My Mountain Diary.

Day 13 – Refuge D’Asinau.

At 6am this morning I was alone on a high mountain ridge in southern Corsica, scrambling over rocky spikes and awkward slabs in the darkness. Clouds swirled all around me and I wondered if they would later turn to thunder storms.

I knew that it was madness but I also knew that I was totally in my element. Then the orange and reds of the day began to seep over from behind the horizon, bathing the mountains all around me in a welcoming warmth.

Day 2 – Calenzana.

The train slid slowly through the burnt and barren land. I sat in silence, surrounded by people. The heat was overwhelming me and I hadn’t even started walking yet. I nearly got off the train in L’Ile Rousse, it looked so nice with its idyllic white beaches and clear blue waters. The perfect place to spend a beach holiday with your boyfriend.

I had a very different trip in mind. On arrival into Calvi I stared up at the big and scary mountains. What have I done? I wondered in horror. Was this how I chose to spend my annual leave?

I was there to walk alone for 13 days along the GR20 trail through the rugged and high Corsican mountains. It was meant to be the toughest trek in Europe and despite my wealth of mountain experience I was now doubting myself. A voice inside my head, namely that of my ex-boyfriend, was telling me that I would never quite be good enough.

By the time I reached the trail head in Calenzana I still had not spoken to anyone despite being surrounded by several other hikers on the local bus. After a terrible nights sleep in a rough camp site outside Bastia the night before and along with my impeding heat stroke, I was starting to turn inwards on myself. Did I really want to be here? I wasn’t sure. Then I remembered how much I had spent on the flights and thought…I better enjoy myself!

Setting up my tent in the dusty little camp site everything changed when I met Rosie in the tent next door. She was an outdoor instructor, also from the Lake District, also walking alone and also feeling a little hesitant just like me. To my surprise, I suddenly had the perfect buddy for the trail days to come.

Day 7 – Hôtel Castel di Vergio.

I have had no internet or phone signal for so long. I have only had big blue skies, valley views, dirt beneath my feet and boulders beneath my hands. I have seen no towns, no cars and no roads. I have only seen the wind, the sun and the distant sea. I have sat in silence, enjoyed sunsets, taken the time to think and to feel. I have felt my body work hard. My stomach has rumbled and my throat has run dry but I have quickly drank more to replenish myself and eaten more to keep myself strong. I have swam in rivers, clambered over rocks, lugged myself over mountain passes and gorged myself on plain biscuits thinking that it was the best thing in the world.

I have spoken French, met loads of other hikers, shared stories, taken photos, written my diary and spotted mountain goats. I have been in utter bliss.

After spending years chasing male companions through the mountains it has been so exciting and liberating to be sharing at least a few days of this journey with such a like minded soul. Another young woman who is fit and tough like me, who cares more about adventures then appearances. Someone who has made that choice to roam free and explore the world.

We talked about shopping but only for outdoor kit. We talked about hair but only to compare how long we could leave it without washing it or how we never carried a hairbrush or shampoo when travelling. We loved the never ending mountain view from the top of Monte Cinto.

I am already feeling so into this experience and I do not want to be anywhere else.

Day 9 – Refuge de L’Onda.

Today I had to leave Rosie. She is only walking half the trail and I need to push on to make it to the end for my flight home.

We hugged and I walked off alone, knowing that I may well have made a very good friend for life. A new nervous energy filled me but as I climbed onto the next summit, I knew that I was just fine to carry on alone. I knew what I was doing and I was confident. Dirty, smelly, happy and on top of a mountain, that was the life I wanted for myself!

Day 13 – Refuge D’Asinau.

Today I walked for 30 kilometres along a high mountain ridge, across lush green meadows and over a grey peak to arrive at this refuge where I am now drinking red wine with two computer programmers from Heidelberg, Germany. The alcohol is soothing my sore and painful feet, the company is allowing me to never feel alone despite being a solo traveller.

The camaraderie of this trail seemed to have no end. Two days ago I was hiding in an old wooden cabin from an intense thunder storm. I had teamed up with four fellow hikers from Germany and France. We joked and chatted together while the hail stones fell outside and we shivered in our wet boots.

Day 14 – Bavella Village

I was here exactly eight years ago with my bike. I had quit my job in the French Alps to cycle across Corsica instead. It had turned out to be a reckless solo trip full of mistakes and mishaps. Left with little food and water, no real map or idea of where to go, I had been full of fear and hesitation. I thought about everything that I had learnt since then, all of the adventures I had experienced across the UK, the Alps and South America. Now I knew I belonged in the mountains and on the open road.

