The lake rested peacefully below us with only a rare fish here and there, once in a while, breaking the surface and creating slowly disappearing waves.
“Maybe we could drive even further,” said Jyri.
We had no idea of how and where to the road lead. He turned towards me, pointed above, and continued: “I’d like to go there.” He was talking about the mountains surrounding us.
“There are people there, can you see?” he suddenly asked.
I looked around, but saw no living soul in the general direction.
“Look at the clouds,” I said in turn.
Clouds gathered at the top of the mountain opening in front of us. They seemed to roll over the rocky sides like cigar smoke on a wall in a windless place. The condensate air swung white puffs upwards, along the sides, while the white beasts moved towards us, over the ridge.
“Where?” I asked. I hadn’t seen the people Jyri had referred to.
“There on the slope,” He insisted. We were talking in Finnish. “There are many and they are coming down. There is a way.”
I looked along his pointed finger. On the slope, where the ground squeezed between two steep rising structures and where the ground itself looked like a spot where water comes down on spring on floods bringing the soft ground among it, there were some people. The ground was more broken than elsewhere. Elsewhere was green. Yeah, downwards, I thought, but upwards suicidal. Look, there is no one ascending there.
“Crazy people,” I said.
Jyri kept looking over my shoulder. His eyes were fixed on the mountain side. His head swung slowly back and forth as he was thinking.
“You know what,” he started, and I knew that voice instantly: “We have to go there. I have broken already one height record today, and I want to break another.”
I looked at him. He had his face and it was like his voice. That face of his which cannot be mistaken. He had made up his mind. It was done deal. There was no speaking him over of it.
“That’s frigging high.” I said in a defensive tone. “It’s gonna take us ages. And please note,” I continued, “that it’s all covered in clouds. We cannot see shit there. It’s no use and it’s not gonna be pleasant.”
“The clouds are moving,” he said. “We will see perfectly well when we are there. It will clear.”
I sipped the coffee which was left in the cup. It was cold. I excused myself and left for the restroom. Some time to think, I guess.
When I came back, Jyri had paid the bill. We were leaving.
“Let’s go!” he said and snatched the half a liter of water we had in a bottle – which turned out to be all of our baggage on this trip.
We left the cafeteria which laid halfway over the high altitude lake, left foot under the water, behind us. Some hundred meters later we had reached the start – the point in which the ascent started like a foot of a table – solid and vertical.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
The slope not just seemed suicidal, it felt too. We had climbed the whole yesterday up a mountain side and this morning we had come the same way down. We had slept badly, like dogs, in a tent in short intervals, lying awake half the night. I wore a thin collar with a clubbing jacket over it, closable only with one button, and Jyri had a pair of short pants with a warm autumn jacket over it.
It looked chilly up there. We estimated the trip to cost us half an hour to climb up – Up to that visible point above the broken ground and between the rolling clouds. Then another half an hour to slide back down to the lake.
“Do you need something like a chocolate bar?” He asked.
“Nah, it’s okay,” was the answer.
There was nothing else left than to start climbing.
The slope was relatively easy at first and there were lots of traffic. Where did all these people come from? There were many coming down, all looking more or less exhausted. Like that woman, with his boyfriend, a couple Jyri asked if it was worth it. Her instant answer was “No”, scaring even the nerdy looking boyfriend.
Some joined us in the race to the top, but not many and no one looked serious enough to challenge the hill, like for example those hip high kids with their fathers pushing themselves over the stones with raging strength, only with their motivation, all in the game, until they would tire and stop on their tracks. It felt like there was a certain comradeship among the hikers and nearly everyone saluted us or we saluted them first. We exchanged some words and learnt that maybe every other there was a foreigner, every other native. A big mixed group from France and a threegirl team from Germany passed us on the slope. Many local couples had taken the track, both young and old.
The way was indeed easier at first, although a hard one nevertheless. It was made lighter, however, by the allowing room for zig-zag-like walking, taking advance of walking longer and thus ascending slower, making it time consuming but relatively inexhausting. We also made many pauses.
At the midway the slope got really steep – Really steep. At times we were on all fours, fair and square, against the so called “path”. We made frequent pauses for Jyri to take pictures, and for me to start feeling the primitive acrophobic chills to creep up my spine.
The landscape was one big good example of height, there was no questioning of that, being abundant of signs pointing straight into the eye. Everything looked small, the horizon was only either hundreds of meters above or below our level. We were high, literally.
On all fours we climbed and dragged our exhausted feet among us. The way never narrowed, but broke into grass-bare mud and big rocks. The chosen ground was wet and slippery to step or a half a meter high stone step to jump along. Jyri was slower. I was on the lead.
