Corsics GR20 - The toughest trek in Europe with the lightest gear on the planet
Catchy title? ..and almost true, the GR20 is considered by many to be the toughest trek in Europe and I did take some very lightweight kit with me when I completed the Northern section, generally accepted to include the toughest sections of the toughest route.
More about how tough(!) it was later, and before we get into ‘I did this on day one’, and ‘I that on day two’, I thought I’d witter on about the planning stage – afterall this is almost as much fun as doing the trek and as I run a business called Ultralight Outdoor Gear I really get pretty nerdy when it comes to choosing what gear to take – and I’m so old I can’t carry much so it has to be as light as possible but not put me in danger – I’m too old for that too.
I have devoted much of my existence these recent years to figuring out how to reduce my backpacking load to an absolute minimum and yet still be safe and comfortable on an extended trek and I’ve distilled what I’ve learned into three things:
∙Understand where you’re going and what conditions you will face
∙Lightest is not always best
∙Weigh every damn thing – without exception
The Gr20 is a mountain trek – and it takes place in the mountains! The weather can usually be relied upon to be hot and sunny on Corsica but all mountain ranges can get cold at night, be smothered in cloud, suffer wind, rain and even snow during the summer months. I completed the GR20 trek in September 2013 and experienced all of these except the snow.
Choosing my tent was tricky, I like a bit of space but needed to keep the weight down, I’d experienced freezing temperatures wild camping in the Pyrenees during August and I wanted to switch some of my weight allowance from tent to sleeping bag and take a warmer one than I usually do. I finally settled on the Nemo Obi 1 Elite, at 872grams it’s pretty light but feels quite spacious, the only thing that bothered me was the high cutouts on the flysheet, designed to save weight but I imagined catching the wind pretty easily.
In the event my last night on the GR20 was pretty windswept, and with a few modifications the tent performed really well – that’s modern tent fabric for you.
If you’re planning to do the GR20 yourself I don’t see how you can start in any better way than I did. I live in the frozen North so I left Newcastle Airport at 16.50 on a Wednesday and got a flight via Schipol to Marseilles, arriving in Marseilles about 22.10. I then contacted my pre-booked cheap hotel who sent their minibus for me and was tucked up in bed before 11pm (only 10pm in the UK).
The next morning I was up at 6.15, showered, breakfast and on the 9am flight to Calvi which landed on time at 09.55. I shared a taxi to the Spar supermarket in Calenzana, bought all my food and fuel and set off on the route at 20 past eleven – how good was that? I’d finish Day one the same day and so effectively spent just one evening travelling.
The walk up to the first col, Bocca a u Saltu is pleasant, if a bit hot and takes a couple of hours, there’s a good path and its the first real milestone. On reaching the col I was joined by a couple of Americans travelling in the opposite direction, they were pretty close to completing the full GR20 and had a few words of wisdom for me. This happens quite a bit on recognised routes, you need to get a few days out before you can have any credibility with the people completing the route in the opposite direction.
After the Bocca you begin to get an inkling about why the GR20 is referred to as the toughest trek in Europe (as opposed to the wettest, or bleakest or whatever), the path descends slightly then ascends again up rocks, the route is well waymarked but you end up scrambling up the route rather than walking along a path. Its all straightforward, but it makes you think about the weight you’re carrying.
Eventually you reach the Bocca a u Bassiguellu, which is a flatish, round hump, then very shortly you get a view of the Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu, which looks a long way away, although the distance is deceptive and the refuge is easily reached with a bit more walking.
The refuge is in a fine situation – there’s a wide open view down the valley and across to the higher mountains beyond. There’s water, accommodation if you need it and plenty of places to camp, but the ground is pretty rough and a free standing tent is an advantage because getting pegs in the ground is a challenge in places.
When backpacking outside of the UK I usually carry a methylated spirit (meths) cooker as meths (in all its various guises) is usually easier to obtain than gas. In France for example most supermarkets stock ‘Camping Gaz’ gas canisters which come in two types, neither of which fit the screw on gas stoves you can buy in the UK, but they also carry ‘alcool a brulee’ which is the French version of meths.
