Corsica GR20 – September 2018 Trip Report (North to South)

Overview

It was everything I hoped for. It’s a hard trek, but really well signposted and easy to follow. Corsica is a beautiful Island, and I had some overwhelming moments in the mountains. I encourage others to take the journey.

I’m a youngish guy with a slim build, from South Africa. The other trekkers were mostly all European: French, German, Austrian, Swiss, Finland, British, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Romanian. All really friendly and respectful, of varying ages and sexes.

The scenery was spectacular and the weather was good (more on that below). I found the northern sections to be harder than the south, but I found the southern section to be more beautiful and pretty.

Planning and preparation

I didn’t know a lot of GR20 before deciding to do it, but there’s a lot of useful information on the internet and this is how I did my initial research. I wanted to be well prepared even it it meant carrying a heavy pack, although my pack was definitely too heavy. The closer you can get it to 10KG the better. During the hike I used the guidebook, and had no need for my printed maps. The guidebook was really helpful, especially in the dark when you can’t find the next marker!

I took a lot of time off work, so that I wouldn’t have a tight schedule. I planned for 18 days max to complete the hike. You can view my initial agenda and kit list here: https://badsyntax.github.io/corsica-gr20-hike/

 

I did not approach the journey with pressure to complete it in as few days as possible. I believe this played greatly to my advantage. My mental state was: I am prepared, I have good gear, I have lots of time. Slow, safe, steady.

From a physical preparation point of view, I didn’t have any special training schedule. I spend a lot of time scrambling and trail running around Montserrat, and doing various crazy hikes around BCN. I also do a bit of road cycling around the hills from time to time. This is something I’ve been doing for fun on the weekends for a while, before even preparing for the GR20. I eat pretty badly and I smoke a lot, but I was fit.

The journey

 

I travelled from Barcelona to Bastia by plane (Vueling), found through skyscanner. From the airport in Bastia I caught a taxi to Camping L’Esperanza, which was a nice campsite. The owners drove me to the train station in Bastia central the following morning. I caught the train from Bastia to Calvi.

From Calvi I shared a taxi to Calenzana, where I set up camp in the first refuge, the Gîte d’étape communal Calenzana. I took it easy, had a pizza for dinner, and started the GR20 early the following morning, Monday 3rd September, at 630am.

 

After a few days into the hike I saw a lot of trekkers rushing to complete it in as few days as possible. After completing the first stages super early, I realised I had prepared well physically and I would also finish the trip early. Even though this was my first backpacking trip (never carried 15kg before), and although I was in some expected pain, my body was up for it.

The hiking is hard and sometimes really unrelenting. People shouldn’t underestimate it. You should have experience of waking on very bad terrain, and scrambling up and down rock faces and boulders. Some stages, like approaching Monte Cinto, is a very hard and unforgiving steep climb up around 1200m, with risk of falling rocks from other trekkers.

I saw an old man have a minor head injury, and I heard a helicopter came for him later that day. It is tough and you always need to concentrate. I found the trekking poles to be invaluable.

 

I saw a lot of people struggling. But I also saw a whole lot of determination and will power. Some people were not prepared well, and others were on mission, fit and ready to smash the route. People were wearing different types of shoes, and saw a guy doing it in thin sandals one day (never saw him again). I’d recommend good boots. 

 

Although my boots fit me well, I got a many blisters, perhaps because of the weight and the very steep downhill sections. My feet really suffered. I used climbing tape, but it was the Compeed that saved me. I wish I brought more of it.

 

Some people had issues with water, and on one occasion I found a couple attempting to get water from a tiny dirty trickle of a stream. There’s actually many water sources but you need to carry at last 2L and plan it well. I preferred to carry lots of water, and started every day with 3L (and sometimes extra 330ml backup). 

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A safe water source

I thought the refuges were fine. Yes, some of them are really basic (don’t expect a traditional toilet nor a hot shower), but they are literally on side of a mountain. The guardians and staff do an amazing job at providing a safe refuge for all the trekkers, of which there are many! The guardians were all friendly, even to someone like me who couldn’t speak any french. I have a lot of thanks and respect for the staff of the refuges.

The toilets and showers were difficult sometimes. Some of the toilets were pit toilets. If you need to shit, you gonna have to squat it. This is no easy task for a tall person like me. And sometimes there’s a queue of trekkers waiting to use it just outside. You gotta just do your business, no-one cares, and you won’t care either after a few days. You’ll have to take cold (like, really really cold) showers in the north a few times. Embrace the experience! 

At some refuges it was hard to find a spot to pitch the tent, but I had the advantage of a small single-man tent and I was able to pitch were others couldn’t. Don’t cheap out on a cheap tent. The one night it rained so badly I was in a deep pool of water (5cm deep I guessed). My MSR tent kept me mostly dry. I saw others got completely wet, sleeping bag and all.

 

Regarding food, I rarely ate before starting the day. I usually started the day with 2 cups of tea with sugar, cooked on my own stove. I take 3 packets of fruit puree compote, some energy bars and some dried fruit (usually apricot or cranberries, and most refuges sell these).

