Anonymous Mountaineer Private Collection
The Anonymous Mountaineer collection illustrates how a passion for the mountains and for climbing could become a passion for freedom. More precisely, the collection reflects a distinctive type of cultural opposition, practised by those with a passion for the mountains and for climbing. This sport permitted a temporary escape from the routine of life under communism into places where the communist regime effectively ceased to exist. At the same time, in the case of communist Romania there was also a second dimension of opposition, because climbing involved a connection with the parallel economy in order to procure the necessary technical equipment, which was not to be found in shops. The Anonymous Mountaineer collection preserves a great variety of climbing equipment that was either improvised by the owner of the collection or obtained on the black market, where such items were commercialised.
București Strada Şipotul Fântânilor 2, Romania 010157
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- Anonymous Mountaineer Collection
Pochodzenie i działalność kulturalna
The Anonymous Mountaineer Collection illustrates the idea that climbing was a sport that under communism was equivalent to the practice of freedom in a way that was not accessible to everyone and at the same time a sport that necessitated inventiveness in order to get hold of the necessary equipment that was not on offer in Romanian shops. Climbing was the sport par excellence that made its practitioners feel, when they were face to face with the mountain, freed from political and social constraints, at least for a short time. When someone was risking their life to conquer a mountain peak, the problems generated by the communist regime, which entered insidiously into the everyday life of each person, suddenly became unimportant and were left behind somewhere down below, at the foot of the climbing route. At the same time, climbing was not considered a recreational sport by the communist regime, but a so called “technico-applied” sport, one with military applications, associated with the units of Mountain Chasseurs. Consequently, the equipment necessary for practising this sport could not be bought from shops. The relative few climbing enthusiasts had either to procure their equipment from abroad or on the black market or to make it for themselves following Western models copied from magazines. The ability to create useful objects by improvisation was a phenomenon that saw spectacular growth in the conditions of the acute economic crisis that Romania went through in the last decade of communism. Improvisation in climbing involved huge risks, however, because this home-made equipment could not be tested to the standard of international safety norms, and those who used it, for want of anything better, were putting their lives in danger for the sake of their passion for mountain ascents.
The Anonymous Mountaineer Collection of climbing equipment obtained by improvisation during the communist regime could not have existed without a passion for a sport that was practised in pre-1989 Romania in very difficult conditions. For the owner of this collection, Dragoș Petrescu, there were many decisive moments for the development of his relatively unusual passion, some connected to his family socialisation, others to the horizons opened by reading and films that carried one into a world in which one could only travel by means of the imagination. “My maternal grandfather was arrested and imprisoned in Constanţa when the communists came to power; my grandmother was deported to Piteşti, because that was how they operated – they had to wrench you away from the region in which you were born. Deportees were taken out of the area where they had been born, leaving them alone and vulnerable. Thus my maternal grandmother had to leave Mangalia and was sent to Piteşti. I was born there, in Piteşti. From when I was little we went to the seaside, and the sea was a formative experience for me. At the same time, our parents also took us, my brother and me, to the mountains. We went on excursions with tents, in the early 1970s, to the Bucegi Mountains, to Padina. The excursion to the Bucegi was a classic excursion for the time. [...] From Padina, I climbed Omu Peak [the highest in the Bucegi] with my family and thus, little by little, this love of hiking was born.”
“During my high-school years, truly fundamental things appeared. And one particular book, Les Conquérants de l'inutile (Conquistadors of the Useless) by Lionel Terray, which came out in Romanian translation, was a crucial encounter,” explains Dragoș Petrescu. With regard to the beginnings of his passion, he adds: “When I was at high school, the encounter with this book – Conquistadors of the Useless – created an extraordinary fascination with climbing in me, because it spoke of the famous routes in the Alps, about Chamonix and the Mont Blanc massif, about the end of the War and about great adventures in the mountains. Then there was a film, Death of a Guide [Mort d'un guide, directed by Jacques Ertaud, France, 1975], a very good film, impressive – it can now be found on the internet too. It’s from the mid-1970s, and tells of a team, guides on Chamonix: an older climber together with a younger team-mate. The two want to do a very difficult route in les Drus. There is also in the film some quite interesting criticism of the way the press, running after the sensational, actually encourages the two of them; they even talk about keeping in contact somehow by radio, and thus heighten the spectacular quality of the account. A storm blows up and at a certain point the young man is struck by lightning and dies, but the older guide survives. A few years later the brother of the dead man wants to repeat the traverse, together with the same guide. Then the accident happens: they remain suspended on a single piton and, to save the brother of the man who had been his disciple, the guide releases himself form the ropes and falls into the void. An impressive film.”
