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GR20 Part II

Within minutes what had seemed like an amazing, albeit tiring day was quickly slipping into a situation out of our control. I pulled my roll of zinc oxide tape I’d packed at the last minute out of my first aid kit. Just a few months earlier I’d done a taping and strapping course following on from my sports massage qualification. I didn’t realise I’d be using it in a situation like this. I carefully taped up the ankle stretching the tape so it wouldn’t go over again on the rolled side. Karin stood up and tried it out. It worked! We weren’t going to be running anywhere that day but we might be able to walk. To be honest this ridge was more of a scramble, running it would be dangerous anyways.

We carried on, Karin using her walking poles where she could and sitting down to shuffle over the steep bits. This was probably the worst terrain for someone with a twisted ankle. Karin wasn’t going to give up, many hardened runners would have. You’re only good at running, mountaineering or whatever, when it’s hard, when you don’t feel like it, when you’re tired and when you want to give up. I was going to find that out for myself in the next few weeks. It’s only easy when it’s easy.

We kept going not thinking too far ahead, the path dipped up and down past rocky pillars. We scrambled along, the clouds clung to the rocks below and above us. Every so often they drifted past giving us a glimpse of the route and the exposure below us which was terrific. Not something Karin was appreciating with her strapped up ankle. Every time it felt like we were getting near to the point where the path would descend and leave the ridge, up it would climb again. We stumbled on in silence, knowing that if we got stuck here we would have serious problems.

Finally a sign for Bocca Innuminata 1865m appeared marking where the path descends down to our campsite. Food, rest and sleep! We traversed over some steep rocks and then made our way down. This was worse than going along the ridge for Karin. Loose rubble on top of rock and smooth ground provided a treacherous slide. My feet went out from underneath me a few times. Karin’s did once, I stood in silence waiting for the worse. The strapping had held, we went on.

We descended until the barren rock gave way to trees until finally we were in the pine woods. It was warmer down here but it was a relief to be off the exposure of the ridge. I sat Karin down on my pack and hunted for a spare camp site. The place was busy and it would soon be dark. All the walking groups had been sometime and every spare surface was taken. The trees were dense. There was one spot left. And it was crawling with ants. Just within seconds of standing on it they were quickly swarming up my legs. I hunted round searching for something else. But there was nothing else for it so I started pitching, at least my tent had a fly sheet! Just as I was pitching the tent, a young French hiker came over and said he could fit us next to his tent. It was really kind. He moved his friends around so there was enough room. They couldn’t believe we were running the route and that we’d started earlier that day. We had traveled 12.5 miles and ascended 2300m in what would take a good hiker 2 days or 14 hours of solid walking. Despite all the mishaps it had taken us almost half that time. It was soon dark. I put the stove on. Hot food! I love camping. The whole self sufficiency of it is so completely refreshing, compared to our normal lives that have so many ties on them. So just for a moment, you have no cares other than your own survival, it’s that simple. Food tastes better, sleep is deeper and life makes sense.

We awoke to the sound of tents being packed up. I’d decided with the long day we’d had before it would be a good idea to have a lie in and get the rest we needed for another double section day ahead of us. I wasn’t afraid of finishing a route in the dark either. We were still uncertain as to how Karin’s ankle would be. We’d had long conversations about whether we should bale out or risk going further, in the end deciding to see how things were in the morning. A route out would not be that easy from here anyway, at least at the next checkpoint there was a road out if the worst happened. I cooked breakfast and we started to pack up the tent. I had a look at Karin’s ankle which was quite swollen but seemed to be stable. It was going to be a day of careful foot placement and pain killers. We restocked our water and started on the footpath, leaving an empty campsite behind us, next stop Haut Asco.

The route wound down through the trees before opening out into a gorge (Spasimata Gorge). The sun shone and the river roared below us, it was a beautiful morning. We crossed over the rope bridge that led to the otherside, it reminded me of the many bridges we had crossed a few years earlier when trekking in Nepal. In just a few weeks I’d be heading out there again for 2 months, but Manaslu felt a very long way off especially with the UTMB still to come. We now had a steep climb up over slabs of rock to the next ridge. The via ferrata appeared again and we were soon using chains and metal steps to haul our way up. Patches of the rock that were still wet were desperately slippery, without holding onto the chains and you could easily be sent down into gorge. We continued on up, Karin taking care over the stones, her ankle still unstable. Climbing higher we started to catch up with the hikers, which made scrambling up the routes tricky. We had to let go of the via ferrata and make our way round the trains of people slow marching up like chain gangs. The climb was relentless, the path remaining more of a scramble. We found ourselves in a rocky amphitheatre at the top of the gorge with a couloir in front of us leading up to another ridge and rocky pillars towering all around us. It was hot. The rest of the hikers that had started that morning sat around having a snack at the obvious rest point, before taking on the steep couloir. Again they were puzzled by our presence, it’s also always quite humorous when hikers get slightly agitated by being over taken by trail runners, never quite understood that! We guzzled water and started up the gully.

The rocks were large and loose, the gully steep.  The only way of telling this was the route were the odd red and white flashes randomly dotted on rocks. We pushed on, it was hot and in the gully there was no air flow. It was going to feel so good on the way down. Finally we stood at the top of the ridge enjoying the cool breeze and spectacular view into the next valley.

Another steep traverse and steep descent which took us longer than the ascent. Just picking the route down was tricky and we went wrong a few times having to climb back up. As we looked back hikers spread out as they tried to find the path, it was not easy! 3.5hrs later than we started from the campsite and we ran into Haut Asco in time to grab some lunch. I bought some cheese and bread and a coke from the little shop, we hoovered it down.  

It would have been so easy to stay in there in the hot sunshine, resting our weary legs. But high above us towards the south and our where our route took us, dark clouds were starting to gather. The next section was the Cirque de Solitude the most feared part of the route and considered impassable when the rocks were wet. It was all on steep slabs with via ferrata climbing. No false move forgiveness. We hurried, putting our backpacks back on and headed back up into the mountains. This time onto the highest part of the whole route, hoping to slip through the narrow weather window before the storms arrived and closed it down.

Part 3 to follow...

GR20 Part II