I reached the ice wall in well under an hour, and, even though most of the work had been done by sliding on my ass, I was exhausted. The day was drawing to a close, and in 90 minutes it would be dark. Despite my scare earlier that afternoon I decided I would try for the summit again the next day and set off a few hours before first light. The slopes would freeze over with the cold of the night and the going would be firmer. I got back to my feet and walked steadily downwards. My plan was to drop a couple of hundred metres in height and find a safe place to bivi under the shelter of the trees, a good distance away from any spill channelled into the firebreak. More than anything now I was looking forward to the warmth of my sleeping bag and a hot cup of tea.
Even though I loved the feeling of metal going into ice, I lacked the energy and concentration to put my crampons back on so decided to hug the tree line and go round the sides of the ice wall where I wouldn’t need them. Just as I was backing up on all fours to lower myself off a boulder, there was a distinct crack from high above me. The sound was sharp, crisp and sudden, its echo travelling downwards and flooding the open slope with a low-pitched groan. After a moment of perfect silence came a second jolt. My heart stopped, and for a few seconds I was rendered incapable of doing anything.
A large part of the snow-covered ridge nearly 50 metres wide fractured in a crown shape about 500 metres above me, causing a section of the mountain to seemingly detach itself, cutting out a jagged line across the slope. At first, it slid away neatly, its motion almost uniform, then as it gathered energy and momentum, it hurtled down towards me with increased speed, churning up the smooth slopes and spitting out snow with such a force that it blocked out the sky with a white mist. It came down faster than I could have imagined, the noise and tremor was everywhere and right on top of me all at the same time. My normally wide and vigilant sense of awareness was suddenly constricted to a narrow, singular sensation of terror. I stood stupefied and unmoving, staring open mouthed like an imbecile, totally unable to remove my eyes and turn my body away from the scene that was unfolding. I was experiencing a moment of pure naked fear, of an intensity far beyond anything I knew.
There are moments in difficult situations, far away, that there is no more doubt. There, the questions are gone. And I think these are the important moments. If the question is gone, I have not to answer. Myself living, I am the answer.
From the smoke to the snow
Elvis Hostel – The Day Before . . .
With all my kit waterproofed and spread across the dormitory floor, I began packing it into a large canoe sack, making sure that the items I’d need most frequently were near the top: sleeping and bivi bag, poncho with bungee cords attached, long johns and sweatshirt, spare socks and gloves. Next, two broken down 24-hour ration packs stuffed into two mess tins, a gas stove and a hexamine stove with windproof matches and tablets inside, followed by a set of army issue DPM Gore-Tex jacket and trousers. At the top of my Bergen, I crammed in a smaller canoe sack which held nothing more than spare socks, a flask and a bottle of water. Inside the top flap interior compartment I kept a spare Maglite torch, a second disposable camera and a small first aid and wash kit. The outside zip pouch at the back held a full water bottle, and strapped onto the sides were an ice axe and crampons. Essential utility items, like my Leatherman tool and Silva compass were tied into my jacket pockets. I had decided to leave my GPS, satellite phone and rescue flares under my bed in Manchester. I had brought my cell phone but hadn’t even turned it on. I knew there was no chance of it working in the mountains, and besides, I didn’t want technological support: the essence of my plan was to disconnect to connect.
Long before I’d arrived in Romania my central plan had been to make my way out to the Fagaras range and climb Mount Moldoveanu, at over 2,500 metres, it was the country’s highest peak. This part of the Transylvanian Alps was wild and remote, and although dwarfed in height by the main European Alps, the area was far less trodden by alpinists and ascents of the peaks in the winter months were few and far between. This was to be my big challenge, the means to test myself in a way that revived the sense of adventure I had missed since leaving the army. As with any new climb, there was doubt: I was going alone and knew the conditions would be harsh. I knew from the start that climbing skills here would be less important than the capacity to endure whatever challenges the mountain might throw at me. But despite the risks of going solo, climbing in the Fagaras would bring everything I was looking for at this time in my life: self-reliance, meaning, physical challenge, escape from routine and contact with nature and its beauty. Above all, I wanted to be out in the world, breaking my own trails.
Setting Off . . .
The morning air cut into me as I paced up and down the length of the platform of Brasov train station trying to keep warm. Falling snowflakes swarmed like bees around the small balls of yellow light emitted by the station lamps. Outside the electric glow they were invisible, their cold touch on my face the only sign of their existence. I stared down at the tracks that were glazed with frost and thought how cold and hard everything looked. The day was like lead.
