Archive for the ‘mountains’ Tag

White Sands National Monument

A bit of natural scenery for a change. In a rather desolate corner of New Mexico lies one of the most photogenic spots in North America, White Sands National Monument. It’s a unique sand composition, being water soluble gypsum which is a brilliant, eye-burning white color. The other big sand-based national monument / park lies several hundred miles north on the west side of the Sangres, Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

Both depend on water. Since White Sands lies in a basin with no outlet, any moisture interacting with the gypsum pretty much goes straight into the ground, or is dried out by the hot weather. Great Sand Dunes is a bit different, with the sand being carried by the nearby river downstream away from the Sangres, and winds blowing the sand back towards the mountains and depositing the sands in the dunes.

White Sands is open in the daytime with extended hours during the full moon. I caught one of these full moon evenings and it’s really spectacular. I also hiked out to the flats in a 5 mile loop. Photographing here is a bit tricky, actually, as really small grains of sand muck up the camera sensors and deposit all sorts of tiny particles on the lenses.

Textures

More textures

Still more textures!

Sunset over White Sands

 

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Summer of 14ers, 2016

My slow path towards summiting the Colorado 14ers continues. I have to admit that I burned out a bit on the driving and hiking, and pretty much stopped after August. This year’s peaks were mostly in the Sawatch Range, the bread and butter of the 14ers. They’re all about the same, with the exception of the Harvard / Columbia combo, which was the near-disastrous finale of the set. I failed to find a regular partner for the hikes, overall, so most of these were solo efforts.

My season started with a late June ascent of Mt. Princeton, which is normally a long slog from the bottom. But after starting on the trail nice and early before sunrise, I caught a ride in the back of a truck. This took me well beyond the radio towers to a spot about a quarter mile from where the trail leaves the road and heads off towards the peak. It’s an endless talus field, and not a lot of fun to hike, but as always, the view and accomplishment make it worth it. So the elevation gain was a very reasonable 3000′ or so, including my detour up the nearby 13er Tigger and back down to the trail, where another fellow gave me a ride back down.

Across from Mt. Princeton is the imposing Mt. Antero, which I hiked the following week. This was another uninspiring hike, and this time I didn’t catch a ride up, so I was stuck hiking the entire 15-16 mile round trip. 90 % of it is a road, with the last part a scramble up to the peak. This peak sees a lot of gem hunters and ATV traffic, which somewhat diminishes the experience. But the wildflowers were blooming and the lower stretches were very green. The peak really is one of the most beautiful in the Sawatch, burly with a delicate pointed summit, but the natural environment is looking rather worn out from all the human activity.

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

I moved over to the Elks the following week, and made yet another trip up Castle Peak, this time taking the ridge further over to the summit of Conundrum. This was made a bit easier by a driver who gave me a ride uphill, saving me about 500′ of elevation gain and a bit of distance. But the talus fields were pretty awful, and there was the usual scrambling to the summit of Castle. This time I had the energy to continue, and then re-summit Castle, and the weather was clear the entire day, thankfully.

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

My next two were Massive and La Plata back in the Sawatch. Neither was too busy on the days I hiked them, although the trailhead for Massive is shared with the one for Elbert, making for a very congested, noisy, and dusty start. That area gets a massive amount of people, but it looked like about 80 % of them were headed for the Elbert summit. The trail to Massive is just rather long, with a long section above 14000′ that continues well past the summit. I was intending on going up South Massive, but somehow looking at the climb back up, detracted me. I was also seriously low on energy.

La Plata is much like Elbert, a relatively short 9 mile round trip with lots of scenery and green valleys and endless switchbacks. It’s flat for the first mile, then really climbs.

Further south, Missouri Mountain is slightly spicier than the other ones in the vicinity, with a rather wet, slippery downclimb near the summit that required some care. Since it snowed just before, there was a fair amount of icy spots, but the weather was pretty stable. Overall, it was a cool August with early snow.

