1294 – ‘Northern Corse’ – Corsica GR20

Day 1 Calenzana (275m) to Refuge d’Ortu di Piobbu (1520m) and Refuge Bonifatu The first day of the GR20 can be a shock to the system; leaving Calenzana, with your world on back, in weather that you should really enjoy whilst sitting with a cocktail at the side the pool, with the added question mark over the availability of water along the way. The ascent towards to the ridges above is a prickly trail full of wildlife and plants; you quickly learn where not to sit down to avoid the inevitable jaggy thorn or step onto one of the little lizards who scurry from your path in front of you. A very late arrival in Calenzana the night before was followed by an early start the next morning which found a few grouchy demeanours in search of a coffee or two to get the walking engine started. Kit organised, groups briefed, we set off for a slow slog up through the village to the start of the route.

Throughout the route water sources were scarce with fluid intake needing to be carefully managed to help avoid heat injury. Average temperatures were supposed to be around 25 degrees for June but the high temperature for day one hit 37 degrees. This took its toll on Sig Taza Salamut who showed early signs of heat injury with group 2 leader Sgt Joe Wiggins deciding to lead his group through the sheltered forest trail to Refuge Bonifatu where they could rest before meeting Capt Heather Lawrie’s group 1 at Refuge Carrozzu later on day 2. The long haul through the forests contouring the side of the mountains was finally rewarded with an unforgettable view of where we had been some hours previous. The land stretching north and down towards the historic sea port of Calvi, an outpost of the French Foreign Legion.

Our highest point of the day conquered, the saddle slowly ebbed away behind us as we saw our objective through the trees in the distance. Tantalisingly close but over the other side of a sharp v-shaped valley the Refuge d’Ortu di Piobbu looked to be precariously perched on the side of a slope. By now we were contouring around towards the head of the valley and all we could see were fellow trekkers searching for a flat spot to place their bedding for the night. Finally we arrived just in the nick of time to catch the refuge evening meal consisting of sausage, green lentils and herbs. The area wasn’t solely used by humans, wild horses also share the location and for those who are not too careful they can also share your equipment and rucksack as many a trekker discovered. The dreadful chaos of arriving later than most and trying to find a flat spot for your roll mat soon passed as we sat with a hot chocolate and enjoyed an amazing sunset for well over 2 hours before it disappeared behind the distant mountains – a truly fantastic location and well worth the first day’s slog to get there.

Day 2 – Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (1520 m) – Refuge de Carrozzu (1270 m) An early rise for the troops at Piobbu, as they stretched off the first days walk with a grumpy look of trekking despair. There is nothing quite like the feeling of a ropey night’s sleep under the stars followed by a full-on trekking day. For some it is easy to get moving first thing, others don’t perk up until well after ten in the morning and require huge amounts of caffeine to motivate the ‘trail banter’ and wit! Leaving Piobbu was fairly slow and started with a gentle stroll through a wooded area before the long ascent up a valley. You are then presented with a magnificent 360 degree view of the Corsican Mountains. You don’t really know where to start to look first. At this point Sig Oscar Searle got too friendly with the local wildlife and sustained a spider bite.

After the delights of the ridge views, Group 1 made its way along a traverse before descending a couple of hundred metres into plentiful scrambling. This was a good section as there was lots of ‘hands-on’ whilst manoeuvring through challenging terrain. The day seemed to go on forever finally ending at saddle Bocca Carrozzu where the path drops savagely into the picturesque valley hosting Refuge Carrozzu. *****Below is one of the many Bocca’s (saddles/bealeach) you pass over on this stage. The Bocca’s tend to channel the rising air currents creating a light and very welcome mountain breeze giving trekkers relief from at least some of the midday heat.

