Monday, May 30, 2016

Day 14: Save the Salamaders! Stop brushing your teeth!

September 24: The morning was much improved over yesterday. The winds had died down to nothing and the views were great--although it was still quite chilly. One distinct downside to sleeping in a refuge was that everyone else woke up way too friggin' early. By the time Karolina and I got up at 6:30, most of the other hikers were already gone. And we hadn't even started hiking yet--we'd only woken up!

It was cold enough for frost to form during the night, and in shady areas, it lingered quite late into the morning.

Karolina headed to the kitchen to eat and continue drying some wet clothes. I hung out in the empty bunkroom eating breakfast. I wasn't entirely sure if eating was allowed in the bunkrooms, but it was certainly better than the alternative of eating outside. The kitchen and dining area I figured was still probably full of people and I liked the quiet of the bunkroom.

Afterwards, however, I headed outside to brush my teeth. Can't exactly spit out the gunk in the bunkroom! I brushed near the water faucet when the caretaker saw me and started getting all angry at me, yelling at me in French. What the hell was wrong with him? He kept pointing towards the kitchen area. Later he told me--in very bad English--that there was a salamander living near where I was brushing my teeth and he didn't want my teeth brushing to invade the salamander's habitat. Come on, really? I certainly had no intention of spitting out the toothpaste on a salamander, but did it really matter where I brushed my teeth? Wherever I went, there would be some sort of animal living nearby!

I finished getting ready for the trail before Karolina and killed some time reading my Kindle until she was ready too, and we were the last hikers of the morning to leave. It was only 8:00 AM.

The trail started rocky, but within an hour or so descended to a largely flat and easy trail. The day was beautiful, but a wave of cold swept over us every time a cloud obscured the sun.

When the sun was out, the fall colors were wonderful. Brilliant reds and yellows, with lots of crackling leaves underfoot. Absolutely wonderful!

The weather the previous day apparently had caught up with me, however, and I had developed a case of the sniffles. I didn't think too much of it at the time, until Karolina got upset about my not blowing my nose. She didn't want to hear my sniffling, but honking loudly into a handkerchief was okay, so that's what I started doing. I didn't much like it, though, because the constant wiping of my nose with the handkerchief made my nose raw and sore, and now I had a dirty, nasty handkerchief to carry around.

It was time to leave the refuge! The weather conditions were still cold, but the lack of wind and rain made the experience a whole lot better than yesterday!

When we passed a small creek, I decided it was a good time to shave. I'd been a few days without shaving, and I liked the idea of letting Karolina get ahead so I could stop blowing my nose all the time. =) So I took about 15 minutes to shave, eat a couple of snacks, and figured the head start Karolina had on me would take me at least an hour to catch up with her again.

So I was somewhat surprised when, all of about five minutes later, I caught up with her. How?! I'd given her a 15 minute head start!

Turns out, while I was shaving and eating snacks, she had taken a wrong turn and gotten herself lost. I happened across her just a few minutes of her re-finding the trail. It was actually a good thing she had found the trail when she did. If I had passed her and didn't know it, it would have probably been a couple of hours before I started wondering why I hadn't caught up with her yet and realized she was actually behind me! But I was a little disappointed that I couldn't sniffle my way down the trail for the next hour or so either.

Karolina and I decided to take another alternative route for most of the day. The route used to be the main GR 20, but a refuge in the middle of it burned down after being struck by lightening in 1981. Rather than rebuilding the refuge there, they re-routed the trail to another refuge. It added several miles to the trail and broke an otherwise very long segment without refuges into two smaller segments. Interestingly, the old refuge is now the location of the only place along the entire trail where camping is allowed away from refuges and was entirely free. We were half inclined to camp there for the night just for that reason, but we were anxious to get this trail done and still had more miles in our bones. We felt certain we'd have no trouble reaching the next refuge by dark.

Near the end of the day, the trail re-united with the main route and headed down a steep slope to the Refuge d'Asinau where we set up camp for the night.

Shadow games in the morning. =)
What a beautiful day!

Karolina enjoys the autumn leaves falling from the trees!
Okay, to be perfectly honest.... the leaves may not have actually been falling out of the trees.... although they had fallen out of them at one point! =)

Most of the day's hiking was like this--along a flat, easy plateau. Still scenic, though!

