Monday, March 16, 2015

State of Wilderness and the Impact of Thru-hiking

I left Los Angeles, many years ago, because I saw the severe encroachment of the urban sprawl envelope the once beautiful surrounding hillsides. There became no place to truly roam free. You had to go elsewhere. Although I have since found beauty within that bulging metropolis, especially during my LA urban thru-hike, I left to develop a wilderness ethic. I believe that my ethic is stronger because I grew up in that urban environment. As I saw suburban housing tracts takeover natural grasslands, oak woodlands, desert expanses, and lush waterways I coined the term 'free dirt' as in rid the land of the concrete that binds, as in connect with the wild without human obstruction. As I am venturing on a route this year exploring public lands seldom visited I think of our overuse on popular trails and ponder the 'voiceless' wilderness and other wild places no one wants to go to visit and explore. Some places are even non-existent in public memory save for a few hardy individuals who choose their own path and keep wilderness alive and valid.
I feel we have a responsibility to walk, to explore. As I say that statement, we have a duty to not neglect our farthest to reach places. Our 'home' should spread wider than our walk to our vehicle or our jobs or around town. Our 'home' should also extend to the least popular places. Even as the Big 3 gains in popularity, which explores vast public spaces, many parts of the wilds remain neglected and overgrown, absent from public memory. This holds even more true out in the wide West. While the corridor of the PCT and CDT receive more boot prints, other wild places seemingly become farther away and the vestiges of trail vanish.
As thru-hikers we need to be the voice for wilderness. I get a sense there is a 'me' attitude in the community when in essence why we experience the wilderness is for ourselves and in the spirit of wilderness. Rick Potts, former Chief of the Wilderness Stewardship and Recreation Management Division for the National Park Service, wrote in an article:

The danger to wilderness is no longer from recreationists who are coming to wilderness, but rather from the vast majority of Americans who are not visiting wilderness.

