Surviving Europe’s Toughest Trek in Corsica

I was standing in the middle of a cascading stream of meltwater. The climbing glove on my left hand was soaked, and my fingertips started to lose feeling. Below me, the water disappeared into the abyss. Looking up, I saw another three hundred feet of vertical granite wall, with patches of unstable snow, a few rattling cables, and ladders of dubious solidity. Under my feet I had a slippery, wet rock with little or no cracks to put my boots into. 35 pounds strapped to my back threatened to pull me off the wall and into the void, and the only thing that kept me secured to the cable was my palm, numb with cold and fatigue. The part of my brain not busy with finding tiny cracks in the granite went on red alert; this was the closest I have ever been to getting myself killed on a mountain.

The day my life hung by a thin thread (or rather by a half-inch thick cable) was our forth on GR 20, one of the world’s most iconic long-distance trails. The Grande Randonne nr 20 follows Corsica’s granite backbone for 112 grueling miles, and is usually split up into 15 day stages. The trail takes the trekker through some of the continent’s wildest and most spectacular mountains. Known as Europe’s toughest trails, it lives up to its reputation, demanding all the energy and determination trekkers can master, and leaving them with painful knees, sprained ankles, and a new insight into themselves. Lung-bursting ascents, knee-busting descents, intense heat and unsatisfiable hunger are just some of the challenges a trekker faces on the GR.

Walking Europe’s toughest trek demands physical and mental fitness. Knowing this, I and my husband started our preparations six months before departure. Distances run on the treadmill at the local gym gradually became longer, and the inclination steeper. As soon as the sun melted most of the snow, we set out on a series of long hikes, carrying backpacks filled with water bottles, bags of cement and other heavy objects. With time, we became fitter, and the load on our backs became less debilitating.

The departure date was set to June 7, 2009, and the plan was to walk the tougher, northern part of the trail from Calenzana to Vizzavona in seven to nine days; during this time, we would hike 64 miles and climb a total of 27120ft.

We started the hike at 7am on June 9. This early in the morning, Calenzana had not yet awakened. The tiny town was totally deserted, and on our way through the winding, narrow streets we felt as if walking through a ghost town. The only three living creatures we met on the 10-minutes walk through the town were an old man in company of his minuscule dog and a considerably larger cat. The old man smiled at us and wished us bon courage. Merci beaucoup, monsieur, good luck is just what we need! I would love to pat your cat and your dog, but bending down with my huge backpack does not really seem like a good idea…

We made a short stop for a mandatory shot under the Parc Naturel Corse information board, marking the official starting point of the GR 20, and then the climb began for real. We found our quick but steady pace soon, and realized the boring pre-departure training seemed to pay off.

At first the trail, marked by blazes of red and white paint, led us through a maze of thorny maquis. After a couple of hours, the maquis gave way to pine forest that gradually became thinner to reveal bare granite rock. On reaching Bocca a u Saltu at 4100ft, a grassy patch with a wind shelter and extensive vista, we realized for the first time that day that we were not the only people on the trail. This early in June, the trail was not yet overcrowded, but on most of the nights we shared the refuges with at least twenty hikers.

For the next few hours, the path continued to climb, bringing us deeper and deeper into the realm of the stone. We passed more of our fellow hikers, some of them going strong, and some of them dragging their feet and their all too heavy backpacks. During the first 48 hours, most of the latter category turned back and abandoned the GR, leaving only the fittest and best prepared to finish the trail.

On this first day and evening we learned the rules and usages of the GR. Get up early and start walking to beat the heat. Make sure to carry enough water, as there are no safe sources on the trail. Arrive early to ensure the best camping spot. Set up the tent, get a can of Pietra, a Corsican beer made with sweet chestnut flour and wait until the dinner is served at 7pm. After dinner, read about the following day’s horrors, and then go to sleep early. This evening, the activity in the camp died out at 9pm.

Old course of GR20.

Old course of GR20.

After the relatively easy first day, the trail finally decided to show its real face – during the next two days we climbed, scrambled, and descended again; pretty soon, we encountered the first snowy patches. The long, steep descent on scree on the second day turned my knees into minced meat, and the third day’s descent to Haut Asco, in strong wind at first and intense heat for the last hour made me seriously question my own sanity at the time the decision to hike the GR had been made. Our plan, to omit Haut Asco and instead to continue over the Cirque de la Solitude, thus covering two stages in one day, was abandoned after losing a lot of precious time trying to follow the old GR, partly overgrown and no longer in use. The extra time it took to cover the one and a half mile of the old trail was however far from wasted – the unused path offered wonderful views, solitude, and a rare glimpse of elusive mouflon, a species of wild sheep. It also spared us for the long descent to Haut Asco along the regular trail, which, according to many, was the most grueling one on the whole trail.

Haut Asco, with its rusted ski tows and hideous buildings, rewarded our toil with a bed, a bathtub of hot water, an a la carte menu, and wine that actually came in a bottle. The croissants served to breakfast the next day made me almost forget the pain in my huge, red, and infected toe. It did not, however, make me forget the supposed horrors of the day’s stage, with its snowy slopes and the notorious 1000ft deep chasm called Cirque de la Solitude, supposedly the most dangerous and difficult part of the GR.

Paglia Orba, Corsica's third highest mountain.

Paglia Orba, Corsica’s third highest mountain.

