Saturday, 23 October 2010

Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association

Jack and I chose to do the walk in aid of The Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association. This charity means a lot to us and in particular we'd like to thank the Langdale Ambleside and Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Teams. We have both witnessed first hand the amazing work they do, coming to the aid of our friends on two separate occasions after they were injured whilst walking in the Lake District. The amount of time and effort so many volunteers give on a regular basis is outstanding. To enable them to carry out their role effectively and safely their equipment needs to be maintained and updated and this costs (a lot of) money. If you would like to donate please visit our justgiving page. Thank you :)

Final thoughts and advice

I always knew that however this trip went, so long as we completed the walk then I would in the future be able look back on it (perhaps with rose tinted glasses) and say what a wonderful experience it was. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did at the time. I guess a significant part of this was luck; we couldn't have asked for better weather, everything important ran according to plan and none of our knees gave up the ghost. However, it also helped that we were well prepared and had done our research - we were expecting it to be tough. There were times, during a couple of the particularly arduous ascents, that I desperately wanted to stop and not have to go on, and on the last section of day four I was on the verge of tears. But at the end of each day, I never doubted my will to continue right through to the end and I was never tempted to give up.
Having never spent more than a day in isolated mountains before (the Lake District does not count here!) I also didn't know how well I would adapt to the lifestyle. There are some obvious negative aspects to life on the trail; getting up at 6 every morning when it's cold, wet and dark outside your sleeping bag, cold showers, very basic toilet facilities, the need to ration everything (loo roll, duct tape, milk powder, shampoo, soap..), no easy way to do laundry, no living room to retreat to in the evenings and so on. But on the other hand, rising early means you get to see the sunrise, you feel you're making the most of every day and dawn is a beautiful (and cool) time to be walking. There is also something immensely satisfying about knowing that you are carrying your life for two weeks with you on your back. Going back to basics somehow makes you feel more (pardon the corny expression) `at one' with the environment. Of course, had we been able to afford it we could have stayed in the warm refuge beds and enjoyed meals cooked for us in the dining room every night, but I'm not sure this is a choice I would have made anyway, it somehow makes you feel like more of a tourist if you are relying on these facilities. The other major benefit of life on the GR is the range of interesting people you have the chance to get to know and who are sharing the experience with you, though I imagine that in July and August the number of people is so large it must be quite a different atmosphere. I like the fact that when walking in September there are still moments (especially if you take a less popular alpine variant) when you can't see anyone around you and you feel like you have that particular peak/valley to yourselves.

So, on to the matter of whether there is anything I would have changed about the way we did things. I think that apart from a couple of minor points, the answer is no. Certainly I think the time of year we went was good (June is perhaps slightly better as there is more water but also the possibility of snow) and taking a tent was a good decision - cheap and you don't need to worry about booking anywhere so you can be flexible. I read a lot of blogs and opinions of people who had done the trail, and many of them said that they didn't think it was wise to take a stove; too much extra weight for not enough gain when cooked meals and kitchen facilities are available. However if you're on a budget, cooking for yourself definitely saves money and if you're camping then you need to take pans anyway and even in September you might have to queue to use a very basic hob with no shelter. It is also perfectly possible to take a tent and trangia and still pack light - we got our rucksack weights down to an average of 10 kilos excluding water and including approximately 2 days' food.
Despite being on a budget, I also don't regret any of the money I spent on equipment before we left. New lightweight boots were worth it for the vibram sole, flexibility, waterproofing and the fact that I could trust them to withstand the battering they got on such rocky terrain. Lightweight clothing really helped me reduce my packweight and allowed me to take lots of layers that kept me cool while walking and warm in the evenings. As an added bonus it dried really quickly meaning I could wear a clean, dry t-shirt every day - I only took two. A decent waterproof and windproof jacket was necessary for the weather conditions, especially when you don't have many changes of clothing. Another good buy was 6 thin titanium tent pegs; it is always possible to pitch your tent with rocks, and in some cases you can't even get the titanium pegs into the ground, but when you can it makes it so much easier to pitch well. The only few things I would change are:
(a) take a pair of flip flops or lightweight sandals; they may be treacherous to wear around some refuges but you're not allowed to wear boots inside at all and when you finish it is a pain to still have to wear your smelly boots, especially if you have blisters.
(b) buy the French guide book 'A travers la montagne Corse' (so long as you can understand it). It includes excellent 1:25000 maps every other page including the alpine variants, and this saves having to take maps separately.
(c) Don't take laundry liquid or powder; plugs don't exist on the GR20 and soap is just as good.
(d) Take a lighter, matches are liable to let you down however `weatherproof' they claim to be.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend the GR20 to anyone thinking of doing a long distance walk. The scenery is amazing and the route often cleverly devised to give you some truly stunning views. The main piece of advice I would give would be to do your research and make sure you're prepared for what lies in store. From the stories I've heard it seems that the main reasons so many people have to leave the trail after a few days are that they'd underestimated how hard it would be, they tried to take way too much stuff (for two people, an average of 10 kilos each without water should be enough) or they didn't have much experience of hiking and quickly got bad blisters. You don't need to be super-fit to do the GR20 but you probably do need to be used to doing long periods of sustained exercise - some of the climbs on the trail took us 2 hours even without any breaks added in, during which my heart rate was probably consistently above 140 (but that's my preferred way of tackling climbs and it is of course possible to take it much more gently!). You also need to be quite sure footed to tackle the boulder fields and rocky ridge sections, though I didn't have any previous experience of walking with a pack on the terrain and you do get used to it after a couple of days. Jack and I both found our walking poles particularly helpful, especially on the downhill sections. Even after reading many peoples' descriptions of the trail I was still surprised by the number of technically difficult sections requiring full concentration that we encountered each day. The other thing that was a (pleasant) surprise was the amount of time you get to rest and recover after walking each day; most stages take less than 7 hours, leaving you the best part of the afternoon to relax and enjoy your surroundings.

