad and I met with some of his former and current Romanian students for a drink in downtown. They were all really nice and offered us lots of support for our excursion across the country. They were excited that we wanted to visit their country and see it. Throughout the trip we found all of the locals, like my dad’s students, to be incredibly friendly and helpful.

The next morning we got up early to avoid the morning traffic and caught a cab to the airport to pick up a rental car. Caught in traffic and dealing with confusing GPS directions, it took us awhile to get to the highway and out of town. Once there the driving was smooth, which I had worried about. Driving had been a little hairy and the roads horrible last year in Bulgaria, but we found the Romanian roads to be much better throughout the week there.

We stopped for a break to go see Poeinari Castle, where Vlad Ţepeș made his last stand against the Turks. It was from these castle walls that his wife threw herself off, to avoid being taken alive. Below the castle is a restaurant where we had lunch. From here we began one of the most beautiful roads in the world, the Transfăgărășan Highway.

From the castle the road narrows and became increasingly difficult to drive. There were lots of primitive tunnels made from bare, blasted rock to pass through. Washouts and rockfall on the roadway made tough driving. We passed a few huts and wild horses as we passed the tree line. The views were excellent, but there became more and more snow on the sides of the road as we gained elevation.

Eventually we came to the entrance of the tunnel at 2034 meters altitude, but the most of the entrance was blocked by snow. A man who was parked at the entrance began turning his car around as we approached. Laughing hysterically “cerrado!” he shouted at us from the driver’s seat, which means “closed” in Spanish. I understood the tunnel ahead to be closed now, and began contemplating what to do next. I knew that if there was no way through, we were 1 kilometer from the lake and but would have to drive 8 hours to get there. We parked to the car, grabbed headlamps and began walking through the tunnel, not knowing what we would find. The entrance was big enough for the car to make it, so we hoped we could make it out the other side. In the tunnel it was very cold, and water dripping from the roof had formed massive stalagmites of ice spanning the width of the tunnel in places. After walking through the 884 meter Bâlea Tunnel,the longest tunnel in Romania, the rather dim light appeared at the end of the tunnel as we arrived at Bâlea Lac in fog. Walking back, we took note of where the ice was in the tunnel and drove the car to the lake (Bâlea Lac).

We took a break at the so-called “mountain hut,” which was much more similar to a hotel, then went to find the trailhead for the next morning. At the West end of the lake is a sign surrounded by various markers of circles, stripes and triangles in red and blue. The Romanians could certainly take a lesson from the Czechs on trail signage. We identified our trail and grabbed some dinner.

The next morning we woke up at 4:30, and began the hike at 5:00 am. Though Moldoveanu is at 2544 meters and we already started at 2100, the trail follows a couple ridges, up and down to the peak. The first part of the trail was some of the steepest of the morning, and my half-asleep body was not ready for it. Once we got to the saddle and Capra Lac we were able to cruise on rolling terrain. Soon after the lake we got to a steep snowfield that we would have to descend to regain the trail. I glissaded while my dad walked down.

Capra Lac

The snowfield.

We crossed a couple more snowfields before turning uphill to regain the ridge. Avoiding the turn to the Podragu Hut, we climbed a section with secured cables, down a steep section of trail and up a snowfield to another ridge that bisected the one we had been on. Turning slightly towards the North, we stopped and had a snack at a memorial. The previous day we had looked for bars to eat in gas stations and in Bucharest, but found very little. Today was the day of Snickers bars. Breakfast? 2. Lunch? 1, and some stale bread. The afternoon? Another 2. By the end of the day I was a bit tired of Snickers bars, to say the least. In fact, to this day I have not eaten one since and they still do not appeal to me.

We walked down to a saddle, then regained all of the elevation that we had lost. We turned to the West and came along a ridge, my dad waited while I scrambled to climb Mircii. We steeply descended to Iezerul Podul Giurgiului, a small lake with a small hut. The lake was entirely iced over and much of it covered in snow, though a bit of the blue water was visible through the thin ice to tip us off to be wary of venturing onto the snow. The hut was surrounded by snow about 4 feet high, and it appeared that winter had been brutal. The roof had huge holes in it, where bright yellow insulation poked out. I climbed in through the doorway from the 4 foot tall wall of snow surrounding the structure. Inside were a few bunks of bare metal, and scavenged bits of foam insulation for mattresses. The place was a mess; wrappers and sunflower seeds littered the floor, in the corner a few Pepsi bottles lay on their sides filled with a yellow liquid.

