WINTER HIKING IN THE ROMANIAN CARPATHIANS
The biggest adventure from 2019 for Summit or Nothing was when we flew to Romania and endured the winter conditions of the Romanian Carpathian mountains, where we summited the awesome Omu Peak at 2507m’s. This is the story of that adventure.
“Yogi!” Yelled Frank into the dense mountainside forest, and one by one the rest of our party of five added our own holler to the chorus.
We weren’t calling the bears, so much as warning them off. The advice was to make lots of noise – if they hear you, then they tend to avoid you… or so we hoped.
It was the last days of October, and this was our first foray into hiking in a foreign country; three days exploring the mountains of Romania’s Bucegi National Park, part of the Romanian Carpathians. It wouldn’t have necessarily been a destination that we would have chosen, perhaps would not even have heard of had it not been for the fact that our friend Dionis had been before.
His brother, Vadim, was a regular rambler in these mountains, they were practically his second home, he told us, and so they made for great guides to this beautiful country. Both Vadim and Dionis were originally from Moldova, the country positioned like a bunch of grapes to Romania’s north-east, but Dionis had lived and worked with us in Devon for the last several years. Frank, Sean and I were the foreigners for once.
Our route began in Bran, a small town just south of Brasov, (famous for being the home of Dracula’s Castle) although we joined the track a mile or two further up the path. It had been zero degrees when we left the car and promised to be as low as minus 6 at the higher levels, but there is nothing like a good uphill hike to warm us up, and this promised to be just that.
The main goal of this trip was to reach the summit of Omu Peak, which at 2507m’s was the tallest mountain in the national park and a good 1200m’s taller than Ben Nevis, which so far topped my list of mountains conquered.
But that was tomorrow. Today’s aim was to reach Cabana Malaiesti at 1720m’s, a mountainside retreat for hikers to spend the night and get some warm food inside them, something I was sure we would be glad of when we finally reached it. It’s worth noting that we began our walk at about 900m’s above sea level, and we would have to ascend to 2483m’s before dropping down to the cabana. However, as we set off on this grey morning, the cabana still seemed a long way off.
We skirted steadily up through the woodland, following flag-like signs positioned so regular that even in low visibility we should still be able to see the next one from the last, which was reassuring for me, as I missed the security of having a map to follow. Our sign was a red vertical dash through a white background. Snow had fallen overnight, blanketing the ground, and clinging to the branches of the evergreens; enough to add a Narnia-esque magic and wonder to the landscape but hardly enough to create any additional hazard to our ascent. Nonetheless, to say I was anxious was an understatement.
In fact, I was more than a little nervous of what was ahead, so much so that I had only slept for two hours the night before. Having recently been asked to write a blog about winter hiking, I was acutely aware of the dangers; for example don’t attempt too long a walk in winter hours, especially if you are new to the terrain was one of the rules, and here we were embarking on a seven-hour mountain alpine hike, in the winter, and in a foreign land too. A foreign land with bears! Had I mentioned there are bears?
“Yogi! Yogi! Yogi!” The calling commenced again, and it was a great laugh to us all, whilst secretly being of some concern. The last thing we needed was to stumble upon a bear, especially before the winter. This was, after all, the time that they were filling up before hibernation, right? “They’re just like cows,” I suggested, “Docile creatures that probably show no interest in us.”
“Yeah, right. Cows with six inch claws and fangs!” Frank added.
The entire first morning was spent weaving up through the forest, which was a long arduous slog, seemingly featureless on the woodland path. The surrounding woodland was mainly naturally grown conifers, but you would see Oak and Beech tree’s scattered throughout. The scent of the sap from the evergreens was practically mouth watering. Romania used to be 70% forests, but now the numbers have dramatically dropped due to increased deforestation, down to 27%, of which 66% are found in the mountains, so its no wonder that it took so long for us to break out above the tree line.
Sean would check the altimeter on his watch, and give us regular updates of our progress. We seemed to be moving at a brisk pace. We were looking forward to leaving the forests beneath us and we all hoped that the thick cloud cover would dissipate a little by then so we could take in some of the amazing mountaintop views.
Some trees had been badly scarred, a criss-cross of bark, hacked away and oozing golden nectar, which Sean and I assumed must have been caused by bears scratching the bark to consume the sap, but Frank explained this was a loggers mark, their way of marking the trees to be cut in future. We were slightly disappointed by that.
We tested out Sean’s walkie-talkies, Sean adopting the mantel of Fast Leopard, Dionis becoming Big Bear. It seemed a good idea to bring these in case we had to separate for any reason, and titting about with them seemed a good way of breaking up the monotony of this homogeneous scenery. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful in the woods, but to me, there is nothing like the vast vistas from ‘up top’.
We stopped at noon for some lunch, we had bought bread, cheese and cured meat in Brasov, and made rolls on the hill. Frank even bought a Madeira cake, which he fumbled out of his backpack and dropped. We looked on panic-stricken as it skittered and slid down the snowy bank of the woodland. “I won’t let us go hungry!” Vadim exclaimed and made his way down the near-vertical embankment after our elusive desert. The last thing we needed was our guide to fall and break his leg over some cake. I’m glad to report that he didn’t, and he even managed to successfully retrieve the cake. It was well worth his effort, too.
