A Matter of Life and Death in Piatra Craiului

Nobody is indifferent towards their family. Many people would classify it as the most important thing in life (like some characters in The Godfather), while others would openly admit how damaging and toxic their family is to them (like some characters in Downton Abbey). Both categories take pride in their relationship with their family. Either due to their efforts to maintain the good ties and a peaceful home or for their ability to escape what they consider a toxic environment. I am not sure if this quality is something that changes over the course of one’s life. Since I can remember, I have been closer to the first category. You can’t turn blood into water, a Romanian phrase says.

Last weekend, my family and I went hiking and experienced some of the toughest, most adventurous and risky moments we have ever been through. We chose a hiking trail that was much above our alpine experience, gear and expectations. The trail is considered highly difficult – to the extent where it is not even mentioned on the maps from the base of the mountain. However, up there at the peak, the trail begins to exist, and a red triangle marks it with pride.

My equipment

We started our journey in Magura, a little village with no asphalt or running water which I absolutely adored, although our host, Claudiu, as I’m sure most of the inhabitants of Magura do, often complains about these aspects of the village and the incompetency of the public administration. From there, we left the car at Fantana lui Botorog, where the trails begin. From there, a 3h hike (which I would rather classify as walk instead of hike) took us to the first cabin – Cabana Curmatura (1470m). A very well maintained cabin shelter protected by an impressively large Saint Bernard, Curmatura is frequented by professional hikers and families on walks alike. We had some tea and lightened our backpacks by eating some of our tin cans and were ready to go after a short break.

Me at Cabana Curmatura

Our next target was Varful Ascutit (2150m) which literally translates as “The Sharp Peak”. The hike was quite steep, but nothing compared to what we experienced in the next days. I was incredibly lucky to see a deer at the top, which I reached right before the sun started to set. It is among the most memorable, magical moments of my life. The deer and I were completely alone on the crest and looked into each other’s eyes for about 10 seconds, before it ran away. I was astonished at the grace and gentleness of this animal, at its human-like eyes, at the amazing mountain peak it chose to dwell on.

At the Peak, there is a refuge which looks a bit like a Pokemon ball, or an object taken out of a science fiction movie set. Inside the refuge, there is nothing but a semicircular metal plaque that fits 8 people, which we were about to test because we shared it with another 4 hikers. In fact, they were 2 groups, each of which was composed of 3 hikers, but 2 of them chose to sleep outside the refuge in a tent. It is still surprising to me that they didn’t come inside the refuge at some point during the night, as there was a really scary storm that night. My mum recalled the next morning that she felt like crying while listening to the thunders and seeing the lightnings entering the refuge through its cracks. We barely slept that night, as the sound of the hailstorm was louder than any alarm clock. God must have left the tap on that night.

The group of hikers who shared the Ascutit Refuge on a stormy night

The next morning, the clouds were still there, not allowing us to see more than 10m in front of us. The rain was coming and leaving, as if trying to baffle us and start the discussion of whether we should venture on the crest, as we initially intended. The crest is among the most beautiful landscapes that Romania, and possibly the world, has to offer. Being at such a high altitude, on a clear day, it is possible to see to the left and right of the crest, as if you are tied to a parachute and suspended mid-air. Nonetheless, due to the clouds, we could not see any of this beautiful landscape, so we decided to take a different route. We chose a track that was estimated at 6h, hoping to get down in time for my dad and my sister to be back at their offices on Monday morning.

Spoiler alert: it took us much more than 6 hours. In fact, it took us 2 days. The trail starts off with very steep chasms on rocks that were crumbling beneath our feet due to the humidity and the erosion of the mountain. The next night, my sister and I both admitted we had PTSD-like flashbacks in which we fell down the chasm. This day was a real courage test. I never understood how people can fear the mountains and hiking until that day. Suddenly everything made sense to me. The panic attacks people described to me in the past, the feeling of your body freezing and the crippling uncertainty, the pressure of knowing every single step you take may be fatal, the gloom of walking past a cross marking another fatality right on your footsteps.