On this trip however I knew that the Spar shop in Calenzana sold screw in gas canisters so I brought a Fire Maple FMS-117T which is the lightest gas stove I’ve found that doesn’t sit on top of the gas canister. Gas is quicker and easier to use than meths, and with a windscreen just one gas canister lasted six days and was only half empty at the end.
To complete my cooking kit I brought an 850ml titanium pot (MSR Titan Kettle), a plastic bowl/mug and a long handled spoon. Minimalist, but sufficient. It was dark at 8pm, which I noted for planning purposes.
After a good nights sleep I’d planned an early start, I was up at 6.30 and leaving camp an hour later. The first few hours of Day two is a gentle walk followed by a stiff climb to the Bocca Piccaia, there was plenty of company for this section and the view from the Bocca is magnificent, its a good place to take a break and eat some food. I reached the Bocca at 9.45am.
From here the route gets rough again, it threads a number of ridges and involves more scrambling, which is tiring, but getting to grips with the rock in such a spectacular setting is a real buzz. The weather was perfect and for long sections I saw no other people.
Eventually you lose height to Bocca Carozzu at the head of a valley, there’s still an hour or so of descent down a tricky path to reach the Refuge de Carozzu, I arrived just after 2pm. I was harbouring a desire to do more than just the recommended sections, but I also realised that there are very few places to stop between refuges and if I was to carry on I would have to complete the whole of the next section.
I was travelling at about the rate laid out in my Cicerone guidebook, so to carry on would mean another six and a half hours walking, at least, I knew that to carry on would mean finishing in the dark, without any contingency, therefore it made sense to stay.
I was pretty tired anyway after the exertions of the day but travelling alone can mean that filling in extended hours at a campsite can be a challenge, if you travel in a group a 2pm stop for the day can be a chance to chat or play cards, or whatever.
Refuge de Carozzu should be better than it is – the situation is lovely but the buildings and trash around is off-putting – although I’ve stayed in much worse. I managed to get a moderately private pitch in some bushes – one advantage to finishing early.
I enjoy cooking on the trail, and even though my meals are simple its nice to take some time over it. I had my own picnic table and tucked into my three courses of soup, a freeze dried meal with supporting couscous and cake for dessert.
After an early night I started Day three at 7.30 again, the route picks its way down to the Spasimata gorge where a metal suspension bridge spans the gap. Across this is the approach to the Spasimata slabs, which are easy angled slabs lining the right hand edge of the gorge, I was enjoying good weather again so the slabs were dry and in this condition the ascent is sublime, a bit of exposure with no real danger, what a pleasure to ascend the gorge in this way.
Three days in and with a good nights sleep behind me I was feeling good, on reaching the top of the slabs the path circles round the head of the gorge across left before a steepish ascent to the Bocca a i Stagni followed by more ridge walking as the route stays high on the mountains. After a while a steep and tricky descent for about an hour and a half leads to the ski resort at Haut Asco, which I reached at 12 Noon.
As a place to camp Haut Asco is uninspiring and after some food and a drink I was determined to carry on. I was feeling fit, the weather was good and the guidebook said I had time, but the next section contains the crux of the GR20 – the Cirque de la Solitude – and its not to be taken lightly, involving a tricky scramble down into a sharp rocky valley and an immediate steep scramble out the other side.
I’d also caught a weather forecast at Refuge de Carozzu which predicted rain and low cloud the following day, so if I completed the Cirque de la Solitude today I’d have the benefit of the weather, not only making the traverse easier but getting the best of the views, leaving it till tomorrow would likely ensure a much less satisfying day scrambling over cold wet rock.
The route out of Haut Asco is a climb, but its a gentle climb, the dirt path snakes up a valley into a bowl, then skirts the valley head before striking upwards to the Bocca Tumasginesca – the entrance to the Cirque. A girl was sitting at the edge looking down into the Cirque, she had a radio which made me think she was official, a ranger, or perhaps a volunteer – someone making sure that all was well, it was reassuring.