I attempted the Wilson group next, which was a long drive to the isolated trailhead in Kilpacker Basin. I slept in my car, and started up the very scenic trail. It’s one of the prettiest trails I hiked this year, and was full of wildflowers and greenery and had a bonus waterfall before the climbing began in earnest. I had enough energy for El Diente, which was a pretty extended and thrilling, exposed Class 3 climb to a tiny summit. Wisely, I hooked up with another hiker who was on his own and we took turns on the routefinding and was able to navigate up to the summit. It’s sparingly marked and easy to get lost, and a step up in difficulty compared to my climb of Wetterhorn last year. Going down was no fun, with lots and lots of talus. The remaining peaks in the area will have to wait, so that means another long drive next year for Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson.

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

The next two were in the Sangres, two peaks with major elevation gain, Blanca and Challenger Point. I wanted to go up Ellingwood and Kit Carson, but my energy didn’t permit it, and the weather on Kit Carson was made more difficult by fog and snow on the Avenue. Blanca turned out to be a monster, since I started just below the 8000′ level and walked up the whole damn thing. The last part of Blanca was a steep, slippery slope with a few tricky Class 2+ sections. Challenger Point was an awful climb past the very beautiful and very blue Willow Lake, pretty much 2000′ of loose crap with no real trail. It was foggy at the top, but cleared enough to catch a view of the Crestones and nearby Kit Carson Peak.

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

After returning from Brazil and being out of shape, I got together with a friend and attempted the Harvard / Columbia traverse. Despite the cool temperatures and clouds going in and out all day, we summited Columbia first. The climb up was a mixed trail / scree scramble. It’s notorious for being awful, but the new, partially finished trail was a real help. Getting over to Harvard was problematic, as my partner went way ahead and inadvertently ended up in Class 5 stuff, and I lost track of him. I made it to the saddle between the peaks, took several wrong turns, slipped in a loose gully, and then it started snowing. This was the worst possible place for it to start snowing, as now there was no easy way out and I basically had to summit one of the peaks again. After waiting out the snow, the weather cleared up long enough for me to slowly make my way up the slopes towards Harvard. My goal was to get to the main trail and to treeline before dark. I skipped the true summit, and made my way down another scree and talus slope and eventually made it to the trail. The cold and distance and elevation gain had worn me out, and I didn’t make it back to the trailhead until past 8 PM. Luckily my friend had gone back up the trail looking for me, and we met up about 3 miles from the trailhead. We were both fine, but a lot of things didn’t go right.

So that was my summer!

 

 

 

Weekend in Quito, Ecuador

I don’t recommend just a long weekend visiting South America, but I’m pretty short on vacation days. So I jumped on a cheap-ish fare, and flew to the high altitude capital of Ecuador, Quito, or more accurately San Francisco de Quito. I’m no longer used to long flights, and being squeezed into the back of a plane, on American Airlines, with a plane full of high schoolers, is tough to tolerate. In any case, the plane was delayed by a swarm of bees bugging the baggage handlers, and I didn’t arrive at my hotel until 1 AM, rather irritated.

It’s a very new airport, but situated a very long distance, and a $26 taxi ride, from the city center where I stayed. Stepping off a plane in a foreign country is always a thrill, as your senses are heightened, and you notice nearly everything regardless of how tired and disoriented you are. I noticed the cool mountain air, at 2850 m, the city never gets that hot, and it’s always sweater or light jacket weather in the evenings. The ride went along a very new, modern freeway, past the usual commercial zones resembling anywhere in the US, first heading south, then turning west and curving around several canyons and heading nearly 2000 feet uphill to the city. I was finally oriented by the lighted statue of Panecillo towering over the old town, and sighted the whitewashed and slightly run-down structures of the city center. The very hilly terrain was reminiscent of the other San Francisco (California), just add nearly 3000 m and a lot of mountains.

