If you aren't familiar with the GR20, it is a long distance footpath in Corsica. It is a mountainous 180km, often described as one of the most challenging in Europe. It is normally completed in 15 or 16 days and the record is a staggering 32 hours. During my summer holidays this year I decided to complete the GR20 with Fran.
We are both keen fell runners having recently won first mixed pair in the Harter Fell class at the Saunders mountain marathon and completed the Via Romana 23km race in Corsica as a bit of a warm up (I was 2nd, Fran was 9th lady). Both of us being quite restless, the normal approach of start early, finish at lunchtime to avoid the mid day heat wasn't going to suit us, so we decided to double up the stages most days and put together a schedule to finish in 9 days. The key to moving fast was to travel light, whilst our speed of movement could only be rarely described as running we did wear fell shoes and carry 25 litre bags so we were able to run short sections of the route.
I will include a full kit list at the end of this blog for anyone who is interested - having had quite a few conversations with other people on the route we seemed to be carrying essentially the same things as everyone else on the route but a few modifications and omissions meant that our bags were less than half the weight of almost everyone else on the route. Key items were two H18 lightweight sleeping bags (always warm enough, even at the high camps), one Terra Nova 1man tent and one Terra Nova bivvy bag (even with the woman you love, 8 nights in a 1 man tent isn't comfy, but a bivy bag is no fun in the rain so this system gave us the flexibility to get a good nights sleep and stay dry by squeezing in the tent in the rain), two Thermarest Neo Air 3/4 length (very comfy on the rocky ground, but we had to be careful not to pop them), only 2 sets of clothes each (smelly day set and clean evening set), H18 lightweight waterproofs (light and functional, perfect for the job), light MM packs (I carried Hagloffs Gram 25 bag which wasn't up to the job - it had several holes in it at the end of the trip and has gone back to the shop, Fran carried a Berghaus pack which was great).
Our Schedule was based on the ciceron guide and roughly doubling up the suggested stages.
Day 1 - Calenzana - Refuge D'Ortu, 12km, 1620m+, 295m-,
Day 2 - to Haut Asco, 14km, 1650m+, 1760m-,
Day 3 - to Bergerie de Radule, 23km, 2050m+, 1870m-,
Day 4 - to Petra Piana, 27km, 1650m+, 1215m-
Day 5 - to Hotel Monte d'Oro (above Vizzavona), 19km, 1060m+, 1980m-
Day 6 - to Bocca Di Verdi, 30km, 1320m+, 955m-
Day 7 to Bergerie de Bassetta, 27km, 1390m+, 1150m-
Day 8 to Refuge d'l Paliri, 25km, 1400m+, 2090m-
Day 9 to Conca, 13km, 700m+, 1670m-
As you can see, if you are used to long days running on rough ground in the UK, these numbers don't look huge and we found the schedule manageable although the huge amount of rocky ground and scrambling made for long days, we started at between 0530 and 0630 most days and finished around 1600-1800 including a good stop for lunch. Our total moving time was a tad over 70 hours, with our total time being 8 days and 3 hours. We took the high level routes where we could, but took some of the lower level routes to make sure we got the the refuge in time for dinner or avoided thunder storms.
The recent accident on the Cirque De La Solitude, meant that this section was closed so we took the very impressive route through the deviation which went close to the summit of Monte Cinto. There is an optional side trip to the summit, but our day 3 already had over 2000m of ascent so we missed out the summit.
The route is notionally split into 2 halves split by the town of Vizzavona, with the northern half being a continuous series of long climbs to boccas (Corsican for col) followed by long descents we typically did one bocca in the morning and one in the heat of the afternoon - the afternoon bocca became a much anticipted part of each day! The second half of the route involves more ridge traverses and forrest sections, slightly less rocky ground but still a lot of climbing.
The weather we got was as close to perfect as we could have wished for, hot and sunny most days, with only one day when thunder storms threatened which was our day 7. We spent the whole of day 7 from Bocca di Verdi keeping an eye on the thunder clouds moving fast to try and out run them, which we managed with about 30 minutes to spare.
