Transylvanian Adventures Part 2

The next leg of Matt’s Round-the-World-Walk that I accompanied him on started from Alba Iulia in February 2007. Matt had walked from Mogos to Alba Iulia with his cousin Guy the previous autumn. The bulk of our walk would take us over a range of hills called the Muntii Candrel. These hills were a more serious prospect than the Muntii Trascau that we’d walked through the previous winter. Varful Candrel itself clocks in at 2244 metres.

Before we hit the hills, however, there was the small matter of crossing the basin between the Trascau and the Candrel. This would involve a 25-mile walk, so Matt came up with a cunning plan. We would leave our hefty packs in Alba Iulia, do the 25 miles in a rapid yomp to a train halt at Tilisca and return to Alba Iulia. The following day we would take the train back to Tilisca and continue on our way.

We were up and away long before dawn and soon following a raised embankment along the Mures river. We were completely exposed to an icy wind that cut through us. Our plan nearly caught us out when there was no sign of a bridge across the Mures to the village of Dumbrava. Finally, a rickety bridge materialised and we walked into the village as the day was beginning – children off to school, everyone else off to work; except the two odd English blokes swaddled in goretex. We launched ourselves out of Dumbrava onto higher ground, making for the next village of Daia Romana. The exposed higher ground was a more wintry prospect.

It turned out to be a rather dull overcast day as we passed through a series of small villages on our way to Tilisca.

The day had its interesting moments – mostly conversations with generally surprised local people who may have mistaken us for the vanguard of some impending explosion of tourism to their region. I very much doubt this has happened. Matt coped admirably with the navigating, adhering to his cardinal rule: never ask a local for directions.

The walking was pretty uninspiring really on this very dull day, but the village of Apoldu de Jos boasted an impressive church and cemetery.

On we marched and eventually we crossed the Alba Iulia – Sibiu trunk road before arriving at the Tilisca train halt. It didn’t look likely really. There was nothing there at all, excepting a sign reading ‘Halta Tilisca’, but a train did materialise on schedule and, furthermore, it stopped.

We were a bit knackered after our 25-mile yomp across the Alba Iulia basin, so it was great to relax and enjoy the train ride back to Alba Iulia as the train wound its way along wooded hillsides as it lost height on the way.

The following morning, we caught a train back to Halta Tilisca, passing through this rather rude station en route:

Arriving back at Halta Tilisca, we jumped off the train and soon found an impressively muddy track that corresponded with our route on the map.

We squelched along the track and eventually arrived at the village of Tilisca itself.

We passed through the village and after a little rooting around we found a path climbing steeply up the wooded ridge that we wanted to follow. After an hour or so climbing along the path we came to some barns and decided to stop for a bite. It was then that Matt noticed that he’d lost his snow shoes, which had been strapped to his pack. Not very well, apparently. They must have been dislodged as we climbed through the trees. Being somewhat fleeter of foot than Matt, I volunteered to run back down the ridge to try to find them. My search was successful and I was back in no time – it’s amazing how fast you can move when you take off a 25-kilo pack.

We continued at length along the ridge, enjoying the wonderful sylvan landscape.

By late afternoon, we had intersected with the main ridge of the Muntii Candrel; time to pitch up and gather some firewood.

A campfire is a fixture of almost every day’s walk on Matt’s Round-the-World-Walk. Except when there aren’t any trees of course.

The morning dawned cloudy and overcast. We were hoping to cross over the summit of Varful Candrel later in the day, but conditions weren’t looking particularly auspicious.

The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow and the poorer the visibility. The wind was picking up a bit, too. We startled up a ptarmigan, which was an extremely alarming experience. Something of that size exploding out of the snow-damped silence in front of you in a paroxsysm of squawking, flapping featheriness can be mildly terrifying. No picture – are you kidding?

The visibility became poorer still and as we climbed above the tree line, we were more exposed to the wind which grew ever keener. Luckily, a series of tall marker poles indicated the route up towards the summit of Varful Candrel.

Higher still and conditions became ever more challenging. We could hardly hear each other shout and visibility was pants – it was bitterly cold in the wind. It became apparent that climbing any higher would be moderately life-threatening so the call went up: ‘Retreat!’ and I for one shuffled gratefully back the way we’d come.