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The pureed fruit compote was basically my breakfast

I eat this stuff while walking, over the hours it takes to get from refuge to refuge. I basically eat when I’m hungry, instead of sticking to the breakfast + lunch routine. I bought salami and would eat that with some bread for “lunch”. Sometimes I would buy prepared lunch at the refuges. At night I would order the dinner, which was mostly good food (others might not agree, but I thought it was all delicious).

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The weather

I consider myself lucky I only had to endure one bad storm (in the evening, in my tent): it rained heavily on and off for about an hour, with massive lightning strikes that lit up the entire sky. An incredible amount of water rushed down the mountain. A small stream nearby turned into what sounded like a burst dam. The area around my tent turned into a river, as it just couldn’t drain fast enough. Going through this experience, I imagine how dangerous this would be hiking out on the mountains. Otherwise the weather was ok/good.

I asked the guardians for the weather reports, to know of any weather warnings, but otherwise just read the weather myself. In early September, the weather was mostly consistent: misty in the very early morning, clear in the morning leading up to lunch time, cloud cover in the afternoon, potential rain late afternoon/evening.

I never had to walk in the rain, but I did walk in thick fog on a few occasions. I set off very early every morning to avoid these potential storms in the afternoon. I would aim to arrive at the refuges before 4pm, even on double stage days.

 

It was only really cold one night (I think it was Ciottulu Refuge), perhaps 0-2C. I didn’t bring any base layers, I just wore ALL my clothes, including rain jacket, and zipped up my sleeping bag all the way. It was fine! I was warm. I was really grateful for my bandana, it kept my head warm.

On some days it was hot and I was exposed to the sun for many hours. I wore my Salomon XA Plus cap (without the neck shield), used lots of suncream and drank lots of water. On the last day coming down to Conca it was super hot, like 32-34C. On hot days it’s essential you bring enough water with you, or you will dehydrate. Most of the time I was walking in running shorts + t-shirt. Early mornings or on the summits I’d wear my lightweight jacket. On a whole it was fairly pleasant (for the mountains) walking weather.

The last day

On the eighth day I arrived at Refuge de Matalza (end of stage 13). It had a nice small campsite with a very friendly guardian. I think only 3 of us that made it to this refuge on this day. I went to bed grumpy and wanted to be home. Still two more days I was thinking 😦 While attempting to sleep I decided I’d had enough and wanted to finish this thing.

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Sunset at Refuge de Matalza, ready for bed.

On the last day, I decided to get from Refuge de Matalza to Conca, which is 41km of hard trekking with some scrambling. I got up at 230am and left at 4am sharp. Head-lamp on full, I marched up to the top of the ridge of Monte Alcudina. I arrived at Refuge d`Asinau around 730am having completed 11km. I did a quick re-fill of water and marched off. At this time my body is warmed up really well and revving, and I’m trail-running now, using my poles to hop over rocks. I pass most of the trekkers leaving from Refuge d`Asinau.

I arrive in Village de Bevalla round 11:15am, after completing another 11km. I have a Panini, some delicious but naughty Oringina, rehydrate, re-fill my reservoir, and head off around 12:00am. 19km to Conca!

 

Things start going pretty badly on the long hike down to Conca, because it’s now 32-34C. Even though I had 3L of water, it was not enough. I’m no longer running, but still making good time. I’m trying to conserve my water but I’m also dehydrating. I know there’s a water source close to Conca, but it’s 3 hours away and it’s really tough going. In the end I played it well, and made it to the water source in time.

After cooling down and rehydrating, it was an easy walk from the water source to the end of the GR20 in Conca, I arrived just before 5:00pm, and I had completed the GR20! I celebrated with a beer and met some familiar faces.

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The end of the GR20, tired and relieved.

From my observations it was mostly young + fit French guys who were doing the route in the “record” times. (5 – 8 days). I somehow managed to keep up with them on the final stages and I actually felt really strong at the end. There weren’t many people finishing in Conca, but there were quite a lot of people starting out really late from Conca, heading north. I remember thinking I hope they know what they’re getting into!

Shortly after arriving in Conca I got a shuttle to Porto Vecchio, which was super busy. I wanted to stay in a hotel but that never happened as they were all fully booked!

I eventually trekked out to a campsite, which was actually really nice. I finished the day off with a great cheeseburger, couple of beers, and a nice desert. I had a good breakfast in the morning. In hindsight, I’m glad I never stayed in a hotel on that night, it was a fitting way to end the GR20, which was basically a long series of problems that never seemed to end, really unrelenting.

 

Arriving at my flat in Barcelona at 2am I was greeted by my cat and warm bed.

