Traversing Corsica on the GR-20 – Another Father-Daughter Adventure
Jul 6, 2018 at 12:54 am #3545432ManfredBPL Member
Now that my daughter is 16 I don’t take it any longer for granted that she wants to go on her annual summer backpacking trek with me. Our summer treks from when she first backpacked the JMT at age 9 until she accompanied me across Iceland at age 14 were always a given. After that I consider myself lucky for every year she asks me where we will go backpack next. Last year we went once again on the JMT and this year we traveled to Europe to backpack the GR-20 across Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean Sea. The GR-20 is supposedly the toughest of Europe’s Grande Randonnées, or GR trails, and we were told it has a dropout rate of 75%.
The GR-20 is more of a high-level route than a trail and we would daily deal with combined elevation gains and losses of 8-10,000 ft – often while walking across talus or scree. This relentless 4,000 ft up and then 4,000 ft down every day made it “tough”. Technically speaking it is not any tougher than – let’s say – the Sierra High Route. Combine that up and down with some exposure in certain places, lingering snow in high elevations, thunderstorms in the mountains and you understand immediately why people say it’s the “toughest” GR.
Picture 1: Map of GR-20 (Source: cartograf.fr)
Traditionally the GR-20 is hiked in 16 stages from north to south – going from Calenzana to Conca. We decided to walk the opposite direction for two reasons 1) We prefer the sun in our back 2) That would provide roughly 10 more days for the snow to melt on Monte Cinto (the highest mountain on Corsica) before we would attempt to summit it.
AN AWKWARD BEGINNING
We arrived by ferry in Porto-Vecchio and took a taxi to get to the trailhead as busses don’t run yet in June during pre-season. Our taxi driver told us that we are smart to start at the finish as that would allow us to take a “victory” photo at the finish plaque
and later brag about finishing the GR-20 despite dropping out within the first 2 days. We first thought he was joking, but he was dead-serious and told us that many people have enough of the GR-20 by the second day and take the bus back when crossing the road in Bavella. Hannah wasn’t sure what to think after that and we started on our hike with a weird feeling. 20 minutes into the hike we met a backpacker coming from the other direction. We asked him whether he is finishing the GR-20. He was indeed finishing and we expected to hear about the majestic mountains, the fantastic views and how great it was in general. Instead he told us that he would never do it again, regretted to have done it and doesn’t even know why he pushed himself to finish the whole thing which took him 15 days for the 16 stages. You can imagine how that improved our mood after our conversation with the taxi driver. That hiker gave us the parting advice to always carry a lot of water as his 2-liter bladder had often not been sufficient and subsequently he suffered in the heat without enough water. Hannah and I looked at each other and our single half-liter bottle on our shoulder strap, wondering how this adventure would go for us.
Stage 16 – ON THROUGH THE THUNDERSTORM TO PALIRI
Right on our first day we climbed 4000 ft up to the Refuge d’l Paliri and got a first taste of how the GR-20 would be. The views back to the ocean were fantastic and every corner we took had another great sight for us.
Always differing rock formations,
waterfalls with pools that invited to take a swim,
ruins and much more.
Notice the exhausted backpacker who is laying down in the background? After talking to the other backpacker earlier we didn’t dare to ask this guy how he liked the GR-20.
In the afternoon the weather changed and what started out as a light drizzle turned into a thunderstorm with a massive downpour.
When we arrived at the refuge in the downpour the guardian cooked a fantastic spaghetti dinner for Hannah while I set up our tent in the rain. That was a great introduction into the Corsican hospitality. Dinner time at the refuges along the GR-20 is normally at a set time and it is necessary to make a reservation roughly two hours before. We arrived 2 hours before dinner and when I made the dinner reservation for the two of us, he just looked into Hannah’s face and asked what she would think about a warm meal and a hot chocolate right away. She was of course all for it 😊
Stage 15b – TAKING THE ALPINE VARIANT TO ASINAU
The next morning, I enjoyed a fantastic view from the tent that included watching Hannah eat breakfast.
That morning we had our first funny experience with speaking English in a non-English speaking country. Hannah asked two people for the restroom and they told her the refuge doesn’t have a restroom. She couldn’t believe it and asked again. Slowly the other people realized that she was really asking for the toilet and not a room where you can rest. Once Hannah came back from the place they sent her to, she told me there is no toilet, but a weird shower stall with a way too short hose. I had an inkling what this might be and went with her to explain to her how to use a squatting toilet.
