Standing at 2706M Monte Cinto is the highest peak on the island of Corsica. Having no higher peak to compete with it is ranked 6th by prominence in Europe. If you research what others have said about the challenge presented by the ascent of this fabulous mountain you will find a number of accounts stating that it does not pose too many difficulties and can be reached comfortably within 4 hours or so. This was not my experience on Friday 13th July 2018. I however, had the benefit of what I learnt from my failure to reach the summit two years earlier when, having set off from Haut Asco at around 9 am, I succeeded only in reaching the ridge at Bocca Crucetta Tighjettu (Pointe des Eboulis). I had arrived on the ridge, itself not much lower than the summit of Cinto, a little after 2pm with heavy cloud rapidly building. I took the decision to forgo the peak and to descend and am glad I did. Thirty minutes into my descent it began to pour with rain with flashes of lightning striking the peak above accompanied by the roar of thunder. I learnt from the gruelling ascent that day that a much earlier start would be required if I was ever to set foot on Cinto's summit.
With the memory of failure in 2016 still reasonably fresh in my mind I set myself the goal of summiting Cinto during a two week holiday in 2018 in the lovely port of Calvi on Corsica's west coast. I had been studying the weather forecast carefully each day to pick the best possible time to make the 2 hour drive and give myself the best chance of success on the mountain. Finally, towards the end of our second week, the forecast promised settled cloud-free skies for a few days. My wife, sensing how important this adventure was for me, suggested we make the drive during the afternoon of the day before and spend the night at the pleasant Hotel le Chalet to enable me to make a much earlier start on the mountain. I therefore booked a room at the hotel for Thursday night so that I could set off very early the next morning. The drive up the Vallee' d'Asco is stunning along a very narrow road hugging the sides of the heavily meandering gorge. The exposure of the narrow road eases upon reaching Asco where, a little way above the village, the Auberge e Cime provides an excellent pit stop. I've enjoyed many a breakfast there on my way up to the high peaks and strongly recommend anyone to buy their excellent honey produced locally in the valley. My favourite is Miel de Printemps!
On the approach to Haut Asco the views of Capu Larghia are stunning.
We arrived at the hotel at Haut Asco in plenty of time for dinner and to order a packed lunch for the next day.
With my rucksack packed and loaded up with 3 litres of water I joined the queue for breakfast at 5.30 am! After a quick croissant and coffee I set off across the car park for the start of the trail which commences alongside the Austrian Alpine Club's building behind the trees. The trail is well marked with red and white paint marks, at least as far as to the summit ridge. The path traverses through a coniferous wood along the hillside before gently dropping down to the Tighiettu valley where the vegetation is somewhat thinner. Although the sun had not yet reached down into the valley it was already beginning to feel warm and humid and the air was so still that it was a constant battle to beat off the mosquitos. After about half a kilometer I crossed the wooden bridge across the river knowing full well that the fun was about to start. Within what seemed like the blink of an eye I was straining my muscles using the installed chain to haul myself up over the first boulder/slab obstacle. This is the first of many sections where the path gives out in favour of bald, steep boulders and slabs where the use of the installed chains is essential to make progress.
After the last of several sections of chain assisted boulders or slabs the trail passes through some low alder shrubs before arriving on a fairly level plateau below Bocca Borba. A few hikers were taking a short break at this point and as I knew that time was going to be a precious commodity I decided to press on to give myself the best chance possible of reaching the summit.
The respite of the plateau was brief. Very soon I was trudging up the steep trail on what can only be described as extremely fine, energy sapping scree. Quite often my boot would sink back half a stride making this part of the trail more arduous than it appeared. I could see hikers on the trail above me and was cheered by the fact that they were slowly making their way on to the summit ridge at Pointe des Eboulis. The scree ridden path gave out to more solid material and I was now traversing under the fairly dank and gloomy cliff on which I had seen a chamois two years earlier. For some reason I cannot explain this stretch filled me with a sense of foreboding on each of my visits but fortunately does not endure for too long and fairly soon I was going up steeply once again and thankfully on a firm trail.
