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Penultimate Day

Claudia and I had come to two conclusions. First, the strict regime of walk fifty, rest ten, was working well. Second, we were not going to get caught being the last to arrive at the next refuge-what if it was smaller than this one? Result: we got up with the first risers. Even though we brewed up, we were still ready for the road at seven. I had brewed enough water for Martha and Alf to have a share, and I took the pot out to them as we left. They were just coming round, after a very pleasant night of privacy, quiet, and fresh air. The air was not only fresh, it was cold too. Mist hung heavily in the little valley we were to follow. It was all too reminiscent of Cirque de la Solitude : a steep climb up to a little col, followed by some dotted path work. The dreaded dotted path. These were sections marked on the map as pathless. Previous walking trips had led me to believe that these were places where there were no markings, which allowed travelers to drift, making their own way, which in turn meant that they did not wear down a path-each person took a slightly different route. Not here. Pathless areas were probably even better marked than where the path was clearly defined. No, here pathless meant pathless. The ground was so rocky and steep that it was impossible to form a path. Rather the blazes marked a recommended route, and you picked and climbed your way over the section as best you could. For dotted path read "steep climbing (or descending) route". Not my favorite sections.

We set off right behind the group of Germans who had arrived so late the night before. They looked for all the world like a bunch of middle-aged hausfraus, but for all their plumpness and middle-age, it turned out they were walking twice as far as we were each day. Which made the fact that they were going as slowly as we were even more surprising. And almost incredibly, the guide stopped after fifty minutes for them to rest. We kept going just long enough to get out of sight, then stopped. Sure enough, just as we were saddling up, here they were again. It felt good to be out that early, somehow working with the day, instead of against it as the encroaching darkness chases you home. If we kept up this pace, we would still be in the refuge by about three o'clock. Luxury.

Figure 23: Island in the sky: Punta di l'Arinella pokes through the clouds

As we climbed the incline of the slope increased gradually. Shortly after the second stop we suddenly broke through the mist. What a spectacular sight. We were on top of a sea of cloud. Behind us, the peaks marking the other side of the valley poked through as an island in the sea. They glowed in the morning sun. Naturally, by the time I had got the camera out, the island had lost its glow, but I took the picture anyway. Ahead, the valley ended abruptly. We were enclosed on three sides by a vertical wall of rocky peaks. These peaks, running from Capu a iSorbi to Punta Alle Porta marked Corsica's main watershed. I looked for the lowest point in the rim. And there, just underneath it were two or three bright specks making steady progress towards it. Onwards. Although the last section was basically over scree, the pieces were so large and steady that it was remarkably little problem, and before we knew it the guide, with us still in tow, was silhouetted in the tiny col. Everybody stopped for a breather and water, but the gang were also taking breakfast there, and we were not hungry yet, so after our ten minute pause, we moved on.

The next hour was the dotted stuff, and progress was slow. As usual, the chief reason for this was yours truly, with his finger firmly pressed on the panic button. Have you ever seen a sloth racing down a tree for lunch? Rocking backwards and forwards and seeming to make several tests on the reliability of the new hand/foot hold before daring to release the next? Then you have a fair idea of what I look like when forced to rock climb. I mean, one would probably survive if one slipped-it was rarely more than three meters or so to the next ledge, and you might even land on top of your rucksack instead of you cushioning its fall.

Somehow a major problem such as this would be OK. I don't mind taking a helicopter ride because I'm unconscious or badly broken, or both, but that isn't what would happen. No all you would do is twist an ankle, or crack a rib, and you'd still have to walk out.

So, I told myself, it's not so much that you are chicken, it's more that things are difficult enough as it is, without further handicap, so you are being sensibly careful. I tried not to question myself about the carefully chosen, cautious, sensible people I was traveling with, and their ability to get down the average slope in a third of the time it took me. But it wasn't half as bad, or half as long, as the Cirque. And somehow, knowing that most of our fellow travelers were still behind us helped a lot too.

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