14 Sep Fra Li Monti – The Corsican GR20
Several billion years ago God instructed the gods responsible for building mountains to turn their attention to planet Earth. Once they’d finished building the world’s mountains they threw the leftovers into Montenegro. All the remaining rubble, the worst scraps, were cast in a pile on high land that would one day become an island in the Mediterranean. The mountain gods’ children used it as a kind of sand pit to shape razor-pointed mountain ranges. They let their imaginations run free and fashioned mountains steep and sharp. Eventually, God came to inspect the Earth’s mountains. He looked upon them and was pleased. When he saw what the godlets had made in their play ground, being all knowing and all seeing, he was delighted. ‘Excellent work!’ He exclaimed, ‘That’ll test my lab rats!’
Eons passed, life crawled out of the oceans and eventually a species of ape stood on its hind legs. The rest of human evolutionary history is pretty well recorded. There’s been human presence on what is today called Corsica since the Mesolithic era. Being an ingenious species the lab rats there eventually found and fashioned a route across these mountain ranges that dominate central Corsica and largely run south-west to north-east in a series of high parallel mountainous ridges. They call the route, which runs from Calenzana in the north-west to Conca in the south-east, Fra Li Monti – ‘the way over the mountains’, or the Grande Randonnée No20 (GR20) or simply Le Vingt.
Lab rats attempting it will know its vital statistics: 180kms/112mi long (supposedly, we’ll get to that later); 15,500m of ascent and 15,800m of descent. Each year thousands attempt to run, jog and hike what is generally accepted to be Europe’s toughest long-distance trail taking an average of 14 to 15 days to hike. Fell running nutter types have even run it in as little as 31h 6m. Thus, it has mythic status. Rightly so. The French Foreign Legion’s Paras, the 2ème Regiment Etranger de Parachutistes (2èmeREP), based at Camp Raffalli near Calenzana, do it annually as part of their fit-for-role test. Except they do it in half the time – seven days, and then parachute back into their base at Calvi to conduct live firing. Stories abound of hikers killed by lightening, or rock fall, sustaining serious or life-changing injuries or simply failing to complete because of inclement weather. So, Fra Li Monti’s rep as God’s test of his lab rats is proven in blood, sweat and tears. And He is very pleased.
This year I’d had the idea of doing a long extended hike that started in St. Gingolph on Lac Leman and ended at Conca: essentially the Grande Traversée des Alpes (GTA) to Menton followed by the Corsican GR20. After the GTA I had taken almost two weeks to recover (so I thought) and rebuild for the GR20.
Being a quarter of the distance of the GTA and almost half the climbing it was easy to fall into the trap of assuming that it would be an easier trek – a footnote to the GTA. Although I’d said in my previous blog that I’d take it really slowly and ‘mooch’ over the GR20 in slow time enjoying the Corsican countryside, as I gazed upon the jagged mountains south of Calvi I knew I couldn’t just wander around aimlessly until I got to Conca. It’s just not in my DNA, archetypally speaking. I needed a mission, something to aim at.
That mission wasn’t hard to find. In the absence of Ninjas to race, going up against the clock was the only alternative, and what better clock than the standard set by 2èmeREP – seven days. It seemed reasonable. I mean, how hard could it be? If I could do 742kms and 40,000m of ascent in 18 days, surely 180kms and 15,500m would be easy in seven days, right? I also have a bee in my bonnet about the 10% of the British Army that is classified as obese (see my rant about this and CGS’s culpability in my previous Menton blog). Having criticised CGS and held him responsible for the obesity epidemic afflicting the British Army, I felt I should also put my money where my mouth is and seek to understand exactly what it is that 2èmeREP do to keep their troops at such a high state of physical readiness. Completing the GR20 within their standard seemed like a good way to achieve this.
So, I had a mission: Calenzana to Conca in seven days. I’d pared down my kit to about 13.5kg (30lbs) with 1.5 litres of water. The only significant advantages that I probably had was I wasn’t encumbered with a weapon and was probably carrying less weight on my back. But, unlike the REP guys I had significant disadvantages: I had no idea what the route was really like – they are led across the route by people who know it; I was doing it in hotter months – they do it in cooler months; I was going solo and would have no physical or psychological help – they do it as formed sub-units, help each other over the trickier bits and keep each other going through collective suffering (team work); I’d just completed 742km of the GTA, had depleted fat reserves and was carrying some injuries – they don’t do the GTA before doing the GR20. So, all in all, I figured I was fairly significantly disadvantaged. Ideal! A challenge! Precisely what was needed to be done on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the battle of Arnhem.
On the night of Tuesday 3rd September I moved from Calvi up to Calenzana in the foothills above Camp Raffalli. The official GR20 starts there and ends in Conca, though some people elect to go south to north. We’ll get onto the relative merits of both later. Calenzana’s a pretty chilled out and pretty village with a fabulous church and several cafés/restaurants. I had my last proper meal at the GR20 café before locating the start of the trail. I decided to go as soon after midnight as possible so got my head down on the ThermaRest for an hour or so. At 10mins to midnight I woke and packed, waited for midnight to pass and at one minute past midnight headed up the trail, illuminated only by my head torch.