There are chains on the first steep sections of the scramble into the Cirque and I was grateful, it would be a moderate rock climb without them I’m sure. I encountered people coming the other way and passing them was tricky. There’s no let up in steepness as you descend to the lowest point of the route – still at the head of the valley, but this lowest point gives you access to the route out. There’s no level walking at all you go directly from descent to ascent.
More chains on the steep bits and I found route finding a bit tricky on one section in particular. Once I thought I’d reached the top only to realise I still had 40 minutes or so of climbing left. But the experience of the Cirque was a good one, more grappling with the rock as you scramble along the route, superb mountain views and teasing exposure adds up to a superb day.
You eventually exit via the Bocca Minuta, I had a good rest here before the descent to Refuge de Tighjettu, which was longer than I wanted it to be – I had completed two sections in a single day, it was 6.15pm when I reached the refuge and set up camp, I had been out for nearly eleven hours.
At Tighjettu there’s an attached shed for cooking in and picnic tables to sit at, I enjoyed my food and watched it get dark. There were still people arriving late into the evening and in particular one group of four arrived in the pitch black, the leader was carrying two packs, and the walker without a pack sprawled dramatically on the floor just outside the refuge. I offered them some light as they got themselves together – not sure they got the best out of the route that day.
I made do with a bed bath because the shower queue never seemed to get smaller, and the water was stone cold anyway.
I slept well again and it was about now I started appreciating my sleeping bag choice, I mentioned earlier I wanted to take a warmer bag than I usually carry and I settled on a bag from Lightwave, they do a complete range of down bags using very high quality down and with design features aimed at keeping the weight of the rest of the bag to a minimum they consistently get high ratings.
The bag I took was the Firelight 450, it gets a lower comfort limit rating of -5C and yet only weighs 745g. I had one night where the outside temperature felt very cold but was probably above freezing – and of course I was toasty in the bag, but even at higher temperatures is wasn’t too warm. We learn from experience and I had learned that I sleep cold when compared to the EN testing results – and when selecting a sleeping bag for a particular trip I probably need a bag rated to 5C lower than I expected to experience.
I couldn’t really remember having a bad nights sleep on earlier trips but I can remember being a bit chilly, and waking at 4 in the morning to put some clothes on, the sleeping bag on this trip paid dividends.
Refuge de Tighjettu is a pleasant place to be, its well kept and there isn’t the trash around that was evident at other refuges. The morning was marked by dark ominous clouds which threatened rain as I left the refuge and delivered rain a few hours later. The walking on this section is through forested slopes and tracks that hug the side of the valleys, all relatively easy, especially compared to the previous sections of the route.
The rain stayed off for a few hours, then it rained lightly, then heavily, I donned my waterproofs as the mist closed in, thunder and lightning flitted across the valley. I reached a Bocca di Foggiale with visibility down to a few yards, but managed to trace the path to a cairn then down towards Refuge de Ciottulu di l Mori. Most walkers were safely inside but I was still comfortable in my raingear so I carried on.
The route continued across a high pasture before entering a water filled gully downwards. I met a fellow Brit following a low level route across Corsica and we exchanged stories before wishes each other luck. The route continues to contour and eventually enters a rocky nook above the Bergeries de Tola, looking rather sad in the rain with its deserted, brightly coloured sun umbrellas it was easy to pass by.
By the time I arrived at the Hotel Castel di Vergio there was a brief respite from the rain – this was just after 2pm. Again the time seemed just too late to continue on the next section. The one thing worse than setting up camp in the dark is setting up camp in the dark and the rain. The camping area of the Hotel grounds offered hot showers – the first since leaving Marseilles – and some shelter to dry gear off. A very lazy and relaxed afternoon ensued and in the evening a visit to the bar got me warmed through, the night was very cold and I was glad to climb into my sleeping bag, a heavy downpour tested the tent during the late evening.
The weather had more or less cleared up by the next morning and I headed off at the usual time, walking through woodland mainly but then up onto a ridge for a period of higher walking. I arrived at the gorgeous Lac Nimu at around 11.30am and had a long lunch in the sunshine. I managed to get the tent and any other gear dried out.
