Monday, May 2, 2016

Day 2: Into the Wild!

September 12: We woke up to a beautiful, gorgeous morning! I had thrown my tarp over me like a blanket the evening before due to condensation forming, but it actually warmed up significantly during the night and had already dried before sunrise. It's a little spooky to me when the morning is notably warmer than it was when I went to sleep, and I wondered briefly if that was a sign of something to come. A storm, perhaps, moving in?

Whatever the reason, I was happy to take the current weather conditions!

Karolina, goofing around in the giant tree.

Karolina and I had been hiking for not even ten minutes when we reached the first seriously rocky portion of the trail. We had both read the horror stories about the trail's difficulty, and now it was time to see it for ourselves!

And the trail was rugged. Much to my surprise, I'd rank it right up there with the White Mountains along the Appalachian Trail. At times, I threw my trekking pole down the slope, then rock-climbed down the trail to it with my free hands to help. One particularly steep section included a thick chain bolted to the rocks for hikers to hold onto and pull themselves up and down with. Our pace slowed considerably.

And, more worryingly, Karolina's knees started hurting. A little knee-pain, I thought, was to be expected along steep ups and downs--especially since she wasn't trail-hardened from thru-hiking the last six months like I was--but usually it takes time to form. The fact that she was already experiencing them her first day out on the trail was a little concerning for me. That couldn't be good! She had blue, elastic knee braces, which hopefully would help, but there wasn't much I could do about it so I didn't dwell on the subject. We'll just take things slow.

The trail quickly became a lot more steep and rugged today! So steep and rugged, this chain was installed to help hikers.

A few hours later, we arrived at the first of the refuges along the trail--a relatively plain, wooden building. Upon our arrival, we were surprised to discover a sign saying that the trail through the Cirque de la Solitude was closed, but that there was a bus that could take us around the closure for 35 euros. It was closed?! We scoured our guidebooks looking to see if there was an alternative route around the closure--often times there were alternative routes--but this section had none. In fact, we had already had one choice between whether we wanted to take the "low-level" route or "high-level" route from Calenzana. We picked the shorter but more strenuous "high-level" route. Neither of us liked the idea of taking a bus around the closure, though. We wanted an alternate!

Karolina chatted with the caretaker of the refuge--in French. So I gazed across the landscape and admired the views. When she came back, she told me that there was an alternate route around the closure and that the hut just before the closure would have directions about it. It was closed because seven people had died three months earlier in an "avalanche"--at least that was how she interpreted the word. But there was no snow around this time of year so it didn't make sense that the trail would still be closed to an avalanche danger. Probably a rock slide. Or landslide. Karolina could speak French, but she wasn't fluent in it like she was in English. An avalanche didn't make any sense--unless it was an avalanche of rock and dirt.

Although happy that there would be an alternate route around the closure, we were both a little disappointed that it was closed in the first place. We had heard a lot of stories about the Cirque de la Solitude, and had been looking forward to seeing the infamous section for ourselves. Now.... we wouldn't.

Karolina had also found out that all of the refuges would be open for a couple of more weeks. Which pretty much meant the huge load of food I carried on my back was for nothing! I could have just bought food occasionally at the refuges and cut the weight in my pack significantly. Oh, well.... Karolina ordered some couscous dish and ate that for lunch. I ate snacks out of my pack. I had to eat snacks out of my pack to lighten my load. It was ridiculously heavy! I could eat at refuges when my pack was lighter.

We filled up with water, then continued onward--ever onward!

The trail rose, then dropped into a valley before rising to new heights. Some sections of the trail were nice to walk on--a wide, well-beaten dirt path of moderate steepness. Then there were the rocky sections which were just slow, having to carefully place each foot carefully so as not to twist an ankle. We wanted to make it to the next refuge for the night, but at our pace, we soon realized that that was never going to happen. I looked at our maps for potential places to camp, and the options looked... not good. Most of the route was at the top of ridges and too exposed to the elements or along steep, mountain slopes.

The trail climbed ever higher, peaking at our high point for the day at Bocca Piccaia some 1950 meters (6400 feet) above sea level. It was a gap in the ridge, with even taller mountains rising on both sides of us. The trail continued up the ridgeline, but it was getting late in the afternoon and there was a wide, cleared area lined with rocks perfect for camping and Karolina and I debated the pros and cons of continuing on or setting up camp here.

Pro: There was plenty of room to camp. We had no idea if there would be another place as good up the trail. And the site wasn't completely exposed to the elements since mountains protected us on two sides. And Karolina's knees were hurting, so she wanted to take it easy on them.

Con: It was illegal to camp away from the refuges. Which, really, was the only con. But we had long given up reaching the refuge before dark anyhow, so no matter where we stopped, it was going to be illegal.

So we set up camp. Actually, we didn't set up camp just yet. Just in case some other hikers came around, we didn't want to look like we were actually camping. Just taking a rest break! We hadn't really seen many hikers for the whole day, but only because we had camped between shelters the evening before and weren't in sync with them. That didn't mean there couldn't have been a straggler coming through late in the afternoon, though, and we figured it was best not to look like our stop was too permanent!

The GR 20 is marked with those white and red stripes. At least the main path is. (Alternates would be marked with double yellow stripes.) Karolina and I called them "Polish flags" because that happens to be exactly what the Polish flag looks like, with the upper half white and the lower half red. So whenever we'd lose the trail, we'd ask each other, "Do you see any Polish flags?" Or, "Oooh! There's a Polish flag!"

Karolina spread out her ground pad to lay down on, using a couple of thin, flat rocks under it by her head to prop it up like a pillow. It was rather cute, and I suggested doing the same for her legs. I've always heard that one should elevate injuries and since her knees were hurting, she should keep her legs elevated! I found some more thin, flat rocks and slid them under the other end of the pad.

And she looked immensely comfortable laying down there. I was a little envious. =) It looked more like a lounge chair than a sleeping pad with rocks under it! After awhile, she got up and let me try it out and, after trying it out, I told her she may never get it back. It was awesome! =)

Which also described our views from the campsite, with dramatic vertical walls surrounding us. Off, far in the distance, we could still see the Mediterranean Sea. However, some of the clouds rolling in looked a little... stormy. We crossed our fingers and hoped the storm wouldn't materialize.

As the sun set, we finally officially set up camp for the night.

That's Calvi in the distance along the shores of the Mediterranean.
You can actually see there of those "Polish flags" in this photo if you look closely. That really is the trail Karolina is coming down!
The first refuge of the trail: Refuge d'Ortu. It's not much to look at!
This sign had Karolina and I concerned for a bit. The Cirque is closed?! And we have to take a bus around it?! Nooo!!!!!

Did you notice the refuge in the photo, now behind us on the trail? =)

Yikes! =)

Being on an island, many of the plants and animals out here are endemic and unique to Corsica. I think this lizard might be one of them!

The views from our campsite were amazing! But definitely rugged. *nodding*

Karolina makes herself comfortable. I was a little envious! I don't carry a sleeping pad so I couldn't create my own "lounge chair."

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