I began to wonder why I wasn’t still in bed as my mind posted warm images of friends back home sitting cosily around the fireplace of some quaint village pub as they celebrated the New Year. Then I thought of all the other backpackers at the hostel, probably still sound asleep under their duvets. I knew that in a few hours they’d be emerging from their beds for brunch before hitting the ski slopes. Later they’d be eating out together before a night of partying in the old-town bars. In these moments I felt alone, it was something entirely different to true loneliness, but still a strong enough feeling for me to miss my friends and the festive cheer of back home. Although I was never usually troubled by lack of companionship, there were moments when travelling that I got caught on my own. It was one of the drawbacks of travelling by yourself, those infrequent moments of separation and lack of contact. You can’t just manufacture friendship or a bond out of thin air: it’s something that comes naturally and often by chance, so until the world sees fit, you just have to settle for your own company. Those who have exposed themselves to the sheer uncertainty of solo travel will understand: sometimes it’s all worth it, at others you wonder what on earth you’re doing.
I knew that in many ways I was missing out. Although I did sometimes think about embarking on a more normal way of life, it never quite seemed to happen. Instead I was always in the midst of a challenge or planning my next adventure. I’d lost count of the times I had walked past bar windows and been called in by friends out having a good time. Too often I had to make my excuses and walk on because I was in the middle of some training regime. It could be a frustrating and solitary existence, yet there was always that moment when I knew it had all been worth it. The training would pay off and I would be able to enjoy rare and privileged freedoms. I had an adventurous and unconventional spirit and such a way of life was in my nature. After all I had experienced, I still held the philosophy that real adventure was made up of more than distant lands and mountain tops, rather it lay in one’s readiness to exchange the comforts of domestic certainty for an uncertain resting place and the constant surprises that a restless life brought in its train.
Watching the countryside rolling by from the train window, my feelings shifted from melancholy to a kind of contentment. Moments like this, far away from everyone and everything, gave me the rare opportunity to take stock and reflect upon the hectic and non-stop adventures of the last few years. Life had been eventful. I had served nearly four years as a Paratrooper followed by two years as a Special Forces soldier. Now, at twenty-six, I was living a different kind of life as a student studying politics at Manchester University. My new lifestyle was challenging and a world away from anything I had previously known. I was older than my fellow students and certainly felt different, even out of place to some extent. But I’d ended up being in my element, I made new friends, the sort I would otherwise never have met, I enjoyed my classes and had plenty of time to go travelling and off on adventures.
As I considered the events that had got me where I was today, it occurred to me for the first time how fateful one moment of indiscipline had been in directing the course of my life and pushing me away from the military and back to education. As a young boy I’d been fascinated by all things army and spent many a weekend dressed in camouflage fatigues trespassing and sneaking around in the nearby military training area with my brother and some of our more unruly friends from the nearby village. As my interest grew, I would look through my dad’s old books and stare in awe at worn black and white photographs of soldiers on SAS ‘Selection’, marching over the misty and snowy summits of the Brecon Beacons, rifles in hand and heavy-looking packs on their back. I’d been fascinated by the ability of its members to operate in any environment and had been massively impressed by stories of their legendary fitness capabilities, men who would think nothing of running 20 miles with a backpack full of bricks.
Aside from my soldierly ambitions I was a keen sportsman. The headmaster of my primary school was a former RAF officer who put a strong emphasis on sports and games, so from an early age I was always drawn towards keeping fit and an outdoor life. Growing up in the Shropshire countryside gave me a strong taste for forests, mountains and the possibilities they held for a young boy with adventure and mischief in his blood. As I got older my interest in the army was diverted, but following disastrous A-level results that left me with no chance of gaining entry into a decent university, my ideas and ambitions for a military career were revived. I’d seen TV documentaries on the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marine Commandos and knew that they were regarded as having the toughest entry requirements and being among the best fighting units in the world. I applied for both at the same time and joined the Paras as they offered the earliest opportunity to commence basic recruit training. My time as a Paratrooper was some of the best and worst in my life, and although it was something I was extremely proud of, after serving out my minimum engagement I signed off with the intention of fulfilling my ambition of attempting the Special Forces Selection course, albeit through somewhat unusual channels.
After passing Selection I served for two years, spending some time with the reserves and also the SBS (Special Boat Service). This part of my military career was without doubt the most enjoyable and satisfying and I grew both as a person and a soldier. It was there I gained skills and met friends that would have a lasting influence on the next phase of my life and who would inspire me to believe that attending university and maintaining links with the military at the same time were possible. At my first interview at Sterling Lines, the old SAS base in Hereford, the OC (Officer Commanding) asked me if I’d ever considered going to university. He said that passing Selection was very far from a certainty in spite of my Parachute Regiment background and I should have a strong and worthwhile Plan B. He also said that many soldiers left the SAS regretting having not educated themselves.