The white and red way markers now guided us unwittingly towards the final challenge of the day; a fierce, steep and sustained drop of approximately 800m, similar to a Grade II gulley full of non-consolidated scree, loose boulders and larger rocks perched in a variety of precarious positions. It was the only way down and the party all felt it in their knees and feet despite being supported with walking poles. It was a horrible way to finish what up until then, had been a fantastic days trekking.

On arrival we found group 2 taking in the beautiful balcony at the refuge. We soon realised that the earlier you leave the more choice of sleeping area you get on arrival and there was an unofficial race on the trail to get your sleeping mat in place before the other trekkers. Strangely similar to reserving a sun lounger with a towel! We were all amazed at the various sleeping arrangements being constructed out of disused pallets and general jovialness of all the other trekkers. The atmosphere was friendly and there was a scent of mutual respect in the air that you had made it through day 2. There was also an opportunity to get what could be loosely described as a “shower” to rinse away the grinding compound known as scree dust, sweat, factor 50 sunblock and any other insects that happened to have welded themselves to you from the day’s exertions. Those that assume a mountain refuge hut shower resembles that of domestic bliss are to be sorely disappointed. You are lucky to get a dribble of tepid water to wash the essentials, lucky then we had plenty wet wipes with us!

Carrozzu is a great little refuge hut situated amongst the trees and half way up a valley with majestic sunset views. This refuge is very much a ‘wild camp’ location.

Day 3 – Refuge de Carrozzu (1270 m) – Refuge d’Asco Stagnu (1422 m) A more sombre mood on this particular morning as muscle fatigue and sleeping on rocks in the open surrounded by ants nests was beginning to take its toll on the uninitiated refuge hut dwellers. A quick morale injection by WO2 Wootton saw both groups up, prepped and moving just after first light. Day 3 starts with a fun crossing of the Spasimata Suspension Bridge which looks strangely familiar to that of an ‘Indiana Jones’ scene. This is followed by a rewarding and winding slab trek up the valley. In all directions there are scrambling routes and rock climbing adventures. You could spend days exploring this gorge just off the GR20.

Continuing on, the Bocca that crowns the Spasimata Slabs has one of the most distinguishing features on the GR20 in the form of a prominent rock formation that looks just like a native Indian head complete with headdress. Moving up towards and underneath this unusual outcrop the ground opens up to a flat area that hosts a tiny but beautiful green/blue glacial lochan. Tempted to make the most of the opportunity to jump in we had to pass this time and continued upwards to our high point of the day another 20 minutes climbing above us. The two groups finally met at the top of the Bocca and snatching a rare photograph of the whole trekking team together.

The trail then traverses around another cirque before being presented with a huge descent to the Ski Resort at Haut Asco. Shortly after leaving the Bocca Muvrella Major McHenery took an awkward turn on a rock, damaging the ligaments and metatarsal in his foot. This resulted in Capt Lawrie and WO2 Wootton spending 4 hours painfully extracting him down the 600m descent to the refuge hut. A fantastic team effort by all, but the slow descent took its toll on the instructors as they were exposed to the savage Corsican midday heat on an exposed descent path with no shelter. Both suffering from heat injury by the time they reached the cover of th
e trees, Sgt Wiggins took the remaining group 1 members under his charge moving on ahead to finally meet up with the Support Team at Haut Asco. The radios were put to good use that day keeping Sgt McDonald and Sgt Wiggins up to date with prognosis and extraction progress in case additional support was required.

After a long afternoon and a cool drink and the troops were settling in to a routine that they had become accustomed too – Quickly deploy thermarest in a good spot in the shade!

At Haut Asco we were re-united with our re-sup bags by our Support Team led by WO2 Dave Honeyman. Meeting them gave us an opportunity to reflect on the past 3 days. As both groups were now seasoned GR20 veterans they knew exactly what to carry on the hill. Sgt Bayne decided to share her equipment with the remainder of the car park……

The resort at Haut Asco has all the facilities you could wish for, restaurant, showers, laundry and a well-stocked shop. A change from the refuge herbal stews and chewy bread, the team together enjoyed a well-earned steak dinner that night.

