Hiking in the Lakes District, Argentina

In March 2014 we spent a wonderful three weeks in Argentina with just our backpacks a Lonely Planet guidebook.  We were grateful that our employer allowed us to have this length of time away from the office and so were determined to make the most of it. As well as the usual sightseeing, we wanted to get out into the Andes to experience the mountains and get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.

Some prior research indicated that the Lakes District around the town of Bariloche would provide the kind of multi-day walking routes we were looking for, so we headed across the country from the capital of Buenos Aires – with a brief stopover in the wine country around Mendoza.

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Refugio Frey

After a couple of days exploring Bariloche and the obligatory visit to the tourist and national park offices we got a bus to the ski resort of Catedrale where our walk started. It was a short first day to Refugio Frey – all uphill, but we made rapid progress. Due to our early arrival we were able to baggsy prime mattress position on the long bunkbeds, but it meant we had many hours until dinner and bed.  The scenery couldn’t have been much more magnificent – it’s certainly the best location for a mountain refuge I’ve ever come across  – huge spires of granite tower over the lake aside which the refuge has been constructed on bare slaps of rock. The surrounding sheer cliffs are called ‘cerro cathedral’ a name which perfectly describes their jagged appearance.

The arrangements for the evening meal were very familiar – like the usual affair you’d experience in the Alps or Corsica.  You pay for half board which includes a three course evening meal and breakfast. The evening meal wasn’t elaborate, but filling pasta and meat sauce after a thin vegetable soup and followed by tinned fruit cocktail.

The next day we walked to Refugio Jacob.  We only saw a couple of other walkers on the route which was a little unnerving and made the vast expanse of mountain range seem even more remote.  It was a long day’s hiking and we had to negotiate a particularly unstable scree slope which required a technique akin to skiing through deep powder.

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The route between Ref Frey and Ref Jacob

Again, the refuge was located at a wonderfully scenic spot next to a deep blue lake and at the top of the valley which we’d follow the next day.  Facilities turned out to be as basic as Refugio Frey and with yet again no sign of a shower we flip flopped up to a small lake above the refuge for a quick and icy dip. Above this lake was the continuation of this 4 day trek, but we’d been advised by the national park office that the route was closed.  Later we discovered that this was just a way to warn walkers from following a tricky unmarked route and some of our fellow dorm-mates setoff in this direction the following day.

View to Refugio Jacob

View to Refugio Jacob

Our final day was thankfully all downhill along a leafy valley and the rocky path criss crossed a glacial stream.  We reached a farm at the bottom where a Frenchman was changing his shoes after trail-running the same route. Kindly he provided us a lift to a bus stop on the main road where we caught the local bus back to Bariloche.

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Ref Jacob to Bariloche

Our welcoming host Bernard, at B&B Antiguo Solar, had stored our additional clothes for the three days we’d been in the mountains. We celebrated the successful completion of three days in the Andes with the most amazing steak I think we’ll ever eat. Thank you Bariloche for such a great experience.

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Steak at Alto El Fuego restaurant, Bariloche

 

 

 

 

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Walking kit

Here’s a summary of the kit I took on the GR20 in 2014.

Backpack – an old trusted North Face bag which used to belong to my husband.  It’s more like a trail race bag since it’s got pockets on the waistband which are very useful for camera and snacks. It’s about 35 litre capacity which was a bit to small since I had to strap my crocs to the outside.

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Helly Hansen ‘warm’ leggings

Helly Hansen ‘warm’ longsleeved baselayer top

1 pair running shorts

1 pair cotton shorts  (these took ages to dry, so another pair of running shorts would’ve been better)

Two wicking vest tops

North Face thin down jacket (brilliant and very good as a pillow)

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North Face hedgehog walking shoes

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Headtorch

Plastic mug

Spork (this broke on day 4!)

