The Expedition

(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian press here)

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The mountain had always exerted an unexplainable attraction on Peter Pavel, starting from the most obscure memories of the unconsciousness up to the most conscious appreciation for some photographs. Peter lived throughout his youth in a ten floors building, in a busy neighborhood in Cluj, he had as landscape the floors of the buildings in front of his. Yesterday was his 18th birthday and he had received the best gift ever: a full expedition kit. Tent, backpack, sleeping bag, safety boots, compass and even a small, but strong, binocular. Moreover, his parents’ permission to go on the mountain this summer! You’re old enough now, they told him. I’m ready, it’s true! He replied. Peter was an only child, and his parents believed that it was their duty to provide him with the best education and to prepare him for life as good as they could. Mens sana in corpore sano, his father, John Pavel, told him, when he would wake him up in the morning to do his exercises. Ever since he was little he accustomed him with the cold shower which cuts one’s eye-teeth. They would carefully supervise his readings, games and other fun activities were only allowed after a pre-established schedule: in life you must be organized, his father used to say. His mother, Maria Pavel, a music teacher, introduced him to the mysteries of the piano and of musical notes, which he learned to read before the alphabet. Before he got into high school, Peter Pavel believed all this was natural. He was accustomed to it, to his schedule; his performance meat his parents’ expectancies. And the three family members were happy.

The mountain was what caused the Pavel family’s first crisis. After he succeeded to be the first on the high school admission list, Peter wanted to go on the mountain for the holiday, with his colleagues. His parents were truly terrified by his request. They did not love the mountain. They considered it to be dangerous, cold and dark. They preferred the sea, that is why they spent every vacation at Costinesti-village, where they had their own small holiday house, which they would rent out when they were not on vacation. But for a few weeks, every year it was theirs, unmistakably. Peter loved the sea, no doubt about it, but now he had discovered the mountain, his forbidden mystery. He thought he had earned it, but his parents thought otherwise. There are bears everywhere, his father tried to convince him to give up. And the steeps are ready to grab you into their hollows, his mother continued. Peter wasn’t convinced, all my former colleagues are going, he said, so they had to simply forbid it. You don’t have the necessary skills yet, his father said. After you finish the Xth grade we will start talking about it.

And, in order to get him prepared, his parents decided, after he finished the IXth grade to enroll him in the club “The mountain’s friends”. So that he would first learn what the mountain is all about, what are the dangers and how he can beware of them. Peter was happy with this start, although he hated them for their exaggerated caution. They didn’t do it for spite, he told Joachim, his best friend. It is just that they love me too much and they are afraid that something might happen to me. He understood them and he forgave them. For three years he undertook a theoretical study of the mountains, both Romanian ones and otherwise. He prepared himself marching for hours through the hills from inside and around the town – he even gave up public transportation, if he had to go anywhere, he would go by foot. Since he was first in his class throughout high school, his parents were convinced that his new passion would not make him place school and education second on his priority list. That is why they bought him an entire kit of things he would need in his summer expedition, for which they gave their permission. The condition was, of course, for him to finish school the same way, to pass his exams with top grades and, moreover, to get into college. But nobody doubted things would go otherwise.

On his 18th birthday, a lot of colleagues, boys and girls, were in Peter Pavel’s apartment. After he opened his wonderful gift, they started planning the expedition’s itinerary. Let’s go to the Apuseni Mountains, said one of them. No, said Peter. We will go to Fagaras Mountains. But it is your first expedition, tried Joachim. I’m ready to climb Mount Everest, Peter joked. Then Fagaras be it, they decided. Five was the final number of those who wanted to go on the expedition, three boys and two girls. They stayed and had fun until all other colleagues left. Then they got down to work. They planned a daring expedition; their wish was to go along the entire edge of the Fagaras Mountains, from West to East, to conquer both peaks. The other four had once been up to Simbata’s Fereastra Mare, but it was the first time they aimed for Moldoveanu and Negoiu. August would be the most appropriate month, Joachim thought. We can leave on 8, 9 and finish the expedition at Simbata Monastery on 13, 14. We will be there on the 15th for St. Mary’s Holiday. I’ve never been there for St. Mary, said Ioana. I’ve heard it is quite a celebration… I was there once, when I was little, said Mircea. My grandfather took me; he used to go every year, by foot. It is true that he lived relatively close, in a village at Mount Fagaras’ feet, but he still had some tens of km to go. I felt the road was endless, but so was the magic of the celebration and of the monastery as well.