I essentially had two days to explore, and spent the first day walking and exercising hard just going up and down the steep streets and stairways. Ecuador is a very convenient country to visit for people from the US; the US dollar is the official currency, and it’s easy to track how much you’re spending. As for the prices, I found it to be slightly more expensive than Mexico City, for food at least. Lunches ran about $4-6 for the set course meals (almuerzos), museums were about $2, and of course, walking around was free. It’s still loud, noisy, and full of commercial activity, but easily an order of magnitude less chaotic than Mexico City. The city center is compact, situated on a grid, and definitely human scale. The population must be in fantastic physical shape, climbing all those hills and mountains at nearly 3000 m.

San Francisco church and convent

San Francisco church and convent

Old Town from the Basilica

Old Town from the Basilica

UNESCO recognized Quito’s old town as one of the first cultural World Heritage Sites in 1978, along with Krakow. To this day, it’s almost completely intact despite numerous earthquakes, and architecturally homogeneous. The churches are some of the most magnificent I’ve seen, with very fancy gilded interiors reminiscent of the Baroque churches in Rome, but with lots of Spanish / Moroccan / Islamic elements and designs. The style is unique. The exteriors are generally severe and solid, probably reflecting the seismic powderkeg of the surrounding region, but the courtyards are peaceful, lush zones away from the noise of the city. Another highlight was exploring the roof of the cathedral, which involved a very tight squeeze up a claustrophobic spiral stairway, and ended with a great view of the tiled domes and the plaza down below. The bad news is that many of the churches will charge you money to enter, so it’s easy to burn through cash here.

The heart of it all, Plaza Grande and the Presidential Palace from the roof of Quito Cathedral

The heart of it all, Plaza Grande and the Presidential Palace from the roof of Quito Cathedral

Speaking of mountains, I headed up the Teleferiqo on Sunday (a $5-7 taxi ride from the old town). This cable car goes up the side of Pichincha, to 3935 m. I got up early and hunted around for an honest taxi (the ones with a camera in the front seat), and ended up walking nearly a mile before getting into one. The taxi circled around the southern traffic belt, through several tunnels, and climbed steeply uphill to the lower cable car station. The weather was cooperating, even though the weather forecast said it would start raining at 10 AM. But well, the forecasts are always generally right, and usually wrong on the details. I lucked out, but wasted no time in starting hiking once at the top station. My goal was the summit of Rucu Pichincha, which was a moderately strenuous, 3 mile (5.8 km) hike that topped out at an incredible 15380′ (4690 m). The elevation gain was just short of 2500′, and the trail was busy on this beautiful Sunday morning. Most of it was a regular hiking trail / dirt road, then a trail with a few scrambling spots and washed out areas, then a scramble up a loose sandy slope, turning into a Class 3 climb for the last 50 m or so. Nice and spicy, and hey, I’ve never been at this altitude before. But I didn’t really feel it, maybe it was the slightly thicker air from being near the equator, but it felt more like the equivalent of 13000′ in Colorado. I felt surprisingly good at the top, and the view was fantastic with all the civilization sprawling below and crawling up the sides of the Andes foothills. The bonus was the view of the nearby volcanoes slowly being enveloped by clouds, Cotopaxi’s symmetric cone, the broken summits of Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur just to the southeast, and Antisana, and Cayambe to the northeast. These peaks break the 5000 m mark, and being nearly that high, I had to believe that I could probably physically handle that little extra altitude. Exciting. By the time I got back to the cable car station, the summit was completely socked in with plenty of rain. The city is not known for sunny weather, and more often than not, it’s four seasons every day.

Cotopaxi and Iliniza Norte / Sur from the summit of Rucu Pichincha, along with all that civilization below

Cotopaxi and Iliniza Norte / Sur from the summit of Rucu Pichincha, along with all that civilization below

And more Quito, 2.7 million inhabitants

And more Quito, 2.7 million inhabitants

The other nifty thing was the vegetation, and there was plenty of it even at 15000′. The snow line doesn’t really start until around 16000′, compared with a 12000′ treeline in Colorado, and 6000′ at Mt. Hood. Every ecological zone is represented in Ecuador, with 20000′ of elevation difference in a country the size of Nevada. It’s amazing biodiversity.

