Trip Report: Running the GR20 South-to-North


Posted: Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 16:05

Hi all,

I just got back from Corsica and wanted to share my recent GR20 experience. After hiking and enjoying the GR20 South-to-North in 2014, I couldn't let go of the idea of trying to run it.

The Idea.

The aim was not to finish as quickly as possible, but to enjoy running as much as possible in this amazing environment. I was going solo, and South-to-North again.

The Background.

20+ years of outdoor/trekking/moutaineering experience including 5 years of rock climbing and 6 years of trail running incl. running trips in the European Alps.

The Plan.

Running as much of the runnable sections as possible while still enjoying it, hiking & recovering on the steep parts. Going with UL gear without cutting on safety, sleeping in Gites or Hotels. I wanted to avoid staying at the refuges for two reasons: After a long day on the trail, I prefer to have... 1. A somewhat comfy and, most importantly, bug-free bed 2. A meal containing more carbohydrates than the often delicious but not too substantial Corsican dishes. The timing of my arrival in Conca wasn't clear until I got there, so I chose the first two stages to be rather short. The initial plan was 7 days: Conca - Col de Bavella - Bergerie Croce - Ref. Capanelle - Vizzavona - Col de Vergio - Haut Asco - Calenzana, with two stages of more than 40k.

The Preparation.

Long trail runs of 30..42k with +/- 2000..3000m in the weeks and months before the trip, always running with a pack as heavy as the one on the trip. A lot of cycling as well.

The Gear.

Base UL gear weighing approx. 2.8 kg incl. 20l pack. This included a thin down bag, bivy bag, weatherproof jacket and pants, some thin and some warm clothing, extra pairs of shirts, socks & underwear, a towel, head torch, compass, first aid kit & basic hygiene stuff, mini knife, map fragments, mobile phone & charger. Add to this 1.5..2.25l of water, 900g of energy bars and some 100 grams of plat de jour (canistrelli / cheese / bread) and you're at around 5..6 kg.

The Reality.

The first two days were somewhat disappointing because I had to realise that the 40+ stages would be no fun because I was too slow. This was partially due to the low percentage of runnable sections in the beginning, plus having difficulties getting the engine (read: legs) started. I then modified my plan, and here's what I finally did (OSM / SRTM 1" data):

Day 1. Conca - Col de Bavella, 17.8k, +2030, -1070
Day 2. Col de Bavella - Bergerie Croce, 14.5k, +1650, -1290
Day 3. Bergerie Croce - Col de Verde, 27.8k, +1770, -2030
Day 4. Col de Verde - Ref. Capanelle, 12.9k, +1050, -740
Day 5. Ref. Capanelle - Vizzavona, 14.5k, +690, -1370
Train to Corte, Bus to Col de Vergio, 1 Rest day.
Day 6. Col de Vergio - Haut Asco, 23.5k, +2480, -2470
Day 7. Haut Asco - Calenzana, 24.0k, +2480, -3600

Though I skipped the beginning of the northern part, this turned out to be a really sweet lineup. Why? Because in the end I was able to run more than I would when sticking with the 40+ stages. Depending on the stage, I could run between approx. 20 and 80 % of the distance, with total times (net) between 2:10h (day 5) and 7:15h (day 7). The most enjoyable running was the ridge leading to Ref. Usciolu (day 3), which I could run almost entirely, and the short but insanely intense slab sections of the Spasimata Gorge (day 7). On day 3 and 6 I got on track quite early (6:00) and did the first hour or so with head torch. I got most of my water at refuges and some from sources on track. I bought cookies / cheese at Paliri, Col de Bavella, Col de Verde and Col de Vergio. I was absolutely lucky with the weather, the only rain I had started 30min after I arrived at Haut Asco.

The Bottom Line.

Hard, but absolutely amazing! In the end I was able to enjoy more running than I had expected after the first two days. The running is often hard due to the very rocky ground, and good shoes and the ability to keep focus for several hours are essential. At the same time, I was still able to spot mouflons, fire salamanders, a mantis and even an eagle. Would I do it again? At the moment the answer is: Probably not, there's plenty of other potential projects. But then, you'll never know.

Thanks to all who contributed with info, and cheers to all those I met on the track - and a lot of fun to those who are still on their way! Be safe!



Posted: Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 16:10

Addendum 1: Alternate route to the Cirque de la Solitude.

Well, I was lucky to be able to cross the Cirque in 2014 and in my opinion the alternate route is a necessary, but not a worthy replacement. If you include Mt. Cinto (provided it's not covered in clouds) there will be some sort of reward, but without it, it is mostly creeping up and down roughly 1000 exhausting meters of scree with a bit of scrambling. Personal opinions may differ! ;-)

Addendum 2: Refuges / Bergerie de Croce.

