In September 2021, I thru-hiked the GR20 in Corsica. I came to Corsica as a solo hiker, but rarely spent much time alone. This is a section-by-section account of my experiences.
I’m an excited ball of energy as I arrive in Calenzana, the village where the GR20 begins. I first heard about this mighty trail – dubbed the most difficult long distance hike in Europe – ten years ago, and I am finally here!
I knew that the trail would be popular, but I’m still shocked by the sheer number of hikers here. The campsite quickly fills up. I excitedly chat to anyone who can speak English, and enthusiastically speak in broken French to those who can’t.
“I thought I could hear another English voice!” a man shouts over to me. I make my first friend on the trail: Andy from Blackpool in England. He’s here alone because his hiking buddy caught Covid just before the trip. And then I make two more friends: Arthur and Alek, a father and son from Poland. And then another: Kim from Germany.
That night, I don’t get a wink of sleep. I’m just too excited! And I’m also nervous: what if the trail is too difficult for me? What if I fall and have a serious injury? The hours tick by as I lay wide awake.
Section One: Calenzana to Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu
People begin packing down their tents at 4.30am. God knows why people want to start hiking so early, when sunrise isn’t til 6.50am. Andy emerges from his tent at about 6am, and I tell him that I probably shouldn’t walk Europe’s most difficult trail when I’ve had zero hours sleep.
“Oh, come on! It’ll just be lots of climbing! No technical bits in this section: you can do it!” he says.
His enthusiasm rubs off on me, and we set off together to begin our GR20 hike. Within minutes we meet two other hikers from England: Rob and Allan, waiting outside the local Spar. Rob and Allan’s grasp of French is, evidently, shit, because they don’t realise that they still have one and a half hours to wait til the shop actually opens.
I’m fitter than the others, and quickly leave them behind. The trail relentlessly climbs for hours, a total of 1,360 metres, but every inch is filled with beauty. Just half an hour after leaving Calenzana, I’m surrounded by jagged mountains.
“This is the best trail EVER!” I say on the phone to my friend in England. “I’m so happy!”
I’m surprised by how quickly I arrive at the first refuge. I’ve completed this section two hours quicker than the suggest timings in the guidebook. I pitch my tent in an epic spot on the mountain side, and spend the evening with Andy, Rob and Allan. What an incredible first day.
Section 2: Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carrozzu
A flash of lightning followed by deafening thunder. And rain. So much rain. I swear loudly as I struggle to put my tent up fast enough, then collapse into it. The ground around me immediately begins to flood, the earth unable to cope with so much water.
The GR20 is renowned for its ferocious afternoon storms. But it’s only just past midday: there shouldn’t be a storm this early.
I am one of the first hikers to complete the second section, already down from the high mountain ridge. Most other people are still up there, exposed to the lightning. “Thank God I’m a fast hiker,” I mutter to myself. I’m worried for all the others on the trail: surely someone’s going to get seriously injured, if not by lightning, by slipping on the boulders and scree. A wrong step could be fatal on this trail.
Over the course of the afternoon, friends I made on Day One begin to arrive, wet through, but safe. First there’s Alek and Arthur, the father and son from Poland. Then there’s Andy, the northerner from England. Then Kim from Germany. We make friends with a couple called Amalia and Brecht, who are from Belgium.
We join seventy other hikers and cram ourselves into the dining room of the tiny mountain refuge, the rain relentlessly lashing down for hours. People drink the afternoon away, ordering Pietra – local Corsican beer – from the refuge shop. Meanwhile, I have a nice cup of tea.
I’m still worried, though. Two of my new friends, Allan and Rob, haven’t yet made it down from the mountain. It’s been six hours since I completed the section. They can’t possibly be six hours slower than me. “I’m thinking about calling Mountain Rescue,” I say to Andy. I ask around: did people see them on the ridge? Someone replies, “yes, but the guy with the beard was hobbling”. I’m relieved: we know they’re okay, if a bit injured.
