Saturday, 23 October 2010

Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association

Jack and I chose to do the walk in aid of The Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association. This charity means a lot to us and in particular we'd like to thank the Langdale Ambleside and Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Teams. We have both witnessed first hand the amazing work they do, coming to the aid of our friends on two separate occasions after they were injured whilst walking in the Lake District. The amount of time and effort so many volunteers give on a regular basis is outstanding. To enable them to carry out their role effectively and safely their equipment needs to be maintained and updated and this costs (a lot of) money. If you would like to donate please visit our justgiving page. Thank you :)

Final thoughts and advice

I always knew that however this trip went, so long as we completed the walk then I would in the future be able look back on it (perhaps with rose tinted glasses) and say what a wonderful experience it was. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did at the time. I guess a significant part of this was luck; we couldn't have asked for better weather, everything important ran according to plan and none of our knees gave up the ghost. However, it also helped that we were well prepared and had done our research - we were expecting it to be tough. There were times, during a couple of the particularly arduous ascents, that I desperately wanted to stop and not have to go on, and on the last section of day four I was on the verge of tears. But at the end of each day, I never doubted my will to continue right through to the end and I was never tempted to give up.
Having never spent more than a day in isolated mountains before (the Lake District does not count here!) I also didn't know how well I would adapt to the lifestyle. There are some obvious negative aspects to life on the trail; getting up at 6 every morning when it's cold, wet and dark outside your sleeping bag, cold showers, very basic toilet facilities, the need to ration everything (loo roll, duct tape, milk powder, shampoo, soap..), no easy way to do laundry, no living room to retreat to in the evenings and so on. But on the other hand, rising early means you get to see the sunrise, you feel you're making the most of every day and dawn is a beautiful (and cool) time to be walking. There is also something immensely satisfying about knowing that you are carrying your life for two weeks with you on your back. Going back to basics somehow makes you feel more (pardon the corny expression) `at one' with the environment. Of course, had we been able to afford it we could have stayed in the warm refuge beds and enjoyed meals cooked for us in the dining room every night, but I'm not sure this is a choice I would have made anyway, it somehow makes you feel like more of a tourist if you are relying on these facilities. The other major benefit of life on the GR is the range of interesting people you have the chance to get to know and who are sharing the experience with you, though I imagine that in July and August the number of people is so large it must be quite a different atmosphere. I like the fact that when walking in September there are still moments (especially if you take a less popular alpine variant) when you can't see anyone around you and you feel like you have that particular peak/valley to yourselves.

So, on to the matter of whether there is anything I would have changed about the way we did things. I think that apart from a couple of minor points, the answer is no. Certainly I think the time of year we went was good (June is perhaps slightly better as there is more water but also the possibility of snow) and taking a tent was a good decision - cheap and you don't need to worry about booking anywhere so you can be flexible. I read a lot of blogs and opinions of people who had done the trail, and many of them said that they didn't think it was wise to take a stove; too much extra weight for not enough gain when cooked meals and kitchen facilities are available. However if you're on a budget, cooking for yourself definitely saves money and if you're camping then you need to take pans anyway and even in September you might have to queue to use a very basic hob with no shelter. It is also perfectly possible to take a tent and trangia and still pack light - we got our rucksack weights down to an average of 10 kilos excluding water and including approximately 2 days' food.
Despite being on a budget, I also don't regret any of the money I spent on equipment before we left. New lightweight boots were worth it for the vibram sole, flexibility, waterproofing and the fact that I could trust them to withstand the battering they got on such rocky terrain. Lightweight clothing really helped me reduce my packweight and allowed me to take lots of layers that kept me cool while walking and warm in the evenings. As an added bonus it dried really quickly meaning I could wear a clean, dry t-shirt every day - I only took two. A decent waterproof and windproof jacket was necessary for the weather conditions, especially when you don't have many changes of clothing. Another good buy was 6 thin titanium tent pegs; it is always possible to pitch your tent with rocks, and in some cases you can't even get the titanium pegs into the ground, but when you can it makes it so much easier to pitch well. The only few things I would change are:
(a) take a pair of flip flops or lightweight sandals; they may be treacherous to wear around some refuges but you're not allowed to wear boots inside at all and when you finish it is a pain to still have to wear your smelly boots, especially if you have blisters.
(b) buy the French guide book 'A travers la montagne Corse' (so long as you can understand it). It includes excellent 1:25000 maps every other page including the alpine variants, and this saves having to take maps separately.
(c) Don't take laundry liquid or powder; plugs don't exist on the GR20 and soap is just as good.
(d) Take a lighter, matches are liable to let you down however `weatherproof' they claim to be.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend the GR20 to anyone thinking of doing a long distance walk. The scenery is amazing and the route often cleverly devised to give you some truly stunning views. The main piece of advice I would give would be to do your research and make sure you're prepared for what lies in store. From the stories I've heard it seems that the main reasons so many people have to leave the trail after a few days are that they'd underestimated how hard it would be, they tried to take way too much stuff (for two people, an average of 10 kilos each without water should be enough) or they didn't have much experience of hiking and quickly got bad blisters. You don't need to be super-fit to do the GR20 but you probably do need to be used to doing long periods of sustained exercise - some of the climbs on the trail took us 2 hours even without any breaks added in, during which my heart rate was probably consistently above 140 (but that's my preferred way of tackling climbs and it is of course possible to take it much more gently!). You also need to be quite sure footed to tackle the boulder fields and rocky ridge sections, though I didn't have any previous experience of walking with a pack on the terrain and you do get used to it after a couple of days. Jack and I both found our walking poles particularly helpful, especially on the downhill sections. Even after reading many peoples' descriptions of the trail I was still surprised by the number of technically difficult sections requiring full concentration that we encountered each day. The other thing that was a (pleasant) surprise was the amount of time you get to rest and recover after walking each day; most stages take less than 7 hours, leaving you the best part of the afternoon to relax and enjoy your surroundings.