At one point, we stumbled across a bunch of little piglets. They didn't seem particularly shy of people, but we didn't want to get too close to them either!
Do we dare cross this rickety suspension bridge that only allows one person at a time to cross?
Of course we dare! And we stress test it by jumping up and down on it too! (At least I did.) =)

It's amazing how different the weather can be on two sides of a ridge. On the one side, thick with fog. On the other, mostly clear with great visibility!

The trail down to the refuge at the end of the day was quite steep and slow-going. (See the chain by Karolina's feet?)

Sunset from our campsite was gorgeous!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Day 13: The Day of the Raging Storm

September 23: During the night, the wind picked up dramatically, at one point blowing open the windows our of little shelter. I got up and closed both the shutters and windows and went back to sleep, glad we were in a cinder-block building and protected from the worst of it.

The sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea was gorgeous!

By morning, the winds had died down again, but there was a light sprinkle which would come and go throughout the sunrise. The wet dampened our moods, but even that didn't diminish the spectacular sunrise. A thick layer of clouds stretched out well above our location allowing pretty good visibility.

We were in no rush to get out. The rain would start and stop and we hoped it would let up completely before we headed back out. Karolina took the time to sew an increasingly large hole in her pocket.

Eventually, though, we had to get in our miles and we headed back up the side trail and returned to the main trail to continue our trek. The rain seemed to have stopped--for the time being, at least--so we figured it was time to make a run for it.

We weren't out for more than a half hour before we took another side trail to another small, abandoned building where our guidebook said we could get water, but alas, there was no water. I still had some water--far more than I actually needed, so I split it with Karolina who was pretty much out.

As we were leaving, the rain started up again. I pulled out my umbrella. The good times had come to an end.

A few minutes later, Karolina noticed a salamander on a rock which we both admired. Neither of us had ever seen a salamander in the wild so it was a novelty for both of us. And he was conveniently still giving us plenty of time to take photos and check it out.

The trail continued upwards, finally cresting an exposed ridgeline where the wind completely knocked us over. POW! I closed my umbrella--it was worse than useless in such a strong wind. Visibility dropped dramatically as well as we were now deep in the clouds that had previously been above us.

Karolina take a photo of the sunrise through a broken window of the refuge.

It wasn't more than about five minutes when we first reached the ridge that I started having serious concerns about our safety. The wind wasn't just strong--it was crazy strong. Easily comparable to the worst wind storms I'd ever experienced in the White Mountains, and the wind chill was truly frightening. It wasn't raining... not exactly.... but the mist of the clouds pelted us like a sideways rain and soaked us completely through. The only break from the wind, wet and cold was hiding behind large boulders, but even that wasn't complete protection. I did stop long enough to add an extra layer of clothes and pull out my gloves.

Karolina and I pretty much stopped talking--we had to shout at the top of our lungs to be heard over the roaring winds even when we were standing right next to each other. Resting was out of the question. We'd die of hypothermia very quickly if we stopped.

We fell into a pattern where I'd hide behind a boulder for some protection, then Karolina would scramble ahead along the trail while I watched and made sure she made it okay. Then I'd quickly follow behind her. I would have preferred not stopping at all--I shivered uncontrollably when I did--but I was able to hike at a much faster pace than Karolina and I figured it was better for me to stop behind boulders than to walk slowly right behind her.

Eventually, I stopped taking photos. I couldn't take photos, fumbling with my camera using numb and perhaps frostbitten fingers. I would shove my hands deep in my pockets in an attempt to keep them warm while hiding behind the boulders. They ached with cold, but I figured the fact that they hurt from the cold was actually a good sign. They couldn't be too frostbitten if I could still feel pain in them. But it didn't feel good either!

An hour into this madness, we reached an open stretch of bare rock in which the wind knocked me over completely. I landed hard on my side, a bit dazed, but picked myself up quickly and continued on. Another gust of wind came up behind me and pushed me forward, and I ran forward trying not to face plant. I cursed. Jesus Christ! This was getting dangerous! I looked ahead for Karolina, wondering how she was doing, but I lost sight of her briefly when the trail dipped down into a crevice. She was such a tiny, lightweight thing. I was struggling in the wind--how was she moving at all?!

We're about to enter the clouds!

She'd taken a quick break in the crevice, and I soon caught up again. The exact thought going through my head was, "I really hope we don't die out here." What I shouted over the wind to her was, "Ready to keep going?!" Frankly, we had no other options. At this point, I figured the next refuge was probably closer than the one we had just left, and we desperately needed a real refuge. Stopping was not an option.

