GR20 Corsica Sud - Day 3
"The Alpine Variant route - highly recommended for those who want to experience excitement and exceptional views - highly recommended in clear weather" Dillon, P 2014. 'GR20: Corsica', Cicerone, Cumbria.
Highly recommended - IN CLEAR WEATHER!!!
In our defence - it was a crystal clear morning without a cloud in the sky as we set off blithely, along with many other hikers, to traverse the Alpine Variant route between Village di Bavella and Refuge d'Asinau.
In Paddy Dillon's defence, he does recommend asking the weather forecast for each day. Hmm, something we had forgotten to do, assuming that the weather would be beautiful all day.
We gave way to the herd of cows heading back along the main drag of Bavella, stopping to admire the statue of our lady of the mountains - Notre Dame at the Col de Bavella with many signs saying 'merci' along with candle offerings.
We started to climb again, very steeply, with incredible views up to the jagged alpine peaks surrounding us and down to the valleys below.
About half way up, cool mists started to swirl down from the upper peaks. They took apparition like shapes, reminiscent of the ones foolishly unleashed by archaeologist Belloch as he opened the Ark of the Covenant in the movie Raiders of the lost Ark.
We climbed still higher. A man approached us and said what I thought was 'chien' (dog), but what he was really saying was 'chain'. There was a tour guide coaching a group of day walkers. He asked us 'do you know this way? It is VE-RY dangereuse!!'
The way he was speaking of was a steep descent down a large, near vertical rock slab with a chain attached to aid either your descent (in our case) or ascent, depending on the direction of your approach (1600 metres up with an abyss below). We didn't know what to say, but paid keen attention to his safety demonstration. Luckily for us, he was an extremely expressive communicator, using his entire body and a myriad of facial expressions to convey his message. Even though he spoke entirely in French, we understood the drill:
Descend in reverse
Keep the chain between your legs
Both hands on the chain at all times
One person on the chain only at any one time
Look straight ahead
Don't look down
We waited our turn while the group descended one by one. An older woman was halfway through her descent when she slipped and cried out. Face down on the rock slab, she said that she had taken her eyes off the chain momentarily and looked at the view. Our hearts were in our mouths until she was vertical again and with a firm grip on the chain. It could really have been curtains for her!
It was my turn and initially I felt quite confident. Mark was waiting to descend after me and was coaching me from the top. One of the group, a lovely man, decided to wait until we were safely down too. He was coaching me from below. As I descended to the end of the slab, I began to feel quite scared. My legs started wobbling. I was breathing rapidly. The slab curved away towards the path I would eventually step down on to, but I couldn't see how the two would link. Instinctively I removed my right hand from the chain to try and hold on to something - what, I didn't know. Fear renders you incapable of sensible decision making.
"Non!!!" yelled my friend from below very forcefully. I looked at him and he motioned for me to keep both hands on the chain. He also motioned for me to keep stepping down, although now it was a sideways step holding on to the chain. I was now at the edge and it seemed a big leap down to the path. "Ici" (here) he said pointing to where I could reverse and place my foot. I froze, not knowing what to do. He kindly grabbed my ankle and guided my foot to the rock ledge below that I couldn't see.
Safely down, I thanked him profusely. He smiled and with an au revoir, he was on his way. Mark made his way down with ease and we were on our way again, ever upwards.
The weather was really closing in now and visibility was growing ever smaller. The rock cairns became indispensable as way markers. The day walking group turned back, not wanting to be caught going back up the rock slab in the rain.
We forged ahead to get over the peak and down the other side. It started raining and the clouds grew thicker and darker. It was now windy and very cold. As we traversed the ridge, I looked for rocky overhangs in case we needed to do an emergency bivouac.
We began our descent and the heavens opened, thunder and rain. We were caught in an alpine storm and I have to say, not liking it too much at all. We were cold and wet and racing down the steep treacherous boulder strewn path to get to the refuge as quickly as we could. Very loud thunder rumbled around the high peaks moments before the heavens unleashed thousands of bullet-like miniature hail stones on us. It had suddenly moved from cold to freezing. We were in shorts.
We climbed to our refuge on the next hill top, where it was sunny. Mark pitched our tent while I got into thermals, shivering uncontrollably. I got some provisions from the refuge for dinner, including red wine to celebrate our survival.
We celebrated the fact that we hadn't met our untimely demise that day either due to or as a consequence of:
(A). Plummeting into the valley of no return from a chain attached to a vertical rock slab 1600 metres up
(B). Becoming human lightning rods in a freak alpine electrical storm
(C). Hypothermia due to wearing shorts in a freak alpine hailstorm.
"Do something every day that scares you" - we had certainly ticked that box today.