Enjoy our #tbt trip reports from the DC UL archives! This trip report was written by Michael Martin, and originally published in June 2014.
One trail. Many paths. We frequently had occasion to describe the GR 20 thus over the past two weeks. It was certainly true of how we reached Corsica. Christy (Tree Humper / Short Stick / High Maintenance) was the first to head out, on Thursday, 6/12, via Nice; Julie (Papillon) from Montreal; Max (Yeti) from Seattle. The DC crowd left last. Sharon (MacGyver), Alison (Covergirl), and moi (U-Turn) each taking slightly different routes to Frankfurt, and then to Bastia.
I arrived in Frankfurt very early on Saturday. I have fond memories of FRA from back in the day when I bummed around Europe as a student—I used to have friends there and would schedule layovers so that we could hang out. I recall seeing Four Weddings and a Funeral there with a German audience that needed no subtitles to get the jokes. But Frankfurt at 6am on Saturday morning is no fun at all. I wandered about for a spell, took a few photos, and pondered the news that Holland had beaten Spain 5-1, which the Germans relished.
Back to the airport. Jet lag hit hard, and Covergirl passed by my indecorously recumbent form. At last, we rendez-vous’d with MacGyver and boarded our flight to Bastia. As we landed, a haze settled over the mountains; they looked rugged, high, and foreboding. We reached the Hotel Napoleon (what else?) in downtown Bastia, and started to get to know the local beer at a café in the Place du Marche. We assumed Short Stick and Yeti would join us soon. When they didn’t, we enjoyed the first of many excellent meals at a homey Corsican joint. It started raining, and we moved off the terrace. Inside, the locals start singing (video to follow). Worried for Yeti and Short Stick, we abandoned our meal before dessert and digestif (we would rectify that later), and headed back to the Napoleon where they were just coming down the stairs. The reunion was joyous and loud. The night watchman told us to keep it down.
While the ladies stayed at the Napoleon, Max and I headed out to our second hotel room. We drank a few beers en route, reminisced about Iceland, and joked with the locals, who hated France and had printed Honduran flags for tomorrow’s match. We slept as much as we could with the singing coming from next door.
The GR 20 is most often hiked from north to south, but we had decided to walk it northbound—Conca to Calenzana. That meant that we had a fair amount of maneuvering to do. Bus to Porto Vecchio, as planned. What we had not planned was the weather. It rained cats and dogs on us as we headed south. Everyone we talked to said we were going to drown. Words like “ourigan” and “orage” seemed to come up a lot. We met Papillon at the gare routiere. She had been gathering information for us—the weather report was dire—and quickly earned her trail name as she fluttered from one source of information to the next.
The rain came again, and we sheltered in a pizzeria in the vieille ville. Short Stick tried out her French on a waiter (que vous etes chaud!), with amusing results. From there to Camping Arutoli, Short Stick carrying her box all the way. We visited the beach, swam in the pool, and ate at the camping’s restaurant, with the omnipresent World Cup droning away.
We would have all preferred to start early, but there was still plenty of maneuvering to do to reach Conca. I believe we were on to Plan C before Papillon negotiated our way onto the minivan belonging to the gite d’etape in Conca. The conversation on the way to Conca was filled with the most dire of warnings. Lightning strikes. Four deaths in the Cirque de la Solitude (I can’t find any evidence of this). Crampons and axes needed. Wild boar attacks. Inundation. Hail. Snow. Plagues of locusts. Someone suggested hanging out in Conca till Wednesday (come to think of it, what a nice business for the gite d’etape that must be!), but the weather looked fine. We mailed boxes at la poste, and started walking.
We climbed through the maquis—the fragant, thorny, low bushes that make up so much of the Corsican landscape—reached grand view of Porto Vecchio and the Mediterranean, and grinned to think that this was the least spectacular of the trails two halves. It was immediately clear that the GR 20 would be no joke. It was vertical and rocky, and there was plenty of exposure. We traversed impossibly sheer valleys, dropped down to a waterfall, passed through a fern-filled valley (we joked it looked like Pennsylvania), then arrived at the Refuge de Paliri. Clouds had enveloped us, and the place seemed depressing and dirty.
