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GR20 - Corsica, France

GR20 – the hard way

GR20 - the hard way by Paul Hadaway

These are personal notes on the GR20 – Paddy Dillon writes THE guide book, and there is no point in trying to replicate it; the other web links provide faster itineraries than the base 15 stages/15 days in Paddy Dillion's book. All my stage number references are Paddy Dillon's stage numbers. No-one would plan to follow my itinerary out of choice but despite set backs I did it in 13 days, starting from the north, breaking after stage 3 and restarting the same day from the south. I started with a companion who blew out after 3 days then walked with 4 Dutch guys who very generously let me join their team – and I didn't even have to wear an orange shirt.

Read the guide books carefully; my experience is no worse than the books & blogs describe; it just all happened at once.

Walking the GR20 was one of the best 2 weeks I have spent. It's tough and it's dangerous – I saw 3 memorials to walkers who had died en route – but you're only ever 2/3 hours walk downhill to civilisation. It's a truly excellent brush with harsh untamed nature; the scenery and surroundings are dramatic, beautiful and threatening.

Preparation – I spent the week before walking on a sun bed at the Belles Rives Hotel on Cap d'Antibes – not ideal, but I was recovering from a shoulder operation that had gone wrong. Again not ideal, but I didn't break it on purpose and I had been planning the GR20 for a long time. I was going, come what may and the doctor had cleared me to carry a rucksack.

I am usually fit; football/pilates/walking/riding-several-times-a-week fit, but the shoulder had restricted most forms of exercise although I had run 5 miles 2/3 times a week for 2 months before setting off. This was barely enough.

Kit – travel light. All the books/blogs say travel light. Travel light. My pack was about 13kg plus water. I carried a Nemo Gogo single skin breathable fabric one man tent – less than 2lb. Given my experience, you can easily be forced to stop between huts because of the weather, you really should carry some form of bivvy bag/tent. However, camping one night, the condensation passing through the breathable fabric froze rendering it non-breathable. I woke up soaked. The balance of weight and performance is a difficult one – there's probably no right answer.

One mistake was taking cotton T shirts – all my other kit was the correct technical stuff – I don't know why I took these but as a result I spent 10 days wet and unable to dry out. Man made, proper wicking under garments next time for me.

Timing – the general consensus seems to be to walk in June or September. I would disagree – I walked in September; the weather was dreadful (but that can happen any time of the year in Corsica) and the route was very busy. The guardians in the huts all said August was best – very hot but deserted. When over-crowded with wet walkers, the huts are unpleasant and the atmosphere can become a little aggressive.

Weather – I started stage 1 from Calenzana in mid- Sept at 6am. It was 26°C. By 7am it was 30°C. The stage is exactly as advertised – 1300m of ascent. I couldn't have walked another step by the time I reached Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu (1520m).

Stage 3 was started in cold drizzle; this dried up and the weather temporarily brightened but, as we crossed Col de Stagni, it was like diving into a cold washing machine. It was impossible to tell whether it was rain, wind driven fog or what. It was just a very cold wet gale blowing in every direction at once making standing up difficult, walking a major challenge and scrambling over angled granite slabs between perilous and insane. (Paddy Dillon, having made much of the Spasimata slabs lower down, forgot to mention these.) Although, as we dropped over onto the final descent to Haut Asco, we were back in the lee of the storm, the damage had been done as far as my companion was concerned.

Stage 4/day 4 – its not recommended to walk stage 4 – the notorious Cirque de la Solitude stage – in wet weather. I woke to snow this morning. (My second kit error by the way was no gloves– clinging to cold wet rock numbed the fingers to the bone). Clearly stage 4 wasn't going to be walked today and 15 people staying at the Haut Asco hotel commandeered a mini-bus to take us to the southern end of the GR20 to re-start from the lower end during the grim weather that appeared to be with us for a few days.

Stage 15/day 4 - The sign at Conca (the southern start/finish point) “Conca Arrivee Vous voici au terme de votre odyssee… Bravo” was a bit demoralizing and for my companion the final straw – he headed for the beach. After much debate as to whether to stay in Conca for the night or to walk, we started stage 15 at 2.30pm. Thunder, lightening and a lot more rain and six hours walking brought us to Refuge de Paliri after dark, soaked again. It was full; I slept on the kitchen floor.

Itineraries – most people allow 15/16 days and intend to double up on stages as and when they feel it will work for them. The rationale is “ a double stage day is a day on the beach”. My flight home was booked from Figari and I had planned to visit a beach near there. I was now walking in the wrong direction for my flight home and the beach.

There are some stages that naturally seem to double up. Criteria are, are they flat? Do they end at a hotel with a hot shower? (There are 3 hotel stops on the route). I doubled stages 10 & 11 and 6 & 7.

We ended stage 10 with the detour to the Hotel Monte d'Oro which I would highly recommend.

This was of course walking north so stage 7, which has massive rocky ascents was followed by the much more benign stage 6 ending at a hotel.

Surprisingly the bogey stage 4 was completed by 1pm and could easily be doubled with stage 3 travelling north following the “old” GR20 and missing out Haut Asco which would be all downhill in this direction to Refuge de Carrozzu.

Also stage 9 walking north from Vizzavona to Refuge de l'Onda which begins with 1200m of ascent (slightly reduced if starting from Hotel Monte d'Oro) was completed by 1pm and could be doubled with the easy-ish stage 8 – the high level alternative of this involves less ascent than the low level route. We finished stage 9 completely soaked and cold in fog – had it been warm and sunny, adding stage 8 would have been comfortable.

So, despite our restart, we completed the walk in 13 days finishing at the Haut Asco Hotel and it is easy to see how another 2 days could be taken off this. Pete Lockey's 9 days (see web links) looks difficult in this perspective, the Foreign Legion's standard 7 day work out is hard to imagine and the sub-40 hour record…well….

Way finding – after much detail maps/gps/guide book debate I took nothing but the guide book. Its all that is required. We lost the route twice – once on the ridge approaching Refuge d'Usciolu in (yet more) fog and rain and wind. We lost the red and white markers and dropped of the ridge on the wrong side – neither a map nor a gps would have saved us. The second time was approaching the Hotel Monte d'Oro on a standard GR20 variant – either a gps or a map would have saved us this time – or just being slightly less tired after a double stage might have done it.

So how tough is it? - its all weather dependent – the route varies from challenging to impassable depending on the elements. Stages 1-4 are reportedly the hardest but stage 4 on our last day was done in warm sunshine and was really not bad – its not that exposed and if you're not scared of heights it's a no more than a fun scramble. Stages 3, 15, 13 and 9 were very grim slogs that had I been any less fit or determined could have been terminal.

So be fit, travel light and have the right kit – good luck.

By Paul Hadaway ()

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