On the top
All of a sudden we were there, on the top. Finally – or so we thought. I stopped to take a breath and to wait for Jyri to reach me so that we could climb the last meters together. We seemed to have reached a kind of a saddle point between two peaks. In front of us opened an equally grassy and rocky plateau as the slope behind us had been. It descended towards a perfectly still lake like the one where we had spent our afternoon at, although this was much bigger. Behind the lake was a huge white cross, a monument of some kind. We never knew what it was or why – it was too far away.
Around this were mountains, ridges, and peaks, their gray sides embraced by clouds of varying size and thickness. There were no trees here, not on the ridges nor on the sides or on the plateau. Only available plants were the all-enduring knee-high stunted fern-resembling grasses which slowly turned on the afternoon sun, and whose leathery wings swung in the strong winds. These plants covered all areas where solid rocks gave away. Here, there, and everywhere as far as the visibility permitted. Kilometers away. We were above the tree line alright.
We walked towards the partly visible lake until the ground started to descent too deep. Then we turned back and returned a bit. There we stood at a crossroads. We waked to people walking on our side above us and in the distance over the newly discovered lake.
There were printed signs hanging on a pole.
“This is not it,” said Jyri after a while. “It’s not the top, it’s not enough. Look, we are now at the altitude of only two thousand and three hundred meters.” He pointed at a sign.
I said that the altitude was perfectly fine by me. The view was astonishing already as the sky had cleared before we had reached the top, and there would be no further benefit in continuing any further. I reminded Jyri that yesterday we had climbed only up to thirteen hundred meters. In addition, as we had risen, I had sweat, the sweat had dried, and the cool fast wind made my physical presence borderline miserable.
“No, it’s not enough.”
“There – we have to go there like them,” said Jyri and pointed towards the slow-moving hikers above us. “This is only the halfway and we need to continue. We cannot quit now.”
“Well, I am not one of those hipsters who have to prove someone something by reaching a certain level of measure, like in this case, the highest possible spot,” I protested again. “I only do what I consider interesting enough.” I looked up. “But we can continue if you really want.”
“I do. I have broken only two personal altitude records on this trip. I need a third. I need a closure. We have to go.”
Fair enough so we set forth again. It was straight to the top at first – kind the opposite of the first slope – after which we hit a path in the grass. It was a pathway formed by continuous setting of feet on the grass mowing the stones visible over time, little by little. The stones were flat, like chipped of a bigger one, like you chip wood with an axe when you make a camp fire. They were flat and slippery like red bricks in a rain on top of old farmhouses. It took a whole body of muscles to tense and relax simultaneously and sequentially to hike on them. I felt pain on my shoulders and back.
We followed the route and never set a foot outside it again. It was practically impossible. The landscape was unworkable, it would have turned into a crawl. The stroke was drawn on to the side of a fabulous mountain peak rising on our left. We didn’t head toward it but along it, relatively flat and light. It wasn’t that hard.
It was scary.
The side was like a huge sandpit, a kilometers long pauseless convex. Below us was at least hundred meters of thin air. It was an opening. A straight roll down. There was nothing, just this knee-high plant material. A free fall with kicks. A bit of a slope offering a hope, a softening undergrowth, like a garden, a mattress of flowers. Maybe a secure hold here and there, and come on, it was secure twenty centimeters – at least – space before the edge and stepping out, and you could still stand there, if you didn’t lose you balance before, so maybe… but still, if you goner, you gone. A step aside and you’d roll down like a baby in a rubbish chute. Down to the lake and if you alive – you’d drown.
We felt like hobbits crossing the Middle Earth. Harsh wind blew from behind us, biting our skin. We lost our sense of distance. Short looking stretches turned suddenly yet invariably into never-ending rises, rocks and cliffs. Along with the sense of distance went the sense of height and all of it finally blurred the sense of time. We were ants floating on ocean, sizeless objects in a universe too huge to grasp with our mortal souls.
Another saddle point
After marching the way God knows how long, we reached another saddle point. This one was naturally higher than the first one and also sharper – shaped like an edge of a saw, sharply rising and falling. Right after reaching the top the ground turned sharply down almost vertically. The fall was dozens if not hundreds of meters long. Where the ground finally flattened was visible a dried up bond or a lake. It seemed frozen, or maybe it was salt like Jyri insisted. There was no flat ground between the two sides of the ridge we reached. The peak whose side we had climbed here was now directly behind us as the pathway now laid directly on the just reached mountain edge.
We ascended towards the next peak directly along the edge. This was our peak – visibly higher than any other of the surrounding hills. Its top had been covered in thick cloud ever since we arrived into the point with signs, so we couldn’t know how long we had left. Jyri decided that if this was just another saddle point midway, we would give up, stop the hike, and go back down.
