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Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)


Postby Chris Henshall » Sun Jan 19, 2020 11:03 pm

Date walked: 10/07/2013

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My wife, children and I had had family holidays in Corsica in the early 2000s and, having got up in the early hours of the morning on several occasions to climb some high mountains before rejoining everyone on the beach for the afternoon, I developed a hankering to do the GR20. I knew, however, that it would be difficult to find the two weeks or so needed to do this unless I somehow incorporated it into my work so three of us, Chris Battarbee, Steve Chalk and I, decided to run it as a (lengthy) Gold D of E training expedition for eight of our students. This seemed like a good idea so I went into organising mode...
Day 1 - Wednesday, 10th. July:
We decided that the best way to approach the island was by sea so, after looking at the train to Marseilles, we eventually flew to Nice and took the ferry. This worked well and, stopping only to buy propane and drink an expensive beer in a quayside cafe in Nice, we arrived in Ille Rouse by mid afternoon.
Picture1.jpg
First sight of land
There was then a bit of a hiatus as the taxis which I had organised didn't arrive for a couple of hours but early evening saw us into the gite campsite in Calenzana from where Steve, I and the lads headed into town and found a guy selling bargain pizzas out of a caravan. Chris, meanwhile, headed off to meet his (handily French) other half and start his holiday - during which he'd act as our supplier and, if needed, emergency driver.
Picture2.jpg
A long wait in Ille Rouse
Picture3.jpg
Heading into Calenzana
Day 2 - Thursday, 11th. July:
Despite training walks, we weren't certain how fit all the students were for the hill so, setting a pattern which would be repeated over the next two weeks, we were all on the move by 6.30.am., heading through the dark streets of Calenzana and out into the maquis.
Map 1.png
Day 2 of the trip
We weren't especially fast but refused to be intimidated by the fierce reputation of the GR20's first day, kept going and made the route's first major col, the Bocca a u Saltu, in good order.
Picture5.jpg
Crossing the Bocca a u Saltu
From there, a gently rising traverse gave both great views of Monte Grosso (1,937m) which I had climbed on a family holiday some years previously and, ultimately, easy access to the first refuge, the Ortu di u Piobbiu.
Picture6.jpg
Monte Grosso from the traverse beyond the Bocca a u Saltu
We knew that we had to camp by the refuges so managed to dig out and find relatively flat platforms for our five tents and settled in for the afternoon. As there was plenty of daylight left, I also took the opportunity to wander up Monte Corona (2,151m) behind the refuge, being surprised to find (quite aggressive) cattle grazing at well over 1,800m.
Day 3 - Friday, 12th. July:
Despite the stages of the walk being short, we were with a bunch of students and so decided to stick to schedule - and today saw us hit the island's spectacular main watershed for the first time at the Bocca Piccaia.
Map 2.png
Day 3 of the trip
It was, if memory serves, a fairly sweaty climb but, again, an early start meant that we did most of it in shadow and, when we arrived, the views to the south were spectacular.
Picture8.jpg
At the Bocca Piccaia looking south towards the peaks and passes of the next few days
From the pass we trundled steadily around the watershed above the head of the Cirque de Bonifatu before descending to the Refuge de Carozzu, arriving before midday.
Picture9.jpg
Beginning the descent to the Refuge de Carozzu
Day 4 - Saturday, 13th. July:
A lot of tosh is talked about the rigours of the GR20, never more so than about the Spasimata Slabs and, having crossed the excellent suspension bridge below the refuge in the half light of early morning, the walk up the slabs was easy - if spectacular.
Picture11.jpg
Up the Spasimata Slabs
Above the slabs, a long climb led to a pass above the Lac de Muvrella before some contouring along the watershed led us to a col high above Haut Asco.
Picture13.jpg
Looking down to Haut Asco and across the valley to Monte Cinto, Corsica's highest peak
Again, the day had been short (less than five miles and 1,000 metres of ascent) and, on reflection, we could have run days three and four together. We hadn't, though, wanted to underestimate what is often (hyperbolically) called "Europe's toughest trek" so we trundled down to what is a rather messy ski resort, met Chris who arrived with our food for the next few days and settled in for a rest day.
Map 3.png
Day 4 of the trip