Lastly some thank yous. Firstly I would like to thank the Trinity College Projects Fund and Donald Robertson Fund for supporting me financially and enabling me to raise the funds required for the expedition. Secondly, I would like to thank Jack for agreeing to come with me, being an excellent companion and putting up with me at 6 o'clock in the morning every day! Next, my mother, who put a lot of time into helping me with the research when I was just beginning to plan the project, regularly sending me emails full of web addresses to look at! Finally, a big thank you to every one who sponsored us - all the donations, support and good luck wishes encouraged us greatly along the trip, and it is lovely to know that we will in turn be supporting such a worthwhile cause.

Day 15 - a bit more culture, of a sort

One of the reasons we'd decided to do a double stage previously was so that we could spend the day in Porto Vecchio (the largest town close to Conca) buying souvenirs, cheap clean clothes and generally making the most of our time in Corsica. It turned out to be a very good decision for another reason - there was a lot of heavy rain forecast. It arrived at about 8am and effectively trapped us in Conca; the bus stop was on the main road junction about 4km away, not a distance we were prepared to walk in torrential rain.
Our first impression of Conca had been that it looked bigger than Calenzana and better kept than all the towns and villages we had visited so far. Unlike everywhere else we'd seen everyone here took pride in their houses; there were no broken windows, walls that needed replastering or signs of graffiti. The community also seemed lively; there had been a lot of locals in the bar the day before, mostly senior citizens, and several drivers stopping to chat to someone or other on their way past. So, considering Conca is a relatively long way from anywhere and doesn't have any public transport, one might expect there to be some amenities in the village. There are a couple of places that serve food, but only during the tourist season of July and August. There's also a small Alimentation acting as a general store. Unfortunately it's not reliable, and the lady at the tourism office told me that it often doesn't open in the rain! Brilliant. The only food we had left after breakfast was half a jar of jam and some dehydrated macaroni cheese.  The only place we could obtain food was the gite, which just had a limited menu of cooked meals and to two students these seemed quite expensive. We had noticed one girl, probably related to the owner, eating a sandwich from the bar so asked if they would sell us one. The waitress probably thought us even more weird but agreed. She disappeared without comment and turned up fifteen minutes later with large baguettes which were delicious!

Around lunchtime a lot of familiar faces started appearing, drenched from head to toe. It was very pleasing to see that all these people had made it, despite the conditions and to be able to congratulate each other. The rain finally eased during the mid afternoon and we were allowed to move into the room we'd booked for the night and lounge around in the gite sitting room. For dinner we cooked the macaroni cheese in the warmth of the kitchen and although this did not improve the quality of the food it was surprisingly tasty for a Tesco dehydrated meal, even if we made the sauce a little watery! It certainly did not serve four though. We also experimented with trying to make an accompanying hot drink out of jam and hot water. It just tasted like sugary fruit tea and looked very unappetising. In the evening we went to the only other place we knew would be full of people, the bar, and I made sure I'd tried some of the local beer before leaving. We took the playing cards with us and the bar man very kindly got us a card mat out for our table. We asked if they sold nuts, but sadly the answer was no. This gradual reintegration back into society and normal life somewhat reduced the excitement I was feeling about returning home and I think I missed the mountains already.

Day 14 - Refuge de Asinao to Conca

We had discussed the day before the possibility of doing two days in one and finishing the trail today. Martin had given us the idea as he was doing this and had walked the section from Bavella before, saying he reckoned we could do it in three hours, meaning the whole day should only take about ten hours (solid walking time). I sneakily set the alarm forwards five minutes. Any earlier and it would have meant leaving before dark, so it was a bit of a pathetic gesture. We finished the wholegrain bread before packing up the tent and setting off on the high level route, as it was a clear day.

I was surprised by how dramatic the scenery still was even though the peaks were getting lower. We met Martin and The Green People on the ascent and then many guided groups of climbers on the descent, some of whom were lacking a lot of confidence on the terrain considering what they'd signed up for. Bavella was traditionally a `summer village' for Conca, consisting of a collection of small rectangular houses with corrugated iron roofs. It now caters for a booming number of climbers/walkers and hence even has a pizzeria, and sells food at slightly-less-than-mountain prices.

The next place we stopped, though just to pick up water as it was a very hot day, was the Refuge d'i Paliri, which seemed to be undergoing a makeover. It was a pretty straightforward walk from here. In fact if it hadn't been for the heat, tiredness in my legs and the fact that my nose wouldn't stop running, (as it had been for the entire trip) then it might have been a really easy afternoon.

I tried to enjoy the last of the mountains as much as I could but to be honest I just wanted to reach the end. The path had been devised cleverly to allow you no glimpses of civilisation until the final half hour of descent and even then it was still a surprise when you caught site of the spring and main road through the trees. My emotions were a mixture of relief and excitement and we stopped for a celebratory photo before walking through the village to the bar. The half a bar of mint cake we had saved as an emergency energy/moral boost was consumed. We had pushed ourselves quite hard during the afternoon to arrive just after 4pm. This meant plenty of time to really enjoy the hot showers at the gite before dinner. It is nice to feel clean and also not know that you're inevitably going to get very dirty again the next morning!

 Greg and Martin finished shortly after us and we joined them for drinks and dinner at the gite. The waitress was confused when Jack and I didn't express an interest in buying any of their 20€-a-bottle wines but instead insisted that we were fine with the much cheaper A.O.C. house wine. When you're used to the whatever's on offer in Sainsburys this tastes perfectly acceptable. It was a lovely evening, great to be able to relax and also have the chance to get to know some of the people we'd been walking alongside better.

