The descent to Lake Colțun continued to be hazardous, with cables and chains. We walked slowly and by the time we reached the small refuge on the south ridge it was almost midday. The water shone like a knife’s blade, sharp, dead cold, and transparent. Rocks surrounded the shore and disappeared under water. We passed the lake on its east side and started climbing between boulders, towards the saddle surrounding the area.
The dogs fell behind and then stopped. We called them, but they refused to budge.
We consulted our watches with nervousness, reckoning that if it had taken us almost six hours to get there, we would need as much to get back, a calculation that omitted the time we still needed to reach our final destination. It wasn’t reassuring.
The ground was very rocky, covered by white and gray gravel and huge boulders, with smooth surfaces, the red stripe faded on some of them. Grass whipped by the wind tried desperately to cling to the unfriendly, thin layer of soil. Small islands of snow darkened by dust and sun, dotted the surface. As we climbed, we felt tiredness taking over. We stopped more often, looked ahead of us and behind us, and tried to guess at the amount of time needed to reach the summit.
At the top of the saddle, our final ascent appeared daunting like a fortress wall. Fast moving clouds danced around the summit and extended their cold shadow in our direction. The breath of the dragon was upon us. The path cut across the base of the mountain, almost horizontally, and veered around it, in what had to be our last steep stretch. Like monstrous whiskers, three long stripes of white snow, separated by bare ground, crossed the narrow trail. There were no fresh footsteps in the snow. The white patches ran hundreds of yards all the way down and it was obvious that if one slipped and fell, there was nothing to grab onto and stop the sliding. The wind blew directly at us.
At the first patch of snow my friends hesitated. I walked ahead. “Lead by example,” I mumbled to myself. My boots caught on. In places, the frozen snow was hard, allowing me to stay on the surface, in others, softened by the sun, the icy crust would give in and my feet would sink to my ankles or to my knees. Now and then it was a little slippery, but not too bad. My walking stick helped me keep balance. Wind brushed the snow, like sandpaper over hard wood. “Come on!” I yelled to my friends. “It’s all right.” “How confident are you?” asked Vlad. They were watching me and waiting, standing close to each other, Călin nervously twisting the cap on his telescopic lens. After all these years, sometimes together but mostly far appart, we could still understand each other, inside and out. They’d follow me, I was sure, no matter what. It was past one in the afternoon. Up to me.
“OK,” I uttered defeated. “I vote we go back,” and I turned.
Tracing our steps back, we met two women and a young man, hikers from the Tatra area in Slovakia, on their way to Negoiu. We warned them it was getting late and the mountain was cold like a dragon and crossing the snow patches might be rough. “Avalanches?” they asked and I shrugged. They looked at us silently: giving up was not on their minds. To find common ground, I mentioned I had been in the Tatra Mountains and had crossed the border into Poland on foot. Then I added: “Forty-two years ago.” We briefly talked about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 — another dragon of sorts. The older of the two women said she was eight at the time. I had been eighteen.
When we reached Lake Colțun, we looked for the dogs, but they were gone. It started to rain, a fine mist in the beginning, enough to get my glasses wet and for the rocks to become even more slippery. By the time we reached the area where you needed cables and chains to hike across, the Slovakians caught up with us. This made it easier for me to accept our decision to turn around. All along I had thought we were moving at a reasonable pace, but even the younger people who walked so much faster than us had a change of mind.
The rain intensified and we heard thunder overhead. I thought of my daughter and allowed some distance between us. A little later I ran out of water — I had drunk two liters, and the mere knowledge that I had none left made me thirstier than ever. My hands and my forehead were wet. My windbreaker was wet. The ground was muddy and slippery, and water gathered in tiny dirty puddles in flat spots. There was water all around me, yet my mouth and my throat were as dry as can be. Vlad shared some of his water with me, but when we found a mound of melting snow, I borrowed one of his empty bottles and filled it up. I did not use my water pills.
By four we reached the depression before Paltinu. The rain stopped and the sun peeked again through the clouds. I changed my wet shirt with the spare T-shirt I had in my backpack. I ate a power bar. Unexpectedly Vlad discovered we had phone signal and I called Vio right away. I was happy to be able to do it, since I knew she was worried and I wanted her to know we were OK. Then we called Adrian. He said he would start towards us on the trail. The end was near, and it felt very good.
The mountains had been there forever, and will continue to be. We had scratched the scales of the dragon, and had felt his might. We had admired his beauty, with the sky and the clouds and the rocks. We had seen his glacial eyes and our reflection in them. Yes, we didn’t reach the uppermost crest, but why would that matter? We were together. Alive.
The two white dogs met us in front of the lodge, yelping, and wagging their tails. Adrian pointed at the older dog. “She abandoned her pup today. We had to feed him milk from a bottle,” he said.
After dinner that night I felt sick. I had the chills, went to bed early, and slept for eleven hours straight. Nothing bothered me — nothing at all.