This blog was originally to document my time on the Appalachian Trail but I thought I would digress and tell you all about my most recent adventure.
Willow and I have decided we are now long distance hikers, it doesn’t matter what trail we are on, we like to pack up our troubles in our packs and walk, hike, skip and biff!
Lots of research went in to where we wanted our next hike to be, we always agree that we like to go to places neither of us have been before, there were lots of contenders, but we finally agreed on the GR20. Located in Corsica, it’s billed as the toughest hiking route in Europe, right up our street!
Vizzavona to Refuge de L’Onda
Mileage – not much (6.75 miles)
Elevation – too much!!! (3870ft up, 2200ft down)
Baptism by fire does not even come close.
We arrived in Corsica last night and after a difficult journey due to the ever striking french air traffic controllers we didn’t arrive until well gone midnight, got up in the morning and caught the train to the mid point of the trail, Vizzavona. We are hiking the trail north bound which is against the flow, most start in the north and hike south, even our guide book is written that way so we are doing a lot of our own interpretation. The guide book has it broken up in stages and if we stick to it we will be hiking for 9 days straight. We will be stopping each night at a designated Refuge, high up in the mountains, they can only be accessed by foot or by mule. They provide basic beds, dorm style, some food and water. We are carrying our tents and will be sleeping in them to reduce the cost of our trip but mainly because I have a complete sound adversion to snoring!!
We arrived in Vizzavona about mid-day, we grabbed a few more bits to add to our food bags and set off. We had a basic elevation profile but again we had to reverse it, but all the signs and maps had said it was about a five and a half hour walk. The trail is well marked with red and white blazes which we will be following all the way.
Our first blaze
The beginning of the day was as wonderful as could be, we practically skipped along a wide rocky path, gently sloping uphill. We passed some amazing cascades and vowed to make the most of any swimming hole we find along the trail. We stopped for a picturesque lunch, wonderful, everything we had wished the trail could be. As the afternoon wore on we began to really climb, and I don’t mean in elevation, I mean literally rock climbing,the terrain was boulder after boulder, slabs of rock and straight up vertical in parts. We climbed way above the cloud line until we couldnt see down where we had come from anymore.
Five hours passed and we still were climbing higher and higher, on several occasions we had to stow our poles and just hand over hand climb. I had a minor heart attack when I lost my footing and slid down a rock face like one of thoes slimey toy men you get in a kinder egg that you throw at a wall and watch them fall down, except I have skin, which I left on the rock and also one false move and the 3000ft drop behind me wouldn’t have been a great end to the day. I only cried a little bit out of pure shock, but from then on I couldn’t stop my legs from shaking. We did have a moment of despair, looking up and still seeing so much elevation to go, the day was closing in and we realised we literally had no idea where we were going and if we would make it before dark. Reality set in when we passed a snow field reminding us how high up we were going to be, we were on the toughest trail in Europe and we needed to dig deep.
We finally reached the summit and looked over at our first real mountains.
we had just climbed the foothills. We were now at over 6000ft and had a scary decent down the other side. It had taken us nearly 7 hours just to get to the top and we still had to get down to the refuge. The down was tough with steel drop offs on both sides of us,we had to re-enter the clouds, which were beginning to make us wet and cold.
Just as we were beginning to think we had gone totally off course or that we had somehow missed the turn to the refuge we finally saw it. Such a relief to know you have somewhere to sleep, to put down roots if only for less than 10 hours. There was a large enclosed field for tents (enclosed because the predator around here are wild boar) and a shack which we were hoping would have either cooking facilities or a meal to buy, but we were out of luck, so we shared a twix and a snickers and set about making our home for the night. Bit of a wild day, way harder than I could have dreamed, even when reading the words toughest trail in Europe, I was nearly a bit cocky about it think we would be able to double up on stages, do 2 in one day, well if it’s anything like today we might struggle to make it. Note to self, make better choices tomorrow, early start, more food should help!!
Refuge de L’Onda to Refuge Petra Piana
Mileage – 6.75
Elevation- 2985ft up, 1640ft down
Ok so another lesson learnt, it’s bloody freezing up in the mountains. I was so cold last night, the kind of cold where you feel like you will never ever be warm again, I was literally wearing all of my clothes and completely enclosed myself in my sleeping bag, pulled up over my head. Willow was freezing as well, this is a worry as I don’t have anything else I could possibly do or wear, I wore a pair of shorts, leggings over the top, a vest, a t-shirt, a long sleeve and a fleece, socks and a head band.
