The Polish man who wears the Carpathian Crown: he reached the highest peaks of our mountains in 37 years
This post is also available in: Romanian
The year is 1976 and young Jerzy Montusiewicz, only 18 years old, will soon be a student. During a trip to Bulgaria, sitting in the back of his parent’s car, the young Polish man will see growing before his eyes, from North to South, the Romania Carpathian mountain range with its towering heights dominating the surroundings. He gets carried away by this impressive geography and starts dreaming those heights with his eyes wide open. However, not too long after this trip, he will carefully set up a very ambitious objective for which he will need the next 37 years of his life.
On the 3rd of May 2014, Jerzy Montusiewicz, now 56 years old, will step on the last of the 97 mountaintops which he explored all this time in the Romanian Carpathians: Vârful Bradului (1091 m) in Oaşului Mountains.
Jerzy Montusiewicz’s Odyssey seems to blend harmoniously with the fortunate events that led us to finding him as if it all happened by divine intervention: it makes us think his record was meant to be known also in the country which fascinated him for so long and which he silently cherished.
We were four people in a car going down an abrupt and narrow trail in the RumijaMountains in Montenegro. Aside the road, we saw two hitchhikers wilted by heat making desperate signals to take them with us. The problem was that we barely had room for our feet. Besides this, there were more than 50 kilometers to Virpazar, the nearest town, an hour drive and maybe four times longer by foot. However, we stopped and squeezed their backpacks between bottles of water, tents and mattresses. The two smiling blonds, a boy and a girl, were from Poland and they were slightly amused that Romanians like us were going in another country to wander in the mountains. The truth is that Polish hikers go often to Romania: “Actually, about a month ago, the climber’s forums in Poland stated that finally, after 30 or 40 years, Jerzy Montusiewicz managed to climb the last mountaintop in the Romanian Carpathians”, said the boy.
And so, with curiosity growing in my mind, while silently repeating this foreign name (that I couldn’t quite understand), I wrote it down on a sheet of paper. And then, I lost it. I needed several weeks to contact all sorts of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to Polish Mountaineers to find the smallest clue. However, a precious email from a guy based in Warsaw, Artur Paszczak, directed me to the Carpathian Society. And behold, I spotted the man: Jerzy Montusiewicz, the adventurer who dedicated nearly 40 years to complete the dream of wearing the Crown of the Mountains of Romania. This is his story.
Jerzy Montusiewicz is now an associate professor at the Institute of Computer Science, Lublin University of Technology, and has a PhD in the theory and practice of computer-aided decision processes based on multiple criteria.
În munţii Bistriţei, august 1978
Împreună cu un grup de excursionişti polonezi pe Vârful Cindrel (2.245m), august 1983
1989. Trecând un râu vijelios din Munţii Godeanu, în septembrie, cu trei luni înainte de Revoluţie
Panoramă de pe Vârful Oşlea (1.946m), în august 1983
La Piatra Mare în decembrie 1980
Minunatul Retezat, septembrie 1980
La câţiva paşi de Vârful Pietrosul (2.100m) din Munţii Călimani în 1978
Following the dream. Vârful lui Stan (1.466m) în septembrie 1980
Eroul nostru în august 1983, acum 31 de ani pe Muntele Şureanu
Muntele Ţarcu Căleanu (2.196 m) în 1989
Un grup de polonezi pe Parângul Mare (2.018m) în 1983. Jerzy Montusiewicz este al 4-lea din dreapta
Your Romanian “adventure” started in 1978. Can you tell us how everything started?
I conquered my first mountaintop in August 1978. I was 20 then, but for two years I had been a Polish mountain guide and I co-ran a student hiking camp. My first peaks making up the Tourist Crown of the Mountains of Romania are: Ocolaşul Mare (1907 m) in Ceahlău Mountains and Pietrosul (2100 m) in Căliman Mountains. At that time the Carpathian Society did not exist – it was only founded in 1991. I was a member of a mountain guide organization, active in the academic environment of the city of Lublin. It was the Student Circle of the Beskidy Guides (Beskidy is a mountain range in the Polish Carpathians), who brought together guides from various higher-education institutions in Lublin.
Did you visit Romania before 1978? What was your impression about this country?
I owe my first visit to Romania to my parents, in 1976. We were on our way to Bulgaria, by car, but in no hurry. We spent six days in Romania. Entering the country from what is now Ukraine, we went sightseeing Suceava and Bucureşti. On our way back we were in Dobrogea (including the former residence of Queen Marie of Romania, in Balcic), in Constanţa, on the coast in Mamaia, as well as in Braşov, Sibiu, Alba Iulia and Oradea. I can remember the stunning sight of the rock slumps in Bucegi Mountains, seen from Pasul Predeal and Valea Prahova, or the nice gesture of the Romanian customs officer when, after crossing the Ukrainian border, he treated us to a bunch of grapes. Despite the political formation back then, the country made a very good impression on me. This was primarily the result of the fact that the people we met were nice, kind and ready to help when we needed it. Besides this, it was obvious to us right from the start that Romania was a country of many cultures, joining the resources of different nations, religions and traditions.