Lastly some thank yous. Firstly I would like to thank the Trinity College Projects Fund and Donald Robertson Fund for supporting me financially and enabling me to raise the funds required for the expedition. Secondly, I would like to thank Jack for agreeing to come with me, being an excellent companion and putting up with me at 6 o'clock in the morning every day! Next, my mother, who put a lot of time into helping me with the research when I was just beginning to plan the project, regularly sending me emails full of web addresses to look at! Finally, a big thank you to every one who sponsored us - all the donations, support and good luck wishes encouraged us greatly along the trip, and it is lovely to know that we will in turn be supporting such a worthwhile cause.

Day 15 - a bit more culture, of a sort

One of the reasons we'd decided to do a double stage previously was so that we could spend the day in Porto Vecchio (the largest town close to Conca) buying souvenirs, cheap clean clothes and generally making the most of our time in Corsica. It turned out to be a very good decision for another reason - there was a lot of heavy rain forecast. It arrived at about 8am and effectively trapped us in Conca; the bus stop was on the main road junction about 4km away, not a distance we were prepared to walk in torrential rain.
Our first impression of Conca had been that it looked bigger than Calenzana and better kept than all the towns and villages we had visited so far. Unlike everywhere else we'd seen everyone here took pride in their houses; there were no broken windows, walls that needed replastering or signs of graffiti. The community also seemed lively; there had been a lot of locals in the bar the day before, mostly senior citizens, and several drivers stopping to chat to someone or other on their way past. So, considering Conca is a relatively long way from anywhere and doesn't have any public transport, one might expect there to be some amenities in the village. There are a couple of places that serve food, but only during the tourist season of July and August. There's also a small Alimentation acting as a general store. Unfortunately it's not reliable, and the lady at the tourism office told me that it often doesn't open in the rain! Brilliant. The only food we had left after breakfast was half a jar of jam and some dehydrated macaroni cheese.  The only place we could obtain food was the gite, which just had a limited menu of cooked meals and to two students these seemed quite expensive. We had noticed one girl, probably related to the owner, eating a sandwich from the bar so asked if they would sell us one. The waitress probably thought us even more weird but agreed. She disappeared without comment and turned up fifteen minutes later with large baguettes which were delicious!

Around lunchtime a lot of familiar faces started appearing, drenched from head to toe. It was very pleasing to see that all these people had made it, despite the conditions and to be able to congratulate each other. The rain finally eased during the mid afternoon and we were allowed to move into the room we'd booked for the night and lounge around in the gite sitting room. For dinner we cooked the macaroni cheese in the warmth of the kitchen and although this did not improve the quality of the food it was surprisingly tasty for a Tesco dehydrated meal, even if we made the sauce a little watery! It certainly did not serve four though. We also experimented with trying to make an accompanying hot drink out of jam and hot water. It just tasted like sugary fruit tea and looked very unappetising. In the evening we went to the only other place we knew would be full of people, the bar, and I made sure I'd tried some of the local beer before leaving. We took the playing cards with us and the bar man very kindly got us a card mat out for our table. We asked if they sold nuts, but sadly the answer was no. This gradual reintegration back into society and normal life somewhat reduced the excitement I was feeling about returning home and I think I missed the mountains already.

