“The most important lesson that Alternative Sports Club can offer our society is that sometimes you have to start from nothing. That`s what we did,” says Horia Colibășanu, the first Romanian to climb seven peaks over 8,000 meters.
“Most of our sports programs have fallen apart. Soccer has gone completely downhill. So has gymnastics. Not to mention the doping scandal involving our canoe and kayak teams. All of the sports financed by the State over the last 20 years have failed miserably. Simona Halep and Irina Begu made it to the top using their own money to cover expenses.
I was incredibly proud this climbing season in the Himalayas. A Swiss, a Slovak, a German and a Romanian all attempted a new route. And it was the Slovakian-Romanian team that made it up the 8,000 meter peak first.”
Colibășanu is a 39 year old dentist. When I last saw him two months ago he was 20 pounds heavier.
He was all muscle, or “power” as he likes to say. Now ironman muscles have been replaced with the chest of a boy.
This deflation has happened every spring for the last 15 years. Three weeks ago, Horia climbed Manaslu Peak (8,163 m) for the second time in his life. It was his first ascent without a Sherpa or auxiliary oxygen.
Now the training for his next climb begins in the forest near his home in Timișoara. I usually can’t keep up when we run together. This time, he’s not taking it very seriously. He stops on the stone-ridden alley of the Green Forest.
“In Communism, sport was a means to obscure the wheels that were driving the whole system. People were a mass to be manipulated. As we are discovering in gymnastics, athletes were used as tools to prop up the system. Their personal development was completely disregarded. Many of them are deeply bitter.”
Sports are intended to develop the individual and to give athletes the opportunity to become complete human beings. We are still coming to grips with deep scars from our communist system.”
Horia begins to jog once again. It’s a beautiful morning with the buzz of summer in the air. He gestures to the surrounding forest:
“Whenever you cut down an old forest, something will grow back in its place because there is light and sunshine. That’s why we decided to create the Alternative Sports Club. We aspired to create a club that grew in the light of healthy values.
We have a good reputation because we organize ourselves. There were about 12-14 founding members who created Alternative. All are passionate about the mountains. The Club continues to be run by people of great quality.”
Andrei Simu is “the organizer.” We met in the middle of December, just a hundred meters from the spot where the 1989 Revolution exploded in gunfire. Our meeting place was at the Kinder Café, a coffee house for parents and a play place for children. It is the urban gathering spot for the families of Alternative.
Simu is a 35 year old software engineer and has been the President of Alternative Sports Club since its founding. Andrei Simu, Horia Colibășanu, Cristian Tecu and Dragoș Dubina were all formerly part of the Romanian Alpine Club, founded in 1934. Colibășanu explains,
“We realized that there was no point of taking part in a sports club that didn’t have the same vision as we did. After creating the Club, we realized that we didn’t need a boss. We organized ourselves and did things as we wanted.”
Herculane Climbing Open
In 2002, Alternative organized a climbing competition called the Herculane Climbing Open (HCO) in the Cerna Mountains. The nearby Herculane Springs drew climbers attracted to the limestone mountain walls and medicinal drinking water.
After two editions of the Herculane Climbing Open (HCO), participation in the championship exploded. “All of Romania was there,” says Simu. In its third year, HCO became the largest rock climbing event in the country and a real festival.
“Alternative is a club that was born out of a passion for mountains, for climbing and alpinism. Over the years, it has become the most important club in this mountain region.” says Iustin Ionescu, the president of the Romanian Federation of Alpinism and Rock Climbing.
The HCO requires setting at least 30 different routes. For months on end, the alpinists living in Timișoara spend their weekends suspended in thin air or clinging to a cliff.
“You can’t ask nature to offer you exactly what you need. That’s where your imagination kicks in. You have to be able to see a line around where it would be enjoyable to climb.” Simu explains from the Kinder Café basement.
“You also have to set the anchors at spots where climbers can repel down in a straight line. Then, you clean up the cracks with a brush and remove boulders to make the route as safe as possible. You don’t want rocks falling onto the athletes’ heads.”
As the word spread of their work throughout Romania, people began saying: In Timișoara there is a climbing club like the ones in Germany.”
Forbes Magazine ranks rock climbing as the third healthiest sporting activity and says, “It’s anaerobic. Based on explosions of energy that permit the climber to get to the next rock. Although this doesn’t really help the heart, it’s amazing for strength, endurance and flexibility.”
Alpinists distinguish between traditional climbing and sport climbing. Traditional climbing uses artificial means, such as stirrups or pitons, (metal spikes that are driven into a crack or seam in the rock) to expedite and safeguard the climb. In sport climbing your rope is secured to fixed anchors and that’s it.
Timișoara is a former swampland between the Timiș and Bega rivers. The nearest mountain, Mount Mic, is 120 kilometers away. The Cerna Mountains are three hours away.
It’s surprising to see a city as flat as a skating rink playing a pivotal role in mountain climbing. Why didn’t this happen in Sibiu or Făgăraș?
In the 1980s, students at the Timișoara Polytechnic University began scaling a brick wall by the university. “It was actually a brick fence about two meters high and 50 meters long. We also had a poplar tree in the Botanical Gardens and an oak tree in the People’s Park which we covered in pitons,” recounts Fane Milota.
The equipment was also improvised. Fane managed to get his hands on some carabiners from the local fire department. But he couldn’t find proper climbing shoes, so he climbed barefoot. He was barefoot when he participated in his first official climbing competition in the late 1980s.
