24 August 2013

Adventures on Piatra Craiului Ridge

Two weeks ago I did a reconnaissance hike in Piatra Craiului mountains on the north section of the main ridge, from Turnu Peak to La Om Peak. The grander plan is to hike along the whole ridge from Turnu peak until Funduri Saddle in an one day speed hiking tip. On good weather with good training and light equipment, it is a totally reasonable tour.
Piatra Craiului Ridge as seen from the East from Bucegi Mountains - Photo taken on 20th of October 2012
So yesterday, 23rd of August 2013, together with Cristian, an experienced trail runner and orienteering sportsman we set out to do the ridge hike. I wasn't convinced that it is the best day for this trip as the evening before it rained in Brasov and the weather forecast announced more rains for the next day, especially in the afternoon. However, the cooler weather was perfect for this trip.

I had a very light equipment. No camera and no GPS device. The GPS is of not much use on the ridge anyway. The camera would slow me down and reduce my concentration during this technical hike. All the photos posted here were taken during the hike I did on the same route two weeks before.

I had a small and light backpack. The most important items in the backpack were two bottles that contained 2.5 liters of water and isotonic drink; there are no water sources on the ridge! Then I had a bit of food with me: a few whole bread slices, hard cheese, an energy bar, and a chocolate tablet. I made sure that I ate very well the evening before and in the morning, so my batteries were fully loaded...

In the backpack I also had a tubular Buff headgear and an ultralight rain jacket. Additionally I had a very small first aid kit; and of course, my telephone!
On me I had normal trail running equipment: trail running shoes, t-shirt, tight shorts and a white running cap.
View from the rocky ridge of  Piatra Craiului, on the steeper west side
In the morning, I checked the webcam on Cheile Gradistei resort. This webcam shows the whole ridge of Piatra Craiului. The whole mountain was visible, with a thin layer of clouds high above the ridge. It looked quite promising. My hope was to finish the hike along the ridge before the forecasted afternoon rain...
Piatra Craiului Carnation (Dianthus callizonus) - an endemic plant to Piatra Craiului Mountains
We started the ascent from Prapastiile Zarnestilor, a spectacular deep gorge near Zarnesti town. The weather was cool and very calm, although there was a bit of humidity in the air. We reached the main ridge on Turnu Peak, at 1823m altitude in 1h45.

On the way up to the peak, in a forest clearing, just before the first cables of the trail we almost met a bear. We heard a short bark like sound, from the thick bush, about 40 meters ahead of us. The sound was immediately followed by the noise of breaking tree branches as the creature that produces the noise retreated deep in the forest. Judging by the noises it must have been a large and heavy creature, most likely a bear. Of course, we stopped on the trail and made some more noise to inform the bear that we are there. I guess that the bear knew very well that there was a touristic path as it disappeared quickly out of our way.
The forest clearing where we almost met the bear
Turnu Peak is considered the northern most peak of the main ridge. From here we started the walk to the south, along the ridge. It is a very varied hike that makes one use all of his muscles... Although not terribly technical on good weather, the ridge has many rocky sections where one must use the arms to climb up or down. The trail goes up and down along the ridge, getting gradually higher and higher until it reaches La Om Peak, the highest peak in Piatra Craiului Mountain (2238m). This peak also marks the limit between the northern and the southern sections of the ridge.
The ridge as seen from Turnu Peak
As we hiked along the ridge, the weather was calm and cool. It was sunny down in the valley, but up here we were unxder a thin layer of clouds. There was perfect visibility along the entire length of the ridge. Just perfect conditions for hiking: dry, cool and windless. After hiking about half of the ridge, when approaching La Om peak, we heard the rumble of a thunder in the distance. It was to the north, behind us. Then every few minutes a new thunder. It did not sound that bad so we continued our hike ahead on the ridge. In fact we had no much choice but to hurry up ahead to la Om peak, where we had the closest escape path down from the ridge. So we would decide there if we continue or retreat from the ridge.
On the north ridge. In the distance La Om peak (2238m)
When we got close to the peak, a few drops of rain started to fall. Then... surprise! I could see a lightning strike just ahead of us, no more than 500 meters away. It struck close to the peak. Cristian who was 30-50 meters ahead told me that just before the strike, he felt his hair rising. That made him to immediately go lower, below the ridge. We both knew that the ridge is the worst place to be in a thunder storm. It did not look like a serious thunderstorm, but it did not feel safe at all to be on the ridge! We hurried ahead to the peak where the descending path starts.

After I returned home I did a little research about lightning strikes on the Internet... It was quite terrifying to see that if your hair raises it means that there is a lot of electrical charge in the cloud above and a lightning strike is imminent!

As we walked fast towards the peak, another lightning stroke; this time even closer to us. We now had a grassy slope below the ridge so we could immediately get lower. We walked on the grassy slope round the peak until we met the descending path. When we reached the path we rushed down the mountain. We could hear a few more thunders from the summit, but lower on the mountain slope it felt much safer.

We met two hikers going up to the summit. We told them to abandon the hike at least until the weather gets better. They looked at us in disbelief. We were just 200 meters below the peak, and here it did not look too bad... It started to rain a bit, but the visibility was good, no fog, no wind, the clouds were higher than the mountain and the thunders seemed away.
The ridge as seen from Vladusca pastures on the eastern side
As we descended it started to rain quite hard. Soon we reached  Grind refuge, which is located at the edge of the forest. A few foreign hikers were also sheltering here from the rain. We just stopped for a couple of minutes, until the rain eased. Then we continued to run downhill to La Table cross-roads point, and from there back to Prapastiile Zarnestilor, where at the lower end was Cristian's car.  We ran the 8 or so kilometers until the car at a comfortable pace in less than one hour. Lower the valley the ground was dry. It did not rain here! A bit lower, in the town of Zarnesti it was sunny!
Down in Prapastiile Zarnestilor Gorge
We completed the hike in 6h15 including all breaks. We missed the southern section of the ridge, meaning that we did the same route as I did on the hike two weeks before. However this time we did it at a much faster pace. I think that given the weather conditions it was the best choice to abandon the hike along the ridge. The southern section of the ridge is very rocky with steep rocky sides so in case of a storm there is no place to shelter and no easy way to go lower. I felt a bit sorry that we could not continue, as I felt very well and I knew that I would have no problems to complete the whole planned hike.

Next time when going up on the ridge, I have to be more careful about the weather forecast. In fact, thunder storms and lightning strikes are one of my biggest worries on the high exposed mountains. This time I thought that we could finish the hike before the afternoon rain that was forecasted... well, once again, the mountain showed us that we should not push our luck and that we should pay attention to everything that the mountain is telling us!

This year I plan to visit Piatra Craiului again on the 5th of October when I want to take part in the Piatra Craiului Marathon race. In the meanwhile, who knows, on a clear weekend day, maybe I will attempt the ridge hike again.