Plant life at 15000 feet, this stuff feels like astroturf

Plant life at 15000 feet, this stuff feels like astroturf

But alas, I had to catch the red eye back to the States and be at work in the morning. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to that, but what a fun little trip!

 

 

Summer of 14ers

Five years ago, I hiked my first Colorado 14er, which was a difficult but straightforward ridgeline climb up to the top of Quandary Peak. These are the set of 58 (give or take a few) peaks that top the 14000′ mark in Colorado. Each of them are difficult, marked by steep trails that often gain 1000 vertical / mile, at high altitude. After completing a series of so-called ‘easy’ 14ers over a two-day period in September 2010, I swore them off, vowing to never hike another one again.

OK, so that didn’t last too long. I made summer trips to Colorado in 2011 and 2012, and hiked Mt. Elbert in October 2012, which felt like an epic undertaking. After moving to the Rockies in the summer of 2013, I found an enthusiastic hiking partner and over the next two summers, we added a few more peaks to our lists. I had stood on top of 14 of them by the end of 2014, and my buddy moved back east.

I set a goal to get back in shape and hike an average of 3000′ / week. For the most part, I soloed most of these, and got off my ass enough to drive the 300 miles to access the trailheads. The driving is not that fun, but like most things, you get used to it. My car is also not equipped for sleeping, as I have to twist myself into unusual shapes to fit. In any case, I roughly doubled my total, repeated a few peaks, and have to admit that it was a great summer. Here are a few of my notes and observations, I definitely felt in shape by the end of the summer, and did enough of them that I had a good idea about how to pace myself, and what to expect on the way up. Still, they all hold little surprises and the views are really pretty. Each hike / climb is a story, and some are epics.

June 28: Grays and Torreys Peaks. This is the among the most accessible 14ers, lying just a couple miles off of I-70, and the ease of access shows in the very heavy crowds. I opted to park at the interstate exit, and hitched a ride up to the trailhead. From there it was a pretty straightforward ascent to the top of Grays, and another clear trail up Torreys. For the first time at elevation this summer, it’s a good one to start with and get back in shape.

July 3: Huron Peak. This was the only one that I hiked with a partner, that I hooked up with via 14ers.com. We took a circuitous route to the summit via an old fire road that was literally sliding down the mountain. So it offered pretty amazing views, and a fair amount of off-trail travel to join back up with the standard route. I was hardly able to make it up the last 200 feet, which was a very steep climb on a very busy trail. The summit views are probably the best out of the 14ers I’ve been on so far, as it’s deep in the Sawatch and far from any paved roads, and despite its prominence and distinct shape, it’s pretty hidden.

July 11: Mts. Cameron, Lincoln, Bross, South Bross, Bierstadt. I went as an afterthought, after a friend emailed me and said that he was hiking the so-called DeCaLiBro loop with some students of his. I was going to meet them somewhere along the trail, but turned towards Lincoln at the saddle, and it turned out they were still on Democrat, in the other direction. These peaks are all ‘easy’ ones, but turned into an all day effort. Given that it was a Saturday morning, they were crowded. I pulled into Kite Lake at 7 AM and ended up walking a half mile to get to the trailhead. The access road is pretty rough and narrow at the end, take it easy. This loop attracts everyone, including an older couple that I took to the trailhead. They had driven from Minnesota to check this off their bucket list; he was in between cancer treatments. I don’t know whether they summited, after I passed them on the trail up to the Democrat / Cameron saddle. These are unexceptional summits, mostly just rounded piles of rocks and fairly easy traverses between the peaks.

I checked the radar and it was already showing rain in the vicinity, but forecasted some clearing later in the day. So I headed up Guanella Pass road and parked at the Bierstadt trailhead. This one was also completely full, and despite being in the Mt. Evans Wilderness, it was anything but. Now I was headed up when everyone else was headed down, slowed my pace, checked out the blooming flowers, and the weather slowly cleared. The trail also cleared, and I shared the summit with a total of two other people, in a beautiful late afternoon light. But hey, I was pretty tired by that point, having hit nearly 5900′ vertical.