For the next stage we could either follow the GR-20 on a low-level route or take the alternative high-level route. We discussed it briefly and agreed we would go for the alpine variant with its exceptional views, its sheer walls and four towers named – Punta di l’Acellu, Punta di l’Ariettu, Punta di a Vacca and Punta di u Pargulu. First, we passed the Village De Bavella, where we had lunch and didn’t opt-out of the GR-20 like the cab driver had predicted. One of our tent neighbors from the night before on the other hand had enough at that point. He couldn’t see himself climbing another 4,500 ft on the second day with his heavy backpack. I asked him for the weight of his backpack and was surprised to hear he was carrying a base weight of 15 kg and carried close to 20 kg when including his 3 liters of water and his food. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Hannah’s base weight was 3 kg and my base weight was 4 kg as I was carrying our tent and our cooking gear in addition to what she was carrying.
Once we left Bavella we turned at the statue of Notre Dame des Neiges to follow the alpine variant.
The views we encountered when climbing up where indeed exceptional.
Luckily, we had already passed all four towers and were on our way down when another afternoon thunderstorm started. This seemed to become a pattern and we wondered whether we should start hiking earlier in the day to be done with the high-level parts before. Once at Refuge d’Asinau we got another fantastic tent site with a view and enjoyed the dinner that the refuge offered.
Stage 14 + 13 – OUR FIRST DOUBLE STAGE GOING TO USCIULO
On our third day we felt confident enough in the Corsican mountains that we decided to tackle a double stage. By now we had realized that most European hikers don’t treat water and thus carry enormous amounts of water while we were indeed fine with our half liter bottles in mountains where the snowmelt was still going on.
First, we climbed up and up
following the typical white-red blazes, enjoying on one side the views back to the ocean
and on the other side the view to the valley and the next mountains we would cross along the way.
As we tackled two stages on this day, we had to first get down to the valley before we would get up to the Refuge d’Usciolu. Down in the valley we enjoyed a big lasagna for lunch at the Bergeri d’ I Croci. We followed the lovely river Ruisseau de Croce for a while and enjoyed the shade provided by the beech trees when Hannah suddenly had a face-off with a pig. Hannah stood her ground and the pig moved eventually out of the way to let us pass.
Then we went up and up again for a total of over 4,200 ft climb that day
until we reached the Refuge d’Usciolu where we stayed once again in an amazing tent site.
By our third day we really appreciated the comfort of backpacking a trail in Europe with the luxury of having mountain huts along the way that offer cooked dinners. We came right in time for dinner and were lucky to get two portions despite not having reserved dinner two hours before.
Stage 12 – UUPS, THE REFUGE IS NOT STAFFED
For our fourth day we planned to extend stage 12 and instead of stopping at the Relais San Petru di Verdi continue to the Casetta di Ghjalcone.
We walked across talus fields
and climbed over 4,700 ft that day.
At the Refuge de Prati we bought bread, cheese and salami for lunch. Later this turned out to be a lucky move as we ate only half of all that food. At the Refuge di Verdi we stopped only briefly for an ice cream and continued to the Casetta di Ghjalcone for the night. When we approached the hut, we were surprised not to see any tents. It turned out the hut was closed. As we couldn’t buy dinner or any other re-supplies, our left-over cheese, meat and bread came in really handy. Another advantage was that we didn’t have to pay €15 for putting up our two-person tent for the night. Amazingly enough “closed” doesn’t mean locked. So, we could have slept in the dorm, used the kitchen to cook, etc. With no one else being around we used the opportunity to wash our clothes and take a shower without the usual crowd.
Stage 11 + 10 – VIZZAVONA, WE ARE HALF THERE
Combining the next two stages into one day seemed straight-forward for us as their combined climb was only 2,300 ft. Several pretty waterfalls lined the trail
and we enjoyed beautiful views on our way to
the Refuge de Prati for lunch. Hannah played once again with the guardian’s dog. Somehow, she attracted every dog at every refuge and was always happy to play with the dogs.
While continuing to Vizzavona, the midpoint of the GR-20, we were looking ahead at the mountains we would have to cross next.
Stage 9 – WHY IS THE PIG NOT MOVING?