More than anything, Dragoș Petrescu’s passion for climbing had a cultural underpinning: “As far as I was concerned, it came from books, from reading, from what I imagined as I read about classic mountaineering. It’s not a bad beginning. On the other hand, this way of starting, idealising the small world of climbing, also created the premise for certain disappointments that I had in the 1980s, when I saw that in reality, at least in the reality of Romania at that time, things were not quite as they appeared in books. Which is not to say that what is written in the book is wrong – about the conquistadors of the useless, about the idea of solidarity, about how, in austere conditions, very strong friendships are created.”
Dragoș Petrescu’s life was also marked by Romanian books about climbing, which refined his perspective on this sport, this time making him familiar with the technical details that are absolutely necessary for any climb: “In 1981 Walter Kargel’s Alpinism came out [Walter Kargel, Alpinism. Tehnica sportului de munte, Bucureşti: Editura Sport-Turism, 1981]. There had also been a book on the subject published about twenty years earlier, by Emilian Cristea […] about tourism and climbing in the Bucegi [Emilian Cristea and Nicolae Dimitriu, Bucegii. Turism – Alpinism, Bucureşti: Editura Uniunii de Cultură Fizică şi Sport, 1961, 2nd ed. 1964]. The Bucegi massif is, in fact, the cradle of Romanian climbing. The principal gateway to the climbing routes is Buşteni, known to some as ‘the grade 6 town.’ In classic climbing, the grades of difficulty start from 1a and 1b and go up to 6a and 6b, the last of these being the most difficult route possible. The ‘Blue Crack’ in the Bucegi massif, in the Wall of the White Valley, is 6b. Of course it is half the size of the walls in the Alps, but it is very important for Romania and for Central and Eastern Europe; it is an area in which many difficult routes have been opened up. Well, the 1981 book, the one by Walter Kargel that I was talking about, somehow took climbing out of the shadows, because it is very applied; it talks about technique, about you should behave on the mountain, professionally and responsibly, if you want to do climbing. How to climb, what equipment you should use – and by the way, after we had looked in this book, we very soon found out that the technical gear was not to be found anywhere in shops. Ropes, karabiners, pitons, ice-axes and crampons, climbing rucksacks – pretty much nothing was to be found in shops, in fact.”
The pronouncedly practical dimension of this passion came to a turning point with his participation in the climbers’ meetings at the Bucharest University Sports Club. This club organised weekly informal meetings, in a seminar room of the university, for those with a passion for the mountains, generally from the academic world, but not only. Here the real meeting took place, unmediated by books, with flesh and blood climbers, who were passionately dedicated to transmitting the experience they had accumulated to a new generation. Regarding the importance of socialising in the club, Dragoș Petrescu recalls: “These people [the climbers] didn’t go on marked routes. If you go to Buşteni, the climbers’ heaven is the Coştila Refuge, about 1,700 m. in altitude, a propitious setting for climbing – for training, for starting to scramble on short routes. Now, to know the way, someone has to guide you, someone has to take you. And this is where the story begins. For me. My great fortune was to be at the meetings of the Bucharest University Sports Club. They gathered once a week in a seminar room, somewhere in the Mathematics Faculty, and they held courses. The instructors were recognised climbers, like Taina Duţescu-Coliban (who disappeared in the Himalayas in 1992), who gave us theoretical lessons on climbing. Then a very important stage began for me and for my passion for climbing. The trainees were mostly students at various faculties of the University, but Polytechnic students like me also came. And the instructors, well, these people came there with their extraordinary experience and gave us of their time, telling us about climbing and teaching us how to do real climbs.