Day 13 - Refuge d'Usciolu to Refuge d'Asinao

The slightly grumpy gardien at the previous refuge had told us that this was a very long day that he expected would take 8 hours walking time mostly due to the difficult descent from Monte Alcudina - a magnet for lightning storms. Thankfully there was no storm forecast but it was a rather dismal day. Consequently lots of people who weren't usually early risers left with us and the other regulars at 7:00. The pace across the rocky ground was quite fast but we kept up. Later on we walked through beech woods and slopes covered in heather and bracken to reach the bottom of Monte Alcudina. We met Steve and his girlfriend and follwed them up for a while. The low cloud meant that we could only very occasionally make out the summit we were heading for. When they stopped for a break we caught up with Martin and let him set the pace for a while, which was much easier tha doing it yourself. Almost out of nowhere the summit appeared, with a fallen cross on top. I was obviously quite disorientated as I'd thought it was about another kilometre over to the left of us, thank goodness for the waymarking. Greg joined us for a quick food break.

The descent was very challenging, Greg had pointed out at the top that most mistakes happen in the last few days when people become careless, so we took it slowly, but Martin and Greg found it a lot harder without poles. We were actually only the second people to arrive at the refuge this day, after `the two fit French' - a middle aged couple with massive calf muscles who must live in the mountains. The gardien in the refuge came across as a bit grumpy but I think really he was more of BFG (bearded friendly giant), he just spoke the local dialect which, as Pierre-Yves had observed previously, involves a lot of silence. The shower here was the worst we'd ever seen. Not only was it freezing cold but the plumbing was so bad that the water sort of dribbled out at waist height.

Later on in the evening we were cooking yet another dinner consisting of 500g of spaghetti with not enough tomato sauce (a logistical nightmare when you only have two small trangia pans) when a horse came up to the table next to us where two Germans were sitting and ate one of their packets of dried soup, plastic and all. So, when the horse persisted, they made a hasty retreat with all their stuff for the safety of their tent, which was the other side of ours. The horse followed and even though we could see it coming I couldn't act to quickly enough and soon he had a large mouthful of freshly cooked spaghetti dangling from his mouth. Jack hid everything in the tent and suggested I use the poles to usher him away. This still didn't work - it just made the horse agitated and he even tried to eat the lighter a couple of times. So Jack went to fetch the gardien who came out, took one of the poles from me and whacked the horse over the backside with it. He returned it to me rather bent, and then hastily proceeded to bend it back. It was fine, and everyone watching found it hilarious. Thankfully Jack and I can live on 450g of spaghetti between us.

Day 12 - Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d'Usciolu

Another long day, with ascents at the beginning and end and a scrambly, bouldery ridge walk but good varied scenery and lots of mountain cows too (don't know what breed they are but they have long eyelashes and look like they're about to take part in a cow beauty pageant). We stopped to chat to most of the English people along the way and bought a loaf of bread from Prati for lunch. We passed the first person we've seen who was really struggling with the terrain - a French speaking woman in her 60s who had to be helped up a scramble by two Germans. She was on her own and proceeding very slowly but not asking for help, we slowed down though to check she got over the first ridge section ok before moving on when we realised there were plenty of people behind us who would find her if she got into difficulty.

There was a bit of an incident going on at the refuge when we arrived; a misunderstanding between Andy and the older gardien which had resulted in the gardien throwing Andy's stuff out of the tent he thought he'd hired. Neither spoke the other's language so Steve was called in to help translate, but the gardien didn't seem to want to discuss the issue with him either. After both had calmed down the gardien decided that the refuge wasn't fully booked after all and Andy was told to move to one of the permanent tents further down the hill. Meanwhile I went to see the gardien's son who was very nice and helpful to me, I returned and was later discussing the incident with Juan Carlos, the Quebecan and Steve who assured me that his kindness was just because I was female. A second visit to buy food comfirmed that this was true as the guy was being so flirtatious he even complimented me on my French, ha ha. The major plus point of this refuge was that they baked excellent wholemeal multiseed loaves of bread, which we bought two of with a whole jar of jam and round of cheese!

We asked if anyone had seen the old lady and it turned out there was an interesting story behind her. She had arrived at Prati the evening before and said that her husband would be joining her. When her husband arrived she was a female, and she later decided to go off for an evening stroll, yodeling in flemmish as she left (I kid not). When she didn't return her partner became anxious and people assured her that she would be back before nightfall. When night came and she still hadn't arrived someone managed to contact her by phone and it materialised that she had got lost (how!?) and wouldn't be returning. So the old lady decided to carry on alone having only walked two low level routes so far and against the advice of others. Steve said he would go out and look for her if she didn't arrive before dark, but she eventually did having had to walk through the evening rain. It was decided she was a liability to others and she was sent off the mountains via a link to one of the villages. Martin said that during his first few days he'd also seen gardiens send people home who'd come with too little experience or brought way more stuff than they could carry.

Day 11 - Campanelle to Bocca di Verdi

This was another day where we elected to follow the high level route, over Monte Renosu, following cairned paths. The climb to the summit took about 2 hours but didn't feel so bad, we stopped and admired the Lac de Bastani on the way. During the last steep section I took one of my intentional wrong turns thinking I'd spotted an easier route to the top and had to do a bit of unnecessary scrambling, suffering a grazed hip from trying to squeeze through a gap that was too small. More fool me, as Jack would probably say.

The summit had amazing panoramic views and it was a clear day. As we began to walk along the ridge we came across a shepherd standing on a pinnacle, whistling and calling to his sheep with an extraordinary variety of noises. 
Over the next section we got a bit lost. We'd expected this as we were meant to be switching from one cairned path to a new one, but the problem was that there were cairns in pretty much every direction. We stopped for a long time to discuss the map, debating more over whether we needed to know where we were before preceding along the ridge than over where we were. The terrain was making things difficult both in terms of walking and obscuring our view, but once we'd managed to get back onto flatter ground everything got easier again. On the descent we passed through an area of springy grass and water holes or pozzines which was very pretty.

