Refuge de Carozzu to Haut Asco
(3.75 miles/6 kilometers)
I didn't bother with breakfast--I know it's a bad habit, but I don't always bother to eat it at home either. If I'd had my stove I'd have made a drink, but I didn't and so I made do with some water as I filled my Platy.
Because it was so hot, and because water isn't often available during the day, I started most days with 2L of water. That's heavy, of course, and as the trip progressed, and I got a better idea of how much I was likely to drink, I began to reduce it to perhaps 1.5L. To run out of water in such hot, challenging terrain would be a bit of a disaster, though, and so I happily erred on the side of caution.
I noticed, incidentally, that hardly anybody else was using a hydration system. In fact, and thinking back on it, I don't think I saw another at any stage. All the other peeps seemed to be keeping water bottles in their packs and taking their packs off for regular drinks. That's not a system I'd be willing to return to now, but I can see the benefit of carrying either a small bottle or maybe a small mug, and filling them up on those rare but happy occasions when fresh, cold drinking water presents itself during the day.
It occurred to me before leaving that I'd not actually paid for dinner or my bivvy the night before, as when I'd arrived the Guardian had told me to pay later. I returned to the veranda to see whether the Refuge was open, but neither of the Guardians was up and about, so I spent a few minutes making a cunning paper envelope out of a piece of my notebook, folded a 20 Euro note into it and pushed it under the door to the Guardian's accommodation.
The day's walk began in woods again, and I soon arrived at some steep slabs protected by cables. I'm sure this would have been a nightmare in wet, slippery conditions, but again it was totally dry, and the rock was fairly grippy.
I'd read in the guidebook that there was a suspension bridge not too far into the walk, and as I rounded a bit of a bend I could see it down below me to the left. It looked quite exciting!
A couple of other walkers were using it as I approached, and so I stopped to wait until they'd finished. It looked very stable to me...
...but as I began to cross it I found it very bouncy, and realised that it wasn't possible to lean on the cables to the side for support because they immediately moved further outwards. Pathetic as it might sound, I was more scared crossing the little suspension bridge than I'd been at any stage so far :) Still, though, I eventually arrived at the other side in one piece, and set off up the steep climb through rocks and over slabs to the left.
The route continued along slabs, protected on a number of further occasions by cables. Some of the slabs were quite steep, and it would be difficult to walk there without some sort of fairly grippy footwear.
There was a slightly awkward bit at one stage, where I had to put down my poles on the rock and reach back for them when I'd negotiated the slab.
It was all fun, though, and exhilarating rather than frightening, and along the way I passed at least one very alluring-looking pool in the rocks below.
I also noticed some spectacularly lovely orange lilies in the vegetation growing at the side of the path.
For one heady moment I thought they might be the same as the amazing and fantastically scented lilies I'd found growing in the Pyrenees the year before...
...but they were unscented (and, it's now obvious to me when I look at my old pictures, they looked completely different). In any event, they were very pretty indeed :)
The slabs continued for some time, but led eventually to the inevitable col.
After that the path returned to the more usual clay-coloured rocky ground...
...and led eventually to a small plateau just above a rather dank looking pool of water, known as the Lac de la Muvrella.
I sat down there for a rest and a cigarette. A French family consisting of a mother walking with her two sons was already there--we'd passed and re-passed each other on numerous occasions during the last few days, and seen each other nightly at the Refuges. They eventually packed up and set off up the side of the mountain towards the next flattish part, and I could see that involved a very steep climb indeeed.
As I smoked I played with the self-timer on my camera...
...but eventually it was time to continue, and so I did.
The climb was steep but enjoyable, and part of the way up I turned round and got a better look at the little Lac de la Muvella than I'd been able to get from ground level.
I passed some French people coming down as I was going up, and one of the blokes stopped to chat with me. I was listening to my MP3 player again, and he asked what music it was. By that time I'd progressed from Bill Shatner to HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian (about the 5th time I've heard it, but I do love hearing about all those Napoleonic sea battles when I'm walking in France!), and so I explained. I'm not sure whether he knew Patrick O'Brian or not, but certainly it was nice to stop for a brief chat with a friendly stranger.
I emerged at the top via a narrow scrambly bit...
...and once again I was met with spectacular views of places to come.