Day 1 – Wed 4 Sep
The first few hours climbing through a forest and over fairly gentle hills was easy enough. The white and red route markers were simple to spot with the head torch. Ominously, the route was littered with scorched and burned out trees, ghosts in the narrow beam of light. I realised that the lightening risk was real and could be severe. I was glad it was a cool and starry night. My aim was to crack the bulk of the highest mountains, all in the north, within the first 24 hours.
Normally, hikers plan their distances around the 14 official refuges between Calenzana and Conca. The two week hike is based on the assumption that hikers will stay at each refuge and do a leg a day. Wild camping is forbidden, though for a modest cost campers can pitch tents around the refuges. It struck me that there was definitely a commercial angle to having hikers think that 14 days was the best pace.
But, if you’re going to go faster then doing two or even three legs a day is necessary. Obviously, to crack it in 7 days one would need to be doing a minimum of more than two legs a day. In theory, if you aim to cover 26kms per day you’ll achieve the seven day target. On the GTA I was regularly covering distances in the 40kms and sometimes in the 50kms range. So, how hard could 26kms be?
I found out the answer to that question within three hours when, unexpectedly, I found myself not just hauling myself over boulders but actually rock climbing – full on technical three points of contact, searching for hand holds and footholds in the light of the head torch. WTF! This was wholly unexpected and extremely slow going. On the GTA I had been used to achieving average moving speeds of 4+kms per hour. Now I was reduced at times to 0.5kmh – slow and very dangerous going. Even when paths presented themselves they were rocky and boulder-strewn – nothing you could make reasonable progress on. At around 5am I tore my left Achille’s tendon really badly as a result of a misplaced step. The pain was agonising, but the realisation that not only might I not do this in seven days but I might not even complete it was even worse. So, I dosed up on codeine and limped on, slowed by a desire to avoid a repeat.
By 6.30am I’d reached the first refuge (Refuge de l’ Ortu di u Piobu). In the morning gloom I could see many many tens of hikers getting ready to head off in both directions. My solitude was gone and I quickly realised that this was very congested terrain – quite the opposite to the GTA and its wide spaces and infrequent trekkers. This was Piccadilly Circus. So, I pushed right on through and joined other groups of early risers clambering along the route that alternated without warning between a painfully uneven and rubble-littered path and straight forward clambering, scrambling and climbing over boulders and bare-assed rock faces. This was appalling terrain and really hard going ever upwards towards what appeared to be a col. My mood was grim. This was not quite what I’d expected.
So, here’s the rub: we measure by distance and we can measure by altitude gained or lost. Usually, one can make quite accurate time and distance estimates based on these two factors. Fra Li Monti is simply not like that. The third factor for which there is no accurate scale or measurement, mathematically, is what in the military we call ‘going’ – the difficulty of the terrain. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being easy going and 10 being exceedingly difficult, the GR20 is a 12. I have seldom encountered going as difficult as these northern mountains, except in secondary and tertiary jungle in the Vacca mountains between Belize and Guatemala, where the going is so slow that one can be slowed to doing 500m to 1,000m per day if patrolling tactically. Only Belize sticks in my mind as tougher than these mountains.
Small groups of us eventually staggered to what we thought was the ‘top’. On the GTA the pattern was always pretty simple – work uphill to a col or breach and then work your way downhill. Not so in the north of Corsica. The top simply puts you on the edge of these high razor-edged ridges, beyond which all one could see were more and more jagged razors. That is probably the first time I thought Holy shit! You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me! I must have thought that phrase thousands and thousands of times each time the ‘route’ (what bloody route? – it was just red and white markers slapped crudely on rocks) presented another rock-climbing challenge either hauling myself up or lowering myself gingerly down. This was slow, deliberate and very exposed work.
I fell in with a couple of other couples. It was inevitable as many of the obstacles could only be negotiated one person at a time and presented bottle-necks and choke points. This is precisely where military teamwork would hasten the group over these hurdles – a push, a shove, a pull. But we were strangers and so waited politely while the person in front did their thing. The ridge work ground on but eventually we started a very slow and steep descent into a rocky valley – a cauldron of heat in the midday sun. At each stream and river I stopped and gulped down water – clear and cool. My philosophy, which I stuck to religiously throughout was never miss an opportunity to hydrate. Water is fuel not food. The more you hike the less you need to eat. But without adequate hydration performance degrades dramatically.
By 1pm I’d reached the second refuge (Refuge de Carrozu) and and stopped to rip off my boots and socks and cool and dry my aching and partially cooked feet. I gulped down two Cokes and scoffed a bar of chocolate. But this was short-lived. I was anxious to press on to the third refuge (Refuge d’Asco-Stagnu), a whole mountain range away.
I’d planned to get to the fourth refuge (Refuge Tighiettu) by the end of the day. But the going that afternoon was so savage I was lucky to make it to the third refuge by 8pm. The heat was fierce and magnified by the smooth and steep sided granite slabs that I very slowly plodded up wondering how the fuck do you do this if it’s wet and raining? It would be seriously dangerous and almost impossible: angle of ascent – 30 degrees, rock bare-assed, very smooth, heat-reflecting. So you either fry in the sun or risk serious injury in the wet. By then it was patently obvious why the GR20 has the rep it has, and as I plodded on upwards my respect for the 2èmeREP test grew and grew.