Following the river l’Agnone Ruisseau was beautiful. Especially seeing all the cascading falls and big pools of the Cascade des Anglais.
The higher we climbed,
the better our views became
On our way to the top Hannah stopped suddenly. There was seemingly a pig bedded down and not moving. Hannah stopped and tried carefully to get the pig to move. It just didn’t want to move. When she finally got closer, we realized it was dead and we were wondering for a while how it got there.
When we reached the crest near Punta Muratello, we considered briefly to summit nearby Monte d’Oru, but as that would have added around 3 hours to our day, we decided to keep going. Finally, we made it to the Refuge de l’Onda,
where we met several backpackers that we had seen arrive at the train station in Vizzavona. All of them assumed that we too – just like them – had just started in Vizzvona for doing half the GR-20. They were very surprised to hear that we had already completed the other half of the GR-20 – especially when seeing our backpacks. Their backpacks were all weighing around 20 kg and when discussing their gear, they insisted that they already purged aggressively from their pack to lighten it.
Stage 8b + 7 – CAN YOU SEE THE WAY?
Once again, we decided to take a high-level alternative, seeking out the fantastic views the mountains on Corsica offer. We gained over 5,000 ft that day and enjoyed the views tremendously.
First, we made it to the Refuge de Petra Piana, that you can see in this photo from a distance.
These mountain huts continued to amaze us during our traverse of Corsica. The level of service they provided in the most remote areas was outstanding. Being able to get dinner and often lunch as well as being able to buy resupplies made our hike so comfortable. We would always just buy the food for the day and not carry anything beyond that.
In the afternoon we continued from Petra Piana in ever changing mountain weather to the Refuge de Manganu. The weather varied tremendously. One minute is was so foggy that we couldn’t see the next white-red blazes and were wondering where the trail was going with Hannah asking me “Can you see the way?”
A minute later we would have sunny clear views of the twin lakes of Lac de Capitellu and Lac du Melo.
At the Refuge de Manganu we exchanged experiences with fellow backpackers. By now asking others about their pack weight had become routine. This time the lowest pack weight was 13 kg – a new record. Most of the packs weighted closer to 20 kg which seemed to be the norm for the people we talked to.
Stage 6 + 5 – OUR FIRST 20 MILER
For this day we decided to once again do two stages, which meant to backpack over 20 miles. Other hikers that morning thought that is crazy, but we felt it’s feasible.
First, we passed lovely Lac du Ninu
and then hiked through a nice area of windswept beech trees.
When we reached Hôtel Castel di Vergio, the end of stage 6, it was only lunchtime and we felt our plan would work easily. The backpackers we talked with the night before arrived when we left after an extra-long lunch break and wished us the best, but still thought we are crazy.
After we passed the waterfall near the Bergerie de Radule,
the weather changed. A horseback rider with a pack mule in tow passed us in a hurry and was driving the animals hard. My guess is he knew what was coming. While climbing higher and higher we got into a thunderstorm out in the open that made me keep my distance from Hannah. She wondered why and I told her that would increase our chance of only one of us getting hit by lightning so the other one can help the victim. She wasn’t that comforted by my reply but assured me that she knows how to apply deep chest compressions if necessary. By the time we reached the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori
the thunderstorm had passed and we decided to continue with our original plan and still hike the additional 4.5 miles to the Auberge U Vallone. When descending from Bocca di Foggiale we saw three mufflons. What a great surprise! The descent was beautiful with all its rushing waterfalls but required our full attention as everything was wet
In the end it took us almost 13 hours to complete the 20 miles to Vallone, but we didn’t mind the long day and the 6,000 ft of climb. It had been beautiful.
Stage 4 – MONTE CINTO – THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN CORSICA
After leaving the Auberge U Vallone in the morning we decided to stop at the Refuge de Tighjettu to buy some more snacks. Seeing the location of the outhouse at the refuge we couldn’t resist to use it and enjoy the views …
When we reached Pointe des Éboulis the weather was good and we decided to add the 2 hours for summiting the highest mountain on Corsica. Eventually we would sit on Monte Cinto and enjoy the 360 view – seeing many mountains in the distance we had passed on our way.
Our trek was slowly coming to an end and I was feeling extremely lucky to sit here with my 16 year old daughter who had been such a fantastic backpacking partner – not just on this trip but on many trips over the last couple of years.