Once we were out of the Doom Zone, a slight problem presented itself.  We couldn’t camp on the exposed ridge in high winds and it was a long way back to sheltered level ground below the tree line. In the end we decided to camp beneath a large fir tree on the steep slope in the lee of the ridge. It was way too steep to pitch, but we spent a couple of hours cutting and packing a level platform in the snow beneath the tree’s branches. The tree was buried to some considerble depth so large branches formed a sheltered curtain around our bivouac. What a relief!

By dawn, the cloud had lifted somewhat and the wind had slackened. A little. We struck camp, donned our snow shoes once more and headed back up the slope to the ridge.

Once we’d regained the ridge, it became apparent that we could have got into serious difficulties if we’d continued the previous afternoon. The ridge was very exposed and quite narrow with a steep SW escarpment; there was some serious cornicing going on and despite the marker poles, the margin for disaster was fairly good.

It was extremely fresh in the biting wind and my feeling was that even if we had avoided death by treacherous cornice, we may well have ended up like this marker post:

Anyway, we eventually crossed over the summit of Varful Candrel (2224m) and began to make the long descent to a saddle between Candrel and the Muntii Lotrului. Skis would have been useful, I feel.

We made the long and entertaining descent to the saddle without mishap and as the day was drawing on, we decided to follow a forestry track north-east down the valley in search of shelter for the night. It was a much more relaxing experience than the following day! Eventually, a couple of forester’s huts came into view and we gratefully made our way to them.

It was a great spot and the huts provided good, solid shelter from the elements. They had been left in a bit of a state by the previous incumbents, but we cleared the place up in the spirit of fraternal bonhomie.

We got a fire going in the stove, cooked our dinner and settled down for the night, wondering what the morning would bring in the old meterological department.

Well, it wasn’t too bad, but it was pretty breezy. It would be very breezy on the ridge of the Lotrului, which are of similar stature to the Candrel. Matt was keen, I was not. Matt is indomitable, some would say foolhardy. I am pragmatic, some would say a scaredy-cat. Anyway, one slightly nerve-wracking experience per trip is usually enough for me, so I vetoed the exciting ridge walk in challenging conditions in favour of a rather dull plod down a forestry track for some miles.

It was pretty dull, the high point being an encounter with some friendly forestry chaps who shared some of their lovely pie with us. After plodding along for a few hours, we decided to launch back up the wooded hillside to camp in the hope that conditions on the ridge would be better the following day. Man, this was one hell of a difficult, steep scramble up through some rather wild, unmanaged woodland. the going was really difficult – often involving impenetrable thickets of close-growing saplings. best forgotten, that one. Anyway, after a bit of an ordeal we found a clearing in a decent position, pitched the tent and got the obligatory fire going.

The morning was a bit more promising, so after striking camp, we decided to rejoin the ridge for what would hopefully be our final day’s walk to the River Olt, running through the Lotrului Gorge.

We battered through the woods and eventually found a forestry track that was doing what we wanted it to do.

Then it was a case of battering up through the trees again…

…before emerging onto the ridge.

The snow was very powdery, which made progress very slow and absolutely knackering as you had to lift your feet high with every step to clear the hole you’d just made. Eventually we reached the high point, which marked the beginning of our very long descent. This, I think is Prejba (1774m).

Lots of crosses in these parts…

We continued along the wintry ridge at length. No people, no animals that we could see – though we often felt we were being watched from within the woods – absolute silence.

Down we continued as views opened up on to the main ridge of the Fagaras to the west – a beautiful Carpathian crest of magnificent 2000 metre+ beauties, including Moldoveanu, which at 2544m is Romania’s highest mountain.

Eventually, the snow cover thinned and we removed our snow shoes for the final steep descent through woodland to the valley floor.

On the way down we passed this beautifully located headstone:

When we were descending through the woods, we saw this splendid example of arboreal graffiti:

Somewhat later, we finally arrived in the village of Boita, which sits next to the E81 trunk road. From here we hitch-hiked to the fine medieval town of Sibiu, which happened to be European City of Culture that year, not that anyone outside of Romania seems to have noticed.

We were filthy, smelly and knackered by the time we checked into a hotel in the town. That evening was spent at extensive ablutions, large dinners and multiple beers. The next day, we took a stroll around the City of Culture. I’ll leave you with a picture of my favourite cultural artefact from that day, yes! a Kermit-green Trabant. The colour is the only ‘green’ thing about this four-wheeled carbon monoxide factory, but you gotta love ’em.