The rest of day 5 is pleasant walking across high level pasture and I eventually reached Refuge Manganu at around 1.30 in the afternoon. I felt weary today despite having a fairly easy trek, I put this down to not eating enough and I spent the rest of the day eating, washing and doing other chores, writing my journal and listening to music.
One of the spin-off benefits of going ultralight is you keep your gear to a minimum and it seems to be so much easier to keep organised and on top of things. Packing-up in the morning is easier and finding things is straightforward.
By eating every few hours I was able to consume quite a lot of food during the day, which seemed to sort out my weariness – the next day I felt really fit again, the climb out behind Refuge Manganu takes you up into a rocky amphitheatre then up the back wall to a rocky cleft. It was cold out of the sun and quite windy on the high ground, mist was continually coming in and obscuring the views before being blown away again allowing you to get your bearings.
The next section after the cleft involved a lot of scrambling up and down as you followed a ridge in a long sweep, then a short double back with more rough climbing up to another bocca. Beyond this was the descent to Refuge Petra Piana, the wind was quite gusty and cold and I arrived at the refuge at 12.45. I had saved an hour over the guidebook time and was feeling fit.
The cold wind made the area around the refuge quite unappealing. There are extensive camping areas were populated with hire tents as well as areas for backpackers. The place was deserted apart from the guardian and a couple who had hiked up from Vizzavona over a couple of days, they had planned today as a rest day and had been looking forward to relaxing in the mountain sunshine, as it was they were struggling to find shelter from the biting wind. The previous night had been horrendous and many of the hire tents had been shredded by the high winds, they had their pick of the remaining ones for tonight.
I had a quick lunch and departed 25 minutes after I had arrived, I had plenty of time to complete the next section and was feeling confident. A few minutes out from the refuge area I had a choice of route, the GR20 takes a low level route to the next refuge down the valley but there’s a high level variant which follows a rocky ridge. The wind made me think carefully about which route to take, but I plumped for the high level variant.
The route switches from side to side as it follows the main ridge, however there’s a long section on a wide crest which was exposed to the now fierce winds and I had trouble keeping my feet, furthermore the wind blew in a heavy mist which reduced visibility somewhat. At one stage I was really struggling to follow the route markers due to the low visibility and had to stop and carry out a sweeping search for the next marker on more than one occasion. I’m confident with a map and compass so I was happy I could get where I wanted to be, however there’s no substitute for a waymarked path so it was worth the effort to stay on it.
After crossing thankfully onto the protected side of the ridge I scrambled down then up again over broken rocks. At this point I was caught up by a young Italian hiker who, like me, was heading for the Refuge de L’Onda.
We climbed back up to the ridge together, back into the high wind and low visibility conditions of the ridge crest. Without the aid of language we backed each other up over the route finding decisions that came our way and the route eventually descended below the mist and we were able to confirm our position, and see the descent to the next saddle.
We arrived at Refuge de L’Onda just after 5pm. It was still very windy and cold although visibility had improved, I pitched my tent, which seemed to be strong enough to resist damage in the strong wind but the main hoop was being blown out of alignment when hit by a gust. I tied a spare guyline to it at the mid point and pegged it out using my spare pegs, this sorted it out really well.
It was too cold for a proper wash so I had a quick scrub in the tent. As this was my last night I booked a meal at the Refuge, which didn’t turn out as tasty as I’d imagined, I went to bad at 7.30pm.
The next day was bright and the wind had dropped. I set off at 7.15. I found the climb over into the next valley was tough, I was feeling weary again, this time I put it down to the long day yesterday, I had been walking for 9.5 hours.
Once you reach the main col of the day its simply a long rocky descent into Vizzavona, the day was hot and sunny at the trail down follows the river. I passed many pools that were ideal for swimming and was unable to resist one, the water is very cold but pleasant in the hot sun, I spent a nice hour in and out of the water.
The final stage of the descent is a tourist trail so there are plenty of other hikers going in both directions, and this time you have the credibility, I’m sure my appearance confirmed that I had just completed the full Northern section of the route.
At 14.20 my walk was over, I hiked into the village of Vizzavona, the sun was shining but that wind was still biting.