9/9/2013 – GR20 Day 5 Vizzavona->Petra Piana according to Ryan
12 miles (19k), 6,500 feet gained (1980m), 3,500 feet lost (1060m), 10 hours and 30 minutes
The morning started at 6:15am after a surprisingly restful night in the shady rent-a-tent. It had rained off-and-on all night and it was clear that the weather was changing as we moved further north. We were expecting it to be windy up higher...at least that's what the weather said. We packed up our stuff and headed to the Restaurant de la Gare, where we met up with Edmond, filled up water in the shower (his idea), and ate a breakfast of yesterday's bread and Nutella. Vizzavona was not as nice a respite as we were expecting it to be. The camping was kind of crappy and the food left something to be desired (like a hamburger). We started walking at exactly 7:15am, as planned, with Edmond out of town through streets at first and then wide trails going through a dense and misty forest filled with more of those black and yellow salamanders. At first the trail went through a deep, gently curving valley before starting to climb somewhat steeply toward the ridge crest.
As we got higher, the wind and clouds started to close in and it wasn't long before our rain shells were necessary to block out the gusts and cold. At one point Edmond paused to take in the view, saying "La vie est belle, non? Comment dit-on en anglais?" (Life is beautiful no? How do you say that in English?) to which another nameless Frenchman replied "Ce n'existe pas aux Etats-Unis" (It doesn't exist in the US). This definitely made us giggle...when we finally reached the ridge Edmond continued onward while I waited for Jamie before we started the descent into Refuge de l'Onda. It was a beautiful descent. Steep at first, but then opening up into a vast valley with sweeping views. The wind was gusting hard enough to blow my hat off the whole time.
Around 12:30pm we arrived at Refuge de l'Onda for lunch with Edmond. After lunch we had a choice of route - either the higher but shorter distance variant over the crest or the low, gradually rising route (although longer) through the valley. With the wind being as it was we decided on the lower route, which ended up being a great decision. It allowed us a visit to Bergerie La Tolla with its idyllic, green yard and vast assortment of handmade food. We ordered coffees, coke, and some cheese/sausage and sat, fulfilled, at a bench in the yard with Edmond all wishing we didn't have to leave.
But, alas, we finished our beverages and continued up the gradually sloping trail past green pools and a gently cascading stream before making it to the final steep climb to our refuge. Petra Piana was absolutely packed with people and a very different scene than we were used to for the past 4 nights. Finding a tent was competitive! However, we managed, and finally settled in at the refuge terrace with Edmond and our company for the night: Mark, the American living in Amsterdam, Inga, the German living in Afghanistan, and Simon, the Irishman. Bundled up on the terrance we waited for our turn on the gas burner to make spaghetti with red sauce and sardines, which proved to be surprisingly tasty. We spent the rest of the night visiting with our new friends and celebrating Edmond's 66th birthday with several large Pietras and wine. Finally, at 10pm we stumbled back to our tent and passed out full of food and good conversation. This was our last night with Edmond and we are going to miss him - the tropics-loving, bee-keeping, ex French paratrooper and family man. I can only hope to age as well as he has. He's going to do another double stage tomorrow trying to finish in 8-9 days (we later learned he took 7 doing a triple stage to finish). We've got to try his recipe for coconut chicken, which he gladly wrote down over dinner.