Refuge d'Usciolu to Refuge d'Asinau
(10.5 miles/17 kilometers)
I wasn't worried about getting wet, but I was worried about slipping on steep rock, and even more worried about the possiblity of being caught in a storm on a ridge. Reading I'd done before embarking on the walk had made it clear that lightning strike is the most common cause of death on the GR20, and I knew that Connie Roos, a writer, had been in the process of updating the Cicerone GR20 guide when she'd been killed in that way some years earlier. (In fact, she was killed descending to the Refuge d'Usciolu, and so I must have passed the point at which it had happened the day before.) I therefore took the possibility of stormy weather seriously, and gave anxious consideration to the option of walking down to Cozzano, or maybe staying where I was for a day in the hope of improved weather. I didn't want to miss any of the walk out, though, and I didn't really have time to hang back for a day. In the end I decided to make my way over to the Refuge to see what other people were doing, and reassess the position after that.
Near the toilet block I met the friendly walker with whom I'd shared a table the night before. He said he didn't envy me the walk over to the next Refuge in the rain, and suggested that if I was going to do it I should probably start as soon as possible. I agreed, and, looking up at the path which led up to the ridge and seeing walkers nearing the top, I decided to go for it. I therefore returned to the tent and packed up as quickly as possible. Still, I'd spent so much time consulting the guidebook that it was 8.15am by the time I got off, which was a late start by any estimate.
I'd taken a light waterproof smock with me, but hadn't bothered to take waterproof trousers. In the event I really didn't need them, as I was happy enough in my shorts with a waterproof and my light fleece. It didn't take long to get up to the ridge, and I stopped for a quick look back at the Refuge on the way.
I then spent about 2.5 hours weaving right and left along paths which passed just below the ridge crest. Some of the rock was slippery, but I was very careful and the grippy soles of my Roclites helped a lot. It was very windy on the west side of the ridge but sheltered on the east, and as I walked I had continually to adjust the volume on my MP3 player. I did my best to make rapid progress, but things were very rocky underfoot and so there was a limit to what I could do.
At one point I came to what seemed to be a scramble down a bit of a rocky chimney. I found it a bit of a struggle in the rain, and felt like a bit of an idiot when I got to the bottom and saw two other walkers appear from just above me, having found a much simpler way down.
Despite my hurry, I couldn't help stopping for this bunch of little daisies which appeared to be growing straight out of the rock.
There were some great views to the sides...
...but dark clouds were looming ahead of me, and I was a little frightened as I made my way towards them.
Eventually I spotted the beech wood referred to in the guidebook, and with relief I began to descend towards it. The rain stopped, and the weather began to brighten up as I made my way across a much easier piece of flat ground and then gradually downhill. This was one of the occasions upon which the markings suddenly petered out, and having taken what appeared to be the path down I had to walk back up again for a few minutes in order to check that I'd not gone the wrong way. I hadn't, and so I retraced my steps and continued.
It was now much warmer, and finally sunny, and after about 15 minutes I stopped at the side of the path and took off my fleece and waterproof. I found that I was hungry, and so I got out my bread and had some saucisson too. As I sat there a few people passed me walking up the hill, and I was happy to see that there were no waterproofs in evidence.
I'd read in the guidebook that this was the day on which it was necessary to climb right to the top of a mountain--Monte Alcudina--and after my unaccustomed experience of feeling fed up and knackered on the interminable climb the day before I was a little worried that it might turn out to be a bit of a nightmare. Before I could climb the mountain I had to walk to the base, though, and so I gathered my things together and set off.
It was fast becoming an extra-hot day. After wandering along a track in beech woods I eventually descended to what I think must have been the Plateau du Cuscione, which was quite unlike anything I'd encountered on the GR20 before. It was pretty easy walking, but I felt tired and clumsy, and my mind returned with a degree of apprehension to the prospect of the lengthy climb ahead.
The mountain grew steadily closer...
...and eventually I arrived at the little suspension footbridge I'd seen mentioned in the guide. It was shorter than the one I'd crossed on Day 3, but just as wobbly!
Around lunchtime I finally got to the point at which I could see the climb beginning ahead of me, and sat down next to a large boulder for another bread and saucisson snack and a bit of a rest. I'd checked the little temperature gauge on my altimeter as I'd approached the boulders and it was reading 98C, and it had occurred to me that maybe that had quite a lot to do with why I was feeling so weary!
