28 September 2020

Carpathians' Most Beautiful Route

Every year I return to what I believe is the most beautiful route in the Carpathians. 25 km of amazing landscapes; form some of the wildest corners of the Carpathians to beautiful mountain villages.
The route follows two thirds of the Piatra Craiului Marathon route, a race that I ran twice in the past. However I enjoy it more at a slower pace that gives me time to admire the landscapes.

Last year I witnessed the height of the autumn season with such amazing colors I have never seen in other parts of the world:

The variety of spectacular landscapes along this route is amazing. Starting in the deep upper valley of Bârsa River by Plaiul Foii, the route follows a mountain stream through the forest, going up towards the impressive western rocky side of Piatra Craiului massif. 

Once it reaches the base of the cliff faces, the route continues to climb gently between the huge rocky walls and the forests below, passing the most impressive scree areas in the Carpathian Mountains (lose rocks accumulations).

The views to the west are impressive. Endless forests and majestic mountains: Iezer-Păpusa and Făgărași massifs.

The route goes then up a steep valley (Valea Urzicii) and reaches the Piatra Craiului's southern end of the ridge in Funduri Saddle. This is the highest point of the route: 1900m, which is more than 300 meters lower than the highest peak along the ridge. The route follows the ridge for a short while, then descends on the other side trough beautiful alpine meadows. Here the view opens to the east. The view is dominated in the distance by the mighty Bucegi massif.

After crossing the grassy expanses of Joaca Pass the landscape changes again. The route reaches the beautiful mountain villages of the Bran area. The views are so peaceful and picturesque! We pass by Peștera village then through Măgura village.

From Măgura village, a short descent through the forest brings us to the famous Fântăna lui Botorog water spring. Time to refresh for the last few kilometres to Zărnești town, the end of this amazing route.

The start of the route at Plaiul Foii

Below the mighty western rock faces of Piatra Craiului

On lose rocks fields - Marele Grohotis Scree

Looking west towards Făgărași Mountains

The impressive rock arch of Cerdacul Stanciului

Getting higher towards the main ridge

View from Piatra Craiului Ridge

View from Piatra Craiului Ridge

Looking south from the main ridge

On the eastern side the views open towards Bucegi Massif

Looking North-East

Eastern panorama

Shepherds Hut on the eastern side of Piatra Craiului Massif

Beware of Shepherd Dogs!

Which way?

Crossing Joaca Saddle and leaving the main ridge of Piatra Craiului behind

Joaca Saddle

The picturesque Peștera Village

The picturesque Peștera Village

The picturesque Măgura Village

Last descent

25 September 2020

Făgărași Ridge in two days

Făgărași Mountains is the most massive and the highest massif of the Romanian Carpathian Mountains. Its ridge trail is probably the most famous mountain hiking route of the Romanian Carpathians. It measures about 90 km, with over 6000 m accumulated elevation gain. The length and the altitude gain do not seem too extreme as a mountain ultra-marathon route, but the rocky trails that include a few rock climbing sections and the fact that around 70% of the route is above 2000 m altitude, makes it more difficult than it looks on paper.

A classical view towards Negoiu Peak (2535m) and Călțun lake from the ascent to Lăițel Peak

Every serious hiker or trail runner in Romania and many from abroad attempt to cover the whole length of the ridge route. The classical route starts at the West end in Turnu Roșu Village, or a bit higher by the Turnu Roșu Monastery where the tarmac road ends. This is the place where we started our speed hike/trail run. The end of the route is at Rudarița, a forest cabin, deep in a valley at the end of a forest road by the eastern end of the ridge.

My first attempt to speed-hike the ridge in 3-4 days with my good friend Nic, was in September 1994... However after a good first day we had to abandon the plan as during the following night the mountains got covered in a thick snow layer...

This time I was luckier with good stable autumn weather. Mihai, my companion planned this route in great detail, calculating the times and carefully pinpointing the locations of the water sources along the ridge. We followed the official ridge route from West to East - the classical direction. The western half of the ridge is more technical, with more rocky sections. The last 20-30km on the eastern side have much more gentle gradients and wide grassy mountain faces.

