Trip Report Sept 2016


Posted: Fri, Sep 30, 2016, 15:31

GR20 Trip Report – Sept 2016.

1. Summary
We completed the walk – N2S – as far as Usciolu from 1st to 9th Sept 2016. Due to a knee injury sustained on the stage into Usciolu we opted to leave the route at that point. While that was a bit disappointing, overall it was a great trip. The mountain environment is exceptional. We met interesting people and enjoyed their company and stories. The weather was excellent except for one day and we enjoyed each day’s trekking experiences. We used the hired tents at the refuges / bergeries and took the (luxury) hotel options at Asco and Vizzavona. We especially liked the northern section where the dramatic and wild beauty of the terrain is first revealed. We were less keen on the forestry sections the further south we travelled. The route was challenging, as expected, but perfectly doable for your average fit walker. Our preparation was good and paid dividends.

2. Background.
Both my partner Antoinette and I are experienced walkers, climbers, skiers etc. We stay fit mainly through running, climbing and gym work. Antoinette has passed the half century (don’t tell anyone) and I’m already into my 60’s though sometimes I think I’m still 18. Before setting out, we were concerned about how well the bodies would stand up to the stress. In the end, they stood up pretty well – that is except for one knee!

We’d planned to do the GR20 in 2015 partly because we already knew its reputation and partly in memory of a good friend who had passed away 10 years previously in a climbing accident and who had also done it. But a broken hand sustained on a training run put paid to that. A convenient and acceptable alternative at the time was the Tour de Mont Blanc….no scrambling, no need to use the hands, better paths etc. So we duly set out from Chamonix with our hopes high. Though the weather was poor, we hoped for better to come. Unfortunately it didn’t and we arrived a few days later in Courmayeur, roughly halfway, in a day long downpour after days of seeing little of the famed beauty. With forecast remaining poor and a niggling knee problem (precursor to 2016?), we decided to pack it in. A TMB without seeing Mont Blanc just didn’t seem worth it.

3. Preparation for the GR20
Fast forward to 2016 and we put a good effort into preparing for Corsica Mark2. We did our research; we selected our gear and got into shape.

Research was reading Paddy Dillon’s guide and trawling through just about everything we could find on the net.

Gearwise, we already had most of what we needed and, looking back, we feel we got most things right. Our packs weighed in at less than 10Kg for Antoinette and 12Kg for me. Plus water which was never more than 2 litres. We started out with some food and that got variously added to or subtracted from as the days went by.

In the 3 months leading up to the walk we each ran almost 1,000 Km and we did some hill walks and climbing. Some of the running was trail running. Overall we felt in pretty good shape though we still worried about not spending more time carrying heavy bags and/or doing some multiday hikes.

4. Logistics
We had already travelled to the French Alps a few days before the walk so we began by driving to Toulon and taking a ferry to L’Ile Rousse, 30Km east of Calvi. Our plan for the return journey was an overnight sailing from Porto Vecchio (PV) – just south of Conca – back to Toulon, thereby avoiding a long trek back north. The PV/Toulon route appeared to be new for the 2016 season but only had two sailings per week. The outgoing ferry was on 31st Aug and the return was set for 15th Sept. This already meant at least one double stage to avoid the risk of missing the ferry, though with a sailing time of 6pm, the risk looked small. For anyone contemplating a similar approach, make sure to book a flexi –fare for the return.

In Toulon we were able to park our van in the multi-story Mayol carpark beside the ferry port for a special rate of just over €6 per day….€94 for 15 days and worth it for peace of mind. Plus we were able to sleep quietly in the van the night before sailing at 7.30am. Crossing took 6 hours.

From L’Ile Rousse we got a train to Calvi (€12 for 2) followed by a taxi to Calenzana (€35). We took the taxi rather than hanging round for several hours waiting on a bus and, because we had not booked any accommodation in advance, we were a bit worried about getting a bed in the Gite. As it happened Antoinette got the last bed and I was allowed to sleep on the floor of the kitchen. We had taken a last minute decision not to bring a tent and while that worked out fine, having our own tent would have given a bit more flexibility and would have saved some money. We did bring sleeping bags and mats.

Getting a hire tent on the route itself posed no issue. We were usually offered a choice of tents. Being in Sept, the number of walkers was already falling away.

