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GR 20 Part III

The stones of the neatly piled cairn flew up into the air, scattering across the wet rock where they had been precariously balanced only moments earlier. I was furious. This was an absolute outrage. The rain poured like a river from the sky itself. Each rain drop a glass of water. Within seconds we were soaked to the skin. The mountainside was now awash with streams and rivers of the stuff. Another crash of thunder and lightning echoed around us, the storm trying to cleanse the mountain of its intruders.

We started trotting up the hillside. The clouds above us to the right darkened but appeared to be clinging to a ridge, leaving the route open to the left – where were heading. To the left of that and the direction of Monte Cinto, the highest mountain in Corsica standing at 2,706m was also hidden by the clouds. Haut Asco was a popular area for hikers since it was only one of a few areas that could be reached by car. It offered skiing in the winter and had a hotel to cater for both walkers and skiiers for their respective seasons, as well as a good scramble up to the highest mountain. Several day hikers were slowly walking down off the route. An Italian family stopped to ask us about the route back down, fortunately in English. They were nervous about the impending storm and told us that a hiker had been struck and killed near the Cirque de la Solitude yesterday during a lightning strike. I suspected, at the same time we were sheltering in the mountain hut. It reminded me of the strike that had happened on the hut on top of Mt Whitney which I read about when standing on the summit back in May - lightning strike on Witney. The Italian man blamed the popularity of walking poles on what had happened to the hiker. I sympathised given my limited Italian and his limited English, but it’s a bit of an urban myth, walking poles and ice axes don’t really make your chances of being struck that much worse compared to your own conductivity. I think it was more the case of being on the ridge – poor chap. But I wasn’t going to be the person to put that theory to the test. We hiked on, I continually monitored the situation. Karin was nervous. I was very much aware of my responsibility in this situation, running solo I probably take more risks than I should. Despite the next section being almost impassable if wet, a lightning storm on the highest part of the route was certainly an unjustifiable risk to take.

Back above the tree line, I convinced Karin for us to continue a bit further, so that at least we could check out the route and perhaps spot a good place to camp. We were in a bowl covered in knee deep scrubby vegetation. A stream ran not far away but there was little in the form of flat comfortable ground. I figured that we could wait the storm out here and then continue on, hopefully getting to the other side of the Cirque before dark. We stopped and discussed the idea further. The storm was building and it wasn’t going to be long before it rained. I didn’t mind the various challenges we were facing, in fact I knew I needed something challenging, I love beating the odds, pitting my body against adversity. It wasn’t long ago when I was hauling myself around the French Alps. But I also needed a successful trip, the Haute Route had not gone well at all, stopping short just above Verbier and we’d missed a few summits near Zermatt. But for Karin this was a holiday, she’d twisted an ankle; a mere miracle that she had made it this far. Forcing back my summit fever, we headed back down.

On an island where it never rains in summer (not true I know) and therefore for the first (and last) time I’d deliberately left my rain jacket behind (it would be warm rain if it did!). Cold wet drops hit us. We hurried down. I was angry, if we had camped we would be dry. We were retreating down the hill, only to have to come back another time. It was the culmination of the recent mountain frustrations. I was silent. I knew it was unfair to take it out on Karin, it wasn’t her fault. If anyone to blame it was me, poor planning and timing. My walking pole sent the cairn flying. Previously a helpful marker of the route, to the weary hiker, a cheerful signpost to remind you of the right route. I dashed it away, and immediately felt overcome with guilt. What a childish and stupid thing to do.

We sat in the small café, the water dripping off us gathering in pools beneath our chairs. We shivered with cold and eagerly awaited the hot chocolates we had ordered. I stared at the guidebook as though it would offer some immediate solution. We tried to work out what our next move was. We were absolutely soaked and the rain was still torrential, both of us were getting colder and we needed to get warm. There was no way we could make it over the Cirque de la Solitude even if it did clear up as it would be too slippery to climb. It was so infuriating, if we had started early that morning we would have made it over. Corsica was experiencing some of its worst storms and it appeared that they were rolling in each lunchtime like clockwork.

