Romania's Călimani Mountains: a beginner's experience
January 1, 1970
by Andreea Andrei
Maybe not a lot of people are aware of Romania as a country situated in the heart of Europe. Well, it is one of those countries that fill the maps and that come to knowledge only when something specific relates to it. I, for one, was born here and lived here since and I believe Romania has some amazing places to warm your heart and eyes. One of the biggest advantages here is that a significant part of the Carpathian Mountains dominate the center of the country, which means mountain climbing is a common sport around here.
The Carpathian Mountains is the second-largest mountain range system in Europe (1500 km long) that forms an arch and spreads across 6 countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Romania. 53% of this arch is found on Romanian territory with the largest surface of virgin forests in Europe as well. The Carpathians are home to a tremendous variety of plant species, animals (largest concentration of brown bears, wolves, lynxes, chamois). Divided into different mountain groups, the highest peak in Romania is the Moldoveanu peak – 2,544 m or 8,346 ft. found in Făgăraș Mountains.
Me!? I had reached 25 years of age not having climbed once and with the mountains watching over my home town. But in 2015 my opportunity showed up. An organization had planned a project called The Mountain Climbing School and it’s goal was to gather people of all ages from around the country who have little or no experience in mountain climbing and to teach them all the essentials of going on such a trip, starting with fitness, equipment and all the way to respecting the nature around you and not harming it on your way up and down the mountain. Great, I signed up the next minute and I was lucky enough to be selected. The project consisted of 12 groups which would come to campus for 4 whole days: 2 days for courses and discussions and 2 days for the actual hiking trip when we would sleep in tents along our way to the top.
The 3 basics: Where, When and How
Călimani Mountains in Transylvania, one of the regions of Romania, are a group of volcanic mountains with it’s highest peak at Pietrosu Călimani – 2102 m or 6896 ft. This was our goal, reaching the Pietrosu peak and returning to our camp in one day. Our starting point was from Piatra Fântânele, a village in Bistrița-Năsăud county, but for exploring Călimani mountains there are lots of tracks you can take and it’s best if you do a little research and find the best one for you starting maybe from another place.
First of all, you can get to Romania by plane, the easiest and shortest way. You can either arrive on the Avram Iancu International Airport in Cluj-Napoca which would be the closest to Piatra Fântânele, or you can fly to Bucharest (capital) and get a connection either by bus or by train. Personally, I recommend flying to Cluj-Napoca and then travelling by bus directly to the village, it is a 156 km distance, meaning a 2h 30min trip. This is the same trip I took when going there seeing as I currently live in Cluj-Napoca. You can also go to Vatra Dornei, a small mountain town from where a lot of trails begin. Here in Vatra Dornei you can also find accommodation in hotels, hostels or cabins. The town is populated all year around, there are stores, cafes, restaurants and you can easily reach it by train as well.
It is one of the best places to be initiated into mountain climbing, the Călimani Mountains are friendly, with a lot of vegetation, it’s valleys are not steep, it’s height is medium compared to Romanian mountains in general and low compared to the big mountain tops around the world so it is not challenging. It is a rocky formation, this is also where the peak’s name came from, pietros means rocky (piatră=rock).
The project I participated to took place in the summer, August to September and we had such a fine weather, it was sunny most of the time, clouds would come to scare us and go away shortly. Considering I am a summer person all the way and I spend my years waiting for summer to come around again I would obviously suggest to go there in summer. Of course, this is my main motivation, but other than this, summer is usually the best season for trekking, hiking, climbing and so on. Considering the weather at high altitudes is extremely unpredictable, during summer you have the best chances to get away with good, sunny weather all the way up and down the mountain. The rainy season limits your choices for mountain trails, some of them are not recommended when it rains because it becomes slippery and some are even closed if the weather is nasty. Winter is even more difficult, snow makes some trails impracticable, there is an avalanche danger and the daylight is shorter, which means you have to move faster or camp up there and return the next day. On the other hand, for those who love winter sports this would be your season of choice. From Vatra Dornei you have access to ski & snowboard slopes, ice skating.
I think HOW? is the most important question you need to answer when planning to climb up a mountain and you have to make sure you have covered all grounds. Now, my experience with the Mountain Climbing School project was a very important milestone. That is where I learned everything I need to know about how to safely plan and do a climbing.
From the moment I stepped in the campus, a piece of heaven with wooden cabins, fresh garden, a pond and the most amazing volunteers and people who work or collaborate with the association, I felt energized and happy just to get there. We were accommodated in a small wooden cabin into rooms with bunked beds which I also enjoyed because hostels are my favorite places to check in to. Our group consisted of approximately 20 people from all over the country and sleeping in common rooms was a big plus for interaction. I have to mention here that I am not a very comfortable person at first, it takes me some time to get acquainted and to be myself around new people so basically, this was like a getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone exercise.
The first 2 days, in the beginning we played games in order to know each other by name and where we come from and what was our motivation to come here in the first place. Afterwards, we started the actual courses that were held by people with different experiences in different fields: some where working as mountain rescue persons, some were meteorologists, some were simple mountain lovers who gained enough experience as to share and give advice and so on. They were all amazingly open, willing to answer questions and sufficiently funny to make the info better stick to us. We learned about the sort of equipment you need and how to use it, about how to make your backpack as light as possible sticking only to the most important and useful stuff, what kind of food to bring to help you get energized and support your tiredness on the way, how to read a map and a compass, how to avoid animals if you happen to encounter any, how to read the clouds and anticipate rain or any weather changes, how to install a tent, a bit of first aid and what to have in your personal aid kit and, most importantly how to pass through nature and leave it unharmed, to respect the fact that you are a visitor there and you should not affect the natural environment in any way.
