Last week I completed a long standing ambition of running the GR 20 in Corsica. Well I say “running” but what I guess I really mean is ‘speed hiking’. Although, I’ve seen Killian Jornet walk in a few races, and he seems to call himself a runner? My aim was to do the route unsupported, as quickly as I could, but I also didn’t want to be slogging away in the dark for too many hours. I wanted to enjoy the environments I was travelling through. So here it is. Four days of suffering, overwhelming beauty, and feeling humbled.
Step 1 - Look at a map. “it doesn’t seem that far? The stats are similar to The Tour du Mont Blanch (which I did in a similar style in 3 days) 180km with 10000m accent…In that case 3 days will be plenty.”
Step 2 - Look at the guide book and do some reading online. “Hmmmmm, so there are 16 stages which add up to a total guide book time of 93 walking hours. If I go twice as fast as guide book time (which I won’t) that makes three 15 hour days!”
Step 3 - Get scared and decided that 4 days will be a more realistic plan.
Step 4 - Pack a load of food, a sleeping bag, a stove and some water proofs and get going!
I think we can all agree that my planning was pretty comprehensive.
I wanted to do about 55km today and get to the Manganu hut. But it soon became apparent that this would not be happening.
I had a really positive start to the day, reaching my first checkpoint, Refuge d’orto di i Piabbu, in great time. In fact I had to double check on the map as I couldn’t quite believe that I was there already.
“Maybe I can do this in three days after all?”
I find that its not until you are about 6 or 7 hours into a day that you really start to understand how you are moving and how long everything is really going to take. At this point I was just entering the hottest part of the day and about to start the climb up to Monte Cinto (this is now the diversion to the Cirque de Solitude). I never really like to stop when I am on missions like this. I am quite good at just keeping going, and maybe stopping for 5mins to take some extra food out of the bag or tape up my feet. You know, practical things. But on this climb I had a very uncharacteristic ‘rest stop’. I think I managed to find the only bit of shade on the whole climb and hunkered under a small boulder to get away from the sun. I took on a load of water, shoved some dates and ginger down my throat and came to terms with the fact that this trail was kicking my ass, and was probably going to continue to kick my ass for the following three days. But thats why I’m here!
It would have been really easy to have spent the night in Refuge de Tighiettu, but I didn’t even pause. I knew that I had to get over to Refuge Ciottulu di i Mori. I had already fallen desperately short of my 55km target, I couldn’t afford to loose any more km’s today. Plus, when the day starts to cool down I tend to get a knew lease of life. I am definitely not a man made for ultra running through desserts.
I made it to Refuge Ciottulu di i Mori at about 2030. There was a friendly guy called Matt staying in the hut. He was from The Czech Republic and had obviously put a bit more thought into his adventure than I had to mine. He filed me in on some useful information regarding later stages of the trail. Also, some slightly less useful information, about how to get back to Calenzana from Conca. He said he might get up and join me in the morning for the first part of the day, but he didn’t seem that keen once 0500 rolled around the next morning.
Day 2 I got going to a slightly relaxed start (0530). In fact I felt relaxed in general about today. Even though I thought that I was behind schedule at the end of yesterday, once I had re-evaluated things, and looked at the map, I worked out that I was actually on track. And whats more, after ascending 4700m on day 1, I was sure that today would feel a lot less taxing (obviously I was wrong…every day felt taxing!). It took slightly longer than I wanted to get down to the Col de Vergio. In fact, most things seem to take longer than I anticipate, and I think this is due to the nature of the terrain. On the Tour du Mont Blanc the trails are a runners delight. They are of an even surface (on the most part), at a gentle gradient, and you can eat up the miles in quite the stress free manner. But here in Corsica it is a different ball game. You have steep ups and downs, always on technical trails, and often having to do an element of route finding. You can never really switch off and let your mind wander. One must constantly be looking for the next trail marker, or be concentrating on the next foot placement. You’re legs are quickly pounded, and your brain is always working (which I’m not used to!). In fairness I love this kind of terrain, I find it much more interesting and involving, I just underestimated how long things would take…or over estimated my abilities?
Once past the Manganu hut, and up to the Brèche de Capitello (with amazing views down to the lakes bellow) I thought that I had ‘broken the back’ of the day. I spotted what looked like a plume of smoke rising up from behind the ridge line. “This could be stressful?”
I had herd about forest fires being a problem in Corsica, and they have had some devastating ones in the past. So obviously I went into panic mode, and subconsciously started moving a lot quicker than was necessary, or was sustainable for another 3 hours on the trail. I got to the Bocca Muzzelle and I could see the fire in the valley bellow me. It had obviously started that afternoon, but it was a hot windy day and it was already kicking out a lot of smoke. It was destined to spread across the heavily forested hillside and the wind was blowing the thick cloud of smoke right across the ridge line that I had planned to take over to the next hut.