It took me nearly five hours to get to the where I found the French couple and a group of four youngsters. All had that shocked and slightly bewildered look on their faces. They’d all set out from the first refuge that early morning. Technically I was already a day ahead of them as this was still my first.
‘Do you think this is really the hardest randonnée?’ asked one of them.
‘Oh yes. Without doubt. There is nothing remotely similar in difficulty anywhere on the GR5, 55 or 52. This thing is in a league of its own. It’s just a beast!’ I replied.
As the sun was disappearing we decided it would be safer to descend to the third refuge (Refuge d’Asco-Stagnu) together. It was visible way down in the valley, but the descent was so steep and treacherous that it took over two hours of careful slithering and foot-placing to negotiate the uneven rock face and bouldered ‘path’. Eventually we reached the refuge, which was part of a larger complex of hotels and restaurants serviced by a road – in fact it was a ski resort. As with the first refuge it seemed to be a hub for trekkers – literally several hundred heading south or north.
I was pretty exhausted after my twenty hour ordeal – and I hadn’t even got to where I’d intended to get. It would turn out to have been entirely unrealistic to hit the fourth refuge in one day as that involved another hideously steep ascent to the highest col on the route, Pointe des Eboulis, followed inevitably, of course, by another steep descent into the next valley where refuge four was located. But, that was all for the next day.
Those 20 hours really undid the previous two weeks R&R and I was back to where I’d been at the end of the GTA. It takes more than two weeks to completely replenish after tabbing 742kms.
The guy running the refuge sold me a couple of Cokes. He asked where I’d come from and I said Calenzana. He was very surprised. I told him that my GPS had recorded 41kms. He shook his head and said that it was only 27kms. But, I’ve noticed this before – that a GPS readout can be radically different to the stated distance. I suspect it’s because the GPS is recording every micro twist and turn, every switchback, and critically, the hypotenuse distance when climbing and descending. 1km ground distance (flat map) and 1,000m of ascent has a hypotenuse distance of 1,410m. And therein probably lies the reason for these discrepancies.
It had been a very exhausting and frankly shocking day. The going was tremendously challenging. There was another French couple close by as I was guzzling Coke. They looked like ‘fast movers’ – trail shoes, light packs. The girl had heard I’d come all the way from Calenzana that day and asked me how many days I was aiming to do the route in.
‘Seven.’ I replied.
‘That’s ambitious.’ She raised her eyebrows. And gave me one of those you’re-fucking-crazy-and-I don’t-really-believe-you looks. I was to bump into her and her silent smirking boyfriend over the next three days, when they’d always scream past me at a clip-clip-clip rate of knots, rapidly overhauling me, the slow-moving tortoise. But, more of them later.
I was quite shagged out and fell asleep in the wood on my ThermaRest and dossbag. It didn’t look like it would rain, so I didn’t bother with the tent. I set my alarm for 5am. I was back in ‘marginal gains’ mentality.
Day 2 – Thu 5 Sep
I woke at 5am but this was now no longer August when it started to get light at 6am. I packed up and took off just before 7am in better light joining the hoards of hiking, scrambling and climbing up the valley towards Pointe des Eboulis, the highest point on the GR20 at which one could choose to turn left and climb Monte Cinto, another 100m. But, I didn’t enjoy the sheer congestion of the procession upwards, which reminded me of those mountaineers queuing to get up Everest. The sense of isolation or solitude was absent – just an endless procession of lab rats crawling their way at various speeds upwards.
This brought out some strangely unpleasant behaviours. Obviously, with such numbers mixed abilities abound. I remember an Asian girl being very careful, slow and somewhat challenged by the terrain. Behind her young twenty-somethings, me-first types would tut tut, huff and puff making it obvious that she was holding them up. And then there was the obnoxious Dutch family, led by competitive dad, followed by two brats with mum bringing up the rear – no kit. They ran barging people off the trail. This was definitely not the solitude I’d been seeking.
At the col I did what every sensible soldier would do – boots off, admin the feet and get a brew on, eat some cardboard-tasting serial bars, after which I was set for the three hour descent to refuge four (Refuge Tighiettu), where most of the hoard were stopping.
It was there that I discovered that the refuges are very well stocked with readily available food. I was carrying about 2kg of food – five days worth – but the canned tuna salad Nicoise and tinned sardines followed by a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes all washed down with the inevitable Cokes was easier and tastier than freeze-dried meals. By 1pm I pushed off again following a river down a long valley. I had a real sense that the very worst of the north was over and was able to pick up a bit of speed.
I was soon overhauled by another pair of super slim female fast movers. I’d kind of bumped into them the previous night at Asco and they’d let on that they were doing the route in twelve days. But they were bloody fast walkers and experienced, as it was to turn out, in quite a few randonnées. They were from Basle. ‘Oh good,’ they’d said at the lunch stop, ‘It’s good to know that there’s someone else pushing on to the next refuge.’ I left before them but within an hour the hares had overtaken the tortoise.