Allan and Rob finally arrive just before it gets dark. Allan’s ankle is fucked. The eternal optimist, he says, “well, I’ll just see how it is in the morning”.
Section 3: Refuge de Carrozzu to Haut Asco
Morning comes and I discover that a fox has stolen my plastic box of oats. I also discover that a creature has knawed a five inch-wide hole in my inner tent.
Meanwhile, Allan’s ankle is even more fucked than it was the evening before. He gets helicoptered off the mountain, while Rob decides to continue the GR20 without him. Seeing people get rescued by helicopter will become a familiar sight on the trail.
I’m nervous about Day Three: it involves climbing with chains, and is perilous if the rock is wet. Will it be me next, getting helicoptered away? Days One and Two have been truly epic, with views I could never have imagined, and with some difficult scrambling sections that I have mastered surprisingly easily. But have I been too cocky, with my fast speed and limitless energy? Will my luck run out? I nervously begin the section with Kim and Andy, who act as moral support for me.
We cross the first section of chains. “I’m not really sure why these chains are here: they’re not really helpful,” I shout over to Andy, before promptly slipping on the rock, desperately grabbing the chain to save myself.
Then there’s a bouncy suspension bridge and more chains, and we climb up, up, up the Spasimata Slabs, surrounded by jagged, perfect granite peaks. This trail is truly awe-inspiring.
But one drawback of the trail, at least in the first four days, is the sheer number of hikers, creating gridlock on the more difficult scrambling sections. The queues here rival those on Everest. There’s people of all abilities: seemingly people aren’t phased by the ‘most difficult hike in Europe’ label.
Everyone has read that to hike the GR20, you must have hiking poles: hell, even I bought a new pair before I came here. But there’s far too many people who don’t know when to put their poles away. I see countless people attempting difficult scrambles while holding their poles, risking their lives because they either don’t know how to use them, or because they can’t be bothered to stop to attach them to their rucksacks.
Day Three ends with an exhausting hour-long descent to Haut Asco ski resort, complete with vertical scrambles down gullies and giant boulders.
Steep ascent → ridge walking → steep descent: this becomes a familiar pattern of the trail.
My friends arrive at Haut Asco an hour or two after me. That evening, I go for dinner at the restaurant with Andy and Rob. The angry waitress looks like she wants to kill us as we try to speak terrible French to her. But nothing can ruin our happy moods: after all, we’re hiking on one of the most beautiful islands ever.
That night, I camp next to Vica and Remy, two friends from Poland and Belgium. Little do I know that they’re about to become part of my trail family, and that I will miss them terribly when they leave the trail.
Section 4: Haut Asco to Bergeries d’u Vallone
In the old days, Section Four would have been the ultimate section of the GR20. The Cirque de Solitude was a route of legend, until a number of hikers were killed by a landslide on it in 2015. After that, the trail was diverted up to the saddle of the highest mountain in Corsica, Monte Cinto. The route is now much higher than the original, leaving hikers vulnerable to thunderstorms and, in the early summer, snow.
Luckily, the gods are on our side, and we have perfect weather throughout the day. I climb up through a corrie – an old glacial bowl – with astounding views. Andy and Rob have started the day earlier than me, but I soon catch up with them. As we walk, we see a French man laying on the side of the mountain, groaning in distress.
“DO YOU NEED W-A-T-E-R?” Andy shouts deliberately slowly in English, unable to speak any French.
“No,” the man groans. “I have”.
“S-U-G-A-R. DO YOU WANT SUGAR?”
“No,” he mutters, followed by, “urgggghhhhhhhh.”
We look around, not sure what to do. Just a few minutes behind us are a group of French hikers who’ll be able to communicate with the guy. And so we walk on, confident that the man will be able to tell them how he’s feeling.
Twenty minutes later, a helicopter circles above, and the man is picked off the mountain. “Was he really that badly ill?” I guiltily wonder to myself. “I thought he was just a bit faint.” That day, three more rescue helicopters fill the sky.
I’m quicker at climbing than Andy and Rob, so I leave them and overtake masses more people. I join even more hikers to sit at the saddle of Monte Cinto.