The catalyst that initiated the change was the act that got me temporarily discharged from the reserves, but the buildup of disciplinary incidents had been long preceded by my feeling that I wasn’t fully cut out or suitable for long-term service life. I was an individualist and a fanatical lover of freedom, but more than anything, I found it difficult to rein myself in when faced with the stifling routine and regulations of peacetime barrack life. Having a courageous tongue and little respect for authority were characteristics that didn’t mesh well with army life and had got me into regular trouble. Gradually the way I saw myself, my colleagues and my future in the military system, in particular in the Parachute Regiment, began to change. It was ironic that the same inquisitiveness and sense of adventure that had led me to join the army in the first place would eventually push me in another direction. Regardless of my shifting perspectives and less than exemplary conduct, I had been an accomplished soldier and was still caught in a state of uncertainty as to whether I should return as a full-time soldier or not after university. I had enjoyed the physical challenge and learning specialist skills, but most of all I missed the camaraderie. I’d even gone as far as volunteering for the Royal Marine Commando Test to ingratiate myself with those who could facilitate a return to my former Naval Special Forces unit. The build-up training was to start in three weeks after the Christmas break, and as a reservist this time, I would still be able to maintain my studies. It promised to offer me the best of both worlds and I was excited.
As I left the city limits behind I was greeted with picturebook views of a timeless rural landscape, where medieval villages survived virtually untouched by the twenty-first century. There were no hedgerows and few fences, just field after field of browns and yellowy greens with the occasional dusting of snow, all interlocked in a rough patchwork of colours. Giant rounded hay mounds covered with ropeddown tarpaulin dotted the fields in random patterns, and the villages and farmhouses also looked to be from a bygone age with windmills, watermills and here and there a horse-drawn cart. All my life I’d dreamt of visiting the Transylvanian wilds, a place Bram Stoker described as sinister and haunted, but instead I found myself looking at a world more reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shire from The Hobbit. I took some photos from the train window, wishing I had something better than my crappy disposable camera.
An hour into the journey I caught my first glimpse of the mountains, a giant mass of rock and snow emerging from the tapestry of a multi-coloured landscape. The train veered off and I lost sight of them behind woodland and pockets of dead ground. When they came back into sight they looked magnificent and captivating; the edges of the peaks sharpened like daggers as the sun hit them from behind.
Rising above all but a few peaks of nearly equal height was Moldoveanu. At over 2,500 metres, it was the highest of the Fagaras mountains, which although proudly independent as a range, was part of the Carpathian chain stretching in a great arc for 1,500 kilometres from the Czech Republic to Romania and the Iron Gates on the river Danube.
At a rail junction further ahead, I noticed some tracks leading into a guarded military compound. The base roused my interest as I knew that a squadron from my old army unit had only recently trained in this very area. I had received a humorous report from a friend telling me their Romanian hosts were pretty sneaky, and during meal time one day they had sent a female cleaner to spy on the squadron’s accommodation block. He joked that ‘any soldier worth his salt knows nobody ever cleans up after you in the army, no matter how hospitable the host nation’. The cleaner went about her duties, and was eventually caught by the sentry as she attempted to examine and photograph the unit’s secret UHF radio communication devices. ‘Had she got away with it, the intelligence would have been in Moscow before we’d finished dessert,’ he said.
Although it was all seen as a bit of a laugh, they knew not to turn their back on the Romanian army and its spies. This memory contributed to a sense of unease at odds with the exhilaration I’d been feeling.
I slept for a good part of the journey and when I woke the landscape outside had completely transformed. Rural charm had been replaced by a wild Carpathia of jagged mountains, deep ink-black forests and old stone forts with crooked battlements guarding secret corridors into the mountain valleys. I felt a mounting joy – this was the Romania I had come to see. This was a place of myth and legend, where the distant howl of the wolf still chilled the night air, where bears left their claw marks on the towering pines and the lynx lurked ghost-like among the high forests and crags. My excitement reached a crescendo as a scene that could have been straight from a Dracula film eerily presented itself. Strategically positioned on a rocky outcrop was a grim and mythical-looking old stone fortress with a solitary tower, surrounded by an evil-looking wood. All that was needed to cap the scene off was a flurry of bats, but it wasn’t to be.
