How I hiked GR20 through the mountains of Corsica

Tomas Koutsky published on

23 min, 4582 words

Categories: hiking

Day 0 - Arrival

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My plane landed at the Calvi - a rather rural airport; there were herds of goats and small fields everywhere. Horizon was filled with mountains; thick clouds were forming over them. It was hot and damp in a very tropical way.

I got some money out of ATM and unwrapped a massively wrapped backpack; the scrap plastic was like a football.

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Took a short cab ride to a camp in Calenzana, the starting town of GR20. There were tens of hikers preparing or finishing their own hikes. GR20 is rather a popular trail.

I settled in, pitched my tent, had chats with others, mostly about gear.

Later, I brushed my teeth with a pimped-up half-toothbrush and super-concentrated outdoor paste. After that, I threw the paste into the tent to deal with it later. Then more chats with fellow hikers, but my eyes started to close. So I sat into the tent to organize my stuff before sleep. Suddenly there was a fire ... on my ass? I got up just to find I sat to the most concentrated toothpaste, which I smudged everywhere. It was all over my only one pair of shorts, an expensive cuben-fiber tent floor...

Fortunately, the tent seemed ok; 30mins in shover sorted out the shots. The ass was still burning, though. It was like 30*C outside, and as a true ultra lighter, I didn't even have any spare underwear, just those shorts (with liner). So I got to sleep half-naked.

A big thunderstorm awoke the whole camp at 2 A.M. It got me up sometime before; I was listening to this rumbling over the sea with a massive soundstage slowly closing on the land. Flashes of lightning blink every second; it rained like crazy. There were streams of water forming below me. There was solid condensation on my tent's walls given it was damp even before the storm and I was all wet from my toothpaste party. And in combination with raindrops bashing the tent on the outside, it created rain on the inside too.

Day 1 - Calenzana -> Refuge de Carozzu | 19.88 km; 2,300m up; 1,298m down

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Storm got over us around 7 A.M. Obviously, I didn't sleep much. Slowly packed the stuff; everything I had was wet. There was mud inside of my shoes.

At 9, after some wasted efforts to dry out the gear, I finally started walking... To the shop. But after that, I found myself at the official start. Plenty of people starting, everyone was, of course, taking photos. But after this ritual, we quickly broke up, and I got some alone-time.

It was windy. img

Locally rainy. img

The trail constantly went uphill, had to climb around 1600m to the first refuge. During the morning, the weather improved img

And clouds gave space to views img

Around lunchtime, I arrived at Refuge de l'Ortu di u Piobbu, got Coke with some muesli to the system and started to think about what next. Other hikers were already pitching their tents - way too early. I asked the hut manager what the next stage was like; he didn't understand much, had to use hands and some other hiker. I think the answer was: more or less the same as the previous one.

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I didn't believe that, it seemed like a short climb to saddle and a bit of a fall to the next hut from the map. So I drank 1.5l of water from the spring and got up the hill.

The trail indeed started with the climb to the saddle. img

However, then it continued with a long, technical ridge walk with endless ups and downs. img

With some loose rocks and scrambling. img Somewhere around here, I met this older guy with a much younger couple. I guessed maybe father taking kids on hike or uncle. So I dabbed them Uncle and the Kids(TM). They hiked at my pace. I got to talk with the uncle but the kids didn't speak a word in English, and they mostly ignored me. Found out they aren't related, just random people on the trail.

In one of those more technical sections, we met another guy who looked like he's gonna have a total breakdown every second. He was just standing there, kept telling us he's ok but refused to move. We didn't know what to do, so we left him there. img

The hike down out of the ridge was very long, steep, and energy-taking - a lot of loose rocks with scrambling sections. Down in the valley, streams started to pop up; I filtered some, uncle just leaned over and drank it directly. img

We arrived at the refuge rather exhausted, first thing first - beer. Uncle and the Kids didn't have a tent nor any booking; the hut manager looked like he's gonna send them out to the wild. Then he told me there's only one spot left for my little tent - next to the trash bins.

Then usual rituals, I cooked on the alcohol stove for the first time; really hoped I won't burn the place to the ground.

Day 2 - Refuge de Carozzu -> Ascu | 5.01km; 816m up; 668m down

I got up in the middle of the night, and I was freezing. Found out my mattress was totally deflated, so I inflated it, got to sleep ... and this repeated 3 more times. So I got a puncture probably even before the first night on the trail. Plus, a second night without good sleep and counting.

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In the morning I got somehow going but obviously didn't feel well; the plan was to get to the next refuge, sort out the mat, get sleep and be good & happy. And that's really an over-the-hill hike.

As I approached the saddle, it got cold, and I had to take the long sleeve for the first (and last) time. There was thick mist on the other side of the ridge; visibility was to the nearest rock. So I was just mindlessly dropping down... through the technical terrain thus I broke my knee. Some blood was pumping out; I rubbed it off with Buff every couple of minutes.

