In the sheer momentum of the lead up to my UTMB ultra ultramarathon experience followed in quick succession by my climb on Manaslu in the Himalayas I never got time to write up the GR20 run that my girlfriend and I ran just a couple of weeks before I headed off to start the longest race of my life. So here it is…
The GR20 is part of the extensive Grande Randonnee network that crisscross over Europe, in particular France and cover up to 60,000km! Their distinctive red and white painted flashes mark the trail and will be familiar to anyone who has walked many of the GR routes. The GR20 crosses the island of Corsica North to South following the mountain ridge that covers the whole interior. The total route stretches around 110 miles with almost 20,000m of ascent and is one the hardest trails out there, identified as “Europe’s toughest trek”. The hardest section of which is in the North, where the trail traditionally starts. Hikers generally take 15 days to cover the route. Most of the first 5 sections are impassable following rain as the rock becomes too slippery to negotiate. To call the north section a footpath is a real stretch of the imagination. It’s either up or down, never flat. There is very little path – mainly just rock and rubble and a lot of scrambling. It feels very much like it probably did when they first decided to create this path in the 1970s. Other than the painted the red and white flashes every so often to indicate the “path” the mountains, you'd never really think there was a path. The route tumbles up and over steep climbs, where scrambling with the aid of basic via ferrata is frequent. Very different to the usual paths that are worn lovingly by walkers and other users over the centuries back in the UK. Mountain huts and basic campsites provide accommodation at various points along the route and for what is on the most part very inaccessible.
“Wow look at those storm clouds!” The plane was coming into land into the small airport near Calvi at the Northern part of the island. The plane offered our first glimpse of the start of the route. The rocky pillars stretched up into the black storm clouds and over the aircraft noise we heard a deep rumble of thunder. “Hmm this could be interesting”. It was the middle of the summer, not the ideal time to do the route which is searing hot in the summer and impassable due to the snow in winter, but with my recent time climbing in the Alps with Max and the UTMB in a few weeks this was our only window. And since we only had a couple of weeks to spare we only had time to do the first 5 sections of the route, but this part encapsulated the main effort of the GR20 leaving us enough time to have a week chilling before I flew back out to the Alps.
Corisca is a beautiful island, just off the coast of France and a few weeks earlier hosted the start of the Tour de France. It’s inhabitants are fiercely independent, neither French or Italian but with many influences from both cultures. The mountain range that dominates the island from end to end in some ways is very representative of that cultural atmosphere. Each year the island population swells to just over 8 million with the inhabitants only 300,000, hence the tourist trade is a big influence. The mountains offer a good way of escaping the crowds which are found around the small coastal towns and popular beaches. Most of the mountainous area is uninhabited and only a few roads exist that cross over it, the main routes circumnavigate the island, whereas the smaller roads violently twist and turn from village to village.
The next morning we sat waiting for the outcome over a debate between 2 taxi drivers, only one of which we had booked, as to which one would be taking our fare. In the end the winner finally pulled family rank and we set off at the beginning of a beautiful blue sky day to the start of the GR20 on the Northern flanks of the island. Early morning locals drove erratically on their way to pick up their baked goods from the local bakery for the day as we headed back of the town of Calvi. Our taxi driver swore in a combination of French and English as locals nipped in and out of the early morning bustle, narrowly avoiding collisions. We had wanted an early start in part because we knew it was going to be hot and mainly because we had very little idea how long the first day was going to take. We had sat down and drawn up some plan of the route and reckoned with our limited time we should be able to get the first 2 sections done that day. But with only trekkers guides for information on timings, or the enviable feat of Killian Jornet on his record breaking attempt we would have to give it our best estimate and jump off into the unknown.
45 minutes later and the taxi driver dropped us off in the village of Calenzana. After a few precursory photos of us at the beginning of the route, something that has become a routine for my girlfriend and I, we set off up through the village. A quick stop for a last cold drink and the last comfort we would see for a week. The path ascended quickly and so did the thermometer. We carried everything we needed for the week ahead, food, tent, stove, sleeping bags, clothes, walking poles and all the necessary. My old Aarn bag on my back again after a few repairs following my failed attempt at the Haute route. This bag and I had seen many miles together, and hopefully many more to come. Karin and I were old hands at packing light but there was no margin for error in what we had. We trotted along up through crumbling buildings and into the mountain scrub, leaving civilization behind us. We quickly stopped for a view back down to the beaches far below, where most couples who visited when on holiday to the med.