At that moment the young French guy who had kindly made space for our tent the previous evening walked in. Apparently one of his group could not go on and they were looking at different ways of trying to leave the route. We handed over the guidebook so he could work out a plan. I looked outside at the row of tents being hammered by the rain, the thunder still rumbling around. Reluctantly I agreed to stay in the hotel.

The room was draped with all our sodden belongings, every inch covered, in order to try to dry it out. It was good to be warm and dry again, although we had gone for the easy option and I felt like a cheat. We weren’t going to make the same mistake again though and so set the alarm for a couple of hours before first light.

At 3.30am we slipped quietly out of the hotel. The rain had stopped and the sky clear with stars twinkling away. We snapped our head torches on and trotted back up to where we had turned around hours earlier. I stopped to reassemble the cairn.

Just as the sun was sitting on the horizon we stood on the ridge looking down into the Cirque, its reputation is all we had heard about “This is the day that many walkers on the GR20 dread...” (Cicerone Guide). The route down looked fairly vertical, and a slip would be fatal, but this was a moderate climb at most. We scrambled down hanging onto chains. It was great fun and soon we were at the bottom. The trickiest part was trying to follow the route rather than heading off in the wrong direction. We started back up the other side and out of the chasm. We could see there were a couple of groups gathering at the top of the side we were now ascending, about to start their descent. We hastened the pace not wanting to get stuck with a slow moving group moving down the via ferrata. We met them near the top, very slow and cautious, and clearly never having done any rock scrambles. To their horror we nipped round them, just free scrambling to the top, it really wasn’t that severe and inov-8 trail shoes have exceptional grip! It had taken us about 30 minutes, most walkers take 2 hours.

The early morning sun was now up in the sky and we were greeted with a fantastic view from our viewpoint at 2218m, down into the forested valley far below. We started running, since the path for the first time was improving. Large flat slabs of granite stuck up from the mountainside which enabled us to run and hop from boulder to boulder. It was a beautiful day. A helicopter flew low overheard and we waved up to the guys filming, who waved back, it brought back memories of the Marathon Des Sables. We continued on. 

The day got hotter until we were down in the valley floor and looking to make another big ascent. The path on this last section had been great, runnable! The route became much more about scrambling again though, but this time with no chains to help. It was very hot and the only relief was the breeze that increased as we climbed higher. We ran out of water and I filled our bottles with water from a small stream, we dipped our toes in to cool down. We were at last on the final section of our journey. Just 5 miles to go. After sometime scrambling up through the hot rock we were on the side of a long ridge smoothed ridge. We ran further on to the mountain hut just 30 minutes away where we stopped briefly to eat our lunch.

It was mostly downhill from here and the temperature was getting hotter. The stream ran alongside the path at the bottom of the valley and formed natural granite pools and waterfalls. The temptation to take a dip was strong! Many day hikers were out along the route and a few people were picnicking next to the pools. We continued on, our one focus; getting to the campsite for the end of the day. The path was relentless and our bodies less used to running down, more climbing up. Karin’s ankle was still sore and swollen and the heat and constant pounding didn’t help. We wound down the valley until we were back into the tree line. From here there was a traverse to the campsite, still several miles away. Last effort. The path was rocky and full of tree roots that tripped us up. It was frustrating as I craved a good path! With all our water gone and a few false signs we were both hoping for the end of this 5th and final stage. 15 miles and some 1850m cumulative ascent since the beginning of the day, we at last we arrived. 

Sitting on a bench in the sunshine at the campsite, it was so nice to rest. We chatted about the route, the storms, the Cirques and Karin's twisted ankle; it was amazing what we had been through in the last 2 days and yet still finished what we had set out to do. At last we could relax. As we were talking, I saw over Karin's shoulder far away in the distance, high up on the ridge where we had lunched a few hours earlier, the mountain disappear into black cloud, and soon a deep roll of thunder rumbled down to us. But we were done with the GR20… for now.

GR 20 Part III