I feel it is my duty as an American, as an adventurer, and just a plain human being to go into these faraway places and wild areas. In a way, I feel I am keeping the 'no-name' wild spirit alive, that I am validating the existence of wilderness in our world, because it is the freedom of our world. Within my career of thru-hiking I feel to be an explorer and a steward of trails and routes first. Public attention for what I'm doing serves no purpose, only my actions and my respect out in the wild. As I see hikers looking for that public attention or trying to be the cool kid, as I witness public arguments between reputed hiker figures, as I see things getting 'easier' for hikers with not-so-random trail magic, I think of the places faraway and the respect these wild places deserve. To explore means going where the herd is not, to explore means branching away. I think love can 'overkill' and 'over-populate' an area, while apathy and irrelevance can diminish the memory and love we have for a wilderness; wild places fade into the 'no-name.' If we do not use wilderness we will lose it.
Why has a lapse in wilderness ethic shifted to a more social experience? I have a theory. When the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) passed it put a lot of young people to work. A lot of those young adults served in AmeriCorps, in particular the Conservation Corps around the states that put those same young adults at work in our public lands. They were working in places faraway from local society. They worked and lived in the woods with a crew, a family if you will. Our job economy was pretty feeble at that time, yet ARRA employed thousands of young adults everywhere. During their service tenure, transformational experiences of great magnitude shifted the lives of adults that otherwise may have been left with a bleak future. I was one of them. I say to this day, a season in a Conservation Corps is very similar to a thru hike. So, fast forward about 6 years later and ARRA ended and Congress decided to cut back on AmeriCorps. Around that time, our job climate was in the shits even worse than before. Also, long distance hiking was gaining some popular momentum with books being published, bigger social media presence, the blogosphere, and speed record attempts. I correlate this popularity of long distance hiking with the U.S. experiencing a 'European shift,' in which young Americans forsook the tradition of graduating college, starting a career and a family, working until retirement, and finally traveling and exploring in the 'golden years.' With this shift, young Americans have been seeking some sort of transformational experience. Couple that with a jobless economy in which highly educated people cannot find work, then traveling seems like a plausible endeavor. Whether riding a bicycle cross-country, volunteering overseas, thru-hiking, etc. the common thread among the adventurists is the transformative experience one obtains. 
My theory is not to naysay a transformative experience or to not hike a popular trail. In fact, I encourage folks to follow their dreams and live a life off instinctual impulses. My theory, if anything, is a call to action to spread the love. I may sound like a curmudgeon but these transformative experiences can happen anywhere and not solely on the Big 3. I have to say it: The land comes first. Wilderness comes first. The one thing I can say I have learned the most from long distance hiking is balance. Another valuable lesson that I cannot leave out is that wilderness has taught me that my actions have direct consequences. If we overload the popular corridors then more money gets filtered to those areas. Hiker and trail associations get bigger, hiker impact on trail becomes more crucial and noticeable; a veritable highway is developed. I see an eerie parallel to overcrowding our main corridors as urban development encroaching on wild lands. In contrary to overfunding, little used areas receive hardly any funding and become less accessible and overgrown. Only the seldom trail crew or a backcountry horseman clears the paths. Small trail associations go defunct or scrape by on the passion of the folks protecting the trail. But the job is too immense. We end up losing what we love. What stings even more to me is, nowadays, the access to receive thru-hiking tutelage and ethics is ever the more accessible, yet 'how to act' is not held accountable by other experienced hikers. A lesson or the awareness of the climate of the trail becomes a hiker rant. I am not looking to settle the field and condone actions, I am looking to hold thru-hiking in a special light. I am striving to protect our wilderness by being in wilderness. I think of all the ones before us that have enhanced our experience by simply following their heart into unknown territory. The trailblazers who had the vision and bushwhacked a route before it was a path; the researchers of places, maps, and local lore; the authors of guidebooks who painstakingly tabulate valuable information; the naturalists who investigate and scrutinize the world around them microscopically; the mapmakers who constantly read the land and translate what the world is communicating to us on paper; the wilderness fighters who protect what we love; the no-namers, the wildland firefighters, trail builders and trail grunts; all the work and workers going into a route is beyond comprehension. Yet we often choose the most popular path. The gist behind this is that people are seeking that transformational experience at the wilderness expense.
We take for granted the land and the wild by protecting it with closed arms and hugging it close to us thinking if we do not tell anyone then it will always be ours, when in fact, if we do not speak out loud and stand as stewards of the trail and the wild then it will vanish and be used up by big industry. I think, as thru-hikers, we need to be the assertive voice. We have an opportunity to answer the call of wilderness as it sits on our shoulders beckoning us with signs to recover it and to bring its true meaning and value to light before the greedy hands take over. That transformational experience will always be there. Wilderness and those faraway places, on the other hand, may not be. Understanding that our actions affect the land first and not our social constructs will help us make conscientious choices that balance out our land use and land neglect.
I often think that in order to hike one of the Big 3 you must give back to the trail in the form of service. Maybe in order to get a long distance hiking permit 8 hours of trail work must be performed by the hiker on that particular trail with a certain timeframe. Understanding is gained through education, especially through experiential learning. Maybe then we can truly respect the wild places. Maybe then we can understand how much effort goes into the trails we love. Maybe then we will develop a wilderness ethic. Maybe then our furthest faraway places will be preserved through love rather than neglect and apathy.



Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The No-Name Route

I am in search of the 'no-name.' I want to explore empty places on the maps, voids appeal to me unexplainably. Vast spaces on the map instill a curiosity that seems unable to be quenched; essence over existence. Most of all, I need obscurity; I need wilderness.

When I see an open landscape I see an open canvas, a chance to create. In fashioning a route I want to create something that would be worth walking twice. I am searching to connect landscapes and biospheres with a route and/or trails that push thresholds, my limits, and fulfill my ascetic pleasure. I seek those wilder places to obtain lonesomeness, to obtain a higher spirit where I can blend in with the world around me.

Assessing my needs accurately and realistically will help me enjoy my experience and create a route as a 'piece of art.' Water availability, food levels, impending weather, adequate shelter, and crucial assessment of skill level all should influence which direction I decide to take. Imperative out in the wilderness, or the middle of nowhere, is situational awareness and stress management, both physical and mental. This situational awareness empowers me to be a part of the landscape moving with the flow of nature.