These lessons had a theoretical part, involving the oral transfer of knowledge, which was very important given that the books mentioned above were hard to find in bookshops once they were out of print. At the same time, the lessons had a practical part, involving initiation into this sport each weekend, under the direct guidance of experienced climbers: “When I say that they gave us a lot of their time, I’m not referring in fact only to the theoretical teaching that we got from them. On top of that, they gave us of their climbing time, and instead of doing one more route in order to become masters of the sport, for example, they were acting as mentors for us beginners and teaching us, basically, the ABC of how to climb.” Dragoș Petrescu also highlights the very generous dimension of the voluntary work that was done by those who coordinated the activities of the University club: “On that free Sunday, they were going around with beginners. They taught you how to tie yourself into a rope – I was taught to tie myself into a rope in Gălbenele Valley by none other than Alioşa (Stoica Solzaru), an excellent climber and one of the pioneers in making homemade ice-axes and crampons in Romania in the early 1980s. As I was saying, they would go with us on routes of grade 1a or 1b difficulty. You might get to the base of some wall, approaching 2a […] The people I am speaking of were extraordinary, doing great work. They were volunteers. As a beginner, you had no membership card, no status as a climber; you weren’t yet proficient in the sport. And they came and taught us, giving up their own time. They came as volunteers and taught you classes. Then they the would do initiatory routes with us beginners. Most of the time, the meeting place was the Alpine House in Buşteni. From there began many of the beautiful stories of classic Romanian climbing. And you set out: towards Coştila, towards the White Valley, the Dry Valley Between the Stacks, the Gălbenele Valley, towards the Miller’s Teeth and so on. With the instructor, male or female.”
At the same time, as Dragoş Petrescu recounts, in order to embark on more difficult routes, the beginner needed equipment and, of course, training. And here problems arose. In the absence of special equipment from shops, the Bucharest University club members maintained their passion for climbing not only by developing the necessary knowledge and skills, but also by creating an informal and semi-clandestine context for procuring the necessary gear. It was a small black market, where equipment brought from the West or homemade locally, following the models in Western magazines, was bought and sold. “At the end of the classes, there were also certain items that could be purchased. It wasn’t about doing business, so to speak; someone would come, for example, to sell his ice-axe because he had found something better. Or he had found better karabiners and wanted to sell the old ones, because these things cost money. Or Alioşa would turn up and announce that he had made a new model of ice-axe or hammer ice-axe, but he couldn’t bring himself to give it up yet (I remember that I once went with him from the University all the way to the Griviţa hostel where he lived at the time trying to convince him to make me an ice-axe). In short,” emphasises Dragoș Petrescu, “the equipment for climbing was very costly and hard to find.”
The possibility of bringing gear from abroad was relatively reduced, however, because those who could travel were few in number and tended to be in the category who lacked resources. Consequently most of the objects that could be procured on this informal market were in fact homemade, improvised. The making of these items involved a risk assumed by all those who practised climbing because the equipment might be copied from Western models but their was no possibility of testing it. In short, there was a dangerous duality about improvisation in the climbing world: on the one hand, it called for exceptional creativity, and on the other, it constituted a potential danger that everyone was aware of. “I think that this dimension, of improvisation, is one of the most extraordinary stories concerning imagination under communism: to make from objects designed for quite different purposes various other object or accessories that could be functional. Among climbers in particular, improvisation was hard to do, and I was a direct participant in many of these processes. The problem was that the mountain equipment that we improvised wasn’t certified – you didn’t know if it would stand up to the shock of a fall. This was the big problem in climbing: the shock of a fall, which is measured with quite sophisticated instruments. Well, we were improvising, in the absence of professional measurements for essential technical details. Effectively the greater part of the equipment we had was improvised, made blind. It was uncertified – you had no guarantee that it would hold,” recalls Dragoș Petrescu.
