Lost in Backcountry Corsica

When two Irish travelers take hiking advice from a supposed guide, they soon find themselves relying on their wits in the dark.

David Ralph | The Dublin Review | Summer 2017 | 16 minutes (4,425 words)

I could tell you about the view from the plane as it descended towards Calvi; I could describe the granite formations along the coast and the sparkling sea; I could supply various details about how Geoffrey, Jean-Thomas and I passed our first few days in Corsica; but really this story begins with the Mountain Man.

It was late April. Our vague plan was to spend a few days hiking in the mountains, and Jean-Thomas — a native Corsican — had been advised that the Mountain Man could tell us about the best routes. We found him in the café he owned in the coastal town of Ile Rousse. This seemed an unlikely place for a Mountain Man, but he was wiry, ruddy-complexioned, and had on khaki shorts and heavy walking boots, as if he had just come down off a bluff. When Jean-Thomas told him our business, the Mountain Man puffed out his cheeks and started talking about a route through a range called the Niolo. From a drawer behind the counter he pulled out a photo of a natural arch at one of the highest peaks of the Niolo called Capu Tafunatu. The arch was like a stage, he said, and sometimes clouds could be seen floating through the opening. It did look staggering, the arch. Then he folded out a map over the countertop and marked off a three-to-four-hour hike we could take to get there. He made a little triangle at the spot where we would find a refuge built into the mountainside to spend the night. The route was signposted by cairn stones all the way, he said: Just keep an eye out for them.

***

The next morning we set off late, having somehow slept in. At no point — not over our leisurely breakfast, nor during the two-hour car journey to the foot of the mountain — did any of us think to raise the possibility that we might be tight on time. That conversation would not begin until several hours later.

As we drove towards the Niolo, I realized that the granite formations we’d been passing the last few days by the coast were but miniature replicas of the real thing here in the interior. Everywhere around us now, as soon as the sea views had disappeared, the scale of the escarpments, the outcrops, the ridges — they all just magnified into something stupendous. Clusters of ranges tore out of the earth; jagged peaks soared, bunched together; the pinnacles were all snow-dusted.  As the car nosed round a further corner, the impossible slid into view: a new panorama of canyon and ravine would shear away below, while above a fury of spikes and steeples would pile one atop the other, higher and higher and higher. These demented cathedrals of rock rolled one after the next, the earth rearranging itself in ever greater stone masses, on and on.

Staring, incredulous, out the car window, I was reminded of a passage I’d read in bed the previous night in Granite Island, a famed travelogue of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington, published in 1971 but written over a twenty-year period between the 1940s and 1960s. In one memorable passage, describing the experience of getting lost on a ridge deep in the interior, she describes feeling like she was about to be swallowed up by an ‘anarchy of granite’. I took out the book from my rucksack, found the passage I had in mind, towards the end: ‘I could fancy I was looking at an experiment in creation, an early, eccentric episode of Genesis. Here mountains had been thrown up pell-mell in an unbridled surge of primal energy. Only vertical shapes had been attempted…’

As we got out of the car and hauled our rucksacks onto our backs, I was wondering why it had been deemed necessary that we each bring several liters of water, along with pasta, bread, energy bars and cheeses. Geoffrey, who had been assiduously checking the micro-forecasts on his phone since we’d arrived on Friday, said that there was a menace d’orage for the area in the afternoon, but a glance at the bruised, low-hanging clouds could have told us as much. A noticeboard warned walkers of the risk of falling rock and wildfires. I tucked Granite Island into a side pocket of my rucksack just before we set off, in case I wanted something to read that night in the refuge.

The path was a tamped stone track pitching up the side of a precipice and part-canopied by the boughs of holm oak, sycamore and other trees I did not know by name. Amidst the rampant maquis — up close the undergrowth seemed impenetrable — the ruins of ancient stone huts were visible. ‘Bergerie, cottages for the shepherds,’ Jean-Thomas explained. ‘After coming down from the mountains, or for bandits running from the law.’ In fact, a bergerie not far from here, Jean-Thomas said, had been used to hide the most wanted man in France, Yvan Colonna, who had shot dead the préfet of Corsica, Claude Érignac, in Ajaccio in 1998. For six years, the authorities had trawled Corsican criminal networks all over Europe, South America, South-East Asia —only to finally find Colonna in the mountains less than half a kilometer from his natal village.