School days were almost over. For parents, emotions. The exams that laid in front of their son, although they were convinced that the results will match the difficulty, they were still worried, especially during the dark nights when the silence outside would exaggerate their thoughts. They had gotten used to Peter’s choice. I will study philosophy, he told them. His mother would have liked to see him become a pianist or conductor, but she felt that music was only a hobby for Peter, not a vocation, so she resigned. His father would have liked for him to study literature, as he did, or law. You will make an extraordinary lawyer, he told him. It’s not for me, believe me, he answered. He convinced them relatively easy. If philosophy won’t take me anywhere, I can still chose a different college, even Law School.

And he managed. He had straight “A”s at his exams and got into college on top of the list. He was satisfied, his parents were proud. He was waiting anxiously for August to come. He was constantly preparing himself while his parents were spreading the news about his exam results.

Two weeks before their leave, Lolita, as friends liked to cuddle her, called him. Peter, I can no longer go on the mountain. My grandmother is very ill, they warded her last night and I must, I want to! stay by her side. Everybody felt sorry, but this didn’t stop them. Ioana pulled back as well when she heard the news. Without Lolita I can no longer go, she said sadly. My parents won’t allow it for me to go on the mountain alone, with three boys. But I will convince them to go to Simbata and I will meet you there. It’s just us, guys, said Peter to his two friends, Joachim and Mircea. They were a little disappointed, but also a little relieved. Now we can stand up to bears, Mircea joked. But not to she-bears, Joachim accompanied him. Let’s see the route again said Peter seriously. We will get to Sibiu in the evening. We will get a good night sleep, because the next day we will have to climb heavily. We will bed at the Suru cabin. From here, next day, we will head towards the Negoiu cabin, where we will spend the second night. Early in the morning we will start climbing towards the peak. Again we have to climb spunkily, because up to Bilea the road is rather long. The third day and the third night. From here on to Podragu, where we will stop again, to rest before we take on Moldoveanu. Afterwards we will stop at Valea Simbetei cabin for the last night on the edge. Finally, the next day we will climb down, relaxed, to the monastery. Wonderful, cried the other two.

During the next days they went shopping. Tins, bread, fruits. The minimum, plus a little extra. The clothes were prepared, ready to be packed. Little by little the backpack is filled and it becomes heavy. It is always too heavy, but it is the only way you can feel you are going on the mountain, said Joachim. Don’t forget the camera, said Maria Pavel to her son. We want to see what you’ve admired as well. Peter did not forget it, he had saved some room for it, on top, to be at hand.

One day before they left, when everything was ready, some news disrupted their preparations, the Suru cabin burned down. We can no longer take that road, said Mircea. Faith stole our start, Joachim continued with his eyes in tears. We will choose a different road, said Peter decisive. We will start from Cluj, we will take the morning train to Sibiu, we will take the economy train to Fagaras and we will continue our track Bircaciu-Negoiu. Yes, and this way we will try the famous Bircaciu tea, said Joachim. This works as well, they decided.

The night before their leave, Peter slept a dog sleep. He was very nervous, more than ever. His dream was finally coming true. He was feeling as if this time he would do something truly important: not reaching the highest peaks in the country, being at a certain moment higher than all Romanians, but following his soul’s wish, which was as alive as the mountain. That is why he woke up before the alarm clock rang, he took a shower, he got dressed, and with his backpack on his shoulder he greeted his parents. After he met the other two, all three headed towards the railway station. They had booked their tickets in advance so they managed to escape the cram at the booking office. The train left only one minute late. A good start, said Peter. And, may God be with us, in his mind. He didn’t realize the time passing until Sibiu, as he was rapt. There, in the railway station, the eternal jostle. People from all over, heading to wherever. They still had half an hour to wait for the economy train, so they went on the deck outside, they each bought themselves a bottle of juice and sat underneath the umbrella that protected them from the burning sun. The weather is perfect, said Mircea. Let’s hope it will keep up, continued Joachim. The economy train had started according to schedule. In Avrig, the three young men descended and headed towards the mountain. The forest road was circulated by trucks so it was not difficult for them to hitchhike for a few kilometers. From there on the climbing begun.

