Facing Our First Double Stage!
It was Day 3 on the GR20 and we didn’t really know what was in store for us today… Choosing once again to take the ‘lower’ route option despite it adding several hours onto our hiking day, we were exhausted both physically and mentally by the time we reached the Refuge d’Usciolu, having had to contend with some demanding scrambles across sloping slabs and bulbous masses of rock. A particular point of consternation was later in the day when we unexpectedly found ourselves having to squeeze between boulders and make our way through small gullies, whilst tentatively following the trail along the rugged crest of the ridge known as the Arête a Monda. Not an easy feat with a cumbersome backpack and jelly legs I can assure you!
The refuge, nestled snugly in the opposite mountain side, just didn’t seem to be getting any closer despite our efforts. Not only was progress slow because of the terrain, but we found ourselves lacking in both energy and motivation as the sun blazed above our heads zapping us of both. Suffice it to say, we underestimated how tough doubling up today’s stage would be, and in our opinion, hiking from Refuge d’Asinau to Refuge d’Usciolu in a single day, although do-able, was probably our most challenging section of the southern half of the GR20.
Ready for our first double stage challenge (or so we thought) and rocking our funky new ‘Dirty Girl’ gaitors, an upgrade from our Rab ankle gaitors used on last year’s thru-hikes.
Wednesday 5th August 2015 – Stage 3 – Refuge d’ Asinau to Refuge d’ Usciolu – 6:30am – 19:30pm (13 hours)
Having set the alarm for 4:30am today with a view to being packed up and leaving camp by six, we failed to be ready in an hour and a half, thereby maintaining our standard two hour timescale needed to break camp. At least we are predictable!
A beautiful view to wake up to as we left the Refuge d’ Asinau.
We passed several cows that were grazing on the mountainside.
6:30am proved to be a popular time on the trail!
Looking back to the Refuge d’ Asinau. The refuges are open during peak season and operated by gardiens for the use of GR20 hikers as wild camping is not permitted anywhere in the ‘Parc Naturel Regional de Corse’.
On leaving Asinau you are immediately faced with a steep uphill scramble to reach the junction variant where you can turn right and take the high level route across Monte Alcudine saving you several hours of hiking time, (meaning you will reach the Refuge d’ Usciolu before dark). Alternatively, you can turn left towards the Bocca di Chiralba, which certainly looks the more appealing route if your preference is to avoid steep ascents and scary looking knife-edge ridges. Seeing a flattish trail winding across a mountainside of green, meandering off into the distance, convinced us this was our best option. Indeed, this route takes you on a lower level walk right along the river side, across lush grass and wild meadows, which, after a hard first couple of days, really lifts your spirits. Taking this low-level route however, which leads to the Refuge de Matalza (a recently added stage on the GR20, which we were missing out to save time), means that your hiking time is significantly increased; so if you are also intending on doubling up stages and pushing on to the Refuge d’ Usciolu (as was this original GR20 stage), then be prepared for a very long day.
Your personal hiking preferences and time schedule will ultimately determine which route you opt to take. This all sounds simple enough – however that uphill scramble I referred to straight out of Asinau leading to the junction variant and your final decision, takes approximately two hours, and really takes it out of you before you’ve really even got anywhere! I think this was why we found the last section of the day particularly tiresome.
The start of our day required some scrambling efforts as we made our way uphill.
It was a tough ascent, taking us two hours to reach the junction variant at the top.
Navigating the boulders as we zig-zagged up the side of the mountain.
Wayne confidently makes his way up.
One of the trickier sections…
So near, yet so far…
The top is in sight.
Panorama from the mountain pass.
Victory moment! Our first mountain pass of the day! Behind Wayne is the high level route option where the trail follows along the mountain ridge. (After our initial ascent that morning, we never even considered taking the high level route!)
This was our preferred low-level route option – heading down into the valley to walk along the river.
Having a well-deserved breather and enjoying the expansive view whilst Wayne set up his tripod and started a time lapse sequence.
The low level route takes you down the valley to the Bergerie de Croci, then on to the Refuge de Matalza.
Hi ho, hi ho, it’s down the low level we go… (We kind of regretted this decision when it took us 13 hours in total to reach the Refuge d’ Usciolu.)
But the lure of a flattish trail after 2 hours of scrambling (all before 9am) was just far too appealing!
We picked up the pace, making the most of the long flatter sections.
We were happy to be surrounded by vivid greens after the rocky terrain of the first couple of days.
If only wild camping were allowed! A perfect spot to pitch the tent with the river close by providing us with a water source. We savoured the springiness under our feet, then continued on.
Enjoying a brief spot of shade…
Having quickened our pace on this particular section of the GR20, making the most of the long, flatter sections of trail, we arrived at the Bergerie de Croci within the suggested time of one and a half hours. We took off our trail shoes and ventured inside to see what goodies were on offer. There was another couple sat at the long wooden table filling up on a gigantic sandwich, so we decided to follow suit and try the saucisson – a thick, dry cured sausage. Thankfully, we only ordered a sandwich to share as what the gardien brought us can only be described as looking like a giant doorstep. It took some getting through as well as the bread was distinctly stale – not only did it look like a doorstep, it was like chewing a brick! We can’t complain too much though as it did manage to satisfy our hiker hunger for the best part of the day!
Venturing upon the Bergerie de Croci, we decided to make it our second rest stop of the day.
This bergerie was well stocked and the gardien was very friendly. It was one of the only places offering omelettes on the menu, which we then lusted after for days on end, to no avail in other bergeries or refuges.
