Taking The High Route!
A week on the trail and we already felt much fitter and stronger – both in body and spirit. If there’s one thing the GR20 had taught us, it was to expect the unexpected! We were constantly learning; both about the unremitting terrain and about ourselves as hikers.
Day by day we found ourselves getting braver, and in turn, more confident in our capabilities. Our resolve had not been weakened… Quite the reverse. We were more than ready to face the challenges that still lay ahead. Europe’s toughest hike – we wanted to say that we’d conquered it! And so we pushed on and put ourselves to the test. Today on the GR20, we opted to take the ‘high route’!
Feeling brave and taking the high level variant to save us several hours of hiking time!
Taking the high level variant route was one of the best decisions we had made thus far on the trail. Not only had it saved us several hours of hiking time, meaning we had an entire afternoon of ‘rest and relaxation’ to look forward to as we had reached camp just after midday – but it also meant we had avoided walking straight through a storm that had raged through the valley by mid afternoon.
As we peeked out of the zip, watching the rain from the comfort of our tent, there was not a question of doubt that we had made the right choice. We certainly would not have wanted to be one of the several hikers hurrying along the ridge seeking shelter right at that very moment. Just thinking about traversing wet, slippery rocks with the prospect of lightning overhead filled me with trepidation. Not least having to scramble down them facing sheer drop-offs either side. We were so relieved that we wouldn’t have to contend with hiking in the rain, just yet! (And this would be one time where we wouldn’t be consoled with knowing that we had all the right waterproof gear!)
Sunday 9th August 2015 – Stage 7 – Refuge L’ Onda to Refuge de Petra Piana – 6:30am – 12:30pm (6 hours)
We managed to get to the top of the mountainside in time to witness a beautiful sunrise! A few stragglers were still packing up in the camp enclosure below at Refuge l’Onda.
We were not the first to leave camp today. There were several people banging and clattering around the enclosure by the time we had eaten breakfast and were ready to pack the tent away. (Consideration for others who are sleeping is not always a campsite virtue!) By then, we could see a procession of headlights snaking their way up the mountainside as people were eager to get back on the trail. News of a storm due early afternoon had filtered its way through camp last night – so many northbound hikers, like ourselves, had made the executive decision to take the high level variant route in order to reach the Refuge de Petra Piana in less time, so as to avoid it – if possible.
We now always look upon the suggested guide book hiking times rather skeptically as we have not once managed to complete a stage in the proposed time as yet. In the guide book, the suggested hiking time for the high level route option is approximately 4 hours – saving us at least an hour in comparison with the low level route, which winds its way down through the valley along woodland paths, proposing to take a little over 5 hours to reach the next refuge. Knowing with a good deal of certainty that this would take us at least a couple of hours longer with rest and snack breaks included – the high route, putting all of our fears aside, seemed the most viable option if we wanted to avoid the impending storm. So feeling brave today, that’s the route we took!
Taking a quick breather and enjoying the view after an initial steep and stony ascent, leaving Refuge l’Onda behind at the bottom of the mountainside.
Opting to take the high level variant to save us some hiking time, which would hopefully enable us to avoid the incoming storm due later that day.
Yes, today we were really going over the top of the mountains instead of hiking down into the valley.
Bracing ourselves for the start of the next ascent!
The initial path was not too scary…
The views were so incredible – it actually made us question why we had not opted to take the high route before! The jelly legs had gone; we now had legs of steel, much like our resolve to complete the hike!
We liked the look of this great path snaking its way along the side of the ridge.
Now it gets a little bit trickier! We just had to watch our footing, but on the whole it actually looks a lot worse than what we found it to be!
Yep, we hiked over this ridge! It was our second time navigating an arête after hiking to the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales via the Crib Goch route, known in the UK for being a harsh, knife-edged mountain ridge! It’s pleasing to note that we were much more confident this time.
The variant route made its way up and over the ridge with a fairly clear pathway and gentler gradients in parts.
Unlike the red and white markers indicating the main GR20 route, the high level variant route is marked by yellow flashes painted on rocks, which you can just see in the picture to the left of Wayne.
Looking back wondering how we had managed to hike over this trickier section!
Having made fairly good progress along the ridge initially, we took our time on some trickier sections. One of these was having to traverse a series of summits, reaching over 2000 metres, on the section known as the Pinzi Corbini. As we got closer, the rocky terrain got tougher and more difficult to navigate. There were some necessary boulder scrambles and rocky notches where we had to drop through between two rocks down onto the trail as it continued below, which was not only quite awkward whilst wearing a huge rucksack, but it was scary too! (I was saying previously about steel legs – well they in fact became jelly once more!)
The Boca a Meta at 1890 metres was where we took another breather! Regular rest and water breaks are a must as you are completely exposed to the sun whilst hiking along the ridge.