We started to appreciate, here, how most Europeans were walking the trail, doing just one stage a day, starting very early and stopping, by our lights, almost crazily early. We saw people pitching tents at 11am! Some hikers spent more time washing and drying their clothes (I might have used the expression “Euro-thongs”) than they did hiking. This would have consequences for us, as it meant that we would have the absolute worst tent sites—the worst of everything, really—every night. There was a penalty for wanting to walk all day, but there were also advantages. If you were on the trail in the afternoon—much less the evening—you would often have it entirely to yourself.
We pressed on to the village of Bavella. The guidebook described this section as “flat.” It was not. As we labored up and down the slopes, Yeti and I called out to each other how it was “still flat.” We quickly grew wary of the guidebook’s elevation profiles, which reduced monster climbs to little bumps (these are some seriously sucky profiles—I hope Paddy Dillon’s new edition of the book corrects this—in general, his book was handy). But at last the trail turned into Bavella … where there was a bar and a grocery store, also common trail features.
We drank beer, watched the World Cup, and first made the acquaintance of Mike and Stephanie, hikers from Australia and the U.K., who would share our route, from time to time, all the way to Calenzana. Then, in the rain, we pitched near Bavella’s little chapel. There’s not supposed to be camping in Bavella, but where there’s a will …
Up at 5:30am, trail at 6:30am. Our pattern established itself quickly for the trip. The Aiguilles of Bavella towered over the pass, and we climbed steeply, taking the first of the yellow-blazed “variants alpines,” which lead you high above the route of the GR 20, which is often quite high itself, but which sometimes dips down into valleys. The weather was lovely at first, and we relished the scrambling and the exposure. But then the weather settled in and the clouds swallowed us. We tackled an exposed slab with a nasty move at the end. Class 3 with the cable—class 4 without it. It took some time. We climbed higher still, rounding towers of stone that loomed suddenly from the mist. We returned to the GR 20, pleased with ourselves for taking the more difficult route.
By mid-day, we had reached the Refuge d’Assinau (which Short Stick dubbed the Refuge d’Assinine) just as a heavy rain set in. It was dirty and chock full of people. The ground was covered in shit and toilet paper. Some brave soul needs to introduce Europe to Leave No Trace. Some kind of French military group came in, wearing camouflage short–shorts. They had a penchant for bending over and flexing their muscles. Often at the same time. Yeti made some comment about how an American military unit would never take a break in a refuge to eat their baguettes and frommage. I’m glad they didn’t hear. Short-shorts and all, they would have tossed us out on our ears.
(Never, throughout the trip, did we think, “Gee! I wish I were sleeping in these dirty, cramped refuges instead of being under my tarp or tent.” That was true even at the better run refuges and bergeries in the north, though we did enjoy eating at the better places.)
By 1pm or so, the rain hadn’t stopped but the refuge was oppressive and we had miles to cover. We rallied and began the steep, 700 meter ascent of Mt. Alcudina in the wet and the fog. Plenty of delicate scrambling with little visibility. By the time we reached the summit, our group size had grown to seven! A stray dog had followed us, and mysteriously, decided that it would intertwine its fate with ours. Perhaps not the smartest move.
After Mt. Alcudina, we enjoyed an easy alpine descent, which would have been beautiful, if we could see anything. We traversed a plateau, with easy walking, and passed through open areas where cattle and wild pigs grazed. We had an idea that we’d reach the Refuge d’Usciolu. I stopped us, however, before the Crete de Latonne. The afternoon weather was deteriorating, and I did not relish taking us up onto a ridgeline in the volatile weather.
The weather had been wet for awhile. Morale was low. I stepped on a pole and broke it. And then I realized I had apparently left my stake bag in Bavella. This was the first of several gear mishaps for me. I bummed some stakes from Covergirl and MacGyver, made do with some sticks. Our unwanted canine companion shivered, so I used a garbage bag to make a jacket for him. Short Stick settled the dog on a spare foam pad from her Gossamer Gear bag. We settled in for a soggy night.
The morning dawned red and beautiful. We set off with little notion of what the weather had in store for us.