So when I do see an open landscape I do see an open canvas. And not only do I envision a chance to create, I believe in freedom. We are blessed to live in a country where we are free to roam wild places , where our own two feet paint a picture. Few hikers create or pioneer a route. Most hikes are related to other's hikes that want to re-create an experience another hiker has had or most hikers choose a trail based on popularity. What about creating your own in an unknown area and letting your skills guide your way, your heart and head shine the light, absorbing Nature's flow, and feeling uninhibited by the randomness of wilderness? What about the no-name places, the big, empty holes on the map?
I know of a small faction of hikers in the no-name guild. And I bet there's a few others who are so unknown they are indefatigably underground and unnoticed. The goal of notoriety is non-existent and, much like the faraway places they go to, have a deeper sense of adventure and an insatiable perseverance to go beyond what they know they are capable of. Above all, a wilderness ethic oozes from their persona; they know how to act. 
Before you go out for a long distance hike think of your wilderness impact and the influence of wilderness on you. Fantasize about places where people do not go. Try to envision an empty place where you fill in the spirit, where you pioneer a story. Strive to create a piece of art that validates the personality of the route taken. 

I am embarking on a 'no-name' route this summer, for the pure joy of immersing myself in a profound wilderness is a necessity to me, as well as stepping into an unknown essence. Which way would you choose: the easy way, the sensible way, the most challenging way? The most unnamed way? The battle of the head and heart begins.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tips for Thru-Hiking as a Couple


Attempting a thru-hike on any long distance trail is challenging to say the least. Whether you meet a friend along the way, start with a companion, develop a love interest or start with your significant other, the hike will push your thresholds, patience, and endurance. However, the rewards of accomplishing such an ambitious endeavor are beyond anything you could imagine. One word that comes to mind: sacrifice. The trail heals and provides but above all it reveals and exposes truths. Bearclaw and I attempted a trek on the PCT hardly knowing each other. I had previous partnerships on trail, however, the previous two were incredible friendships that I developed during the trail, let alone a love partnership starting from scratch. Together we came up with some characteristics and tips we feel are crucial to any partnership on trail, in particular with a significant other, or a marriage you might say.

The first set are 3 traits we feel are needed to exist in any partnership on a long-distance hike. The second set are tips for couples. Since we were so new with each other in the beginning we developed our relationship on the fly while on the trail. The environments and conditions we were in stressed our relationship to the max. Most couples who tackle such a task have had years to get to know each other, time to establish needs, boundaries, and wants, as well as time to experience hiking together. We threw ourselves into an extreme situation because of our extreme belief in each other. We made it out together and have forged a life to look forward to that is filled with adventure, love, and most of all selflessness.

3 traits for a solid foundation of any hiking partnership:
Pace | Whether slow or fast hiking together can be a very enjoyable experience. It helps when the pair are on the same page and can enhance each other’s abilities. Nobody wants to ‘wait.’
Goals | Having the same goals and intentions will help determine your ‘flow’ and method of accomplishing such an endeavor like a thru-hike. From wake-up hour to town stops to food choices having someone to compliment you will help you achieve something great. Remember, keep your goals simple and attainable. Also, keep expectations in a realistic manner.
Sense of Humor | Fart noises, burping, morbid sarcasm, inappropriate jokes that push boundaries, anything to help lighten the mood; what will aid in a better time out on trail is if you can laugh with someone. What a great feeling to have a tough situation and know that you and your partner could laugh it off on account of the same sense of humor.
5 tips for couples while on a thru-hike:
Boundaries | Establishing boundaries will go a long way in alleviating stress. Discuss the boundaries and expectations prior to trail. Communicating clearly without offending or hurting someone will help you get through situations that arise. Keeping emotions from getting carried away will help a pair be successful.
Forgive | The trail will wear on you and your partner. You’ll have to look at that person in the eye moments later after a tough spot and say, ‘It’s ok.’ We all have different methods to process our own shit. It helps to let the other have the stage when it is time for them to vent or heal or blow-up; grant the other some grace. Just forgive, trust us, the relationship will become closer and the bond stronger.
Flexibility | With goals, pace, itinerary, food, rest, injury, gear, weather, etc. so many possibilities arise while on trail that you do not have any control over. Plus, having flexibility gives you room to breath to change and adapt your plans to fit your needs. Be flexible with everything and with each other.
Responsibilities | Share the responsibilities of carrying a shelter, retrieving and carrying water, in camp set-up, and meal preparation. Share the in-town responsibilities of laundry, post office errands, grocery shopping, etc. If someone pulls more weight than the other person it can become very frustrating. Share the responsibilities and you’ll share your experience better.
Give Space | Plan side trips, hike mornings apart, anything to give each other room to reflect, calm down, and decompress. Giving space allows tense situations and moments to pass. A lot of emotions on trail are fleeting and usually one moment you’ll hate the other while the next you are laughing in unison at the dorkiest thing ever!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Moose