We skirted the shoulder of a slope through that wooded corridor and then came out on a high clearing, prodigious peaks either side of a yawning valley. A river, invisible through the maquis and the lower-down trees, could be heard crashing into pools far below. We had climbed, evidently, to a considerable elevation: wisps of vapor wreathed round the thinning pines, the air had cooled. Rain was falling. A tiny triangle of sea was visible at the distant mouth of the valley.

Our ascent slowed. The ground underfoot had become trickier, the shepherd’s track now little more than a narrow ledge of loose stones at the side of a cliff face. We had to pick our way across in single file; a misstep by any of us on the wet stone and we’d tumble like the rocks we were clumsily dislodging into the abyss below. I felt my sphincter involuntarily dilating and contracting when I glanced down.

The cairns seemed far less frequent up here. At first, the stone signposts had been wherever our sightlines fell. Turn a corner — cairn. Climb to the top of a boulder blocking the way — cairn. Slide down off it — cairn. Cairn, cairn, cairn, guiding us benignly ever closer to our destination, the refuge just below the stone arch at the summit. Now, at 3.30 and ninety minutes in, we hadn’t sighted a cairn for a long stretch. We paused.

The route was signposted by cairn stones all the way, he said: Just keep an eye out for them.

‘Maybe goats knocked them over,’ Geoffrey said, pointing out little black turds lodged in rock crevices.

‘Or storms,’ Jean-Thomas said.

I was beginning to feel damp through my rain jacket, which was a cheap knock-off of actual waterproof apparel. We backtracked to the last cairn we’d seen, agreed to fan out and find the next one.

I set off towards the north, skipping across boulders, wading through thickets of maquis, feeling the odd sting from its thorns. I had some intuition that I could loop round the ridge, find a pass over the peaks and out towards Capu Tafunatu. But the problem now wasn’t a lack of cairns, rather their apparent omnipresence. Little piles of rocks were sitting up here, there, everywhere along this rising meadow of smashed stone. That, on the lip of the outcrop ahead of me, was surely a cairn? No — up close, it just happened to be one stone sitting on more stones. What felt like a long time passed in this way, as I climbed and climbed, cairn mirages flaring continually in the mid-distance, only to reveal themselves again as yet more jumbled rock piles.

I looked back down the slope. There was no sign of Geoffrey or Jean-Thomas. I shouted out to them — no answer. I checked my phone — the signal was out. The rain had become heavier too; my jacket was starting to stick to my torso. A rattle of apprehension shot through me as I surveyed the scene. This could all go very wrong, very quickly, I thought, losing our way up here in the midst of —

Wait, was that … over there, atop the brow of the hillock spearing up from the bedrock? No. Same thing, another meaningless mound in this swelling, swaying rock desert. Perhaps this was close to that sensation of being engulfed in an ‘anarchy of granite’ Carrington had experienced when ringed in on all sides by peaks. I retraced my steps back to the last cairn as fast as I could.

Geoffrey was there already, to my relief. No, he hadn’t seen Jean-Thomas since we’d separated, and no, he hadn’t spotted the next cairn either.

‘It’s just rock, rock everywhere,’ I said, ‘it all looks the fucking same.’

We called out to Jean-Thomas, but got nothing back but our own voices bouncing off the walls of the valley. What if he’d slipped down a gorge and snapped an ankle? Even if we could call mountain rescue there was no way a helicopter would ever get close to landing here. Geoffrey took the map from his bag, to try to locate where we were on the route — but rain had seeped through his rucksack, and now the map began to disintegrate as he unfolded it. He kicked a stone, and we watched it plummet into a void.

Then there was some rustling in the maquis overhead, and I spotted Jean-Thomas’s shock of red hair bobbing through it.

We sat down and ate some damp baguette with cheese, drank some water. We finally had the conversation about time.

‘So what are we going to do now?’ I said. I was happy we were reunited, and I didn’t want to appear to the others to be giving up easily. ‘Will we keep searching?’

‘I think we can give it another thirty minutes at least,’ Jean-Thomas said confidently. ‘We can still make it if we reconnect with the trail by then.’

Geoffrey looked at his watch. ‘There’s about two-and-half hours before it’s dark.’

‘We walked a good distance up before we got lost,’ Jean-Thomas said.

‘It’s 4.30 now,’ I said. ‘So…’

‘So let’s get going,’ Jean-Thomas said and lifted his rucksack off the ground.

