Lander – A running GR20 with snow sections

A « little » report of a nice week on Corsica running the GR20 with two fellow travellers.

Day 1 : Saturday 2 june 2018 (10 km, 310 h+, 185 h-, 15u-17u): Calenzana

It’s a strange experience to just put on your backpack, get out of the airport and start running to the other side of the island. It gives a sentiment of freedom that, with the sun makes the holiday-feeling complete.

FRA LI MONTI - GR20 way - Lander
FRA LI MONTI – GR20 way – Lander

I’ve been able to limit the weight of my backpack to 5.5 kg (food an water incl.) and this feels very comfortable. We can even try our first hill by taking a shortcut to Calenzana, the start of the GR20. We’re there in time to get some supplies in the local store and eat our last meal (local specialty) before climbing in our caravan (airbnb). We enjoy a good (short) night before starting the serious work the day after.

Day 2 : Sunday 3 june 2018 (31 km, 3000 h+, 1200 h-, 6u-19u): Haut Asco

In the village we take a little detour before heading upwards but once on the track we’ll find that on the GR20 you only lose track if your talking too much or you’re running in ‘the void’. We climb a lot and see the beauty of running on an island where you run in steep mountains but you still can see the see most of the time. As we will climb most of the day, we decide to hike firmly and keep the running for later as we read that ‘the first 3 days would be technical’, which we can confirm.

GR20 - Technical way
GR20 – Technical way

Either there is a steep climb or there are some rocky passages, or both. Speedhiking is the west we can do. Arriving at the first Refuge we’re happy to see the time we need is about ⅓ faster than the time noted in the guides. This will be the same for about all of the stages. We proceed a bit faster because of the lite backpacks and we make long days so 3 stages each day seems doable. A short stop at the refuge with a Coca Cola will be our ritual at each stop, then the climbing can continue. This stage rewards us with beautifull rocky passages where the better climbing is needed, we’re happy that we’re still fresh and its early in the season so we can go over the passages smoothly without being delayed (which might be the case if it gets more crowded later on). Our lite backpacks makes us a lot more agile than our colleagues with the 20 kg geant-packs.

What follows is a ‘slight descent’ : 900 hm in about 4 km, if altitude meters are to be done, they take them fast and technical on Corsica, my stuff exactly so I let the beast loose and earn a slightly longer break at the refuge.

The third stage is a short one. A serious climb with splendid views of the wild and rough river.

Lander - crossing a river on GR20
Lander – crossing a river on GR20

As we always start late for our third stage (most are already relaxing after the long day), we hardly meet other during these stages which gives us a private ‘bath of  experiences’. A rain shower when going down forces us to concentrate and the last part seems to last ages, slipping and sliding down the rocks. When arriving at ‘Haute Asco’ we’re happy to find out we made reservations in the cellar of the hotel (private space, quiet hall) instead of the over-crowded sheep stall that has to pass as refuge. With a little extra payment we even get a made up bed with a pillow, an unheard of luxury. This first real running day took us longer than expected, only 23 km was written in the book. We decide to take an early start all of the coming days.

This day I tried the limits of running on fat-burning only, during the whole 13 hours I didn’t eat anything without really feeling bad. This worked out very well so I don’t need to take any food for the next of the trip, I can do fine with the coca cola and soup in the refuges. Once again this gives a feeling of freedom and independence which is very valuable for me on these trips. To be able to just run all day in this scenery with only a liter of water and little more makes me very happy.