Joachim took over, leading the way and setting the pace. Peter was in the middle and Mircea was last in the close order formation. There was no hurry, so they maintained a slow pace, to find their rhythm. The first day is very important, it is important not to get muscle fever, said Mircea. Every now and then, after periods of time which got larger and larger, they would stop and make a short halt. To hit their stride, said Joachim. Peter trusted his friend’s experience, so he let them set the rhythm. It is good that you two help me be moderate, otherwise I would walk nonstop. And then tomorrow you wouldn’t be able to move, said Joachim smiling.

There were only a few small clouds passing fearfully across the blue sky that was getting closer and closer to the three. They reached Bircaciu quite fast, and there they were welcomed by a few dogs swinging their tails. The host from the cabin prepared them huge mugs of flavored tea, as they had never drunk before. So it is true! said Mircea admiring. They were sitting outside on the logs that formed the chairs around the hard, dry wood table. You could feel the pleasant and virgin cold of the mountain. They drunk their tea slowly, they each ate one sandwich, and after they got some rest, they headed towards the Negoiu cabin. The difficult to climb sections were over for now, the path was following a soft curve. The track was quite easy and exquisitely beautiful to Peter’s opinion. After passing an elbow, their eyes could catch the entire valley and the cabin sitting in state on top. Above the building, the mountain would lose its forest crest, making way for pointy cliffs, aiming, without reaching, towards the Negoiu peak. The heavy blueberry bushes caught their eyes, but they had time so they stopped, and for almost one hour they gathered and ate blueberries to their fill. Then, with their hands and faces smutted they headed towards the cabin. It had started to get dark and cold. If you come to think that down in the valley people are sweltering… said Mircea. The mountain is wonderful, isn’t it? said Peter, mostly for himself. Yes, answered Joachim. It is!

After a night of sleeping on the bunk, together with other mountain men, Joachim, Mircea and Peter headed, early in the morning, towards the peak. The ascent was harder and harder and the ramp more and more abrupt. The three were climbing and sweating. They would often make short stops, without sitting, only bending to attenuate the backpack’s weight. The track was sometimes full of stones, pebbles, and rocks, and sometimes smooth. The sun started to hide behind the clouds that were now covering the sky. Exceeding the three’s expectations, the path elbowed again and again, and the peak was long in coming. Until, after a final stretch, breading heavily, the three reached it. On the plate from the boundary stone it was dimly written Negoiu Peak 2535m. The three dropped their backpacks on the ground. We are here! We did it, cried Joachim. And we are up in the clouds, said Mircea.

Because of the clouds and fog, one couldn’t see two feet ahead. The famous landscape that could be seen from the Negoiu mountaintop remained inaccessible for the three. Maybe we will have more luck on Moldoveanu, said Peter optimistic. Happiness could be read off his face. Nothing can bring you down, observed Joachim. Now, truly nothing, Peter confirmed. They rested a bit and then they continued their track. The path was leading down, towards the Caltun refuge, through the famous The Devil’s Gorge. The three were agile, and the chains helped them climb down the huge, slippery cliffs. However, they did not expect it to be so difficult. But they succeeded. Once they got down, the path up to Caltun Lake was pure relaxation for the three. We will have our lunch halt here, said Joachim. It’s time to refresh with a homelike meal, Mircea joked. Next to the lake two mountain rescue men were preparing to take off. Did you happen to see a group of youngsters wearing inappropriate equipment, asked one of them? No, answered Peter. Is something wrong? A few southerners, wearing sneakers and no equipment, went missing, said the other one, heading towards Bilea. The two disappeared in just a few seconds from the three friends’ sight, briskly like some chamois. Wow! Said Mircea. They really are agile. They are best prepared among all mountain men, continued Joachim full of admiration. I would like to be like them, said Peter. Maybe you will be, one day, said Joachim. Who knows? Yes, who knows?