This morning the sun is shining, the sky is blue and we had food to eat for breakfast! Already better than last night!
We had a much better understanding of what to expect today, and our hike started off great and just got better and better. We had a short descent in the morning which led us to a small farm selling bread and cheese followed by what we knew was going to be very up for the rest of the day.
We were walking alongside a gorgeous River and vowed to find a place to swim and eat lunch, which we did. The water was ice cold snow melt and beautifully clear. What a luxury being able to be clean on day 2, frivolous really!
The absolute rest of the day was a steep and rocky ascent, on and on, up and up, scrambling over rocks. I had a minor melt down about needing a snack and willow convinced me to carry on, which was totally the right choice because about 50 paces later was our next refuge!
We booked ourselves in for a refuge dinner, not knowing what to expect, they are expensive, around 20 Euro each, we were hoping for our first hot meal in several days and boy did it deliver. Served family style around a table of hungry hikers, bowls of steaming hot lentils came out of the kitchen, along with plates of thick cut bacon, it was literally heaven, we devoured it and held our bowls up Oliver Twist style for more! There was wine and cheese of course because after all the is France, and a bowl of tinned peaches to finish, seriously great meal!
Due to sleeping in a freezer box last night we decided to rent a 2 man tent from the refuge and sleep in the same tent to try and conserve some heat, we are high up on an exposed ridge tonight with an amazing mountain view, so worth the suffering to get here!
Refuge Petra Piana to Refuge Manganu
Mileage – 6
Elevation – 2430ft up, 3220 down
Much warmer last night, I’m not going to say toastie as I still had to sleep with absolutely all of my clothing on but it was much more comfortable.
Tough little upwards climb this morning. The first hour of hiking is definitely the hour of suffering, trying to get your legs to respond, warming up your body and lungs struggling to cope with the elevation and carrying a pack. We had amazing views from the top which were only a little bit spoilt by a willow farting loudly in front of some hikers which we blame solely on the dinner of legumes!
Now the next part of our day was very interesting in a if I put a foot out of place I’ll fall 4000ft to my death kind of way. We literally bouldered our way around the bowl of the mountain, hiked through snow fields, which were terrifying as you could hear the water rushing under you and could see claw marks in the snow where other hikers had fallen and tried to not slip of the edge of the mountainside. We hiked the very edge of a ridge line and climbed up a sheer rock face using a chain bolted into the rock. At this point all I could think was how furious my mother would be at how close to the edge I was, it was exhilarating and just the right amount of danger to make every step we took count.
We finally climbed to our our mountain pass, Bocca a e Porte at a height of 7300ft and looked down at our looming descent. It looked completely impossible and was definitely a one step at a time job. Only 100 meters and and we encountered a large and steep snow field, one false move and we could have slipped down into a huge boulder field below. One step at a time we laugh-cried our way through it, chanting I will not die on the mountain to myself, I was possibly on the verge of hysterical by the end and you know the saying ‘it scared the shit out of me’ well as soon as my feet were not lingers on treacherous ice I immediately had to shit, right there and then, it terrified it out of me!
We still had several thousand feet of decent which luckily weren’t nearly quite as scary but were bone crunching, down steep rocks. We kept looking back up, not believing where we had come from!
We finally reached a fabulous refuge with a small river running alongside. Once we set our tent for the night we took ourselves for a soak in an ice cold stream. The freezing water really helps with any aches and pains as well as helps with the stench of our bodies and clothes. Washing your undies in the river is quite possibly the very best luxury on the trail!
Refuge Manganu to Refuge Castel di Vergio
Elevation – 1560ft up, 2200ft down
We had been really looking forward to today’s hike as the guide book had used phrase’s such as gently graded, nice paths, able to stride out, but we were hesitant to have false hope. So far saying we were hiking on a trail would not be accurate, we had been mountaineering, rock climbing and snow shoeing. We had been hiking 6 miles in about 8 hours each day be today’s mileage was our highest at just over 10. We got a good start and soon found ourselves in a meadow of heaven, no rocks, green fields, I felt like Bilbo running though the shire.