As I sat down I switched off my MP3 player and surveyed my surroundings. I'd finished the Michael Ruhlman book earlier in the day, and begun The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, in which he described the terrible journey he made on foot with 6 others after escaping from a Russian slave-labour camp in Siberia during the Second World War. Those who survived walked all the way to India, a distance of some 4,000 miles, via the Gobi Desert and through the Himalayas, entirely reliant upon their own determination to survive, and the kindness of strangers in remote places, to regain their freedom. I'd reckoned that something like that would provide useful perspective for any discomfort I might imagine I was experiencing on the GR20, and help to revive any flagging spirits :)
As I ate my lunch I re-read the relevant pages in the guidebook, in an attempt to make an estimate of how long it was likely to take me to get to the top. I wasn't sure, but it seemed entirely possible that several hours of ascent lay ahead of me.
Eventually I began to pack my things together, and with a last regretful look at my shady place behind the boulder I began to climb the first of the slopes towards the mountain top. I'd decided to take things very steadily, but almost immediately it became obvious that the climb was going to be much less of an ordeal than I'd feared, because there was a bit of a breeze blowing on the side of the hill and it made an enormous difference. Within 5 minutes I was actively enjoying myself again, and I stopped for a last look back at the area from which I'd come.
The rest of the climb was a pleasure. The paths were fine, and with the assistance of the cooling breeze I made what felt like steady and even fairly rapid progress towards the top.
Eventually the top itself came into view--it took me 90 minutes to get there--and I noticed that the large wooden cross had fallen onto its side.
I later mentioned this to Freddy, Annie and Jacques in Bastia, and asked why it hadn't been restored to its proper position, but they didn't know. Certainly it seems a pity to just leave it there like that.
The route doesn't actually go right over the very top of the mountain, but naturally I scrambled up to enjoy the views and the feeling of conquest :) It was very windy on top, and the views were superb in every direction.
I was still having problems with my camera battery, though, and so reluctantly I put the camera away, scrambled down to the path and began to press on towards the next Refuge.
I mentioned at an earlier stage that I'd not seen lots of butterflies, and this time I'd not spent much time trying to capture pictures of the ones I'd spotted because I've spent a lot of time on Pyrenean mountainsides pursuing butterflies for pictures that have almost always turned out to be disappointing. As I was descending, though, I had a great piece of luck when quite suddenly a rare Corsican Swallowtail landed on a flower in front of me! I reached quickly for the camera and prayed that it would actually start. It did, and I managed to get a fairly clear picture :) I managed to get one more blurred one as it was about to take flight, but by the time I'd attempted to zoom in it had flown on. Still, I was delighted.
After that I settled to the task of descending to the Refuge. There were still occasional traces of ominous looking dark cloud, and that was a little unsettling, but nothing materialised except the most agonising descent (well probably; there were a few condenders) of the entire trip.
From the point (I think: my note isn't quite clear) at which the Refuge came into view far, far below, it took me 90 minutes of careful, knee-wrenching, frustrating, irritating and ultimately horrible walking over, around and down a mixture of steep and potentially slippery slabs, huge boulders and rocky little twists in the path. Virtually every step had to be carefully planned, and every foothold chosen: it wasn't possible to simply walk at any stage. Had I been carrying less weight, and had my knees been 20 years younger, it would probably have been easier--at one stage a man carrying a tiny day sack passed me, travelling at a speed I envied greatly--but as it was I just had to get by with the assistance of my Pacer Poles (thank God for them!) and the knowledge that Slavomir Rawicz and his fellow walkers had endured much worse :)
I finally arrived at the Refuge, dumped my pack on the veranda, took off my Roclites (there was a sign... no shoes inside) and went in to speak to the Guardian. There was a little queue, which provided me with an opportunity to think about what I might do about dinner. I'd decided not to bother with a hot meal, partly because my mind was still running on those marvellous sardines I'd seen Veronique eating earlier in the trip. I thought I might buy some rice and sardines and make my own sardine feast, but as I looked around I couldn't see any communal pots in the communal kitchen. When my turn arrived, therefore, I bought a tin of sardines with chillies, 4 small plastic pats (breakfast size) of Nutella (yum!) and a can of Coke for immediate consumption, planning sardines on bread later. My bivvy cost 4 Euros, as usual, and the whole thing came to 11.50 Euros. The Guardian was young and friendly, and we smirked together at my attempts to communicate in French.
