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Walking the GR20, the Corsican high mountain route

August 7, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early morning sun on the Bavella Needles, seen from the Asinoa mountain refuge

I’m recently returned from walking GR20 described as the most challenging long distance mountain trek in Europe. It’s an iconic walk and – for me – was an intense and worthwhile experience.

During my 64 years I’ve done and enjoyed plenty of mountain walking in the UK (especially the Lakes) as well as in France and some of the Mediterranean islands. However these had mostly been day walks and this was more demanding in several ways:
– Walking all day every day for twelve days (6-9 hours a day);
– Lots of sharp ascents and descents with some technical bits, often exposed
– Accommodation quite basic and having to carry overnight gear on half the days
– The walk is very exposed to the elements; we had hot sunny weather the whole time so lots of factor 40 sun cream and 2-3 litres of water day were needed. We didn’t experience the storms or very cold nights that can be a feature of Corsican mountain summers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breche do Capitella (Boca alle Porte): Rugged ridges and bright sunshine

The appeal lay partly in this challenge along with the opportunity to experience the marvellous Corsican mountain landscape, staying at a high altitude for nearly two weeks.

I’ll list some of the highlights of the walk and then say a bit about the route we took, landscape, accommodation and supplies, and going in a group with a guide.

Highlights

Greatest achievement: finishing. It had been my friend Chris’s idea as part of a long celebration of his 60th year. I was pretty apprehensive about doing it but very glad I did.
Best ascent: Paglia Orba: google it! I did when I came back, not before I went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paglia Orba with the refuge at Ciouttulu in the foreground

Paglia Orba is a really striking mountain (2,500+m) with a pretty technical ascent; Wikipedia says it’s ‘ à la frontière entre la randonnée et l’alpinisme ‘ No way could I have done it without a guide and group.
Scariest moment: top of the ‘Ridge of the Choughs’ (a variant between Caparelle and Vizzavona): long steep way down and no evident route

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ridge of the Choughs

Best view: well how can you choose? But watching the sun go down over the Golfo di Porto from 2000m up on a ridge near Ciottulu di i Mori was sublime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golfo di Porto from 2000 metres:my camera couldn’t really capture the dreamlike quality of the light and layers of cloud and rocks.

 Best day’s walking: ascending Monte Renoso via the ‘Pozzi’ (high plateau with tens of little pools, remains of a glacial lake) and descending by Lac de Bastane. Great views from the top enhanced by swirling clouds and mist.


 

 

 

 

 

 

View from the summit of Monte  Renoso

Best food: Theo’s at Bergerie de Grotelle (at the top of Gorges de la Restonica) by a country mile. The Corsican soup had great chunks of hock in it and the omelette with ricotta-type cheese and mint was sublime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theo’s omelette

Revelation: dried bananas a popular mid-morning energy booster
Best joke: the toilet door at Refuge d’Asinoa
Nagging fear: a twisted ankle or suchlike especially if it meant being helicoptered off the mountain


 

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of tricky descents (Cirque de Cascade)

Unexpected bonus: excellence of our guide and the camaraderie and humour of the group

 

 

 

 

 

 

The group at the end of the walk (Coroli, our guide, with the rucksack)

(Slight) disappointment: Cirque de Solitude: pretty busy and threatened by occasional falling stones. As demanding as promised but didn’t live up to its name.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cirque de Solitude, route up in middle of picture

Exceeded expectations: the walk itself with its variety, awesome views and truly invigorating sense of space


 

 

 

 

 

 Mountain pool in Manganello valley

Most sensible preparation: getting my feet ready using cream and surgical spirit (not together) in the weeks beforehand. I didn’t though lose the surplus couple of stones that I’d planned to shed.

Our route

The ‘standard’ GR 20 is fifteen days’ walking and traditionally has been done north to south. There is a range of variants, or options, to include different peaks and ridges. Some do a route that includes all the peaks on the way; others aim to complete it in seven days, or even five.

We did a route from south to north. This is more popular now maybe because it builds up to the more exacting stages in the north. To fit into twelve days we cut out one southern and two northern approach stages; starting at Bavella and ending at Haut Asco.

We left Col de Bavella and took the alpine variant over the Aiguilles (needles) of Bavella down into the Asinoa valley, ascending to the refuge de Asinoa.

Next day a stiff ascent  reaching the ridge and then a short climb to the top of Monte Incudine (2134m); there was a meandering descent, across to Croce Berg, on the Plateau of Cuscionu.

A pastoral beginning up to the ‘Arrete des Statues’ a long ridge walk across and down briefly to Refuge d’Usciolu then back to the Col and a tricky, descent to Cozzano.

Next morning a long ascent to the Col de Laparo and then Punta della Capella followed by high level walk past Refuge de Prati and down to Col de Verdi.

