Today we were facing our 4th stage of the ‘GR20’ trail. Yes, we had made it to Day 4 without injury or incident despite our fear of dizzying drop-offs and our concerns over the challenging terrain.
Although it had been both an eye-opening and exhausting first few days, we were finally feeling optimistic about the trail. We would just take each day as it came and by the second half, we would be both stronger and fitter and more than ready to face the ‘Spasimata Slabs’ – the section I had been dreading and which gave me butterflies each time I thought about it.
Each person we passed hiking in the opposite direction to us, had long since completed that stage and had lived to tell the tale, so it couldn’t be as bad as I was anticipating… Could it? I just prayed that it didn’t rain having read in the guidebook about the treacherous nature of the slabs in certain weather conditions. Wayne, as ever the cool, calm and collected of the two of us, told me to stop re-reading the guidebook and stop getting myself worked up – that was still 7 days away, with plenty more tricky sections to come in between!
Just a stroll in the park… This was the mountain range we were crossing today! The highest point in the distance is Punta della Cappella at 2041m, the summit of which we had to go around to reach the Refuge de Prati.
Thursday 6th August 2015 – Stage 4 – Refuge d’ Usciolu to Refuge de Prati – 8:30am – 16:40pm (8 hours 10 mins)
As we had doubled up stages yesterday, our progress so far was on track; so we rewarded ourselves with an extra couple of hours in the sleeping bags, getting up at 6am instead of 4! (I don’t think we could have managed such an early start anyway, having gone to bed late the previous night after contending with a 13 hour hiking day.)
We wanted our bodies to be properly rested and it felt good to have a lazy start, without the usual rushing around packing things up in the dark. However, it wasn’t good realising we were almost the last to leave camp, nor feeling the heat of the sun as early as 9am once we got going. We agreed that this couldn’t happen again, as setting foot on the trail at 8:30am in Corsica was far too late!
When we set off from the Refuge d’ Usciolu the sun was already shining brightly above us making it a warm start to the day! Our first target of the day was to reach the Bocca di Laparo at 1525m.
After so much scrambling yesterday, our weary legs really appreciated the flatter sections and better paths along this stage of the trail. A plus point about leaving later meant we avoided becoming part of a long line of trekkers setting off at a similar time – hence we had much of the trail to ourselves!
Navigating around the boulders along the top of the ridge. This was becoming a lot less scary each time we had to do it!
The scenery was simply stunning overlooking forested valleys and taking in distant mountain ranges.
The saving grace, despite our later start, was that today’s stage would be less demanding than what we had experienced so far. Well, that’s judging it by the positive description given in the guidebook we were using. (You might think differently after looking at the photos. Our legs certainly didn’t think it was any less demanding at times!) Although ‘having to traverse a rocky ridge at a particular point where progress would be slow’, the guidebook stated that ‘…in other places there is a good path and easy gradients, where progress will be much faster’.
It also seemed like it would be a shorter day overall as the suggested time without breaks was 6 hours. In fact, today’s section took us 8 hours and 10 minutes to reach the Refuge de Prati, but we thought that was still good going having started late and taken several rest breaks because of the heat. We had intended on going another hour and a half further to the Refuge di Verdi to save us a little bit of time the following day, but having reached the Refuge de Prati and discovering the camping area was covered in grass, which is a rarity on the GR20, we decided to stay put. Of course springy, green grass is much more inviting than bare rock, and not forgetting much more comfortable too. Camping here also gave us the chance to catch up with some essential chores such as clothes washing, and get it dry before the sun went down. All-in-all, a ‘win win’ decision!
The trail took us down a bouldery slope. Our preferred method now is to go down backwards.
A rough and bouldery path took us up and along the ridge of the mountain.
We were more than ready for an early lunch stop as soon as we found some shade. Punta della Cappella still looked very far away!
Excited to be sampling our first round of authentic French cheese!(Slightly pricey at a whopping 10 Euros from the Refuge d’ Usciolu supply store.)
We were not so excited when we discovered a maggot was wriggling inside the cheese! Well we did say it was authentic! Of course we proceeded to eat it anyway (minus the maggot) seeing as it was the most expensive cheese we have ever purchased and we can never satiate our hiker hunger!
After the ‘cheese episode’ we vowed to stick to purchasing saucisson in future. Having been nominated by Wayne to carry the cheese in my backpack, and smelling it with every step I took, I was glad it would not be a repeat occurrence. Despite it being wrapped in two layers of packaging and snugly placed in the top compartment of my backpack, let’s just say ‘ripened by the sun’ is an understatement! We wondered whether the gardien had been waiting to off-load this particular cheese onto some unsuspecting English folk, as he had talked us out of purchasing a small piece of Gruyère that we had initially decided on. We had to give him the benefit of the doubt though as he was to become my ‘knight in shining armour’ when I had unwittingly misplaced my walking poles.