Karolina nodded and moved out. I followed about 20 seconds later and a powerful wind gust knocked me into a small boulder.

Jesus Christ!

I pushed off the rock with my arms, leaned forward and took a step... or rather, I tried to. My foot didn't move. I couldn't move my leg against the wind. I looked around and realized the trail was passing through a narrow gap and the gap was acting like a wind tunnel. The already strong winds were amplified as they funneled through the gap in the rocks. $#!^!

I crouched lower, trying to make myself an even smaller target for the wind, and leaned forward in what felt like a near horizontal position. It's official, I thought. This is the strongest wind I've ever been in. Ever! @#$!!

I slowly inched forward, walking almost gorilla-like with my arms ahead of me to catch me from face-planting into the rock if the strong wind suddenly slowed unexpectedly or turned and pushed me from behind. Each step was agonizingly slow and difficult. Eventually I made it across the gap, catching up with Karolina. Our situation was bad. Very bad. We needed to get the hell off this mountain. I hoped there weren't any other gaps acting as wind tunnels ahead, but I feared there would be more. The wind was bad. The wind tunnels could turn deadly.


We continued onward, picking our way through the rocks. Occasionally we had trouble finding the next trail marker through the fog, but the trail followed the very top of the ridgeline for the most part and we'd quickly find it. I thought about trying to go off-trail, downhill from the ridgeline where there was more protection from the wind, but navigation would be more difficult without trail markers to follow and if one of us did get injured, it would be much more difficult for potential rescuers to find us if we were off the trail.

We battled the cold, wet and wind for about two hours before the trail started descending towards the next refuge, the Refuge d'Usciolu. The intensity of the wind decreased with the drop to the refuge, although there were still plenty of big gusts, but our spirits had lifted. We heard a dog barking--a sure sign the shelter must be near!

And finally we arrived at the shelter, safe and sound. Cold and wet, but safe and sound. It wasn't even noon yet, but it felt like we had been out there for days. We both decided it was a good place to quit for the day. The weather was just too dangerous to keep going on. We were done. We'd covered less than 4 miles.

We also decided to do something we'd never done before--sleep in the refuge! It was a total splurge on our part. A bunk inside cost quite a bit more than to camp outside, but we were cold, wet and the weather outside was downright crazy. And frankly, our shelters would have probably been ripped to shreds in the wind.

I'm taking a photo of the salamander. (It's almost directly below that sign on the tree, but so small it's all but impossible to see in the photo. Looks more like a small twig on the rock!

We headed into the kitchen first--which is pretty much where all of the other hikers were hanging out. The room was also the official place to "dry stuff," so wet clothes were hanging all over the place. Karolina got out of her wet jacket and replaced it with dry clothes, but I actually kept my wet clothes on. I was cold and didn't like the wet, but I figured my body heat would dry my clothes faster than letting it hang in a cold but surprisingly humid room.

Karolina booked ourselves bunk beds, and we made ourselves comfortable. The bunkroom only had one other person in it when we first arrived--a Spaniard who didn't speak much English. I was tempted to try talking to him in Spanish--I suspected my Spanish was probably better than his English, but I kept with English so Karolina could participate in the conversation too. He'd been doing long days on the trail and, in fact, had done the exact same route we had done, but he'd done it in four days compared to our 13 days. But it muttered "muy peligroso!" and said he was stopping early today. Even Karolina understand that much Spanish. =)

Karolina had made one vital mistake packing up in the morning--she forgot to put her sleeping bag in a waterproof bag so it was quite wet. She could use her emergency blanket for added warmth, but there was no good way to dry her bag. She did hang up her sleeping bag in the kitchen near a heat source, but it wouldn't dry completely until her body heat would dry it during the night.

One fascinating aside about Wilson, our pinecone friend, was that we were expecting rain today and--after watching its transformation the first time it rained early in the trip--we took a photo of it early in the day. It was open and wide. By the end of the day, after the cold and wet, it was closed up solid. I took another photo so we could have before and after photos of the pinecone's transformation. It's fascinating!

We haven't even hit the bad stuff yet... and Karolina is already looking worried!

