With no warning, I suddenly stood in a blizzard; a total whiteout. The wind lashed across me fiercely forcing me to bend at the knees and crouch low momentarily to get my balance back. I looked to my left where I knew a deadly drop lurked close by but I only saw encapsulating whiteness. We must be close to the summit; I assumed this wind was whipping freshly-fallen, powdery snow over the mountain from the other face. Mere moments ago we looked out at clear blue skies over snow-covered mountains that sprawled to the distant horizon.
Beth came running back to me, first as a blurry dark shadow through the squall and slowly forming into a recognisable human figure only a few feet away. We looked at each other and saw the sudden realization in each other’s face that, although still relatively safe, things could get ugly quickly here.
“Things could get ugly quickly here,” Beth screamed at me in a serious but controlled manner to completely confirm we were on the same page.
We stuck close together, the cabin at the summit was only 40-50 metres away but we couldn’t see it or any markers that would lead the way. I had visions of being found four feet from the cabin; frozen to death in a timid ball, never knowing how close to salvation I’d been.
This blog is the thirteenth of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
After a few days in Iasi, I wasn’t loving Romania so far. Although it was too early to judge, it already felt too familiar. I could use my credit card everywhere, there were no Babushka’s selling vegetables and cheese in the street – just homogenous corporate grocery stores, and I suspected we wouldn’t see any decommissioned nuclear missile sites or meet former child soldiers. In short, I was missing Ukraine’s unpredictability already.
Compounding my moody state was the fact there were no trains (my favourite form of transport) to Bicaz – the entry town to Ceahlau national park. We boarded a minivan, were assigned one seat per person and each had a seatbelt. This struck me as a novelty and I wasn’t sure if I was happier with the improved transport safety or melancholically nostalgic for Ukraine’s seatbelt-less vans where 30 people crammed into 15 seats and one might have four chickens on one’s lap and sausages wrapped around one’s neck. Transport in Ukraine was the definition of pragmatism if not safety.
As we drove out of Iasi, I stared out the window at a scene that felt like it could be any city’s periphery. Big box stores lined the outskirts; industrial parks further out. While I was miserable, Beth chatted endlessly with a fellow passenger. I tuned in and out and caught that she was living in Bristol, UK and was back visiting her mom in Romania. She loved the British weather. She was already missing the endless greyness and slow drizzling rain. I glanced over at her for signs of sarcasm and found none. I went back to gloomily gazing out the window at the grey scenery; occasionally smirking while thinking of fond memories of Ukraine.
Arriving at the town of Bicaz a few hours later, we had a further 10 km journey into the national park. Our guesthouse lay near the start of the trail that ascends Ceahlau Massif. With just a few streets, Bicaz was a transit mountain town with businesses serving day-trippers and hikers. We popped over to the tourist office for maps but the tourist office was closed on weekends. This seemed bizarre to me, the area was the perfect weekend away from several surrounding towns and cities. If you need to close two days a week, then do it on Monday and Tuesday surely. Examples of poorly thought out decisions in the Romanian tourism industry would become common to the point of comical throughout our time there.
Cursing the Bicaz tourism association, we jumped in a taxi for the remaining ten kilometres to our euphoniously named guest house Dia Papadia. I’m constantly, and mostly unnecessarily, on guard when I get in a taxi. I’ll always insist on a price before we get in even if it’s clearly metered. I’ll impulsively check where we are on our phone to assess whether we’re being taken on a detour. I’ll be irrationally sceptical of where we’re getting dropped off and I’m hesitant to pay anything but the exact change in fear that I’ll get nothing back. 99.9% of the time I just look like an asshole. Beth has to placate me by insisting that getting ripped off in a taxi here means losing anywhere from thirty cents to eighty cents and was it worth losing my sense? No, it never was and this taxi ride passed without incident. He even gave me a receipt! ‘That wouldn’t happen in Ukraine,’ I thought, somewhat longingly.
I stepped out of the taxi and the peak of Ceahlau Massif sat prominently before us, framed by two sides of the valley that were densely dotted with snow-dusted pine trees. A few lodges lined along the road were the only signs of habitation. Mesmerized, I stood staring at the scenery. I didn’t avert my eyes even when the driver handed me change which I held out a hand blindly for.
Over dinner, our host showed us the main trails on a map that head up to the top of the mountain. He pointed out, to my surprise, that a restaurant was at the top despite the nearest road being 6 km down the other side of the mountain. One trail had a shortcut up to the summit but it was ill-advised to follow – it wasn’t marked and there were bear sightings in the past few days. I felt a shot of excitement run through me. I wanted to see a bear in the wild about as desperately as I didn’t want to see a bear in the wild. My rational brain argued with my excitable brain over an event that I had no capability to induce.