Geoffrey and I nodded insouciantly at him.

When the Mountain Man told us in his café the previous day that it was a three-to-four-hour hike to the refuge what we really heard, I imagine, was that it would take us three hours at the outermost. We were all relatively young, all relatively fit and strong, and all sufficiently inexperienced with mountains like this to be entirely overconfident in our climbing abilities. Looking back, this is the only way I can account for the ease with which we reached this consensus to go on instead of turning back there and then, the ease with which we made a wild miscalculation.

We split up again, struck out in different directions. Again all I found was a confusion of rubble, nothing in sight suggesting a way forward as I crested a spur and scoured the uplands. It was then I heard a roar.

‘Cairn!’ It was Jean-Thomas’s voice, coming from far below. ‘Cairn! Cairn!’

How he’d found it, Geoffrey and I couldn’t fathom. From the last one we’d passed, this cairn was reached by clambering over a six-foot-high slab of granite that looked more like a barrier than any kind of passage onwards. But there, on the other side of a steep drop, was a cairn, several flat stones perched atop one another into a little pyramid, the definite work of a human hand. We were jubilant. At precisely the point when we thought we couldn’t go on, would have to turn back — we could go on. High-fives all around. It was 5.15. This gave us around ninety more minutes of daylight to find the refuge.

After that, the cairns kept coming, one after the next. As we tacked down the side of the valley now, any doubts about the folly of our excursion dissipated — we were getting closer to the refuge with each passing cairn, and at a good clip too, the track having become much less treacherous. The river came into view to our right, torrents and rapids smashing off the boulder-strewn riverbed. We kept clocking off cairns, which were tightly spaced together, no more than thirty, forty feet apart. I was looking forward to getting out of my wet clothes, eating hot food. I was looking forward to getting a good look at this famous arch, Capu Tafunatu.

Looking back, this is the only way I can account for the ease with which we reached this consensus to go on instead of turning back there and then, the ease with which we made a wild miscalculation.

The riverbank swung up beside us. There was a cairn right on the edge of the water, another one on the opposite bank, maybe twenty feet across. We looked at each other.

‘The river will be completely freezing,’ Jean-Thomas said and nodded up. ‘The snow is melting off the peaks, that’s why the water’s so high.’

I dipped my hand in the river, pulled it out abruptly. The water was like ice, almost burning, and I could see it was deep towards the center, maybe four, five feet.

‘Let’s get the job done,’ Geoffrey said.

There was nothing for it, we had to be close now, we’d warm up once we got to the refuge. We stripped fast, down to our underpants, lofted our rucksacks over our heads. The maquis had cut us all to ribbons, vicious scratches down our arms, across our shins, our thighs. Halfway in, the water up to my chest, I stopped. There was something searing about this cold. Taking another step forward suddenly felt like an impossible feat. I just stood there, frozen on the spot. It felt easier to remain here, the ice water rushing around me. A shudder took a hold of me, my limbs shaking uncontrollably. My mind blanched.

Jean-Thomas came up behind me. ‘Come on, man. Keep moving. We’ll be there soon.’


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Geoffrey gripped my hand, dragged me up the far bank. We huddled on a boulder with our towels draped over us. It took some time for the heat to return to our bodies. The time was 5.43 when we stood back up.

Overhanging trees covered this side of the riverbank, the lower branches forming a sort of arboreal handrail for us as we progressed along the track, cairn after cairn guiding the way. This felt easy; we were eating up the ground again. We veered away from the river for a short time — a paddock of giant, oblong boulders making it impassable. Into the cliff face high overhead natural grottoes and caverns had formed, perfect spots for an improvised bivouac — if they were reachable. Cairns guided us back towards the river.

And then there was a sight that n nearly felled me: a cairn on edge of the riverbank, another one on the opposite bank.

‘You must be fucking joking,’ I shook my head at Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey. I dropped my rucksack on the rocks in despair.

Actually it wasn’t as bad, this second crossing. The river was much narrowed here, only a few feet wide, and after our first dip the shock of the water somehow wasn’t so bad. Still, we were using up valuable daylight undressing, drying off, re-dressing, heating back up. Tiredness was setting in, too. I ate an energy bar, but it did little to fortify me. At least the rain had stopped.