Flannel

Small trek towel (Lifeventure)

Sun vizor (Orca)  – brilliant, much better than sunglasses

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Sunglasses (didn’t wear these)

Wool hat (Icebreaker)

Thin Helly Hansen gloves

Brasher walking poles

Crocs (definitely better than taking flip flops)

3 season sleeping bag

Thermarest (full length, women’s specific)

Macpac 2 man tent

Our camp spot

Pocket rocket and two pans (MSR)

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Two small sponges & half a teatowel

Camera & spare battery

Phone

Very limited supply of toiletries

A two-litre camelbak bladder

A one litre aluminium water bottle

Bottle opener

Small bottle of P20 suncream (we didn’t use much of this at all because generally it was cloudy much of the day)

Plastic bag clips – the ones which you can click secure. These were brilliant for pegging washing to dry on the outside of my bag.

Food – we generally bought food along the way, but we took about 10 porridge sachets from the UK. We used three of these each morning for breakfast for most of the trip. The rest of the time we had leftover bread and honey or Nutella which we bought in small sachets from the shop at Vizzavona.

Total average bag weight = 11kg with 3 litres water   (note: I didn’t carry everything listed above since Ironman took a lot of the joint items).

GR20 – the toughest long distance walk in Europe

In September 2014 Ironman and I decided to take-on the challenge of the hardest long distance walk in Europe – the GR20 – across the Corsican mountains. The trek can be completed either south to north or north-south, but only a third of those who start at either Calenzana or Conca each year actually complete the walk’s 15 stages.

This was to be the second time I’d attempted the walk. In 2008, with my mum and two of her friends we managed around 8 stages before bad weather forced us to abandon the route. Since then my ambition  to complete the 190 kilometre challenge had steadily grown.

Our preparations started in early 2014, when we realised that getting to and from Corsica with enough days to complete the walk would require some careful logistics.  Flights to Corsica from the UK generally only go from Sunday to Sunday, but we needed at least two additional days to give us at least 15 days with a day at either end for flights and transfers. In the end we decided to fly to Nice (from Gatwick) where we could get a ferry across to Ile Rousse which is at the northern end of Corsica.  Doing this gave us the added bonus of a day in Nice, including time to source some camping Gaz (bought from Alticoop store, a long-ish walk from Place Messina). We arrived into Ile Rousse at 11pm, but I’d booked a cheap hotel in advance (Maria Stella – very basic, but reasonably priced and central).  At this stage we didn’t know how we were going to get to Calenzana the next day other than that the first leg of the journey could be done by train from Ile Rousse station.

On Saturday 13th September we made porridge in our hotel room using the camping stove, then walked to Ile Rousse train station.  The train took us to Dolce Vita which is on the line between Ile Rousse and Calvi (6 euros each). We started walking up the road to Calenzana which was a good 5-7km away. It was pretty hot and walking along the roadside wasn’t enjoyable, so we started trying to hitch-hike. After about 20minutes a taxi pulled over and we hopped in (about 20 euros to Calenzana). I got the impression that taxis regularly travel along this route which is why we didn’t have to wait long.

We asked the taxi to drop us off at the well-stocked Spar where we loaded up with all sorts of goodies and delicious fresh bread.  Calenzana was bustling with walkers and we passed many more as we started our first ascent of the trip along a dusty trail onto which the blazing sun was unrelenting.

Outside the Spar at Calenzana - Day 1

Outside the Spar at Calenzana – Day 1

I won’t be describing each day in detail, but here’s a summary of the remaining stages until our final day. The timings are how long it took us to complete each stage, including breaks. The stages I refer to are those in Paddy Dillon’s guide book.

Day 1 : Calenzana to Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (high level route)

  • Started 10:30am. Arrived 3:15pm.  4H45. Only stopped for 20mins.
  • Camped. Cooked our own food bought in Calenzana.

Day 2: Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carozzu (high level route)

  • Started 8am. Arrived 1:35pm. 5H35. Only stopped for 25mins.
  • Porridge for breakfast – cooked on camp stove
  • Chorizo, haricot vert & cous cous for dinner – bought in Calenzana
  • Got a very good camp spot because we arrived so early, but it really filled up later in the afternoon.
  • For reference:  evening meal – 17 euros. Breakfast 8 euros. Camping 7 euros per person.