After a 2007 failed PCT attempt due to a vicious bout with salmonella, I went back to work in an outdoor leadership program in Montana. For 3 years, I aimed to get my wilderness skills better, to get my head straight, to prepare for another attempt at the PCT and a lifestyle I wanted to live. Up until 2007 I struggled to find the courage to live the life I craved. While the conflict of loving my job in Montana and the urge to go out on the PCT remained ever-present, the impetus to again attempt the PCT laid in the path of a severe injury and a moose. After the incident noted below, I was restricted to a neck brace for 3 months with fractured vertebrate in my neck. In the process of mending I began to reflect and ponder the life I had lived and the life I yearned. I kept thinking: "I don't want to be 40 saying I wish I would have."

The broken neck and the moose prodded me into the life I love today, into a life of wandering, of enormous goals and adventures, into freedom, into courage, into exploring the curiosity of life and self, into powerful relationships I am grateful for (including a wonderful wife), among other meaningful things. I cannot help but think of people I hear everyday afraid to live the life they dream of, afraid of what others will think of them. All I can hope for is that a 'moose' will come along and push them over the edge. Even as I write this, I am envious of the ones who did not need a 'moose.' Those are the people I truly admire. But I can tell you this: it is never too late.

Get out and live. Live bravely and true to yourself and your beliefs. 
Dream big, act big.

Below is the account of a close encounter with a moose during the Devil's Backbone 50m adventure race outside of Bozeman, MT in July of 2010. I wrote the race director to tell him of the event as he had heard of the crazy situation I was involved in from others. All along my neck was broken from a silly event the previous week. I have yet to recount this story in a blog entry mainly due to a little feeling of shame and embarrassment. However, lately in my life I have been thinking about how thankful I am for those events below solely for the fact of the path that I am now on is no one's but the path that I have chosen, that I will fight for the life I truly aimed to lead.

6 months later I ran a 50k when the neurosurgeon told me that I should never run again.
5 more months went by and I trekked the PCT.

"Hey Tom,
Yep, needless to say, I am pretty much in disbelief. I had a fall a week ago last Saturday and landed weird on my head, neck and shoulder area. I felt a crunch/tear but I figured it was a pulled or stretched muscle in my shoulder/neck area. I kept working out in the week and felt okay by Friday, though the mornings were and are the worst part. I'd thought I'd be okay to race but, boy, was I wrong. I was in pretty good pain--trouble breathing, numbed left arm, tingling arm, etc. I dropped halfway up the Hyalite snow wall and headed back. About 1.5 miles from the trailhead I ran into a bull moose. Big, young bull with 2-3 ft paddles on each side. We met on the trail about 20ft apart on a blind corner. I was in pain hiking quietly down the trail with my head down and my mind was completely out of sorts--frustration, pain, anger, etc. I backed away and he began charging and chasing me. I took off back down the trail towards Arch Falls. I stopped after running a 100yds or so. I checked to see if he was still there; he was and he charged me again. I wasn't quite scared yet, just trying to figure a way out of the threat.
I ran again--there wasn't any 'good' enough trees to climb up and I was starting to get  freaked out. I took a fisherman's trail towards the creek hoping to get to the other side to stay wide of the moose, thinking he was trying to scare me. WRONG! I crossed the creek, scoped him out and he was slowly making his way to the creek. He then saw me across the creek while poking his giant head through the willows and charged again. I tried scampering up one tree but it was too small for me to get up and the branches kept breaking. I tried another tree and the same thing happened. Plus, I lacked the strength enough to grapple hold from the neck pain.
Then, I noticed the bull was about 20ft from me in the creek coming at me fast. I booked it upstream through the thick forest. Now I was really, really scared. I ran for I don't know how long jumping over downed logs, up and down swales, and fighting brush until I saw a big snag with big limbs near a huge log spanning the creek. I could feel his presence behind me and the whole time I thought he was about to club me in the back of the head. He was that close! I reached the log and looked for the moose. He was coming up the creek right up the middle of it. I climb the big snag about 12ft in the air, the whole time feeling like my arm was going to pull off from the injury. The moose stopped underneath me and stayed there for about 20 minutes. Blood dripped from scrapes that I had gotten from attempting to climb the trees. He turned around and went back the way he came and went into the willows/brush. I scaled down the tree after a 45min. wait, then scouted for him on the log. Once I figured I was clear I headed back towards the trail. I was not going to go back down the trail where I met the bull. Keep in mind, I had no positive idea of where he went.
So, I looked around frantically trying to find a way back to the trailhead. By now I was in so much immense pain that I new it was important for me to get to a hospital. I spotted a cliff band high up and figured the moose wouldn't follow me up there. I also thought the moose was near the creek and wouldn't be able to hear me crunching through the woods so far above him.  So, I scampered up towards the cliffs and traversed above the trail and creek back towards the trailhead. I was so shaken up I ended up about 1/2mile past the trailhead in the brush above the road, my legs and arms scratched from the scaling and sliding down trees, and my neck and back wrenching in pain. I went to my vehicle, drove to Billings to the walk-in clinic and once they got the x-rays back they sent me to the ER to get a catscan. The results are a fractured c6 and c7 vertebrae. I see the neurosurgeon tomorrow who'll hopefully say I don't need surgery. For now, I think I have to put running on hold until I get better, which means dropping some races...