The track was again in upheaval as it rose sheer into the air off the riverbank, rough scree sundering the surface in great big lumps and wedges. The pinnacles came into focus. They looked as if they were within touching distance. I kept sliding, slipping everywhere, my outstretched hands breaking my falls as I toed around blindly for a foothold in a wrinkle of rock. The lack of adhesion from the day’s rainfall, the sharpness of the incline here — this was the most dangerous stretch yet. My palms were torn open. Still, the cairns kept coming. We were about level with the treeline, I noticed; the refuge was surely close now.

We scrabbled hard, up the throat of the peak. One passage was a sort of three-sided chimney, and we had to sandwich ourselves between its walls to scooch out. We pushed on. We came to a thin ledge, no more than a foot wide, from which there was a vertical drop of indeterminate depth. Geoffrey and Jean-Thomas made it across at a crawl to the next cairn. I hesitated, then edged out further, my face pressing against the cold, wet rock, my fingers crimping into small creases for the most delicate of grips. I looked out over my shoulder, my sphincter in spasm again. One stiff gust and my thin grasp on life would be unloosed … Somehow I got over. Just keep focussing on the refuge, I thought.

And then, what I suppose the three of us had been silently dreading for some time happened: the trail went cold, all about us just a churning chaos of uneven, upturned rock. We scouted potential paths — to our left and right, straight ahead, down what had the look of a viable side track — only to find senseless piles of stone scattered all around. When everything could be a cairn, nothing could be a cairn. Looking up, I had the impression the pinnacles were no closer than when we first sighted them. We were stranded.

Jean-Thomas looked at us. ‘OK, we’re switching to Plan B.’ I cursed him forever finding that elusive cairn over the slab of granite. I cursed myself for not considering things more carefully when we’d discussed continuing our ascent earlier when there were still options. ‘We have to camp.’ Any residual hopes of reaching the refuge in this failing light were quenched.

‘That gives us about fifteen minutes before it’s dark,’ Geoffrey said. ‘We need to make a fire.’

We downed our rucksacks in a cleft that was partially sheltered by clumps of maquis. Jean-Thomas set about scraping a pit into the earth with his hands. I stripped chunks of bark from a pine; Geoffrey collected up its fallen cones. We packed the lot together in the pit. To get it to catch, all we had was a cigarette lighter. For several minutes we took turns holding the flame to the tinder, emptied our lungs blowing at our sorry pyre. Everything was sodden — the ground, the pines, the bark. All we’d managed was to char the tinder, and half-asphyxiate ourselves with smoke. I stood back up.

Jean-Thomas looked at me. ‘Go get some firewood,’ he said and coughed hard.

I turned on the flashlight on my phone. It was 7:15. Stars were already visible in the dark sky. I inched my way down the slope; a numbness had crept into my toes. I was cooling down fast after the exertions of the ascent, I realized. The sweat slicking my body began to feel like some frigid cowl I couldn’t shake free from. I dragged at a log snagged between rock and maquis. A chill took a hold of me.

Was this the beginnings of hypothermia? It would be at least ten hours, I calculated, before it was light enough out for us to attempt any kind of descent. Could my body withstand the drop in temperature for so long? I doubted I had the stoutest of constitutions. Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey were made of tougher stuff, I had a feeling.

My thoughts raced on as I put what little strength I’d left into snapping a branch from a trunk that looked like it had been felled by a bolt of lightning. Before setting out in the morning, I’d talked on the phone with my sister Siobhán, assuring her I’d get down home for my nephew’s confirmation. Would that be the last time I’d ever speak with a member of my family? I’ll be down to it alright, Siobhán, I thought — in a fucking box! And even that would be conditional on us ever being found up here.

The Mountain Man! That bastard. He knows we’re up here. Why did we ever listen to him? And the refuge — what if there never was any refuge? What if the Mountainman knew full well the cairn trail ceased at this very spot, was laughing at our predicament this very moment? If I ever make it down, I told myself, I’ll stuff that map down his throat…

All we’d managed was to char the tinder, and half-asphyxiate ourselves with smoke.

I gathered up the logs, made my way back to camp. A dull pain started in my lower back — the kidneys, or was it the liver? How does it happen, anyway? Does one organ give out after another? Or is it more a case of the whole system just becoming more and more sedate until it expires? Exposure. That’s the term the coroner would write on the post-mortem report.

Jean-Thomas was still on his knees, sputtering from the thick plumes now rising from the pit. I dumped the logs by his side. Or misadventure, I thought. Death by misadventure. I wondered what they’d say about me in the eulogy. Stupid shit, probably. James should be the one to give it. He knows me best. And Áine, from The Hacienda. God! Why on earth didn’t I just ask her out? What would it matter now if she’d said no?