Our camp spot

Day 3: Refuge de Carozzu to Haut Asco

  • 4H10.  Only stopped for 10mins.
  • Arrive at Haut Asco at 11:55am. Couldn’t get into the Gite D’etape for a number of hours, but we were happy sitting on the veranda drinking coffee and pottering about.  When we were able to check-in and find our beds we were pleased to find that they were comfy and clean with scalding hot showers.
  • Spend 35 euros in the small shop stocking up on tuna, bread and rice for the following days.
  • 1/2 pension in the Gite D’etape : 40 euros each. Panini 5 euros. Café au lait 3 euros.

Haut Asco

Day 4: Haut Asco to Refuge di Mori  (we combined stage 4 with half of stage 5)

  • My favourite day of the whole trip because it includes the Cirque de Solitude.
  • Setoff at 7am. 5H. Only 15min break at Bergeries de Ballone
  • Took us 2H30 from Bergerie de Ballone to get to Refuge di Mori.
  • This was Ed’s favourite overnight camp stop – great views down the valley and sheltered camp areas. Very quiet too. Free outdoor gas stoves.
Refuge di Mori

View from campsite at Refuge di Mori – end of day 4

Day 5: Refuge di Mori to Refuge de Manganu (we combined half of stage 5 with stage 6)

  • 8H30
  • Stopped at Hotel Castel de Vergio for a break where there’s a café for hot drinks and pre-prepared sandwiches. Note that there’s also a little grocers just 100m down the road which has much more food and fresh bread.
  • Manganu camp site was very busy indeed and the camp spots were really uneven. But free outdoor gas stoves.

 

Day 6: Refuge de Manganu to Refuge de Petra Piana

  • Started at 7:15am. Arrived at 12:30. 5H15. Stopped for 20mins.
  • Breakfast in the dark with lots of other walkers also cooking at the free outdoor gas stoves.
  • Camped and there were a fair number of camp spots.
  • Really hard day, especially the morning ascent which is really steep, but rewarded with lovely view of lakes.
  • Wine 1/2 carafe 4 euros. Camping 7 euros each.
  • Okay little shop in the refuge with tinned tuna, sweetcorn rice, pasta.
Sunny spot at Petra Piana

Sunny spot at Petra Piana

Cloud inversion - Petra Piana

Cloud inversion – Petra Piana

Day 7: Refuge de Petra Piana to Refuge de I’Onda (low level route)

  • Started at 8:10am. 4H30.
  • Not an enjoyable day because lots of traversing across boulders and we’re tired from the two previous long days. Also we’d planned to stop for a bite to eat at Bergeries de Tolla, but it was closed when we got there at 10:30/11am – very disappointed. This meant we didn’t really have enough calories in our system for the afternoon uphill struggle.
  • Camped – nice flat grassy field and loads of camp spots, so don’t worry about getting here too early.
  • We cooked our own evening meal on the free outdoor gas stoves, but reports from other campers were that the lasagne cooked in the refuge was fantastic.
  • Good well stocked shop at the refuge.
Spacious campsite at de I'Onda

Spacious campsite at de I’Onda

Day 8: Refuge de L’Onda to Vizzavona

  • Started at 7:25am. 5H20. 20min stop.
  • Windy day as we traverse across a ridge.  Long and difficult descent to Vizzavona.
  • Stay at Hotel I’Larrici. Very basic (I think they invented the original shabby-chic, but without the chic). But it has hot water which means we can wash our clothes.
  • There are three or four restaurants in Vizzavona and a little shop.
  • Would recommend the pizza place – we couldn’t eat it all, but they wrapped it in foil and it was delicious the next day as a mid-morning snack.
Hotel I'Laricci, Vizzavona

Hotel I’Laricci, Vizzavona

Day 9: Vizzavona to Bocca di Verdi  (we combined stage 10 and half of stage 11)

