Saturday, 23 October 2010

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.


  1. Thank you Hannah for your excellent report!
    (I found your post on where I also posted my link to my experience). Having done the northern section (back in July), I'm always curious about what people think of the trail. And I'm also keen to know what to expect on the sourthern section I'm planning for the next summer. I'm just in love with Corsica :)
    Best luck.

  2. Thanks, Michele. My parents actually watched your film while I was out there and showed it to me when we got back. I thought it was excellent - you get a much better sense of the atmosphere with video and the terrifying nature of the Cirque comes across a lot better!
    I hope you enjoy the southern section. My friend Jack said he thought he might have preferred the southern scenery to the northern half.
    Best wishes,


  3. Hi Hannah,
    Thanks for the great blog about your journey, very informative. My friend and I are also at Cambridge and are thinking about doing the GR20 this September. Would it be possible to ask you a few questions about the walk, and about the funding you got? Perhaps email would be easiest (jr643).
    I look forward to hearing from you :)