The Arete a Monda was challenging. We spent several hours scrambling along this exposed, knife’s edge with lots of tricky moves. I think we all concluded that it would be a bad place to be in a thunderstorm. Somehow, Covergirl and I got a little off trail, but the others found us. We reached the Refuge d’Usciolu by 11am, really the first refuge that seemed fully functional. We bought some food and discussed tying the dog up when we left. Papillon chased him off. Perhaps the dog knew what the weather would do.
The next ridge (the Crete d’Acqua Acelli) was milder and we were making good time. But the weather went to shit, and we were soon extremely exposed and counting the seconds between lightning flashes and thunder. We were using small numbers. Yeti asked me what the options were. “Move forward or die?” I suggested cheerfully. Very, very fortunately, the trail descended to the Bocca di Laparo. There, the heavens open up on us with the most incredible hailstorm I’ve ever been out in. For 20-30 minutes, we six cowered under the Trailstar, which I had tied to a tree, backing us up against a rock wall as best we could. Two inches of ice pellets coated the ground. The thunder and lightning was close—we had tossed our poles away from us. Yeti got the video (soon). The trail looked like a river breaking up in the spring. In some ways, it was funny. In other ways, the ice water running down our backs was most definitely not funny. Short Stick looked really cold.
At last, it eased up some, though the rain continued. We reached the col, and started up the Punta Cappella (2,041 meters). Beside a lightning-blasted tree, Covergirl balked. “Is this really a good idea?” She was entirely right: it was not a good idea. The lightning was close. We returned to the col, discussed options. There were no good ones. We ended up descending to the east along the Mare e Mare, in search of a refuge (dots on a map). I was sure that Short Stick was hypothermic by this point. Everyone was cold. No one was pleased. At a creek crossing, Papillon decided that she would leave the group. I tried to talk her out of it. It was a shame, as Papillon had definitely contributed. It was a tough spot to be having this conversation. We said our adieux.
Just beyond the crossing, we pulled up and made camp on an old stone foundation. All the extra clothing went to Short Stick and I burned off a half bottle of fuel to warm her up (the boiling water in a Nalgene trick worked wonders). She was definitely hypothermic, but we all flirted with it. My 40* down quilt was damp. I shivered through the night. I had summer gear, so sleeping on an inch of ice was … interesting. Yeti commented that Corsica had been colder than Sweden! We worried about timing for the rest of the trail.
Hard to call this anything other than the nadir of the trip, for me. A restless night followed.
But dawn did come and so did our hopes. We climbed back to the GR 20, scaring wild pigs as we warmed up. As we climbed the Punta Cappella—a beautiful scramble, vaulting over one buttress after another—the sun shined on us, at least for a time, before we got a little rain and hail. But we reached the Refuge de Prati at 11am (where Europeans were already setting up camp!). After a pause (with some coffee!), we descended quickly to the Refuge di Verdi. I had promised Covergirl that she could have a beer there, and behold! The relais there offered us charcuterie, steaks, and plenty of Pietra. We ate and drank to our hearts’ content as it drizzled fitfully outside.
We concluded that the next variante alpine would be too much to undertake in the afternoon (it also likely had snow on it, too, as we would later learn), so we donned rain gear, and headed out along the main GR20, pressing on to the Bergerie d’ E Cappannelle. The walking was easier, the drizzle no big thing, and after climbing the Ruisseau de Casso (with awesome views of Mount Renosu) and some last minute scrambling, we reached the bergerie. The camping was poor—slanted ground and human filth—but we wriggled our way into a three-course meal in the refuge.
(I have mixed feelings about the refuge system, in fact. It seems rich to say, “You can only camp here; we’re going to charge you; but we’re not really going to provide you with anything in exchange for your money.” I know why this system is as it is—few of the trekkers on this trail, whatever their fitness level (which was often good), have much in the way of backcountry skills, and the camping areas were very sloppy. If they camped primitively, you’d have major environmental degradation. But I also worry about all those trekkers—often with no shelters—who might press on over a ridgeline simply because they had a reservation somewhere. Our book indicated where there had been lightning fatalities.)
