A while ago someone asked me about my first camping trip into the mountains. I had forgotten about those times and was fun to remember them. It was my first raw contact with the mountains, around ten years ago, so I decided to share it.
The short story. We got lost.
Imagine a bleak rainy Friday afternoon in June, six students, three tents, not much of a gear, but loads of enthusiasm. And then more rain. Thinking about it today, I would say it was stupid but we’ve had tons of luck. And fun. I had almost zero experience at the time, but I felt prepared. I had brought a tent, a sleeping bag, the cheapest sleeping mat I could find, an over-sized fleece, boots, one pair of shorts and some other useless clothes. Plus something to drink. No, not water. That was falling from the skies.
We had taken the train from Sibiu to Ucea and then hitchhiked our way to the little town of Victoria at the foot of the Fagaras Mountains, so we could begin hiking from as close as possible given the fact that we had started in the afternoon and our plan was to be back in Sibiu by Sunday evening.
Speaking of that, how do you plan your first camping trip ever? My guess is that you go with something easy. Lower, less difficult mountains with not too long and strenuous trails since you’ve never done that before. And then you wait for good weather conditions to do it. Right?
Sure. But not us. We did the opposite. We had chosen the highest peak, the hardest trail and the weather somehow matched our choices. We’ve had continuous rain for almost 3 days.
But that didn’t scare us. We went on with it. Our enthusiasm was sky high and the target was Moldoveanu Peak through the Vistea Mare Valley.
Shortcut anyone? Sure, why not?
Only one of us had some experience and knew the trail. And he also knew about a shortcut through the chemical plant nearby. Perfect. Only that the gate blocking that shortcut had a lock on it. We chose to go around it on the right side hoping to find another way but we ended up circling the whole compound to a different trail, the one that leads to Podragu.
We knew that following that trail would have meant 14 hours to get to where we wanted but we didn’t have that time, so we took the decision to leave it and cross the valley to our left, which in our minds back then meant that we would end up on the right trail, the one we should have taken from the beginning. You know how this goes. When you hear about a shortcut, you become lazy. Especially as a student.
Night in the Woods
So off we went. Straight through the forest, wet thick vegetation, no path, mud and damp tree roots, in the rain, with little daylight left to spare. After some time we ended up in a place we all recognized. No, it wasn’t the trail we were supposed to be on but a place we had passed a while back after taking the decision to cross the forest to the other side. We’d been walking in circles.
To get an idea, that valley we thought we were supposed to cross wasn’t as clear and recognizable and big as it was in our minds. There are a few smaller valleys and streams in the area plus several unknown winding roads through the forest. And neither the valleys nor the roads are parallel to each other. Go figure.
So yeah. It was late and dark and we didn’t know which direction to go on so we took the decision to set our tents right there, in the middle of the forest. And of a few bear den’s as far as we knew. The rain didn’t even matter anymore at that point.
We ate, hung up the food in some trees away from our tents and we went to sleep. I don’t know about the others, but my thoughts were with the bears around the area. Good luck falling asleep. But I was tired and fell asleep fast, only to be waken up by a noise halfway through the night. I don’t remember the time, only the terrifying realization of what that sound might have been.
I was lying awake without moving a single finger, all ears to that noise. After what seemed like ten minutes, I realized that my tent-mate was awake as well. And as frightened. Woken up by the same noise, he was also stunned and listening. A few more minutes later, we encouraged each other to check it out.
My headlamp on, heart racing full speed, I peeked outside. Nothing. The food in the tree was still there, untouched. A few more minutes and we were both outside looking around. There was no movement but the sound was still there. We went farther towards the sound and what do you think? In one of the other tents, sleeping in peace, far away from this world and into the realm of dreams, one of our friends was snoring like a truck. Goddamn fucker!
We went back cursing like mad but slept like babies afterwards.
By the way, the snoring guy was later nicknamed the bear but in other circumstances and for other reasons.
When morning came, we ate fast and went back the way we had come, passing the chemical plant to the right trail, the one we should have picked up from the beginning. Our enthusiasm had somehow survived the first night and of course the rain wasn’t letting us down. It was still with us. On us and in our backpacks and our clothes. I guess this is part of what you’d call an adventure.
Or sheer stupidity.
We followed the trail, crossing the river a few times, boots in our hands and all. The rain was getting worse, we were getting cold and at some point, right before the upper limit of the forest, the raindrops transformed into huge snowflakes. Some of the biggest I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the beginning of June and was snowing like crazy up there.
Bad luck we thought, yet we were considering trying to continue. I still felt prepared, all proud of my boots with snow gaiters incorporated, though my over-sized fleece and the one pair of shorts and everything else in my backpack were soaking wet. Hell yeah, prepared…
In the end we took the wise decision to set up tents again and do the best thing we could have done given the conditions. Eating and drinking that is, but not necessarily in this order. We all huddled in my tent. Imagine the six idiots that we were, with all the food and the booze we had, in a two person tent. You get the point. It was warm.
The night went smooth and we couldn’t have cared less about anything else. Not even bears.
On Our Way Back
On Sunday we had to go back. Our time was up. The snowing had stopped, the sky was clear and the day was fine, nice and sunny. We hiked down the valley and we were walking back towards the town when we took sight of the mountain for the first time that weekend. And, I remember, for the first time in my life.
The scene was amazing. Snow was covering everything and we noticed, to our awe, four avalanches that had swept the path we should have hiked on. All of a sudden, we were cheerful for missing the trail on our first day. We kept on walking, all smiles, with our soaking wet boots squishing on the dirt road, back to the little town.
The surprise was even greater several days later, after finding out that a group of Polish tourists had been stuck in the refuge on the ridge due to the heavy snow fallen overnight. They couldn’t get out for two or three days.
So getting lost was good luck. Otherwise we would have ended up in the same situation.
How’s that for a first camping trip into the mountains?