After an almost 40 minutes lunch break, the three took charge of the path again. A new difficult ascent laid ahead, a last big leap before the road to Bilea. After another hour they cross roads again with the two mountain rescue men. They found them, said one of them. They had lost the path, said the other. But how is that possible? asked Mircea. It seems that they mistakenly took it for the valley of a dry spring. It must have been this fog, you cannot see two feet ahead, said Joachim. Yes, confirmed one of the mountain rescue men. They were lucky they got to a sheep yard, in the valley. That’s good, said the three relieved. The two groups greeted and went on their ways.

The fog started to spread, and the sky became blue. Lucky it did not rain, said Peter. They had half an hour left until Bilea, when they heard a noise. A few rocks rolled over towards them. God forbid, said Joachim, surprised, almost wry. A bear. Peter then acted on an impulse, like a shotgun. He quickly laid his backpack down and started taking the food out of it. Go towards Bilea, he told the other two. They were dumbstruck and did not move. He had to push them. Go. I will distract him, then I will leave the food, and I will come as well. Go, I will catch up with you! Peter shouted. The two did not want to. We will stick together said Joachim. We can’t, we’re too many, we are going to piss him off. We will stumble over each other, said Peter. You must leave! he emphasized. Mircea and Joachim listened to reason. Joachim took Peter’s backpack. He looked him in the eyes, but the confidence in his eyes told him he knew what he was doing. The two started running. Peter started climbing slowly towards the bear, which was getting closer, grunting. Hey, Peter called him. Are you hungry? I have something for you… he laid down a slice of bread, then he started to draw away. The bear got to it, smelled it and continued to advance. Peter, walking backwards, keeping an eye on him, threw him something else to eat, but nothing allured the bear. However he managed to delay him. His friends were starting to descend towards Bilea. They gave him one last look, and Peter signaled them to go on. What do you want, bear? Peter asked. The bear grumbled and lifted on two paws. It was huge. His cutting fangs shined in his mouth. This isn’t good, Peter said to himself. He threw his cap and his gloves towards the bear. It smelled them, he went back on all fours and started running towards Peter. For a split second, the length of a thought, Peter thought of running, but he realized it was useless. He felt the bear’s paw put him down and his mouth carving out into his flesh. He saw himself like in a movie, like in a dream, disappearing little by little, piece by piece, until only a white skeleton was left. He saw the bear licking one bone after the other, carefully, not to break them. He also saw Mircea and Joachim running towards Bilea, cutting through the path, almost hurting themselves. He saw them screaming for help before they even got to the valley. A few people heard them and sounded the alarm. He saw them heading back, towards him, but most of all, he saw the bear carrying off and disappearing between the cliffs. Then he gravitated towards his skeleton, which was shining in the sun and could not resist the force that was pulling him towards it. He felt himself sitting on it, complementing it, the bones entering his flesh, simple, without any pain. Then he felt tired and fell asleep for a second.

Peter opened his eyes. He was laying on the path. His head ached. He touched himself: he was whole. He looked around: the bear had disappeared. He thought to himself: I probably fainted when he hit me and he thought I was death. And he did not want me anymore… He stood up, he cleaned his clothes and headed joyfully towards Bilea. Now I know I want to be a mountain rescue man! Peter said to himself decisively. And I will!

Joachim and Mircea stayed at Bilea several days looking for Peter, together with all the mountain rescue men and other volunteers. They found his cap and his gloves, thrown next to the path. The search continued throughout the summer. Peter’s body was never found.

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Published by dorin

Full time husband and father; full time writer; full time artist (#fineartphotography). And in the free time, I like to travel, to read and to learn new stuff.

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