Back From GR20 – Just How Hard Was It?

The GR 20 is a truly fantastic route. Gorgeous views and lots of challenging walking and scrambling. I’d highly, highly recommend it.

We often meet some great people on the Big Walks but this year seemed particularly rich in that respect. Which was great since we ended up walking it two weeks later than this year’s Big Walk crew! Though as a bonus Russ, who was part of that trip, managed to meet us to ascend Monte Cinto, the highest peak on the island, just before he flew back.

There were people on the route who had done some of the more interesting routes around the world too. Some we’d done, some we’d heard of and some we noted for future reference…

We actually doubled back to miss the last stage (taking the standard GR20 instead of the Alpine Variant we’d used the day before)  to allow us to turn south for a day’s walk to connect to the Mare-Mare Sud. We joined at the half-way point and walked into Porto-Vecchio, thereby saving a day of bus rides out of Conca (the actual end point of the GR 20) and giving us another extra couple of days of walking.

The Mare-Mare Sud is nice enough but suffered somewhat from the “Green Tunnel” effect that is apparently prevalent on the Appalachian Trail.  There were very occasional views as we popped out of the forest but for long stretches it was just trees. Regardless, it still beat the heck out of spending the day on two different buses!

The GR 20 has a reasonably scary reputation and is often referred to as “The hardest way-marked route in the world” (note – that’s “way-marked” route – you can make up your own routes that are harder than this of course). But it’s all very subjective, so all I can do is relay our own experience and perhaps a little of the feelings of others we met along the way.

Overall, we certainly thought it was very hard work, but never more technically challenging than an easy British Grade I scramble. What’s that? A scramble is “A walk where you need to use your hands” and on a grade one you’d not expect to need a rope (it’s rather ill defined, but from what I’ve been taught; there are three grades, grade three is essentially very easy climbing, with a rope and a very occasional bit of leader-placed protection – attachment to the rock).

If you’re used to scrambling, nothing on the route poses a problem. There are a few sections that feel exposed, but there isn’t much that has the potential to really mess you up badly. And any parts that do have that potential are protected with chains and cables to hold on to.

But the point is, the GR 20 is damned hard work!

To give you some idea, we walked most of the route with a great couple of Scottish lasses, one of which has been a full time walking and skiing guide for around twenty-five years and she found the route hard work (she’d done it before so she knew what was coming). But note, that’s hard work, not hard technically. As we agreed one evening over some local Corsican red wine, it’s the sustained nature of the broken terrain. On some days you rarely get into a regular stride. It’s small step, large step, larger step, small step etc. For sections, it doesn’t let up for hours.

That being said, we met people carrying fairly “impressive” (large!) pack weights who’d never, ever done any walking with a pack before and they were coping. More of an endurance exercise in their case perhaps and personally I’d have chosen something that wasn’t so punishing for my first GR, like a section of the GR5. Of course there were more experienced walkers with lighter packs that were doubling stages. They said it wasn’t at all easy, but it was clearly doable.

We also met people that were accomplished long distance walkers who were finding it very tough because they’d not scrambled before and they had thought the days mentioned in the guide book looked too short: they are not! One guy had walked the Appalachian Trail, among other long distance paths, and had decided to double-up sections of the GR 20 – and said he was regretting it! The sections are short in distance because they’re simply very tough walking.

It’s probably worth saying that many people had the impression that the second section is easier than the first. Well, to us it wasn’t very much easier at all. There are still sustained sections of broken terrain. And there are also very many beautiful sections in the south. As Russ put it “There wasn’t a day I thought I could have happily missed out”. For instance, the Alpine Variant on the penultimate day, ending at Bavella (the picture above), was one of the absolute highlights.

There are several accessible peaks just off route that are well worth doing as part of the days (though Monte Cinto really requires a clear extra day). We did Monte Cinto, Monte Ritondu, Monte d’Oro and Tower III (which is tiny, but a great scramble). But we missed Paglia Orba and Monte Renosu due to the fact the routes have a reputation for being tricky to find and the weather wasn’t good on those days. The scrambling on the side peaks is often a little harder than the main route (with Paglia Orba being particularly tricky apparently). The route marking for the peaks (usually yellow blazes) is rather sketchy at times to say the least but the red/white blazes of the GR were excellent throughout.

One mistake, that’s hard not to make, is to leave too little time. There really are 15 stages and travelling on Corsica can take a long, long time. Check online and be aware that timetables become even more sparse on Sundays and after the end of September, and that strikes are not unknown!

If possible you’d ideally have 15 days’ walking, plus 1 day for Monte Cinto and 1 day’s rest somewhere. Then at least one day each side for travelling between home and each end of the route (probably more). It can be done in less time of course but it’s a harder proposition and can make the final stages far less relaxing than they could be. If you have to double up, I’d avoid doing so for the first few stages to allow your stamina to build.

Also, the inov8 Roclites coped absolutely fine, including the extra peaks, and have plenty of mileage left in them. I would hate to try this route in restrictive, heavy “clod-hopping” traditional boots. They’d make it way harder and increase the injury risk. But that’s really another posting…

Overall, if you can cope with having to put your hands down on the rock to negotiate some of the trickier lumps, you can cope with this walk. Just don’t underestimate the stamina needed to walk it. But above all, don’t miss it!

5 Replies to “Back From GR20 – Just How Hard Was It?”

  1. Hi Antoine!

    It was a great adventure indeed. And one we almost didn’t have which made it all the sweeter.

    The photos are in development at the moment – in fact it’s only the panoramas to go…

  2. Hi Dave,
    Interesting write up on the route, some great information.
    I’ll be off to do the GR20 in September flying into Bastia and just wondered if you had any feedback regards getting to and from the trail from there? Not sure where your entry point was but if you have any recomendations for a place to overnight in Bastia it would also be helpfull.
    Cheers, Paul

  3. Paul – We did fly into Bastia, but went straight on to the start of the trail at Calenzana from there. Bastia’s nice enough, though I think I’d prefer to stay in Calenzana given the choice. It’s relatively easy to get from Bastia to the start of the trail, though certainly not quickly.

    We took the train into Ponte Leccia (the Ajaccio train), then changed for Calvi and then a cab to Calenzana (you can often share a cab with other hikers starting the trail at the same time).

    Cab journey is about 15 minutes on good fast roads – so it saves a very long walk!

    The time tables in Corsica aren’t exactly Swiss… LB found this site which helps a lot (TLJ means every day – but we’re sure that there was a Sunday timetable… maybe it’s a Winter thing?):

    http://www.corsicabus.org/index.html

    The other option is to get a one-way hire on a hire car, if you can find others to reliably split the cost with. You need to hire the car in advance to stand a chance of getting a reasonable price of course. The best way of hooking up with other GR20 hikers is probably the forum over at http://corsica.forhikers.com/

    Reversing the journey isn’t easy to recall since we didn’t finish on the GR20 but instead hooked back on ourselves to pick up the Mare-Mare Sud. However the above corsicabus.org site should help you!

  4. Thanks for that Dave.
    I arrive Saturday Evening in Bastia so need to stay over. Meeting rest of the group Sunday evening in Calvi ready for Monday start.
    Will take a look at those websites.
    Thanks again,
    Paul

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