Crazy day and a crazy story. I apologize for the long diatribe. I am happy to be walking and feel very lucky and at the same time mad...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gossamer Gear Blog Entry

A few months back while on the Pacific Crest Trail I did a guest post for the Gossamer Gear Blog entitled "Thoughts on Walking Straighter."

In my effort to gain more efficiency on trail I began investigating the way we walk. To read more about this topic click on the article link below.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Corsica, GR20: Part 2

Corsica is an island situated 100 miles long by 50 miles wide. From the sea to the watershed divide of the hulking mountains the elevation change is extremely dramatic. Overall, the GR20 loses and gains some 19000m in elevation in a little under 104m. The change baffles the mind. At times, I find myself a tad befuddled as to where exactly I am in the frame of reference of granite. More often than not the high mountains of Corsica resemble some high alpine terrain, a world of steely rock. In fact, the mountains here are in an alpine environment except about 6000-7000ft lower in elevation than the alpine area I am used to. To my point, the elevation change is so drastic from the sea to the mountains you forget you are on an island. Then, upon a cresting of a pass you can virtually have a vantage point of seeing both coasts of the island at the same time.

The island of Corsica is a place where weather is unpredictable, undetermined by what is currently in front of you, and is affected by the sea and mountains. Almost daily low lying clouds ooze into the steep valleys of the east coast. Then, up on the divide, a daily smattering of thick clouds that turn into wispy puffs dissipate as they slam into the divide. The winds up high on the ridgeline flow from the west while down on the Tyhrrean Sea side the wind crams its way from the east. It's a spectacle to behold actually and you feel to be in an unique situation in observing Mother Nature and all her quirks. 

From our descent from the Refuge a Mori the mountains afforded us more panoramic views of open green valleys and further tall, spired peaks to the south. We rapidly dropped in elevation as we passed a slew of cascades that tumbled into pools of aqua-teal water. We even had an easy trek on a forested trail until we hit Castel di Verghio where we had a cafe au lait and some apples. After our break we scampered up some switchbacks lined with mossy crib-rock walls and from the high perch of another pass we set eyes on Lac de Nino. The oval lake is settled in a lush, flat and grassy valley between two giant peaks and is backdropped by the skyline of the Monte Rotundo massif. A little later we came upon some bergeries, or cottages that usually sell fresh goat's cheese and offer an affordable bivouac, tucked in a bulging rocky outcrop with tiny goats bleating as they stuck their heads through chicken wire. The main chimney fluttered up in smoke and the ubiquitous Moor's head, the iconic symbol on the Corsican flag, whipped in the wind. Across another small valley, up and over a small watershed depression, and we settled into another refuge, de Manganu.