July 18: Castle Peak. This was my first attempt in the Elks, didn’t summit, there was this pesky snowfield at the top with loose rock and I was pretty sketched out. It’s rated as a difficult class 2 hike, but it had a few moves that scared me enough, and the weather quickly deteriorated, so I turned back 50′ from the top. The rain turned into a pretty good downpour by the time I got back to my car. This was my first did-not-summit 14er, and I guess this seems to happen on this peak quite a bit.

July 25: Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks. It’s accessed via a shelf road that goes west from Lake City, but is passable by most passenger vehicles up to the trailhead. I drove it at night, which spares one from viewing what turned out to be a very steep dropoff. This was an excellent hike, made better by the wildflower display along the way, and the view from the top was wonderful, with the red rock of the summits contrasting with the green below. It’s on the somewhat long side, 12 miles or so round trip with a re-summit of Redcloud on the way back. But it was also one of the most stable weather days in the San Juans, warm and sunny from start to finish, and no thunderstorms. So I lingered and probably spent more time on the way back than on the way up.

August 8: Mt. Yale. This is one incredibly well-maintained trail, more like a freeway up to the last section, which is a not-to-difficult scramble. I’d say that this felt like my best-paced summit, a solid, deliberately paced, three hours up without too much soreness the day afterwards. The weather didn’t quite cooperate, with some good wind at the saddle and a losing battle between the fog and sun. So while there wasn’t much of a view, the weather did finally clear up a bit on the descent, offering a hint of what could be seen.

August 9: Bonus, Ice Lakes Basin, this is Colorado’s most stunning location, and I caught it at the peak of wildflower season. Dump my ashes here when I’m dead. It doesn’t come for free, requiring a 2500+ elevation gain to reach the basin. Like the best hikes, this one starts deep in a moist forest, and saves the best for last. The previous year, I hiked this in late June, which was too early, since the lakes were still thawing out, and the wildflowers hadn’t bloomed yet. I also hiked it barefoot as a (rather painful) stunt- there are some pretty rocky sections, but also some dirt sections that were great to hike on. Last year this did involve a few hundred feet walking through melting snowfields, which was a treat.

Island Lake, Ice Lakes Basin

Island Lake, Ice Lakes Basin

August 29: Castle Peak #2. Again I was held back from the second part of the combo, Conundrum. I had to hike from the end of the paved road, which added far too much distance to the hike. It’s a slog up the road, then slow going from the end of the road through this talus field to the basin with the small lake of snowmelt. Then a trail cuts its way up to the ridgeline, and it’s scrambling and routefinding from that point on. The last section requires some thinking, and is probably best done by climbing straight over the last vertical band of rocks. It’s the most stable of the peaks in the Elks, I don’t want to imagine how loose and hazardous the Bells and Pyramid Peak are.

Conundrum Peak from the top of Castle Peak

Conundrum Peak from the top of Castle Peak

September 6: Mt. Humboldt. The hike was nothing exceptional, much of it along a now-closed 4WD road. The lakes pale in comparison to those inky colored lakes in California’s Sierra, but the views of the Crestone group are amazing. They’re really Colorado’s answer to the High Sierra, although with far less vertical relief. It’s just rather long, and hiking on a 4WD road generally isn’t that much fun.

September 12: Mt. Sneffels, standard route. This one’s short and sweet, and it was pretty busy on a very warm late summer day. The V-notch at the end is more of a squeeze, the exposure is definitely there, but brief. After that, it’s a pretty straightfoward path to the top on a moderate grade on solid rock. The lower gully is loose and unpleasant, though, and it’s best to stick to the sides for any semblance of traction. I’ll opt for the other ridgeline route next time.