I then got chatting to the couple sitting next to me in the bar. They were thinking about returning to Corsica the following year to do the GR20. I answered all of their questions and passed on my expert tips and advice. It sounded like I knew what I was talking about. They wanted to go to South America too, so I told them all about that. Then a French hiker arrived who I knew so I had a short conversation in French with him and thought nothing of it. “You obviously know what you are doing!” they said on leaving. Maybe I did…sometimes the opinions of others makes that easy to forget.

Day 14 – Refuge D’l Paliri.

It is the last night on the trail. Every moment is precious and one to be savoured. I want to be done with this walk now but I also know that these moments in the sun and the nature are to be remembered and enjoyed. They are magical and a reason for living.

The last light of the day is illuminating the jagged pinnacles around me so that they glow purple and orange. I feel the sand beneath my toes and I see the light green lizards darting about. There is a clinking of pots as trekkers wash up after their pasta dinners. The are one or two excited and chatty exchanges between friends made on the trail.

My body feels fit now from all of this fresh air and exercise but also tired from the many miles walked. I am brimming with memorable encounters, vivid mountain scenes and inspiration and new ideas from the wonderful people that I have met along the trail. That first lonely night in Bastia now feels like a very long time ago. If I have learnt anything from this walk it is that events in my life may come and go, break ups, boyfriends, jobs and homes, but my love for the mountains and the adventures they bring will always stay the same.

 

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Geneva, Chamonix, Peru

“Just learn the art of being with people!” My dad was always one for philosophical musings but this still seems an inappropriate thing to say while arguing with your stroppy 16 year old daughter. But he was struggling to deal with the unfortunate series of events that had led us to that ridiculous argument on a platform in some unremarkable town between Geneva and Chamonix. It had all began when I convinced my father to take me to the French Alps the summer after my GCSEs. I desperately wanted to see the huge mountain peaks, snowy glaciers and immense rock walls of that distant mountain range. 

But when we arrived at the car rental desk in Geneva airport, along with our mounds of luggage, the polite lady behind the desk said no, we could not hire a car because my father had forgotten to bring his credit card. After pleading a few minutes we were not getting anywhere so with a heavy sign we dragged our disappointment over to the train station and on into the centre of Geneva.

We took a tram to the ramshackle train station Eaux-Vives which connects Geneva to French destinations. Sipping orange juice at the station cafe, we thought, we will be in Chamonix by dinner, but an hour later we had only trundled 20 metres down the tracks. A train conductor came bumbling through the carriage in the hot July heat grumbling to himself la grève! – Strike! –  And urging us off the train. The is one French word I would now never forget.

We were on the street of a dismal town on the Swiss French border at dusk with no place to stay and tensions were beginning to run high. We ended up asking a French cab driver to take us to the nearest camp site. And we threw all our possessions into the back of his car. But this journey went on and on as the cab driver greedily rubbed his fingers together thinking of all the Euros he would get out of my poor dad. He took us to a little camp site, an hour away, stuck out on a peninsular that jutted out into Lake Geneva. Exhausted by the days events we wearily walked into the little local village of Yvoire, perched on the edge of the lake, hoping to find something to eat for dinner. And when we walked around the corner we were pleasantly surprised. Yvoire was a magical place. In amongst candlelight cobbled streets we found a small Creperie under a stone archway and ate while staring up into the starry sky.

The following day we took a ferry back to Geneva from the dock at Yvoire, partly to avoid another hefty cab fare, partly to enjoy the scenery. I was quiet amused by the many modes of transport we had already used.  

We found a camp site a short bus ride from Geneva and pitched our tent in an idyllic spot. My dad, the man who loves to talk, got chatting to the couple camping next to us. I heard a few interesting words and walked over to join the conversation. The man was from Holland and his wife was Peruvian. They lived in the city of Cajamarca in northern Peru where they ran an ice cream parlour. My eyes widened with amazement. “What is the Amazon like?” I asked in wonder. “Big and Green” the Dutch man shrugged, not really the answered I was looking for but I committed it to memory non the less.