Day 5 - Sunday, 14th. July:
I gave the students the option of climbing Monte Cinto (2,706m) on their rest day but none of them were up for it so I did it solo, leaving 90 minutes or so before first light with Steve happy to man base camp. It was an enjoyable slog with some scrambling to get on to the summit ridge and I had the top to myself for about 40 minutes before a fairly large party arrived from the other side of the hill and I pushed off, getting back down in time for lunch. Annoyingly, though, I had failed to take a camera with me.
Day 6 - Monday, 15th. July:
As mentioned, the GR20 has an - it has to be said, undeserved - reputation for difficulty but, before it was taken off the official route as a result of the seven fatalities which occurred there in 2015, the Cirque de Solitude was the walk's most difficult section. Some of our students professed to finding it intimidating but, in good weather, its bark was certainly worse then its bite and it proved quite feasible to traverse the cirque without using either the cables / chains or the ladder that were in place at the time. It was, nevertheless, an exciting place to visit and a highlight of the trek.
Picture16.jpg
Heading up from Haut Asco with Monte Cinto behind
Picture17.jpg
On the Col Perdu looking into the cirque
Picture18.jpg
The ladder in the cirque
Map 4.png
Days 5 and 6 of the trip
Emerging from the cirque at a high col, there was a lovely walk down to the Bergeries de Ballone where we camped. The students found that the bergeries sold refreshments and supplemented their diets before a large thunderstorm broke in the late afternoon.
Another picture.jpg
The Bergeries de Ballone
Day 7 - Tuesday, 16th. July:
This was a relatively easy day to our second re-supply meeting with Chris at the Col de Vergio.
Map 5.png
Day 7 of the trip
An initial traverse brought us to a cold stream before, with the rising sun on our backs, we climbed to the Bocca di Foggali which gave access to the Golo Valley.
Picture20.jpg
Water stop
From there, we traversed past the Refuge de Ciotullu di I Mori and under the ramparts of Paglia Orba (which I had climbed previously on one of our family holidays) before heading down the valley.
Picture21.jpg
Heading down from the Refuge de Ciotullu di I Mori with Paglia Orba and Capu Tafonatu behind
The infant Golo was, however, too much to resist in the heat and everyone went for a swim in its cold waters - much to the scorn of a passing muleteer.
Picture22.jpg
The passing muleteer gives the swimmers the finger
We headed down to the col and met Chris; Steve and I even visited a cafe near the col for a coffee where, I'm ashamed to say, I stole a teaspoon to replace Steve's plastic spork which I had broken at the Bergeries de Ballone.
Day 8 - Wednesday, 17th. July:
This was another relatively easy day with some beautiful walking. After an initial descent, we climbed through stands of laricio pine to a high ridge line (where we were buzzed by an intrusive helicopter which seemed to have a film crew on board) before descending to the beautiful pastures of the Lac de Nino
Map 6.png
Day 8 of the trip
Another other picture.jpg
Descending to the Lac de Nino
Picture24.jpg
In reflective mood at the Lac de Nino
We then made our way through some more broken woodland to a wide open meadow which was crossed before a final climb to the Refuge de Manganu.
Picture25.jpg
Heading across the plains towards the Refuge de Manganu
Picture26.jpg
Final ascent to the Refuge de Manganu
The only downside to the day was that the crowded area outside the refuge in which everyone was obliged to camp seemed to have been used as an open toilet by most of the trekkers; it wasn't a pleasant pitch.
Day 9 - Thursday, 18th. July:
Another fantastic day... and the high point of the route. We were away at our usual early hour and headed up to the Breche de Capitellu (at about 2,200 metre) at a steady pace, crossing it into the head of a spectacular valley, high above twin glacial lakes, the Lac di Capitellu and the Lac de Melo. The circuit of the ridges above the lakes was terrific walking before we gained the Bocca Muzella and descended to the Refuge de Petra Piana. Once there, we were pleased to have made an early start as the biggest storm of the trip rolled in, carpeting the landscape with an inch or two of hail. My plans for an afternoon ascent of Monte Rotondu (2,622 metres and Corsica's second highest mountain) had to be abandoned.
Picture28.jpg
Looking back down from the Breche de Capitellu
Picture29.jpg
Along the watershed from the Breche de Capitellu
Picture30.jpg
Approaching the Bocca Muzella
Picture31.jpg
Hail at the Refuge de Petra Piana
Map 7.png
Day 9 of the trip
Day 10 - Friday, 19th. July:
This was the easiest day of the trek and, entailing nothing more than a short wander along a pleasant ridge at moderate altitudes, it could easily have been combined with either the preceding or the following day. The previous evening's storm, however, had cleared the air and made for an atmospheric wander along the ridge while our usual departure time made for a very early arrival at our next camp ground, the Refuge l’Onda. Steve spent the extra time well, wandering around in his bare feet (schoolboy error) and cutting up one of them on a rusty metal spike embedded in the ground. No lasting damage was done...
Map 8.png
Day 10 of the trip
Picture33.jpg
On the ridge between the Refuge de Petra Piana and the Refuge l’Onda
Picture34.jpg
Camped at the Refuge l’Onda
Day 11 - Saturday, 20th. July:
Well rested, everyone made good time up to the col south of the refuge on the following morning. An obvious diversion to the summit of Monte D'Oro (2,389 metres) was in the plan but a combination of Steve's cut foot and the temptation of Vizzavona's fleshpots split the party. Steve took three of the students on down to the metropolis while I wandered up Monte d'Oro with the other five. The second option was the better deal!
Picture36.jpg
On the ridge of Monte d'Oro
Picture37.jpg
Summit of Monte d'Oro
Map 9.png
Day 11 of the trip
It was a fairly lengthy descent to Vizzavona from the summit but rising anticipation of luxuries and a life of ease faded as the heavens opened and the limited availability of anything much in Vizzavona became apparent; the only campsite seemed to be a half submerged gravel car park! At least, though, there was a coffee shop in which to shelter and Chris turned up to re-supply us again!
Picture38.jpg
Luxury campsite at Vizzavona
Day 12 - Sunday, 21st. July:
A lot of people walk only the more spectacular, northern half of the GR20 and we were anticipating fewer fellow travellers as we headed south - and so it proved. This day, though, was a delight; after a climb out from the pass at Vizzavona, gentle traversing paths took us south along the eastern slopes of the main watershed ridge before a final climb took us to the Refuge d’E Capanelle, set amid the summer scruffiness of a ski station. I had been here eight or nine years previously when I climbed Monte Renoso with my family and it didn't seem to have changed at all.
Picture40.jpg
A pause while contouring towards the Refuge d’E Capanelle
Map 10.png
Day 12 of the trip