First day we climbed for about and hour, an hour and a half until we reached Poiana Arsuri roughly translated into The Burns Glade (from the verb to burn, burning) were we set camp, it is a very good place for camping close to a spring we passed by on our way and close to the forest, but open enough to feel safe. The tents were already set up because there were other groups before us who camped there, a small, improvised kitchen with camping stoves and food that we were gonna use to cook for everybody. We were basically sharing everything!
Now to get a little bit into the specifics of How to…
First of all, you need to know yourself a bit, meaning your fitness shape before you start your journey. You should always choose the mountain trail according to your resistance and your experience, whether you did this before or not and how used you are to put in prolonged effort. I, for one, didn’t get a chance to work a bit on my fitness although I struggled to get my ass out for jogging a month before going for the climb. My hectic schedule, running between my job and school did not allow me to get in shape the way I hoped (only if you consider this kind of running as exercise).
Second of all, there is equipment. We have a tendency to get over-excited (I know I do, annoyingly even) and we rush into buying all sort of stuff we don’t actually need, we don’t know how to use and very often, expensive stuff too. For a beginner it is a mistake to do that. You should start you journey of mountain climbing with the basic things until you get comfortable and you learn some more on the way.
Shoes – are your most important tool/friend on the way up and down. It’s essential that they are comfortable, your size (not in the least bigger or smaller), waterproof, resistant, with a good grip so that you don’t slip. Also, never go on a track with new shoes, never-worn shoes. They will hurt your legs as all new shoes do and you will have trouble finishing what you had in mind. Not to mention that if you go with a group of people, you might ruin it for everybody.
Clothes – t-shirts, as many as you think you need. It is advised to change your shirt when you get to the top because you will sweat and you will be walking like that all the way which is uncomfortable and you might catch a cold. You should wear cotton or technical materials that allow your skin to breath and that dry fast enough so that you don’t have to stay wet for a long time. Rain jacket, even if it’s sunny and warm you might need it, weather changes at the fastest pace up there. Pants or leggings, preferably long so that your ankles are not exposed, you could get hurt or you could step on reptiles and their instinct is to bite. For example here, in Călimani Mountains you can encounter vipers. Socks are a must, long ones that cover your ankle and elastic to stick to your leg and not slip inside your shoe. A hat or one of those sports headbands to protect you from sun exposure, wind or even rain.
Sun screen – during summer it is important to have protection for your skin otherwise you will get down looking all red and itching.
Backpack – depending on how you schedule your trip you could either get a big backpack to carry your tent and other accessories up if you’re planning to set camp somewhere, or a small one to carry your food, water, jacket and other individual stuff that you need. The small one is for one day trips when you return to a camp or a town where you got accommodated.
Water – it is essential and you have to have enough when you start and to find out beforehand if and where you will find other water sources on the way. Also, when drinking water and climbing you should always take small and often sips of water to keep hydrated. Drinking a gallon of water at once will do you no good, you will eliminate most of it, your body will get dehydrated and you will be left without water in no time.
Food – you have to pick food that doesn’t need cooking or is easy to cook, preferably that you can eat on the spot. You should carry with you a small knife and plastic spoons/forks if you wish. You have to be realistic about your food intake needs and to supply it, climbing will require more than you eat in a normal day with moderate activity. Also bring something sweet like black chocolate or glucose because it is a good source of energy, you will be wasting all your glucose in your effort to climb.
Other items that should be in your backpack are a whistle, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a map, a compass, tissues. There are other things that could come in handy, it’s possible I skipped something, but you have to have your basics covered. If you want to camp up on the mountain you have to research the area and find the best places to camp, in open spaces, preferably where there are other campers, close to the marked trails. On the mountains you could usually find shelters where you can sleep inside or camp around that area.
It is extremely important that you stick to the marked tracks so that you don’t get lost and because it is safer. The tracks are being frequented by many other tourists, animals usually keep away from these learned trails and it is sure to get you where you want to get.
When we climbed up to Pietrosu peak we headed there as a big group and we had 3 guides to accompany us so this made it easier and there was no need for us to constantly look for the signs and see which trail we’re on. We’ve been so lucky to share this experience with some great and veeeery funny people that taught us everything. One of them was a meteorologist and explained to us the shapes of clouds, their density, their color and aspect and what it meant. Leaving camp and heading for the top we had such a sunny and bright day although the forecast announced rain. Shortly after reaching the top some threatening clouds gathered over our heads, the wind was getting a bit strong and we rushed to get down from the rocky top that could’ve become quite slippery. But as we got on our way to return to the camp following the same trail, the clouds scattered and the sun came up again. It was lovely, the air, the warmth, the atmosphere. We hiked together, we talked, we shared all sorts of things and we had a blast. All around us you could find blueberries and cranberries and overindulge knowing it is natural and it is there at your feet.
When we finally reached our camp the sun was still up. We had organized previously to work in teams, one team was supposed to bring water from a spring near us every time we ran out of it , another one had to search for fire woods, make the fire and keep it going and the last one was in charge of food, deciding what to eat, how to better divide it in order to feed everyone and to finally cook it. By the time everyone had dinner and was drinking tea, we were gathered around the fire talking, singing, laughing. The echo of the mountains and the forests were carrying our good vibes everywhere.
I can’t describe the feeling you have when you do something for the first time and you realize it is the most rewarding experience in the world. There is nothing in life that teaches you more about the world around you than experiences and people you find on your way. The mountain brings people together, one thing I learned and that left me with a fulfilling taste is how mountain people came across each other on the trail and say ”Hello!” as if they’re long time friends. What they have in common is the love for nature and the mountains and that makes them long time friends.