After three days, the terrain and partially the weather was taking its toll on the group. We now had three individuals who required treatment for various minor injuries sustained on the trail. Sig Searle’s spider bite on his leg was not improving and had started tracking in both directions. Maj McHenery’s foot had ballooned once he had taken his boot off and Cpl Tarbet had an oddly shaped swollen knee. Not to worry, as within our support party we had a fully trained Paramedic, Sgt McDonald, who was on hand to patch the troops up. However, the Exped leader had to make the difficult decision to not allow the three injured members to continue to the next stages of the GR20.

Meanwhile SSgt (Art Veh) Hendry was impressed by the amount of cured sausage on offer. He had found his way to the fully stocked refuge shop to grab some goodies for the next stage of the trek. The ration of choice is definitely cured sausage, smelly cheese and bread if you can find it. There is always red wine at the refuges to wash it down with.

Haut Asco is accessible by road and has many visitors. The views in the surrounding area are great and Haut Asco is the main starting point for the summit of Monte Cinto. Monte Cinto is a side trip to the GR20 and it is one that we had hoped to complete. Given the injuries we had sustained over the first 3 days and the heat injuries of some of the group, the decision was made not to attempt Monte Cinto. The lead instructor (Sgt Joe Wiggins) conducted the activity risk assessment for the day. As suspected the overall outcome was high for the group. Many factors contributed to this; the temperature was 10 degrees higher than normal, the troops were still quite fatigued and the time/distance appreciation conducted the actual time to complete the route would be 12 hours and not 7 as advertised in the guide book. Expedition and Instructional leads both agreed, we wouldn’t be going for Monte Cinto. A tough but sound judgement call.

All was not lost as day 4 turned in to a mountain leader training day. Conducted around the refuge grounds it included instructional stands on rope skills and security, river crossings, navigation techniques, first aid/trauma training and management of risk in the mountains. This day allowed much of the syllabus of the SMF to be delivered including Capt Lawrie’s weather lecture using aids such as pointing at the rapidly forming thunder and lightning producing cumulus cloud formations.

Day 5 – Refuge d’Asco Stagnu (1422 m) – Refuge de Tighjettu (1683 m) An hour’s walk up the valley from Haut Asco is the giant chasm of the ‘Cirque de la Solitude’. The morning after the training day the general feel around the group was one of refreshed, rested and ready for what was shaping up to be a great day. The stories of the “Cirque” were known to us and for some there was an air of in trepidation and excitement as to what sort of challenges it would bring. The walk up the valley to the start of the route is straight-forward and very gradual. The start gets the morning sun immediately so it is definitely worth setting off before first light to avoid the inevitable heat.

The real highlights of the day start once you have made it to Bocca Tumasginesca (2183m) and the mood of the group changes as those with a fear of heights start to have second thoughts. Descending below for a couple of hundred metres was a large expanse that could only be navigated by using the in-place chains and ladder equipment. Group 2 had led the way and were now only tiny specs as they moved across the valley below having negotiated the first part of the vertical descent but you could still see the grin of enjoyment from LCpl Joan Simmons from miles away.

As Group 2 disappeared into the distance, Group 1 was prepared to descend. It was at this point that the ‘closet vertigo suffers’ made themselves known. Cpl Nielsen Von-Reitzig was firmly in that adventure training place they describe on courses. It’s an old training cliché but he was without doubt out of his comfort zone as he stood there deep breathing and looking in to the big scary gorge ahead. It seemed a little odd as for the remainder of the trip he had been a stalwart in the group and the height thing did not seem to bother him. With some help and guidance from Capt Lawrie and WO2 Wootton he was soon “encouraged” down some very precarious chains. It is after all why we do adventure training is it not? Capt Lawrie placed handholds and footholds and before long we had picked up a pace and had time to snap a great shot of LCpl Goring’s shadow.

