Simply No Alternative!
It was our penultimate day on the trail. We could almost taste victory and that celebratory glass of Corsican wine with our name on it in Calenzana! However we still had one hurdle to cross before reaching the finish line; today we would be facing one of the toughest sections of the GR20 – the Spasimata Gorge.After seeing hair-raising picture postcards and listening to other hiker’s recounts of crossing giant slabs at almost a 45 degree angle, it had become the section that most filled me with dread. Wayne reassured me that there would be chains for support on the trickiest parts, but that did little to allay my fears, especially as there was the real possibility that the slabs could be wet making walking across them even more treacherous. But with only 15 or so miles left to go, there was definitely no turning back now…
Skirting around the rugged mountainside. This was actually one of the nicer sections today as there were plenty of hand and footholds in the craggy rock for support.
Thursday 13th August 2015 – Stage 11 – Haut Asco to Refuge de Carozzu – 8:00am – 3:00pm (7 hours)
The day that I’d been dreading for so long had finally arrived… It was time to face my fears head on and get to grips with the Spasimata slabs. I might have looked outwardly confident packing away the tent and purposefully putting on my backpack ready to seize the day, but inwardly I was ever more anxious about what lay before us on the trail. So as Wayne set off filled with determination and cheer that our 5th thru-hike was almost complete, I dutifully followed along in a rather subdued mood.
In Haut Asco, we camped at the foot of the ski-lifts outside the PNRC Refuge Asco-Stagnu.
The GR20 continues north behind the refuge and is signposted for the Refuge de Carozzu, our next overnight destination.
We looked set for good weather this side of the mountains.
The sun was already blazing brightly overhead when we set off around 8am. As today’s section was only meant to take approximately 5 and a half hours, we allowed ourselves a late ‘check-out’!
It was a steep and gruelling ascent straight out of Haut Asco, where we were faced with a 600 metre elevation gain in the first hour or so. With the valley already acting as a heat trap, maybe we should have set off in the cool, crisp twilight hours before the fierce sun made our ascent even more burdensome. Even with all of this practise, we still never quite get it right!
A bouldery slope covered in laricio pines led us to the base of a sheer cliff. We wondered how we would ever make our way up to the narrow gap at the top – but the route simply shifted side to side around the rocky notches inevitably weaving its way up. We had to watch carefully for the red and white flashes that loyally marked the way – but it helped having a couple just up ahead of us who were hiking with an Alsatian dog as we could follow their route. The dog was simply awesome! He had his own little carry pack of supplies and just seemed to instinctively know which rocks were the best places for him to get up.
Leaving Haut Asco situated at 1422 metres, we were immediately faced with a steep and stony ascent to the Bocca a i Stagni at 2010 metres.
Slowly but surely making our way up the cliff face, scrambling on rock at times.
Despite such exertion so early on in the day, we were actually thankful that we were not coming in the opposite direction and having to descend the cliff. With a mixture of sand and gravel across the trail, we would have been much slower going down taking greater care in placing our feet, as there is always the real possibility of slipping on the loose rock. Ascending would always be our preferred choice as we both agree that we have much better footing going up and it is a lot less wearing on the knees.
Wayne pushes on to reach the Bocca a i Stagni.
Still going up… Haut Asco down in the valley is now but a memory!
The good thing about going up is that you are always looking up ahead and avoid seeing the dangers below!
Wayne manoeuvres around the rocky notches.
We always make use of our walking poles to help spread the load! Haut Asco sits in the clearing in the top right of the picture. It’s amazing how far we had come in such a short space of time.
There is a chain fixed in place to help you get up one of the steepest sections.
Almost there… Just like another flight of steps to go!
At last we spy the valley on the other side! Reaching the top of the Bocca a i Stagni at 2010 metres.
We rewarded ourselves with a ‘rest stop’ after looking for a suitable place to wedge ourselves in on the rocky corner.
Panorama of the view from Bocca a i Stagni.
Our route then wove its way across this rocky mountainside.
Remember in an earlier post when I said about rock climbing without ropes? Well, it kind of felt like that again! (And we hadn’t got anywhere near the Spasimata slabs yet!) It didn’t help that some hikers were coming in the opposite direction and we were having to give way on narrow ledges, with our big backpacks making it even more difficult to manoeuvre around.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I was taking tentative steps and clinging on for dear life as I slowly but surely made my way around this rocky corner!!!!
Another rocky notch to scramble around to reach the next bocca and our way down.
The Bocca Muvrella at 1980 metres leads down the the Lac de la Muvrella around 100 metres below.
The calm before the storm. Getting ready to face the Spasimata Gorge.
After navigating the steep face of Muvrella, which involved a tremendous amount of scrambling, we were more than ready for another rest break after reaching the lake. The lake was not particularly eye-catching with the water being stagnant and very dirty looking (therefore no piccies) – but the large boulders situated around it offered plenty of shade, so we took the opportunity to cool off and psyche ourselves up for the next section – entering the Spasimata Gorge.