What convinced you to pursue with such stubbornness your goal of reaching every mountaintop in the Carpathians?
I kept returning to the Romanian Carpathians for a number of reasons. First of all, the vast space of the mountains, enabling many days of non-stop hiking (without going down to human settlements). Second, for me the quintessence of mountain tourism are bivouacs – camping somewhere in a forest clearing, on a mountain pass, by a stream or in a deserted shepherd’s chalet and cooking meals on the bonfire. This is essentially absent from other parts of the Carpathians (sometimes it can be practised in Ukraine, but to a limited extent). Third, these mountains are alive due to the grazing of millions of sheep. The chance to meet a vibrant shepherd culture has always fascinated me. The procedures of cheese making, the local shepherds’ customs and traditions could be compared to the ones described in the Polish Tatra Mountains. Fourth, the Romanian Carpathians were for the most part undeveloped from a touristic point of view. I could prove myself as a mountain guide, leading people along routes I did not know, but due to the right reading of maps and the topography of the terrain, as well as my experience as a tourist, I had no problem leading people to peaks and passes, valleys and villages. Fifth, the Romanian Carpathians are diverse, full of beautiful views and all sorts of natural curiosities.
How did Romania look from above in the late 70s? On the ground, the disillusionment of communism worsened at the same time you began your expeditions… What did you use as equipment back then?
In our early days of hiking in Romania, we used the basic elements of tourist equipment: tent, mattress, big rucksack, firewood axe, cooking kettle, map and compass, plastic rainproof coat and windproof jacket. Today the jacket is rain- and windproof, yet breathing, the lightweight gas cooker has disposable fuel containers (which, however, we ecologically keep refilling), the boots have standard Vibram soles for better grip. Personally, I am no supporter of technological gadgets. I use no GPS for the very simple reason that the areas I penetrate do not have GPS maps yet. Sometimes the only map is an Austrian military one dating back to before World War I, or drawings by tourists found in Romanian periodicals. In such situations I am aided by printouts of satellite pictures, thus checking what has changed in the area over the last century. I use a mobile phone wherever it is in reach, but often switch it off to save the batteries. In shepherds’ chalets there is normally no possibility to charge your mobile.
When did you realize you loved the mountains?
My fascination for the mountains started in my childhood when my parents took me to the Bieszczady (currently Poland’s most southeastern range) and the Tatras (Poland’s highest rocky range). Then, annual trips into the mountains followed regularly. At that time I was also into sailing and obtained my first license, but ultimately the mountains won. Still, in my secondary school I got my mountain guide license, and later further hiking and skiing qualifications. My first hiking and climbing trips made me realize I would do it all my life, if only my condition allowed me. I have a very clear memory of conquering Gerlach (2656 m), the highest peak in the Carpathians, situated in the Slovak part of the Tatras. It was in 1977 and I was 19 at the time.
What is your most cherished memory from the mountains?
The most memorable hike happened in 1980 when I took part in the first ever passage of the whole range of the Carpathians, from Bratislava on the Danube (Slovakia), across Polish, Ukrainian and Romanian sections, reaching again to the Danube. The walk took us 93 days. I spent six weeks in Romania that summer, walked about 900 km along 25 mountain ranges, climbed about 150 mountaintops, although only 17 of them later counted for my Crown of the Mountains of Romania. All my later explorations of the Romanian Carpathians were measured against that extreme event.
Its duration, essentially limited to the high mountains (we only occasionally descended to larger settlements for provisions) allowed me to experience the atmosphere and specific character of the Romanian mountains: the vast spaces, the sheep and shepherds, great elevations, virtually no tourists in most mountain ranges and the need to cope on one’s own in every situation due to the lack of touristic infrastructure.
Can you arrange for us on a personal subjective scale, the most beautiful 5 summits in Romania? (Which impressed you the most?)
Having wandered in the Romanian Carpathians for the last 37 years, I have seen most of these mountains’ summits. Some of them are spectacular to see; others offer wonderful panoramas of other mountain ranges. My favourites in the former category include: Piatra Iorgovanului (2014 m) in Munții Retezatul Mic, Pop Ivan (1940 m) in Munții Maramureşului, Piatra Cloșanilor (1421 m) in Munții Mehedinți, Parângul Mare (2518 m) in Munții Parângu Mare and Detunata Goală (1265 m) in Munții Metaliferi. Of these it was only Parângu Mare that I have visited several times, even though on my first attempt in September 1981 I did not manage to climb it due to a heavy snowfall and the impassable snowdrifts; I got as far as Cârja (2405 m).