September 19: Mt. Whitney, California. This was a spur of the moment decision. My original intention was to hike either White Mountain Peak or Mt. Langley, but I wasn’t too keen on isolated hiking. Each of them are pretty long, and White Mountain Peak is one very remote location. So, I stopped by the visitor’s center in Lone Pine and asked half jokingly whether there were still day hiking permits available. The answer was yes, and I spent a good 15 minutes thinking about whether to punish myself on a very long trail. The weather was going to be very nice all day, with similar temperatures to the day I first summited 12 years ago, and the difference here was that it would be an extra 4+ miles. I took the plunge, filled out the paperwork, and had a day hike permit for the following day. This one took the cake for vertical, with about 6500′ feet uphill and a 22 mile round-trip. Needless to say, despite the lack of steep grades, this one took the most out of me. The upgrade on the flight back to Denver was a treat, as I got to experience one of United’s brand new 787-9 aircraft.

Geology of the Sierra on display, Mt. Whitney trail

Geology of the Sierra on display, Mt. Whitney trail

October 3: Wetterhorn. Wow, this was a thrill. It’s got an exposed last section, where you really do climb up to a very small summit plateau. The fun really begins after gaining the ridge and passing this yellowish patch. The first part is rather loose and crumbly, and not exactly easygoing. After getting past the Prow, you climb through this notch and then down this angled slab, and are faced with the last 150′. It’s a steep ladder. This was my first class 3 route, and I started late, being the last person to summit that day in mid-afternoon, and not seeing anyone else for a good 4 hours. These were truly solo, and it was not a place to get lost or get injured. In retrospect it was perhaps foolish, but since I made it up there, had the trail entirely to myself on the way down, it was probably the most satisfying of the summits.

The last 150' to the summit of Wetterhorn, exposed and thrilling.

The last 150′ to the summit of Wetterhorn, exposed and thrilling.

October 10: Mt. Dana, California. Okay, a 13er, but it was convenient and after spending enough time at altitude, it didn’t feel so hard, despite still topping out at 13061′. I managed a quick time of 1:45 up, more to compensate for a late start and getting down before dark.

October 17: Mt. Shavano, Tabeguache Peak. Who would have thought the weather was going to stay balmy? I finished the Shavano / Tabeguache combo, after only summiting Shavano back in September 2013. I started to feel it on the last push to Shavano’s summit from the saddle, and headed straight for Tabeguache since the clouds were rolling in. It turned out to be a false alarm, luckily it didn’t rain or get any worse than just being overcast. The way up Tabeguache is rather steep, and re-summiting Shavano was not too terrible since it’s a fairly gentle grade back up. The views are nice, but they’re pretty unexceptional summits overall. Much of the Sawatch Range is that way, rounded mountains with mostly identical ascents in the 4000-5000′ feet range, and 8-11 mile round trips. They’re the bread and butter of Colorado’s 14ers.

So this leaves me with the more difficult ones, and hopefully I’ll be able to partner up with more experienced people in the following summers. I’m also looking forward to more wildflower displays, since that was probably the best part of the Colorado summer season, aside from hiking the mountains themselves.

 

 

Colorado fall colors, 2015

The summer was very wet, which produced one of Colorado’s most amazing wildflower displays from mid-July to mid-August. This has now given way to a rather warm, calm September, and the fall colors that the state is so famous for.

I took a long loop from September 25-27, stopping in three of the Colorado hotspots for fall colors, the Maroon Bells south of Aspen on 9/26, Grand Mesa that same afternoon, and the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Durango on 9/27. The colors were at their peak between Ouray and Coal Bank Pass, at the Bells, and slightly short of peak on the northern side of Grand Mesa.

I’ll be checking out the Crested Butte / Kebler Pass area this upcoming weekend, maybe over towards Dallas Divide. These areas should be at peak for the next few days. The lower elevations (Durango, Delta / Montrose) should hit their peak the second to third week of October.

Construction will continue on the Silverton to Ouray portion of US 550 until October 8, 2015, so watch for closures, and watch your driving, this road is no joke.