Continued in Part Two: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=94807
Last edited by Chris Henshall on Tue Sep 07, 2021 5:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby gaffr » Mon Jan 20, 2020 9:15 am

Hello....A fine walk and well worth a walker's time over a couple of weeks on the L'ile de Beaute.
I was a little ahead of you in 2013 when I started the walk in early June from the South after a couple of earlier visits from the North and a few crossings of the GR20 when walking some of the East to West routes on the island. The snow lingered around into the middle of June in 2013.
There were a couple of alterations to the maps in 2013? when the Col Perdu was renamed Bocca Tumasginesca and the Breche de Capitellu became the Bocca alle Porte and the wee gully with Corte painted on the rock wall became Breche de Capitellu…..both the maps and the PD guide to the route had these incorrectly labelled. Mix up with local names and the map makers when the mapping first took place perhaps?
Desperately tragic events when during a very heavy rainstorm in 2015 when vast amounts of rocks were swept down from the Bocca Minuta area.
I think that it is right that the Cirque de la Solitude remains, at the moment, closed to walkers where as far as I know some of those swept away remain under the debris and the route up to near the summit of Monte Cintu is a good alternative stage for walkers to follow.
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby Chris Henshall » Tue Jan 21, 2020 10:00 pm

Dear Gaffr,
Yes, a truly terrific walk. I've looked up your account from 2013 and it's interesting to see that there was still so much snow on the higher bits of the traverse only a month or so before we came through.
Thanks for your corrections on the names of various passes. I was using the French 1:25,000 maps of the island and Paddy Dillon's Cicerone Guide and, even if some of the names were inaccurate, it all worked and it was the views which stuck in my mind!
I didn't know about the tragedy in the Cirque de Solitude until about three years ago when I stumbled across it on line somewhere. It wouldn't be a good place to be caught in any kind of really bad weather, never mind in a major rock fall or slide and it seems appropriate that the official route now bypasses it. I don't think that there's any reason why you can't still traverse the cirque (or, indeed, miss Haut Asco and traverse the stretch of ridge to the north of the cirque) but the cables / chains and the ladder have been removed.
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby gaffr » Wed Jan 22, 2020 10:28 am

Yes, I think that the way that most Corsicans use the, sounds like, Jairvan, when talking about the route. :) In the 2001 version of the route book of PD, that we have, he does use this term in his guide. I suppose Grande Randonnee is fine but the numeric perhaps not so. :)
My first encounter with the Corsican route came about when I attended a 'slide show' given by a geography teacher from a West Lothian school of the traverse made with his pupils in the 1980's.....and then prompted again when my daughter went to the route in the early 2000's. I marked this up but did get to it until I reached the government pension age in 2007.
By going early during June I suppose that we missed out on the huge numbers of folks walking in August. However going early has the chance of walking with some of winter still around....2007 was fine when you had to go out of your way to reach a snow-patch but in 2013 I travelled from the South when starting out in the first few days of June the conditions later further North were a bit different.
For anyone who is interested I put together a blog-thing of the two visits... The GR20 - blogspot.com might just illustrate the difference in the two years.
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby Chris Henshall » Mon Jan 27, 2020 12:10 pm