After some hours following the river the route hooked right up another valley. Clearly another col had to be climbed before getting to refuge five (Refuge Ciuttulu di i Mori). As the path steepened, which pleased me a lot as I’m best at climbing, worst at going downhill and average on the flat, it stopped abruptly at a small 20′ high vertical slab of rock on which was painted the route symbol. I cast around looking left and right for the next one but saw nothing.
At this point I am going to have a real whinge about the GR20. It is badly marked. Many of the markers look like they’ve been painted by a drunkard – all sloppy and running. Nothing like the neat signs in the GR5 which is, by comparison, immaculately marked. Not only that, which is a cosmetic complaint, but the GR20 lacks the crossed symbol indicating don’t go down here, which is a positive feature elsewhere. On the GR20 the markers are sometimes so ambiguously placed that it’s easy to take a wrong path or turn. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done this, wasting precious minutes. Hikers beware – the route marking is crap compared to the GR5.
So, here was a mini cliff and a route marker. No other indicators. No arrow to indicate climb me. It was yet another of those Holy crap! You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me! moments as you go into rock-climbing body-hauling mode hopeful that as you get to the top you’ll spot a marker, which of course I did. I would say that the northern part of the GR20 is not really hiking at all. It’s rock climbing with hiking poles hanging uselessly and dangerously from your wrists. Madness. On your own, with a 30lb pack on your back climbing with useless poles. Whinge over. Despite slashing open my knee and having a leg covered in blood I hit the col at 6pm and the refuge by seven.
‘What happened to your leg?’ said one of the fast females from Basle.
‘I got into a fight with a rock back there. I won. You should see the rock. Not a pretty sight.’
We got chatting about the seven day madness. They wished me luck.
Day 3 – Fri 6 Sep
I woke early, in darkness, packed and took off with a head torch. I wouldn’t see the fast movers again as they had a twelve day schedule. This day was long and pretty easy – lots of flat track distance through forests, some climbing up a mountain and an amazing skirt around lake Nino, perfectly beautiful and so different to the jagged mountains I’d left behind.
But, I discovered that my blown Achilles really limited my speed on the flat. Truth be told I was hobbling slightly. While in the forest the French pair that I’d mentioned before tore past me and disappeared off along the track. Stupidly I tried to increase my speed and tripped on a root and tore my right hamstring – a deep pain in the butt, literally. So, semi-fucked left Achille’s and now pulled hamstring. Great! Just when things were looking up.
On the GTA I’d invented a new form of therapy that virtually every physician would disagree with. I’d twisted my right ankle quite badly, twice. Instead of stopping and tending to it I simply increased pace and kind of ordered it to heal itself on the move. Remarkably, it worked. So, I took more painkillers and had a stern conversation with my hamstring and cracked on. It was painful but the mission comes first. I just kept on plodding hour after hour after hour. The distance between refuge five and six was considerable because of the easier going. But the scenery was stunning.
By 4pm I’d got to refuge six (Refuge de Manganu) where I stopped and admined myself for forty minutes while chatting to two South Africans who were resuming the GR20 having previously pulled off at that point because of rain. There was no sign at the refuge of the French couple. I assumed they were in their tent.
But, I had to keep going. The next climb was was steep, bouldery and mainly involved arms – more hauling oneself up over rocks. It was incredibly steep and barren. This was no simple up and over a col and down again. It was a bit like day one – a lengthy spell of very slow and careful razor-ridge work and tons of Holy shit! You have to be fucking kidding me! moments – some quite horrifying lowering oneself down almost vertical chimneys and slides. Easy to slip, break and ankle or leg.
The light was going. The clouds were down. There’d be no hope of using a head torch in cloud so I decided to keep pushing on along the razor ridge until I found a suitable place to sleep. Eventually at around 7.30pm the path flattened enough for a ThermaRest. I blew it up, put it inside the bivvi bag to protect it and crawled into my sleeping bag and silk liner before crawling into an orange foil survival bag. There was no hope of putting a tent up and it had started to spit. I protected my Bergen with its waterproof cover and went to sleep. And then it poured with rain. But, I was fine – warm, secure and happy high up on that mountain.
Day 4 – Sat 7 Sep
I slept so well that I woke at 4.30, refreshed, warm but soaking wet in my sleeping bag. Nothing to do with the rain – all condensation. Survival bags are sweat bags. But, no problem. I packed it all away. The cloud and rain had passed. I waited for the first hint of dawn and resumed my progress along this treacherous steep-sided razor-backed ridge. After several hours of clambering over giant boulders I eventually passed through a col and down to refuge seven (Refuge de Petra Piana), where the custodian was an elderly fellow with an amazing character.
I set out all my stuff to dry in the sun and went at several tins of tuna and sardines with relish, all swigged down with yet more Coke. My torn hamstring was much better. I’d found a very powerful gel in a pharmacy in Calvi that was specific to sports injuries. Unlike Volterol which contains 1% Ibuprofen, this stuff had 5%. I’d rubbed it into my leg the night before and it did the trick. It behaved itself pretty well thereafter. As I said, healing on the move – it works for me.
