Traversing the Transylvanian Alps

Close encounters with mountain bears, emergency snow holes and permanent sub-zero temperatures.  These are just a few of the things involved in a crossing of the Transylvanian Alps in winter!

Never heard of the Transylvanian Alps?  Well, neither had I until someone suggested Romania as a potential location for my next expedition.  Forming the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains, the Transylvanian Alps offer exceptional trekking during the summer months.  But I wasn’t going to Romania in the summer, I was going there in winter, the very depth of winter!

I arranged to meet friend and local Mountain Guide, Nico, in Bucharest to discuss my plan…….

Solo! You want to climb the highest mountain in Romania by yourself? More people climb Mt Everest than attempt Moldoveanu Peak during winter, let alone solo!

As Nico and I talked more, it became clear that this fact was largely due to the lack in popularity of winter mountaineering in Romania rather than any technical difficulty of the mountain itself.  However, current snow conditions meant the climb was still going to be long, cold and challenging.

At 2544m, Moldoveanu Peak is located at the very heart of the Transylvanian Alps.  Unfortunately, the mountain is largely inaccessible during winter, with all normal approach routes being blocked by heavy snowfall.  The only feasible way of reaching the interior of the range is by driving up the Transfăgărășan mountain pass, coined by Top Gear as “the best road in the world”.  During the winter ski season, this is the only road kept reasonably clear from snow.   Unfortunately, as a starting point, it’s also quite a distance from Moldoveanu Peak, requiring a traverse of the highest and most remote section of the range.  The route would cross nearly 30 km of Alpine terrain and could take over 3 days if faced with bad conditions.

To make things worse, with an average height of over 2000 meters meant that temperatures were teetering around -10 degrees Celsius.  With the expected wind chill, the summit of Moldoveanu Peak would be closer to -15.  But the sun was shining and a good weather window had started to develop. Things began to feel far more optimistic.  I finally reached the ski lodge at the top of the mountain pass and checked in for the night.

David Love LoveAdventures Mountaineer Tri-Photo

Day 1: The best road in the world!

With an early start and Alpine-style breakfast to wake me up, I began up the snow-filled valley that leads to the main 30-mile long spine of the Transylvanian Alps.  After 2 hours of breaking a path through the soft, thigh-deep snowpack, I eventually reached the head of the valley.  Towering above me was an impenetrable looking mountain headwall, rising more than 1000ft straight up to form the main ridge I would follow for the rest of the journey.  After an hour of scrambling my way up a long rocky shoulder up the side of the ridge, I began to near its snow-capped crest.  As I cut my final few steps, I was greeted by my first views of the opposite side of the range.  There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and I could see all the way down to the valley and deep into northern Romania.  The views were spectacular and certainly on par with anything I had seen in the French or Swiss Alps.

Translyvanian Alps Ridge LoveAdventures

As I set off along the ridge, the snow became deep again and I spent several hours trying to pick my way through patches of energy-sapping powder as I navigated around several substantial peaks.  As the sun began to get lower in the sky, I finally reached my first camp location.  Unfortunately, the emergency mountain shelter that I had planned to sleep in was nowhere to be seen!  What took its place was a 15ft-deep snow drift spanning several hundred feet across in all directions.  Trying to find the exact location of the shelter would be impossible.  Instead, I spent the last 2 hours of fading sunlight digging a small, but adequate snow hole in a sheltered area of snowpack.  As soon as the sun disappeared behind the distant peaks on the horizon, the temperature began to plummet.  Pulling on my toasty insulated jacket I wriggled into my sleeping bag and prepared for a long and uncomfortable night under the stars.

Day 2: Summit Day!

An early Alpine start saw the first few kilometres covered before sunrise.  It was going to be a very long day, so any opportunity to see me back before sunset was taken.  My first sight of Moldoveanu Peak came as I crested the summit of yet another large peak along the route.  The fiery red dawn looked ablaze behind the summit ridge of my main objective – yet it was still so far away.  I set myself a number of closer objectives and concentrated on reaching the next obvious feature rather than worry about the total distance still to come.

Soon enough, I found myself rounding the final spur and gazing up towards the summit ridge.  As I gained height, the wind picked up to 35mph and the temperature began to drop again.  The summit was tantalisingly close now.  I reached the sister peak of Vistea Mare (2527m) and looked across to Moldoveanu, now just a stone’s throw away.  The final 30 minutes of ridge-hopping passed in an instant.  I had made it!

Transylvanian Alps Moldoveranu SummitI’m always surprised at how quickly time passes on a mountain summit, particularly one as spectacular as Moldoveanu.  I savoured a few short minutes and admired the magnificent Alpine views.  After taking some final summit snaps, the job was done.  Now the time had come for that all-too-familiar acknowledgement that the summit is only ever the half way point in any climb.  Carefully retracing my steps back along the precarious summit ridge, I began the long climb down and back across the range to my snow hole.  I arrived a couple of hours before sunset, tired, a little bruised, but with the most profound sense of achievement.

Day 3: Bears!

With a relaxed start to the final day, I began to retrace the route back along the ridge towards the Transfăgărășan valley.  I did this with a fair amount of trepidation.  As on the first day, I had briefly encountered a brown bear when it popped up about 30 meters behind me on a section of the ridge I had crossed only a minute or so before.

As I neared that same area, there were clear signs of very fresh activity, with several sets of tracks leading off ahead of me.   The paw prints were much larger than my own hands and there was also a set of smaller tracks of a cub alongside.  This made me extremely nervous as it was very rare for a bear to be this high in the range, particularly during winter.  It was only when I climbed higher up the crest of the ridge when I heard the deep, throaty call of a brown bear.  I quickly looked up.  She was approximately 30 meters from me, scrambling over the rocky outcrops and heading in my direction.

I Looked frantically for options.  I found myself limited to either standing my ground, in the hope to scare her off or try to descend the near vertical side of the ridge; both very daunting prospects.  Without much thought, I lowered myself into the closest snow-filled gully and made a rapid, but thankfully controlled emergency descent with an ice axe arrest.  Although the gully was over 400 feet high, it had a nice easy run-out at the bottom.  Even if I had caused a small avalanche, the outcome would have been far more favourable than testing out my best moves with an ice axe on an angry bear!

As I walked the final few kilometres back down the Transfăgărășan valley, I thought to myself…… “That was one crazy adventure!”  Then I smiled – never had I felt more alive!

2 Responses to “Traversing the Transylvanian Alps

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