Wayne points up to where we were heading! They don’t call this the high route for nothing.
Thankfully, we had not seen any signs of the storm so far. As the route along the mountain ridge is completely exposed to sun, wind and rain – you have to be prepared for changeable weather conditions. In times of poor visibility, such as heavy rain or mist – the high route would definitely not be recommended.
This picture was taken looking back to where we had just walked over the Serra di Tenda… And it was not over yet! The Punta di l Pinzi Corbini summits were coming next!
The yellow flashes lead us up the rocky slopes of the Pinzi Corbini. The path became more rugged and we had to grapple with spiny broom armed with sharp, rigid spines whilst negotiating the larger boulders. Needless to say, shorts are not always the best option for scratch free legs!
When hiking northbound, only the second summit of the Pinzi Corbini is crossed. The first summit is bypassed as the yellow markers shift the route to the right, narrowly missing the 2021 metre summit.
We took on the challenge and continued on up the rocky ridge!
I spy the trail! Traversing the rugged, rocky slopes with a bit of light scrambling as necessary.
We made it! With the highest point of the morning complete, we were already thinking about how we’d spend a lazy afternoon at camp.
Having already negotiated the rocky stairways and sharp arêtes, the path became much easier as it sliced across the higher grassy slopes.
Wayne hikes on ahead. This is one of my favourite pictures of all time!
When the yellow flashes were not quite so obvious, cairns marked the way.
The stony ridge path now traverses the crêtes on the slopes of Punta Murace.
Following the ridge line once more, then skirting the summit of Punta Murace at 1921 metres.
Little rocky notches gave us access to views of the valley below.
Wedging ourselves amongst the larger boulders to stop and have lunch without being blown off the top! This was the safest spot we’d found and definitely what you call lunch with a view!
Our new hiker favourite – tomato and basil sardines with French bread!
And it was finally time to head off downhill! Most of the hard work was done!
Looking back to where we had hiked from that morning! We couldn’t quite believe that was our route!
The clouds were building up and we could sense a storm was brewing…
Yay! After 6 hours, we had finally reached the Refuge de Petra Piana – and it was still only just after midday!
The gardiens were on a lunch break so we went off to find a place to pitch the tent for the night before the rain came down!
With the cloud coming in, we were thankful to be off the top of the ridge right at that moment in time!
It looks like a wild camp spot, but we had to pay 7 Euros per person for the privilege of camping here! It was quite a private spot looking out onto the mountains however, away from the main camp area, so we couldn’t really complain.
Starting to get busy! Lots more hikers were taking up all available ‘flat’ spots as they descended onto the campsite ahead of the storm.
Our perfect view right next to our tent! This is why we love hiking holidays… Drinking a cup of tea with the world at your feet.
Showered and changed, we were very excited about having a ‘free’ afternoon at camp!
We were not so excited to see the skies growing darker… However, as long as we were safely tucked up in our tent, we didn’t mind if the rain came now!
Our last pic of the day before the heaven’s opened and we had an afternoon and evening of heavy rain… So much so that we were waiting for it to stop to enable us to light the camp stove and cook dinner. Most of our ‘free’ afternoon was therefore spent catching up on our sleep!
Although on Day 1 we would never have even considered taking the high route as part of our GR20 hike, today was in fact one of our favourite days of the entire trail. Facing our fears, we did not let any anxieties get the better of us. We simply put one foot in front of the other and embraced what lay ahead. It helped that Paddy Dillon had said “Although the route is aligned to the mountain ridges between the two refuges, gradients are mostly gentle and the mountain slopes are easy to negotiate.” It really didn’t sound that bad. Usually we read his descriptions in the guide book, then begin to question what perils may really unfold along the trail. Today was the exception however.
Today, we took the description at face value and believed we could do it. There’s a saying often bandied around in teaching “Believe that you can’t and you won’t; believe that you can and you will.” It follows Henry Ford’s line of thinking, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” It really is that simple. Today’s stage hiking between the Refuge l’Onda and the Refuge de Petra Piana really was not as bad or as difficult as maybe the photographs make it look. Either that, or we really are getting braver.
Despite this new-found confidence in our capabilities, we still would not have enjoyed hiking along the ridge if caught in the storm – of that I am certain. The rocky ridges and boulder scrambles would have been treacherous when wet and I am sure those jelly legs would have been back in play. We would have had to find shelter and stay put. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. We are not adrenalin junkies wanting to place ourselves in imminent danger or risk life and limb just to experience a unique aspect of the world. But we do want to see as much of it as possible, and if we can happily reach it on two legs, in relative safety, then that’s perfect for us!
Find out whether we managed to sustain our new, positive mental attitude on Day 8 as we woke up to the continuing storm and faced the highest point on the entire GR20, coming soon in our next trail report!