I’d always wanted to visit some of the castles connected with the Dracula myth, especially Castle Bran, supposedly the home of the titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’d read the book when I was thirteen years old but had been gripped by the myth since seeing Christopher Lee playing the count at an even younger age. I was eager to see the country for myself and connect the myth of Dracula to the legend of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, whose history had been incorporated with the fictional account of Dracula’s past in Stoker’s original works. In a Bucharest museum I’d seen copies of old German woodcuts depicting Vlad’s cruelty: feasting on steaks while his executioner cut off body parts of other impaled victims. Legend had it that the invading Ottoman army retreated in fright at the sight of thousands of rotting and impaled corpses lining the banks of the Danube.
Seeing Fagaras town in the distance I felt the early tingle of excitement and anticipation. After being cooped up in Manchester I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the heart of the country and the bones of my trip. I would ski, climb, explore and hopefully encounter some wildlife. I had high expectations of Fagaras. The guidebook had said it was remote, traditional and beautiful, but then it had also said that Bucharest was the Paris of the East. To me Romania’s capital had felt soulless, as if it had been eaten by Paris and vomited out as some vile grey northern town from back home thirty years ago. I’d been glad to leave. My first impressions of Fagaras weren’t great either, the streets were smeared with old snow and everything in the immediate vicinity had an old, dirty and broken look about it. A huge factory on the edge of town scarred the landscape, with thick black smoke spilling from its towering chimneys, sending a cumulus of grey filth up into the sky and making the town seem darker than it really was.
A busy market ran along two of the side streets, finishing at the far end of the station. A bevy of red-faced women passed hurriedly by, balancing large bundles on their shoulders and carrying bright, colourful bags, heavily laden with wares. I walked over to one of the stalls and bought some chocolate, receiving plenty of friendly and curious smiles from everyone who passed me. A group of shifty-looking taxi drivers had followed me down into the market, and in recognition of my foreignness, took turns in offering me an array of rip-off prices to a ‘very cheap’ hotel they knew. I ignored their offers and walked back to the station car park where official-looking taxi drivers stood chatting, smoking and drinking coffee.
I approached the group and explained that I wanted to go into the mountains, repeating the name ‘Moldoveanu’ to make sure I was understood. A group discussion ensued over my destination with much tooth sucking and wild gesticulations to indicate that the roads would be snowed in, that only a fool would attempt such a journey and even then it would require a suitably mountainous fare. I looked at their shiny new cars and understood further efforts would be wasted – nobody with a nice set of wheels would be willing to risk it in the mountains. My best bet lay with one of the devious-looking characters who had followed me back up to assess my progress. I stood my ground and eventually managed to isolate one of them. They were like pack animals, far less fearsome when alone, especially when it came to negotiating. After much haggling and feigning of ‘I’ll go elsewhere’, I managed to agree a price acceptable to both of us, which worked out at roughly eight English pounds in old Romanian lei. When it came down to the specifics of my destination, the driver’s unofficial status became more evident. Beyond the village of Victoria he had no idea where he was heading. Despite showing him my map, which he studied intently, he obviously didn’t have a clue.
My Bergen was squeezed into the boot and I jumped in the front of his car, an old green Dacia close to falling apart. As soon as we’d set off the driver started popping sunflower seeds on the car cigarette lighter, the empty shells of which had already filled the ashtray to the brim and were close to spilling over. The car reeked with the stale odour of cigarette ash and burnt shells, the radio was played on full blast, blaring out some bizarre and terrible song which he seemed to be enjoying. Despite the state of his death trap vehicle I couldn’t help noticing how thoroughly cheerful he was, driving along, and munching away to the beat of the music after having secured what was probably a great fare. I was just grateful that he had been willing to take on the journey.
Leaving town we crossed over a part-frozen river and headed south towards the north face of the mountains. As we drove deeper into the countryside the tarmac ended and turned into dirt road with tall banks of snow on either side. The only metalled road through the Fagaras Mountains was the Transfagarasan, the famous highway that cut the range from north to south across the valley of Balea. Connecting Transylvania to Walachia, the route twisted its way up to 2,000 metres at its highest point, passing more than forty lakes. The highway lay a good hour’s drive west from Fagaras during the winter months, and despite the network of aqueducts, bridges and tunnels bored through the mountain, the risk presented by avalanches, rock fall and the depth of snow on the upper reaches meant the road was closed from October to June. Not to be put off, after climbing Moldoveanu, I planned to hire some Nordic skis, fit on some skins and telemark my way to the top. Aside from the challenge, I wanted to go up to Castle Pionerai, which was constructed by Vlad Tepes and was considered the authentic Dracula’s castle, unlike the more touristy Bran castle. Like today, the main obstacle would be getting there as the trekking routes in the Fagaras were always about 15 kilometres from the train station and no buses ran there. If all went well I could take a taxi as far up the highway as the snow line would allow and ski up from there. I was a mountain goat and loved going up, but coming down was sure to be a grand reward for my endeavours.