At 2 (P.M.) I reached Asco, broke gypsy-style camp, just to dry out everything in the sun. Met the Uncle and the Kids, they, of course, continued. Wished them luck; I had a mat to fix. The only problem was I didn't have a repair kit, but at first, I had to find the puncture. Tried to put it into the brook, but the water was too restless.

At the Therm-a-rest site, I read the best approach is to smudge the mat with soup water. Damn, who they think I am, some sort of Hollywood supermodel? I didn't have such an item in my inventory. So I went around the camp asking for soup, got one, smudged the hell out of it but didn't find the puncture. What now? I didn't want to go shopping for a mat in the city. I bought a beer instead, then a second one. Then I invented this sort of a nest, pulled out padded back from the backpack, got together all the clothes (packed, not naked this time) I had, placed it bellow the mat. With an experiment, I figured ~2hrs of good sleep on nest + mat and Nhrs of bad sleep in the bare nest, hopefully limiting reinflate operations during the night. That could work.

I still felt quite out of my skin. Also, I had really high resting HR, around 100BPM, essentially the same as when walking.

Later I simply hung out and had some chats with fellow hikers. Cooked some meal, left packed stove in the vestibule of the tent, and fell asleep.

Day 3 | 1.9. 2020 | Ascu -> Castel de Vergio | 23.51 km; 2,021m up; 1,298m

It was around 3:30 when the cold awoke me, it means the nest was working, but the cold was still bitter as well as fragmented sleep. HR was at 100BPM. I inflated the mat and fell asleep.

I got awake again at 4:30, this time not because of the mat. There was an attack on my tent. I heard this quick, sneaky sound followed by a sad jingle of my stove moving away. So probably a fox took it away, but why? I cleaned it precisely after lunch. Suddenly I remembered I kept a pack of outdoor coffee stuffed in it, and the fox was probably up to some caffeine. That was like the last bit for me; I was lying there, in the nest, relatively exhausted, thinking if I should pack my stuff and go sit on some beach instead of this chain of failures. Well, anyway, I got up to chase the thief. After a bit of uphill walk in the bushes, I found the stove! The stuff sack was on pieces; there was just a single bite in the coffee. It wasn't good enough or what?

So I cleaned up the mess, got back to nest but wasn't able to fall asleep; this was my very bottom of the whole trail. I wanted to give up.

Somewhat mechanically, I packed the gear and hit the trail as usual. I thought, screw it, what other disaster can possibly happen. This stage was no joke though, there was a climb to the ridges of Mt. Cinto, the highest peak of Corsica, ahead of me. Basically 1188m of ascent in one go. HR was, of course, at 100BPM.

So I put some music in my ears and got going. Sun was shining behind the ridge. The air was crisp and crystal clear - the promise of a nice day in the mountains.

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The landscape was pleasantly mountainous, sparkled with Mediterrane vegetation here and there. img

At this point, I started to feel like I'm in the best place I could possibly be and started to fully enjoy the hike. Very opposite of how I felt just a couple of hours before. img

Got in a serious flow, flew up the hill like nothing (well, I felt like that). img

On the top, I hung out a bit and continued with quite a technical scramble on the ridge. img

Then free fall through a massive slope of loose scree. img

When I was getting ahead of one colleague, I told him I don't feel comfortable on those loose rocks after my recent arm-braking incident.

Later we met this group of guys racing downhill against each other, and again I was like screw it and joined them. We mostly ran, and I totally forgot about what I was saying a couple of moments ago.

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Down in the valley, we had to scramble all the time. img

I only had tiny moments to decide which limb goes where. Really enjoyed this living-in-the-present sensation brought by it. img

And I finished first. Had to cool down my legs in a lagoon. img

I ate lunch of champions on the first refuge in the valley. img

On the second, I bought 400g of cheese, on both combined I drank 3l of water, the sun was starting to show its power.

The plan was to get over one more ridge and combine two official stages. First, it was an easy flat walk, but then the climb began. The sun was burning everything around. Other hikers were climbing up too. I often caught up with some of them; usually, they were pretty polite and wanted to let me go ahead. But that's like an obligation to move faster and lose them a bit together with remaining energy.

At least clouds were pushing from the other side of the ridge. img

The way slowly fell down into this amazing remote valley. img

Down. img

To the Forrest. img

Where I broke a pole in between some roots like nothing. Damn these ultralight tinfoils... I needed at least one pole to pitch the tent, and by this experiment, I figured it's not very hard to break one. So I decided to carry a broken one for spare parts, like an antenna on the backpack.

However, it made me realized that I was exhausted, didn't sleep properly for god knows how long, and just hiked over the most demanding section of GR20. I sat down and ate the whole cheese I bought before, simply like that, without anything else. Suddenly the walk went much better.