Lots of different scenarios played out in my head, and I tend to have an over active imagination when it comes to this kind of thing. I almost decided to bail out to the nearest road head and hitch a lift out of there. In the end I looked at the map and rationally decided that there was no way that the fire would be able to spread as far as the next hut (l’Onda). I dropped down into the valley and took the long dog-leg round to the hut, rather than the smokey ridge. It took me a while to drop beneath the cloud of smoke, and there was definitely a certain amount of adrenaline urging my legs on faster, but as soon as I was down in the valley calm was restored and I felt like I had made the right decision to keep going. I felt a bit sorry for the people that I had passed on the trail who were planning on staying the in Petra Piana Hut. It was right at the altitude that the smoke was laying. In fact one of the people I past was an Austrian girl. I came across her sobbing in a bush, it appeared that everything was just a bit too much. She told me she had kept loosing the trail and that her bag was too heavy. It looked it! It was at least 6 times bigger than mine. Obviously being A Man, and from The Hill Family (those of you who know me will understand the implications there), comforting a crying woman is not part of my vocabulary. I think I muttered something along the lines of, “errmmm, yes, its really hot today isn’t it. Its easy to get frustrated when its hot. Anyway, I need to get to the next hut so, errrmmm…good luck?” I know what you’re thinking. Well handled. I wonder if she is still crying in a bush somewhere? I hope not!
It felt like a long slog up to Refuge l’Onda, but I think that was purely a result of me being focused a bit too much on the forrest fire and not enough on eating, drinking and pacing myself. There was no one else around, and I walked up to the col above the hut to watch the sunset. No matter how long or hard a day feels, a day spent in the mountains is a good day.
Day 3 Same old story. Everything feels like its going well at the start of the day, then after 7 hours in comes ‘reality’ with a nice big friendly slap around the face just to remind you “there’s still 7 more hours to go!” I knew it was going to be a big day. Even though there was not as much accent as day 1 there was more distance, and fatigue was obviously starting to set in.
After getting to the Col de Vizzavona the trail spends a lot of time in woodland, traversing around the hillside. Monotony set in. Its hot, I have no views, and I feel like I’m getting nowhere. I think its fair to say I had my lowest moments in those woods. I even resorted to listening to Desert Island Disks on my phone. This is totally uncharacteristic as I never listen to anything when I’m in the mountains usually. In reality I found that the audio entertainment, as delightful as Kirsty Young is, was less of a distraction and more of a reminder of how slowly time, and distance, were passing.
Luckily, after the Col de Verde things started to look up. I reached the Bocca d’our and was greeted with views of the sea and the lovely looking terrain that lay ahead of me on the trail. My mindset totally changed from that of mild depression to loving life once again. I actually started to run again properly. Well, kind of stagger at a slightly faster than walking pace. Refuge de Prati passed by in a flash and before long I was watching the sun set from the summit of Punta Bianca. Besides loosing the trail multiple times on the way down to Refuge d’Usciolu the day ended on a really positive note.
I managed to force down as much food and soup as I could while feeling really sick. I’m not sure if my stomach was unsettled as a result of the days physical exertion or the smell of my feet? Probably a heady combination of the two! After exhausting my laughable knowledge of the French language with the four other guys in the hut, I hurried to bed, eager to be rested for one final big push.
Day 4 I love how the landscape changes so much over the course of the GR20. The steep, sharp jagged peaks of the North were well and truly behind me, and the South seemed like I had been transported to a different country all together. I found it reminded me a lot of the Australian Alps, just without the eucalyptus. Rolling granite hills, with funky rock formations and a very wild feel to the place.
Even though I limped through most of the day feeling sick, struggling to eat, my feet feeling raw and painful and the constant temptation to lay down and have a nap, I loved the places I was moving through. Sometimes the trails annoyed me, sometimes I just wanted the whole thing to be finished, but thats just all the mental stuff on the peripheries. Beneath all that I was taking in everything that was around me. I am that guy that gets to a col and see’s a new view and even though I’m alone I say out loud “wow, thats well nice”, or something as deep and meaningful as that…
Currently the GR 20 route takes a detour down to Refuge de Matalza, whereas the old route goes direct to the summit of Monte Incudine. I took the old route as it seemed more direct and it was nice to get one more summit ‘in the bag’. Its worth it. Although if you have a backpack as big as the Austrian girls, the extra few metres of accent probably won’t be appreciated. The last stage of the GR from Refuge de Paliri to Conca has a guide book time of 5 hours and has 160m of accent. I ended up doing it in about 3.5 hours, but never have 160m felt so much to climb. When I got to the final col and looked down into Conca an audible sigh of relief burst from within me. I would soon be taking a shower and eating some FRESH food.
I felt proud as a hobbled down the final metres of road that lead into the Gîte d’Etape. No one was there do say "well done", I was totally aware that what I had done didn’t really mean anything to anyone else but me, and I definitely looked like a crazed hobo in running gear…And I felt happy. Thats why I put myself through it.