Once the main part of the descent was conquered the route then traversed across before sharply ascending more chains and ladders to Bocca Minuta (2218m). After the huge descent and ascent a good lunch was the order of the day. Both groups thoroughly enjoyed this day as it had bags of scrambling; great views and many in the group were challenged and captivated by the awe inspiring terrain. In peak season this section of the route can be extremely crowded, so give yourself plenty of time to get through it. Also worth considering is a decent escape plan if some of your group are not confident and refuse to proceed. The only escape route at the start is head back to the refuge. Once committed it is very difficult to deviate off the route. Other trekkers can be quite rude and keep guard against them forcing their way past weaker members of your party.

The walk off from Bocca Minuta was the shortest of all with a simple 60 minute descent from the ridge to the refuge hut. The guidebook describes Refuge Tighjettu as ‘ugly with fantastic views’. I think most agreed that this was an accurate description although some thought the hut resembled ‘Noah’s Ark’ before the flood…

Typical food in the refuge is soup followed by some high carbohydrate dish. For the most part the soup smells and looks similar to the locally growing wild foliage. A few croutons soon made it edible and you are normally so hungry you don’t actually care! Spagbol is usually the dish of choice, cheap, easy to cook and very well received after a hard day in the mountains. The majority of refuge huts are supplied using traditional methods such as donkey’s and working ponies. You can make yourself very comfy at a refuge if you plan to stop more than one night.

After a good meal at the refuge the team retired for the evening looking forward to the walk off the following day. By now, sleeping in a rocky outcrop with horse manure had become the norm and in a strange way quite comfortable. The night sky view in the mountains is crystal clear and as someone commented, ‘the stars are that clear they must be in HD’. You can see deep into space as there is no ambient light pollution to distort the view. Peaceful, relaxing and thought provoking.

Day 6 – Refuge de Tighjettu (1683 m) – Hotel Castel di Verghio (Calasima) The usual morning refuge start, sore knees, tired muscles and the yearning for a good shower! The walk off day was a refreshing change fro
m the days previous – a short walk down the valley to the pickup point. It was however in baking hot conditions and turned into a sweaty desperate slog for an ice cream. Both groups moved off together and were thankful of the later start than usual. The mountain routine of getting on the trail before sunrise changes your body clock and it was nice to have a gentle start to the day without 900m of ascent! After a few hours of boring track walking in the baking sun, the team made it in to Calasima. The walk down had not been hugely enjoyable based on the great views from the days before. On arriving we stumbled across a mobile grocery van – a welcome surprise and a chance to grab some cold drinks and fresh fruit but despair, as he didn’t stock any icecream.

Cultural Visit – Ajaccio The cultural visit to Ajaccio gave a well-deserved break for the troops, it allowed the expedition leader and team to gather finances and prepare for the flight home and educate members of the expedition in some of the culture of the island and its traditions. Cpl Bruce Tarbet organised the day which consisted of a guided tour around the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and also a visit to the museum in the centre of Ajaccio. The group photo is in front of the large (and very Roman like) monument in the central square. After the group photo we wandered around a museum that was full of Bonaparte trivia and also included large contributions from various Corsican resistance movements.

Also included in the cultural day was a brief by Major McHenery of the wine and foods of the region. This turned out to be quite an interactive and jolly event. Mapping of the island previously used by the Support Drivers, they soon found their way in to what could be described as an Ops Brief bird table, which included several bottles of white, red and rose wine from all over Corsica. There was also a large selection of local foods to try with the wine with Sig Salamut providing careful translation from the wine labels in what can only be described as ‘dodgy miserable French’.

5 Good reasons to do the GR20It is challenging – don’t underestimate it.The scenery is breathtaking – take a good camera.The refuge huts are a unique experience – you’ve worked hard to get there.The red wine tastes good – simple pleasures after a long day.You’ll want to do it all over again at some point in the future – you will you know….

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

Nuffield Trust