From Day 5 forward, the weather let up on us quite a bit, and I had arranged for us to have an easy day heading into Vizzavona. Our stuff needed to dry out, and a little rest wouldn’t hurt. Besides, I was aiming for us to finish on Thursday, 6/26, so we had time. The walk into Vizzavona was easy enough. We enjoyed views to the south, climbed for an impressive view of Monte d’Oro, then descended through a forest to the little town and a railway station, which we reached around noon. Showers, tent pads in the town’s campsite (which was pretty good), our stuff hung out to dry, we headed to the little grocery store to resupply, then enjoy beers, a few good meals, and more World Cup action.
Short Stick took the train to Corte to try to improve her equipment. We had heard that the north would be colder (this turned out to be false) and we knew that it is reputed to be the more the technical and difficult half (this is true). We wanted to make sure the hypothermia incident did not repeat. When her mission did not result in the equipment she needed, we figured we’d be flexible as we started the sixth day.
So, the following day, MacGyver and Yeti set out to tackle the alpine variante that climbs over the intimidating Monte d’Oro; Covergirl went directly to the Refuge de l’Onda via the GR20; Short Stick and I took the train to Ajaccio to buy better gear for her (and, yes, replace my broken trekking pole). Our errand went well, and by 4pm, we had returned to Vizzavona, and set off to re-take the others, who should have re-grouped at L’Onda. We climbed the GR20 past the lovely Cascade des Anglais, and as the evening started, reached the Punta di Muratello and a gobsmacking view of the north half of the island. This evening was definitely one of my highlights for backpacking this year. We descended into the golden hour, reaching the corral at L’Onda (a little weird, but plenty of flat ground) at about 9pm. Exhilarated, we grabbed a few cans of beer and rejoined Covergirl, Yeti, and MacGyver, who were just bedding down. Yeti and MacGyver had been turned back from the summit of Monte d’Oro by a steep snow couloir, which they were not equipped for (obviously), and had had to re-start the section. French people came by to gawk at our shelters (a constant theme). One even suggested that MacGyver should rent a tent! But we spent a beautiful night in the Trailstar, and our assorted UL shelters (MacGyver had a flat tarp, Yeti a Lightheart, Covergirl a Tarptent).
Starting on Day 7, we began a pretty tough series of days, where we were often doubling sections in the difficult north. We would eventually walk seven stages over the next four days. At times, the hiking was quite technical. Although we had often found that we could beat the predicted times on much of the class 2 terrain, on the very technical terrain, we went slowly, often slower than 1 mph. There were many, many places were falls would not have a good outcome. If we doubled stages, it was only because we were willing to walk more hours and walk later in the day.
We set out from L’Onda via the alpine variant which took us up on a ridgeline for airy views and open walking before a scrambly ridgeline that seemed to lead up and down, but always keep us on the level with the Refuge of Pietra Pana and never seemed to deliver us. It got hot. We slathered on the sunscreen, and were all a little grouchy by the time we completed the day’s first stage, around mid-day. From Pietra Pana, we had a climb to the pass at Bocca Muzella (2,206 meters). As we rounded the cirque above Lake de Melo and Lake de Capitellu, we were treated to awesome high alpine views. But we were also treated to quite a bit of neve (moderately steep snow slopes of old rotten snow). These never felt that bad … but they were not really ideal to cross in trailrunners. Falling would have sucked.
We scrambled up high to the Breche de Capitellu (2,225 meters), and the highest point on the trail. Quite a bit of neve greeted us on the other side. We discussed self-arresting with trekking poles, but we managed to glissade down them easily enough. U-Turn broke his second hiking pole of the trip. Yes, the new one.
From the snow fields, we did a little creak-whacking as the trail descended to the Refuge to Manganu, where we wedged our tents in among the others, congratulating ourselves on a good day’s walk. Yeti and U-Turn admired French yoga girl, doing her poses in her underwear. During the night, animals raided our food bags. MagGyver chased hers off by headlamp.
