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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

Day 4 - Saturday 5th July
Haut Asco to Refuge de Tighjettu
(5.5 miles/9 kilometers)

I woke at 0440 and then dozed for an hour. When I finally opened the door of the tent I noticed that the French woman and her two sons, who were normally up very early, had not yet taken down their tent, and I thought that perhaps they weren't planning to go any further. I'd slept quite well, but what had woken me had been the sound of a baby crying in what must have been an adjoining tent.

I slipped into my walking clothes and went into what I think must have been the Refuge (the place where I'd paid and bought food) for a wash. That done, I went back to my tent and packed up. I was hoping to make an early start as I was nervous about the Cirque and I didn't want to be the last through it, just in case... As I was packing, though, I saw each of the other groups getting their things together and moving off, including the French woman with her two sons, and so once again I was the last to start, even though it was only just after 7am (or was it 8am? Surely not...) when I finally left.

I almost left without my tent pegs. Just as I was about to pick up my pack I noticed them sitting on the floor. I've often worried about leaving my tent pegs behind: fortunately this time I had a lucky escape.

Part of the reason I'd taken longer than usual was that I now had some extra supplies to try to fit into my rucksack. I'd fiddled about with them for a while, but in the end I'd decided that I simply didn't have room for the muesli, or the pasta I'd bought the night before, and so I'd left the muesli in the dining room for some other hungry person to eat, and put the pasta next to the door to the little shop.

The day's walk began as always with a climb, initially in the open and then through some trees. The climb through the wood was very steep, but enjoyable, and as I made my way up I passed Jerry, the man I'd chatted with in a sort of Franglaise at Refuge de Carozzu two nights earlier. We exchanged a few words and then I pressed on up.

I eventually emerged from the climb through the woods onto a plateau, and from there the walk continued in the open towards the rim of the Cirque. The scenery was stunning once again...

...and as I continued I saw other familiar walkers ahead.

I tend not to take frequent breaks when I'm walking, preferring instead to stick to a fairly steady pace regardless of the ground. Having left Haut Asco a little late I was keen to make up a little ground early today, and I was relieved to find that I seemed to be catching people up.

It was a little breezy, and I noticed a number of spiders' webs shimmering in the bushes beside the path.

As I continued I eventually began to see what I thought might be the rim of the Cirque ahead of me in the distance.

I stopped to take a picture, and also one of the path back towards Haut Asco behind me. I never tire of seeing those distant views of misty mountains fading into the distance :)

What had become an easy, gradual ascent over good, open paths eventually developed into another steep climb, first of all up a hot and stony little path and eventually over increasingly large slabs. As I climbed higher I came across the first snow of the trip.

I passed a sign...

...and not long after that embarked upon the last pull up to the col which marks the border between the first part of the GR20 and the infamous Cirque de la Solitude.

It had taken rather longer than I'd expected to get to the col; not because I'd been walking slowly--in fact, I'd walked fast and had overtaken quite a lot of people--but simply because it was further away than I'd anticipated. I must learn to read the guidebook more closely...

Whereas I'd been more than warm approaching the col, I immediately cooled down in the cold wind blowing up from the cirque, and so I opened my pack and dug out my fleece. I wanted to take some photos, but--perhaps inevitably--my camera batteries chose that very moment to die, and so I had to dig down into the middle of my pack to get at the spares in my "things I'm not likely to need to use before I finish for the day" bag of bits and pieces.

I took this picture from the lip of the cirque...

Standing at the top of the Cirque de la Solitude

...but it's not really possible from there to see what lies below. This video gives a better idea of what it looks like.

I dug out a cigarette and started psyching myself up for the scary challenge ahead. As I was doing that another walker approached at some speed from behind, asked whether I was going in, said (as far as I could tell--he was speaking rapid French) that it didn't look too dangerous and disappeared into the bowl!

I finished my cigarette and started packing my poles away into the side pockets on my pack, and as I secured things I noticed that my tiny head torch had somehow become tangled around the bottom of one of my pack's mesh side pockets that morning. It's so small and light that I'd somehow managed to completely overlook it in the tent, and I was very lucky indeed not to have lost it at Haut Asco or on the morning's walk. For a moment it felt as though a guardian angel was watching out for me, bearing in mind that I'd almost lost my tent pegs only a few hours earlier!