We started to pass some day hikers and as the ground flattened out briefly and we picked up some pace. The trail was not too bad to begin with but soon became quite stony. After some debate at a junction with the Mare e Monti path that traverses the island, we headed on. Another red and white flash, and another relief we were still on the right route, getting lost this early on is pretty easy with the desire to get miles behind you and the adrenalin still pumping. But it's not good for the morale. The cliffs loomed nearer, the tops were shrouded in mist, fortunately not the deep black clouds we had seen on the flight in the day before. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature started to ascend rapidly just as we started to climb higher. The grass was dried out and the rocks saw lizards scattering ahead of us as we ran along the trail. Our next water stop was still several miles away and were not sure of how long it would take to get there. The guide suggested hikers take 6.5hrs on this first section.
zig zagging up the slopes we were soon in the mist, quite a relief to be out of the heat of the sun. The path became a scramble with chains and ferrata sticking out of the wall to help with climb. Karin and I enjoyed the break from the hike up and enjoyed the scramble. The route climbed up steeply through the mist until finally there was no more up that we could see directly in front of us and the path evened out again. We ran along through rock and pine trees and started to over take some walking groups that had started earlier that morning. The clouds soon became rain. Since it never rains on Corsica and even if it did then it would be too hot to need waterproofs we hadn't bought much in the way of any waterproofing. Go light or go home. Well the truth is, it rains a lot in Corsica and the rain is freezing cold! We sheltered under a rock. We had run out of water, ironic. Checking the map though indicated we were not far now from the mountain hut that most people stay at for the first stage of their hike. The rain abated slightly and off we set again. The hut was a welcome sight. The rain suddenly became monsoon strength and the whole sky lit up with lightning and almost crash of thunder shook the air. We bundled quickly into the hut, just in time.
The worst thing in my experience of mountaineering is lightning. Most other factors can be dealt with. This is a non negotiable no go event. The storm rumbled around for about 30 minutes. We huddled together in the cool of the hut, sitting the hut's dog next to us for added warmth, refilling and drinking the fresh water and enjoying a snack from our packs. The walking groups sat around, their hike done for the day, looking at us as though we were mad people. This is not unusual! Finally the rain stopped and then the thunder. I peaked outside. The ground was soaked, large pools of water surrounded the hut. We headed out.
The sun soon shone down drying out our clothes only to make them wet with sweat again as the temperature rose again. The path was treacherous with wet tree roots and slippery wet rock. In minutes the path had become almost impossible to run on. Our ears were now heightened for any thunder as storm clouds remained to the south, lingering some miles away. The route clung to the side of a smooth cliff on the left, to my right it slipped away down through trees and more cliffs to the coast somewhere below in the mist beneath us. The traverse soon became another climb. This climb wound up through large slabs of scree that followed a couloir up to the ridge high above us. The climb was hot and at some points the red and white flashes would disappear, until one of us would spot the next some way up. This was not a path, we were at the whim of the mad wanderings of the route maker.
Sweat poured off us as we finally neared the ridge which led to the highest point of this second section of the route at 2020m. We stood there in the cool breeze, looking down admiring fearfully the view, hot and tired from the climb. A mass of crumbling rock towers stretching out before us.
We started along the ridge. It was a jumble of steep jagged rocks, made slippery by the rain and polishing from the years of hikers boots. I suddenly heard a scream behind me! Karin was sat on the rocks her foot twisted over at an unnatural angle. "Crap!" This was not good, I rushed over, Karin was sobbing with pain. We sat there, I told her it would be ok. Meanwhile my head rushed through the various options. I checked over the foot feeling for a break. Weight bearing immediately brought on searing pain. This was a real disaster, "it's going to be ok" but we both knew it wouldn't be. We were on the highest ridge, many hours from our last source of help and many more from the next...
Part 2 to follow...