I arrived very much wretched to the refuge but with a feeling of a day fully lived through. Falling asleep was a matter of seconds; the nest wasn't a problem this time.

Day 4 | 2.9. 2020 | Castel de Vergio -> Petra Piana | 26.32 km; 1,577m up; 1,140m

I had to reinflate only two times over the night. But still, I desperately needed to improve my quality of sleep. And for that, I hatched a plan - on the next refuge, I will try to panhandle some of their spare mats. For this purpose, my amazing girlfriend sent me a manual full of french phrases including "I broke my matters, can I borrow one of yours?".

Today it all started with a grassy, mushy landscape; it was so restorative against beaten feet. img

It looked like from Lord of the Rings dashed with a bit of Death Stranding. img

So I put on its soundtrack and felt like Sam Porter Bridges. My load of 7kg felt a bit pathetic, though. img

I had lunch at the refuge Manganu - coke and a piece of chocolate. Checked the weather with hut manager, all good, so I had no excuse to continue. img

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This stage was amazing but tough. You basically scramble around glacial lakes 500m above them, all very airy. I got together with two guys here, french; hence we talked with hands. But we were a good team, like some elite hiking unit flying over the trail. And the trail was beautifully demanding, climbing sections everywhere, moraine fields...

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Broke the other knee here, cured it with buff again.

When we arrived at the refuge, I interestingly felt quite good. Went to the hut manager to try to borrow the mat, and it went the followingly:

  • "Hi, sorry I don't speak French, is English ok?"
  • "Meh."
  • "Can I pitch my tent in here?"
  • "You want to rent a tent?"
  • "No, I have my tent," I point to myself.
  • "Ok, 8E."
  • "And can I ask you, I punctured my mattress, would it be possible to borrow one of yours?"
  • "You broke your tent?"
  • "No, my mattress was broken" I showed cross with my hands.
  • "Eh?"
  • "My tapi de mus broken," I showed the manual my girlfriend sent me.
  • "Oh, your tapidemu, no problem, see that guy? Ask him."

So I had to repeat the same conversation, but in the end, I got a mat! Hooray.

I also picked a convenient spot to pitch a tent near this big rock I called workbench; in a minute, my whole backpack exploded there. img

Since we had a new month, I washed my self and some of the clothes.

And again I fell asleep totally exhausted & happy.

Day 5 | 3.9. 2020 | Petra Piana -> Vizzavona | 18.15 km; 1,058m up; 1,979m

It got freezing in the night, but I regenerated much better on a real mat than a nest. I was ready to go at 8:30. Actually, that's my superpower here; I'm usually glad when I start cooking sometime after 7.

Today, it all started with nice ridge walk; sometimes, there was a bit of scramble but nothing serious as yesterday. It reminded me of Carpathians. img

Had lunch above the refuge Onda - snickers followed by another big climb in the prime sun. Which made me soo slow and dizzy. I got to the saddle like a winner just to realize I had to fall 1000m down to the town of Vizzavona. img

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Originally I didn't even want to stop there and go to the next stage right away. However, there was gossip going on on the trail that they cook pizza down there. So in the town, I indeed got pizza (and some beers, of course), had some chats with fellow hikers. And started planning how much time it'll get to finish the whole trail. I estimated 4 more days. Vizzavona divides the northern part of GR20 I just did and the southern part. Which is supposed to be less technical and more walkable. img

Day 6 | 4.9. 2020 | Vizzavona -> Refuge de Prati | 34.84km; 2,064m up; 1,172m down

Today was indeed a fast day. It all started with 1000m of a very gentle climb on dirt roads through forests. Around lunchtime, I arrived at a refuge; had coke & omelet. There were some Czech guys, so I had an opportunity to chat in my native language. They had huge ~20kg backpacks; I wished them my condolences and got going. img

Then I met the uncle from the uncle and the kids' team, but he lost the kids. We exchanged trail stories and split after a while but agreed on the common refuge (and beer) of the day. img

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Next, I had an opportunity to enjoy a flat walk before the final climb to a ridge. Suddenly, the mountains were different; everything was more open, grassy with big white rocks here and there. Lord of the Rings: chapter 2? img

When I arrived to refuge, it got even better. It was on top of a high plateau, with those new, fresh and romantic mountains all around, fluffy clouds flitted around peaks. Golden hour was about to start. And there was a panoramic view of a see 2km below us. It took my breath away. img

Had a nice chat with the hut manager; borrowing a mat was an easy job. img

I cooked the dinner almost as a native french man: img

Then some beers and chats followed by sleep in a million stars hotel.