Another epic climb and some superb scenery awaited us the next morning from Manganu. After nearly 650m up we wedged ourselves through a notch between two pointy turrets. Down in the other basin two alpine lakes, rather large and flanked all around by precipitous granite bluffs, glistened in the afternoon sun. We would eventually traverse the skirt of this massive basin along a knife arĂȘte. Little did we know that this was our truly last scrambling experience on the GR20. We had some minor scrambling situations later on but none so dramatic and exhilarating. 

At Refuge de Petra Piana we made the decision of following the normal red and white waymarks down into the forested drainage of Manganello rather than take the high variante. The southern half of the GR20 high variantes become an option, at least 3, in which we took 2 lower ones, that I feel stay truer to the theme of the route and Fabrikant's original vision and intention. However, as I say this, venturing into a woodland domain only made us explore more of the island and culture. Within the forest we saw the edifices of shepherds, the cottages of fromageries, and walked along an actual path that was either an old mule cart path or an old 'transhumance' route.

At the hovel of Vizzavona we obtained a room for the night at the charming Hotel U Castellu. The place looked like a castle from the outside and was even more elegant on the inside. The hosts were wonderful and ensured us a very quiet and relaxing night. April and I both loved our stay there. Sadly, the next morning we had to leave out for trail, however, our hearts were content. From Vizzavona we ambled through beech and birch forests that all were in the garb of Autumn. Sprinkled in the mix, laricio pines stood tall on particular aspects of sun-facing slopes. We marveled at the dank woody hollows and the leaf riddled trail. The sun hung at a lower angle in the sky but with the warm temperatures we were fooled into thinking of the time of late summer. 

More and more Fall foliage roused our spirits until we climbed up to the Bocca d'Oro. The scene changed back into alpine and upon ascending the pass early one morning we caught sight of something magical. On the eastern horizon, thousands of feet below, we could trace the Tyrrhean Coast of Corsica. The sun slowly rising and creeping up against a mirage of a defining line of sea and sky. Smeared grey clouds daubed the vast sky in feathered shapes. The occasional billow of smoke plumed up from vineyards and cornfields down below while the haze from a thick sea air settled in and around low lying hills. I sat mesmerized, inspired profoundly. I looked at April and said, "No matter what we ever say to each other I want us to think of this moment, of what we saw."

The next day, at a cross mounted atop Monte Alcudine, I could see the phantasmagoric shapes of Les Aiguilles de Bavella. We trudged down the domed peak and had lunch at Refuge Asinao. We continued to descend and entered a pine forest upon which I took a high variante of the GR20. The variante took me up into the hoodoo pillars of Les Aiguilles. Spackled and smeared like stucco-plaster the texture of the rock was frozen in a stone thaw. The rock resembled the stucco on some of the ancient buildings we would see in the interior villages. The wind was ferocious, blowing and whipping in all directions. The gusts would whistle through the porous rock that resembled reefs from the sea floor. In the distance, around a giant pillar, the wind would crash into another rock tower in which the sound would reverberate similar to the crashing of sea waves upon craggy bluffs. I imagined these eerie, warped rock formations were once of the sea. The intense noise at first made me shudder, the gusts would force me to lean into the heave and brace myself so I would not tumble over. Surrounded by the immense spooky rock towers, I spotted in the western horizon grey cumulus clouds forming and building and pushing their way towards me. The power of the sea and mountains, together, transfixed me; I was part of the rock, a breath of the sea-wind. Corsica's high mountains are truly sprouted out of the sea.

At the Col de Bavella, we had our last night on the GR20 at the l'Auberge. Before dinner, suddenly, everyone ran out of the restaurant. On the hillside a mouflon, or Corsica's version of the bighorn sheep, nibbled at the forest floor. A man, nudged me in the back and in a Corsican tongue said, "This is cool, yea?!" He said that it is a rare sight to see a mouflon so low as they usually stick to the high rocky terrain and alpine environments. We then sat down to a dinner of wild boar stew and a huge portion of lasagna. The photograph on the wall showed a large, round man, a rifle in his lap, looking like a traditional Corsican hunter; another large, rotund man sat at a table petting a hunting dog while eating a bowl of pasta. The barkeep looked just like the other two men but younger. The family lineage, a proud history, lined the walls and floors of this establishment, the food recipes held sacred, and the dog probably the same lineage as the previous hunting dogs. We were among pure tradition. 