Our route into the Fagaras foothills lay along a far more minor route and the car was soon jolting and skidding as the conditions got progressively worse. I began to think we would never get through as I could tell that even a jeep would have had difficulty. The car soon began spinning and sliding across the road, almost completely out of control. My driver kept his foot down, somehow managing to stay on the road and avoid crashing or rolling the vehicle. His fingers still tapped on the steering wheel to the beat of music, while he continued popping his sunflower seeds and spitting the empty shells out of the window. He remained unflustered as the roads quickly turned from difficult to downright dangerous. I was sure they would soon become impassable, especially in this old car. It got to a point where I wouldn’t have held it against him if he’d refused to go on, yet the old Dacia kept going. The driver made a series of half confident turns at each junction, beckoning me to indicate which way to go. I’d cut my map down to the area of the mountains and foothills to make it smaller, so I wasn’t much use as a navigator. As for my driver, he was either taking lucky guesses or had a good instinct for direction.
The road eventually took us past a small military outpost. A soldier in a long grey trench coat stood guarding the front gate, carrying out his shift on sentry duty. The crazy driver skidded to a halt and asked me to wind down my window. I found the handle was missing, so opened the door instead. He leaned across me and shouted for directions over the blare of his radio and the still-running engine. The soldier yelled back, followed by some hand movements signalling the way. After a moment’s pause, he began shaking his head while offering more advice. Even I could understand he was telling us the way was likely to be blocked. Fortunately my driver would hear nothing of it and we were moving again before I had even shut the door, keeping the revs up in a high gear so the wheels didn’t spin. Shortly after, we hit a wide road covered in a thick layer of frozen slush. The conditions were so treacherous, I was convinced we would come off the road at any moment and end up in one of the deep trenches that lined either side. The car began sliding, lurching from one skid to another and at one point the driver lost all control, and we found ourselves travelling sideways towards the ditch at high speed. I locked my arms out and pushed against the dashboard, genuinely holding on for dear life. I could tell the driver was slightly concerned as it was the first time he’d stopped stuffing his face with sunflower seeds. I released an arm and grasped the plastic hand grip above my head, bracing myself for a crash that miraculously never happened.
Heading up into the foothills, the car began to struggle, making an orchestra of clanks and bangs while pouring a thick, black, oily smoke from its exhaust. After fifteen minutes the way levelled off and we passed through miles of dark forests with small clusters of mysterious wooden houses, hidden away in neat circular clearings. These were the final pockets of civilization where I had least expected them. A few kilometres after the last of these secret villages we came to a fork in the track. The driver beckoned me to make a choice while I checked the map, before he decided to take a right anyway. Beyond the turn off, the road began to twist and dip again, the terrain became wilder as the forest closed in around us, cloaking the narrow pass in its darkening shadows. After a short drive we passed two farmers talking at the side of the road. My driver skidded to a halt and reversed until the car was alongside them. They eyed us as though we were fools as we checked with them for directions, and then sent us back the way we’d come. As the driver skilfully turned his vehicle to face the opposite direction, I noticed a large wooden structure tucked into the far end of a clearing in the woods behind the two men. It was the last building I would see for four days.
Back at the junction, we took the other fork and continued for five minutes before the driver decided we had come far enough and pulled over to one side. Looking at me with sternness in his eyes, he spat out another sunflower shell and pointed towards the mountains. I didn’t understand a single word of what he said, but he seemed to be warning me that the mountains were dangerous, especially these ones. After paying him the agreed fare plus a generous tip for his heroics on the road, he followed me out of the car and lifted my Bergen from the boot and onto my back, giving me a hearty slap on the shoulder as he did so. I liked the driver and admired his disregard for the road and its conditions. He could have backed out and dropped me short, but he finished the job and got me to the mountains. Just getting this far felt like a small victory. I shook his hand, then watched him going back down the road until the Dacia disappeared from sight, a dot of green in a wilderness of white. Minutes later I could still hear the engine being thrashed as he skidded and swerved his way home.
Excerpted from Darkness Descending by Ken Jones. Copyright © 2014 by Ken Jones.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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