When my kit was dry I packed up and took off – more tortuous downhill. Today was the day that would make all the difference. If I could get to refuge eight and from there launch over the next mountain I might, after another long downhill make Vizzavona on the main road the cuts through the mountain range. It represents the symbolic halfway point where you leave the hideous northern GR20 behind and begin the relatively easier southern GR20 to Conca. I reckoned that if I could get to Vizzavona by midnight of Day 4 I’d have a fighting chance of completing the southern half in three days. Vizzavona was to me on the GR20 the same as St. Dalmas du Plan on the GTA: the point from which one strikes at the finish and you do what you have to do in those three days to succeed. It was really a question of going that bit further each day, if necessary pushing on with a head torch.
The strategy is really based on Sir David Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ theory and practice where making small incremental improvements and measures over time adds up to big gains. The theory and practice of ‘marginal gains’ took British cycling to Tour de France wins and Olympic gold medals. It transformed the Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle from error-prone to the safest hospital in the world with a culture of zero avoidable medical error. ‘Marginal gains’ can be applied to any endeavour including tabbing. So, Vizzavona by midnight it was.
I got to refuge eight (Refuge de l’Onda) at 2.30pm just as heavy cloud began to obscure the mountain I’d have to go up and over. It began to spit with rain as well. Not great conditions. I fuelled up with more purchased food. The camping compound was full of hikers prepping for their overnight stay. I spotted my French fast moving couple at a table and wandered over to say hello. They must have gone so fast the previous day having overtaken me in the wood that they got over the mountain and into refuge seven by last light while I slept up on the mountain.
‘Are you staying here tonight?’ she asked me?
‘No. I’m pushing on. Vizzavona tonight. There’s still five hours of useful daylight left.’ Yeah, and you two won’t be seeing me again I thought to myself.
She looked up at the low cloud and replied,’You must be crazy going up there in this!’
‘I’m from UK. We’re used to this. This is Scotland on a good day.’
With that I took off and spent a couple of hours plodding up a spur in cloud carefully picking up the markers. Fortunately, it didn’t rain. It was really a question of pushing on to the top, turning left along a rocky razor-back and very carefully descending an extremely dangerous and steep rock face, on which I fell quite badly twice, bruising my left hip the first time and my lower back the second time. The tread on my boots was giving out. But, I broken nothing and kept going over these giant slabs and big boulders. By 7pm I’d entered a wood. The path was the worst ever – narrow, twisting, dark and horribly rubble-strewn.
For the first time ever I was treating quite significant blisters. I’d never had them before. I was wearing exactly the same foot gear as for the GTA. But the constant uneven movement of my feet in three dimensions caused blisters. Unavoidable. So, I was into a blister management regime. One had got so big that I had to burst and disinfect it and then protect it with a plaster.
So, yes, that path that night was just hell on the feet and, inevitably, out came the head torch. At 9pm I reached a bridge over the river at Vizzavona where I bivvied for the night. My back was killing me and I wondered if I’d damaged it. I was worried that the following morning it would prevent me moving on. So, out came the magic gel, which I spread all over my back and the damaged hamstring. And then got my head down.
The curious thing about tabbing in a measured way over prolonged periods is that, apart from Day 1, I was never fatigued or tired. The strategy was all about conservation of energy and pushing on, going that little bit further. I slept in order to allow my body to heal. But I never arrived utterly shagged out. That is also a key element in the practice of ‘marginal gains’.
The fast movers, by contrast, had a much higher short-term work rate and some admitted to me being utterly exhausted at the end of each of their shorter days. To me it didn’t make much sense. They all seemed to be going nowhere fast. Why expend all that energy clipping along at a higher work rate only to arrive exhausted at your destination mid-afternoon and sit there twiddling your thumbs? Why not go slower, expend less energy and arrive later? I didn’t really understand their rush-to-wait approach.
Day 5 – Sun 8 Sep
The gel (Cliptol Gel, by the way) is totally magical. I woke at 4am with no back or leg pain. Totally healed. Even the Achille’s seemed better. I was on the road at 5am head torch on. This was the first of three days where I really had to keep pushing on.
The initial ascent through a wood to a col looked straightforward. I was on the GR20 path. To my right was an alternative variant. At some stage during the ascent I failed to find a turnoff to the GR20 and continued along a path until I was halfway between the GR20 and the variant. At that point I checked my nav and realised the error. The sensible thing to do would have been to backtrack. But, I was closer to the variant so I pushed on hoping that the variant would be easy to spot. It was anything but. I eventually found it, but reckon that error cost me 20 minutes.
At the same time the wind picked up. This was no normal wind. It was a gale. The trees creaked, leaves flew off, branches snapped off. Occasionally, you’d hear a tree snap and crash. The faster I could get out of the wood the safer I’d be.
But, I was wrong. As I broke the tree line at the point where the variant rejoined the GR20 I spotted a couple ahead of me struggling against the wind. The closer we got to the col (Boca Palmente) the faster the wind got accelerating over the exposed col. As I crossed it I was blown over like a skittle and started to crawl on all fours. Just then I noticed the couple and two more people cowering the lee of a rock formation. One of them grabbed me and pulled me into relative safety.
One couple was German the other French. The French guy had a lot of French military equipment so I figured he was an ex-servicemen. He was the guy who had grabbed me. No sooner was I in shelter than he and his partner shouted ‘Allez!’ and took off back into the wind and off the deadliest part of the col.
