It’s a different world up there. It’s just you and the mountain. You have to be present, you have to have all your senses awake, you have to be prepared. You feel every muscle and tendon and you must be able to trust your body. You don’t hike in Retezat Mountains, you climb. Even if you do not use a rope or safety gear, the trails, not just the massifs, are so rocky that going up can not qualify in any other way but climbing. The phones don’t work up there, you rely on your map, on the weather report and on your climbing partners. It has to be someone you can trust 100%. You listen to a unique silence. You become aware of your unique place in the world. The mountain seems like one of the very last places on this Earth where you can have a face to face conversation with someone. You greet every person you meet, you stop and start talking to them, exchange advice and wish them good weather. It’s like you are part of a secret world and you know it and are proud of it. Part of you wants to tell others about it – to stop looking for settling comfortably, to step out of their comfort zone, to get moving. But the other part wants to keep it to yourself, because it’s that special and that precious. It is not a place for showing off, it is a place for showing up for the grandeur of the mountain, it is a place of meeting with yourself.
On our latest family trip to Retezat Mountains, we met a little boy on the trail. He must have been nine or something like that and he was climbing the mountain by himself, followed by his two dogs. He told us he had left his family behind and he was heading for the mountain peak. He seemed perfectly at home there, in his element, climbing the rocks, with a walkie talkie as the only way of communicating with the others in his group (remember the phones don’t work up there). And that image of that little boy reminded me how I must have felt back in my childhood when my brother and I were his age and we felt at home climbing the mountains, too. I want that for my son too, who, at four years old, experienced his first proper (on his own feet, all the way up) mountain climb this summer (his very first one was when he was three).
Stories from Retezat Mountains as told by my father
Photographs by me
It was about the joy of going. The mountain offers you a unique view, a sense of place. Every crest offers you a different perspective, every step further reveals something new. That’s why you went to the mountains. It was this desire of going, of perpetual moving, of experiencing something new every time. It was something you did for yourself and nobody else. You don’t have to chase for the mountain peaks. But if you do reach a mountain peak, a bond with the mountain is forever formed. These days however there are fewer and fewer people passionate enough to go.
Retezat is one of my favourite mountains. It’s always been for you and your brother as well. There are several points of entry in Retezat. I’ve never approached it from Poiana Pelegii, as we have this year. But on each side there is this gradual, almost metronomic way in which the landscape unveils itself that allows you to appreciate its magnificence one step at the time. First come the pine and beech forests (on the way to Izvoarele Cernei there is the most beautiful beech forest I have ever seen and over half of The Retezat National Park’s surface is covered by woods, including some of the largest contiguous patches of primeval forests in Europe), then come the alpine junipers, then the Alpine meadows and then the calderas and glacial lakes (Retezat is peppered with sinkholes and glacial lakes, with Lake Bucura being the largest glacial lake in Romania, at an altitude of 2030m).
Coltii Bucurei. Knife-edge ridges. A crudely, narrow, almost impossible path to cross, a trail that follows the spine of the mountain, a void to your left, a void to your right, you are completely exposed, it is one of the Retezat massifs with the steepest vertical walls. You must rely on precision and balance for tricky foot placement. It’s nerve-wrecking. You feel that even your rucksack is shaking your balance. There is no way back, only ahead. When I climbed Judele Peak, I was with a friend and he couldn’t walk because he felt that if he stood, his rucksack was pulling him back, so the only way he felt safe to move forward was by crawling on that insanely narrow path. Retezat is a rocky mountain, with steep climbs and vertiginous downhills. You have to use your hands many times, it is very challenging. And there are the vipers. You always have to remember that in Retezat. It is a dangerous mountain, but that only makes it more beautiful.
Never leave the trail. I did once. I was in Retezat with two friends. It was getting late and we wanted to get quickly to Baleea hut, have a warm meal and get enough rest for the next day. So we decided to take a shortcut. Only the shortcut we took was through a web of alpine junipers. We arrived later than we would have if we had followed the marked road. We couldn’t touch the ground as we advanced through the ground-hugging shrubs, we crawled from branch to branch, pushing our rucksacks in front of us, and finally got out covered in dirt, with bruises all over our bodies and demoralised. Lesson learned. My friends were beginners. They never climbed the mountain again.
Never say this can not happen to me. You are in Retezat. Always be aware of the vipers. I have been five or six times in Retezat. I always wore gaiters over trousers and hiking boots. This summer I dressed in short pants. It was a day of hiking on a forest track, sheltered from sun and heat, an ascending, rocky trail, but with no intention of going for a peak, not even reaching the Alpine fields. I thought I was safe. And then, on our way down, I stopped on a stone bridge over a creek to wait for the others and half a meter ahead of me on the ground I saw something resembling a rolled rope at first sight. The idea of the possibility of it being a viper coiled up in the sun immediately struck me. I took a step back and the viper moved and crawled into the grass. It was noon, it was a small area void of trees, the sun was casting its warm rays over the stone, the perfect medium. A split second of not paying attention…
Clouds can gather quickly on the top of the mountain, especially if you go when the weather is unstable (which, in Retezat, can happen anytime before August and after September 15th). The storm broke one time when we were at Galeşu Lake, on our way back to Pietrele hut. We first took shelter under a big isolated rock, but immediately realised it was a bad idea, that we were exposed to being hit by a lightning, so we put on our raincoats and left. We had to be careful to stay away from the tall or isolated trees and had to keep going, torrents of rain unleashed above us, we were soaked to the bones, and spent the next three rainy days inside the cabin’s attic waiting for our clothes to dry. We couldn’t wait to go back the next year.
Always bring someone you can trust. And you have to be informed. You have to have common sense. A friend and I were almost attacked by dogs one time. We were passing by a flock of sheep, the shepherd was nowhere in sight, and the dogs started barking furiously, baring their teeth at us, they felt their territory threatened, and came after us, they came very close, they smelled our rucksacks and our hands. The slightest move of hand, the slightest hasted step would have been fatal. My friend kept asking me what to do, what to do. I told him to just keep going, to not stop under any circumstances, to not start running, to not show them he was scared, they can smell fear. We got away but only because he listened to me.
There was always a warm place waiting for you in the most crowded hut, you didn’t have to worry about accommodation. But you didn’t ask for much either, nobody was fussy, you were happy for having an extra bed in a room next to ten, fifteen others, to rest so that you could continue your adventure the next morning. That was all about. Adventure. Dinner time was a time of joy. Everybody, local or foreign, started to sing, everybody gathered around a single table. People coming together united by their shared love for the mountain. You don’t see that kind of beauty today.
There used to be so many foreign tourists in the Romanian mountains those days. The proportion was of 5 foreigners to 1 Romanian, but we were like a big family. Groups of 20 Czechs who would leave their bicycles in a small town in the West, like Caransebeș for example, and then start hopping from mountain to mountain and then back again. It was so much joy, the joy of climbing, there was nothing like it.
The people from the hut were very kind and very well documented. Not only were they informed about the weather, they could tell you how the weather was going to be just by looking at the sky and by how the sun set. That’s what they did, that’s why they were there for. And you’d better listened to them. If they said you could go, you didn’t have to worry, you just knew the weather would be fine.
I was 27 or 28 when I met a 70 year old man up on Retezat. He told me that if a year went by without him going to Retezat, he wasn’t feeling well. When you hear a man in his 70s talking like that about the mountains, his words become your bible.