While fantasizing about bears, we went to bed early knowing the next day was a strenuous hike up Ceahlau Massif. It was good to be out of the cities and back in nature – protected from it’s harshest elements in a warm bed obviously. The forecast for the next day was clear skies and Lonely Planet promised “Instagram gold” at the top, nearby Lake Bicaz snaking through the mountain scenery brought the jaw that inch lower apparently.
To give context to this hike, it was a Monday. And Monday’s are now very special in Beth and I’s relationship. In an effort to be more kind, loving and generous I gave Beth something a little different for Christmas. I renamed Mondays to Bethdays for 2019. So every Monday, regardless of where we are in the world, I attempt to wait on Beth hand and foot and we do whatever it is she wants to do that day with no compromise.
This was the fourth of fifty-two Bethday’s and I was already struggling.
By about 2-3pm I’m usually at my wit’s end. It’s no fault of Beth’s, it’s all me. I had no idea how hard the commitment would be. It’s actually been a wake-up call as to how habitual I am to being coercive and reactionary to trying to get my own way. I have to bite my tongue incessantly. I need to constantly remind myself that this is Beth’s day and the sacrifices I’m making are actually quite minuscule. However, it becomes quickly overwhelming to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, do the dishes, clean up, research things Beth might like, always say yes without hesitation, give up the last piece of chocolate, give up the treasured window seat on the train, carry the bags, and, as a final excruciating push, finish the day watching a movie I don’t want to. It seems absurd; don’t I always want to be kind and generous with my wife? If I’m struggling to do this for 24 hours a week, what does that say about me and our relationship? It’s certainly been a humbling, illuminating few Mondays so far.
So we woke up to blue skies, snow and mountains. It was Bethday. I rolled out of bed to start the breakfast-in-bed routine for Beth. She said she wanted to take a map with her up the mountain today as she liked that it had contour lines we could follow. I suppressed my knee-jerk reaction to express the absurdity of the notion given the fact the trail was marked and we had an operable phone. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “Let’s do it the old fashioned way.” It’s Bethday after all.
We made our way a short walk up the deserted road to the trailhead. A couple of wooden cabins with trail information, markers and entrance fee prices were scattered about. It was early though and everything was closed until 9 am. Beth insisted that we pay when we return, believing that national parks should be supported financially. My reaction was that if we get there early enough then we shouldn’t have to pay – a ludicrous notion and one I kept to myself, more so because it was Bethday than the baselessness of the claim.
We started hiking up and through the trees with their snow-laden branches. The trail was exceptionally well marked, a blue triangle outlined in white was painted on to a pole or tree every 10-15 metres. On another day, I might’ve poked fun at Beth’s insistence that we bring the paper map, but it was Bethday, so I squashed the thought.
It was hovering around freezing and the ground hid below a foot or so of recently dumped snow. It was incredibly still and quiet. It was deceptively steep climbing. When we would take a brief break, my heavy exhaling seemed deafening while I puffed out icy breaths. We’d bought a whistle and, out of breath but determined, I blew it every 15-20 minutes to scare off bears. It turns out I don’t want to see a bear in the wild more than I do.
We kept going, up and up; The growing wind and stunning views hidden by the thickly coated tree’s. The more we climbed, the more densely snow-packed the tree branches became. They looked sickly, drooping heavily with their seasonal load. We occasionally overtook and were overtaken by other hikers. They were rare enough to feel comfortable peeing on the side of the trail but often enough to peek through the trees before doing so. They were all the serious looking type, head-to-toe outdoor sports brands, hiking poles, and sleek glasses. Looking at these characters and knowing this was a non-technical climb, I wondered how much worse this was going to get. I’m in reasonable shape, but after 2 hours I found myself breathless and exhausted from the incessantly steep slog. I was ready to come upon the peak. Little did I know what Ceahlau Massif had in store for us.
For a brief magical moment, we cleared the tree line and the now-gathering clouds briefly parted to display the fruits of our labour so far. We hadn’t reached the top yet but splayed out in front of us was lake Bicaz, nestled into the mountainous winter wonderland. It was spectacular scenery made all the more so because of the strain required to observe it and it’s sudden appearance – as if curtains had been quickly drawn to reveal the hikes reward. As quickly as the white curtains were drawn they abruptly shut. Clouds blocked our views but with no wind still visibility remained good up the trail.
We trudged on and reached a crossroads of sorts on the path, our nicely marked trail went off and up to the left into unending whiteness. On rocks above us to our right two hikers chatted to us from 10-15 metres away. They explained their route was the shortcut to the summit. We were tempted, but our guesthouse owner was the only person who knew where we were, and he’d advised us to take this trail. This shortcut, we speculated, went through the area where there were bear sightings recently.
We carried on our well-marked trail; Beth following enthusiastically along with her finger firmly on the paper map – Like a kid walking around the Batcave with a map; their finger on the Batmobile, looking up with excitement and anticipation at every turn. I grew more fatigued and fell further behind with each step. As we’d now cleared the tree line, the wind started growing, the snow got deeper – much deeper. We were now occasionally falling through to our hips. I was struggling as it was, now with the added effort of trying to periodically wrestle out a leg stuck in snow I was shattered.