Daily chores and routine

  • Wake up very early (3 – 430am), put sandals on
  • Fill pot with water, assemble stove, and boil some water. Make & drink tea.
  • Deflate sleeping mat, pack sleeping bag, disassemble tent, washing line etc
  • Pack backpack
  • Walk to refuge communal area. Throw away rubbish.
  • Put on socks & boots
  • Optionally have something small to eat, like a piece of fruit
  • Check guidebook. Double-check I have everything, especially money bag and passport.
  • Hike, hike, hike
  • Arrive at refuge campsite (usually around 3-4pm)
  • Immediately find a spot to pitch tent – this could take a bit of time trekking around the refuge.
  • Pitch tent, inflate mattress and unpack sleeping bag
  • Put sandals on
  • Pay for tent, book dinner, and purchase items for next day (puree fruit, energy bars etc), and a beer, from the refuge
  • Change into slightly cleaner clothes
  • Wash all dirty clothes in sink, hang clothes to dry
  • Shower, and put on warm clothes
  • Empty and re-fill water reservoir, and place back into backpack
  • Finish arranging tent and campsite, maybe do some work on my feet, record a video, drink beer and just hang around. Maybe go for a small walk.
  • Eat dinner at 630/7, socialise, share your plans with others. Get an understanding of what other people are planning for.
  • Go to toilet, wash teeth etc
  • In sleeping bag by 8 – 9. Set alarm clock. Sleep.

Equipment

After using my equipment on the GR20 I now have the experience to give some honest reviews of the equipment I used. This equipment is for camping, and you won’t need a lot of this if you stay in the dorms.

Equipment that I would definitely recommend

  • Backpack: Osprey Atmos AG 50 with raincover- Although a little heavy, it was a really good bag. If going more lightweight, the 50L will be too big.
  • Tent: MSR Hubba NX Solo – It stood up to a bad storm with heavy rain. Easy to assemble/disable. Nice private space.
  • Ground cover: MSR Hubba NX Footprint – it protected the tent well, even on top of stones.
  • Trekking poles: Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles – Very lightweight but very strong. I was extremely happy with these poles.
  • Water reservoir: Platypus Big Zip LP 3L. Easy to fill, durable, fitted my bag well. Didn’t taste like plastic.
  • Stove: Optimus Crux – Small, lightweight, worked well
  • Windshield: Optimus clip-on windshield – worked well in the wind
  • Gas canister adapter: Edelrid Valve Cartridge Adaptor. The Optmius crux stove is a screw type, and you’ll only find clip-on gas canisters in Corsica. This little adapter worked perfectly. The Optimus wind shield fits this adapter perfectly.
  • Sleeping bag: Mountain Equipment Helium 250 – lightweight and warm enough for September
  • Sleeping mat: Multimat Superlite 25 Self Inflating Mat – lightweight, easy to inflate, and best of all, silent! A lot of campers brought air mattresses, but they make a lot of noise when changing position. The mat doesn’t make any of this noise.
  • Semi warm jacket: Haglöfs L.I.M Barrier Jacket Men – Super lightweight, and quite warm.
  • Earplugs: 3M Foam Disposable Earplugs. Although I only used the earplugs on a couple of occasions, they were useful and they weigh basically nothing. Do definitely bring some.

Equipment I didn’t bring, but maybe should have

  • Waterproof drysack/bags – i was ziplock bags but i don’t think they would be been good enough if walking in the rain.

Equipment I regretted bringing

  • Water filter system – there was absolutely no need for this. I didn’t use it once. If anything, I would have used the chlorine tablets.
  • Excessive chlorine tablets. I brought two big plastic boxes of treatment tablets. One or two strips would have been enough. I never used the tablets, but donated some to a fellow trekker.
  • Talcom powder: never needed it once, not sure why i thought i would need it
  • Liquid soap: I should have bought one block of soap that i could use for cleaning both myself and my clothes.
  • Excessive razors. I brought 2 disposable razors. I only used one razor, and i only shaved twice. I could have not shaved at all, but it was good to shave at the end of the journey.
  • Excessive insect repellant – I didn’t have the time to repackage the repellant. But I only ended up using a very small amount.
  • Excessive suncream
  • Excessive batteries. I brought 9 spare AAA batteries! The 3 AAA batteries in my headlamp lasted the entire journey. Next time, I would only bring 3 spare AAA batteries.

Rubbish and graffiti

There was generally very little rubbish, other than some toilet paper/tissues here and there. It seems some trekkers don’t bother to try cover the paper. It’s not hard to do, please try cover it. Also please don’t shit near the summits or paths. Please do your business away from where people want to sit.

Otherwise, there was no rubbish, which is great. I always had a small rubbish bag with me, and always made sure I left the campsite or wherever I went completely clean of rubbish. It seems others did the same, there was no rubbish. Great job all!

There was some graffiti on rocks and electricity poles which I did not like to see. It’s not ok to put your name on anything along the route, please don’t do it, it ruins the beauty of the route.

Videos

I’ve created a youtube playlist with some of the videos i recorded. Unfortunately the audio quality is not great.

Thanks for reading about my journey on the GR20. It was a great experience! I am looking forward to returning one day soon!

Rich

 

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