All the same, he emphasises that the improvisation of climbing gear was not entirely haphazard, precisely because to make most of the items required quite profound knowledge of engineering and thus implicitly was a task for specialists capable of designing and making them out of materials intended for other purposes, but which proved to be adaptable for climbing: “There was technical gear that had to be made in a factory. For example, to make crampons, you needed heat-treated leaf springs. This meant that you needed someone who worked in a factory, who had access to a kiln for heat treatment, to speak to someone who, in addition to the main load (which was the object of their day-to-day work), would put in two pairs of crampons. There were Polytechnic students in the Bucharest University club – this meant that there were people who had the technical knowledge and also the contacts, who were themselves ‘in production,’ as the term was at the time. It was ideal if you could make contact with climbing enthusiasts who worked at various mechanical plants. At Griviţa, for example, Alioşa excelled – he made legendary tools that can still be used today. At Griviţa they did heat treatment, they welded – they did high-quality welding. There were very good craftsmen there, as there were in other plants, and they themselves would sometimes give you the technical solution, sometimes from no more than a photograph. There were pictures that didn’t provide all the details, what sort of material should be used. For example, how to apply a plastic sleeve to the handle of the ice-axe, so that it wouldn’t freeze your hand. They realised that in those days there were sleeves, mouse-grey in colour, that were made for the communist apartment blocks to cover the banisters of the stairs. Well, these sleeves, if they were boiled for a certain period of time and then applied to the ice-axe handle, would tighten, and they managed to imitate the sleeves made by specialised producers abroad especially for ice-axes.”
As climbing gear, whether brought from the West or improvised, was costly, most people tried to make all the objects that they were able to on their own. For this purpose there was a need for a sharing of expertise, and the Bucharest University club was a platform for learning what characteristics this climbing equipment should have and what material was best for making each individual item. Thus Dragoș Petrescu’s collection of improvised items was enriched simultaneously with his participation in the weekly club meetings. “It wasn’t from the great books with which I began to approach this passion that I learned to improvise; there at the most there were some drawings, but I couldn’t tell in detail what the items were made of, so as to be able to improvise them later. Effectively, I began to see these items, to see them in every detail, when I joined the Bucharest University club. There too you got to know people who either could get their hands on some magazine from the West or had some part brought from the West, their own or borrowed. Thus I learned, for example, that for étriers you could use the wheel-rim of a semi-racing bicycle, for a climbing harness you could use the strapping of a Dacia car seatbelt, and so on. Step by step, I learned how to improvise.” Dragoș Petrescu’s collection of improvised items of climbing gear was gradually enriched starting from 1982, the year in which he began to attend the Bucharest University club.
Among the first objects he improvised was his climbing helmet, one of the essential elements of protection, necessary even on low-grade routes, to protect the head from falling stones, whose blows could prove fatal. Dragoș Petrescu made the helmet himself by modifying a protective helmet intended for building-site workers: “It was a Polish-made helmet, originally a protective helmet for building-site work. I bought it from someone in the club. However it wasn’t enough just to have a helmet, because a climbing helmet is something quite different. For climbing, you have to have a helmet with a very small peak, so as not to impede visibility vertically, when you look up. Consequently, the peak of the worker’s helmet had to be cut off and smoothed down. There was another problem: workers’ helmets didn’t have the system to stop the helmet sliding forward or backwards in the case of a fall. So these systems of attachment had to be added, and I sewed them using tape from blinds – and they had to be sewn in a way that you could only see in foreign magazines, and which somehow you copied intuitively.”
At the same time, Dragoș Petrescu, managed to assemble étriers (climbing aids: short climbing ladders) for getting over artificial passages or overhangs, where there was no possibility of supporting one’s feet on the rock. Étriers were also, however, important equipment for a beginner climber trying to do more and more difficult routes, in which footholds, protrusions, or cracks in the rock that could offer support for the feet, were smaller and smaller and could make it difficult to advance. To compensate for lack of experience, these étriers could be used for additional support; they were hooked onto pitons using karabiners, thus creating a solid foothold which allowed the climber to advance until a more secure natural foothold could be found. Dragoș Petrescu improvised his étriers using a rather unusual material, following advice he got at the club: “The étriers were homemade from Russian Sputnik semi-racing bicycle wheel rims. Someone gave up a bashed wheel that could no longer be repaired, and the rim was cut and used as material for the steps of homemade étriers because these wheel rims were made from duralumin, a light but strong material, which was suitable for making étriers. Improvising, of course. Out of one such rim, I was able to make myself two normal-sized étriers and one smaller one.”