The descent to Ascu Stagnu included long scree fields
and views of pretty waterfalls.
At Ascu Stagnu we met hikers we had seen the night before. They were surprised to hear we summited as they had wanted to summit too, but couldn’t due to the dense fog. Sometimes it pays to sleep in. We were notorious for starting late in the morning – sometimes as late as 10:30 am – while everyone else left way earlier between 5:30 am and 7 am. I have learnt a long time ago not to wake a sleeping teenager as you pay the price for the rest of the day. This day it paid extra dividends to let Hannah sleep as it made us arrive in the late afternoon at Monte Cinto when the weather was sunny.
Stage 3 + 2 – WE CAN SEE THE OCEAN ON THE OTHER SIDE
Once again, we decided to tackle two stages in one day. Backpackers we met in Ascu the night before, who had come from the other direction, warned us that each single stage is very hard, but by now we felt very confident in our abilities to advance through the mountains and get both stages done.
The day started out beautifully with views like this
Following the river Ruisseau de Spasimata
we eventually crossed a hanging bridge to arrive at the Refuge de Carozzu where we had lunch while enjoying the view with their Corsican flag in the wind.
When we continued the weather changed once again several times from fog
to sunny views of the ocean on the other side of Corsica. We now had (almost) crossed Corsica from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Ligurian Sea and felt the joy of achieving what we set out to do.
At the Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu we met many people who had just started their hike, climbed 5,300 ft with a full backpack and were wondering whether it would ever get any easier. We assured them it wouldn’t get easier, but it would be worth it as it is absolutely stunningly beautiful.
We enjoyed once again a wonderful tent site with one last sunset.
Stage 1 – FINISHING THE GR-20
Our last day was a short day. All we had to do was descending 5,300 ft. One last time we enjoyed the views of the mountains.
as we got increasingly better views of the ocean.
Way too fast we arrived at the trailhead of the GR-20 which is known on Corsica as ‘fra li monti’, meaning ‘across the mountains’.
Another amazing adventure had ended for us and the next one waited already for Hannah.
How do you summarize a trip like this? It’s certainly not the miles covered or the tremendous amount of elevation gain & loss. That is just context to understand the physical and mental effort. Or is it the never-ending beauty of the Corsican mountains, their ruggedness and the magical transformations they went through when the weather changed? That is certainly part of the allure the GR-20 provides. But for me the summary is more personal – it is comprised of following my daughter for roughly 130 miles while she navigated the route, made decisions about where to go, how fast or careful to proceed, whether to add a second stage to our day, whether to break for lunch or for enjoying a special view. Hannah has grown into an amazing young woman who will soon go out into the big wide world and conquer it in her own way. In a small way she is already doing it right now. When I flew back home to San Francisco from Rome she hopped all by herself on a train to Paris with her backpack. She is right now crisscrossing Europe on train with a Eurail Pass for an additional two weeks, exploring other cultures, staying in hostels and meeting other people from all over the world, listening to other languages and expanding her horizon. The last photo she sent was from Zurich and I believe she wanted to go to Barcelona next. Right now, I don’t know where she is until I hear again from her – and I’m fine with that as I trust her abilities to navigate the world. I’m extremely proud of my daughter – not just for finishing the GR-20 in such an amazing fashion – and hope we will continue to go on these special father-daughter adventures.Jul 6, 2018 at 2:23 am #3545444KatttBPL Member
..and proud you should be. Wow Manfred. Everything about your trip is amazing. I am at a loss of words. You two are incredible. Go Hannah!Jul 6, 2018 at 5:13 am #3545474Paul WagnerBPL Member
@balzaccomLocale: Wine Country
Lovely stuff. Our now 30 year old daughter has just signed up for her fourth bsckpbacking trip with us later this summer. We couldn’t be happier.Jul 6, 2018 at 7:46 am #3545490d kBPL Member
Another amazing trip for this father/daughter team. It is so wonderful that you can do these trips together! I know you both will hold these memories in your hearts for the rest of your lives.
Thank you for sharing the report with us all.Jul 6, 2018 at 8:45 am #3545492Ito JakuchuBPL Member
Beautiful trip report. I’ve been really wanting to do this trail some day, this definitely adds to that urge.