Taking an optional variant we  headed up to the Pozzi Monte Renoso (2352m); and descended past Lac de Bastane to Capanelle

Day 6 and another variant; this was a more direct route to Vizzavona over a dramatic, steep sided ridge named Ridge of the Choughs (alpine choughs, similar to crows).

Vizzavona is at the top of the pass that splits north from south and the main Ajjacio toBastia road runs through it. We were now leaving the south for the more testing north.

The first day in the north starts with a brief transfer to the village of Canaglia and a long walk up the Manganellu valley and then  open climbing to refuge of Petra Piana followed by a further ascent to Bacca Muzella, the highest col on the route. Descent by the Cirque du Cascade, fascinating rocks formed by glacial lakes, and down to Bergerie de Grotelle.

Day 8 we went up to Lac de Melo and  Lac de Capitello (46m deep, deepest in Corsica). After that there was further climbing, including crossing snow and some tricky clambering up to the Breche de Capitello (2220m). The descent took us to the Bergerie de Vaccaghie (motto; ‘where time stands still’).

 Day 9 was fairly straightforward, over to Lac de Nino, an ascent of Mte Tozzo and then a ridge walk across to Castel de Vergio. The next day was mainly ascent up the Golo valley up to a high plateau reaching the GR20’s highest refuge, Ciottulu (2000m).

Next morning an early start to go up Paglia Orba (an option) – described above – and then an afternoon walk to Bergeries de Vallon.

The final day: a long ascent to Bocca Minuta; a pause for breath and then down the Cirque de Solitude, across and up to the Col Perdu. Tough going! Celebration at Col Perdu and then down to Haut Asco where our walk ended.

Landscape

Corsica is a middle-sized Mediterranean island (114 by 52 miles at its longest and widest points) and just over a hundred miles south of the French mainland. A granite mountain range cuts across it, from north-west to south. The peaks range up to 2,700 metres with crests and ridges often in the 1,500-2,000 metre range. The mountains are rugged with clear sharp jagged edges, mainly pinkish brown granite that changes colour with the light. There is an enormous sense of space with views across the range and to the sea and neighbouring islands. The light is striking; sharp edges against a clear blue sky mixed sometimes with clouds swirling around; low lying clouds clustering around the coast can lend an ethereal air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Low lying clouds over the East coast, seen from the Ridge of the Statues

Whilst the granite peaks and ridges are the dominating feature the landscape is diverse including pastures, lakes and wooded valleys. There are mountain flowers in the crevices between the rocks and a variety of trees (including the endemic Laricio, flat-topped pine), maquis and wild herbs.

Accommodation

Much of the walk consists of remote countryside so accommodation and supplies are sparse. When the route crosses an East-West road there will be a gite, with restaurant, at the col and sometimes it is possible to drop down to the road ending at the head of a gorge where there’ll be a gite or a café/restaurant, including a couple of abandoned ski resorts. Otherwise there is a network of refuges that provide food and accommodation in a communal dorm or small tents dotted around the refuge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bergerie de Vaccaghie: fabulous location but the facilities were ‘basic in every respect’

GR20 is popular, ‘camping sauvage’ is forbidden and the refuges are heaving during the summer months. Supplies come by helicopter or mule.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supplies being brought to refuge Usciolu

Food is ample (although vegetarians would struggle) and most gites and refuges have a standard meal usually starting with saucisson or soup, and including a meat dish and cheese (often excellent and locally produced.) Beer, wine and soft drinks can be bought although unsurprisingly they’re not cheap; beer is usually six Euros and coke two and half or three. Washing and toilet facilities can be ‘pretty basic’ in the refuges and bergeries but are usually okay in the gites.

The guide and the group

GR 20 can be done independently staying in or bivoucing in refuges or in a group, with or without a guide. Ours was a guided group which meant that our main baggage was – where possible – transported between stops; where not possible we had to carry overnight gear. A good guide makes all the difference and our’s was excellent. Technical skills (all mountain guides have to be qualified) are needed for parts of the route , especially some of the options, finding the route but more negotiating some of the trickier bits. Coroli though also had superb ‘soft skills’ getting people working as a team and judging the pace so that the group didn’t get stretched yet the day’s walk was completed in time. She also negotiated the relations with the guardiens in the refuges and gites so we could concentrate on the walk, and then get some recuperation. There are 30+ guides in Corsica and only five are women.

I guess the group, or team, makes or breaks it. It is about communal living and getting on together and our’s was great; plenty of humour and mutual support made it an all round positive and enjoyable experience.

Conclusion

As you can gather, I’m an enthusiast!

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From → Mountain walking

One Comment
  1. Jayne permalink

    Happy memories.

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