Supported by Eugen Seracin, a mathematics professor at the university, Fane Milota made it to the Army Sports Club. Milota went on to win seven national championships.
Around the same time, Professor Seracin founded the alpinism section within the University Sports Club. From this Club, many top athletes emerged such as Cornel Gălescu and Claudiu Vidulescu (the latter immigrated to the USA and coached the national junior climbing team).
“In ’99, after I climbed Mount Tian Shan (7,439 meters), I got a room in the dorm that was designated for students belonging to the University Sports Club. Many of the Alternative folks first met there,” remembers Horia.
Horia doesn’t think there’s anything unusual about the fact that this alpine movement was born out of a prairie town.
“Alpine movements usually rise out of cities where there is culture and money to support the activities. In the 1930s, it was climbers from Vienna and Munich, not from Salzburg or Innsbruck, that began climbing Mount Eiger. The climbers came from university cities. Culture doesn’t propagate itself without money. But money alone doesn’t create culture. Money just helps the culture to flourish.”
Fane Milota believes Alternative grew out of the prairie because we long for what we don’t have.
“You become a lot more motivated than the person who has mountains nearby. Since high school, I would spend the entire week thinking about how I would run off to the Herculane Mountains during the weekend. Since the experience was short, you lived it with intensity.”
Alternative on Foot
Alin Tănase is a software programmer and member of Alternative since 2007. After running a marathon in the Piatra Craiului Mountains, Alin and his wife Gianina decided to start the Herculane Marathon. “We wanted runners to see that running in the mountains has its own value and we wanted mountain climbers to see that they could also become runners.” They chose the Cerna Mountains, known to them from their climbing excursions, as the location for the marathon.
“In the Club, the initiatives of every member are encouraged. If someone brings forward an idea that attracts volunteers, we get involved whether it’s a sporting activity or environmental action.”
My first contact with Alternative was preparing a marathon course that began in the Tesna Gorge and finished at the peak of White Rock Mountain. There were 20 of us sleeping in neighboring tents. We woke at 5 am and were separated into small teams. Tools were passed around and communication checkpoints were established. Equipped with shovels, large garden shears and saws, my team cleared a trail all the way to the top of the Mehedinți Mountains. One team member worked all day with his 4 year old daughter on his back.
In the evening, we gathered around a fire and enjoyed some mushroom stew. I met a programmer named Sebastian who was a volunteer like myself. He confessed that Alternative seemed to be a bit elitist. Before becoming a member of the Club, even Alin Tănase found it to be exclusive. Later on, he realized that the entry into Alternative happens organically, by spending time together.
Tănase recognizes that the group might have some unique characteristics: “It’s important not to dilute ourselves in the great mass of people that watch television and hang out at malls.”
In 2014, the Tănase couple stopped organizing the marathon because they moved to Răcădău, near Brașov. After they left Timișoara, no one took on the responsibility of organizing the Herculane Marathon. The competition didn’t even take place in 2015.
Another Alternative member laments “The club has entered into a type of lethargy. The only planned activity we carried out this year was HCO. It went well, just like every year. Adi Margea was mostly responsible for the organizing of the competition. It’s the activity he’s most passionate about.”
Adi Margea, 32 years old, grew up in Arad. An Alternative member since 2004, his college thesis was a business plan to start a climbing gym.
He found his business partner while climbing in the Retezat Mountains, “My partner sold his car and I took out a loan (with the help of my parents). In October 2008, I opened the gym. The people from Alternative all came. Over the years, some people gave up climbing, but new people are signing up to try it out. This year, I’ll be done paying my loans!”
This year, the group at the gym took on the responsibilities for the 15th annual HCO.
Volunteers work eight weekends in a row and then an entire week straight before the competition begins. Each athlete covers their own room and board. The cost of participation is only 15 US dollars. In the end, the organizers always have to cover some of the costs themselves.
Iustin Ionescu, admires the persistence of Alternative, “Since 2002, Alternative has organized the HCO. It is remarkable to have done this for 15 consecutive years.”
“Back in the day, people would look for a means to escape daily life. We had more time than money. Now, we have cars and the trip to the mountain is much faster. But for some reason, less of us go. Now people spend their weekends traveling in other countries or visiting other cities,” says Adi Margea.
After my meeting with the Club members at Kinder Café, I went up Mount Retezat with Colibășanu. Besides the cabin operator in Gențiana, we counted only two other people on the mountain.
The alpinist asks himself bitterly: “Are they all in the mall? I guess we belong to a generation that looks at life differently. Maybe our own kids will grow up with our spirit, but I believe they’ll be a minority. I’m not a pessimist. I do think that sports will always be an important part of life.”
The new sport that’s in style is called bouldering. It is a form of rock climbing that is performed without the use of ropes or harnesses, usually up to a height of 5 meters. It’s practiced on both natural and artificial walls. In January 2016, Margea’s gym held a national bouldering event. About 80 people registered for the event.
Margea believes that older Club members, currently occupied with children, will return as mentors for the next generation. Horia Colibășanu is also convinced they’ll reappear: “At the end of the day, the greatest resource each country has is its people. Few as we might be, we have a certain know-how and have learned to believe in ourselves.”
This excerpt is from Mircea Gherase and Lucian Mircu’s article titled Lord of the Mountains published by RomaniaOne. The full Romanian version can be found at hora.romaniaone.org