We stopped for the night at the Relais San Petru di Verdi, a bar-restaurant with a huge log fire and barbeque. There were also semi-wild pigs grazing round the campsite and four hot showers! Most people who'd been with us at Campanelle had walked the low level route and so carried on to the Refuge de Prati, however Martin had now caught up with us, having walked both low level routes from Vizzavona in one day. We had dinner in the restaurant which was wonderful, though less so for Jack who's vegetarian main option consisted of a large pile of peas in place of the pork chop!

Day 10 - Vizzavona to Campanelle

It felt strange initially to have had a day off walking, but as we set off I was quite keen to get out of the woods and onto the mountains again, now the weather had calmed down.

The storm did have one benefit - it caused the salamanders to emerge from their hiding places onto the woodland paths and our first sighting got me very excited. They are curious slow-moving creatures and I couldn't help but pick one up and have it walk over my hand; kind of slimy. Turns out they also taste foul as when a fly flew into my mouth a few seconds later I stupidly put my hand in to get it out. Not pleasant, and Jack rightly teased me for this.

Even after we'd crossed the first bocca, most of the walk was through the pine woods which I found intuitively frustrating as the trees were obscuring our views and I love being out in the open. However I decided to make the most of the change of scenery and consequently I stopped many times to take photos of odd looking, mostly dead laricio pine trees.

 This turned out to be the sunniest day of the trip and became a very hot afternoon spent on the terrace of the Gite U Fugone where we were camping, trying to make the most of The Times crossword and games page that we'd saved from the day before. Andy, The Three Firemen and The Four English were also there, this was the first time we'd seen so many English speakers since leaving home. The gite had a tepid shower (presumably heated by some solar type system) but with no door, just a curtain that covered about 2/3 of the gap.

Day 9 - a little Corsican culture

Despite the strike rail we were still hoping to go on a day trip to Corte today as the buses were apparently still running. According to Paddy Dillon, many walkers who complete the GR20 regret not leaving the rather isolated world of the mountains at any point to experience some island culture. So we wandered up through Vizzavona to the main road. The village had the feeling of a ghost town; a small collection of large, slightly derelict houses surrounded by massive gardens and eerily quiet. There was, much to my surprise, a bus timetable of sorts containing one morning bus to Corte and one return in the afternoon.  Unfortunately it was a couple of months out of date, but we had nothing else to go on. Returning to the station we encountered a party of people walking back up to the bus stop - clearly they knew something we didn't.
The roads to Corte were not designed for coaches and many of the bus stops were in far from ideal locations - next to tight bends and such like, but the driver took no notice of this. There was also a strange 10 minute break in a layby, clearly intended for those on the bus from start to finish who were bursting for the loo as there was a trail of toilet paper leading into a nearby copse. Lovely.

Once in Corte we visited the Museum of Corsica (good, but could have done with move detailed information and some English translations), spent 3 hours wandering slightly aimlessly waiting for the siesta to finish, then bought a copy of The Times and sat outside a cafe catching up on world events. Very cultured. Anyway here are some of my observations from the first week of the trip, more later:


You'll see `Soup Corse' as a starter on many menus. This can be almost anything so long as it contains ingredients grown on the island, and really its pot luck what you get. Popular main courses are omelette (hard to order one that doesn't contain mint), and pork/wild boar based dishes. The dried cured ham and pork liver sausage, figatellu, is often very good.
For dessert there's chestnut cake, fiadone - a soft tart made with milk then soaked in spirit and flambeed, and creme brulee. For the more adventurous you could try the `fromage de tete' for your main course (pigs brain, not cheese), and goats cheese ice cream for dessert. We did not.
When it comes to drinks the island beer `Pietra' - made with chestnuts of course - is lovely, and Jack and I actually preferred the Corsica Cola to the usual variety.

Corsica is owned and run by France, but clearly has its own distinct language (which is more like Italian), history and culture. The Corsican nationalists are very active it would seem; anti-French graffiti everywhere, French names on road signs filled with bullet holes etc. though I get the impression they are very much in the minority. The bus driver on the way home did have a long rant to the front seat passengers about the French and their strikes, when he wasn't on the phone, or taking the latest hairpin bend at ridiculous speeds.

We knew there had been a storm forecast for today, and we returned from Corte thinking we had missed the worst of it, but we weren't so lucky. The rumbling started just as I was trying to get off to sleep and about an hour later it was bucketing down with rain and thundering violently in more than one direction around us. I could hear voices outside and, having not had any experience of large thunderstorms when camping, decided to wake Jack up in case we should be moving indoors. He was very confused and thought morning had come round quickly but we decided it was safe to sit it out in the tent seeing as we were low down. A quick peek outside confirmed everyone else was also doing this, apart from a pair of German girls whose tent had flooded and who were having to move it. We lay frozen to the spot counting the time between lightning and thunder carefully and it got very close but eventually it seemed to be moving away and we could relax again. I wondered how Greg was faring under his single sloping sheet of tarpaulin (apparently the water came within a couple of inches of his sleeping bag) and was very glad we weren't in the high mountains on an exposed refuge site.

Day 8 - Bergeries de l'Onda to Vizzavona

We decided to do the high route again for this next day, except this one was definitely not the easy option. The previous day we had met Greg for the first time and he passed us during the scrambling on the way up.
It was another very windy day and picking our way along the poorly marked trail that followed the ridge to Monte d'Oru was quite difficult, the terrain included a lot of loose slate with a very steep slope below us and I scared myself a couple of times thinking about what might happen if one of us slipped. Consequently when we got to the point where you were meant to drop your packs for the final 20m ascent to the top I refused to go. I knew it was no harder than anything else we'd done, but the blustery conditions had knocked my confidence. My mother later told me that a woman had been blown over on this ridge just a couple of weeks previously and had needed rescuing by helicopter.

