This September, with help from the Trinity Projects Fund and Donald Robertson Fund I embarked, along with Jack Shotton, on a two week mission to cross the mountains of Corsica following the famous GR (Grandes Randonnee) 20 trail. The path is known for being the toughest of its kind in Europe, with the terrain so difficult it can't really be classed as `walking' or even `hiking'. Our motivation was the challenge, the stunning scenery and our aim to raise money for the Lake District Search And Moutain Rescue Association through sponsorship. This report records our experience and my thoughts on the trail and island as a whole.
Corsica - a brief history of the island, mountains and trail
(Information I mostly picked up from reading Paddy Dillon's guide book several times over!)
Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, one of the 26 regions of France, lying to the southeast of the country and to the west of Italy. Its geology means it is often referred to as the `Granite Isle' and it can be split into two parts according to its formation. Northwestern `Hercynian Corsica' is the result of a mountain building era that occurred around 300 million years ago and really is one large granite intrusion, while eastern `Alpine Corsica' is so named as its formation occurred at the same time as the Alps, and the rock types are more varied here. The last Ice Age has left Corsica with deep, steep-sided wooded valleys and high mountains of bare rocky pinnacles.
Corsica is historically a very poor island, having been invaded many times by various armies. Its inhabitants have practised transhumance - the seasonal movement of livestock between summer pastures in the mountains and lower ground during winter - for thousands of years and goats cheese (locally known as brocciu) is still produced by traditional herders at all of the mountain bergeries. In recent times the French Government have poured money into the island economy and, thanks to its beauty, Corsica now has a roaring tourist trade with coastal towns and cities being especially affluent areas.
In 1972 the Parc Naturel Regional du Corse (PNRC) was established to encourage `green tourism' in the mountains and bring back to life the ancient transhumance trails. Soon after, the idea for the GR20 was conceived by Michel Fabrickant, a keen mountaineer with a passion for the Corsican Mountains. It was primarily intended for the very sporty and the sale of food at the refuges was forbidden up until the 1990s so that walkers had to carry everything with them or regularly descend into the valleys to stock up. The route has since been diverted and extended to pass through more of the villages and bergeries and hence bring money to the more remote areas of the mountains. In its current form it runs for approximately 190km from Calenzana in the North to Conca in the South (with most people choosing to walk the route in this direction) and is incredibly well waymarked by red and white paint stripes every few metres. Over 12500m of ascent and consequent descent is included and there are also `Alpine Variants' which can be followed for a day at a time to include some more of the mountain peaks. Hikers most commonly walk the route in 15 days staying at one of the Parc refuges each night (as camping is forbidden elsewhere). Refuges offer dormitory beds, permanant tents and `bivouac' sites as well as cooked meals in the evenings and limited food supplies, at a price. The GR20 is met by roads on only few occasions along the route, mostly at winter ski stations. Around half of the walkers starting the trail each year drop out along the way having underestimated the challenge it presents or come into difficulties, we were determined not to become one of these statistics! Being on a student budget, we decided to camp every night and also take a Trangia (cooking stove) for use most evenings. Vizzavona is the traditional `midpoint' of the GR20 (in terms of distance, not walking time) with the northern half generally accepted to be more challenging than the southern section. As a point of interest the record time for completion of the GR20 is under 33 hours!