The following day we zipped up our tent and packed a small rucksack. We returned to that grassy over-grown station in Eaux-Vives, and we crossed our fingers tightly as the train began to roll. This time it did not stop and soon we were flying through the green French country side towards the Alps! This seemingly inaccessible destination! We wore big smiles on our faces until the French train conductor came plodding on through. Dad fumbled in his pockets for those tickets that we had already bought two days ago but never used. He carried on fumbling and then stopped in a sudden horror of realisation, “I think I left them in the tent!” Oh dear, Oh dear, I groaned in his direction. I could not believe how useless he was! Our budget was running low as dad got out some more notes to buy more tickets! As we changed trains a fiery argument broke out between us. Things were not going well.

However after some time spent in silence, on the final leg of the journey up the Chamonix, we began to notice the spectacular scenery. This mythical mountain town seemed as though it could lift our spirits and when we alighted from the train and stared up to the snowy peak of Mont Blanc, suddenly the arguments and hassle all seemed worth it. I was simply mesmerized by this awesome mountain scenery.

We took the bus up to Argentiere to stay one night in a mountain refuge. As we were sitting on the wooden benches outside I noticed a man wearing a woolly sweater and blowing on some pan pipes and later in the evening we got chatting to him. He was French but worked as a mountain guide in Cusco, Peru. He spoke 7 languages. I was transfixed, my imagination running wild. I was starting to think about my choice of university studies and Spanish suddenly became a very realistic possibility.

We walked down the valley to Chamonix the following day and I ran ahead of dad to sit quietly for a moment by myself, in a spot over looking the Chamonix valley. I felt a great sense of peace wash over me and I knew I would be back some day to spend more time in this promising, glittering land.

We were passing through the main train station in Geneva, on our way to the airport, when I suddenly had a brain wave. “Dad, give me those old tickets” I urged him. He handed them over and I skipped up to the ticket office and said Bonjour to the grumpy clerk. I politely asked in my best GCSE French for a refund and bounced back to dad a few minutes later proudly placing a bundle of Euro notes in his hand. It was one small victory for us.

When I got home I couldn’t put into words what had happened to us on our 5 day trip. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. The routine and security of normal life had been replaced with a completely unexpected and exciting adventure, full of exotic characters, foreign languages and surprising situations. Just like that my life long love for travel and languages was born. As it turned out, dad was not so useless after all.

Puddles of Delight

I was in severe pain with red blisters on my feet, and still the sign said 2 more hours until Refuge Cortalet, my target for the day. The sweet Mediterranean sunset was falling as I washed my wounds and taped them up. I tackled the last climb, plodding slowly up between docile cows and sharp leaves. An unfamiliar feeling came over me, “I am still enjoying myself” I thought. Despite the fatigue, despite the pain, I was so committed to this journey I didn’t care about anything else. I was hiking from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the Pyrenees, and after a whirlwind of exquisite mountain moments I only had 3 or 4 more days to walk. One thought kept coming back to me, I must adsorb every last moment of this beautiful hike, because before I know it ill be on a plane to Manchester and back to normal life.

On the final night of the trip Michael and I found ourselves relaxing on a terrace over looking the Canigou Massif, which drifted like a misty stencil on the horizon. Michael had been following me all summer on his mountain bike, meeting up to camp with me whenever the trail allowed. This night we were together, enjoying a celebratory meal at the refuge on Col Ouillat. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, sculptures framed the doorway and tribal art filled the bar. The atmosphere was mountainous, fresh and convivial, while the food was delicious, satisfying and hearty. But my heart was hanging on and on, I did not want this journey to end.

After settling down for the night, I noticed the silhouette of a cat move across the side of the tent. but then the animal came to the doorway and a pair of pearly bright green eyes met mine. Two triangular spiked ears and a large bushy tail followed. But before I had a chance to point this out to Michael, the fox had padded off, back into the night. This journey never disappointed, as we enjoyed a constant stream of vivid mountain moments.

The following day held a mysteriously unbelievable quality to it. I walked for 5 hours along the lofty frontier ridge path, in and out of fog, surrounded by the bulky bodies of horses and cows strewn up and down the trail. Occasionally an immense ocean view was revealed to me. But then the mountains stopped and the only way was down. Down to the coast, to the beach, to Banyuls sur Mer. Then a wild thunder storm marched in from the north to join us. A stubborn rainfall followed with a blustery wind filling the air. The idyllic Med view I had been dreaming of quiet simply got washed away. This was certainly not how I had pictured the triumphant finale to the journey. 