We ate each evening at the bergerie (shepherds hut) or refuge, ate bread/cheese/jam or porridge for breakfast and stopped each day at a bergerie for lunch. We camped each night at the bergerie, the pitches were normally hard and rocky so strong tent pegs were a must although even through we were getting into the camp sites after most people we always managed to find a flat pitch. Meals were all good, filling and calorific with the only problem being the occasional late dinner times - on two occasions dinner wasn't finished until 2130, so we weren't in bed till 2200 and I struggled to manage on 7 hours sleep after the effort of the day. That minor moan aside, we ate well and always had a good camping spot all for around 80Euros a day for the pair of us.
The highlight for me was an unexpectedly fantastic ridge traverse to Petra Piana on our day 4, it would stand up on it's own as one of the best ridge walks in Europe and was a truly memorable part of the route. The thing I found toughest was our slow rate of ascent on the afternoon cols - when me and Fran run in the Lake District we can often manage 900m an hour on ascents, on the GR20 we rarely achieved more than 300m an hour which made 800m climbs seem very long indeed. It's fair to say that we never really figured out why, but it was likely to be a combination of carrying packs, 30 degree heat, rocky ground and paths which took many snaking deviations or all the altitudes on the Corsican maps are out. It was probably the former.
If you are pretty fit and fancy a challenging route in Europe do take on the GR20, it's a brilliant route in the high mountains which has so much spectacular scenary a few photos can't do it justice. The difference with our approach was taking such a light bag (mine was around 7kg Fran's around 6kg plus water) which meant we could go significantly faster than most people. As we got to the final days it was very obvious that the only people who completed the whole route had taken a similar approach, everyone with the big bags had mysteriously disappearing on the final days!
H18 sleeping bag
H18 over trousers
H18 waterproof jacket
Terra Nova 1 man tent + 6 Anself Alloy pegs (brilliant strong cheap pegs), +6 titanium pins which were useless in the ground.
25L Haglof Gram bag, (started to fall apart - gone back to shop)
3/4 length Neo Air,
Silk bag liner,
POD dry compression bag,
Inov8 quilted synthetic pullover,
Long sleve base layer,
3/4 length leggings,
2x pairs socks,
Inov8 mud claw 265, (had a few hundred miles in them before I started and just lasted)
2x 750ml water bottles
200ml sunscreen (plenty)
phone + waterproof cover
850 Euro cash
Toothpaste and Toothbrush
small bar of hotel soap
Compass (never used)
100 puritabs for water (not used as good water at each hut)
Head torch + spare batteries
Penknife (didn't need tin opener as all tins were pull tab)
Toilet roll (take lots, non of the huts have any!)
insurance docs + EHIC
35 x 40g Go energy bars (the heaviest thing in my pack, but well worth taking as they got us through lots of low spots and we ate 34 of them. Cereal bars are rarely available, and mars bars are 2-3 Euro each and would be liquid every afternoon)
10 x cadbury cereal bars
2 x 300g emergency cous cous + cup a soup meals (incase we missed dinner, at one when the lunch bergerie was closed)
500g porridge (just edible for breakfast when mixed with peanuts)
Squeezy bottle of jam
1/2 a saucisson
peppermint tea bags
Stove + 250g of gas (only used 80g, should have taken a smaller one)
6x spare sandwich bags
Terra Nova Bivvy Bag,
H18 Sleeping bag
3/4 Neo Air
3L water bladder
25L Berghaus bag
Inov8 Roc Lite 195 (too thin on the sole, Fran got bruised feet)
Long sleve base layer,
2x running shorts,
white long sleve top,
2x pairs socks,
short long top (not worn)
phone and waterproof cover
first aid kit
GPS watch (not needed)
Corse Le GR20 map (handy for escape routes/alternative routes etc)
small bar hotel soap.