13 responses

  1. Thanks Alan, it was a great trip. I’ve hugely enjoyed all of the legs of Matt’s walk that I’ve been on. He has a very leftfield and slightly barmy approach to the endeavour, which has very much enhanced the experience. Part of the enjoyment is in walking through landscapes and meeting people that we would never have encountered if not for this purpose. The sense of purpose to the journey also adds to the experience. There are so many encounters and situations that have happened over the years, but it would take a lifetime – well, a few weeks – to write them up. I’ve also thought that writing posts from the pre-digital camera days – that is before I bought my first in 2005 – would be a faff and posts without pics are a bit dull. Sorry, thinking aloud. couple more Transylvanias to come, Alan, thanks very much for reading.

  2. Another fascinating read Pete. Is there any particular reason why you choose winter for these trips? Although very beautiful in it must be very hard work clambering about with those snow shoes on. Is it the extra challenge that is the attraction?

    Love the photos, I especially like the one with the fire at the base of the tree in the forest at night. Great mood quality.

    Having a feeling of being watched from the forest was probably a reality. Wolves are usually aware of us long before we are of them. Being wary of humans and wanting to avoid confrontation, they would more than likely keep themselves hidden whilst watching you walk through their territory.

    Your knowledge of the Romania peaks is noteworthy and you have probably scaled terrain that very few locals would attempt during winter. You previously mentioned navigation skills in part 1 which is essential with so much snow. Most locals rely on land marks and personal knowledge to see them through the hills and valleys, but blizzards have caught many out over the years. The Salvamont national mountain rescue service is made of of some very dedicated individuals (who just so happen to use Land Rover Defenders :-))but they are volunteers with very limited resources. They tend to concentrate their efforts in areas known to accommodate larger numbers of mountaineers and hikers, leaving many of the less well known areas scantly covered. This makes mountains skills such as navigation and first aid even more important as often there are large areas of the Carpathian mountains with no telephone signal, making it difficult to summon help whether it is available or not.

    Have you ever been to the Bucegi mountains? These are stunning in any season 🙂

    Looking forward to reading part 3!

  3. Thanks Paul. Matthew tended to choose the winter trips because in many ways it’s more enjoyable walking in cool temperatures. It is a faff with the snow shoes to a certain extent, but it’s also hugely enjoyable. Sure, the winter is a very unpredictable season, but if youy’re lucky it can certainly pay dividends in the sublime quality of the landscape under snow, the silence, the complete lack of other people.

    We’ve never yet visited the Bucegi, but I’ll shortly be off to my bed to read up on them in James Roberts’ Cicerone guide as you’ve mentioned their delights! Your comment is very much appreciated and this is exactly where the value of writing a blog lies, I feel. Thanks Paul.

  4. Enviable quantities of snow you have there Paul. I can see that a Land Rover would come into its own where you are, especially at this time of year; rather than for picking up the kids from school on the way to do the shop at Sainsburys, there more usual use in the UK.

    How far do you have to travel to work? Is it snow-shoeing distance?!

  5. I was being a little flippant, as when open for business the mountains are my place of work 🙂 However, the winter can be so fiercely cold that overlanders and walkers don’t usually appear until the thaw.

    • Wow! fantastic pictures. The cloud clinging to the mountains in the first image and rolling over them in the second is transcendentally beautiful. The ice on the fir trees makes it look very, very cold indeed. Going by the deep boot prints in the second image, your friends could do with some snoe shoes!

      thanks for the link Paul.

      • The friend that took these is hard as nails and is the only bloke I know that can climb all day with a raging hangover! When I asked him where his jacket was in this photo, he said “It was warm!” 🙂 He is a qualified alpine instructor too, but obviously does not practice what he preaches! 🙂

      • He looks to be a great big bear of a man, which has got to help. I had one of the very most challenging mountain days of my life climbing Mangart on the Slovenian-Italian border in winter conditions after a very late night-early start combo with a thumping whisky hangover (acquired in the company of Mr Hoffman). Very tough. I was with four superfit young Slovene alpinists who proceeded to ski off the near vertical west (I think) face of the summit. The only girl in the party slipped, crashed into some rocks and broke her elbow. The thudding rotors of the rescue helicopter played havoc with my sair heid!

  6. Poor woman, that is always my big fear when venturing too far from civilisation. I can’t imagine a helicopter coming to rescue me in the Carpathians 😦 What was her first aid treatment like from your party 🙂

    János is a tough guy but he has a real soft spot for my dog Foxy. She managed to relieve him of most of his packed lunch the last time we ventured into the hills 🙂

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