Dear Gaffr,
Good to see your photos from the two trips and compare them.
I reckon that there is a lot of potential on the island for extending designated routes and taking in all sorts of ridge crests if you're prepared to do some adventurous scrambling. I did an early morning solo (and almost trackless) ascent of Monte Grosso from Calenzana in July, 2003, for example, and, in addition to the views being pretty stupendous, I can now see how you could link that summit with Monte Corona to the south. The second of these two photos shows views all the way through to Monte Cinto and, I think, Paglia Orba from the summit.
Monte Grosso 1 - Copy.jpg
The view of the coast to the north from Monte Grosso, July, 2003
Monte Grosso  3 - Copy.jpg
The view south from Monte Grosso, July, 2003
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby gaffr » Mon Jan 27, 2020 5:14 pm

Did you get to Monte Grosso by following the path beside the stream from Calenzana ruisseau de Frintogna to reach the area of the mountain? Looks as if would connect up to Corona with little or no height loss.
The Jairvan was set up by the founders of the route to connect up mainly the trails used by the seasonal farming folks and to follow where possible the paths taken by the stock rearing folks in the transhumance seasons. Of course there was quite a bit of joining up to do to complete the journey that we all take from Calenzana down to Conca.
From what I have read it would appear that more than 50% of walkers starting on the route run out of steam before reaching Conca? We were aware that several folks that we had meetings with on the route kind-of disappeared during the trip and others whom we talked to were carrying injuries and were planning to work out a way down to a village for treatment.
A French brother and sister who we met in Calenzana and had a meal with at Conca at the finish had the previous year travelled along the Mare e Monti Nord, a ten day walk, to get some experience of walking and camping as a prelude to coming back for the Jairvan. Seemed to work well for them since they had not done any hill walking prior to coming to Corse.
Our own experiences were having enjoyed the 15 day route we came back to find out more about the island by travelling along five of the other multi day routes on offer all of which were fairly quiet with very few other walkers excepting the Mare a Mare Sud that was fairly crowded and seemed to be catering for groups of walkers having their bags carried for them to be picked up at the nights stopping hostel. The Mare e Monti, the between sea and mountain walk, again setting off from Calenzana seemed also, deservedly, to be a popular route.
It would be a great thing if all the walkers going to the island just spread themselves out a bit and not be kind-of obsessed with completing the celebrated oft written about GR20 in the magazines and Sunday supplements.
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby gaffr » Wed Jan 29, 2020 10:04 am

Further to the use of the GR label to this walking route in addition to the term, local Corsican, of Jairvan there is another term that I used when first Posting on this route several years back ….that of Fra li Monti that I think translates to across the mountains or maybe even best through the mountains? Perhaps the best couple of labels for the route? :)
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Re: Corsica - The GR20 (Part One)

Postby Chris Henshall » Sun Feb 02, 2020 12:32 pm

Dear Gaffr,
Yes, I headed out towards a place called A Flatta and then followed a dry stream and its flanking spur very steeply to hit the summit ridge at its north west end. I was fitter then than I am currently and I remember working really hard to get up to the ridge before the sun hit the final spur. When I got back to Calenzana, the family were all still in bed!
At any rate, I reckon that you're right and the ridge to Monte Corona (and, by extension, the GR20) would be interesting and wouldn't involve much loss of height; it would certainly be a more strenuous (and spectacular) way of starting the trek.
I also agree with you about the value of exploring other parts of Corsica. The GR20 is a magnet and I reckon quite a lot of people just arrive on the island to do the walk (often just its northern half) and little else except, perhaps, a day on the beach. We always tried to stay somewhere away from the coast (Evisa, Zicavo, etc.) on our family holidays and, even when we stayed in places like Cargese, we did sections of the Mare e Monti Nord, did some walks in the Calanques de Piana and walked down the Spelunca Gorge from Evsisa to Porto. You are, inevitably, pulled into some areas dominated by tourism but tourism on Corsica isn't too cras and it doesn't take too much effort to head inland, get off the beaten tracks and discover traces of La Corse profonde.
I'm not sure that I'll be going back any time soon - except that, with my peak ticker's anorak on, I'd like to complete my list of the highest Corsican summits and climb Monte Rotondo!
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