I thought of the high exposed mountain I’d gone up in the cloud and over the previous afternoon, falling during the descent, and realised that anyone caught on that this morning, like my fast mover French couple, would be severely endangered and run the risk of being blown off the mountain. I was so thankful that I’d pushed on the previous night and got to Vizzavona before the wind got up. Actually, it was a full blown gale.
We struggled off the col, and as soon as we were back in the woods we were out of the wind and in the lee of the mountain. The wind was coming from the west and we were now on the eastern slopes of the mountain, moving quickly along easy woodland paths with little climbing – contouring for a very long time towards refuge nine. It was actually really boring. Not hard or testing, just endless boring tabbing.
I hit the refuge (Bergeries de Capannelle) at 11am and stopped to nosh up and admin for half an hour. But the wind was howling outside and I figured it would be better to keep going on toward the next bergeries at Col de Verde. The afternoon was much the same as the morning – long but easy. The Bergeries Col de Verde (not one of the official 14 refuges) was quite the most enticing – a roaring log fire and the menu threatened roast pork that night. I was suddenly overcome by the temptation to succumb to the corrupting influence of comfort – beer, log fire, wonderful meal. Get thee behind me, Satan!
Refuge ten (Refuge de Prati) was relatively near. A few hours away. I reckoned I could get to it by last light. After an energetic fairly steep ascent through a wood and the up to the col (Bocca d’Oru) the gale had intensified to a storm which blew me over time and time again. This was really dangerous. Fortunately, the refuge was close by. As I staggered towards it I noticed that all the tents had been shredded in the wind (the refuges also provide tents). There was not a soul about. My one thought was to get into the refuge and to safety. It was crammed to capacity with hikers doing the same – over a hundred – piles of back packs, poles, bodies everywhere. Sardines. I was just bloody grateful to be safely in with them.
I dumped my gear and found a seat on one of the tables next to some German and Polish hikers. The buzz was that the storm would last through the night and only abate mid-morning. That was no good for me I had to get going at 5am. There was still a long way to go.
The Corsican refuges are good like this. In an emergency they’d never turn anyone away. Somehow we’d all have to find a way of sleeping on the floor. After supper, for those who’d paid for it, we stacked the benches on the tables, found a patch of floor space and blew up our various air mattresses. As I said, sardines. But before that I decide I was close enough to the end to divest myself of all my food except an emergency meal. So, I gave away all the freeze-dried stuff to hikers going north, ditched the bag of boiled sweets and fed the dried sausage (another 1kg) that I’d rashly bought at the previous Bergeries to the hut’s two dogs. Somehow, I’d accumulated more food and ended up with a Bergen straining at almost 17kg. The whole point had been to go lighter not heavier!
Day 6 – Mon 9 Sep
At 4.30am under a red-filtered head torch I dressed my blisters, slipped on my boots and quietly crept out of the refuge along with one or two other determined souls heading south. I now just wanted to finish this damn hike and was quite prepared to just keep going until it was done.
The wind was still strong but manageable. We slowly searched for the route which was not easy to pick up. It essentially followed the top of a long ridge line that runs due south for a long way. This was to be an exceedingly long day of working the ridge – broken, tangled, much clambering and climbing. The south was not the easy walkover that some said it would be. It was marginally easier than the north but still taxing. But the benefit of leaving early was the reward of a spectacular and wild dawn – clouds, sunrise and a silver shimmering sea on our left-hand-side.
On the GTA I’d stopped briefly at the refuge at Le Boréon on the GR52 and had got chatting to two British hikers – elderly gentlemen. I’d said I was heading to Corsica to do the GR20. They’d done it together and one of them said, ‘The extraordinary thing is that you’ll be hot and cold at the same time as you go down the spine, from which you can see sea on both sides.’ I was baffled by this and my experience of the GR20 thus far did not match this description, until this ridge line.
But, they were right. This was it. As you progress south along this dragon’s back the trail switches backwards and forwards across the top, involving much careful clambering and climbing. On the eastern side, protected by this ridge’s lee from the prevailing wind it was baking hot. Moments later the trail would switch back to the windward side and you’d be blasted by icy cold air. And so it went on, hour after hour hot-cold-hot-cold-cold-hot-cold – an experience odder than trying to make a soup sandwich- sweating your tits off one moment, freezing your nuts off the next.
After eons of this I came to an oasis, refuge eleven (Refuge d’Usciolu), where a delightful group of four young hikers were enjoying a break. I recognised them from the refuge the night before. We got chatting. They shared some bread. I said I just wanted to finish this thing and get it done in seven days, which, by the way was starting to look possible. There was still a way to go and my best possible chance of guaranteeing this was to go beyond the next penultimate refuge, which was a big ask. But it had to be done.
We chatted about taking a variant this day and the next day. Occasionally, the route throws up an official variant. More often than not it’s the old GR20, superseded by a newer route. This day’s official GR20 was easier and took in a new refuge. One suspects this was done to increase revenues. We all agreed that the variant, the old GR20, was more exciting as it actually took you over Monte Icudine beyond which it would meet the new GR20 before dropping down to refuge thirteen (Refuge d’Asinau. If you take the variant route you miss out refuge twelve – Refuge de Matalza). I like climbing rather than traipsing along an easier route, and resolved to do just that.