The last minutes of the trek were along unremarkable trails and dirt roads which gradually turned into the outskirts of my final destination. However, for Michael and I every step and corner was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was at the end of a long journey, I had walked here from the Atlantic! Passing the shops on the main street, I hurriedly asked, “Ou est la plage!” And then I saw it! 20 and then 10 metres to go. Each step was so meaningful, so important. Then the camino stopped and suddenly I had nowhere else to go. I stared at the sea and then whooped with joy, screaming at the waves, the horizon and the murky depths. I embraced my travelling companion.

Bare foot, soaked, battered and bedraggled, Michael and I stood smiling on the sands. I held in my palm the two tiny shells I had carried over high mountain passes, all the way from the shores of the Atlantic. I paused and then began to speak: “34 days ago we all set out from the Atlantic together, I hope you have enjoyed this great adventure as much as I. Thank you all for your company and support, I hope you will enjoy the rest of your life in the beautiful Mediterranean” And with that, we threw them into the warm, welcoming waters of the sea.

The initial rush of joy gradually floated away. For over a month everything had been focused on my arrival and now I was beginning to feel a little lost. I stood bare foot in a puddle outside the tourist office, washing my feet. Then finding a dry step, I sat down to put on my clean socks, well clean compared to the socks I had been hiking in for the last three days. To add to this, my hiking shorts had recently ripped all the way down the back and I had lost my long evening trousers. Everything was falling apart or had been left somewhere along the trail. The Pyrenees had soaked me, battered me, exhausted me, but always delighted me.

On the train to the big city I looked back towards the mountains that were fading from view. It felt like I was leaving behind a summer lover, an old friend, a wise acquaintance. Saying goodbye and returning to a life without hiking would be a shock but I knew Id be back in the mountains soon. Whether it be in Corsica, in the Alps, in Scotland or in South America, the lure of the meandering trail was already calling again.

 

My Support Vehicle.

I have something to tell you”, I was on the phone to my boyfriend Michael. “Continue” he sheepishly replied. He was used to my spontaneous travelling ways. “This summer I want to hike across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Med”. The other end of the line went dead, Michael was a devoted mountain biker with a successful blog and sponsorship deal to his name…he was certainly not a hiker…how could we combine our two activities without spending the summer apart? After a pause he muttered, “Ill come too. Ill just bike it and meet up with you when I can”. I was surprised but agreed straight away and just like that a rather unusual travelling compromise was born.

Some weeks later we gathered on the beach at Hendaye with our feet in the Atlantic. I carried my large rucksack and trekking poles, while Michael was dressed in his well worn mountain biking gear. We had no idea how our unusual travelling arrangement would work out. “So, I’ll see you on Col D’Ibardin for lunch?” he said. As it turned out, I was three hours late for that date, the pack took a lot of getting used too, but soon I would become an expert trekker, arriving at every meet point bang on time.

Our joint adventure took us over bumps, hills and then mountains as we gradually worked our way through the foothills of the Pyrenees and on to the high mountains. I quickly gave Michael the job title of support vehicle. He would meet me at lunch time to buy me a cool drink, surprise me with a fresh baguette or he would carry the tent when I had a particularly steep or rough section of trail to contend with. And what a treat it was to arrive at a beautiful camping spot to find your boyfriend, with tent pitched and a hot Spanish omelette sandwich, waiting there for you.

Everyone along the trail, fellow hikers, hotel receptionists and waiters included, were rather amused by our strange travelling situation, “You on foot and him on a bike? how does that work?” they often laughed. But for us it was perfect. Every time we completed another week or ticked off a major peak, I felt proud of our solid team work.

We camped together every night but through the French National Park I had to go alone as mountain bikes were not allowed there. When I met up with Michael four days later in Garvarnie I ran down the main street and literally jumped into his arms, satisfied I had completed those days alone but deliriously happy to see him again. This trip was making me appreciate just how lucky I was to have him in my life.

A couple of days later, I was 2,000 metres high, by the spectacular Barroude rock wall, when suddenly I turned the corner to find Michael waiting for me! He had left his bike at the bottom and walked up to meet me. I was touched, I knew how much he disliked hiking. For a man who has struggled with commitment and affection in the past, this trek gave him the chance to show support in a way he knew how.