After we had fed we continued on up the trail, in high spirits and so deep in conversation that it soon became apparent that we had taken our eye off the waymarkers, and had strayed from the route. At this same time we also noticed some rather large footprints, crossing our path not bears, we didn’t think, they looked more like cats. “Mountain lions?” Sean asked. “Do they have mountain lions here?”
“I hope not,” I exclaimed, “I’m the one carrying an open pack of cured meat in my backpack.” We would later learn that these mountains are home to Lynx.
A small distance of backtracking and we had soon managed to get back on the trail. We could see what we had done, we had ambled on a level track whilst our desired path veered off up and almost behind us at a sheer climb. It wasn’t too long before the woodland began to thin out as we made our way above the trees.
It was a welcome break to leave the forest, it felt as though progress was being made. The views, however, were well and truly hidden from us, shrouded behind a thick blanket of cloud. It may have been cloudy, and incredibly cold now that we were out in the open, but the air was strangely still, with hardly a breath of wind, and the snow and cloud seemed to snuff any sound.
We edged up the ridgeline of what Vad informed us was the Tiganesti and we headed for the Tiganesti Refuge, where we were going to find a welcome shelter for a hot drink. It’s large red and white dome appeared out of the cloud like a ghostly circus tent.
We clambered inside and closed the icy air out. It’s large and the bright interior was full with a semi-circle of bunks across the back wall and there was some interesting graffiti on the walls in marker pen, one of which was a drawing of trainer and beside it written, “Don’t come in trainers or you will die!” in Romanian.
Whilst Vadim lit the stove, we all stripped off layers for a brief airing. My jumper was saturated with sweat, I had been wearing my waterproof layer, but stupidly without opening the underarm vents. Vadim also showed us photos on his phone of this very shelter from one weekend prior and the golden autumnal views were of considerable difference to the winter alpine views we were blessed with now. And to think that when we checked the forecast a few days before we left the UK, it had appeared to be heavy rain for the entire trip. We had to admit, we had been lucky with the weather.
From the refuge, it was an hour and a half walk to the cabana, and, once refreshed, we stepped back out into the icy air, and over the ridge to begin our descent into the Tiganesti valley. We picked up a different trail from here, following a yellow dash from now on to the cabana. The red dash that we abandoned here continued on up to the summit of Omu, and we would pick it up again tomorrow.
We took it in turns to holler into the deep valley beneath us, our voices traveling for what seemed like an age throughout the glacial concave, eternally rebounding against harsh stone rock faces. Our route would now take us down into the Valley and up the other side, heading towards the Malaiesti valley.
As we trudged down to the valley floor, the cloud thinned, even more, patches of blue sky opened up and we stood looking up at the coarse, rocky mountains towering over us, visible in their entirety for the first time since we set off.
Vadim led the way back out of the valley, and soon we arrived at a patch of about three or four meters where our path had broken away and slipped into the chasm below. A chain had been placed to help us across, the drop beneath was sheer enough to buckle my knees at the mere sight, and I thought, if this was the southwest coast path, they’d have cordoned this section off and sent us on an alternative route.
After scanning above for any aforementioned alternative routes I soon dismissed the idea and begrudgingly dragged myself along the length of chain like an OAP. Den and Vadim skipped over it like mountain goats.
We soon arrived at the point at which we were to descend to the cabana, it was about half an hour away, but Vadim had another landmark to show us first, a gigantic metal cross that looked out across panoramic views… well, usually. By the time we reached it the cloud had crawled back in and shrouded our surroundings once again, but we stood beneath the cross, speculated on how it got here (helicopter, we assumed), took the obligatory photo and then returned to make our way down to the cabana.
The climb down to the cabana was steep and winding. We practically had to lower ourselves down a sheer rock face, and so we extended our hiking poles to help us navigate this precipitous path. Sean had his poles extended a little too much and managed to snap one, but as it was over 15 years old, he wasn’t too disappointed.
We eventually arrived at the cabana a little before 5pm, the sun was low, but it was still light enough. The wooden cabin was idyllic in its situation at the basin of the wintry Malaisti Valley.. Once inside the main lounge and dining area we gratefully received a blast of warm air from the wood burner in the corner and spread our wet and cold gear all about it to dry off, whilst we enjoyed a much-deserved feast of mulled wine, tea’s and coffee’s, hot stew, sausage and rice, and then some cake, all kindly cooked for us by the lone tenant.
We soon lost the light of the day, and the cabana’s generator was off for the night as we made our way to our bunk room, where another log burner had been prepared for us. Vadim explained that the cabana had been destroyed twice in its history, once by fire, and once by an avalanche, but has so far lasted nearly twenty years without any further incident. I eyed the log burner in the corner and noticed the snowfall outside our window, but said nothing. We had enough logs to keep it burning until about 9pm, and hoped the room would retain our heat until the morning, as with temperatures dropping beneath minus 9 outside, it could soon become a cold night. As it was, the room did hold its heat, in fact, for most of the night the warmth was almost too much to handle and we slept on top of our blankets.