The day ended halfway through our trail, when we reached another refuge, Refugiul Sperantelor (1685m). There would be no point in building 2 refuges 3h away from one another, if we were to listen to the signs. This felt to me like the mountain’s confession that the track was estimated at 6h without being given much thought. Luckily, at this refuge there weren’t any other hikers so we could spoil ourselves with being allocated twice as much room as the night before. This time we slept so much better, although we didn’t have any heat because unfortunately the additional gas tank we bought didn’t match the heater. Also, we ran out of water when we got there. That means we had gone nearly 48h with only 6l of water for the 4 of us. What we were not short of was sleep, as we slept from 8:30PM to 6AM!

My family at the Sperantelor Refuge

We woke up very thirsty and finding water became our most powerful motivator. There was a sign for Orlovski’s Well only 1h30 away from us, which we were very eager to find, and channeling all of our trust into our fella, Orlovski.

This was foolish of us. After 1h30, there was a bifurcation in the track. Our track was continuing to the right, and an arrow marking Orlovski’s Well said we should find it 3 minutes uphill. At this point, my parents were exhausted and extremely thirsty, so we decided that my sister and I would go uphill to fill the water bottles while they would wait for us at the crossing. A horrible thing was about to happen. The well was dry and my sister slipped into the trough. She was covered up to her neck in stones and I couldn’t even help her because if I got near the edge, I would have slipped too. Fortunately, she managed to get up and I returned to my parents 1h later with empty bottles and holding my wounded sister.

After that, we decided not to look for water anymore and just hurry down to the base of the mountain. Because of the thirst, we were all very quiet. After not drinking anything for 24h, every single sound your mouth becomes really painful and draining. We all found ways to appease our thirst. I shook the moist pin tree branches into my bottle and got a few drops into my mouth. I washed my hands on the grass dew and licked my hands, then spat immediately as I felt the taste of soil on my tongue.

Shortly after though, I heard the sound of water. I thought it was an auditory hallucination but my dad could hear it as well. Perhaps we shared the hallucination. I ran at the prospect of water and when I did see it I felt as though I was crying of joy, although tears couldn’t come out of my eyes because of the dehydration. The water itself was very calcareous and almost white in colour. But none of us cared. We could feel our bodies coming back to life. We were laughing like madmen and blessing this tiny well that we will forever remember fondly of.

Afterwards, the track began to flatten and shortly afterwards, we returned to civilisation. The sensation of touching cement with my boots was peculiar – a bit like the feeling you have after taking your skiing boots off after a whole day on the slopes.

My family back to the base of the mountain, safe and sound!

We went inside a refurbished cabin that felt like luxury and ate bean soup in bread. The air inside the cabin felt too difficult to breathe. I had become a creature of the mountains. Seeing other people down there made me feel odd. They had no idea what I had been through and they must have been judging me for the dirt underneath my nails, for my smelly breath, for the way I ate my soup like a famished dog. Equally, I considered them superficial clowns who lacked the courage to climb higher and I choked at their smell of cheap perfume. I saw them taking pictures with the mountain from the bottom and it felt close to jealousy. How dare they take pictures with my mountain? The mountain I have conquered and they haven’t? How dare they?

After this purgatory stage in our descend, we jumped inside a taxi that took us back to the car and in the evening we returned to Bucharest, contrasting the decadence of the city with the serenity of the mountain. We were all amazed by the fact we were all there alive, safe and sound. We began to cherish the little things a lot more. We became grateful for our tap, even though we didn’t have warm water because of a pipe being broken; for our little apartment; for our messy kitchen; for the comfortable chairs; for the dry clothes; for the suffocating heat of Bucharest; for the light bulb; for having our own beds; for a cup of tea.

What made this hike draining for me wasn’t the actual physical effort. It wasn’t even the anxiety of me taking a wrong step or the debilitating thirst. It was the fact that something could happen to someone in my family. I am confident in my own abilities. I knew this trail was not deadly for me, but it’s impossible to know how it feels for a 50 year old, or for my starry-eyed sister. As I said in the beginning of this post, family means a great deal to me. If I was hiking with friends instead of family it would have felt very different.

Anyway… I can’t wait to go back!

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