This day was all about positioning ourselves correctly for the Cirque de la Solitude—the trail’s undeniable crux. North of Manganu, the GR 20 has a rare easy stage as it passes through a valley on the way to the Hotel Castel di Vergio. As we approached this spot (end of stage 6), we walked through a forest in a light rain. Then, we regrouped at a little grocery store, again with Mike and Stephanie to hang out with. From there, we climbed through a wild river valley to the Refuge de Ciottuli di i Mori, which occupies an eagle’s nest position below the summit of Paglia Orba, Corsica’s third highest peak. Yeti declared that he could retire and live in this valley! The climb continued into the alpine area, turned left and reached the windy shoulder of Paglia Orba, whose distinctive peak loomed above us. In the west, we could spot the Mediterranean—one had the sense that we were reaching the island’s northern end. The wind dropped as we reached the sheltered area near the refuge. Yeti had matched wits with an aggressive cow, and elbowed out other hikers to save some flat ground for us. Go Yeti!
I admit I was concerned increasingly by Short Stick’s Achilles heel, which was causing her obvious discomfort as she climbed. I observed her side-stepping upwards, and we started discussing options.
We pitched, ate dinner, chatted with an American (one of the very few we met) headed southbound, who stopped to eat with us. There was much talk about the cirque. A French guy, who had come by to chat about the tarps told us that it was like a via ferrata, without being attached! I wasn’t sure what to make of that!
The night was splendid up here, and the Milky Way stood out to the naked eye.
In the morning, we descended to the Auberge U Vallone, a steep, treacherous descent made wet by snowmelt. At the auberge, we had one of our low moments along the trail, as Short Stick decided that her Achilles would not permit her to continue. We arranged for her to bow out via Albertacce and meet us Calenzana. As we began the trudge up to Bocca Minuta, we were all disconsolate.
And it was a long, difficult class 3 climb, with lots of tricky moves. The day’s SOBO hikers passed us (a daily ritual). I couldn’t help but observe how many had been bloodied by the cirque. When we reached the lip of the cirque, it was certainly an imposing sight. A very narrow, steep cut in the mountain, the trail appears to vanish over a cliff, plunge vertically down a few hundred meters. It loops around a prow of rock, and climbs to the Col Perdue by a route that looks perfectly vertical (but isn’t … it’s 60-70 degrees). Looking over at Col Perdue, you can’t help but wonder, “How the hell …?” We took a break, steeling ourselves to start the descent.
Once underway, the cirque was an exhilarating, fun experience. We picked our way down the first few meters, crossed neve, then downclimbed a number of cracks. When the terrain turned to class 4, the chains started. It took some time, but we worked our way across some quite vertical terrain. Yeti proved extremely adept at coaching Covergirl over some of the trickier parts. We were all relieved that we had reached the cirque in the afternoon, when it was less crowded. We had most of the obstacles to ourselves.
We were glad to begin the climb up, which featured a number of slabby walls in the 60-70 degree range. The moves were class 3, I suppose, but once you chain a dozen class 3 moves together on a slab like that, I’d call that class 4. I recall being very glad, very often, of my exceedingly limited rock climbing skill. Falling would not be good, so we took our time. There were few chains, but climbing up is way easier, and the rock was universally good. Towards the top, there is a chain, then one was out on the lip of the Col Perdue. We had done it!
The descent down to Haut Asco started with our glissading slopes of neve (and another kink in my new pole), but leveled off as we reached the ski station. We kvetched about all the altitude we’d have to re-gain the following morning, but we were in a celebratory mood, and the meal in the ski station didn’t hurt either.
We planned to tackle two stages this day to set us up for an early morning finish on Thursday. Stage 3—a mere 3.75 miles—took us all morning. We scrambled to the Bocca a i Stagni, and watched the clouds roll in to obscure the views. A rocky, scrambly traverse took us to the Lac de la Muvrella. At a few points, the oncoming masses meant that I was clinging to handholds while groups of 30 passed me by. The clouds let up and treated us to a glorious, half-lit view of the Ruisseau de la Spasimata. Then followed a delicate scree-filled descent of the valley, culminating in a slabby traverse along a beautiful torrent, rich with pools. I had worried about these slabs, figuring that they were the last true obstacle for us. They turned out to be no big deal, especially for ADK veterans. Apparently, they can be slick when wet, but dry, the cables were entirely superfluous.
We lunched at the Refuge de Carrozu—the refuges seemed to get better and better as you go north—and watched as Corsica search and rescue landed a helicopter there to evacuate a woman who had injured herself. Covergirl and MacGyver joked that about the handsome EMT in his harness.