  • It was a good idea to combine these stages because it meant we got to stop at U Fugone for tea and cake before carrying on.
  • Took us 4H from Vizzavona to U Fugone. Then 3H45 from U Fugone to Bocca di Verdi (setoff from U Fugone at midday).
  • Camped but ate in the restaurant at Relais San Petru di Verdi which does great food in a nice rustic building.
  • There were plenty of camp spots and there’s also the option of staying in the dormitory.
On the way to Bocca di Verdi

On the way to Bocca di Verdi

Day 10: Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d’Usciolu

  • Started at 7:50am. 6H50.
  • Again we were lucky that we could stop at Refuge Prati for a tea-break mid-morning.
  • Very windy walking along the ridge after Refuge Prati. This is where I’d had to abandon the trip a few years before due to a storm. The ridge is dangerous and walkers have been struck by lighting here before, so take care and speak to the guardian at Refuge Prati before setting off for advice.
  • Refuge D’Usciolu has an amazing shop with lots of food and drinks – so it’s a good place to stock up.
  • Camped. Free outdoor gas stoves, so we cooked our own meal.
Just before Refuge de Prati

Just before Refuge de Prati

Menu at refuge d'Usciolu

Menu at refuge d’Usciolu

 

Day 11: Refuge d’Usciolu to Refuge D’Asinau

  • Deliberately set off early at 7:10am because we’d heard that a storm was brewing for the afternoon.
  • 6H total walking time.
  • Rained all afternoon, cold and windy.
  • Note: the new GR20 goes to Matalza – i.e. it splits this stage into two and takes a slightly different route to that suggested by Paddy Dillon. We however followed the yellow flashes for the old GR20 to Asinau.
  • Stayed in the refuge overnight because it continues to rain into the evening.
  • Cooked our own food on the inside gas stoves.  The shop here has very limited supplies.
Where the old GR20 and the new route diverge.

Where the old GR20 and the new route diverge.

Day 12: Refuge D’Asinau to refuge the I’Paliri (low level route)

  • The village of Bavella has lots of restaurants and shops, so it’s perfect for a lunch stop. It’s not far from here to I’Paliri, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit full from eating.
  • The campsite at I’Paliri is really scenic and it was quiet with plenty of space.
  • Free outside gas stoves.
Sheltered cooking area at Refuge d'I Paliri

Sheltered cooking area at Refuge d’I Paliri

View to the coast

View to the coast

Day 13: Refuge I’Paliri to Conca (final day!)

  • 3H45.
  • I wouldn’t recommend the campsite at La Tonnelle – the showers were filthy and there were flies, but the food in the restaurant was lovely.
  • I expected Conca to have lots of shops and restaurants, but everything seemed to be closed in the evening.
View towards Conca on the final day

View towards Conca on the final day

Happy to have finished. Sitting in a bar at Conca

Happy to have finished. Sitting in a bar at Conca

 

The next day we got a lift from the minibus at La Tonnelle to meet the bus travelling north to Bastia.  The bus travels up the N193 and we decided to get off at the junction with the D507 near a big Carrefour.  We had identified that there was a campsite near the airport – Camping L’Esperanza(a nice campsite with good showers, but plagued with mosquitoes and absolutely nothing else to see or do in the nearby area apart from a stretch of disappointing beach).  But stupidly we decided it would be fine to walk there, but we then proceeded to get lost.  In hindsight we should’ve just stayed in Bastia at a hotel somewhere, but we were trying to save some money.  The next day we got a lift from the campsite owner to the Bastia bus for some sightseeing. The return bus dropped us off at the Carrefour again, so we had another long walk back to Camping L’Esperanza

Our flight back to the UK was on Sunday 28th September departing at 10:05am.  We walked to the airport from the campsite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga report #1

My commitment to Yoga is going well so far. I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying it, but I’ve come to terms with the inevitable pain. I’m trying to do 10 minutes every day consisting of five or more repetitions of ‘Sun Salutation A’ which is a sequence of moves that includes a lot of hamstring and calf stretching. I can’t get my heels anywhere near the ground in the ‘downward dog’ pose, but I’m hoping that will come after a few weeks. One thing I really can’t get the hang of is the breathing. I just find that I’m concentrating so much on the pain that I can’t follow the breathing pattern.