But sometimes as a mountain biker, it was hard for him to understand. Michael could quickly descend to a town and enjoy good food, while I was stuck on a high remote footpath day after day. Normally running out of food would mean a foul mood until my stomach was filled again. Food is really a central concern in the life of a long distance hiker.

On the 34th day of trekking we came to the final descent only to be confronted with a wild thunder storm. Michael cycled on and I assumed he would find me by the Med, given the intense rainfall. But then I turned the corner to find him huddled under a tree for shelter, “what are you doing!” I spluttered out. “We have to arrive at the sea together” he feebly smiled.

And we continued on until our feet and our wheels were in the warm waters of the Med together. These mountains had given us a roller coaster of moments, some lonely, some challenging, some shared but in the end the Pyrenees had undoubtedly strengthened our relationship. And if you ever wish to appreciate your partner more, just try walking through the wilderness alone for a few days, and it is very likely that on your return, you will go running and jumping back into their arms.

The Flight of the Cardboard Box.

I sat on the pavement weeping over my giant cardboard box, muttering to myself in despair, “I am going to miss it!” French businessmen pushed past me, children giggled from the corners, fashionable women sent me scathing looks. After so much cycling success along high alpine roads, I was now stranded in this city by the sea and from my mountain of belongings I looked up to see his face, smirking at me from behind the glass.

Three days previously, with cheeks ablaze and scorched muscles, I had finally arrived in the city of Nice after a long and hilly journey. Bad memories plagued me in this sunny town. There had been heated arguments with train conductors, uneasy nights of sleep on the beach and a painful breakup with an old boyfriend.

On this occasion I found myself wedged inside a cramped and sweaty phone box, holes in my shoes, rips in my clothes and holding a very empty wallet. I spoke with those in England who urged me to return home and with no financial resources to continue on I really had no choice. So, diving into my overdraft I booked a flight. The following three days were spent watching the busy city walk past and lazing around on the grass.

In a lonely suburb on the morning of my departure I stood outside my hostel staring at my small mound of luggage: two bulging bike panniers, a stuffed rucksack and my white mountain bike packed up inside the obligatory cardboard box. I had maybe underestimated the logistics of this tiny operation. 300 metres of quiet pavement lay between me and the bus stop. My sore muscles began to work again as I lugged each item down the street one at a time. After multiple laps my belongings were all neatly arranged by the bus stop and I began to relax as I waited for the bus to the airport.

However, when a different bus pulled up and the driver saw my box, he shook his head in heavy pessimism. “That will never be allowed on” he tutted. A jolt of panic lurched towards me and sure enough when the airport bus arrived I was rejected.

“But I have a flight to catch! Please!”

“I don’t care. Take a taxi”

Loosing my temper I grumbled to myself “That’s France for you!

“If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from!”

“I’m trying!”

And with that the glass door slammed in my face.

I collapsed onto the pavement, fresh tears cooling my cheeks. I could never afford another flight home and the thought of asking my mother for money engulfed me in childish guilt. I was stuck and soon check-in would be closed. Suddenly in a moment of utter confusion and amazement, without a word in my direction, three women battled their way off the bus, grabbed my box and threw it on! After hesitating for just a second I raced on too and was met with a flurry of applause. Triumphantly I flung my last Euro down in front of that grumpy bus driver as he huffed and puffed into his steering wheel.

I had no time to rest as just like that it became the most sociable bus ride I’d ever taken. Everybody wanted to find out what was in this mysterious big box! Through drying tears I told them of my cycling adventures over isolated mountain peaks and they all gasped in wonder. Amongst the audience there was a young German boy off to the beach, a friendly English lady and an optimistic Tunisian man who took it upon himself to get me to departures.

As the lines of the city faded away, I followed the flowing digits on my watch. Time was ticking by. “No worries” reassured my new friend, “we will get there”. When we arrived at the terminus, he performed a startling circus act, grabbing a trolley in one hand and a pannier in the other he juggled all the items safely onto the luggage rack.

The acrobatic Tunisian, my cardboard box and I went hurtling through the door of departures, families stopped to stare, airport security could only gaze, mouths ajar as this international wave of cardboard sailed on by. Completely out of breath, we finally arrived at the check-in desk and slamming my passport down on the counter with minutes to spare, I politely asked for my boarding card between reckless wheezes of air. With a bemused look, the lady took my passport, informing me through a chuckling smile, “You are the last one!”

So, it had been the smallest journey but the most vital too. A box, a bike, and a bus across Nice but only just.