After some knee trembling moments earlier navigating the rocky pinnacles of Muvrella, I was already worked up and it didn’t take long before I burst into tears having to make my way down the steep sided valley, which for me at that point was absolutely terrifying in places. What made me even more nervous was that much of the rock was smooth and I couldn’t get a good grip. I was also struggling to see the red and white markers and dubious about where to place my hands and feet whilst going down a rocky rib. What made it worse was that I couldn’t even see Wayne to follow him as he had already made it to the bottom of that section, him being much more confident with coming down. If I could have shimmied down on my bottom I would have, but it was simply far too steep. What I had to do was turn around and come down backwards, carefully looking for any notches or cracks to place my feet, whilst gripping on to any handholds like a vice. Like I said earlier, for me, going down is always worse. I was immensely relieved to finally step down off the rib and onto a flat section, but almost verging on a complete meltdown that we hadn’t even entered the Spasimata Gorge yet and that the slabs were still to come.
Wayne looks on determined. It was the start of a long, tiresome and for me, a very stressful route down!
A tricky section coming down a gully – but I wasn’t quite at crying point then!
Wayne heads on down unfazed by the terrain.
Me – I am completely terrified having worked myself up all morning and head on down slowly and cautiously!
Beginning the steep descent down the side of the rocky rib.
I ended up being a long way behind Wayne as I struggled with which route to take.
After tears (and maybe a little tantrum) it was time to head into the Spasimata Gorge.
The Spasimata Gorge is another steep section of the GR20 that involves a lot of scrambles across rocky ledges and some unprotected sloping slabs. The worst of the slabs have chains in place for support – and are in actual fact less daunting than all of the above that we had faced earlier in the day!
Navigating our way down into the Spasimata Gorge. So far the slabs had been fairly flat and the best terrain we had walked on all day!
Wayne smiles at the presence of the cables! He had continually reassured me that I would be fine going across the slabs – and of course, he was right!
The worst sections of slabs have chains or cables fixed in place for support. When the slabs are dry these are actually superfluous to requirements. With careful footing, the slabs are fairly straight forward to walk across. I couldn’t believe I had got so worked up about them earlier! (That picture postcard that I had been looking at showing a huge section of terrifying looking slab – well I was pleased to discover that the section on the photograph is not even part of the GR20 – it’s on the opposite side of the valley!)
The ‘Spasimata Slabs’ that had so filled me with dread! This was probably the worst section, but with careful footing and leaning your weight towards the rock, the slabs were fairly easy to walk across – especially as you could wedge your feet into the ridges of the rock, which made you feel more secure.
As we neared the bottom of the gorge, we had to cross the Spasimata River on a metal suspension bridge. We’re quite confident crossing these kind of bridges having had experience of them in New Zealand and the USA, but it is quite wobbly and did seem very long when you’re actually walking across it!
Wayne sets off across the suspension bridge.
After crossing the bridge, a rugged stretch of path heads up the mountainside into a forest of birch trees towards the Refuge de Carozzu, which is situated at 1270 metres in a small clearing that is obscured from view. The refuge is in a unique location hemmed in between the mountains. Although the campsites are very rustic, they weave around the back of the refuge and there are many private spots to be had if you wander through the trees and explore a bit more. (Just watch out for ants, as they are in abundance!) The refuge itself has a large wooden terrace positioned at the front of the building and sells basic food and camp supplies. Around the back there is a new set of 6 long drop toilets and a block with 3 showers, so we were quick to make use of the facilities and get cleaned up.
Wayne found us a private camp spot around the back of the refuge after going on a little woodland walk. We’re always happy if it comes complete with table and chairs!
The tent is set up and Wayne prepares dinner.
Tonight we were having instant mashed potato covered in a creamy chicken soup with a chopped tomato for garnish! Proper hiker food!
Writing this 3 months after the event, and now knowing that in actual fact the Spasimata slabs were by no means the terrifying ordeal I had built them up in my head to be, it’s difficult to imagine what I had got so worked up about! The picture postcard image did not help at all; neither did the accounts of the slabs from fellow hikers who I’m sure did a bit of scaremongering! As I said earlier, the most difficult sections of the slabs have cables or chains giving you that reassurance should you need it. There are notches to help you place your feet, and actually, the rocks with a semi rough surface provided quite a good grip, whereas I had assumed wrongly that they would be completely smooth. (And I would slip off the mountainside to my death!) After walking straight across the first section of slabs without even being aware that we had reached them, I suddenly had much more confidence and realised that everything we had completed earlier on in the walk had been much more difficult and taxing overall! I was completely drained.
So after what was probably the most stressful day on the entire GR20, (for me being traumatised by the slabs and for Wayne having to deal with me being a nervous wreck), we were more than ready for a relaxing evening at camp and an early night in preparation for the final stage tomorrow.
Technically after the Refuge de Carozzu there should be two stages left to complete the GR20 route; however as we were on a tight schedule and aiming to complete the thru-hike in 12 days, we joined together the last two sections and took the low level route to Calenzana, which was both shorter in distance and quicker in time, enabling us to walk the final section in a single day.
But more of that in our final trail report!