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Kim Mason is one of Scotland’s bravest skiers. She must be otherwise she would never have dared to return to the wild and lonely mountains of central Corsica after her brush with death there just two years ago.
Now here she was again in the winter mist negotiating the same complex series of icy terraces on her “very own granite mountain“ for the second time. As we zig-zagged down a steep ramp Kim suddenly came to a nervous halt and pointed at a mound of snow and ice next to the brink of a great chasm, the bottom of which was invisible in the murk
“I was aiming to stop there right next to David, but my skis just carried on, picking up speed. No amount of edging would stop them. I did not realise until later that I had been on waterfall ice disguised by a layer of surface snow,” she said, trembling with emotion.
“Suddenly I was falling. Black ice on the black rock-face flashed as I scraped past. I am finished I thought. After a while I came to, but my vision was blurred and my right ski had snapped in half.”
According to David Hamilton, Britain’s pre-eminent ski mountaineer and the man who abseiled down to rescue her, she was lucky to be alive for she had fallen over 60 feet down the vertical sides of a great rock gorge. Only the protective cushion of a giant rucksack which towered above her diminutive figure and a patch of deep soft snow in the frozen stream bed at the bottom had saved her.
Says the stalwart Hamilton, twice climber of Everest: “In winter Corsica is almost as wild as the greater ranges or the Himalaya so the fact that Kim could still move after her fall was a blessing which enabled us to get her to safety.”
Her injuries brought a summary end to the expedition and Hamilton’s attempt to lead the first British party to make a complete traverse of Corsica’s mountain chain on ski - a winter version of the GR20 - Europe’s most famous long-distance walk.
Kim - a former ski racer who once trained with the Scottish ski team - took over 18 months to make a full recovery from her accident in 2003. Now she was back with Hamilton to “bury her ghosts” and finish the crossing.
I had been lucky enough to be asked to join them. We were on our first ski day - starting from the ruins of an old castle on a small saddle known as the Col di Vizavona - and we had already been going north for eight hours through dense beech forest, constantly thwacked by low branches and trapped by feathery saplings hidden in the snow.
We had not seen anyone and our bodies were reeling from the tricky conditions, which required us to switch backwards and forwards from normal downhill mode to skiing with skins, to carrying our skis on our rucksacks and climbing in boots with and without crampons. We had to repeat the whole process in a seemingly endless series of equipment changes. We became very slick at it, but exhausted. We looked down on the chasm that almost had claimed Kim and wondered how she had survived.
Just before darkness fell we found the bleak Refuge de l’Onda hut. All was damp inside what was to be our abode for the night. I was beginning to understand why Corsica had a reputation for unforgiving wilderness and why, perhaps, Napoleon Bonaparte cared so little for his birthplace. He never returned there after 1799, though he had nearly15 more years of freedom to enjoy.
Our second day was more gruelling and we found ourselves still skinning upwards on skis towards the highest wind-swept peaks as darkness fell. Disorientated in a small blizzard, which scattered us in spindthrift, we skied on after being on the move for over 11 hours. At last David located the comparatively luxurious but unwardened Petra Piana mountain hut (1,842m) and we lit the wood-burning stove to make soup, before tumbling exhausted into our bunks.
We lazed the whole next blue-sky day in perfect harmony, recovering from our exertions and gazing at the isolated, snow-covered mountains. As anthropologist Dorothy Carrington so accurately observed, they “soar into the sky behind, beyond, above, in rows of cones and spikes and square-topped knobs like gigantic teeth.” There at the heart of this great array of deserted peaks lay the flat-topped summit of Monte D’Oro (2,389m) and the glorious pyramid of Pinzi Corbini (2,021m).
After another mind-numbing start before dawn, the following day was to prove the high point and undoubted “crux” of our expedition, for we had to complete a fearful 2km rising traverse with ice-axes and crampons across a near vertical slope of ice and snow, with our skis strapped to our 19kg rucksacks.
The drop beneath us down the slopes which linked the Punta Muzzella (2,125m) and the Punta Alle Porta (2,313m) was over 1,000m. We did not rope up for there were no sensible belays and we all knew that if we were tied together a slip by one would mean certain death for all.
It is for such moments that a ski mountaineer lives and after over an hour of fear and exhilaration in equal measure, as we frontpointed across on the very tips of our crampons, we came to rest under a steep rock cliff, taking in the deserted and rugged mountain scene.
The final delight for our tight-knit three-person expedition was to ski perfect powder snow through a scattered forest of high mountain oaks over a thousand years old above Col di Vergio. In a scene worthy of the film of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings we flicked in and out and around these ancient wind-blown trees, whose shapes were so extraordinary that they resembled the primitive old-gnarled gods of pre-history.
After this it mattered little that time and weather prevented us from quite completing our full Corsica itinerary. Kim Mason, I know, is looking for any excuse to go back.
Guide Book: Corse Haute Route a Ski: Parc Naturel Regionel de Corse ISBN 2905 468-12-2;
Maps IGN 1:25,000 4250 OT Corte & Monte Cinto; 4251 Monte d’Oro & Monte Rotondo
Air France flies to Ajaccio every day via Paris; 08701424343;www.airfrance.co.uk
Granite Island - a portait of Corsica; Dorothy Carrington; Longman 1971; Penguin 1988
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