I spent most of the afternoon in the bunkroom, in my sleeping bag trying to stay warm and reading my Kindle. As more and more hikers arrived, the bunkroom filled completely up. I did leave back to the kitchen to cook dinner or off to the toilet for the occasional potty break, but I liked the bunkroom because it was less crowded than the kitchen and the warmest place I could be. =)

The caretaker dismissed the weather saying it wasn't that bad. Karolina seemed surprised at this--we both considered it very severe and outright dangerous--but I reminded Karolina that he hadn't been on the ridgetop. The caretaker was utterly clueless what the conditions up there was like. Although there were still strong wind gusts and plenty of cold and wet at the refuge, it was muted considerably from that exposed ridgeline. He probably thinks that this weather is what the whole ridgeline was like. Which was naive, but to be fair, I would never have guessed at how severe the weather at the top of the ridge would have been like had I not been up there and saw it first-hand.

I wish we had some way to measure the top windspeeds we had gone through, but we don't. I have little doubt that they easily topped 100 km/h (about 60 mph) since I had been in those kinds of winds before but these were far stronger. Hurricanes require a sustained wind speed of at least 118 km/h (74 mph)--I could totally believe some of our time was spent in such wind speeds which would make it the first "hurricane-force" winds I'd never hiked through. And--even better--we lived to tell the tale! =)

We also talked about tomorrow. What would we do if this storm continued through tomorrow? Neither of us wanted to battle it again--we'd rather take a zero day at the shelter than risk such severe weather. We didn't have a good weather forecast, though, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

This would be the last photo I'd take for the better part of an hour... until we were nearly at the next refuge.
Karolina roars with pride at having survived the storm and made it to the refuge!
Safe at last! Home, sweet home!
The kitchen and dining area was strung with wet and drying clothes.
Karolina looks... subdued. And tired. It was a tough day. *nodding* And still cold, despite being indoors.
Our bunks for the night! (Karolina got bunk #2 while I had bunk #3.) There were nearly 20 of us squeezed into this room for the night!
I cook a warm meal to help warm me up!
Wilson, in the morning before the rain and cold.
Wilson, at the end of the day after the rain and cold.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Day 12: The Unmanned Refuge....

September 22: Karolina had an especially difficult night. Not only did she not like the dark and gloomy campsite, but wedged deep in a valley next to a cold river, the temperatures were relatively cold as well and her sleeping bag wasn't up to the task. I threw my tarp over us like a blanket as an extra layer, but it's a thin layer at best.

I woke up at around 4:00 in the morning feeling parched and thirsty and rustled a bit for some water. Karolina eagerly asked if it was 6:30 yet. Which might have been a first--usually she seemed disappointed when it was 6:30 and it was time to wake up. She clearly hadn't been sleeping well and was anxious to get moving, but no, it was still too early.

A couple of hours later, we started waking up for the day, and Karolina complained about how cold she was all night. I joked about farting under the tarp to help keep her warm.

Her eyes opened wide. "Have you ever heard of gas chambers? You could have killed me!"

I took my usual time to eat breakfast, brush my teeth and get ready for the day, but Karolina couldn't wait to hit the trail and start walking just to warm up so she got a 15 minute head start on me, impatient to wait for me. That was fine--I'll catch up when I catch up. =)

Eventually, I was ready to go, and I didn't get 10 seconds down the trail before I found a dirty sock laying there. It had to be Karolina's. She was the only person who'd been here since we set up camp the evening before, and she normally used safety pins to hang dirty and drying socks from her pack. This one must have fallen off unexpectedly. I picked it up and added it to my pack.

I caught up with Karolina about an hour later near the next refuge where she was happily reunited wit her sock. She had noticed it was missing but didn't know where she lost it and hoped I'd find it. "It was crying," she told me. It was missing her, and I saved the day by picking it up.

The day warmed up, but not much. Most of the day was spent the shadows of the trees, and the wind was very strong on the exposed ridges. The wind chill was brutal. The views were often less than spectacular, mostly because of a thick layer of clouds blocking views to the east. My throat was a bit sore all day, which I attributed to being slightly dehydrated from yesterday. I really hadn't had enough water to drink.

At one viewpoint, we took a lunch break and a couple of horses loaded down with supplies and a cowboy happened by--probably to resupply the refuge just up the trail. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later, another horse, all by itself without any supplies on its back wandered by as well. It seemed to know where it was going, or at least where it wanted to go since it didn't even stop to check us out. As it walked off, Karolina turned to me and suggested that we could have put our packs on the horse.

This refuge had plenty of firewood out front!

Brilliant! I wish she had thought of that before it had already walked off, though. =) I'm not even sure how we'd have attached our packs to the horse anyhow, but I liked the concept. If the horse was going our way already, why not let him carry our packs?