The trail continued relatively flat, and then gradually gained elevation. By this time my dad was beginning to feel a bit sick, but fortunately he did not get discouraged because we were in heavy fog and unable to see how far away the peak was. Along the trail I scrambled up to climb a couple more peaks while my dad took breaks. Eventually we got to the saddle and hiked up to Viștea Mare, the second highest peak in Romania. We traversed a long, gently sloping ridge to finally reach Moldoveanu at about 1:30 pm after 12 miles on the trail. The fog cleared for a few minutes, revealing amazing views of all the Făgăraș Mountains. After snapping a few photos, getting a shot with my flag and putting my sticker on a sign, the fog rolled in and we headed off.

First view of Moldoveanu.

Sun on our side of the ridge, keeping for at bay on the other.

At the roof of Romania: Moldoveanu.

My dad at Moldoveanu.

My sticker on Moldoveanu.

Returning to Viștea Mare, I spotted a man on the summit through the fog. He waved and asked me if I spoke English, I do, and he responded that he was German. Clad in leather sandals, a wooden hiking stick, a wooden frame pack with leather straps, hair half-way down his back and mutton chops, this was the guy I expected least to see up here. He had stayed the previous night at the Podragu hut, which was snowed in and closed for the winter. I was glad that we had chosen to climb the peak in a day instead of staying at the hut because we only had sheet sleeping bags.

My dad’s stomach was becoming increasingly upset as time went on, and we kept taking breaks. After awhile I figured that it would be best for us to just get off the mountain, so I paced myself to stay a bit ahead of him so he would keep moving. Back at Iezerul Podul Giurgiului we took a break, then scrambled back up to Mircii.

Bloody nose on the descent.

The sun appeared out of the fog again, and the late afternoon sun worried me that we would not make it to Bâlea Lac by nightfall. We continued pass the memorial that we had stopped at before, and descended the chained section. By this stage of the hike I had retreated into my pain cave, and was not about to come out until we finished the hike. it’s a different state of consciousness, and the rest of the hike just melts into fragments of memory, and images.

That is, until we got the the snowfield. We crossed the patches of snow in the morning, but our footprints were faint from the snow melting during the day. I followed the footprints, but while crossing the second section of snow I fell through a snowbridge to my chest. Below me was a small stream of snowmelt, and I caught myself from falling below the surface by grabbing the snowbank around me. Standing on quickly-melting snow, a small stream and saturated ground, I knew that I had to move quickly to avoid slipping under the snowbridge. hacked a step into the snow with my trekking pole and tried to stand on the bridge again. Again, I fell through to my chest. I just hacked my way through the remaining 15 feet of the snow, kicking my way through and using my poles. My dad had made it to the other side, and helped pull me out.

We ascended the snowfield in my dad’s footprints for the morning, and continued along the trail. At Capra Lac it began to go dark, and I got my headlamp out.

From the lake we hiked up to the ridge and began to descend to the lake in complete darkness. I was weary of descending the last section in darkness because the trail is not clear and there is a cliff on the East side that parallels the trail, and it begins as just slightly steeper before a 100 meter drop. I would have about 10 steps to realize it was the wrong way if I got to the cliff. We skirted around the cliff, and finished up the hike.

Looking at my watch it was 10:04 pm: 17 hours on the trail. My dad looked at his GPS: 38 km (24 miles), and 2,300 meters (7,300 feet) of elevation gain.

Walking in the door of the hut we hoped to get a meal, but the place was shut for the night. I was incredibly hungry, so I had another Snickers, some crackers and stale bread. Also incredibly thirsty but unable to stomach any more water, I drank a half liter of Coke, the only other drink we had, and went to bed hungry and thirsty, but mostly tired.

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