I made a couple of little videos as I sat there. The first one includes people chatting away in French (I have no idea what they were saying, but hopefully it wasn't, "Look at that daft Englishwoman waving a camera around...")...
...and the other one shows just how steep the descent was from that point.
After a while I continued, and as I pressed on through a path which made its way through a tangle of undergrowth I came across some flowers I hadn't seen before.
For some reason, somebody had painted a careful arrow onto the rock to show the way ahead.
The views were ever more fantastic. Just a few years ago I'd only seen things like this in books and on the television! The walk had been fantastically rocky, and it had been an enormously exhilarating day. Despite the rockiness I'd rarely felt particularly exposed, and I'd felt very safe on the dry rock with my grippy shoes.
The day's walk ended with a steep and rocky descent into a valley. Once again it began to feel as though I'd be crawling down the hill for the rest of my life, and I stopped once or twice on the way down for a cigarette, more to break the monotony than for any other reason.
These days I always walk with Pacer Poles, and I can honestly say that they've transformed my walking. They're useful on just about every type of ground, but for me they really come into their own on steep descents. I've been developing dodgy knees for a long time now--I suspect it started more than half a lifetime ago when I spent most of my free time playing hockey on astroturf pitches--but although people recommended walking poles to me on a number of occasions I found that I simply couldn't get along with them, because I didn't feel comfortable with the handles. The handles on Pacer Poles are unique, though: they're ergonomically designed to fit perfectly into the palm of one's hand, and so it's possible to lean on them comfortably. When walking downhill the thing to do is to make the poles as long as possible, and then lean on them to take the weight off one's knees. It really makes an amazing difference, and I wouldn't want to be without them these days.
Despite my Pacer Poles, the descent became a miserable, boring slog. I could see the buildings that represented my destination in the distance, but they didn't seem to be getting much closer. Eventually, though, I reached the bottom of the arid, rocky part and entered a wood, and not long after that I arrived at Haut Asco. It had been a short day's walk, and it was only 1330. Had it not been the infamous Cirque de la Solitude the following day I'd probably have continued, but as it was I looked around for a place to put up my tent, erected it and then went to pay for the bivvy. I'd begun to realise that one of the advantages of arriving early lay in having a decent choice of camping spots (or emplacements), and I was keen not to allow a hoarde of later walkers to zip down the hill behind me and grab all the best of the remaining places :)
Haut Asco is a ski resort in the winter, and after spending a couple of nights in remote mountain Refuges it felt as though I'd suddenly arrived at a metropolis! One of the two sons I'd met earlier pointed me to the place where I needed to pay, and when I climbed the stairs to the Ravitaillament GR20 I found a very friendly woman surrounded by a loads of extremely exciting-looking foodstuffs. She was chatting on a phone and happy to let me browse around, and I spent about 15 minutes just looking at tins and packages on shelves, and wondering what I should buy to supplement the meagre rations at the Refuges.
I paid for my bivvy and bought a beer, and decided to return to my tent in order to contemplate further purchases and see whether I could get any mobile reception. Mobile reception is patchy at best on the GR20, but it occurred to me that I might be able to get some here because it was clearly such a busy place.
-- Bivvy: 4 Euros
-- Beer: 4 Euros (a 20% reduction against the cost at the Refuges)
Back at the tent I opened the beer and sat down on a rock. It was absolute bliss to lounge around in the hot sun, knowing that I could legitimately be entirely idle for half a day and that I was likely to be able to get an interesting meal in one of the restaurants that evening. The icing on the cake was that I was able to use my mobile, and so I sent texts to various members of my family and friends, and even managed to take a photo with my camera and send that as well. I took a little video too.
In the middle of texting the credit on my phone suddenly ran out, but after searching desperately through various menus for half an hour or so I managed to find a way to top it up.
As I drank my beer, wrote up my notes and contemplated the food supplies in the little shop a cow grazed contentedly a few feet away. My route towards the Cirque de la Solitude the following morning was to follow the line of trees in the background from left to right, and then climb through the mountains towards some of that snow in the high, shady cwms.
I remembered to get a picture of my tent too. See my can of Pietra beer on the floor on the left-hand side? The ground was very hard and stony again, but with the assistance of a couple of convenient stones I was able to batter my tent pegs into submission and secure things. There was a bit of a wind getting up, and so I needed to be sure that nothing was likely to blow away in the middle of the night!