I can’t describe the frustration when you’re struggling to put one foot in front of the other and your next step sees your left leg fall hip deep in snow while your right dangles out behind you. Each time I’d put my hands down to push myself out of the snow and would find my hands sinking in as well. It was like trying to get yourself up and off a quickly-deflating jumping castle while utterly exhausted.
After this happened the umpteenth time, I pulled myself out of the snow and fell onto my hands and knees, somewhat melodramatically. It was a brief respite from now-howling winds but my knees and hands started getting cold resting on the compacted snow. Beth powered on, turning on to excitedly encourage me. Verbal encouragement does nothing for me. In fact, it probably demotivates me as it feels patronizing; particularly as you watch your wife power up a mountain while you fumble about 15 feet below her waist deep in snow. But this was Bethday, and one doesn’t complain on Bethday. At this point, I was past complaining, I was ready to roll over and call it quits. I’d lived a good life, after all.
Thirty to forty-five minutes of this felt like weeks. But eventually, after falling and clambering multiple times more, we reached a ridge and could see a wooden lodge. Apparently, there was a restaurant inside but I had to see it to believe it – I’d struggled to get myself up here let alone enough supplies to run a profitable restaurant. I was in awe just thinking of the logistics.
For a moment I felt saved. The wind, almost eerily, disappeared and we could see clear markers all the way to salvation.
“Hooray!” I exclaimed, skipping ahead with that unexpected energy that bursts forth when the end is in sight. But right on cue, a fierce wind whipped a loose clip on my backpack into my cheek hard enough to cause me to clasp my cheek in pain; the sting intensified by the wind chill now being blasted at us sideways.
We stayed close together through the squall. The wind chill made it too cold to pull out the phone to check our location. Visibility was impossible to estimate. It felt like we were in a small white room with a low white ceiling and soft white floor with a machine blasting hurricane force winds through the room.
We walked carefully forward, hands squeezed in pockets for warmth, hunched into the wind to avoid being blown off into the abyss. After minutes, that felt like hours, we came upon a marker, we edged forward and found another marker. We pressed forward and suddenly the side of the wooden chalet stood mere metres in front of us.
The mayhem of the blizzard outside abruptly halted when we closed the door behind us. A room with 20-30 hikers sat around large communal tables slurping soup, chewing energy bars, and casually unlayering outerwear. Clothes dried on every available heater. A few heads casually turned to acknowledge our arrival but I expected a standing ovation, gradually rising from an individual slow clap in awe of our death-defying ascent. The fact they’d all done the same thing – the staff with all things needed to run a guesthouse and restaurant – didn’t register with me initially. As I crashed into a free seat, arms flaccidly hanging over the arm rests and legs sprawled out, I noticed a 2 year old running about the place. ‘How the hell did he get up here?’ I thought, exasperated. If I’d been tasked with carrying a child up here Bethday would’ve been abruptly halted halfway up the mountain. And then it dawned on me, it was Bethday, and it was only 1pm. I wasn’t even halfway through. Beth looked at me sympathetically.
“I’ll organise lunch,” she said, cutting me some slack while observing my pitiful state. The canteen style lunch was consumed at a ferocity that rendered my tastebuds incapable of assessing flavour as food flew over them. I sat comatose for half an hour, dreading the descent.
Beth collected our partially dry clothing that was now scattered around the chalet. I strapped my waterproof pants around my boots with the built-in velcro to prevent snow getting caught in my shoes and melting. We stepped back into the blizzard and my first step off the patio edge into the snow saw me plummet thigh deep, instantly ruining my carefully velcroed job. I felt snow brushing against my shins and sliding down into my shoes. I wondered if the chalet had a room for the night, or a sled that still-energetic Beth could transport me down on. I grumbled something, got up, and marched stoically into the void.
Going down made a mockery of our ascent. We took 3 hours to get up but found ourselves at the base within an hour and a half. The reason for this speedy descent was a result of the toboggan style approach we took. With the freshly-fallen snow piled high, there were clear indications on the path down that people had been sliding down on their bum. A slight tunnel-like path snaked down. We didn’t need much debating. Safety aside, we promptly sat down and joyously glided down large parts of the mountain. We passed puffing, unimpressed hikers going up. If I’d have come across this scene while hiking up, I would’ve coat hangered those coming down or merrily joined them, abandoning Bethday and the ascent.
I’d hoped to surprise Beth with a roaring hot tub situated perfectly in the snow with views over the mountains back at our guest house. Alas, they needed a few days notice to fire it up. I trudged into our room and bent over to take my shoes off. I didn’t realize my backpack was open so while bent over a full bag of mixed nuts poured over my head and all over the floor along with my water bottle which hit the floor hard enough to spill water all over the already scattered nuts. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘another successful Bethday done’.
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