Day 3 : Monday 4 june 2018 (47 km,  2980 h+,  2810h-, 6u-21u): Mangalu

Getting up at 5 am will be our time to be able to reach the last hut before closing. We manage to take the wrong path, ending up losing half an hour going to the ‘cirque de solitude’ which is closed due to recent accidents. So at 6.30 we leave again in the pouring rain for the long day ahead. Heavy rain turns into light rain and back again and this goes on for the whole long climb (1300 hm).  Which in normal circumstances is already heavy terrain (steep climbing with chains) appears to be even more challenging due to the rain, we’re really touching the limits of our trail running shoes. We’re even glad we arrive at the snowfields so the technical climbing is over.

snowfields on GR20
snowfields on GR20

Now it’s time to see what the crampons can offer during the steep 400 hm climb in the snow, luckily there was one hiker that made a track for us. Only the last few meters we’re forced to follow the trackline on the gps (which gives perfect guidance). On top there is a fierce wind and in my shorts, t-shirt and rain jacket I quickly feel hypothermic so we rush down to the other side. We need some time to get used to descending in the snow but when we get the taste we quickly go down a few 100 meters, skiing mainly. Unfortunately the snow doesn’t go all the way down so we’re forced to take the technical climbing sections. As a variation we also have large sections which I would describe as ‘riverpaths’ as you climb down in what appears to be a river but is marked as a path (this is weird knowing in summertime drought is a problem here). As we take our coffee in the refuge we notice we only managed to take this stage an hour faster than written in the guide which forces us to move on quickly as we still have a long day ahead.

Luckily the next stage offers us a large runnable section before climbing up again to the next crossing.

Lac de Nino - GR0
Lac de Nino – GR0

In the next refuge we ‘re rewarded with a delicious lunch-soup (home-made). It’s already 15u and we still have to go 24 km (the previous 24 took  about 9 hrs), so we know we will be late in the last refuge (you should arrive before 19 hrs otherwise you lose your reservation). But as the refuges have no phone (they will arrive in 3 weeks) we can’t alert we’ll be late so we just have to move on and hope for the best. 2 French trailers now join our group, they will join us until the end of the trip as they also try to de the GR in 5 days. In the next section we’ll be able to run for about 10 km, very nice to be running for a change. The scenery around us changes constantly, from the alpine snowfields to canyons with century old trees, going through some kind of jungle environment to end up in some Scottish planes swamps high up. The distance starts weighing now and we arrive at the next refuge just after sunset, our reservations in the refuge are gone, the food eaten, nice, … As we made reservations long before the trip the warden lets us sleep in a spare tent and serves us a cold dish with cheese, sausage and bread. We only have one blanket for the 3 of, resting is essential sleeping is a luxury.

Day 4: Tuesday 5 june 2018 (33 km, 2286 h+, 2760 h-, 6u -17u): Vizzavona

Day 4 starts again with a steep climb in the snow, the scenery is once again astonishing. The snow covered crossing is the beginning of a passage over steep crests where steep snowfields are followed by rocky climb sections. It’s a pity there’s a big cloud covering one side of the hill, at the other side we are rewarded with breathtaking views of the ice-covered lakes deep down the valley.

Snowfields GR20 Corsica
Snowfields – GR20 – Corsica

More snowfields and some ‘riverpaths’ take us to the first refuge of the day, hot soup is waiting. Here we pick up a dog that follows us for the rest of the day (down and up 2 valleys, for about 20 km), nice to have some extra company. During the, once again, steep and technical downhill my friend Andy sprains his ankle badly.

GR20 with snow section
GR20 with snow section

A solid tape can ease the pain but form him the journey will end in this valley, he can join a group of hikers and manages to get to Vizzavona by train just when we arrive for the night. So My journey continues with Bart going up the next valley. We travel to the next valley and go down a wonderful river with plenty of bathing possibilities and not a soul to be seen. That night we have a chalet for the three of us with a hot shower: Muntagnera, there is a little shop and it’s on a variation of the GR20 which is less crowded. A delicious hikers-meal is served and we get a good night rest.

Day 5 : Wednesday 6 june 2018 (44 km,2816 h+, 2196h-, 6u-17u):Usciolu

Andy takes the train to the capital and we start the second half of the GR20 which should be less technical. And indeed, the first stage is (after the initial climb) quite ok, we can run and enjoy the mediterranean passages.

GR20 - running section
GR20 – running section

It’s nice to make some speed and let the mind rest after all the concentration needed to pass the first stages. When passing some other runners in the other direction I can help them by selling them my crampons which I won’t be needing anymore while the still have to face the snowy and icy first stages. After a first stop on the ‘col verde’ we head straight on to the last refuge. The terrain turns technical again and there is once more a lot of climbing involved.