“Man, this may continue forever.” It was Jyri’s time to be skeptical.
“C’moon, we’ve come this far already. Let’s go.”
Some local help
“It’s not this, it’s that one,” said a Romanian man in Romanian and pointed towards a bare rocky structure. We had reached a point where the edge divided into two parts, left and right, leaving an independent slope straight ahead of us. The left stretch had a notch directly where it started, a hole punched out the edge, like an embrasure on city walls. It was two meters long, a side out the same wide, and several so high. Nothing grew in there. Not even grass.
The man who had suddenly appeared descended down the right hand side peak, immediately followed by his two male companions. We exchanged some greetings and directions, after which it was imminent that we would need to cross the notch on the left. It was the correct way and would lead us to the highest spot, to the end of the reach. We now realized the blue and white spots which also directed us towards and over this strange moat-like formation. The hill was almost vertical on both sides of the slot, and although theoretically possible because of many a foothold, we refused to even consider the possibility to leave the so called path. We were both acrophobic enough to feel the chills down our spine without trying – Heck, we felt the fear just by standing on this mountain side in perfect safety.
“I’ll wait here, I’m not coming.”
Only two of the troikka continued. They preceded me and Jyri and for a moment offered us the privilege of an example. One of the men seemed to be a bit more experienced in this mountaineering business and he indeed took the very lead. The other unnamed Romanian followed suit. Then came us.
We reached for the bottom of the moat on all fours. Our legs – mine at least – trembled like a flagpole hit by a car. The wind blew now continuously from our side. It penetrated my thin tweed jacket and stroke its freezing teeth on my skin. We reached the bottom of this unusual pit – Now we had to crawl the opposite wall back up. A wall it indeed was. Some three meters high and hundred percent vertical, accessible only on the right-most spot on the two by two meters flat bottom of the notch. The position gave the pleasure of having some dozens of meters high free fall directly under your right foot while climbing. One did so by stepping on the flat appendages of the wall and by simultaneously gripping the uppermost and sharpest rocks by both hands. It was no wonder that the third man gave up. Climbing it down later proved to be more interesting, but we weren’t there yet.
Visibility was now around twenty-thirty meters left and right. We stood there at the very top edge of the mountain. Several hundred meters downfall waited for us mere meters away on both sides of us. There was nothing to lay your hand on. Nothing to stabilize oneself – except sitting on the ground. The path, if there was one, was now directly at the top of the hill. Only thing to do was to walk along the mountaintop for a few dozens of meters and – we had reached our destination.
On top of the world
There we stood, all four of us. Two Finns and two Romanians. The very very top was about five by five meters – or five, six meters in diameter, as the top surface resembled one of those decorative balls on a stall at a corner of a wooden bed. The surface descended slowly but surely towards the edgeless rand.
In the middle of the area there was a stone like those plaques at the feet of a statue, describing the purpose of the monument. It was decorated with a small gold-ribboned Romanian flag.
Jyri bowed down and read out loud: “Vanatorealui Buteanu, two thousand five hundred and seven meters.”
The most experienced looking man of the other two told us that this was one of the top ten highest peaks in the country. Ninth highest, maybe, he wasn’t sure. We all took some pictures of course and had a bit of a chat. They told us they were on a mission to climb all the ten highest peaks – all of which were more than two thousand and five hundred meters above the sea level.
The feeling at the top of that mountain, peak, and on that surface… it was unique. This fear, this vague but omnipresent fear which did not leave. A creepy gut feeling which cast its shadow over our shoulders, it hang in the air, took notice on every step. No matter if one sat on the stone in the middle, one couldn’t get rid of it. It was there even if we couldn’t see down properly. The visibility didn’t reach much further than the immediate air around the top. The peak was covered in thick mist save the path where we had come. The side of this ball – it couldn’t be left unnoticed – the slope and the descend – it was almost vertical and definitely unclimbable. The ball and the visible ground together with it seemed to hang in the air.
Leaving it all behind
After some ten minutes we were ready and set to leave it all behind. Our descending now began. We had just walked back to the notch when the sky suddenly cleared and we saw the very top of the peak in all its glory – the mountains, the ridges, the valley beneath it – all of it, all what one can see from on the top of the world. There were two circular rainbows which I’ve never seen, and we took a lot of pictures.
We met the third native where we had left him. By now the sun was already moving towards the distant horizon. The leader of the Romanian fellowship estimated it to take us until seven to return back to Bâlea lac where we all had started.
Goddamit. We would be in a hurry.