Dates of Trip:
The GR20 trail runs 112 miles (180 km) along the Corsican mountains, diagonally bisecting the island, gaining over 40,000 feet of elevation. The northern 70 miles (the GR20 North) from Calenzana to Vizzavona consist of steep ascents and descents, scree slopes, and a generous serving of rock scrambling. The southern portion offers more gentle, pastoral landscapes and is easier to travel. The entirety of the trail offers consistent opportunities to eat Corsican sheep cheese and bread to your heart's content.
While the trail is popular among Europeans and widely known as one of the more difficult of the GR footpaths, few Americans travel to the island to take on the trail. We stumbled upon it when hearing the story of ultrarunner Rory Bosio who completed the trail in just 50 hours. Hikers typically take two weeks to complete the GR20, which has 16 stages that begin and end with mountain huts/refuges. Inspired by the ambition of the American ultrarunner, we set our goal to completing the trial going North to South in 7 days and applied for a Collier Adventure Grant. Receiving the grant gave us the extra push we needed to commit to this adventure.
To avoid high season (July/Aug) crowds, we chose to trek in mid-September. Instead of staying inside the refuges, we opted to carry our own tent and pack most of the food we would eat (couscous and oatmeal) in advance. This was the longest backpacking trip for us both. We researched how to achieve lighter packs while also consuming enough nutrients. Ultimately we found that we could have left some of the calories behind as many of the refuges had tasty local foods, including plenty of sheep cheese and baguettes, we could use to supplement our own. We learned that the huts were resupplied either by horses when the landscape was friendly enough, or helicopter if it wasn’t.
Our journey started off with the perfect storm of little sleep and high stress attributed to a series of short connections between planes, a train, a taxi, and a final hitchhike to the campsite in a small Corsican town. We made friends with multi-lingual Belgians Hendrik and Eward on the train whose bulky packs made it clear they were not heading to the beach like the others in the train but instead to the northernmost refuge of the GR20 in Calenzana. We started off planning to doubling stages instead of completing them in the usual one at a time fashion in order to try to reach our one week goal time. Our new European friends were surprised at our schedule. After just the first day of hiking, we were already alarmingly exhausted.
It was clear by the start of day two that Erik was sick, and soon I was starting to show some symptoms as well. The additional fatigue cranked up the difficulty of the already very strenuous days in the northern mountains. After scrambling to the highest point of the GR20 near Monte Cinto, it was clear that in our physical condition we were unlikely to complete our original goals without a great deal of suffering. We began adjusting our daily travel plans accordingly and set our eyes on completing the GR20 North to Vizzavona instead of the entirety of the trail. We mostly traveled one stage per day after this point. While we didn’t have the experience we were expecting of working very hard every day to get to our original finish line, we ended up learning from the experience we did have.
With a one stage per day regimen, we found many opportunities to enjoy the surreal place we had the fortune to visit and travel with the same familiar cohort from refuge to refuge. We were stunned both by our surroundings and by the diversity of our cohort who traveled alongside us each day. The terrain was like nothing we had ever seen before. Massive jagged peaks surrounded us from all directions. When we gained enough elevation to peek behind the mountains, the Mediterranean Sea would come into view. Moving from hut to hut we made our way along the mountainous spine of Corsica. Even some of the rockiest terrain was speckled with Corsican cattle and their calves. The folks around us ranged in age from teenagers to retirees, in expertise from newcomers to serious mountain athletes, and came from all around the world to experience what the Corsican mountains had to offer. We even ran into billionaire Richard Branson, on a company camping retreat at one of the refuges.
We met a group of New Zealand women who were well read on the specifics of each stage. They were some of the loudest and most cheerful hikers at the refuges. When asked “Which stage is worse - stage 3 or stage 4?”
regarding the difficulty of the stages, they responded “They’re all good!”. In our cohort we also had an Israeli Russian woman in her 60s who was typically the first to leave camp in the morning and the last to arrive in the evening. Her spirits were always incredibly high and if she was able to get a warm shower every few days, she would describe the trail as a utopia.
The backpacking we had been familiar with before this trip was in wilderness where you could count the number of people you saw on one hand, and the food you had was limited to what you brought in the first place. Our experience on the GR20 was quite different from our past adventures. The trip was made most memorable to us by the familiar faces of the twenty or so people alongside of whom we shared snacks and conquered the GR20 North.
We are very thankful for this opportunity provided to us by the Sean Collier Grant as well as the Collier Grant Committee. Your enthusiasm for our proposed adventure enabled us grow as adventurers by taking on a trip which was a new challenging to us - a long, international backpacking trip. With the momentum from this trip, we hope to continue going on long distance trips that push us outside of our comfort zones in new ways.