Day 7 | 5.9. 2020 | Refuge de Prati -> Refuge d'Asinau | 28.95km; 1,935m up; 2,140m down

I had such a late start that even the staff had already cleaned everything and were merely chilling around. The trail was playing with me this time, it was running just below the ridge, but I had to constantly switch sides of it. Sometimes there was a nice solid trail, sometimes serious scrambling. img

Sun wasn't that hard on me (yet). I was genuinely enjoying it. Around noon I met the uncle, and together we've slowly moved to the next refuge while dreaming what to order for lunch. When we got there, we found out that, actually, the hut manager had lunch. Thus he was closed for business. So we sat down, ate some of our provisions, and patiently waited. img

With some more hikers, we started to plan what next. There were two variants ahead of us. One was direct, but 20km through a long valley followed by a big hill to the next refuge, marked as a day-long demanding hike in the guide.

The second one went rather around over a couple of intermediate refuges and was supposed to be easy. Others wanted to take it easy; I sought risks, pain and destruction, so I pushed them for the first one. Well, in the end, I went alone.

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Before dropping to the valley, there was an extra ridge ahead of me, seemed short on the map. In reality, it was a technical and tedious scramble under the scorching sun.

The sun started to be a real problem down in the south. There was no wind; the rocks were all white; hence it acted as a reflector. Mirages everywhere around.

But in the end, the ridge spilled me out img

Suddenly, I found myself walking through very different terrain again. This time it was a steppe; Now I was a cowboy from some western. Completely alone in this wild, dusty landscape with exotic plants all around. There have been so many dramatic scenery changes on this hike, I wasn't able to believe I went through yet another one. img

After the steppe, I had to climb that big hill. img

It was that kind with 5 false peaks before the true one. img

And whenever you triumphantly reach one of those, the next one pops behind. img

I enjoyed the silence on the top, then had to fall steeply down to the next refuge on the other side of the hill. img

Constant scrambling on tired legs in the approaching dark.

I started to dislike the refuge almost instantly; it seemed like the fact that I was close to civilization had something to do with it. There were fresh, clean people that tended to not say hi and overall be smug. At least in my head. On top of that, there was basically no place to pitch a tent. After some struggle and checking with various managers, I had to take a bed in a dormitory with many other people. Didn't imagine my last night on the trail to be like that. Especially after a heavenly experience the day before. It was hot, sweaty during the night, sometimes someone farted, the guy next to me slept on plastic covers, so I could hear every move...

Day 8 | 6.9. 2020 | Refuge d'Asinau -> Conca | 30.48km; 1,133m up; 2,378m down

Last day on the trail, mostly downhil so I aimed to oversleep as much as possible. Ate breakfast as the very last non-staff person in the camp. At the water source, there was donkey drinking; I needed to drink too, so I came by, he moved a bit, and we simply drank together there, like some hippies.

Then I started hiking; it was quite an ordinary walk in an ordinary forest this time. Started to meet day hikers; they were very refined and smelled like washing powder. Around lunchtime, I arrived at the Village de Bavella, a popular spot for hikers; there's a nice road, restaurants, and a big parking spot. To me it was like being in the middle of some circus there. For lunch, I bought crepes with cheese and french fries and coke, of course. Next, there was quite a climb on the menu, although I was in general slowly going down to 200 meters above the sea. That meant the plants were getting more and more exotic and were absolutely stunning now - sort of greeny, spiky, thick stuff everywhere. On the negative side, the sun was burning me alive. img

At this point, I started to feel the tension in my stomach; it felt like it's getting out of order. Started to think that the lunch was a big mistake. There was literally no processing going on when I tried to drink water. It was just splashing as if there was some stopper in my belly.

The problem was, there was this massive fusion reactor above me reaching its peak performance. This time yesterday, I already had 6l of water in me. I started to be sluggish, like I was about to pass out. Every 30mins, I had to sit down and just stare at nowhere. I was convincing myself the body only needed some time to process the food. And always, after some serious time of staring, I started to feel a bit better, got up, walked a couple of meters, and got back to this about-to-throw-up-then-pass-out state. Sections without any shade were the worst, and there were many of those. It started to feel dangerous; I just kept telling myself - dude, you can't stop here. When I reached some shade, I always felt down right away, sometimes to sleep, just like that on rocks. Sometimes I threw up some fluids. img

After what felt like infinity, I arrived at some waterfall with lagoons and slowly got whole myself in. That helped a lot, stomach stopped cramping, and I finally managed to drink. Then it was only over the hill down to Conca - my destination. And as it was getting later, even the sun started to burn less. So I simply walked and walked, now quite sure I was able to make it without dying. And indeed, after a couple of hours, I found myself at the end of GR20. img

It was funny how natives ignored me; they probably have their scoop of experiences with finishing hikers. So I, a battered, dirty, smelly person, probably with some vomit on himself, sat down to a bar, ordered a coke, and watched football with them.

Then celebratory call with my girlfriend, camp, shower, stars, chats, sleep. img

And that was basically it.