The refuges still seem to have a considerable problem with bedbugs & co. When I arrived at Croce, the dorms were just being gassed. They had put some metal pots on the floor, probably with burning coal or wood, with another pot of unknown content (yellow-whiteish ashes, sulfur-something?) on top. There was a very strong biting smell in the rooms which did only partially subside until bedtime. When I checked one of the matresses in the evening, it took me less than 10s to find the first bedbug. Therefore I assume the gassing is neither healthy nor very effective. We were also asked to keep everything except our sleeping bags and ourselves outside of the dorms. People told me that the also had bedbug issues at Ref. Carozzu, where they moved to sleep in the kitchen.

Addendum 3: Mobile phone reception / Internet connection

I was able to get a data connection to check the Meteofrance weather report at the following places: Conca, on top of Col de Bavella, at the beginning of the ridge from Col Agnonu to Ref. Usciolu, at Col de Laparo and approx. 1h further north, Col de Verde, Capanelle, Vizzavona, Col de Vergio, at the fork-off of the final ascend to Mt. Cinto, Haut Asco, Calenzana.

I wasn't able to get a phone signal at: Bocca Stazzunara (Incudine) and Bergerie de Croce, didn't try in other places.

Be safe!


Posted: Fri, Oct 7, 2016, 5:45

I just could not contemplate moving fast over the GR20 Terrain. As you say there are many sections where you could do damage to yourself. On my three visits to the trail, with no attempt to speed things up, I am too aged for that and have been quite happy with the 15 days of effort.
A few times I was aware of the 'speeding up folks' and many were not in the best of condition. The really well conditioned athletes probably have 'support folks' helping with the logistic stuff placed along the trail?
We hear quite a bit on the Forum of folks who have the desire to do the route in a fast time but few come back with a report of the experience.
You seemed to have trained quite hard for the journey and have been honest in reporting back to the Forum.
Two of the three stages between Vizzavona and Col Vergio would be difficult to run over quickly with maybe the Manganu to the Col. being perhaps less so. Even just walking the three stages over three days a total of ten days for the entire GR20 would be a very good effort.




Posted: Fri, Oct 7, 2016, 9:39

Hi Gaffr, thanks for your comment!

As I've written above, my intention was not to do the GR20 in as few days as possible, I don't see a purpose in this kind of challenges. But I agree with you, the words "doubling" and "tripling" have become somewhat popular on the track. If I had wanted to push hard, I could have done the whole route in 5 less enjoyable days.

My main goal was to enjoy the running itself, which is probably hard to understand for someone who hasn't experienced this kind of sensation. I like to compare it to rock climbing: Rock climbing is not necessarily about scaling peaks or the top of a wall, but - most importantly - about the movements themselves, about the creativity to use one's own body and overcoming mental barriers. It's also about strategy, critical reflection and the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing micro-environment. With a reasonable selection of gear, it's about you and the rock. And in an amazing environment, the experience is vastly intensified.

With running, it's you and the trail. And with a light and runnable (!) pack, the boundaries of what's possible are basically defined by these two variables. That's one of the reasons I don't use poles. That's one of the reasons I never ran until exhaustion. The lightness of movement, the stunning environment, an increased level of perception, the taste of the wind. And yes, there's a modern-day buzzword for this kind of state of mind.

Everyone has their own aims and pace when doing such a route. I consider most important that they enjoy it, are safe and adequately equipped and respect the environment and other hikers. I know I enjoyed the landscape more than when I hiked the trail with a heavy pack 2 years ago. And yes - I met people who I would have liked to send back to the valley. Because they were not well equipped, already tired but started on a technical 6h-stage at 15:00h. I twice asked if they were serious about it, and they said they were. I hope they made it safely to the next refuge or learned a harmless bivy lesson.



Posted: Sat, Oct 8, 2016, 1:12

Hi. I thought I wrote a reply, but maybe not. I planned to hike it fast south to north this last September. I ended up only doing one stage somewhat fast. Conca to Asinau with the Aiguilles de Bavella variant. I think that is 40 km. I gave it up because of back pain. I just hiked to Vizzavona in five days total. The old route variant after Usciulu and the Monte Renosu variant were very nice.

The Pleateau d'Ese on the Renosu variant was so good. Look up pictures of it. In the end, I'm happy to have gone on the variants and to have met some nice people. Next time I'll do the north section with the variants. This was my second time on the trail. The first time I did it south to north in 12 days.

I feel like a lot of the people who were doing it running or fast hiking style did not carry their tents with them. I wondered how their feet were. The small rocks were something that I didn't remember from the first time because the first time I wore heavy boods. This time I wore approach shoes, which were good because they were light and stuck to the rock but I should have chosen approach shoes with mountaineering style vibram soles.


Posted: Sun, Oct 9, 2016, 16:45

Approach shoes are lightweight and are the choice of footwear for many people. However they are not sturdy and may cause some foot damage. See pic:



Posted: Sat, Oct 29, 2016, 2:22

That looks painful. Yes. Maybe in my mind I am thinking of low cut hiking shoes with mountaineering outsoles.


Posted: Sat, Oct 29, 2016, 2:22

That looks painful. Yes. Maybe in my mind I am thinking of low cut hiking shoes with mountaineering outsoles.