The descent was also quite unpleasant; a very steep gully filled with loose rocks which must be particularly treacherous in the summer when it has more than two people going down it but that's where the yellow paint marks went, so we followed. About 2 hours after leaving the top, we caught sight of Vizzavona, the first civilisation we'd seen since Calenzana. It still seemed miles away and unfortunately it was.

Vizzavona doesn't have a refuge, instead the station restaurant has a camping ground in the woods, offers hot showers (for which you pay extra, but it's worth it) and runs an epicerie. The guy who ran it (whom I shall call the station master - he might as well have been as the actual station workers were on strike the whole time we were there) was very nice to us, probably because we spent so much at his still-mountain-priced epicerie. In return he gave us the fruit and a second hand lighter for free, which was incredibly useful as our supposed `storm matches' had not lived up to their promise. We had dinner in the traditional Corsican restaurant which was good value. Their creme brulee was amazing, so I tried to ask the waiter what it had in it. He just kept repeating `creme bru-lee' slowly over and over until eventually he realised what I was asking and pointed to the shot of myrtle liqueur we'd just been given by the station master. I thought better of trying to tell him that `creme bru-lee' was actually an English invention, also known as `Trinity Burnt Cream', if you shop in Waitrose!

Day 7 - Refuge de Pietra Piana to Bergeries de l'Onda

This was one of the days that it had been recommended we take the high-level alternative route, though it seemed like a bit of a cop out as it was shorter and with less total climb than the official GR20 route. Initially we had some difficulty following the path (yellow paint blobs can look incredibly like lichen) but this became easier once we got onto the ridge and from there it was a windy and technically challenging walk but with great views both east and west of the ridge. We reached a junction of paths about ten minutes from the refuge where we met Denis and Pascal. They turned out to be going straight on to Vizzavona; something we could also have done had we not wanted to take the high route on the next day too. This was sad news as Martine and Emmanuel had left us the day before so we were now surrounded by strangers again, but oh well, plenty of new friends to be made.
We arrived at the Bergeries before midday, feeling like we hadn't deserved our lunch yet. So we decided to leave our packs and run the 4km through the woods to the Bergeries de Tolla, as our favourite guidebook author Paddy Dillon had told us we'd find a `mouthwatering menu' there. Unfortunately they weren't serving meals but we did buy a loaf of bread and some authentic, good quality Corsican cheese. On the way back Jack went for a swim in the river but I elected not to, having cooled down a bit since the run and instead sunbathed on a rock (clearly I just wanted to save myself for the cold shower). It was very amusing watching a group of day trippers walk from one side of the footbridge to the other as Jack swam underneath them, as if he was some kind of intriguing marine animal. There was yet more tasteless carbonara pasta with yummy tuna for dinner, and this time Jack had his goat's cheese to make up for it.

Day 6 - Refuge de Manganu to Refuge de Pietra Piana

We knew that we were once again starting with a climb and looking at the landscape ahead postulated that the path must go up a gully behind one of the spurs and over some pass that was hidden from view; the ridge of rocky pinnacles straight ahead looked far too high up and inaccessible. We were of course wrong. It was another steep boulder field climb to get to the ridge but when we emerged at the top we were greated by an almost vertical drop the other side and the most amazing views over the Lakes of Capitellu and Melo. The next section was a very slow traverse around the almost horseshoe shaped ridge to the other side, and it was great to be able to look back across and see where we'd come from - this is an opportunity you rarely have during the first few days. Jack and I had a minor dispute over where to eat lunch - there wasn't anywhere that satisfied both `shady' and `good view of the lakes'. Sliced long life bread and apple puree puts anyone back in an agreeable mood again though.

The refuge was one of the better ones - showers purely cold as opposed to freezing, three friendly female gardiens busy at work in their kitchen who even let us use the indoor cooking facilities, and cans of tuna for sale. I very much enjoyed sitting at the table and eating my 250g of slightly tomatoey pasta with tuna, such a novelty, though it was a shame Jack doesn't like fish. The tiny cooking and dining hut was packed full of hikers, including a group of Scousers. They had come on a two-day hike from Corte, the old Corsican capital which we were planning on visiting on our rest day, so we asked if they thought it would make a good day trip. One of them replied that, seeing as we were students, we'd absolutely love it because it had a brilliant night life with karaoke bars and everything. Not quite the information we were after. They also weren't used to trail prices; they kept complaining that their 2€ 50 glasses of wine were not particularly special and had come in a plastic cup. Jack and I thought it was great, far better than our college red and at most refuges you'd pay 4€ for it.

Day 5 - Ciottulu di i Mori to Manganu

Martine had pointed out to me the day before, that in her French guide book (which contains excellent 1:25000 maps) day four had taken up one page where as day five ran over four whole pages! It was indeed a relatively long walk but the kind Jack and I were quite used to - mostly flat woodland paths. So this was an easy day by comparison. In the morning we met a guided group of hikers, something I knew existed but we hadn't seen yet. Now most people either walk slowly or take plenty of breaks. This group did both. They also hadn't been taught their trail manners very well and we were forced to follow them for quite a long while until an opportunity arose for an off-path overtake.

We passed another ski station around midday and stopped to buy food for lunch. The only vegetarian option was a Corsican cheese sandwich. When we came to eat it later we found it to be more cheese than bread, and rather strong salty cheese at that. Most of mine got hidden in the roots of the tree we were sitting under but Jack manned up and ate his.