After the Refuge de Prati, the trail became a lot more rugged, difficult and slow. Lots of scrambling involved. Other hikers heading in the opposite direction told us about being in rain earlier in the day, although we hadn't experienced any of that. Yet. Some of the clouds to the east did look like they might have rain, however.

The trail followed the spine of Corsica, high on a ridge separating the east side of Corsica from the west side of Corsica, and the weather on each side was dramatically different. To the east, thick clouds that often times resembled a forest fire burning up the slopes. To the west, absolutely clear and beautiful--albeit cold and windy. Most of the afternoon we were on the clear and beautiful side, but that wouldn't last. Along the ridge where it was most rugged, the trail dropped and skirted just around the peaks along the cloudy and gloomy side.

Near the end of the day, we were once again located about halfway between refuges with little chance of hitting the next one before dark. However! We had a backup plan to avoid an illegal campsite and save money by heading to a "unmanned refuge" a short ways off trail. The side trail was well marked and maintained... at first. Eventually a smaller trail that was almost impossible to see split off from it. We'd have missed the turnoff completely if it wasn't for a small sign marking it, and even then we had doubts if it was the correct way. It looked like nobody had used that trail in years, but we followed it anyhow eventually leading to a small, cinder-block building. The windows were shuttered closed and the door closed, giving the place an abandoned, haunted look.

Karolina opened the door and poked her head in, giving me the all clear. I quickly followed her in and we checked out the place. It was divided into two small rooms. The smaller one was a kitchen and dining room of sorts, while a slightly larger one further in led to the sleeping quarters which resembled a shelter from the AT more than a proper refuge. It had a wooden floor (raised a couple of feet above the cement floor) and mouse poop littered the area. Nobody else was there--not yet, at least--but it looked like nobody had been there for weeks.

I opened the shutters for the windows of the sleeping quarters to let in some light--it was quite dark inside!--and a lizard fell out and scampered across the floor away from us.

The setting was primitive, but we were still both happy to have this shelter. There was a good chance of rain during the night, and we'd be out of it. Underneath the wooden floor of the sleeping area, there was a large chest, which I pulled out and opened to check out. It was filled with thick, wool blankets!

"Hey, Karolina!" I exclaimed. "If you're cold tonight, you've got some real blankets to warm  you up this tonight!"

There was also an abandoned sleeping pad in the refuge, which I figured I may as well use. Save me from having to camp directly on the hard, wooden floor. This would be my second night on the GR 20 with a sleeping pad--who says you have to carry one yourself? I just find mine on the trail!

A table in the sleeping quarters had several empty wine bottles and mostly burned out candles stuffed into the ends. But there were still a couple of candles with a bit of life left and near sunset when darkness started to invade, I stuffed them in the ends of the wine bottles and lit them. They provided a nice, pleasant glow to the room that flashlights could never duplicate.

As it got dark, it became clear that nobody else would be arriving and we'd have the shelter all to ourselves. We were both plenty happy about this. No snorers to worry about, or early-morning rustling. Nor did we have to worry about waking up anyone else and disturbing them. We were a little surprised nobody else used the shelter--it was free (although a sign requested a small donation in a drop box in the kitchen area) and conveniently located halfway between two refuges. It didn't have all of the facilities of a larger refuge (particularly a lack of water, but we came prepared for that), but it was certainly a lot quieter and cozier than one of the crowded refuges everyone else was staying at.

It was a rough day, but we were both quiet happy with our destination for the day. Wish we had these places every night! =)

Karolina tries growing a beard!

It wasn't until after this horse walked passed us (completely unattended!) that Karolina had the idea of throwing our packs on its back. =)

I'm hanging outside of the last "full-service" refuge of the day during a quick break.

The flag of Corsica
Views of the Mediterranean Sea were obscured with this thick layer of clouds to the east.
To the west, the sky was clear and beautiful!

I thought the clouds on the east side of the ridge kind of resembled a forest fire!

Holy giant cairns!

Trying to stay warm on one of those windy, exposed ridges during a short break. (I'm reading my Kindle here.)
While I was reading my Kindle, Karolina decided to take a quick nap. =)

It's a little amazing to me how different the weather can be on each side of this ridge. Clear and sunny on one side, and thick with impenetrable clouds on the other!

Does Karolina dare to open the door of the unmanned refuge?
Yes! She dares!
I set up camp in the shelter. =)
The view from our window.
Near sunset, we used the candles and (empty) wine bottles we found for light. =)