Once I'd disentangled and packed away my torch there really wasn't room for much more procrastination. Still, I took a picture of the ground that lay behind me...

Looking back towards Haut Asco

...and asked another walker to take one of me getting ready to enter the cirque, just in case...

Practising my Gallic shrug

...and finally I set off down.

I'd been planning to take a series of pictures on the way down, and I started with one that shows the walker who set off before me making his way down the first steep, slightly slippery bit...

...but no more than 5 minutes after I'd begun to descend a group of 3 walkers came up behind me. One appeared to be very confident and experienced, and pretty quickly he indicated that he intended to move past me. Having done so, he then proceeded to guide the rest of us down to the bottom. That was quite a relief to me, because despite the chains there was a fearsome sense of exposure in a number of places, and I'd begun to grow rather nervous pretty quickly. The earlier 3 days had been much less frightening, in scrambly terms, than I'd expected from what I'd read about the GR20 in advance, and so when the cirque turned out to be just as challenging as I'd initially expected it to be it took me slightly by surprise.

Only a couple of minutes later the walker immediately beneath us dropped a water bottle, and for 20 seconds or so the sound of its bouncing fall reverberated loudly around us!

We made our way steadily down, sometimes with the assistance of chains and other times without them. Towards the bottom of one of the protected sections Freddy--as the very experienced walker turned out to be--called for my camera, and took a picture of the 3 of us coming down behind him...

...and when I got down to where Freddy had been standing I took a picture of Jacques.

The route continued to descend steeply below us...

...and there were fantastic views of rocky columns and spikes and various rock-related death-traps all around us.

As we approached the end of the descent we met a group of French walkers led by a Guide, Robert, whom Freddy knew from travels in South America. They stopped to chat, and the rest of us all had a bit of a breather. As the group continued I took a piccy of them embarking upon their climb up the bit we'd just come down.

More amazing views surrounded us...

...and there were lovely flowers clinging to rock faces and emerging from crevices in the usual way.

Blurred picture cunningly masquerades as chalky pastel drawing!

This one didn't come out very well, but I rather like it mangled by Paint Shop Pro :)

Pretty little thing


The point eventually arrived at which we'd stopped descending, and were able to start the ascent.

The ascent begins with a very short ladder up what would otherwise be a small climb. Unfortunately I've managed to chop off the top of the walker and so you can't see the top of the ladder clearly, but this walker is standing either at or very near the top. It's no longer than that, and there's a little chain at the top, on the right, so that the intrepid walker can haul him/herself off the top rung and onto the rock above.

Freddy and the others invited me to go up first, and I remember saying it wasn't too bad when I got to the top. That caused a bit of amusement, as the others pointed out that we'd only just started on the ascent, but I'd been wondering what climbing off the ladder would be like for quite some time.

From there we continued up the side of the mountain. There were chains on a number of occasions to help us up, and nothing was particularly frightening. I found the ascent much less scary than the descent, and I think the main reason I found the descent a little intimidating was that it went on for so long. Had I walked alone I'd probably have spent longer between each little descent to get my breath back and recover my composure, but I was very glad indeed to be walking with the others.


We eventually arrived at a point from which it was possible to begin to see the top.

We passed some very impressive pointy rocky columns...

...and stopped fairly regularly for little breathers on the way up.

Annie and Jacques on the way up

Finally we were almost there, and only a couple of minutes later we stepped out onto the top! I think that by that stage it was about 1pm, and it had probably taken us about 90 minutes--possibly a little more--to negotiate the cirque.

I was delighted to finish, and grabbed Annie, Jacques and Freddy in turn for a hug :) I then noticed some of Jerry's friends waiting for him at the top, and went over to say hello. After that Annie, Freddy and Jacques invited me to join them for lunch, and so we all sat down on some of the broad, hot rocks and got out our goodies. As we were doing that a large bird came over to beg for a snack.

Large bird seeking snack

It made an interesting change from the persistent sandwich-addicted sheep I've encountered in the Lake District and Snowdonia!

Jacques, Freddy and Annie

It transpired that my 3 Corsican friends start every lunch when they're walking with an aperitif, consisting of pastis and something yummy like salted peanuts. They passed me a mug of pastis and a bowl of peanuts and both were absolutely delicious. The pastis went down very quickly, and I'm planning to incorporate it into my own standard backpacking supplies now :) I got out my bread, saucisson, cheese, onion and cucumber, and also the bag of apricots I'd bought at Haut Asco. The others had something similar, and for 15 minutes or so we all relaxed into our lunch.