In the afternoon we passed the Lac du Ninu at an altitude of 1743m and it didn't seem like we were in the mountains at all. In fact with all the grass, wild ponies and comparatively gentle rolling hills it felt more like the New Forest. When we got to the refuge we realised that in doubling up we seemed to now be amongst a much bigger crowd of people, mostly Germans. We saw Martine, Emmanuel, Denis and Pascal again in the queue for the shower, it was good to still have some familiar faces around and amusingly during my turn I heard someone comment that the English must be used to cold showers as we didn't make nearly as many gasping/screaming noises as Denis and Pascal. The water was so bitterly cold it made my head hurt!
We were joined for dinner (pasta with real bits of vegetable in it followed by fruit salad) by a young American and French couple who were walking north from Vizzavona. They advised us to take some of the higher alpine variants to the trail over the next few days as they were well worth it, so long as the sky was clear.

Day 4 - Haut Asco to Refuge de Ciottulu di i Mori

Day four brings the even more infamous `Cirque de la Solitude' which many walkers dread, and it is at this point that some decide they have had enough and leave via the road to Haut Asco. It is the length and persistence of the scrambling in this section that gives it its reputation, rather than the difficulty of any one particular bit. Keen to avoid the queues that can sometimes build up here, and aware that after Jack's fall over Easter this might be somewhat of a challenge for him we got up quickly and set off at 7:00 on our route march up to the start (time was still allowed for mouflon-spotting and photos, of course). At the Col Perdu (2183m) we met Martine and Emmanuel.
Martine was gazing nervously over the gap down into the Cirque and admitted that she too was not looking forward to it. Even after all the hype, the down hill was a lot steeper than I had expected, and I often found myself thinking that the fixed chains didn't match up to the sections where I really wanted them. At the top of one of these sections Jack panicked due to some loose rock on the ledge, and froze. Two enthusiastic Italian guys came to the rescue though and scuttled up and down the rock face, giving Jack a quick masterclass in climbing and supporting his feet on a couple of occasions.

This was very kind of them but the whole thing might have been quicker if only one of them had been giving instructions at once! A little confidence regained we carried on slowly but safely to the bottom. At one point The Green People passed us looking as comfortable as if they were just walking down a set of stairs, I didn't even see them turn round backwards once. My attempts to emulate failed. The way back up the other side of the valley was more straightforward, the much photographed metal ladder was a bit of an anticlimax, having only about seven rungs.

We caught up with the French crowd again having a late lunch at the Refuge de Tighettu. Realising we hadn't quite stocked up enough on lunch-type foods at Asco we decided to try and get some here. Martine was astounded to discover that we weren't carrying any bread (a commodity not often available on the trail) and seemed to be so worried about the consequences of this on our health she kindly insisted we both have a slice of theirs. Jack and I were unphased by our lack of bread and had a good lunch of dried fruit, nutella and canistrelli (the delicious local biscuits). Mmm, calories. The French undoubtedly thought us strange, especially after we refused some of their pork liver sausage, but we were being careful to eat plenty of carbs and protein each night for dinner.

The Green People stopped here, but we carried on with Martine, Emmanuel, Denis and Pascal to Ciottulu di i Mori, 4 hours away in the baking sun. Frustratingly we had to pass some very inviting little swimming pools in the river without time to stop. We reached the refuge completely exhausted - the climb had been much worse than expected, a good 800m at the end of the day.
The mountains were also swathed in cloud by the time we got there and it was already very cold. We got straight in the tent and cooked out of the door. For `pudding' I introduced Jack to the wonders of Ovaltine, the most calorific hot drink sachet it is possible to buy (trust me, I checked every single one Tescos had to offer). Just as it was getting dark, I was standing in a queue for the toilets when a French lady came up to me excitedly waving her hands in the direction of a mountain slope and whispering `chamois'. Sure enough there was a herd of small goat like animals running down the rocks and they looked incredibly similar to the mouflon we had thought we'd seen earlier. She didn't speak English, but I asked her what a chamois was. The only description she seemed to be able to think of was that it had a small tail, not entirely helpful. Having done a quick search of the internet just now it would seem there are no chamois on Corsica, so I'm going to go with the earlier guess of mouflon, fairly sensible I think seeing as every refuge we passed had a mouflon information board.

Day 3 - Refuge de Carrozzu to Haut Asco

Unfortunately I woke with a bad cold, most likely caught from the woman we shared a cabin with on the ferry. The bottom of my sleeping bag also seemed a little damp - a combination of a poorly pitched tent and Jack having laid his wet clothes on top of it in the hope they might dry. His hope was in vain. Breakfast was a good decision, not least because it meant we were able to retreat into the warm after packing the tent up and have a large thermos and tray waiting for us (available from 4am for those that like an early start). The day began with the infamous `Spasimata Slabs'; after crossing a suspension bridge above the Spasimata gorge the path starts a long and steep ascent in which walkers have to pick their way up the bare rocks, occasionally with the help of fixed cables. This is the kind of terrain that I found quite enjoyable, but I was very grateful it was a dry day. 800m above the suspension bridge lies Bocca a i Stagnu, where we met The Green People again. From here they pointed out that we could see the old ski station of Haut Asco below (now catering solely for walkers), which was our destination for the day. By the time we got there we had walked 6km in a little under 5 hours, which seemed ridiculous especially seeing as we'd made up an hour on the climb according to the guide book, but that's the GR20 for you!

Haut Asco (1422m) is a little bit of paradise on the GR, advertising hot showers, double rooms and a Bar-Restaurant that serves a five-course walkers menu for 18 euros. It also has the best stocked epicerie on the trail and, while the food was still at mountain prices, to have a choice of what to eat for lunch over the next couple of days was very exciting and we stocked up. The shower was unfortunately more of a trickle, but the toilets did have seats, which almost made up for it. We ordered the `randonneur' menu at the restaurant, having discovered that they had a vegetarian option, and joined Pierre-Yves and Lydia in the bar for drinks first. We'd only realised a couple of hours previously that they also preferred to speak in English, and when we discovered that (most unusually) the restaurant had assumed all pairs would be wanting a romantic dinner for two we moved the places so that we were sat together. We had a wonderful evening chatting and the food was absolutely amazing - best of the whole trip, though Pierre-Yves said that the meatball wrapped in veal served for main was not of particularly high quality or done in the proper French style. Sadly this was the last time we saw them as we would be attempting to `double up' the stages on the next day.