Fueled up for the next day we crushed our way through more spooky rock formations with exuberance and perpetual curiosity although we could taste the end. The sea kept getting closer and closer and at the Bocca d'Usciolu we wedged through a notch, a portal of sorts to the town of Conca, the end of the GR20. Down the steep trail we went until we hit the fontana symbolizing the end. After a short descent down a windy paved road we found a cafe with a sign praising our efforts. We sat down and smiled and cheered our accomplishment over a couple of Pietra's, Corsica's home beer. Job well done.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Corsica, GR20: Part 1

The train, sea-tarnished in a rusty blue and a dingy white, clanked along a narrow railway overlooking the teal blue sea. We swayed left and right, a contrast to the ferry's up and down motion. Spanish tiled homes and sheltered coves with beaches lazily rolled on by. Occasionally, I spotted a Corsican man, swarthy, stained from the sun, ambling along the coastline, his arms strung behind his back, hands in clasp; a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. 

Upon arrival in Calvi, the appearance of a reticent lifestyle soothed a traveller's mind. We lingered about in Calvi taking care of last minute chores before hiring a taxi to take us to the quiet hovel of Calenzana, which is dwarfed beneath the massive spired peaks of the backbone of Corsica. 

The start of the GR20 ambled up a short stairway and, then, meandered through alley ways until reaching a fontana that heralded the end of concrete and the start of a dirt foot path. Up the path went until a junction split the foot travel in two. On the top of the rocky outcrop a large cairn, say 5ft. tall, pointed the way, as well as the ubiquitous red and white waymarks, the slashes that would guide the whole way. The Gran Randonee 20 (GR20) continued straight up. The notion of a lazy Corsican life soon upended in our heads as we laboriously plodded up hill. Bocca a u Saltu signified the first of many passes that would not disappoint in the vista department. To the west we could see Calvi and its half moon gulf littered with a few sailboats, Ile de Rousse, where we arrived via ferry, lay further north arched in its cape, and Monte Grosso and Capo Dente shot straight up into the sky. The orange stained rock basked in the afternoon sun appearing to get more rusted while Calenzana, the start of the GR20, sunk in the valley below tucked neatly under a hill, seemed perpetually frozen in time.

Through the laricio pine forest, the trail descended the pass only to abruptly climb through fins of rock and spines of lumpy granite shooting straight down the mountainside. About halfway up we encountered our first set of chains, albeit a small set, that supported trekkers through potentially dangerous positions. After negotiating the tricky climb we attained another pass that afforded us views of the rugged interior of Corsica. From the pass it was a short traverse to the first refuge of the GR20. 

The GR20 is roughly 170km and connected by 15 stages, or etapes, where at the end of a stage a refuge, or hut, awaits a weary trekker's arrival. The GR20 is the brainchild of Michel Fabrikant, who in the 1970s conceived the notion to create a precarious path across Corsica's rugged mountain spine and watershed. His vision puts the trekker  over severely exposed drop-offs and cliffs, traverses spiky ridge lines and loose debris in couloirs, and tests not only the trekker physically with the massive ascents and descents but holds the trekker at bay to the fear he/she can withstand, for the term 'trekker' on this trail should be dubbed 'climber' or 'scrambler.' The route is slow going and rather than leg out the stages in miles the guidebooks and Corsica's Parc Natural Regional set the stages in hours. For instance, the Cirque du Solitude is no more than a mile long distance-wise, however, the series of chains down an abyss of a couloir wedged between orange-stained and green lichen towers in which a hiker will utilize all fours including a butt slide here and there, only to boulder hop down loose scree, then climb immediately up a series of exposed ledges and shelves using more chains and even a ladder, will take a suggested 'clean run' of 90 minutes.