Setting off on the trail again. This spot looked such an inviting place for a dip. It was such a shame we didn’t have time to stop!
A little rock hop to continue on the trail.
Today’s walk along the valley bottom was particularly pleasant surrounded by wild flowers and lush, green grass.
If you have a longer schedule than ours, the Refuge de Matalza would be your next overnight stop. As we only had 12 days in which to hike the GR20, we had to double up several stages, so instead of pitching our tent and relaxing here, we had to push on to reach the Refuge d’ Usciolu before dark.
Alternatively, you can stop at the Bergerie de Bassetta which has a restaurant and also offers basic accommodation and camping.
Now we couldn’t resist a dip here! Thinking we had made good time, we carried on downstream a little to find our very own private rock-pool area. We decided to cool off and bathe our feet and proceeded to take a 40 minute break! Well we had earned it!
Back to the trail… We still had around 4 hours of walking left to go…
Our route took us through patchy woodland where the beechwoods offered us some good shade.
A pleasing sight… Those little flashes of white and red kept us on the right route.
Now the ascent started again!
The final part of the day was the most challenging and most strenuous. We didn’t anticipate having to drop back and forth over the ridge line as the trail took us back and forth between the boulders, squeezing us between little nooks and crannies along the arête.
Heading up to the top of the ridge.
Thankfully painted arrows indicate which way the trail goes, as some sections are not particularly obvious, and more care is needed as the route rises and falls and switches from one side of the ridge to the other. These became leg shaking moments as we were faced with steep rocky slopes and a sheer drop in one or two places. A firm grip and secure footing were of paramount importance so we put the walking poles away at that point and tried to be brave. If we couldn’t manage this section, it was a long walk back! With the knowledge that the southern section of the GR20 is supposed to be the less challenging half, we began dreading what we’d be forced to contend with in the north. Pushing such thoughts to the back of our minds, whilst trying to avoid looking down, we couldn’t help but gulp and keep going, all the while assuming the worst!
On approaching this gap in the rocks, we couldn’t help but fear what was on the other side.
It was not as bad as it looked, so we took a breather and set the tripod up for a photograph.
Wayne ponders what challenges lie ahead in the northern half of the GR20 after today’s hair raising moments!
Not feeling scared at all!
The trail followed the ridge line, switching from one side to the other. This was one of the nicer sections!
Panorama shot from the ridge line.
The trail came over this rocky ridge and along the side of it.
You certainly need a head for heights on this trail!
Another gap to go through taking us to the other side of the ridge.
This part of the walk was particularly tiresome. We were longing to see the refuge as we had been hiking for hours. Wayne had checked his map and the refuge was supposedly beyond the ridge clinging to the mountainside somewhere. We just couldn’t see it yet!
Having previously considered our hike to the summit of Mount Snowdon via the Crib Goch route as particularly challenging having to traverse a knife-edged arête – we now think we could tackle it again without even raising an eyebrow!
We were getting closer… It’s always good when you see a sign!
Blink and you’d miss it! The refuge was indeed around the ridge perched on quite possibly the only flattish spot on the mountainside.
The tents gave it away! After all of the walking we had done that day, I was really hoping that we didn’t have to pitch miles away from it near the bottom. Similarly I couldn’t face being far from the toilet and shower!
We had seen it, but we still had to get to it!
We found this a recurring theme along the GR20. We could often spot the refuge in the distance but it never seemed to get any bigger and likewise we never seemed to get any closer to it. It would still take us hours to actually reach the refuge to our utter annoyance!
Another tricky section of scrambling where the trail led us up and over. Take a look at where the next marker is directing us. Remember I mentioned in our first trail report that it felt like rock climbing without ropes… This was one of those times!
Thankfully we made it to the Refuge d’ Usciolu around 7:30pm, (13 hours after leaving the Refuge d’ Asinau), with nothing but a few scratches and an enormous appetite to try and satisfy! With us arriving so late, we hurriedly found a spot to pitch the tent before darkness fell upon the camp.
We were exhausted but our spirits were raised as we were cheered into camp by people sitting outside the refuge enjoying their evening meal. It felt much like a ‘walk of shame’ however as they could see us from afar hot-footing it down the mountainside as we tried to get there before the sun dipped below the mountain. A cold shower was even less appealing without the presence of the sun to warm you through again once you had suffered the shock of the first icy cold trickles of mountain water down your back! From the amount of tent’s already pitched around the refuge, coupled with the lively response to our arrival, we presumed we’d just taken the crown of last into camp. This was something we didn’t wish to repeat!
Not wanting to have far to go to the toilet and shower block, we were pleased to find that the Refuge d’ Usciolu has two blocks – one on both the lower and upper levels. Apparently, the lower level block offered warm water – or so someone said – however the queue was that long we made do with a cold shower on the upper level! (We would do anything to get dinner and get into our sleeping bags quicker!)
So Day 3 on the GR20 was a long one. Not only that, it was both tiring and challenging to the point where we questioned why we had signed up to this hike in the first place. The ridge walk had been brutal in places and the scrambling a lot more difficult than what we had anticipated. But thankfully we both have the kind of resolve that prevents us from giving up. There is no way we would want to return home to tell our family and friends that we had failed.
That thought, and that alone is what got us through the next 9 days!!! Find out how our bodies coped with getting up early the following day, and how we pushed ourselves on to the Refuge de Prati in our next trail report.