We were up between 7 and 8 am. A quick omelet breakfast, hot coffees and more cake was consumed in the canteen. We then took turns having a go on the hole in the ground toilet (a great discussion point for us Brit’s – you’d think we’d never had a wildy before. This was luxury compared to some places I had been) and we settled our bill. £110 between the five of us for bed, board and all of the food, drink, and logs that we had consumed, as well as a generous tip. By 9 am, we were ready to depart and trek up to the tallest point of the Bucegi National Park, Omu Peak. We left the warmth of the shelter and made our way out to into the freezing mountain air.
We assessed the route ahead of us, which viewed from the cabana appeared as though a sheer climb up a wall of rock was between us and the ridgeline above. Despite the cloud coming in as we were about to set off for day two, the weather was due to improve, hopefully just in time for our summit.
Guided by fresh markers baring a blue verticle dash, we meandered our way up into the valley, and the clouds lifted almost immediately. The climb was surprisingly gradual and with every rise we made, we were rewarded by an ever-changing landscape ahead of us, views opening up and revealing our route in more defined clarity.
Our path didn’t seem as daunting as it had to start with. That was until we reached the final push up to the ridgeline via Hornul Mare (which translates as Long Chimney), an intimidating scramble up a gully of rocks. It was extremely tricky in places, as Sean described it, a real bum twitcher. Trying to navigate some quite technical climbing in places was hindered further by having to keep our trekking poles in hand. I was glad that we were not returning via this route, as some points would be near impossible on the descent.
By around eleven o’clock, however, we had reached the top of the scramble, and the effort was a small price to pay for the reward. From up on the lip of the ridge, the white snow lay like icing delicately smoothed off by a whipping breeze. The new valley beneath us, a colossal dome carved away by gigantic glacial movements, was of a cinematic scale, unfathomable to the eye, and never truly documented in the photo’s we took. The peak of Omu bared down on us from a distance, still a considerable climb, but under a blue sky, and with the clouds rolling beneath us, our spirits were heightened.
We had once again joined the path which we left at the refuge yesterday, and the signpost at the crown of Hornul Mare told us that in 40 minutes we would be at the summit. It also told us that our intended route back down was to take six hours from the same point, so add 80 minutes to that, plus an allowance for a spot of lunch up top and we were cutting it tight to get back to the car in the light of day.
As we made our way up we could soon take in the views behind us. Far down, resting in the jagged crease of the Malaiesti valley was the cabana and up above, on top of the next valley over was the refuge. We had views of the second tallest point of the national park, Bucsoiu, clouds swirling just beneath its pinnacle. The cloud inversion was spectacular as we carved our path up to the icy summit of Omu Peak, a soft white ocean surrounded us, illuminated by the warm golden sun, mountaintops like islands here and there.
2507m’s read the sign up top, pinned to the wall of the cabana which lay desolate and abandoned for the winter months. Signposts and antennas had been snow-blasted, covered in ice, some areas snow had stacked horizontally off the edge of the signs. We congratulated each other, basked in both glory and the glorious warmth radiating from the unhindered sun rays and then happily fed on the remnants of yesterday’s packed lunch whilst marveling at the glorious panorama. The bread and the cake was a little drier today, but it still welcomely filled a gap and gave us that energy that we needed for the hike down.
We finished our grub and made our way back along the ridge-line. We clocked the time at the signpost we’d passed earlier, 1.15 pm and acknowledged that 6 hours from here would surely be dark, so we set off in haste. Our route took us up past Scara peak, and on the way found ourselves following more large feline footprints in the otherwise untouched snow. Scara stood at 2422m’s, and the walk between the two summits had been relatively easy. However, from this point on, the descent became a harsh and twisted route down the spine of this mountain.
The snow had fallen thick on this side of the mountain, too. Once again, we extended our hiking poles as we tottered down, slowly, and as steadily as we could. As we dropped in height, so we once again entered the thick clouds beneath us, losing our views entirely.
There were two fairly unnerving reverse scrambles, neither of which as dramatic as the Hornul Mare, but on the descent and in icy and snowy conditions, extra care was taken. By the time we eventually reached the tree line, it felt like we had just got down off of Scafell Pike, and yet still there was a little more than the same again to descend through the forest. However, with each signpost that we reached on the way down, we gained between 15 and 25 minutes. The race with daylight becoming less worrying.
We were glad to finally see the car. As we looked back up to the mountains, breaking through the clouds behind us, the pride of having had such an epic adventure and achieving such dizzying heights left us all buzzing. We had an Air B&B booked tonight in Brasov, a celebratory meal and a night on the town was in order.
Tomorrow would be an easier day, taking in the famous 7 Ladder Canyon walk and heading up to Piatra Mare. Merely a day hike, but surely to be a fine ending to this short yet epic excursion. As we drove back to the city, we made plans to return next year and tackle the Moldoveanu Peak, Romania’s tallest mountain.