Eventually, the dragon’s back ended and gave way to a pleasant flat plain just at the start of which one had to decide whether to take the variant or the new GR20. I took the former, but at a cost.
I was rewarded with spectacular dusk views from the top of Monte Incudine. But by the time I began the descent to Refuge d’Asinau I’d lost the light. The descent was steep, tricky, technical, and with a head torch in the dark, highly dangerous. Let’s get our boy safely off this mountain. I took it really slowly. An injury at this stage would fuck everything up. I made sure I located the next marker before carefully moving on. In the dark below I could see tiny pinpricks of light moving around static yellow lights – head torches at the refuge.
After several nerve-wracking hours I got to the refuge at 9pm. But, holding to my philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ I knew I had to get as far forward as possible to guarantee success the next day. So, for the next two painful hours I picked my way over a treacherous boulder-strewn path that slowly climbed up the slope of the valley’s opposite side. The following day we had to get over the Col de Bavella to begin the final push to Conca. I decided to push right up to the very point on the path in the forest where the variant up to Aiguilles de Bavella and jagged high ground departs from the official GR20. I wanted the challenge of the climb up to those spectacular needles much more than the slightly longer but safer and boring tramp through the forest to the Col de Bavella where both variant and official route meet.
I reached that point at 11pm, set out my ThermaRest and sleeping bag and feasted on my last and only freeze-dried meal, a Lyo chicken tikka massala, followed by noodles, a bar of chocolate and a can of Orangina. I still had one packet of noodles and seven cardboard cereal bars for emergencies.
The stars were bright through the canopy and no hint of rain. Again, I was happy not to stick the tent up. I slept well, happy that I’d pushed as far forward as I needed to. All I had to do was wake, pack and tab straight up the mountain.
Day 7 – Tue 10 Sep
I woke at 5am, treated my blisters and packed in the darkness. At 5.45am I set off up the variant, straight uphill, following the yellow markings of the variant route. Oddly, the variants are better and less ambiguously marked than the main GR20.
I was so pleased that I’d gone with the variant, though it involved much more challenging climbing and rock climbing across the rugged rocky top, at times hauling myself up on fixed chains.
The reward was yet another fabulous dawn with cloud whisping through the rocky needles from the east. None of it was a struggle or a chore. It was the first time I truly felt in flow with what was going on. Gone was the anxiety of time pressure. Bar a last minute accident, which was entirely possible, I was going complete on this the seventh day. It was only a question now of how well. I didn’t want to finish in the dark again. It would be nice to finish in daylight.
By 8.45am I’d made the Col de Bavella in exactly three hours. All that remained was to get over a smaller final ridge and make the last and fourteenth refuge (Refuge di Paliri) two hours from the Col de Bavella. From there it was a straight five hours to Conca. It felt like a downhill relaxed entry to Conca. On the basis that Conca was seven hours from the Col de Bavella I estimated I’d get there at 15.45 or so.
I resisted the temptation to take my foot off the gas and relax at one of the many cafés at the col. This was not the time to let up. I’d stop at the refuge and admin myself.
Halfway there, having stormed the last ridge, I head and a click-click-click rapidly closing in on my six.
‘Ah! English! There you are!’ said one of them. Holy crap! These guys were hammering along. They’d started at the previous refuge, taken the variant and caught me before the next refuge. It was two of the four from yesterday. Two guys.
‘Why are you going so bloody fast? What’s the race?’
‘We just want to finish this as soon as possible! We need to eat at the refuge.’ They we’re both steaming along and kind of hobbling at the same time. They’d started a day before me so this was their eighth day and still my seventh.
They flashed past me but I caught them at the refuge, where they shared some dried meat they’d bought.
‘I wouldn’t dare go as fast as you guys and risk an injury.’
‘You are right. This morning a girl left the refuge and broke her ankle going too fast in the dark on those rocks. For her there’s no finishing the GR20.’ That was sobering and I resolved to make sure I watched my footing for the rest of it.
At the refuge we filled in a questionnaire for two university students who were gathering data on who was doing the GR20 and why. I guess I didn’t leave the refuge until 11.30am, which put my finish time at 16.45pm. I didn’t like that so made reasonable haste.
Last year Phil Neame had said that you work hard for every step of the GR20. He should have added that you also work your ass off for every hand hold as well. He was right. There was nothing easy about the approach to Conca, no easy cruise downhill to the finish. The jagged path fought you every inch of the way. Mostly it seemed to involve more and more bloody climbing. More scrambling and clambering uphill over steep ridges. For fuck’s sake, why is this going uphill, again! The whole experience was perverse, counterintuitive and never-ending. The heat was hammering down and as usual I started taking on water wherever I could find it.
Every so often I’d pass hikers – clean and with shiny new kit heading north on their first day. They’d glance at me – unwashed, unshaven, dirty from six nights of sleeping rough, limping, scratched, bloodied and bruised, shirt covered in blood, snot and sweat and probably wondering what the hell have I let myself in for. Usually, I’d just say ‘Bonne journée’. Good luck with that!