Day 14 - Refuge de Asinao to Conca

We had discussed the day before the possibility of doing two days in one and finishing the trail today. Martin had given us the idea as he was doing this and had walked the section from Bavella before, saying he reckoned we could do it in three hours, meaning the whole day should only take about ten hours (solid walking time). I sneakily set the alarm forwards five minutes. Any earlier and it would have meant leaving before dark, so it was a bit of a pathetic gesture. We finished the wholegrain bread before packing up the tent and setting off on the high level route, as it was a clear day.

I was surprised by how dramatic the scenery still was even though the peaks were getting lower. We met Martin and The Green People on the ascent and then many guided groups of climbers on the descent, some of whom were lacking a lot of confidence on the terrain considering what they'd signed up for. Bavella was traditionally a `summer village' for Conca, consisting of a collection of small rectangular houses with corrugated iron roofs. It now caters for a booming number of climbers/walkers and hence even has a pizzeria, and sells food at slightly-less-than-mountain prices.

The next place we stopped, though just to pick up water as it was a very hot day, was the Refuge d'i Paliri, which seemed to be undergoing a makeover. It was a pretty straightforward walk from here. In fact if it hadn't been for the heat, tiredness in my legs and the fact that my nose wouldn't stop running, (as it had been for the entire trip) then it might have been a really easy afternoon.

I tried to enjoy the last of the mountains as much as I could but to be honest I just wanted to reach the end. The path had been devised cleverly to allow you no glimpses of civilisation until the final half hour of descent and even then it was still a surprise when you caught site of the spring and main road through the trees. My emotions were a mixture of relief and excitement and we stopped for a celebratory photo before walking through the village to the bar. The half a bar of mint cake we had saved as an emergency energy/moral boost was consumed. We had pushed ourselves quite hard during the afternoon to arrive just after 4pm. This meant plenty of time to really enjoy the hot showers at the gite before dinner. It is nice to feel clean and also not know that you're inevitably going to get very dirty again the next morning!

 Greg and Martin finished shortly after us and we joined them for drinks and dinner at the gite. The waitress was confused when Jack and I didn't express an interest in buying any of their 20€-a-bottle wines but instead insisted that we were fine with the much cheaper A.O.C. house wine. When you're used to the whatever's on offer in Sainsburys this tastes perfectly acceptable. It was a lovely evening, great to be able to relax and also have the chance to get to know some of the people we'd been walking alongside better.

Day 13 - Refuge d'Usciolu to Refuge d'Asinao

The slightly grumpy gardien at the previous refuge had told us that this was a very long day that he expected would take 8 hours walking time mostly due to the difficult descent from Monte Alcudina - a magnet for lightning storms. Thankfully there was no storm forecast but it was a rather dismal day. Consequently lots of people who weren't usually early risers left with us and the other regulars at 7:00. The pace across the rocky ground was quite fast but we kept up. Later on we walked through beech woods and slopes covered in heather and bracken to reach the bottom of Monte Alcudina. We met Steve and his girlfriend and follwed them up for a while. The low cloud meant that we could only very occasionally make out the summit we were heading for. When they stopped for a break we caught up with Martin and let him set the pace for a while, which was much easier tha doing it yourself. Almost out of nowhere the summit appeared, with a fallen cross on top. I was obviously quite disorientated as I'd thought it was about another kilometre over to the left of us, thank goodness for the waymarking. Greg joined us for a quick food break.

The descent was very challenging, Greg had pointed out at the top that most mistakes happen in the last few days when people become careless, so we took it slowly, but Martin and Greg found it a lot harder without poles. We were actually only the second people to arrive at the refuge this day, after `the two fit French' - a middle aged couple with massive calf muscles who must live in the mountains. The gardien in the refuge came across as a bit grumpy but I think really he was more of BFG (bearded friendly giant), he just spoke the local dialect which, as Pierre-Yves had observed previously, involves a lot of silence. The shower here was the worst we'd ever seen. Not only was it freezing cold but the plumbing was so bad that the water sort of dribbled out at waist height.