Second half of the GR20 - less technical
Second half of the GR20 – less technical

From this point on to the end of the GR20 there will hardly be any runnable terrain, which is fine for me. We jump from rock to rock, climb up and down, it’s really a gigantic playground to me, it makes me intensely happy.

In the hut we get a plate full of pasta which we can eat with sight on most of the next days course. We go to bed early as the last day will be the longest in km and bad weather is predicted around noon so we really want to leave the crests before the lightning comes around. As cattle in a stable full of snoring pigs we try to get some sleep.

Day 6 : Thursday 7 june 2018 (49 km, 2340  h+, 3800 h-, 4:30u – 19:30u): Conca

It’s still dark when we leave in the morning. The alarm went off at 4.30 and we’re running at 4.36, we’re getting more and more efficient. As breakfast we take a large piece of cheese on the way. The first passages on the crests are done with the light of our headlamp, a special experience in the silence of the morning, all alone. An extra reward comes with the first light of day, a beautiful sunrise with the sun rising from the clouds over the ocean. We take another alpine variant of the GR (the old GR20 route) which climbs a last time to 2000 m where we arrive just before the clouds come in. We’re just in time to dive down to the refuge, once again so steep down we need to use all our skills to climb down. After a short break with coffee we continue down the valley which leads us up and down for a few km. For a while we keep it dry but then the rain starts to pour down when we reach the ‘Aiguilles de Bavella’. Here we take shelter in a restaurant for a decent meal. Here we are, after a few days of solitude, confronted with the civilisation: a bus full of Italians with their personal choir singing italian classics. We’re glad to be able to dive in the woods once more for the final stage, another 20 km to go until the end. There’s no boring flat section at the end of this incredible GR but a kind of exposition of abstract sculptures and a dragon like landscape with pointy rock elements.

We jump from rock to rock… it makes me intensely happy

We take it very slow to enjoy this last section as much as possible. At 19h we arrive in Conca, the end of this beautiful adventure, we’re happy to be at the end but sad it’s already over.

lander on the GR20 – Paliri – Conca

Day 7 : Extra : Friday 8 june 2018 (68 km, 2800 h+, 3000 h-, 7u-16u): Ajaccio

I have done the whole GR20 without any pain or troubles, I never had the feeling it was to far or to hard, I’m feeling fresh and I don’t want to spend all day waiting for and sittin on a bus so I set off in the direction of Ajaccio where our plane only leaves the next day. The first day I’m happy to run the first 20 km of the GR20 once more in the other direction (some are looking strange as they already saw me running by the day(s) before). I manage to run the first section (which should take about 10 hrs) in a bit over 3 hrs so I can take breakfast on the col de Bavella. From there I follow my smartphone using google maps which tells me I should be in the capital some 20 hours later. This brings me on other GR tracks which are just as nice as the GR20 but a lot less crowded. I also find giant trees, a lot of wild boar, pittoresk villages (with excellent espresso) and I chat with the locals about the way to go. After a 68 km it’s getting late and my companion is already in Ajaccio so I hitchhike the last 40 km arriving well in time.

Time to stop running, it has been well, very well…


Practical :

  • Budget: 200 euro flight, 180 euro accommodation, 250 euro spent on location
  • Shoes: Altra Lone peak: (incredible grip on dry and wet rocks, no problems at all running all day up and down with wet feets)
  • Backpack: Nathan journey 25
  • No tent or sleeping bag
  • Food: only what was available in the refuges, 4 bars as backup but I didn’t use them
  • Drink: 2 soft flasks of 500 ml and a lifestraw
  • Navigation: Garmin Etrex 30 (with map and track, no maps, no books)
  • Montane raincoat (Minimus Smock), Salomon rainpants

Thank a million Lander for your detailed GR20 feedback ! Hope to read you again later for one other storie, maybe at the end of the summer without snow, so you could tell us a new running GR20 story 😉

Really thank you, your story will help next GR20 runners ! 

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