What do you call the feeling you have when you're on a mountain top? How do you describe it? How do you tell people what's inside your soul in those moments? I can't figure out how, so instead I'll just try to describe the last time I felt this way.
The week before leaving on a mountain trip is an adventure in itself. It's a period when you buy your supplies, you make your plans and you start getting an electrical feeling of excitement in your stomach. And then this week ends and the day finally comes when it's time to leave. For me such a day was in September, last year. I woke up at four in the morning and met my travel ally in the parking lot before the sun had gotten a chance to rise. In a matter of minutes we were on the highway and as the dawn was rising on the horizon we were on our way to the mountains.
It was noon when we reached our first destination at Carnic. Carnic is a quiet little settlement on the outskirts of Mountain Retezat. To reach it we had turned left on the 66th National Road and driven through "Ohaba de Sub Piatra", "Salasu de Jos" and "Salasu de Sus". We had a quick meal in the village and prepared ourselves for what lied ahead: the border of Retezat National Park was just one or two kilometers further away.
The hike from Carnic to cabin Gentiana lasted about three hours. For the first two we walked on an old forest road which travelled parallel to a small river. At one point we crossed the river and headed into deep woods on a trail marked with blue triangle signs meant to guide hikers. Cabin Gentiana was waiting at the other end of this alpine forest. As soon as we gained altitude, large trees gave way to smaller fir trees and we soon ran into this humble little refuge standing at the bottom of a valley called Pietrele. This was going to be our base camp.
When we arrived at Gentiana the only people there were old man Costea - the cabin keeper – and one of his helpers. They greeted us with tuica (Romanian strong spirits) and gave us advice on which places we should go to. After a good meal and another shot of tuica we gathered out litter in a bag and went to sleep. We were soon to find out that we were sharing the room with a nosy mouse who was interested in our bag of rubbish. Although the noise he was making made us weary at first, we realized his peaceful intentions and had a good nigh sleep from then on.
The next day started early in the morning. By nine o'clock we were already hiking through Pietrele Valley and heading towards higher altitudes. To the east, the valley was enclosed by a ridge called Pietrele and to the west there was a ridge called Stanisoara. After about an hour of walking southwards we finally reached the top of the valley. Hundreds of years ago, up here stood a huge glacier. It slowly slid down the mountain, grinding and smashing the rocks underneath it to form Pietrele Valley (eng: pietrele = the rocks). Today, Lake Pietrele is the only tell tail sign of that glacier's existence. Above it and directly to the south lies summit Bucura II (2378m) standing next to its taller twin Bucura I (2433m) – two peaceful giants imposing their presence on the surroundings.
Our trail took us up to the lake and then turned eastwards. We soon had to climb a steep slope overlooking the lake and the entire valley, to reach Curmatura Bucurei (2206m). This is a key location on the northern ridge of mountain Retezat and the hike from Gentiana to this point normally takes two and a half hours. It's a place where several trails meet and from which you get and amazing view of some of the most important lakes and mountain peaks in Retezat.
We decided to climb a bit higher, going east onto Custura Bucurei (2457m). From there we finally got a clear view of summit Retezat (2485m) proudly rising in the north-west, over Stanisoara ridge – probably the most spectacular summit of them all. Besides Retezat, there was Peleaga (2509m) to the east – the highest summit in mountain Retezat, Lake Bucura to the south, peaks Bucura I and Bucura II to the west, which we were now seeing from a different angle and to the north a bunch of smaller lakes called Pietricelele, hanging over the larger lake Pietrele.
After having seen all this, we headed east again, and although our initial plan was to reach Peleaga, we soon turned right and descended straight towards Lake Bucura and the mountain rescue shelter next to it. This was where we spent a couple of hours enjoying the scenery and having our lunch. Since this place is situated in the heart of mountain Retezat, the southern end of Lake Bucura is a popular camping site and a good place from which you can set off on various expeditions. Looking west we saw Poarta Bucurei (Bucura's Gate) high up on a ridge which separated Bucura Valley from Retezat National Reservation.
Going back to Gentiana we climbed onto Curmatura Bucurei from the south and descended towards Lake Pietrele, catching one more glance of summit Retezat. An old legend speaks about a terrible dragon which used to roam these places. The dragon met its end when a king chopped its head off after an epic battle, throwing the beheaded body onto these lands. The body turned into stone to form mountains and from a far, summit Retezat looks as if its tip was cut off, reminding people of the old dragon slaying king (eng: retezat = chopped / cut off). It was this summit that we wanted to reach the next day.
Having returned to Gentiana we were determined not to let our rodent acquaintance disturb our sleep again. So after a bone chilling river bath and an exquisite sausage and beans dinner we left our rubbish bag outside the cabin and went to bed. Next morning we found out that Rocky the fox had visited the cabin overnight and torn the bag, spreading litter all over the place. Gathering that litter provided a much needed morning exercise and really got our blood pumping, preparing us for the trip that lied ahead.
By eleven o'clock that day we had reached Lake Pietrele once again and turned westwards this time to climb ridge Stanisoara. Once on top of it, summit Retezat revealed itself closer than ever, in all its magnificence. Unlike the moonscape in Pietrele Valley, the vegetation was much richer in the valley that lied beneath the summit, proving once again that grass is always greener on the other side. One more stop by the Stanisoara Lake and then on we went towards Saua Retezat.
A half hour hike was all that was separating us from reaching the summit. The track went over gravel, rocks and boulders all piled on top of each other to discourage us from pushing on. But on we went once again and after an excruciating climb we were there. All we had set out to do was now accomplished and all of Retezat's secrets were revealing themselves beneath us. Stanisoara Valley with its lake and creeks, Lolaia ridge with an imposing summit, twin peaks Bucura I and Bucura II once again, Peleaga melting in a distant mist, Saua Retezat and Poarta Bucurei and finally the entire National Reservation area stretching towards the horizon. All these were displayed in front of us in a 360 degree showcase. This was the reward for all our efforts and that was the feeling I had the last time I was on a mountain top.
View Retezat, Gentiana, Lake Bucura in a larger map