Another item that he made back then with his own hands was the climbing harness, a basic piece of equipment for securing a climber to a rope. In the event of a fall, the shock to the climber’s body is great. The climbing harness, consisting of a seat and possibly a chest strap, helps the shock to be taken principally at the level of the pelvis, leaving the chest region free so that breathing is not impeded while the fallen climber rights themself or is rescued by an intervention team: “The climbing harness was a very important part. Precisely because you could never be sure of the object you had improvised, you made a combination of chest harness and seat. Out of worn rope, usually six lengths placed parallel and sewn together with synthetic surgical thread, you made a sort of waistcoat with braces made of tape for blinds, which you wore around your chest and with which you tied yourself into the rope. Initially, mountaineers climbed with only the chest harness, only that they realised that once you were hanging on the rope, the chest harness became very tight; the circulation stopped and that could be fatal. Then they came up with the idea that it was good to have a seat as well as the chest harness. The so-called seat was usually made from strapping for car seatbelts sewn with surgical thread, which looked like a belt with two loops for the feet, into which you fastened yourself together with the chest harness. For the seat, you got hold of various materials. Principally seatbelt strapping. Ideally, we used the seatbelts for Dacia cars, but these were quite expensive. Many ‘got hold of’ one of these straps from the people that worked in the factory in Braşov where they were produced and where the unfinished product was sold illegally by the metre. As a rule, we made ourselves both seat and chest harness.”
In the same period, some homemade pitons also entered Dragoș Petrescu’s collection of improvised objects for climbing. Pitons were another element of great importance for climbers’ safety; they were hammered into the rock to offer support for advancing, but also, most importantly, a point of attachment in the event of a fall. The karabiner (connector) was fixed directly in the eye of the piton, and the rope to which each climber was attached was passed through the karabiner. In the event of a fall, the piton to which the rope had last been secured with a karabiner had to take the shock: “Pitons were also made by improvisation, from wrought iron or sheet titanium. I met someone from Râmnicu Vâlcea who worked in a factory where sheet titanium was used as raw material. He improvised them in the factory from offcuts of sheet titanium. He made pitons of various sizes, for vertical or horizontal cracks. They were made in Vâlcea because it was only there that they worked with titanium. Of course the newly made piton was then smuggled out of the factory.” This story draws attention to another aspect of the manufacturing of this climbing gear: illegality. The black market on which products were commercialised that could not be found in state shops, an institution that existed in all the shortage economies in the then communist countries, was sustained in Romania only partly with foreign products, whether smuggled in from the West or acquired either officially or unofficially through small border trade with Hungary or Yugoslavia. A considerable part of the products appeared on the black market as a consequence of the smuggling out of factories in Romania either of restricted products destined exclusively for export or of products made clandestinely like these pitons. Opposition to the regime often involved acts that would have been illegal in any political system, but in a system that did not respect the principles of the rule of law, those who oppose the authorities do not think in legalistic terms either.
Another improvised object that entered the collection was the padded coat, a winter garment stuffed with goose down, which was tailored after the model copied from Western magazines and made from waterproof material that from time to time could be found for sale in shops. At that time, when there was not yet any idea of keeping colours as close as possible to nature, the most sought-after colour was red, especially because it allowed you to be seen from a long distance in case something happened and intervention teams had to look for you. The coat had to be stuffed with goose down, but that could not be found on sale; it had to be procured on the black market, especially from private individuals from the region of Transylvania, where they raised geese more than in the rest of the country. The most delicate operation was filling the coat with down in such a way that the down remained as aerated as possible, because the air turned into an ideal insulation from the cold. For this reason, the down was introduced using a vacuum cleaner with the hose connected to the exhaust. The story of how a padded coat was improvised is symbolic of the enormous difference between Romania and other former communist countries, where such products could easily be bought in shops. Dragoș Petrescu recalls in this connection that: “We went on routes in the winter too, of course, but the special conditions called for more complex equipment: ice-axe, hammer ice-axe, crampons, padded coat. And here we come to another story: the padded coat couldn’t be found; you needed goose down. It was a great headache: who would make you a padded coat, where you would find double boots or special boots for winter made from plastic material. So in the winter, things were even more complicated, especially in the context of that economic penury. It wasn’t like that in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in the DDR, for example. Here too, in these sectional comparisons, the difference of Romanian communism is visible.”