As most people know, transport on Corsica can prove challenging, as we found out when we took the decision to abandon the route and descend. We headed from Usciolu to a village called Cozzano and on arrival there discovered that the Mon to Sat bus service leaves at 7am or so. As we arrived late on Saturday morning, we faced the prospect of looking for accommodation for two nights before (hopefully) making it to Porto Vecchio on time. Luckily after 2 hours of trying to hitch a lift from the village (with one vehicle every 10 mins or so) and then walking in the midday heat for over an hour, we were blessed to be picked up by a French couple (Merci Beaucoup) who drove us to a town on the Ajaccio / Porto Vecchio road where we were able to connect with a bus to PV. That bus journey was an adventure in itself. Glad we had had a couple of beers beforehand, they helped calm the nerves.

Arriving in PV, we found, to our horror, that the only hotels available were costing €300+. It was a long night before we found a place to rest our heads….that too was an adventure.

Next morning, we were able to change our ferry from Thursday 15th to Monday 12th giving us a couple of pleasant days in PV to gaze at the gleaming yachts and ponder what it might mean to be really wealthy.

In retrospect, since we bailed out after 9 days, we couldn’t help asking ourselves if the possibility of finishing in 11 days had tempted us to push too hard. On balance, we don’t think so. We always expected to finish in 13 days or less if the weather was kind, which mostly it was. Also, we had little interest in some of the low level stages towards the end and we would always have pushed ourselves to finish with a long day instead of another overnight. We enjoyed each day (with the exception of the bad one) and we never felt overly challenged or tired. We were very fit after all our preparations. The only day we wished away was the double stage from Petra Piana to Vizzavona. It was our one bad day but as we had arrived in Onda soon after 11am it was just too early to stop. Unfortunately the wet and windy conditions slowed us down on the descent into Vizzavona.

5. Finances
Doing the GR20 is not the cheapest holiday available! This is roughly what we spent for the two of us, excluding cost of getting to Toulon:
Ferry: €130 (incl recliner seats for the return).
Train, bus, taxi: €60
Accommodation and food in Gites/ Auberges/Refuges: €400
Hotels and meals at Asco, Vizzavona and Porto Vecchio: €600
Total: €1,200.
This was for 12 days on Corsica so roughly €50 ppp/day. Not cheap but well worth it.

6. Kit:
Our gear was good…Osprey rucksacks, NeoAir Thermarests, down sleeping bags, quality lightweight clothes etc. We used walking poles and they were helpful on the long descents. We also used water bladders which meant we didn’t have to stop to drink. Most importantly, we paid attention to our footwear…we used approach shoes (Five-Ten and Scarpa) matched with Superfeet insoles and good wool socks. We brought plenty of ‘stuff’ for blisters in a pretty comprehensive first aid kit.

Things we brought but didn’t need:
• 2 plates and 2 mugs. We could have done with 2 bowls or even one.
• A little too much toothpaste, ointments, sunblock, insect repellent – all adding some weight. Better estimation needed next time;
• A Sawyer mini water filter (very light).
• Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook plus the French GR20 topo guide. In the end we tore up the Dillon guide (it was the Cirque de la Solitude version) as we completed each section. Maybe photocopy key pages or better still photograph them?
• Repair kit – but do you risk going without?
• Mini gaiters (never used);
• Passports (never requested – bring a photocopy)

Things we should have brought:
• ear plugs to block out snoring (not just me ) and other noise, including on the ferry;
• a black refuse sack to put the feet of your sleeping bag into on wet nights….if you are over 6 feet tall. The Quechua hire tents that are to be found at all refuges are just too small.
• Spare camera batteries instead of a charger.

Luxuries we did bring:
• solar charger,
• extra socks,
• wide brimmed hat (Tilley)
• sleeping mats (Thermarest Neoair) though they were in fact needed in a couple of places.
• A blow up pillow (Vango) weighing virtually nothing but really useful.
• A foam mat to sit on during breaks – again weighing virtually nothing
• Tea bags and powdered milk especially to make the mornings a little more humane.
• Detailed maps on the ViewRanger mobile App (avoided some weight and allowed us to figure out where we were etc).

7. The stages….
The table shows the stages we completed and in the times shown. The exact distances and ascents / descents are not our calculations. We’ve taken them from other sources so can’t vouch for their accuracy.