Stage 2 was another high alpine stage, but we were all getting a little sick of the rocks. Also, there was, perhaps, a sense of anti-climax after the cirque. Yeti followed the high route. Covergirl, MacGyver, and I dropped down to do the low route, which followed a forested valley … then climbed a good thousand meters to rejoin the GR 20 at the Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (this route was less rocky, less scrambly, but it wasn’t easy). Yeti was at the refuge before us, but even he admitted fatigue. We settled into to one of the most spectacular campsites of the trip … on the final night. The refuge meal was nice: Mike and Stephanie were there again. Wild donkeys assaulted my tent but I fended them off … and was treated to another stupendous display of the stars in the middle of the night.
On the route into Calenzana, the GR 20 stays high and manages to take you to visit every single rock scramble it can … but the sea is nigh and the mountains are running out. In the distance you can see Calvi—elation! From the Bocca a u Saltu, the class 3 stuff finally stops, and an ordinary path switchbacks down. Many, many people were starting the trail that morning. Some did not look like they were ready even for this first stage (an English group was already grumbling mutiny). Stage 1 is a tough climb, if you’re headed southbound. We had heard that, of the people who start the entire GR20, only 25 percent finish it. It wouldn’t surprise me. One needs to be a tough, confident, experienced hiker.
We strolled into Calenzana at 11am. Exactly 10 days in time elapsed from when we started, and almost to the minute when I told Short Stick we’d be there. She, I should say, had bowed out in truly epic DC UL form. Not only did she reach Calenzana with beer in hand, but she had arranged our ride to Calvi. We partied on the steps of the post office and generally made a spectacle of ourselves.
What to say? We dined with Short Stick, then she headed to Bastia for her trip home. We passed the evening in Calvi, dined along the port, and took the train to Bastia Friday mid-day. In Bastia, Yeti re-joined Papillon for a week in Italy. MacGyver, Covergirl, and I did a Saturday of relaxed tourism, I wrote the trip report at a café, we watched Brazil beat Chile, then we headed to the airport Sunday morning. And who should we encounter at the airport? Mike and Stephanie!
The GR20’s reputation as one of the world’s top trails is, I think, perfectly justified. It is vertical, rocky, rugged, and visually spectacular. Its difficulty is also not exaggerated. Mile-by-mile, the average difficulty of the trail is just high—there’s not much flat. You hear it said that it is the hardest GR trail in Europe. And the trail doesn’t pull any punches on you. Yeti and I wondered, “Who got the idea for the trail to pass through, say, the Cirque de la Solitude?” It’s hard to imagine trail designers in the U.S. deliberately making such a choice. I myself found the cirque pretty awesome, but I think one should be a confident scrambler to attempt it. You spent hours every day focused on each and every step.
Could we have gone faster? Yes, easily. Although the initial idea of doing the trail in 8-9 days was thrown out thoughtlessly, we would have easily done that if we had had better weather in the south, or had limited our time at Vizzavona. Now that I know the trail I definitely could have improved speed … But, with that said, I almost think I would rather have done more side trips than we were able to encompass. It’s a pity to make a race out of the thing … but on the other hand, doing just one stage a day would be too slow for me. I’d hate to think how much beer I’d drink.
SOBO or NOBO? I think NOBO has its virtues, though it is less often walked. Above all, it positions the crux more sensibly. If you go SOBO, you will start off with four or five very tough stages. And you will regard the south as very anti-climatic.
Do I have regrets? My chief one is that I just lacked the energy to stay up late and do any star photography. What to say? I needed to sleep. That and it was a real bummer that Short Stick had to bow out. After the cirque, however, I think we all felt that she couldn’t possibly have done that on her damaged ankle. I fear she would have been evacuated after the injury got much worse.
Thanks to MacGyver, Yeti, Short Stick, and Covergirl (and to Papillon for the short time she was with us). You guys persevered through thick and thin, rallied when rallying needed doing, and were a joy to backpack with. As Yeti said, how much living we seemed to cram into these two weeks! I feel confident we’ll be talking about this one the rest of our lives!