I piled all my goodies into my hat and carried it out onto the veranda, like a lizard with a particularly juicy moth. I decided to go campsite hunting before drinking my Coke, and so I made my way down the side of the mountain to see what pitches were left. There weren't many, but eventually I found a nice flattish little spot and put up the tent.
After that I opened my drink and unpacked my rucksack in a leisurely fashion, whilst taking a closer look at the landscape around me. The bloke I'd first seen at the Cirque de la Solitude, and then again the night before at Refuge d'Usciolu, arrived to look for his own campsite, and we said hello and something else: again, I'm not quite sure exactly what :)
Muted screams had quickly alerted me to the location of the shower, a short walk away across the hillside, and when I'd finished my drink I got my wash things and a few items of my dirtiest clothing together and dragged myself over there. I wasn't looking forward to splashing myself with freezing water but it had to be done. I hadn't had a shower since Vizzavona, 3 days earlier, and I was beginning to worry that people might start giving me a wide birth if I didn't at least attempt to get clean.
The French bloke from the Cirque and Usciolu had got to the showers before me, and so I endured a bit of a temporary reprieve as I heard him gasping, spluttering and swearing in the little shed before me.
He came out smiling through his shudders, though, and so I braced myself and went in. I immediately noticed it wasn't possible to lock the door, which lent extra spice to the experience, but I draped my little camping towel over the top and hoped that my screams as the water hit me would deter others from attempting to enter.
The water was just as cold as I'd expected it to be, but I followed my usual course of sticking my head right into the flow and washing my hair, and then washing my arms and legs and finally splashing water onto the other important bits, soaping everything up and rinsing off with a further comprehensive splash.
A little cleaner than when I'd got in, I wriggled back into my dry clothes and took the others next door for a bit of a scrub in the sink. Then I wandered back to my tent and arranged my washing on warm rocks, carefully pinning it in place with a series of stones. A bit of a wind had begun to get up, and it was actually quite cold out of the sun. I decided to walk up to one of the tables at the Refuge to eat dinner, and so I got my loaf and sardines and book together and picked my way up the path.
It was even windier at the tables, but I settled myself down and opened the sardines. They were actually quite delicious, and went very well indeed with the dense, seedy bread I'd bought the night before.
There was a horse tethered just behind me--I'd read that people do ride along parts of the GR20, and from time to time I'd spotted the obvious clues along the path--and periodically it let out a rather anguished-sounding neigh as it gazed over towards the mountains on the other side of the tents.
After dinner it occurred to me that a hot chocolate would be lovely, and so I went over to the Refuge and asked the Guardian if I could have one. He said no, and I'm still not sure whether that's because he wasn't serving hot drinks or because he thought I was asking him for a freebie. Hmmm... Anyway, there didn't seem to be any point in doing anything other than getting an early night, and so I filled two Platys at the little spring in front of the Refuge--one for the following morning, and one in case I was thirsty during the night--and snuggled down in my sleeping bag with my book.
I was nearing the end of The Importance of Being Kennedy, and for once it was early enough for me to be able to read for more than a couple of minutes before falling asleep. As I was reading I became aware of what sounded like sharp, heavy footfalls outside my tent, mingled with the sound of tearing foliage. Eventually I put down my book and poked my head out of the door, and there I saw a large cow a few feet away, feeding on the bushes right next to my tent. I looked around and was a little disconcerted to find a small herd of them eating there, since it seemed unlikely that they'd be making much of an effort to avoid my guylines. I was a little uneasy as I settled back to my book, but no cow trampled my tent and so perhaps they've been specially trained to deal with walkers :)
A little while after that I heard a sudden enthusiastic neighing, and then what sounded just like a horse making its way at speed up the path right next to my tent. That seemed incredible, though, on such steep and rocky ground. Still, I opened the door again and sure enough I was just in time to see a horse and rider passing by. A couple more followed, and it may be that they have stabling facilities at the Refuge because I saw no sign of them in the morning.
As I read I remembered the little pots of Nutella in my bag, and it became impossible to shake off the idea that I'd like to eat a couple with bread.
After that it occurred to me that I'd not taken a picture of the interior of the tent at any stage and so I thought I better had, just as an illustration of the importance of keeping everything tidy and well organised when camping :)
I finally dropped off to sleep, but was woken some time later by the sound of blokes arguing on the hillside above me. The voices grew higher and louder, and I began to worry that there was going to be a fight. It may be that there was, but eventually I dropped off again and slept fairly well until just after 5am the following morning.
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