The Anonymous Mountaineer Collection does not only contain improvised objects, because the passion for climbing could only be sustained by improvisation up to a certain point. There were items that could not be homemade, on the one hand, because there were not the technical means for making them, and, on the other, because they were too important for the climber’s safety to take any risks with them. In contrast to the climbing harness, where you could back the seat up with a chest harness made from a piece of rope, in the case of a karabiner or a rope there were no alternatives available. As Dragoș Petrescu underlines: “The objects used in these technical sports were in two categories: some that you could produce by improvisation and others that, whatever the cost, you had to purchase. Well, there was no way you could improvise rope and karabiners. Because your life depended on them. How could you improvise?” Gear such as ropes and karabiners could be purchased in state commerce in mountainous communist countries such as Czechoslovakia or Poland, or even in the USSR (titanium karabiners), but not in Romania. For this reason, such items passed from hand to hand; they were sold and resold among climbers until they wore out. This way of using them also involved great risks, because one never knew how worn these items of equipment were. For example, according to safety norms, a climbing rope cannot be used any more after five years, because the material ages and no longer has the same qualities that it had at the beginning, thus becoming dangerous in the event of a fall. If a climber has fallen on that rope, then its useful life is less than five years. When a rope was bought second-hand, it was impossible to be sure how old it was or how many falls it had been subjected to. In fact all these limitations on the procuring of essential climbing equipment were worsened by the profound economic crisis of the 1980s, with the result that mountaineering became harder and harder to practise in communist Romania. Dragoș Petrescu underlines that an elitist sport like mountaineering, which requires a lot of equipment, suffers more in times of crisis than a mass sport: “I became aware of this from a comparison of the 1970s generation with that of the 1980s. Many of the 1980s generation did not manage to achieve a high level of performance because during the crisis of the last decade of communism, the material limitations were extremely drastic. They were felt here too, in a niche sport, as we would say today. Like all technical sports, including auto racing for example, climbing is a complicated sport. It costs. It costs significantly. And in the 1980s, these sports suffered immensely. Auto racing, cycling, climbing, and winter sports like bobsleigh, skiing, skating – not to mention sports with sails. Wherever something more was needed than the presence of the sportsperson, a ball, shorts, and a shirt, it was very complicated back then. And in climbing, the crisis left its mark all the more severely.
Dragoș Petrescu’s collection of climbing gear was completed in the mid-1980s, simultaneously with his development as a climber. “One of these programmes, with theory and the first ascents, lasted about two or three years. Personally, I reached grade 5a. I began in 1982, and in 1984 I was able – of course, in a team (we were three) – to do this grade 5a route, a route that was indeed difficult. You could compress the stages, but you couldn’t skip them; the experience you gain step by step is important here. Anyone who tried to skip them was playing with their life.” All the objects in the collection are preserved in good condition, in the home of their owner. Most of them are still useable today. Dragoș Petrescu’s mountain ascents with the help of the gear in the Anonymous Mountaineer collection began in 1982 and continued systematically until 1987 and sporadically till 1989. Besides the memories connected with what it meant to practise climbing under communism, the moral dimension that derived from his first intellectual encounters with the subject of climbing has remained constant in Dragoș Petrescu’s relationship with this sport: “Yes, climbing is, in my vision, about human solidarity; yes, it is a struggle with yourself and not in the first place with the mountain (which must be respected); then, it is a discipline that has to show you at a certain moment that you can and must do certain things as a team. The idea that you shouldn’t hurry on a route isn’t so much a matter of haste as of finding a formula by which, at a certain moment, you can also enrich yourself, can become different, better.”