With the temperature rapidly rising I arrived on the ridge at Pointe des Eboulis at 10.15 am, over 4 hours after I had left the hotel. With a crystal clear sky above me I was now certain that I would succeed and set foot on the summit today. I was feeling strong within myself and needed only a 20 minute rest on the ridge.
Once again to give myself the very best chance of success I set off along the path towards the summit. From the ridge the path to the summit descends on the opposite side of the ridge from the ascent and loops around and over some major rock obstacles. Grade 1 scrambling is required on about 30/40% of the route to the summit from the ridge. The paint marks are few and far between in places on this stage of the climb and it is necessary to keep an eye open for other hikers to orient yourself at times and also occasionally to check out the polished rock to determine the correct route ahead. After about an hour it was possible to see clearly the path to the summit and sure enough at 12.20 I duly arrived on the summit with Hans Peter a very friendly and kind fellow hiker from Germany I had met some time earlier on the climb.
Sitting down at last I drank enthusiastically from my bladder. It was very hot now. My Garmin log tells me that it was 28 degrees C on the summit. I took some time to eat some lunch and then took a few snaps before setting off on the return to the ridge at around 12.50 pm. Hans Peter and I managed to retrace our steps for the majority of the way back to the ridge until the last few rocky outcrops when instead of taking the lower route we remained high and approached the ridge from above and from the north side of the arete. This made no odds as it was a perfectly feasible alternative.
Once back at Pointe des Eboulis I drained the last of the water in my bladder believing that the litre flask I was also carrying would be more than enough for me on the descent.
The return to the ridge had taken more effort than had the ascent of the summit. It was now noticeably warmer and I was forced to take a breather quite often.
I had arrived back at the ridge around 2.20pm and set off on the descent around 2.50pm. Unlike my experience on most mountain hikes the descent from Cinto takes as long as the ascent. Care is needed on the fine scree and the chain assisted down climbs over the slabs and boulders require more care and take longer than on ascent. A general observation I would offer is that trails in Corsica are very often far more rugged than anywhere else I have hiked. It is necessary to concentrate far more walking on Corsican trails. As well as the numerous rocky obstacles on the Cinto trail there are stretches over bald sloping rock which in wet weather are quite treacherous.
I was becoming increasingly thirsty under the baking sun as I descended. I began to ration my drinks to no more than two cupfuls from the flask each time. There were few other people descending back to Asco with me and I concluded that many on the summit along with Hans Peter had descended on the south side. On the few occasions I met anyone I would greet them but I had become so parched that when I attempted to speak no words would emerge.
After an hour and a half or so I encountered the first of the chain assisted down climbs. When I had passed a few of these I spotted a small group descending slowly below me. I had said to my wife that I expected to be back at the hotel by 5pm and I realised this was going to be impossible. I decided to take a short break and test the mobile signal which amazingly was viable at the spot I'd chosen. I therefore called Karen to let her know that I was doing OK and that I'd definitely make it back but that I'd be much later than expected. It felt good to have done this and seemed to take the pressure off me on the descent.
I soon caught up with the small group of three comprising of a guide and two trekkers who were part of a larger group from the Netherlands. It was clear that they were unused to this kind of terrain and had chosen the wrong trek for their level of experience. Once past the guide I made easy progress down the final boulder before the wooden bridge and took a few minutes to drain the last two cups from my flask.
The traverse through the woods back to the hotel seemed to take forever and I was now feeling quite drained and very thirsty. At long last, at 7.15 pm, and over thirteen hours after I had set off, I emerged on to the car park and could immediately spot Karen sitting on the hotel terrace. I let out a characteristic loud whistle and just about managed to lift my arms to wave my poles at her. I had climbed Monte Cinto!
PS. Paddy Dillon, a writer for Cicerone Guide Books, checked out the change to the route of the GR20 following fatalities in a landslide in the Cirque de Solitude in 2015. The new route ascends from Haut Asco to Pointe des Eboulis before descending to the next hut i.e. a major part of the route to the summit of Cinto from Haut Asco. He described this as "one of the toughest walks of my life, but what else could I expect from Europe's toughest trail?"