Having researched anterior knee pain a bit more it seems that it’s usually caused by incorrect tracking of the kneecap – more common in women than men. The tracking issues can be down to either tight hamstrings and calf muscles (yes that’s me!) and/or muscle imbalance of the quads (yes that’s probably me too!)… so I’ve finally come to the realisation that my no-stretching tactic can’t go on any longer.  So in a bid towards a quick recovery, as well as the yoga I’ve added some strength exercises to my  routine and the 30 day walking lunch challenge.  You’re meant to start off with 20 lunges, then add one more each day for a month. I’m on day two. I did yesterday’s lunges up and down the corridor, but I may soon have to progress to the back alley. Goodness knows what the neighbours will think! All in the aid of a quick recovery though. Only a month until I’m meant to start marathon training and I’m pretty nervous that my knee won’t be in good enough shape….so a final push and fingers crossed.

On the ‘verge’ of recovery

Ironman has asked on a couple of occasions how I can justify writing a blog about running, when I’m not in fact doing that much running at the moment. Well, its true but I’m not ashamed – I’m just taking my recovery from injury seriously…and…okay… I admit I’m enjoying the rest as well!

However I have made some progress and I’m pleased to say that I ran a total of 8 miles this weekend – all on grass verges, something I’ve always avoided in the past. I’d never realised how challenging they’d be – you really have to focus on not twisting an ankle or standing in something unpleasant. But I have to say that my knee felt much better afterwards than if I’d plodded along my usual tarmac and concrete routes. Plus I avoided having to dodge around pedestrians and cyclists which is always a bonus.

Did you know that grass verges in York are cut 14 times a year by the Council between March and October – every two or three weeks? I’m pretty impressed by that. I’m sure they don’t do it for the benefit of runners, but I appreciate the effort anyhow. We have a terrible lack of on-street parking down our road so lots of people used to park on the verges, turning them into horrible rutted and slippery mud-baths. But a couple of months ago someone…(thank you whoever you are!)…planted some trees all along the verges. As a runner small trees are a lot easier to dodge than a Ford Focus, so I’m smiling at least.

Anyway enough about parking, back to the running…I was interested in what other runners think about training on grass, so I just googled ‘running on grass’ … erm, the website runongrass.com  doesn’t seem to be quite what I was after! Having quickly exited this site I did find some interesting posts on runnersworld.com which seemed to suggest that as well as great benefits, there are also negatives that should be taken into account before deciding to do your training on the grass. One of the big ones for Marathonners is that you don’t want it to be a ‘shock to the system’ if you train on grass and then race on the road. You’ve got to include long runs on hard-surfaces as part of your marathon build-up otherwise you could end up in a whole world of pain on race day.

Next stage of my recovery programme is going to be Ashtanga Yoga – so more updates from me next week. I am the most inflexible person I know, so it should be interesting to see if I can improve over the next few weeks.

enjoying some offroad racing

enjoying some offroad racing

Diagnosis = ‘anterior knee pain’ – no kidding, thanks doc!

I’ve never been injured before – at least never injured from running that is. I did suffer a pretty horrendous knee laceration back in 2004, but that’s a different story.

 

About six weeks ago I started getting pains in my left knee after running which got worse over the coming week until I couldn’t bend my knee at all. If you’ve never experienced this before, be warned, it leads to a lot of comments from people at work as you shuffle about the office. I actually cut-down hugely on my tea drinking over this time, just to reduce the need to walk from my desk to the kettle and back.

 

After a week or so of hobbling around I went for an appointment with my GP. The first hurdle was getting up to the 1st floor waiting room, but I’d perfected a side-stepping technique by then which was proving pretty efficient.

