On 6th of September 12 members of 103 battalion REME set out on Exercise Castle Adventure to the island of Corsica to conquer the northern half of the GR20 route. The route is claimed to be one of the toughest treks in Europe and we were about to find out why.
On the weeks leading up to the exercise we were keeping an eye on the weather forecast, pleased with the warm sunny days that would allow us to walk/climb the more technical routes, on arrival at the airport we were faced with torrential downpours and thunderstorms.
First order of the evening once in the accommodation was to dish out all the team equipment and to ensure everyone’s personnel kit was sorted, including a trip up to the local shop for food for the following days walking.
With the weather now back to sunny skies and the forecast looking good for the next few days at least, we started out on the GR20. The route we took for the first day was good for assessing both the level of mountaineering experience and fitness of the group, after the initial climb, it levelled out and contoured for a few miles, ideal for check navigation and pacing practicing until a small climb to the refuge and the 1st nights camp.
The start of day 2 we paralleled a large stream up the side of a re-entrant, then after a large ascent and around midday we found a good spot to have lunch. Fortunate for the group the stop happened to be where a wooden bridge crossed the stream and as it was 32 degrees the chance to take a paddle in the cold water was taken up by a few of the team. After lunch the climbing re commenced with a long steep incline through the woods to the second refuge and hopefully a good night’s sleep, which in the end didn’t go to plan. This refuge was slightly busier than the first and all the tent pitches were gathered around the central toilet/washing block which was very busy through the night.
Day 3 started as day 2 finished, going up, though once clear of the trees, the views were amazing and we could see pretty much the whole route we had come up so far. We eventually reached the saddle where there was a rock formation that resembled an American Indian with headdress and marked the 1st downhill walking for over 24 hours. From this point, we could see the next refuge in the distance, which in winter served as a ski lodge.
Day 4 due to some small injuries (muscles, blisters and slightly twisted ankle) saw the party split into 2 smaller groups, group 1 stayed at the refuge to carry out distributed training which included navigation skills, rope work and other techniques to go towards individual qualifications such as summer mountain foundation. Group 2 was to climb and summit the peak of Monte Cinto, the highest peak on the island at 2706 meters above sea level. For this climb the large packs were left behind and day packs were the order of the day. From the refuge, the climb to the peak was around 1400 meters which was completed in a little under 4 hours, a short lunch break and pics to show the rest of the group and then back to the refuge, knowing that the next morning would bring the same route falling short of the summit by a mere 100 meters.
Day 5 and with the obvious banter and horror stories of the climb, in which the whole group now faced with full packs, we left the comfort of the refuge. The climb was slower than the previous day and it’s easy to see why the route can make claim to one of the toughest treks in Europe. With steep scree slopes and steeper rock climbs, thankfully there were chains bolted into the rock to help the less confident climbers. Once at the top, a sense of achievement was felt throughout the group and once again we were met by amazing views, including the last refuge of our trek. Once at the refuge, half opted to stay inside, whilst the others stayed in the tents for the final night on the route.
Day 6 was the route off the GR20, this day was used to consolidate training the participants had learned the previous days and conclude the distributed training which allowed 6 members to gain the Summer Mountain Foundation (SMF) qualification, the whole group gained 6 Quality Mountain Days (QMDS) during this expedition. These QMDs are used towards future mountaineering qualifications, which will aid the Battalion on future adventure training events.
The refuges differ greatly from place to place and as they are remote all trekkers should expect to pay a premium for food and supplies, a good point is potable water was available at all the refuges we stayed at so not having to purify the water saved valuable time and effort. Most camp sites offer accommodation inside on a first come first served basis and is at an extra cost than camping. Showers and toilets were also available and varied between ice cold mountain water and hot, strangely some also had opening times. All in all a great exercise and one I would recommend to anyone. One for consideration next time would be the whole GR20 route, maybe.
Sgt Kevin White