After that the others settled back against the rocks for a siesta, but I decided to press on because I didn't want to impose, and so after a short wander around the the rocks on top of the cirque, from which position I took this short video...

...I got my things together and said goodbye.

The descent towards the Refuge was steep and rocky, and fairly quickly it became a bit of a slog. The wind was quite high in the valley, and at one stage it whipped my Tilley hat right off my head (despite the fact that I was using the restraining string) and blew it over the side of a small cliff! I thought I'd probably seen the last of it, which would have been the source of considerable sadness, but fortunately it had landed on a small plateau not very far down the hillside, and so I put down my pack and scrambled down to collect it.

I continued, then, with Patrick O'Brian's HMS Surprise to distract me from the tedium, stopping fom time to time for a short break...

...and to play with the camera.

At some stage on the descent Annie, Freddy and Jacques passed me, but I continued at my slow, descent pace and eventually the Refuge de Tighjettu appeared before me.

Refuge de Tighjettu

I knew from the book that I had a choice of accommodation that night--either the Refuge, or, a little further down the mountain, the Auberge U Vallone. I'd been provisionally intending to walk on to the Auberge, because it was still early and it seemed to make sense to press on a bit since I wasn't particularly tired. I stopped for a celebratory drink, though, and when I got in I found my 3 friends inside having a beer. That was great news because it provided an opportuntity for me to buy them one, in thanks for all the help they'd given me earlier in the day. I sat down with them to a pastis, and they told me that the food would be very good there that night. I therefore decided to stay, and went over to check with the very friendly Guardian--Charlie--that that was okay. It was, and so I returned to the table and our chat.

-- Bivvy: 4 Euros
-- Dinner :15 Euros (I think)
-- Breakfast: 6 Euros (I think)
-- Beer: 5 Euros
-- Pastis: not sure, but inexpensive

Eventually the others went off to the river for a swim in place of a shower, and I went outside to find somewhere to camp. I found a nice flat place just a few steps up the hill behind the Refuge, and put up the tent. The ground was very hard again, and since it was quite windy I was as careful as possible to make the tent secure.

After that I returned to the Refuge for a beer-the pastis was lovely, but I wanted something more refreshing--and sat at one of the communal tables underneath with some of the French walkers I'd been seeing on a daily basis since Calenzana. They spoke slowly to help me to understand what they were saying, and with the aid of my little notebook and pen I was able to establish that there are no scorpions in the mountains (heh...), that I've walked in the Pyrenees but not the Alps and that the French word for 'lizard' is lézard. They weren't planning to eat in the Refuge that night, and instead they were going to cook at the communal stove underneath the building (which is a sort of chalet, set on stilts).

Charlie the Guardian had given me a packet of crisps with my beer, and I was now looking foward with keen anticipation to dinner. I therefore braced myself for a shower--and it was freezing!--and just as I was wriggling into my cleanish walking trousers in the tent I heard Freddy calling me in for food.

The others were already seated when I went in, at a number of large tables. I sat down with a big group of people I hadn't met, and soon afterwards Charlie brought over a large bowl of some kind of lentil stew. It was very nice indeed: much more tasty and substantial than the lentils I'd had a few days earlier. Three of the people at my end of the table turned out to be walking together on the GR20 in the same direction as me, and to have started from Calenzana on the same day. One of them spoke good English, and we chatted away about various things. During the meal Freddy brought me over a glass of red wine, which was very much appreciated, and not long afterwards Charlie delivered a second big bowl of lentils. Yum! After that he brought round a bag of the local Corsican biscuits--canistrelli--and we each took one, and finally he brought round a bottle of some sort of local firewater, or Eau de Vie. He gave each of us a shot, and it was delicious.

I realised during dinner that I hadn't seen the group of four young English blokes, and hoped they were okay. In fact I never saw them again, and I think it's probable that they finished on the route at Haut Asco and went off to explore the rest of the island.

After eating I sat with Annie, Jacques and Freddy for a while, and they invited me to walk with them the following day. We arranged to meet for breakfast at 0630, and to set off at 0700. Not long after that I made my way back to my tent, got out the book again and soon drifted off to sleep.

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