We reached the Cirque after a few hours of ascent. Seen from above, it looked steep and exposed. The 1000ft of descent were in fact demanding, but not really dangerous. Soon, I started to relax, thinking the worst was over. But as the ascent begun, I realized the worst was still ahead. The climb up resembled more rock climbing without equipment then hiking. At places, we had to cling to smooth rock faces, trying to ignore the sheer drop below our feet. A fall, although very unlikely for an experienced hiker, would mean sure death. Meltwater running down the rocks made them extra slippery, and patches of rotten snow threatened to collapse under out weight. We had to climb and scramble 1000 vertical feet, most of them using our hands as well as our legs. It was here, during our forth day en route, that I got closer to death than ever before, getting stuck for a few horrifying seconds on a slippery rock face. It was also the most satisfying and fun stretch of the GR.

This evening we stayed at Bergerie de Ballone, a private refuge with wonderful views and shaded, grassy camping spots. Thanks to our early start and quick pace, we emerged from the Cirque after just two hours, and reached the refuge at 2pm. Our fellow hikers, whom we passed on the way up to the Cirque early in the morning, got caught in a jam while traversing the chasm, and arrived at the refuge, looking totally exhausted, some four hours after us.

The subsequent two days were, according to my Cicerone guide book, «easy» day walks on relatively level terrain. Indeed, after a few more hours of scrambling on the first day, the path led us through lower altitudes with green vegetation. After four days in bare alpine terrain the lush, early summer vegetation was overwhelmingly beautiful. Here and there, we spotted cows grazing on green, grassy slopes; feral black pig mums with cute, long-eared piglets were digging for roots and nuts in the forest. The second day took us along Lac du Ninu, a picturesque mountain lake with miniature horses grazing on its shores. We made friends with a tiny foal, not much bigger than an Alsatian shepherd. Too small to be ridden on, the horses’ only raisons d’etre appeared to be to pose for photos, and to annoy anglers by grazing just inches behind their backs.

Refuge Manganu

Refuge Manganu

Since we now stayed at lower altitudes, the Mediterranean heat became a serious issue. I’d wet my hair and my hat in every stream we’d encounter, just to get dry and hot again within ten minutes. Every patch of shade or a gust of wind, no matter how small, was welcomed with gratitude. On entering stands of trees, we would slow down to cherish the coolness of the shade a bit longer. Our lodgings for the sixth night on the trail, Refuge de Manganu, with its camping spaces exposed to the sun, offered no relief. Quick, chilly dips in a nearby steam swelled with meltwater proved to be the only way to keep the body from overheating. Animals chose a different strategy – we found two cows dozing deep in the bushes behind our tent. They emerged in the chill of the evening, tripping over our tent line on their way out. This evening, we ate our dinner outside; this was the first evening we didn’t use our fleece jackets.

The summer ended abruptly the following day. Just an hour into the climb, we hit the snow again. The seventh stage took us up to the GR’s highest point at 7300ft and down again, on exposed slopes covered by rotten snow. On the last few miles of the stage, our world collided with the world of day-trippers, with their clean white t-shirts, tiny daypacks and running shoes. They looked (and sniffed) at us with disgust, and slowed us down, as their inexperience caused congestion at bottlenecks.

This afternoon, at the crowded Refuge de Pietra Piana, we witnessed the record breaking run by Kilian Jornet, a twenty years-old Spanish long-distance runner. He’d set out from Calenzana at 3.55am, and covered the distance we had needed seven days for in just twelve hours. We watched him run down the bouldery slope that earlier that day had very nearly made me cry of pain in my overloaded knees. After a short interview with a camera crew flown in by a helicopter, he resumed the run, disappearing from view in just twenty minutes, after scaling a steep ridge we climbed for well over an hour the following day. Kilian finished the 112 miles long Grande Randonnee in 32 hours, 54 minutes and 24 seconds, breaking the previous record by four hours.

Petra Piana refuge

Petra Piana refuge

On the climb the eighth day, we passed the plaque commemorating Jean Pierre Etienne, an experienced alpinist gone missing, together with his dog Lola, while undertaking the trek on skis in April 2003. This was a sobering reminder that those beautiful mountains can and do kill. Hikers perish here every year. In June 2007, four people died of exposure during a sudden weather change. The snow storm trapped dozens in refuges along the trail, making helicopter evacuation necessary. Snow and frost were, however, the very last things we thought about on this penultimate stage of the GR. Although the stage was the shortest yet, just over 3 hours, the scorching Mediterranean sun and temperature well over eighty degrees made the hike exhausting. The plan was to eat lunch at the Refuge De L’Onda and continue down to Vizzavona, but instead we chose to seek shade in the pine forest below the refuge. Most of our fellow hikers made the same choice, choosing Pietra to another five hours of toil in the heat.

The last evening on the GR’s northern part was celebrated with home-made strong myrtle liquor in a plastic bottle, placed on the table by the friendly gardien. We sat there, talking and drinking well into the night, with people we would never meet again and whose names we didn`t know. We stumbled to our tents well after the usual 9pm, tripping over several tent lines in the dark.

The final day began just as any other, with early breakfast of cocoa, bread with jam, and painkillers. At 7 am the temperature had already soared well over 70F. From the ridge we climbed we had an unobstructed view on our last Corsican refuge – a working bergerie with over a hundred goats, some semi-wild pigs digging around the fenced camping space, four mules and three dogs of the sturdy Corsican breed cursinu. After taking this all in, we turned our backs to the GR. The last descent has begun.

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