So with that in mind, we left our first refuge and suddenly plunged ourselves into the heart of the GR20. A 500m slog of a climb put us on top of Bocca Piccaia. I had gotten to the top before April did and took coverage from the wind behind some rocks. For about 20 minutes I sat in disbelief at the landscape in front of me. Dizzying cliffs fell straight down to deeply gouged chasms, spires of rock, granite towers and block monoliths, serrated ridge line after ridge line, and the Cinto massif dominated the horizon to the south. Intimidated by the views, I could not fathom where this route would take us. April finally clambered up and not seeing where I was sitting blurted out, "Oh my fucking God. Holy shit!" The scene was that dramatic, that insanely beautiful.

More great views and challenging obstacles ensued including a high traverse of an arĂȘte, more scrambling up and down steep shelves and outcrops, and a terrible crumbly descent on loose shale. Nevertheless, we made it to the next refuge, soaked up on water, and decided to push on up and over to Asco, a run down ski resort where we could get more food, some 700m up and a knee crunching 600m down.

Up and up we went scrambling on and over polished granite shelves. Up high in the lofty canyon walls above the rock seemed crumbly. But down in the chasm the rock was smooth and tarnished where water would seep across shelves and spill into the gorge below. Because of this type of travel we gained elevation quickly. Before we knew it an enveloping cloud bank oozed its way into the canyon. Mist hung in the air, as the rock became crumbly. As the rock dampened a murky metallic green stained the cirques above. We scampered over rock and climbed steeply up a chute before we decided to hunker down in case water fell from the sky in an unpleasant fashion. At Lavu di a Muvrella, about 300ft shy of the pass, we set up our tarp and fell asleep. Mist pelted our tarp throughout the night.

After a well rested day at Asco, a day that eventually surprised us in its overpricing; we hiked swiftly up the abandoned ski run. The morning brought a cold wind coming down from the pass. No matter to us. Actually, I enjoyed the hike immensely as the scenery resembled a jaunt into the High Sierra. But we knew why we were excited: the Cirque du Solitude.

At Col Perdu, nearly 800m higher than Asco, we peered over the ledge and saw the upper portion of chains bolted into a pleated wall of rock. Looking back across the valley from whence we came an enormous block tower illuminated a purple-red in the morning sun. I assured April she could do this. The other side of the cirque at Bocca Minuta seemed so close that you should be able to leap across the gap. The rock that stood in between was a sheer face of a mountain pinnacle towering hundreds of feet above. The cirque plummeted 200m straight down. After tricky and careful negotiation of the sheer steep rock we made it to a jumble of rock, oven-sized boulders, still at the same precipitous level as the chains above. We hopped from one to the other, moving like a frog. 

The other side of the cirque managed a route through exposed shelves and heart thumping ledges, however, the ascent went a little higher up. At Bocca Minuta we rested over some goat cheese, dried sausage, and French bread while admiring the interior of Corsica which now seemed to open up a bit. A long gradient down a ravine awaited us. The descent seemed never-ending, as the 800m or so, toiled on our knees, although the total time it took to negotiate was a lot quicker than it felt. After an hour's tame amble through a laricio pine forest we again had to go straight back up another 600m. We both began to tire after such a strenuous day. Then, the Bocca di Foggiale which is a long stone's throw from the mountain refuge Ciottulu a i Mori. At the pass, Paglia Orba, Corsica's third highest peak and most distinguishable due to an uncanny likeness to a shark's fin, and Capu Tafonatu, another extremely conical peak, backdropped the mountain hut amid peach sun rays from a mega-glowing sunset that flamed the dying day in supreme glory and tranquility. Superb scenery, some of the greatest I have witnessed. To make matters even more dreamy, the gardien of the hut was on duty and cooked us up macaroni di mori. The gardien cooked us up our meal with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and with a Che Guevara flag overhead. His eyes crinkled from years in the mountains; the sun and wind had hardened this man. What a treat to receive a meal from a spirit sprouted within these Corsican mountains. We lined our empty bellies with the delicious meal as the peach of the sunset dimmed through the refuge's tiny windows.

The hardest of the scrambling and the slowest of goings is behind us, though from the flank of Paglia Orba a sea of mountains awaits us ahead. I am baffled, astonished really, at how the outlines of ridges seem to layer with no end, at how elevation here is so distorted at how drastic the terrain changes in in so little time and distance. This ruggedness, this violently eroded terrain, is soothing and tranquil.