I really like your summary, and how you let your daughter navigate and set the base etc. She looked like she was loving every minute of it. Well done!Jul 6, 2018 at 10:19 am #3545496Alex HBPL Member
@abhittLocale: southern appalachians or desert SW
Beautiful stuff Manfred, you are a lucky man!Jul 6, 2018 at 12:50 pm #3545512Kevin BabioneBPL Member
I’m lucky enough to have four daughters (27, 23, and 11 year-old twins) – Your posts ALWAYS inspire me to plan a trip with at least a couple of them. Thank you for posting and I’m already looking forward to your trip next year…Jul 6, 2018 at 1:23 pm #3545519Brad RogersBPL Member
@mocs123Locale: Southeast Tennessee
That looked like an awesome trip. Thank you for sharing.Jul 6, 2018 at 2:11 pm #3545526Ken ThompsonBPL Member
@hereLocale: Right there
Fantastic Manfred. Thanks so much for sharing.Jul 6, 2018 at 4:36 pm #3545557Ben CBPL Member
Great trip. Thanks for giving us all a peak at your joy.Jul 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm #3545639David ThomasBPL Member
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
Another fabulous trip and trip report, Manfred! Those were some serious ups&downs you and Hannah were doing. Don’t expect me to keep up with you on Adak in 2 weeks.
I’m kind of surprised how little UL concepts and gear have spread in Europe, especially on a trail with refuges. Really, what more do you need in a rucksack beyond a quilt, a pair of dry socks and a credit card? And to not just treat water on the trail?!? What age groups and nationalities did you see on the trail?Jul 6, 2018 at 11:06 pm #3545659Roger CaffinBPL Member
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Gorgeous trip report – thanks.
David – not quite right about the pack contents. You don’t need a quilt as bedding is supplied, but you do need a jacket always!, a credit card and your toothbrush. :)
CheersJul 7, 2018 at 2:52 am #3545718Clifford DeakyneBPL Member
@cliffdeakyneLocale: Colorado Rockies foot hills
Manfred, your trip report is as fantastic as your trip was. Both of my children are older and they go backpacking with their friends without inviting me. You are a very lucky man.Jul 7, 2018 at 3:04 am #3545721Amy LauterbachBPL Member
@drongobirdLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Well executed Hannah and Manfred!!!Jul 7, 2018 at 3:36 am #3545727Iago VazquezBPL Member
@iagoLocale: Boston & Galicia, Spain
Nice! Thank you for sharing!Jul 7, 2018 at 6:37 am #3545772Jane BaackBPL Member
Another wonderful trip with one of your favorite backpacking partners-one of your kids. I remember your first trip on the JMT with your boys. In between you’ve had some fabulous family experiences. Hannah seems to especially enjoy these challenging trips with you. It’s wonderful to see an independent young girl who can travel on her own and travel with her father as well. What a lucky man you are!Jul 7, 2018 at 2:32 pm #3545806Ethan A.BPL Member
@mountainwalkerLocale: SF Bay Area & New England
Manfred, absolutely beautiful and impressive trip, thank you to you and Hannah for sharing the journey with all of us. Andrea and I were very impressed with her in person too – you’re right to be very proud and lucky to have such a great travel partner.
You also have a writer in you – excellent writing, especially with the description of all the warning stories at the start from others.
It would be fun for those macho idiots who were so critical years ago of taking your daughters on the JMT with such lights packs, to see what Hannah is capable of.Jul 10, 2018 at 6:47 am #3546174ManfredBPL Member
I was quite surprised too that UL concepts were mostly absent on the GR-20. Btw. the majority of the mountain huts accepted only cash – so in addition to the credit card you also need to pack a wad of cash :)
The age group centered in the 35-45 group with an overall range from 25 – 55 with a few older people up to 65. Hannah was the youngest person at 16 that I saw on the trail.
The nationalities I talked to were: French (by far the majority), German (seemed to be the second biggest group on the trail), Dutch, Belgian, British, Danish, Italian ( I was surprised that there weren’t more Italians as Corsica is right in the middle between France and Italy) and US-American. In addition I saw a group of South Koreans.
I mostly talked to people in the campsite when discussing backpack weights. Amazingly enough some of them didn’t even carry a tent or sleeping pad as the mountain huts offer tents for rent that are already set up. You just move in and don’t need to deal with setting up your tent and in the morning you just start walking without having to pack your tent. And still they had these big packs that were so heavy.
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