Day 2 - Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carrozzu

Plenty of scrambling on this stage! We left a bit late (my fault as I was not used to the cold, early mornings yet and so put the alarm on snooze). A 600m climb soon warmed us up though. This involved crossing a massive boulder field which was interesting but something we would have to become accustomed to doing on an almost daily basis. Once again a bocca was reached with more spectacular views and beautiful scenery. I was silently hoping I wouldn't start to take these forgranted as the trip went on, and indeed I didn't. We didn't pass as many people as we had on the previous day, but did stop to chat with one French couple who were doing the whole Bonifatu circuit (about 3 days of our walking) in one day. Our surroundings consisted of lots of rocky mountains and pinnacles - hence all the scrambling. One particular bit Jack and I both found quite scary:
The flattish path stopped suddenly to climb up a granite gully but just before this there was a rock face on the left hand side and sheer drop to the right. To pass the drop it was necessary to transfer your weight to the right hand wall of the gully before scrambling up.

The day's walking finished with a long and arduous descent to the refuge, we had a few glimpses of it through the trees on the way down but it seemed to be taking an age to get there and by the time we arrived my legs really needed a rest.

The sun was still out when we arrived, as it had been all day, so having had a poor first ever attempt at peg-free tent pitching, we queued up to brave the cold shower and tried to do our laundry. The lack of plugs in the sink became an issue, as I had taken a bottle of concentrated eco-friendly laundry liquid, but nevermind. As I was lovingly hanging my clothes out to dry on some carefully placed guy ropes, Martine came over and helpfully pointed me in the direction of a large area of flat rock, heated by the sun, where they had spread their clothes. Unfortunately this advice came a little to late for Jack whose larger, heavier t-shirts took a lot longer to dry than the 60g-a-piece coolmax tops I had managed to buy in the sale. And so we learnt important lesson number 2 - laundry should be done on arrival at the refuge in order to take advantage of the limited afternoon sun, in addition to this, a good tent spot consists of a large, flat pitch with accompanying nearby boulder.

We decided to buy dinner and breakfast at the refuge in order to get to know other people. This was a good idea - we were placed on a table with Juan Carlos and the Quebecan and Denis and Pascal and were able to participate in the odd conversation. Pascal had a rather distinctive laugh that he had become known for already, and was quite infectious. The food was wholesome and plentiful, but did taste overwhelmingly of pepper. A beautiful sunset was enjoyed by all on the terrace afterwards and many people got out their snazzy cameras for the occasion.

Day 1 - Calenzana to Refuge d'Orto di u Piobbu

Up at 6:00, left by 7:30 - our morning routine needed practice, as was to be expected. We left the village via the backstreets and started climbing. It wasn't long before we saw our first other hikers, The Green People (sadly I can't remember their names but they were a nice young French couple from the Alps with a lot of green kit), and then a few minutes later, a group of four French people with two dogs. We learnt early on the important lesson of `if you haven't seen a red and white flash for over a minute, you've gone wrong'. Just a short diversion and then embarassed laughter as we overtook everybody again. After 1000m of up, up, up we arrived at Bocca a Saltu (Boccas are like saddles or gaps, and feature heavily on the trail) and were greeted by our first spectacular views and a large scattered crowd of hikers taking lunch. So we did the same, and of course many photos had to be taken. For the next section, which included our first proper scrambling and one stretch requiring a chain, we adopted a short, easy-going French guy. We were much faster than him on the up as he didn't seem to like raising his breathing rate (fair enough) but he was a lot more nimble than us on the rocks. Every time we passed him he would say to us enthusiastically `Go, go, to the mountains'! Later in the day we met a group of English speaking Belgians who were on their last day of six (in the opposite direction) and had lost 3/4 of their party. I'm not surprised - the first few days for us contained some very challenging and long uphill stretches which must be a complete nightmare to descend.

Looking back over Calenzana
Our arrival at the second bocca signalled an end to the scrambling and much to our delight we were now higher than the UK. We encountered a goat herd, which we followed to the refuge. This was pretty much as expected, with plenty of little camping spots worked into the hillside as if it were a landscape garden. Just a couple of unpleasant findings - the shower was freezing cold and the toilet was in the style of what Jack referred to as a `French campsite toilet' - no seat, just a ceramic hole in the ground. The gardien(ne?) was nice and appreciated our pidgin French, we bought oranges and cake from her. Jack and I raided the small collection of left books and magazines in the refuge and I spent the evening sitting on the terrace and reading a French novel in order to remind myself of all the vocabulary I'd forgotten. I was very much wishing I knew enough to join in the lively conversation between the rest of the walkers, most of whom were French/Corsican and all of whom spoke French, or so it seemed. The clouds rolled in quite early in the afternoon and the temperature dropped. Jack and I were unpleasantly surprised at how cold it can get on a seemingly mild day at altitude, and Jack was starting to think he should perhaps have bought a little more clothing, a pair of trousers in particular!

Our little tent pitch, with a view

Day 0 - First Impressions

We had shared an interesting ferry `cabin' with a French couple overnight in which one was meant to sleep sitting up. However, having discovered the fold out beds we weren't meant to be using and with the help of our camping mats, all four of us managed to construct some sort of bed in the tiny room. Communication between us was limited but sleep was not so bad. We wandered outside in the morning to see our first views of Corsica. The wind was immense, and wandering from one side of the deck to the other I identified what I thought was still France on the skyline. Another English speaking passenger informed me that this was infact the `Cap Corse' (the part that on a map of the island looks a bit like the walkie-talkie antenna). Oops. Corsica looked a lot bigger than I had expected, and we were meant to be walking from one end to the other.