One ridge line involved a squeeze between a cleft in a rock. Thereafter, the path narrowed, still appallingly rocky but now hemmed in on both sides by thick bushes. Through a gap one could suddenly see the terracotta roofs of a village not too distant – Conca. This was it, the final descent. Despite this the unevenness of the path didn’t abate. It was brutal to the very end when it emerged onto a hard top road surface. But this was still not the official end. There was another half a mile downhill to the centre of town and the official finish. I ran all the way and crossed the finish at 15.52pm, making my overall time from Calenzana to Conca 6 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes, exactly – a brutally hard and unrelenting test of stamina and endurance.
The two French guys were standing at the official end plaque, which was fixed to a wall. Their names are Dimitri and Thomas – French air traffic controllers from Bordeaux. It was great that all three of us were there at the end. I was able to take photos for them, and having unfurled the British Airborne Forces Pegasus flag I’d been carrying since 3 August, to commemorate this 75th year of the Airborne assaults on Normandy and Arnhem, they returned the favour.
They were excellent companions and making their way by shuttle slightly earlier down to Porto Vecchio (there was no point hanging around in Conca), they organised a hotel room for the three of us, taking that burden off me. It was all set up for me when I arrived. Thank you guys!
Interestingly, the hotel would not allow us to take our Bergens to the room. We could only take our spare clothes and washing kit. Everything else had to go into quarantine in bags in a store room. They explained that hikers in the past had brought bed bugs and all sorts of ticks into the hotel. This was a wise precaution given that the refuges are not exactly sanitary places.
The following morning the three of us chomped through most of the breakfast buffet, locust-like. Forget seconds, we’re talking fourths and fifths. We gorged ourselves on fruit, toast, croissants, cheese, ham, yoghurts and freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice. And then we did it all over again the following morning before I caught a coach up to Bastia and they took a flight to Bordeaux. Great guys.
In Bastia I met up with my sister Nada and my brother-in-law, Simon, Tatiana’s parents, and their three Schnauzers, Lilly, Milly and Dottie. They’d just arrived by ferry from Nice having driven down from UK. A fitting end to Tatiana’s Gambol 2019.
My GPS data showed quite a different story to the official 180kms. It topped out at 223kms. With the 742kms for the GTA that made 965kms from Lac Leman to Conca since 3rd August. Enough! My boots, new on that date, were stripped down. Not much tread left. They were more worn out than I was. But, that’s down to the invisible effect of ‘marginal gains’ and conservation of energy.
I’m glad I completed the GR20 well within seven days. I now have a much better feel for how 2èmeREP maintain such a high state of physical and operational readiness. The test is extremely challenging but not impossible. I can see how its benefits include teamwork, endurance, resilience and self-esteem training. It’s a gold standard test. So, come on British Army. Get a grip and sort out your obesity crisis.
There is now no doubt in my mind that the GR20’s reputation is well-deserved. ‘Enjoyment’ and ‘fun’ are not words that naturally spring to mind when thinking of it. It lacks the grandeur and long vistas of the Alps. It is compact, harsh and relentlessly unforgiving. It is psychologically and physically extremely challenging requiring very high levels of concentration to prevent a fall or injury. If you really want to test yourself, this is the one.
North to south or south to north? Well, there’s a debate. Officially, the start is at Calenzana and the end plaque is at Conca. There is no end plaque at Calenzana. Many would say that south to north is tougher because all the hard stuff occurs around the four refuges in the north. But, I disagree. I would argue the opposite. I would say that hitting the north first is physically and psychologically harder because your mind and body are not conditioned to the environment. Everything is a shock. Conversely, if you start in the south by the time you get to the north you’re ‘match fit’ and ready to tackle it: you’re fitter; you’ve mastered the scrambling and climbing gradually; you’re used to the unevenness of the going; you’ve learned how to balance yourself. South to north eases you into the experience; north to south chucks you in at the deep end – sink or swim.
I had deliberately not read the guide books. I hadn’t had time to do so nor the capacity to carry one. I had no idea what was coming next beyond what the map was telling me. I quite like it that way. I know it’s perverse, but I actually like everything to be experienced cold, even the nasty surprises. Secretly, I like the Holy shit! You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me! moments. They force psychological toughness, resourcefulness and resilience. You cannot grow in any way if you stay within your comfort zone. You have to stretch yourself. As lab rats we are adaptive and elastic, but we only adapt when stretched. Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.
So, that’s it. Job done. Thank you to all of you who have donated to Children With Cancer UK. I’m really grateful to you. To those of you who have been reading these blogs and perhaps enjoying them, but have not donated, please consider the fact that their primary purpose is to encourage people to donate to a worthy cause, rather than merely provide entertainment. If you’ve been reading them please consider a donation as a fair exchange of value, particularly as September is Child Cancer Awareness Month. But, that’s up to you. This is what kids with cancer undergoing chemotherapy really look like:
Finally, stay tuned to this frequency for one final blog on the 17th of September – Arnhem Day. It will be of particular interest to anyone who is serving or has served with Airborne Forces. It contains a very poignant story to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle of Arnhem.
So, that’s me. Fra Li Monti lab rat signing off.