In relation to the guidebook timings, we were generally 15 – 20% faster on most stages but we did find one or two where we needed pretty much the full allocation. But maybe there were other reasons for that.

Day To Distance (Km) Time Ascent Descent (m)
1 Ref d’Ortu di u Piobbu (1,520m) 12 5:30 1,360 60
2 Refuge de Carrozzu (1,270m) 8 6:00 780 917
3 Haut Asco (1,420m) 6 4:40 790 640
4 Auberge U Vallone (1,440m) 9 7:00 1,250 1,230
5 Refuge de Manganu (1,601m) 32(double)11:00 1,260 1,350
6 Refuge de Petra Piana (1,842m) 10 5:50 830 580
7 Vizzavona (La Foce, 1,100m) 22(double) 10:30 1,200 1,700
8 Bocca di Verdi (1,289m) 32(double) 10:00 900 800
9 Refuge d’Usciolu (1,740m) 16 7:30 1,290 880
10 Cozzano + road walk (escape) 15 5:00 50 1,200 Totals 162 73:00 9,710 9,357

8. Some Highs and Lows:
After so long in planning, we were psyched to begin (to borrow a phrase from our American friends). The first 4 days blessed us with magnificent scenery and walking, made even better by great weather and the sense of embarking on a big adventure.

The guardians at the refuges were friendly and helpful and the people we met were interesting. We hope the Swiss lady who left her wallet at Ref Manganu got it back. A tribute to the honesty of all who stayed that night…the wallet was still hanging unclaimed on the door to reception the next morning.

It was nice to see a few Irish faces. It was also nice to meet a few “father and son” teams and it was great to see some young people on the trek. In fact everyone was very friendly even where language barriers made communication more difficult.

Seeing some of the wildlife (people excluded!) added to the walk. The black and yellow Corsican Salamander was spectacular to see in the wild, as were the Mouflon near Asco. On the other hand we were forced uncomfortably close to feral pigs on the final descent into Cozzano.

The low points included when Antoinette developed a stomach bug and all the goes with it on Day 2 at Carrozzu. Being unable to eat dinner, this looked serious but fortunately all was well again by morning. Phew!

We tried to stay in the Bergerie de Vaccaghja about 40 mins before Manganu. They refused to take us even though we could have slept outside. At that stage we had been walking for 10 hours and really didn’t want to pick up our bags and begin climbing again. It was a bit strange as it did not look at all full.

Day 7 was misery weather wise. Taking the unplanned and longer low level route due to mist, rain and high winds, we arrived in Onda at 11.30am and took the decision to press on. Though the wind eventually died down, the rain and mist got worse and it was two miserable walkers who arrived at the quaint and historic Hotel D’Oru, at the Col de Vizzavona where we enjoyed a lovely meal in the restaurant and a sound night’s sleep.

Our final disappointment was having to quit. We know we could have completed by turning a planned two days into four but we had no real interest in just struggling on. The GR20 is a great trek but to be honest, it’s not that good, especially on the southern low level options.

9. Epilogue. What’s next?
With retirement from work now looming on the horizon (actually, shining like a welcoming beacon) we will hopefully have more time, good health and resources to repeat the great opportunity to take a step away from the complexity and stress of our 21st Century lives. The John Muir Trail? Torres des Paine? Manaslu circuit? Who knows…

(apologies, but I can’t format the table. Maybe someone can help?)




Posted: Mon, Oct 3, 2016, 20:15

Thank you Kevin so much for your much appreciated report. I enjoyed reading it. Well done. Sorry to hear about the knee accident! Too bad you guys could not complete the trail.
Yes the southern section can be at times "boring" especially those low level routes in the woods. I wonder why Michel Frabrikant didn't set the high level paths as the official trail.

Best luck with your next adventure(s)



Posted: Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 11:31

To keep the foot end of my sleeping bag dry in a wet tent, I usually slip my zipped rain jacket over it. A normal plastic bag will have your sweat condense inside, so your sleeping bag may be getting wet as well, while most rain jackets feature some sort of breathable membrane.

Be safe,


Posted: Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 13:59

Thanks OtS

Actually I did that but the rain jacket slipped off and I ended up with a damp bag!! Maybe I should have zipped up the jacket and paid more attention.

A short plastic bag shouldn't cause too much condensation but I take your point....