The plan was to do it in two days, speed-hiking and running around 12 hours every day and we managed to stick to the plan very well. We only had a 40 minutes delay on the last day, of which 20 minutes can be attributed to getting lost in the thick forest on the last descent.

We covered the 35 km of the first day in just a bit over 11 hours. The rocky terrain meant that the progress was quite slow, but we have planned for this.

We did an overnight stop at Bâlea Chalet/Hotel, which is conveniently located around the middle point of the route technically speaking. The Chalet is located just by the Transfăgărășan Road, an alpine road that crosses the mountains. This means that even thought the chalet is located high in the mountains, it offers the full comfort of a 2-3 star hotel. So we had a good warm shower, a good sleep, a plentiful dinner and a good breakfast.

Second day we had a 55km route that we covered in less than 13 hours. The start was slow due to the rocky terrain, but the last half of the day had great "runnable" trails on grassy alpine meadows.

On the grassy gentle slopes of the eastern section of the ridge

We used mountain/trail running equipment, including hiking poles. The running rucksacks weighted just 4-5 kg at start, including the water. The unusually warm and dry weather meant that we did not have to carry heavy and warm clothes. We had some warm clothes - woolen shirt, rain/wind jackets, gloves, long trousers, etc. but we hardly needed them. It is worth noticing that the weather can be very unpredictable up there and that it can snow at any time of the year. However, autumn is the most likely time of the year to have a few sunny stable weather days in a row, as we had.

How do we measure with others? We did not aim to set any record. The target was to complete it safely it in two daytime stages... and we just did that! Under 24 hours (11+13) of hiking, plus a night break is not a bad performance. 

Average hikers do it in 6-7 days, often carrying heavy rucksack with tents and lots of equipment. Good hikers with lighter rucksacks including sleeping bags (for sleeping in mountain refuge huts) do it in 3-4 days. Fastest hikers manage to just do it in two days. Best trail runners, usually with the help of a support team supplying them with water and food in 2-3 places along the ridge can do it in one go.

What is the record? Well, almost twice as fast:

Fastest known time on Făgăraș Ridge:

2020 Sept 5: Mitrică Leonard and Andrei-Gabriel Preda 

Previous records:

2019 Oct 19: Robert Hajnal: 

2015 July 13: Silviu Bălan

Previous record attempts are mentioned here:

Could I do it faster? Maybe in one go? Yes... but not sure I want to do it. Now that we know the route better, we could optimise it, with fewer detours to water sources, no photography stops, better training and physical preparation... 

Here are my two days as recorded by Strava:

And the consolidated GPS track:

Here are more photos taken during the two days. All taken wit an average phone. As I tries to minimise the weight of the gear I carried, I did not take a serious photo camera. However the fully automated mode (including auto HDR did a decent job. Just minimal post-processing adjustments were needed)

Out of the Forest on the ascent to the peaks

Avrig Lake

Custura Sărății - the most technical section of the ridge

Looks scarier than it is. On dry weather with good shoes it is quite safe!

Descending on Custura Sărății

Negoiu Peak - 2535m. The highest point of the main ridge

Resting on Negoiu Peak

"On the Rocks" - descending to Călțun Lake

Descending to Bâlea Lake for the overnight break

Morning on the run... descending to Capra Lake

Capra Lake

Podul Giurgiului Lake

Descending from Viștea Mare Peak (2527m) - Moldoveanu Peak, the highest in Romania, 2544m, is nearby, 20 minutes south off the main ridge. We've been there with other occasions, no time today...

Descending to Fereastra Mare a Sâmbetei saddle

Urlea Lake

The team

Flying across the alpine grassy expanses

Fresh trail markings

Custura Sărății saddle. The only place along the main ridge under 2000m

The evening is approaching. Let's get running!

The impressive Piatra Craiului Ridge seen in the evening light from the last major peak on the Făgărași Ridge - Comisu Peak.