Monday, September 29, 2014

FidEgan's FastPacks (or not so fast) - Episode 7 - The GR 20, Corsica, France

John and I are currently on a world trip where we plan to persue our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world. As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did. This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country. It just means that it was our favorite that we did. We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column. On this trip we had our Fastpacks for the side trip we did but for the main trail full size backpacks were needed for all our camping gear.

Where: The GR 20 hiking trail which traverses the island of Corsica from north (Calenzana) to south (Conca).
Map from Wikipedia
Facilities/Trailhead: The trail is split into a northern and southern section with the village of Vizzavona being considered the middle point. In the north the town of Calvi can be reached by train or bus. A bus or taxi will be needed for the last ~10km to get to the trailhead in Calenzana. The southern terminus in Conca can be reached from the town of Porto Vechchio by bus. Vizzavona has a train station which is the best way to get there. There are some supplies available in each of these towns but it will be cheaper (and better selection) if you stock up on any supplies you need in the larger towns. Have enough money with you. They take cash only and the nearest ATM is an hour train ride from Vizzavona in the town of Corte.

There are Refuge mountain huts where you can stay or camp. Camping is only legally allowed at the Refuges. It takes between 5 and 9 hours of hiking between the huts. During the summer months there is food served (breakfast/dinner). There are also some private Bergeries scattered around but we didn't count on them. They were bonus places to find a tasty lunch (homemade cheeses, fresh bread, salami and drinks). The huts are often full and crowded. We elected to bring a tent and stove so we could could feel independent. This caused heavier backpacks and a slower pace but decreased the worry of not having a place to stay. It is possible to make reservations beforehand, however. The Refuges also had tents that they rented. Most Refuges had a kitchen or outside gas stove that the campers could use and each had some limited supplies for sale (pasta, tuna, chocolate, biscuits, bread, soup, wine, beer, beans, etc).
Refuge Tighiettu - Stage 5
Fees: The huts were typically 13 Euros per person to stay in. Camping was 7 Euros per person; renting a tent was an additional 10 Euros per person. We found the meals a bit pricy for what you received. 20 Euros for dinner (soup, pasta, dessert) and 10 Euros for breakfast (typical European bread, butter, jam, tea/coffee). Two people completely relying on the huts would be spending around 83 Euros per day not including any alcohol, drinks, or snacks. It adds up so bring a big wad of cash if you are going this way. We cooked our own food and slept in our tent and spent around 40 Euros per day for everything (less alcohol would have made it a lot cheaper).
Terrain/Trails: The northern section (9 stages) is the much tougher section of the hike and involves a fair amount of scrambling. There are many spots that are steep with large exposure. Chains and handrails exist in some places but in many areas you will be using your hands to climb across the rocks. If you don't like heights then this part of the trail is not for you. The rock tends to be solid granite and makes for beautiful climbing. If you rock climb this would be a great place to have a rope and full climbing rack. Climbing lines of all levels are in every direction you look.

The southern section (6 stages) is less rocky and rugged but passes through some very pretty areas. The Plateau de Coscione is the well known part of this but there are many other scenic spots.

Most people hike the trail from north to south to get the technical parts done while they are still fresh. This is the way we went. Hiking from south to north would be better for photography as the sun will be at your back as you walk.

This is the best marked trail we have ever hiked. There are red/white paint marking and cairns. If we went more then 100 meters without seeing a marker we would instantly stop and look around since we were off course. We did not have a guide book, only a map and probably could have done it without even that (this is not recommended however!).
Trail marker

There are a number of side trips possible along the way. There are mountains to climb or lakes to hike to. There are also a few places where there are “variants” - usually the variant goes over a mountain while the “normal” trail goes around.
Distance: 180 km or 112 miles with about 33,000 feet of vertical change. This is considered to be one of the most difficult (and scenic) hiking trails in Europe and is listed on the National Geographic Adventure website as one of the 20 all time epic trails in the world.
Description: We chose to do the trail slowly and just hike hut to hut. There are some days where it is totally possible to do a “double” and shorten the time spent out there. The standard is 15 days. The French Foreign Legion do it as a military training exercise in 7 days. The record is an INSANE 32 hours by Guillaume Peretti.

The first day is mostly up and takes you into the rocky steep first half of the trail. If you start in the morning you will spend most of the day in the shade which is good because it can get hot in Corsica, especially lower down. Section 2, 3, and especially 4 are the most technical of the route. On section 2 with our heavy packs it took us 6 1/2 hours to go 7km. The trail consists of a lot of up and down steep scrambling with little forward progress. Day 4 is the Cirque du Solitude which is the crux of the whole trail. Here is where you find the most chains, metal ladders, and hand rails to help get through this area. Even with the artificial help you will still have a lot of exposed rock scrambling to do. Being comfortable with exposure helps in getting through this section. It would be a very bad place to fall. Section 7 has some beautiful lakes that can be climbed down to. From there to the halfway point at Vizzavona there are still some brief scrambling areas but much less. 
The southern section of the trail is more mellow. The trail goes through more forested sections but there are also large meadows, ridgelines, and fields you pass through. The Plateau du Coscione provides huge wide open vista views and easily competes with the north for beauty.

In both sections we saw Mouflon (wild sheep), wild boar, and foxes. Be careful about leaving food lying around. 

Mouflon sheep                

We took the side trip to the top of Monte Cinto which is the highest point in Corsica. The trailhead for this is at the end of Stage 3 (Refuge Ascu-Stagnu). There is some rock scrambling involved here and makes a great day trip. 
Summit of Monte Cinto