The hiking was fabulous and just what we needed to restore our legs. There were a couple of tricky sections and some magnificent views.
The only real thing to upset our stride was a heard of wild pigs cavorting towards us to which I scurried up the bank to hide and willow boldly protected us from.
Great camping spot tonight in a field by a hotel used as a ski resort in winter. There are showers that were surprisingly hot and wonderful bearing in mind the only soap I have is biodegradable washing up liquid and a small gas cooker where we were able to make some delicious cous cous for dinner.
Refuge Castel Di Vergio to Auberge Vallone.
Mileage – 9.5
Elevation – 2855ft up, 2790ft down
Today was billed as another of the easier days and let me tell you what a bare faced lie that was!
It started off with an ok up, walking up a valley, but that soon turned into a sharp rock and scree up hill scramble, we could see a refuge that was our halfway mark but for 2 hours it didn’t seem to get any closer.
During the morning we noticed some people running towards us in race gear and for the rest of the day we were faced with a flood of ultra marathon runners, all fit and strong looking, not having to carry a heavy pack and people offering them beverages along the way, it really pissed me off, mainly because I was struggling so much to just bloody walk the trail I didn’t need huge French and German guys running towards me showing off their strong quads appearing to not be suffering at all!! (My opinion later very much changed when I hiked the terrain they had come from, they were super humans)
The afternoon was just a wicked downhill, steep steep rock faces and high winds. We are certainly feeling like we have our trail legs and can feel them getting stronger, but nothing can stop the crunching of your knees and ankles on a descent, there were several occasions when we had to sit down on the edge of a rock and butt slide down.
Our refuge tonight is a bit strange, it can only be accessed by foot or by mule but it has a bar that has a flat screen TV playing the world cup games, brilliant! They even cooked us an omelet for dinner!
Auberge Vallone to Ascu Stagnu
Mileage – 5.5 miles
Elevation – 4035ft up, 4100 down!!
I was very concerned about today, it had been worrying me for a while. So much elevation up and down over a relatively short distance meant I knew we were in for a world of hurt. We had been told it was very beautiful but I was worried it wouldn’t be enough to motivate me to persevere. The morning started with our usual hour of suffering followed by some serious rock climbing and bouldering. It was actually a lot of fun, we have both gown to love this terrain, finding places for your hands and feet, making a leap to a new boulder, reaching beyond where we thought we could. We were climbing in the shade of the mountain which helped, it was actually freezing which motivated us to keep moving.
When we reached about two thirds of the way up we had read in the guide book to look out for a scree slope to the top. I was pleased to reach this landmark in the day for approximately 3 minutes before I realised how hard a verticle climb on loose scree really was. Every step was really half a step because your feet just slide backwards. I had a mini breakdown where I just started uncontrollably crying for a second, like loud wails, made even worse by willow trying to comfort me talking about Mexican food because then my crying turned into mourning over how much I love guacamole and how long it will be until I can eat it again. I got over pretty quickly but it just shows how crazy the mountain can make you!
The view from the top was an amazing, snow peaks and a frozen lake! It was almost too cold to stop for a snack, we met some German girls in the same spot but coming the other direction who told us that the next refuge had a hotel next to it with a bar that was playing the world cup games and that England was playing, motivation to plough on for us!
Further up we climbed until we were on the shoulder of the highest peak in Corsica, Monte Cinto. We didn’t have the luxury of time to hang out at the top as we had got word that the weather was on the turn so we hastily began our descent and by hastily I mean I took one step onto the downwards scree slope and caused a rather large landslide,my feet were buried in rubble and I just kept sliding down, another laugh/cry moment as it was both hilarious and terrifying. We had well over 4000ft over two miles of this and I couldn’t see how it was possible to take more than one step. We used a series of bolted chains to help us and on multiple occasions we both just had to sit on our bums and ride the scree. This section is actually a diversion, previously seven hikers died when some unstable rocks become loose and caused a huge shift, we were playing in the big leagues today and we felt the weight of it right on our shoulders and as the day went on in our hips, knees, ankles and feet. The constant pounding of stepping down off big rocks felt like stepping on a huge bruise on the bottom of both feet, there felt like there was no gaps between any of my joints, just bone crushing into bone! We fell into complete despair when it began to rain and we realised we could see our refuge but had to descend fully into a gorge way below and hike up out of it to get there, I went into that zone where I can’t really remember things, like when I arrive at work but don’t remember how I got there and have to physically check if I put a bra on! It’s a zone where I become very staggery. More of a tumble than and ramble we finally made it and immediately made the decision to get a plush hotel room for the night and do some luxurious washing of underwear in a sink! Before we even checked in we went straight to the bar, bought an orangina and some snacks and watched England smash out another win.