I laze around for about half an hour, taking in the astounding views and watching the beautiful bird species – alpine choughs and alpine accentors – scavenge food off hikers. The accentors, in particular, are fearless, and come and eat food off a friend’s shoe. I could sit here for hours, watching these little creatures.
“I really can’t be bothered to climb to the top of Monte Cinto,” I say to Andy and Rob as they arrive at the saddle. The climb to the peak is an added extra: a detour off the main GR20 route. Andy, ever-enthusiastic, is excited about getting to the top of the whole of Corsica. “Come on, it’ll only take half an hour,” he says.
I begrudingly follow him and Rob, moaning to myself as the ‘path’ becomes more and more difficult: an indecipherable clamber up and down giant, perilous boulders. It takes us an hour.
“Was it worth it?!” they say to me with smiles on their faces, as we sit at the very top of Corsica.
“Not really,” I moan. “It was one of the most difficult sections of the trail so far, and we’ve got to get down again!” But despite my whinging, it is, of course, epic up here on the peak.
The long descent to Bergeries d’u Vallone is extremely long and extremely tedious, beginning with a steep scree slope, and then becoming more of an exhausting scramble. The past four days of strenuous hiking have finally caught up with me, and I am a light-headed mess as I navigate the difficult terrain. I’m so exhausted that it’s surprising I don’t lose my footing and tumble down the mountain.
When I reach the bergeries d’u Vallone, Kim tells me that instead of climbing up Monte Cinto, she’s spent the last few hours lazing in the sunshine and bathing in the rockpools next to the bergeries. I groan with envy.
The evening is spent eating, laughing and planning routes with my friends. Up til now we have all walked just one section of the trail per day. Kim talks about beginning to double-up sections. I also plan to walk double sections: after all, the most difficult parts of the GR20 are behind us, and I am much quicker than 90% of the hikers on this trail.
Section 5: Bergeries d’u Vallone to Castel de Vergio
Today is the best yet. Although not as dramatic as the days preceding it, the section has a bit of everything: woods, a mountain climb, and then an idyllic walk following a river, complete with lots of rockpools to swim in.
The only thing to put a dent in my mood is the trained killers of the French army, who appear in their droves, rifles over their shoulders, marching in the opposite direction.
The trail winds through old forest. The pines here are huge and must be a few hundred years old. I look up at them with awe, grateful that I on this magnificent trail, grateful to be alive.
I arrive at Castel de Vergio, another ski resort, in the early afternoon. I join Kim, plus Amalia and Brecht, and eat lunch in the sunshine. They’re all planning on continuing on, and doing a double section. I’m torn: I have the energy and daylight hours to walk further. But if I do continue, I won’t ever see my other friends – Andy and Rob, Alek and Arthur, Vica and Remy – again. They’re all walking much slower, and they won’t double up their sections.
I decide to stay, to see my friends again, at least for one more day. I say goodbye to Kim, Brecht and Amalia, making vague promises that I’ll catch them up later on the trail. But, of course, this is the last time I will set eyes on them.
Rob and Andy arrive a couple of hours later, then Alek and Arthur, then Remy and Vica. As soon as I see them, I’m glad that I made the decision to stay. Me, Rob and Andy go for dinner at the ski resort, and eat, drink and laugh. I’m very different to both Rob and Andy, and if we were all in our home country of England, there’s next to no chance we’d meet (unless we happened to walk up a mountain peak at the same time). But despite our differences, I love being in their company. They make me laugh more than I’ve laughed in years. In their presence, I’m constantly giggling.
As night falls, I say good night to Alek and Arthur.
“Will we see you tomorrow, Lisa?” Arthur asks me, wondering if I am going to double-up the next section and skip ahead of them.
“Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I reply. “At least for one more day.”
“Good. Then we will see you for one more day.”
I go to bed content. How did I get this lucky? I am surrounded by beautiful nature. I have wonderful new friends. Life can’t get more perfect than this. I am on top of the world.
Read part 2 here.
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