Personally I treasure the most those peaks from which other mountains can be admired. I can usually name most of them without using maps. Through my mind flash memories of my presence there, of those I hiked with, in what year, of the weather conditions, what good or interesting happened to us on which occasion.
What was your feeling after completing all the 97 summits? What was your first thought?
In order to take up the final stages of conquering the Crown of the Mountains of Romania, I had to find out actually how many mountain ranges there are in the Romanian Carpathians and where borders between them run, as that determines which peak is the highest. After all, the point of the whole undertaking was to climb the highest peak in each range. I have written a 30-plus-page text about it, discussing various issues concerning the proposed number of summits. The very last stage of my crown conquest was Munții Oaș on the Romanian-Ukrainian border. There I climbed 3 peaks, just to be sure: Vf. Vâscului (911 m) situated on the state border, Vf. Piatra Bixad (823 m), lying totally within Romanian territory, and Vf. Bradului (1091 m), just in case anyone kept insisting that the eastern border of those mountains is not the Huta Pass (587 m). Thus the moment of climbing the last peak slightly eluded me in time. My joy was all the greater when I finally did do it, and I was very proud that in the end I managed. I was aware that on completion of the undertaking I would surprise many people who hike in the Carpathians. My plan was to finish the challenge in the seasons of 2012 and 2013. A number of circumstances caused that ultimately I conquered the crown on the 3rd of May 2014, an important historical and religious holiday of the Polish state.
What is your relationship with Romania now?
My attitude towards Romania as a country has always been very warm. I have always valued the fact that Romania has been a country of many cultures, religions and nationalities, and that their representatives have managed to live peacefully with one another. In Bucovina I have frequently visited the Polish communities, living there since the early 19th century and still preserving their language, faith and traditions. In Banat I also used to visit villages inhabited by Czechs. Many times I experienced friendship and practical help from Romanians, both when wandering alone in the Carpathians in 1981 and later, already in the 21st century, coming to the country in my own car. I was always fascinated by the locals’ spontaneity and genuine interest in a stranger who, for unknown reasons, appeared in valleys and on mountains usually unfrequented by tourists. I intend to continue visiting Romania, maybe a little less regularly, but I still plan to climb a few summits. So far my joint stay in the country adds up to about one year.
Were you ever in a dangerous situation in the mountains during your trips?
There were such moments. In September 1989, I was conducting a training camp for young guides from Lublin, my home town. For a few days we set up a high-mountain bivouac on top of Munții Godeanu. On the third day the weather took a really bad turn: it began to rain and blow so hard that the wind destroyed the flysheet in one tent and broke a mast in another. We had to evacuate in the dark of the night and the terrain was not easy: on both sides there were postglacial kettles with vertical walls. Despite serious difficulties I managed to bring the group down to the Cerna valley. Having crossed the dam, we entered Munții Mehedinți.
In 1980, while walking the Carpathian Crescent, in Munții Piatra Craiului we entered a gully whose sides started to slide down. One of us fell and was a little battered on his head. At first it looked quite bad because he had blood running down his face, but on washing and dressing it turned out that the cuts were not deep. A serious problem in many mountain ranges is the numerous shepherd dogs, usually quite aggressive. After years of walking I managed to get to know their character and strategy and I always managed to leave such encounters unharmed.
Except Romania, where else did you travel?
Apart from the Carpathians I have visited the Spanish Pyrenees and, many times, various regions of Austrian, French, Swiss, Italian and Slovenian Alps. My favourite mountains of the area are the Dolomites. I have visited them with my wife Agnieszka around 12 times and have led my friends along valleys, passes and onto summits. This included the mountain paths called ‘via ferrata’, permanently protected climbing routes of different degrees of difficulty, demanding from the climber a fair amount of skill.
What draws you towards nature?
Staying in the Romanian Carpathians always gave me a chance to experience unusual moments. They were the more intense and diverse, the deeper I got into the wild mountains, where marked routes ended and no tourist infrastructure could be relied on. In such places conventional education, scholarly degrees or city-life sophistication counted for little. What took over was the ability to cope in challenging conditions, to understand and use the compass and maps, to read the surrounding landscape and distinguish the topographical details of the terrain. In remote mountain areas survival was guaranteed by the skills of lighting a fire or preparing a meal for all those who followed me into such places, and this had to be done irrespectively of the weather conditions.
Walking the mountains always helped me to free my emotions, purify my inner self and restore the balance between the sacred and the profane. I would rediscover the way of choosing between what is really important and what is incidental. In contacts with ordinary people I was reassured of the great value of simplicity in a world that seems to become ever more unpredictable and incomprehensible.
Just like any story that flows into the unknown, Jerzy Montusiewicz didn’t say goodbye to Romania once his adventure is over. For him, the Carpathians will remain the sea of stories that feeds the memories.
Translation and proofreading by Alexandra Scoarță
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