Ice axe optional. Maybe

Alex Wade tackles the Transylvanian alps
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The Independent Travel

Standing waist-deep in snow, on the precipitous slope of a Transylvanian mountain in early March, is not a place I ever expected to be discussing politics. But in Romania, politics is everywhere. "In the morning I shot Ceausescu, in the afternoon I shot him, and then in the evening I shot him again."

I was so tired that for a moment I took this literally. Was my mountain guide the man who had killed Romania's tyrannical former leader, Nicolae Ceausescu? Ceausescu's 25-year dictatorship had ended with his execution on Christmas Day in 1989, as revolution swept Eastern Europe's long-suffering Communist countries. But quite who pulled the trigger and put paid to Ceausescu - and his wife, Elena - remains a mystery.

Andrei Beleaua, my guide, did not seem the type. A modest, calm man, he was the first Romanian to climb the north face of the Eiger, in 1993, and is known as an accomplished climber in European mountaineering circles. He now spends his time taking clients into the Fagaras range in southern Transylvania, or, indeed, any of Romania's stunning mountain ranges, which he has also mapped extensively. But it was not always so.

"The mountains were the only place we could come to talk," he says, turning to me midway through our ascent of Fereastra Mare (2,188m), the "Big Window" on the main ridge of the Fagaras. For most of his life Andrei worked as an electrical engineer for a state-owned company in Bucharest, where, under the Ceausescu regime, communication about anything beyond the strictly routine was prohibited. Such was the fear of the seemingly ubiquitous Securitate that even family members took care with what they said to one another. In the mountains, though, Andrei and his friends were free. They could walk and climb for a weekend. And - perhaps more importantly - they could say what they liked.

Much as I enjoy talking to Andrei about life in Romania, pre-and-post revolution, he is a professional mountaineer, and I am not. In white-out conditions on the Fereastra Mare ascent, in heavy snow, I was more preoccupied with not slipping to my death than pondering the obvious metaphor of the mountains as a symbol of freedom. Just as I began thinking that it was time to save our chat about Ceausescu for the cabana at the end of the day, we heard voices in the mist below. The presence of anyone else on the mountain gave us a mystery to unravel. Sure, the cabana we had left early that morning had been packed with Romanians, but they had walked the three hours from the valley below to get there for a weekend skiing competition (minus ski-lifts and Alpine accoutrements, but with two feet of pristine snow). We had not seen anyone kitted out for mountaineering.

But seven Romanian students had decided to follow the steps cut by Andrei and me and make their own ascent of Fereastra Mare. One by one they staggered into view, and one or two of them looked far from happy. No wonder - they had one ice axe between them, a couple of ski sticks, no ropes and, save for their leader, Alex, wore little more than jeans, jumpers and ordinary shoes.

Earlier in the week, Andrei and I had trekked in the Piatra Craiului mountains, another southern Carpathian range in Transylvania. Leaving his car at the small town of Zarnesti, we had walked up through an eerily still forest, drenched in snow, to the Cabana Curmatura. The cabana lies some 500m beneath the main Piatra Craiului ridge, and, save for its guardian, was deserted. Next day we had spent 11 hours traversing peaks on the ridge, breathtakingly beautiful in the thick snow and popular with walkers of all nationalities in the summer. We had not seen a soul. This was Romania in late winter, and, as Andrei's own guide books point out, many of the routes we were taking were suitable only for experienced mountaineers.

I did not put myself in that category, being more of a "have-a-go-Englishman", but the sight of Alex and his followers made me think that maybe Everest wasn't such a fantasy. The pioneering British Alpinists of Victorian times had been better equipped. I ask Andrei whether it was normal to find groups of poorly kitted-out Romanians halfway up a mountain in dangerous conditions. "It happens," he says, "but each year there are many disasters. I am not sure they know what they are doing."

This was a typically Andrei-esque understatement. Alex himself evidently had some ability on mountains, but the others had come for the impromptu disco in the evening, not to test their nerve on The Big Window. Somehow or other, though, they all made it to the top, and - always more of a feat in climbing - back down again, too.

That night in the Cabana Sambatei was my last in the mountains. Not for the first time, Andrei and I talked politics before going down to the main room, which filled up with about 50 Romanians as the evening wore on. Most had walked up for a ski competition, others had come for easier walks in the surrounding Alpine forest. Music was blaring from a portable stereo that someone had hauled to the cabin. Valentin, the guardian, had soon served the last of his stock of beer, but no matter - the Romanians drank from water bottles containing everything but water.

It was set to be a long night, but before Andrei could make his excuses Alex had approached him, pen and paper in one hand, bottle of wine in the other. Valentin had told him who Andrei was, and Alex was mortified. How dare he march past one of Romania's most celebrated mountaineers, with a collection of underclad novices in tow? With profuse apologies he asked for Andrei's autograph, and proffered the wine.

As ever, Andrei was modesty itself. The wine was opened and autographs given. Romanians are known for their love of a good party, and even at 5.30am songs were still being sung, although the cadences of Romanian - a Romance language like French or Italian - were now decidedly off-key.

Next morning I made my farewells to Valentin and the many friendly Romanians I had met. "Come back in the summer," they suggested. "There is hardly any snow, the skies are blue and the flowers are in bloom. You can walk the whole Fagaras ridge."

At over 80km of peaks and rough terrain, the Fagaras ridge is not for the faint-hearted. But as I cast one last look at Fereastra Mare, and the adjacent Little Matterhorn (which really does look like the Matterhorn's younger brother), I thought: "Why not?"

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE: British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has daily flights to Bucharest from Heathrow, with return fares starting at around £165. In summer the Trans-Fagaras highway is open for cars and buses; the towns of Fagaras and Zarnesti are good bases for trekking and climbing.

GETTING AROUND: For a local mountain guide contact, Andrei Beleaua: (belalpin@fx.ro or 00 40 1 684 0579)

STAYING THERE: Executive Wilderness Programmes (EWP) (01550 721319; www.ewpnet.com) runs trekking trips to Romania. The next trip departs 10 July and costs around £750 for 15 days including return flights to Romania, transport, food and accommodation.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For more information, contact the Romanian tourist board (020-7224 3692 or visit www.romaniatourism.com).

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