In my excitement at reaching camp the previous night, I had hastily taken off my backpack and propped my walking poles up against the side of the refuge, whilst we went off to pay for a pitch. With getting the tent set up and cooking dinner at the forefront of our minds, I had then forgotten to pick them back up. I hadn’t even realised they were missing from the rest of my stuff until we were ready to set off the following morning. Would someone have taken them? Hiking the rest of the GR20 without walking poles would have just been disastrous – I would have almost certainly wanted to bail out at the next village we came across. Luckily the gardien had spotted them and kept them safely overnight in his store room. When I enquired about my walking poles the next morning, we couldn’t thank the gardien enough for returning them. Therefore I just had to excuse him for our uninvited guest – the maggot!
Another one of those flatter, nicer sections that we love!
Much of today’s walk was hiking along one side of the ridge or the other.
Getting used to this!
Which way now?
Thankfully heading into some shade for a while.
Taking a breather from the sun.
And the ridge continues…
Looking back to where we had come from.
Keeping an eye out for the red and white flashes. The addition of a cairn also helps!
Heading down or heading up?…
At Boca di Laparo we had some gentle scrambling up and down granite boulders.
Thankfully it looked a lot worse than what it actually was, as the worn and stony path was well marked and weaved its way either side of the rocky outcrops.
Grassy patches and juniper scrub made it much easier underfoot.
The path drifts to the left side of the ridge. We were hoping that the refuge was not too much further.
Having another quick break as there was a nice, cool breeze funnelling through this col.
Between the Refuge d’ Usciolu (1750m) and the Refuge de Prati (1820m), the highest point is Punta della Cappella at 2041m, which we had to go around in order to reach the refuge. Although the variance in height between the two refuges is not very significant, during the day our total ascent was 747 metres and our total descent was 677 metres over approximately 10 miles. No wonder we decided to skip the summit!
The main GR20 route climbs steeply up towards the Punta della Cappella but contours around the summit on the left across the hillside. There is a path marked with cairns detouring off the main trail that you can follow to reach the cross that marks the summit of Punta della Cappella, if you have enough energy left for the adventurous ascent. We didn’t! Even with the promise of magnificent views from the top and having our photo taken with the cross marker as a souvenir, we did not consider heading off to bag this peak! By then we were lacking in motivation and just wanted to reach the refuge. The simple thought of a cold can of coke when we arrived is what kept us putting one foot in front of the other and pushing on!
As the terrain became more awkward to navigate, it took us another couple of hours to reach the Refuge de Prati.
The red & white marker took us below the ridge line here.
Another standard day on the GR20!
We were treated to excellent views of the forested valley below.
We were thankful to have a nice path to follow once again. (For a while at least.) The main GR20 trail doesn’t actually summit the Punta della Cappella, but skirts around near to the top. You can detour off to bag the peak, but we were far too tired for that and just wanted to get to the refuge!
Looking across to the sea.
Where enjoying the view becomes compromised with having to watch your feet!
Are we there yet? Despite our later start, it had seemed like a long day! Another scramble down and we were almost there.
Once again, we could spy the refuge in the distance teasing us!
The Refuge de Prati looks quite modern inside as it was rebuilt in 1997 following a lightning strike.
The horses at the refuge were extremely friendly and inquisitive!
Our ‘exclusive’ campsite in the Corsican mountains! A grassy slope with a large flat section for camping – It was just far too tempting to resist.
One of those friendly horses taking a stroll through the campsite.
Sunset over the refuge. From this location it is possible to see Monte Renosu, Monte D’Oru and Monte Ritondu in good weather.
Having washed all of our clothes, Wayne proceeded to engineer a drying line, expertly created using two walking poles and a piece of guy line. It was so popular with other hikers, they started copying his idea!
Although seemingly long and arduous at times, today was in fact a less strenuous day on the GR20, particularly in hindsight with what was to come further in the north! Similarly, with its more modern facilities, relatively flat grass pitches and friendly gardien, the Refuge de Prati was one of our favourites along the entire GR20 route. We were glad to have stayed, instead of pushing on further to the Refuge di Verdi, or we would be none the wiser about this great little gem of a place.
Tomorrow we face another ‘double stage’ to reach Vizzavona, a quirky, little town, considered the halfway point of the GR20 trail. Find out how we managed in a our next trail report, coming soon.