This summer, at the end of June, I treated myself to a rare and real pleasure: a one-week hike into the mountains of my youth, the Carpathians, sometimes gloriously referred to as the Transylvanian Alps. Not much known to the world, wild and beautiful, they adorn the center of Romania like a royal crown. Of course, the area is too vast for one short week to do it justice, so I limited my trip to only one range called Făgăraș, the tallest and most rugged of all, with two of the country’s highest peaks, Moldoveanu and Negoiu, both over 8,350 ft. For those who know mountains in the US, I would say that the Făgăraș range is more like the Whites in New Hampshire, or Mount Katahdin in Maine — slightly taller, tree line ending at below 7,000 ft., and the same abrupt and rocky peaks. I had hiked the Făgăraș Mountains in my twenties with my college buddies, and three of them joined me this time, for the pleasure of being together again, and to prove to the world and to ourselves that at age 66 we could still do it. The proof in the pudding was the day we attempted to climb Mount Negoiu. The approach on the western slope was from Bâlea Lake– a blue, glacial body of water, like a teardrop, like a precious locket surrounded on three sides by shear cliffs. We drove there in Adrian’s Jeep, and stayed overnight at Vila Paltinu, a lodge that was previously Ceaușescu’s chalet (his apartment was under lock and key, to ‘preserve the original furniture’), each of us getting a small room, previously used by his entourage. We agreed to start our hike at 6 the next morning and after a nice dinner in the restaurant, we said good night. Vlad promised to wake us up at 5:30. At the last moment, Adrian decided not to come. The friendly lady in the kitchen handed us three tightly packed breakfasts.
What follows is my account of that night and the day of the climb. Since my journal entry is longer than acceptable for a blog, I will divide it into three short chapters posted consecutively.
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In my room, I got myself ready for next day. I selected my clothes: long, black rain pants, the ones I had bought a while ago for a trip to Iceland, my hiking shirt, light beige with many pockets, that I had worn when I walked with my daughter parts of the Appalachian trail, my gray windbreaker, a yellow bandana, my hiking boots with inserts and ‘smart’ wool socks, and my sunglasses; next I filled the backpack with everything I thought might be useful: a sweater, gloves, a ski cap, a pair of shorts, a spare T-shirt, the Swiss Army knife, a spare pair of shoe laces, the bear bell, my pills for disinfecting water, my miner’s flashlight, my cell phone, my Fitbit, and a spare pair of glasses. Once finished, I went to bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep. First it was the other hotel guests talking in the restaurant one floor below, slamming doors, laughing and playing loud music. Then, by eleven, the human noise subsided, but several dogs started barking, and soon an entire concert broke out, dogs from the surrounding buildings joining in, howling, their sound echoing off the mountains and traveling through the crystal night into the valley below. I called my wife, Vio, in the US, and we talked for a while, then I played a few games of solitaire on my mobile phone, and by midnight I decided that I had to force myself to sleep. Sleep was essential — good rest before a day of hard physical effort.
My twin size bed was wide enough for one person, but the comforter was skimpy and short, and either my feet stuck out, or my shoulders remained uncovered. The pillow was too plump and I tried to make myself a shallower one by folding a shirt and wrapping it in a piece of soft synthetic cloth that I happened to have in my backpack. In the bathroom, every time I flushed, water leaked from under the toilet. I went to the bathroom three or four times that night, out of too much excitement, I guess. Hanging from the wall were four tiny white towels, each the size of a handkerchief, and I threw them one after the other on the bathroom floor to avoid stepping on wetness.
I remembered a story I had once heard about people sleeping in a refuge half way up Mount Rainier, and starting their ascent at 2 in the morning, to summit before noon and get back off the peak before the sun could melt the snow and cause an avalanche. So one could do with just a few hours of sleep, I concluded, and felt satisfied that I wasn’t going that high, and my room was more comfortable than any wild refuge. While I twisted and turned, I forced myself to think of my recently published novel, No Portrait in the Gilded Frame, of its main character, Miriam, of my chances for success, and of my next novel — the book of my lifetime, the story of my family, with our parents and grandparents in it, mine and Vio’s. I thought about my best friend Andrei and of how time, indeed our almost entire life, had zoomed by in an instant, and about his premature death, sad and sudden, and again about the challenge of tomorrow’s hike, more mental than physical, and about what it really meant for me.
At one moment in between sleep and reality, I imagined myself getting injured while hiking, and being rescued, and explaining afterwards how it happened, and, later I imagined rescuing Vlad or Călin, or both of them, carrying them on my back down the mountain, or running for help, rising in my own mind on a pedestal, a true hero. I thought of my daughter Nira, who had worked as a guide in the Rockies and had told me how clouds gathered around the tall peaks most summer days at about four in the afternoon, and about the danger of lightning. She would have her groups look for cover in the forest or in a cave or under huge boulders, or have everyone scatter over a large area to minimize the chance of being struck together, the theory being that if one gets hit, the others can still save the injured person.
I am sure I fell asleep at some point or another, and then I woke up and went to the bathroom, and fell asleep again, and even before my alarm clock went off, Vlad knocked at the door. Dawn was breaking.
Come back Wednesday for the second part…