Later on in the evening we were cooking yet another dinner consisting of 500g of spaghetti with not enough tomato sauce (a logistical nightmare when you only have two small trangia pans) when a horse came up to the table next to us where two Germans were sitting and ate one of their packets of dried soup, plastic and all. So, when the horse persisted, they made a hasty retreat with all their stuff for the safety of their tent, which was the other side of ours. The horse followed and even though we could see it coming I couldn't act to quickly enough and soon he had a large mouthful of freshly cooked spaghetti dangling from his mouth. Jack hid everything in the tent and suggested I use the poles to usher him away. This still didn't work - it just made the horse agitated and he even tried to eat the lighter a couple of times. So Jack went to fetch the gardien who came out, took one of the poles from me and whacked the horse over the backside with it. He returned it to me rather bent, and then hastily proceeded to bend it back. It was fine, and everyone watching found it hilarious. Thankfully Jack and I can live on 450g of spaghetti between us.

Day 12 - Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d'Usciolu

Another long day, with ascents at the beginning and end and a scrambly, bouldery ridge walk but good varied scenery and lots of mountain cows too (don't know what breed they are but they have long eyelashes and look like they're about to take part in a cow beauty pageant). We stopped to chat to most of the English people along the way and bought a loaf of bread from Prati for lunch. We passed the first person we've seen who was really struggling with the terrain - a French speaking woman in her 60s who had to be helped up a scramble by two Germans. She was on her own and proceeding very slowly but not asking for help, we slowed down though to check she got over the first ridge section ok before moving on when we realised there were plenty of people behind us who would find her if she got into difficulty.

There was a bit of an incident going on at the refuge when we arrived; a misunderstanding between Andy and the older gardien which had resulted in the gardien throwing Andy's stuff out of the tent he thought he'd hired. Neither spoke the other's language so Steve was called in to help translate, but the gardien didn't seem to want to discuss the issue with him either. After both had calmed down the gardien decided that the refuge wasn't fully booked after all and Andy was told to move to one of the permanent tents further down the hill. Meanwhile I went to see the gardien's son who was very nice and helpful to me, I returned and was later discussing the incident with Juan Carlos, the Quebecan and Steve who assured me that his kindness was just because I was female. A second visit to buy food comfirmed that this was true as the guy was being so flirtatious he even complimented me on my French, ha ha. The major plus point of this refuge was that they baked excellent wholemeal multiseed loaves of bread, which we bought two of with a whole jar of jam and round of cheese!

We asked if anyone had seen the old lady and it turned out there was an interesting story behind her. She had arrived at Prati the evening before and said that her husband would be joining her. When her husband arrived she was a female, and she later decided to go off for an evening stroll, yodeling in flemmish as she left (I kid not). When she didn't return her partner became anxious and people assured her that she would be back before nightfall. When night came and she still hadn't arrived someone managed to contact her by phone and it materialised that she had got lost (how!?) and wouldn't be returning. So the old lady decided to carry on alone having only walked two low level routes so far and against the advice of others. Steve said he would go out and look for her if she didn't arrive before dark, but she eventually did having had to walk through the evening rain. It was decided she was a liability to others and she was sent off the mountains via a link to one of the villages. Martin said that during his first few days he'd also seen gardiens send people home who'd come with too little experience or brought way more stuff than they could carry.

Day 11 - Campanelle to Bocca di Verdi

This was another day where we elected to follow the high level route, over Monte Renosu, following cairned paths. The climb to the summit took about 2 hours but didn't feel so bad, we stopped and admired the Lac de Bastani on the way. During the last steep section I took one of my intentional wrong turns thinking I'd spotted an easier route to the top and had to do a bit of unnecessary scrambling, suffering a grazed hip from trying to squeeze through a gap that was too small. More fool me, as Jack would probably say.

The summit had amazing panoramic views and it was a clear day. As we began to walk along the ridge we came across a shepherd standing on a pinnacle, whistling and calling to his sheep with an extraordinary variety of noises. 
Over the next section we got a bit lost. We'd expected this as we were meant to be switching from one cairned path to a new one, but the problem was that there were cairns in pretty much every direction. We stopped for a long time to discuss the map, debating more over whether we needed to know where we were before preceding along the ridge than over where we were. The terrain was making things difficult both in terms of walking and obscuring our view, but once we'd managed to get back onto flatter ground everything got easier again. On the descent we passed through an area of springy grass and water holes or pozzines which was very pretty.

We stopped for the night at the Relais San Petru di Verdi, a bar-restaurant with a huge log fire and barbeque. There were also semi-wild pigs grazing round the campsite and four hot showers! Most people who'd been with us at Campanelle had walked the low level route and so carried on to the Refuge de Prati, however Martin had now caught up with us, having walked both low level routes from Vizzavona in one day. We had dinner in the restaurant which was wonderful, though less so for Jack who's vegetarian main option consisted of a large pile of peas in place of the pork chop!