Enjoy the show!

Morning at the Maroon Bells, 9/26/15

Morning at the Maroon Bells, 9/26/15

North side, Grand Mesa, 9/26/15

North side, Grand Mesa, 9/26/15

Red Mountain Pass, looking north towards Ironton and Ouray

Red Mountain Pass, looking north towards Ironton and Ouray, 9/27/15

Between Coal Bank Pass and Molas Divide, 9/27/15

Between Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass, 9/27/15

Transfagarasan, Romania

This was one of the grand projects of Ceausescu, the dictator of Romania, who ordered a trans-Carpathian road built over rugged terrain straddling two of the country’s highest peaks. So it was built between 1970 and 1974, at a staggering human cost. It’s one of the most spectacular roads in the world, and still relatively unknown outside of Romania.

I decided to drive it on a recent visit to Transylvania. For the rather expensive cost of 50 Euro / day, a nice car was delivered to my hotel in Sibiu, and I ventured out into the sometimes intimidating Romanian traffic.

After around 45 km of flatland driving, first getting away from the heavy traffic of the Sibiu area, then after a couple of old Saxon villages, a traffic circle marks the start of Highway 7C. The day was a mixed August day, warm in Sibiu, but changeable and much cooler up in the mountains.

The climbing begins in earnest deep in the lower forests, with numerous curves leading up to the cable car base station. This is as far as the road is open in the winter, with the cable car making the remainder of the journey to the crest of the road, 800 meters higher. It was crowded with mostly local tourists and families enjoying the scenery and the large waterfall nearby.

Past the station, the road backtracks for a short while in the direction of the plain, and then approaches a glacial valley, where the real fun driving begins. It’s never that steep a road, and it makes up for the relatively gentle grade with lots of hairpin curves and ever-more-panoramic views. Treeline is low here, I estimated it to be around 1500 m.

Glacial valley, Transfagarasan Road

View from near the crest

Sheep crossing. . .

Finally, the road tops out at the lake, enters a narrow, unlit, potholed tunnel at just over 2000 m in elevation, and emerges into the much warmer, sunnier south slope. Beyond that the quality of the road deteriorates, and it’s very slow going on a bumpy, winding road that parallels the Vidraru reservoir. Suddenly, the road crosses the Vidraru Dam, a vertigo-inducing structure that is 166 m in height.

More driving fun ahead. . .

South side of the road, looking north

Vidraru Dam, with a bungee jumping platform above the spillway

So this dam is a real trip to walk across. Its double-arch design incorporates a slight overhang at the crest, so it’s dizzying, to put it mildly. The location is difficult to access- on the western side two tunnels were blasted for road access. The north-branching tunnel leads to the most awful road imaginable, I tried to drive it for a few kilometers, and was shocked by the enormous potholes and rusting bridges. Needless to say, I turned around after a couple km, and rejoined the main road for the short drive down to Curtea de Arges.

Camping is a big activity here, pretty much any open space on the side of the road is fair game for pitching a tent, and the air was smoky with barbecues and grills. Along with that is an unfortunate amount of trash on the side of the road. The same can be said for the areas on the north side of the mountains, it’s as if the construction had spent every last ounce of human effort, so there are plenty of reminders of the labor involved.

As for road rules and driving in Romania, it’s manageable, but not for the faint of heart. For a nation of 22 million people, there are only around 270 km of freeway in the entire country. The main route between Sibiu and Bucharest is a two-lane highway through the Carpathians. Traffic is heavy, passing is careless, and speed limits are routinely ignored. Road quality is improving, but still require undivided attention. The roads off of the main highways are generally in terrible shape, and maps are often inaccurate. Horse carts and flocks of sheep are other fellow citizens to contend with.

On the plus side, parking is gleefully easy, generally free, and driving is a fantastic way to get around the country. It’s a nice alternative to the much slower, albeit cheap, trains. And for the Transfagarasan, driving and biking are the only practical ways of getting around the area.