Our first impressions of L'Ile Rousse was that it was a big step up from Marseille aesthetically. There was one negative point - none of the creperies were serving crepes at nine in the morning. We managed to buy a supply of meths after some poor pronounciation attempts. We then joined a long queue of elderly tourists at the tiny train station to buy a ticket on the L'Ile Rousse to Calvi train, stopping at 'Calenzana - Lumio'. I had a map with me, carefully torn out of the guidebook, which showed the line sticking to the coast and not going anywhere near Calenzana, but I assumed that must be for the summer tram I had heard about on the internet, or something. Turns out I was wrong - halfway through the journey I realised that we also didn't seem to be turning inland and it didn't seem at all feasible that the train could get from Calenzana to Calvi in less than ten minutes at the speed we were going. So it finally dawned on me, a couple of minutes before we were forced to get off (the train was too crowded for us to talk to the driver) that `Calenzana - Lumio' was in fact on the turn off from the main road to Calenzana, 8km from the actual village. The only buildings at the train stop were a petrol station and some sort of Ministry of Defense centre, wonderfully useful for us. The guidebook states that `most people who try to hitch along this road are unsuccessfull and end up walking the whole way' but Jack clearly has more charm than your average walker and we got a lift from a young woman named Anne, who even went out of her way to drop us off at the gite.
She told us that her 11 year old nephew had walked the first few stages of the GR20, so she was sure we'd have no problems. He probably didn't have a massive pack on though..

On arriving at the gite, we left most of our stuff and took light packs for an afternoon stroll to the Romanesque Chapelle di Santa Restituta where a beheaded Corsican martyr is buried in the crypt below the church. Sadly it was shut so we just sat and admired the scenery before walking back. Calenzana was a lovely town with good paninis for lunch and good pizza for dinner (though Jack chose to have pasta - he clearly didn't think he'd be getting enough of it over the next two weeks), plus the usual patisserie, boulangerie, etc.. There were some nice people too - a Swedish family who quizzed us on our plans and kept saying how jealous they were of us and also a friendly French waiter at the restaurant who enjoyed chatting to us in very fast French even when I looked blank (and as became a recurring theme, insisted on addressing Jack even though we'd been clear that it was me that spoke a bit of French)! We enjoyed what turned out to be our last working, hot shower for a long time back at the gite, though this fact had not occured to me at the time. Many people had arrived at the campsite during the afternoon and it was a noisy night - the only one on the whole trip though where people didn't fall silent after 9pm. Can't really complain at that.

An Introduction

This September, with help from the Trinity Projects Fund and Donald Robertson Fund I embarked, along with Jack Shotton, on a two week mission to cross the mountains of Corsica following the famous GR (Grandes Randonnee) 20 trail. The path is known for being the toughest of its kind in Europe, with the terrain so difficult it can't really be classed as `walking' or even `hiking'. Our motivation was the challenge, the stunning scenery and our aim to raise money for the Lake District Search And Moutain Rescue Association through sponsorship. This report records our experience and my thoughts on the trail and island as a whole.

Corsica - a brief history of the island, mountains and trail
(Information I mostly picked up from reading Paddy Dillon's guide book several times over!)
Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, one of the 26 regions of France, lying to the southeast of the country and to the west of Italy. Its geology means it is often referred to as the `Granite Isle' and it can be split into two parts according to its formation. Northwestern `Hercynian Corsica' is the result of a mountain building era that occurred around 300 million years ago and really is one large granite intrusion, while eastern `Alpine Corsica' is so named as its formation occurred at the same time as the Alps, and the rock types are more varied here. The last Ice Age has left Corsica with deep, steep-sided wooded valleys and high mountains of bare rocky pinnacles.

Corsica is historically a very poor island, having been invaded many times by various armies. Its inhabitants have practised transhumance - the seasonal movement of livestock between summer pastures in the mountains and lower ground during winter - for thousands of years and goats cheese (locally known as brocciu) is still produced by traditional herders at all of the mountain bergeries. In recent times the French Government have poured money into the island economy and, thanks to its beauty, Corsica now has a roaring tourist trade with coastal towns and cities being especially affluent areas.

In 1972 the Parc Naturel Regional du Corse (PNRC) was established to encourage `green tourism' in the mountains and bring back to life the ancient transhumance trails. Soon after, the idea for the GR20 was conceived by Michel Fabrickant, a keen mountaineer with a passion for the Corsican Mountains. It was primarily intended for the very sporty and the sale of food at the refuges was forbidden up until the 1990s so that walkers had to carry everything with them or regularly descend into the valleys to stock up. The route has since been diverted and extended to pass through more of the villages and bergeries and hence bring money to the more remote areas of the mountains. In its current form it runs for approximately 190km from Calenzana in the North to Conca in the South (with most people choosing to walk the route in this direction) and is incredibly well waymarked by red and white paint stripes every few metres. Over 12500m of ascent and consequent descent is included and there are also `Alpine Variants' which can be followed for a day at a time to include some more of the mountain peaks. Hikers most commonly walk the route in 15 days staying at one of the Parc refuges each night (as camping is forbidden elsewhere). Refuges offer dormitory beds, permanant tents and `bivouac' sites as well as cooked meals in the evenings and limited food supplies, at a price. The GR20 is met by roads on only few occasions along the route, mostly at winter ski stations. Around half of the walkers starting the trail each year drop out along the way having underestimated the challenge it presents or come into difficulties, we were determined not to become one of these statistics! Being on a student budget, we decided to camp every night and also take a Trangia (cooking stove) for use most evenings. Vizzavona is the traditional `midpoint' of the GR20 (in terms of distance, not walking time) with the northern half generally accepted to be more challenging than the southern section. As a point of interest the record time for completion of the GR20 is under 33 hours!