 

I didn’t expect a hugely detailed diagnosis, but I was surprised by how deliberately he explained it to, me after bending, prodding and poking both knees   ‘ah yes that’s a prime example of anterior knee pain’ … as if the term ‘anterior’ made it somehow more medically specific. If it hadn’t just been that when asked where the pain was, I’d said ‘at the front of my knee’ perhaps I would’ve been more reassured by his words.

 

Anyway I mustn’t complain about the good old NHS, the upshot was that he thinks I need to rest it. At least that means I’ve now got a very valid excuse for not training regularly. Fingers crossed it’s recovered before June and the start of York Marathon training!

Into the unknown

Having just been on holiday it’s made me think about all the times I’ve run when I’ve been away from home and how much of a different experience it can be. I used to be a bit apprehensive about venturing into area I wasn’t familiar with, but I’ve since learnt to be a lot more prepared.  So some of my top-tips on running into the unknown:

 

Plan your route – if you really don’t know the area at all then you’ll want to get hold of a map.  Or you could just run straight out and back. If I’m in a city I tend to find a square route – so I’m always turning right or left until I get back to where I’ve started.

 

Take some money – More important in the days before mobile phones, but still you never know, your phone could pack up on-route and then you’ll need that 20p for the phone box.

 

Tell someone where you’re going – perhaps give them a copy of your route map. Also tell them how long you think you’ll be, otherwise they won’t know when they should start getting worried.

 

Remember to note the address – if you get lost and need to ask for directions its best to know where you’re asking for directions to!

 

Take it in your stride – it’s a lot more likely that you’ll have an interrupted run when you don’t know the area. I’d say it’s therefore best not to go out thinking that you’ll do a flat-out tempo run, perhaps it’s the best time to do one of your easier sessions.

 

Enjoy the scenery – if you’re somewhere new then it’s a great chance to see the area. You’ll get to places you wouldn’t have time to if you were walking, and anything beats sitting in a car.  I like to take my camera with me so I don’t miss anything. There’s something special about running early in the morning abroad when fishing boats are setting off or cafes putting out tables for breakfast time. I remember enjoying a wonderful 7am run around Paris once when on holiday with some friends and getting back before they awoke. Not only did I have the rest of the day free for sight-seeing, but it also meant I could look smug sitting around in my running kit when they eventually did get up.

 

I’m not going to get a chance to run-abroad this summer. So instead I’ve decided to make more use of the numerous Park Run courses around the UK. I’ve set myself a challenge of running three different courses in training for my next marathon. On the subject of Park Run, I was volunteering at York’s on Saturday and we had some celebrities – Steve Cram & Daughter and Laura Weightman (2012 Olympic 1500m finalist). Laura set a new women’s course record by finishing in 16:14. What a fantastic feat. It certainly made my job as timer more nerve-wracking than usual.

For more information about Park Run visit http://www.parkrun.org.uk

 

 

 

 

Running for running’s sake

This blog isn’t intended to be an entirely self-indulgent story about me and my life, but I feel I need to provide at least a little bit of context as to why, where and when I started running.

I first remember thinking about running as an activity itself (rather than something you do as part of another sport) when I was about 15. My PE teacher challenged our class to run five minutes every day for a month. When it came to reporting back our total completed runs I lied shamelessly of course, but it did get me thinking … perhaps it’s not so strange to just run for running’s sake?

It wasn’t until at University in 2005 that I discovered a real love for ‘the run’. One too many snake-bites at the Students Union and I found myself agreeing to enter the Sheffield Half Marathon. It was the race’s centenary and I was lucky enough to secure race number 1905 which meant a pre-race photocall with the Uni’s Vice Chancellor. I’m pretty certain that day will forever remain the peak of press-interest in my running career!

A year or so later I met ‘Ironman’ who is now my husband and fitness companion.  It was with his support and encouragement that I began pushing myself to run further and enter more races – well the many, many spare hours I had outside of lectures had to be filled somehow…

We now live in York and, as honorary northerners we make the most of the wide range of local races. I’m a member of a running club and an avid reader and listener of all sorts of running-related media. I hope you find my blog an interesting, and amusing account of my Yorkshire running escapades.