‘Here.’ Geoffrey handed me a bottle of whiskey. ‘Drink up.’

The whiskey burned going down my throat but did little to warm me. Standing around, the chill that had been enveloping me quickly become a tremor, running up my arms, through my hands, my chest. I jogged on the spot, made fists of my hands over and over, trying to steady myself. It was then I noticed that Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey were staring at me.

‘Get out of those clothes,’ Jean-Thomas said and resumed blowing at the smoking pyre. Geoffrey shoved a hunk of baguette at me. ‘Eat.’

After I got a few mouthfuls down me I undressed as fast as I could. The spare jeans and t-shirt I’d brought with me were almost as soaked as what I’d been in — rain had clearly gotten through the thin fabric of my rucksack. My teeth had started to chatter.

I wrapped my arms tight around myself, walked down the slope out of view from Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey. The tremors wouldn’t stop. If anything, they were getting worse. Was this some sort of fit I was having? Whatever it was that had taken a grip of me wouldn’t let go, had seeped through my dermis, past my flesh, my skeleton, down deep to some elemental layer inside me, beyond the marrow, the nerves, right in at the core, the animating force, the soul, whatever it be. I had read about situations like this, scoffed at the sheer idiocy of going up a mountain completely unprepared and getting caught out on it. I shook violently. I had a glimpse of my fate then: in a few short hours I’d be that idiot, recumbent on a rock, lifeless, turning to carrion, a feast for wild animals to tear at and devour.

I felt a hand on my shoulder — it was Geoffrey’s.

‘That book, you were reading this morning.’

‘What?’

‘In the car. You were reading a book, Jean-Thomas said.’

‘Yeah. About the mountains,’ I sneered.

‘We need it. Fast.’

‘Why?’

‘The fire — it needs paper.’

***

Woodsmoke. Dew. Birdsong. The crackle of burning logs beneath a brilliant blue sky.

This is the sight that greeted me when dawn broke and I finally gave up on trying to sleep. I had drifted off only in snatches, jolting awake whenever I’d roll over onto a rock. Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey seemed to have found a comfortable repose somehow; they were still sleeping.

After we had finally warmed up and dried out our clothes and sleeping bags, we had settled round the fire, tight together. The logs I had collected took an hour or more to get going properly. I had sat there convulsing with the cold, but as my body temperature gradually returned to its normal level, so too did some lucidity gradually return to my thoughts: I wasn’t going to die tonight; the blaze now beginning to rise from the pit would get me through. Granite Island lay mauled beside me, the front and back cover ripped out, many of the early chapters gone. I had stared into the flames for a long time. I didn’t want to exaggerate what had just happened me, but as I turned it over in my mind again – the chill, the tremor, then the uncontrollable shivering – I was convinced that if Jean-Thomas hadn’t got the pines to take I would not have made it. Whether it had been from fatigue, or fear, or both, none of us had spoken a word since we’d huddled in around the fire. Finally, I had broken the silence, thanking Jean-Thomas for the tenacity he had shown. He looked at me, and said, ‘We didn’t respect the mountain.’

I crawled out of my sleeping bag, threw another log on the fire, and made my way over to a clearing. Stretching for what felt like miles were saw-toothed, snow-shrouded ranges running either side of the slope where I stood. The peaks were like a decorative pattern of wild, demented chevrons, spearing headlong into the air. An experiment in creation, an early, eccentric episode of Genesis. Dorothy Carrington was right, I thought. This is what the first morning would have looked like. The dawn on the morning of creation. The first hour, of the first morning, of the first day. Food. Water. Fire. That was about the heart of the matter, when you got down to it. The rest … well, the rest was just frivolous. I felt a sincere calm, a frankness. I was immensely grateful to be alive.

I looked up. That sun, it would be ablaze in another hour or so, scorching the moisture off the pines, the maquis, the rocks. That would make for a much more surefooted climb down. We knew the lay of the cairns, we’d take it at a funereal pace. I walked back to the camp, ready to shake Jean-Thomas and Geoffrey awake.

***

From from the 67th issue of The Dublin Review. Founded by Brendan Barrington, an editor at Penguin Ireland, this quarterly print journal remains at the center of Ireland’s rich literary culture.