As I sat with my beer a small lizard dashed onto a rock and sat next to me. I later saw it disappearing under the outer on my tent. See how its tail is a different colour towards the end? I reckon it must have been lost at some stage, and re-grown. Poor little thing!
Here he is jumping off a rock :)
I eventually made my way back to the food store, where I spent a further happily indecisive 10 minutes whilst the proprietor dealt with a family. After that I bought:
-- a large loaf
-- a bag of dried apricots
-- 2 packets of soup
-- a bag of pasta, and
-- another beer
all for 14 Euros! At less than the price of dinner on either of the previous 2 nights, that stuck me as quite a bargain.
I'd also spotted, and wanted to buy, a large pot of Nutella to eat with my bread for breakfast, but unfortunately it was a glass pot and regretfully I decided it was simply too heavy for my pack. Quelle dommage! I'd also hoped to buy some sachets of hot chocolate but there wasn't any, and I'm not a fan of green tea and so I didn't buy that either. Still, though, it was truly wonderful to be surrounded by so much choice after a couple of hungry days. This is one of the things I enjoy most about long backpacks i.e. the way that things available on tap at home become enormously valued treats when out walking.
I'd made enquiries about showers whilst I was in the shop, and I'd been told that they were in the little building. I'd also been told that they were hot... and so eventually I gathered my wash things together and set off to get clean. The shower ran cold for a few minutes, and I thought I must have missed all the hot water. Quite suddenly, though, it turned hot--what a joy!--and I spent a happy time soaping and re-soaping myself, and turning my face upwards into the jet of hot water to get the most out of the experience.
I was back at my tent thinking about wandering over to the restaurants to check out the menus for dinner when all of a sudden I heard somebody call my name, and when I looked up Ulla and Lene were there: the two Danish women I'd met a couple of days earlier at the Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu. Ulla had tripped on a root and fallen when descending the day before, and unfortunately she'd broken her glasses and cut her face. She'd been very dismissive about her injuries, though, and now she said she'd been able to clean them up thoroughly in the toilet block. It looked pretty sore to me, but Ulla said it wasn't painful.
The three of us decided to wander over to the little bar to get a drink, and so we did. We also arranged to have dinner together later on in the restaurant. In the meantime, though, Ulla and Lene were hungry, and so Lene bought what looked to me like just about the nicest cheese sandwich I've ever seen...
...and then we all settled down at a table outside to enjoy our drinks and the late afternoon sun.
In due course Ulla and Lene went off to get ready for dinner, and we all met back at the restaurant at the hotel at 7.20pm. There was a bit of a problem initially in getting a table together as we'd booked seperately, but the waitress eventually put two small tables together and we settled down into what felt like luxurious surroundings. At other tables I could see people tucking into salads, and I could hardly wait to eat some. Yum!
As we waited to eat we chatted about the other people we'd seen on the walk. Ulla and Lene had seen the 4 young English blokes that day, so presumably they were still walking, but none of us had seen Lee since the night before, and we concluded that he must have left the route.
The food eventually arrived, and it was very good. We'd all chosen the Menu du Jour for 17 Euros, and in due course we had soup...
...and then beef, with sauted potatoes and some sort of vegetables. After that came cheese and then fruit salad, but my mind had been turned by the experience of eating properly (or maybe it was the wine) and I forgot to take pictures of those. All that for only 1 Euro more than we'd paid at Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu and Refuge de Carozzu for lentils and rice respectively!
We didn't hang around for long after dinner, as I had the dreaded Cirque de la Solitude the following day and Ulla and Lene were going home. Their guidebook had said that there should be a bus from Haut Asco back to civilisation, but it had turned out that there wasn't one and they were planning to try to hitch a lift and needed to be ready to make an early start. They gave me some muesli and offered me some gas (as I refused, another metaphorical tear fell for the demise of my little stove), and then we said goodbye and promised to write, and I set off back towards the tent.
On the way out, though, I heard some English voices, and noticed a group of about 5 English blokes standing around together at a table on the balcony. I stopped to say a quick hello, and it turned out that they'd finished that day. They'd been walking in a group with a guide, and they'd had a great time.
We chatted for about 5 minutes and then I went back to the tent. On the way I noticed several people bivvying and thought again that I must try it at some stage. Not tonight, though, and so I got into my sleeping bag, got out my book and soon fell contentedly asleep.
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