My shower tonight was amazing, the hotel had little bottles of shower gel so wasn’t just washing up liquid clean I was spa treatment clean, I can’t wait to put on my sink washed damp undies tomorrow, what a treat! We absolutely nailed the best steak dinner of my life in the hotel restaurant, I didn’t even care how much it cost, it was a shut up and take my money kind of meal, I actually started eating off the plate before the waiter had placed it on the table!
Today was the hardest hiking I have ever done and I’m damn well proud of us, we’re mother f**king mountaineers!
Ascu Stagnu to refuge Carozzu
Mileage – 3.75
Elevation – 2330ft up, 2280ft down
It’s very hard to gauge what each day will bring. The guide book tellls you elevation, distance to hike and an estimated time for each day. Today was our lowest mileage day at just under 4 miles but the time given was well over 5 hours which was very concerning. Whether it was just slightly easier for us going in the opposite direction or whether we really have got our trail legs we absolutely nailed today.
It started off with a fun and reasonably short uphill climb, lots of vertical rock walls to traverse and an amazing view from the top of the mountains we climbed the day before.
At this point I just want to give a shout out to my trail runners, I wear a pair of Altra Lone Peaks and I have never once got a blister, the grip on them is amazing and I never feel like I have to rip them off me feet, cracking pair of shoes!
The downhill was even fun today, we hiked over huge spasimata slab boulders, using chains to slow our descent and provide good handholds.
We crossed over the river at the bottom on a high suspension bridge and very quickly found ourselves at our tent spot for the night, great day’s hiking.
Refuge Carozzu to Refuge Ortu
Mileage – 5
Elevation – 3445ft up, 3460ft down
Another great climb this morning, very sweaty though, the air has turned very humid. The profile for the day was up for the morning, across a ridge and down at the end of the day.
That little flat stretch across the top was probably some of the hardest tertian we have encountered,we were on a sharp ridge line with drop offs on either side of us. For some unknown reason I took a strange turn and lost all the colour in my face, felt really dizzy and had to immediately sit down and loosen all my pack straps. Not really ideal. Luckily it passed with some gentle sips of water and my head between my knees, meanwhile willow was making an emergency evacuation plan and practicing her french for the rescue team, something along the lines of, mon amis c’est tres fatigue!
The views really are incredible. I love to look back over the peaks and recognise the ones we have hiked over, we are starting to feel a real sense of achievement.
Wicked downhill that was never ending to finish the day, had to stop for a snack and ibuprofen break, just rock after rock and we couldn’t even see the bottom because we were above the cloud line.
We did finally arrive at our very last tent spot and refuge. Weirdly this is the majority of peoples first day, we chatted with some hikers who were pretty broken after their first ascent up to the refuge, we were asked loads of questions about the up coming trail and felt like bloody rock stars having got to this point.
The last night provided us with an amazing sunset and a real life unicorn friend.
Refuge Ortu to Calenzana
Mileage – 7.5
Elevation – 770ft up, 5130ft down
Typical woke up to thunder in the sky this morning. We have a lot of elevating to loose today so we were keen to get going. Just as we reached an exposed ridge line, hanging on to metal chains we were caught in a huge thunder, lighting and rain storm which was less than ideal. We decided to hunker down under a tree until it passed, it just didn’t feel.like a good idea to keep hiking with metal trekking poles in our hands and lightning flashing around us!
It did soon clear and so did the trail. Our last day was filled with actual trail, few rocks, wild flowers and a welcoming army of butterflies. We had views down to the Mediterranean coast and finally glimpses of civilization.
We elatedly hiked into our final town of Calenzana, absolutely thrilled to have made it, stupid smiles on our faces.
The following picture my not be beautiful to you, it may not compare to to the scenic views I have provided you with, but these legs, these torn to shreds, filthy, bruised legs are what I am thankful for.
Ps, this is not a tan line, this is reality!