More than any other sport, under communism, climbing meant freedom and solidarity against a regime that, with the help of the secret police, was restricting freedom and nipping any form of solidarity in the bud. Due to the fact that it was practised in the mountains, in places difficult to reach, climbing, like speleology, involved confrontations with nature at the limit. In the course of these activities, those involved were effectively risking their lives; all that existed outside that point of confrontation with nature, with the mountain, or with the underground world of caves, became unimportant. Climbing was more than a sport, it was an alternative way of life, by which one learned how what was possible and what was impossible could be correctly evaluated, and also how the limits of the possible could be continually extended in a rational way. “It’s not just a sport to go on the mountain as a climber; it’s much more than that. You go there, into the mountains, and you encounter different variants of yourself, different versions of what you can be, and you hope to encounter the best of them. There is much that is unpredictable there, and you have to think a lot in a prospective direction. As someone said, you climb first with your eyes. There’s another very important thing: each person has their vertical. It’s important to know this on the mountain, and in life. You have to take this into account a lot. Specifically, someone’s relationship with the mountain shouldn’t depend only on the number of walls with maximum exposure that they climb, but on this, their vertical. On what they can do, on what it is given to them to do, according to their powers and in safety. And how they can bring into their everyday life what they see, what they feel, what strengthens them up there. And become a little stronger,” says Dragoș Petrescu. At the same time, climbing was a form of escape, a way of practising freedom, a way of living at least for a few hours, days, or weeks as if the communist regime did not exist. “Just as speleologists escaped underground, those who did climbing escaped on the mountain,” says Dragoș Petrescu. Regarding the way in which the experience of freedom lived during ascents influenced everyday life, he recounts that the mountain attracted like a magnet and gave rise to imaginary escapes daily, dreams “with open eyes. […] The idea of taking one step and then another and then yet another. Some call it ‘the call of the mountains.’ It may seem old-fashioned, quaint, but there is something true in this expression. It is a sort of call; you feel a sort of call…” As for the concrete manner in which the experience of climbing transformed someone’s life, he adds: “I believe that you come to value life much more. When I came home from the mountain, in those dark times, in spite of the squalor, in spite of the humiliations, I was happy. You value life; you understand who you are; you understand what you are capable of. I believe it is a wonderful form of inner equilibrium. I would say it is also a school of dignity. And an excellent pedagogy of life.”
The communist regime in Romania did not encourage the practise of climbing in any form. It was considered principally to be a military specialisation, and for the communist regime it was associated with the Mountain Chasseurs (Romanian: Vânători de munte), elite units, specially trained to fight in the mountains, made up of soldiers who had to be able to ski and to climb. The ultra-specialised force of Mountain Chasseurs was created in Romania during the First World War on the model of the French Chasseurs alpins, but their fighting tradition was established above all in the Second World War and then continued under communism. In this connection, Dragoș Petrescu remarks: “This sport was seen by the communists in the first place as a militarised discipline, and the strongest climbing clubs were the the military clubs, Steaua and Dinamo. The ropes that were made back then in Oradea were only for the Mountain Chasseurs. In fact the way the regime saw the whole thing gave priority to the Mountain Chasseurs, to soldiers, to special applications. Performance was not an issue. More than that, the performance aspect in this very special sport was regarded with suspicion, because a citizen, an ordinary citizen with abilities developed by this sport was not very well regarded, the logic being this: if he can penetrate the mountains, he can also penetrate buildings by climbing their walls, so he can be dangerous. You were very suspect, in any case, because you were harder to control.” The other side of the coin was that this small world of climbing enthusiasts was much harder to infiltrate with informers. Dragoș Petrescu, former president of CNSAS (the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives), emphasises with reference to those who practised climbing: “In this world there are far fewer Securitate informers. At CNSAS, many files have passed through my hands, but I don’t know of anyone in this small world of climbing who was an informer. There may have been isolated cases, but I for one haven’t come across them. On the other hand, among the ONT [National Tourism Office] and BTT [Youth Tourism Bureau] guides, especially the guides who often went abroad, there were plenty of Securitate informers. The world of climbing was thus much harder to control, much harder to infiltrate. They were small groups, closely bonded, hard to infiltrate, who did strange things far from the eyes of the Securitate and the Communist Party.” In short, under a political system that produce social anomie, climbing generated indestructible solidarities; under a system that limited freedoms, climbing attracted people to places where freedom could be lived at least temporarily. It is in this sense that climbing constituted a form of opposition to the communist regime in Romania.
The Anonymous Mountaineer collection includes a series of items of climbing gear that were improvised or procured on the black market by Dragoș Petrescu. Among its contents are: a climbing helmet, improvised from a Polish-made protective helmet for work on building sites; a harness (seat) made from the strapping of a Dacia car seatbelt; a chest harness made of worn rope; étriers made from bicycle wheel rims; improvised titanium pitons, made in and then smuggled out of a factory, a homemade padded coat, stuffed with goose down using a vacuum cleaner; climbing rucksacks sewn at home; and an ice-axe made from tool steel with a duralumin handle, also made in a factory and smuggled out.
“Because nothing could be found in shops, the equipment had to be made by improvising. I think that this dimension, of improvisation, is one of the most extraordinary stories concerning imagination under communism: to make from objects designed for quite different purposes various other object or accessories that could be functional. Among climbers in particular, improvisation was hard to do, and I was a direct participant in many of these processes. The problem was that the mountain equipment that we improvised was not certified – you didn’t know if it would stand up to the shock of a fall. This was the big problem in climbing: the shock of a fall, which is measured with quite sophisticated instruments. Well, we were improvising, in the absence of professional measurements for essential technical details. Effectively the greater part of the equipment we had was improvised, made blind. It was uncertified – you had no guarantee that it would hold,” concludes Dragoș Petrescu.
On the one hand, homemade improvisations sustained, in an almost miraculous way, the practise of a sport, climbing, that was not very well regarded by the communist regime. On the other hand, precisely this chasing after materials from which to make items of climbing gear as close as possible to the original models gave rise, Dragoș Petrescu believes, to a problematic way of relating to this sport: “At a certain moment you got fed up. You had very little time; there were no places for training; there were no artificial walls available for that sort of thing. That was one thing. On the other hand, there was this extraordinary running around to procure, in difficult conditions, even the smallest accessory for this sport. At a certain moment you got tired. Effectively, instead of training or going to the mountains, as would have been normal, half the time you were running around getting hold of equipment. You had to know how to sew. You had to make a trip to the Danubiana factory and beg someone at the gate to give you some pieces of microporous sheeting to put on the soles of your espadrilles, for added safety; especially on routes of 2a and upwards you needed a different adherence, the adherence that you get from soft, microporous rubber. And this wasn’t to be found. Sometimes in state commerce tennis shoes could be found, but only with difficulty. You had to, as we said at the time ‘get hold of’ them. Everything had to be got hold off. And this ‘getting hold of’ wore you down, because effectively nothing could be found.”
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Autorzy tej strony
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu
Baticu, Niculae. Jurnalul unui alpinist și aviator (The diary of an alpinist and aviator). Bucharest: România Pitorească, 2012.
Cristea, Emilian. Biblioteca montaniardului (The bookcase of the mountaineer). Bucharest: România Pitorească, 2015.
Kargel, Walter. Alpinism: Înălțimi, riscuri, bucurii (Alpinism: Heights, risks, joys). Bucharest: România Pitorească, 2012.
Pătrășconiu, Cristian. 2018. “Fiecare om are verticala lui: Interviu cu Dragoș Petrescu” (Each person has their vertical: Interview with Dragoș Petrescu). LaPunkt, October 23. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.lapunkt.ro/2018/10/interviu-dragos-petrescu-fiecare-om-are-verticala-lui/
Terray, Lionel. 1961. Les Conquérants de l'inutile. Paris: Gallimard.
Petrescu, Dragoș, interview by Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu , July 12, 2018. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection