Here the video recap of the route, we apologize for the too many shots of our feet but this is the video recap of the route, and being the trail 95% rocks, feet is pretty much all we saw.
As we stumbled around Chamonix last year, holding greasy slices of focaccia, on our way back home after the TMB, we received a series of texts from a guy who was interested in what we’d done for the past week and the things we’d recently put out.
Pietro had lived in London for the better part of four years at that point and during that time had come across this guy a number of times, in Pietro’s own home as a part of a wider courier circuit, at some events and walking around town. Their relationship didn’t really extend beyond a polite hello.
Weeks after Pietro had returned to London after the TMB he met up with this guy at his house and they had long chats about travels and music, they then met up with another friend of his to start planning future trips more in detail and have become good friends since.
The guy’s name is Dan Stewart and he came with us on the GR-20 trip this summer, he is a vital part of Rayon Vert and lives every day with the same excitement he puts into all of his work. The account of the trip is his.
Thanks for everything Dan!
I started out on the bus from Paris to Milan, overnight, to meet the rest of the guys. Balanced equal parts with determination and excitement as with nerves. I knew Yuri beforehand, and Teo through word of mouth and the internet but I didn’t know what to expect from the trip, regardless of our research and preparation. It felt like as much a mission to get from Paris, to Milan and then to Genoa, Bastia and to Calenzana just to start the trail, as it did completing the GR20. I fractured my ankle two months before I got on the bus, it was a minor fracture but mild pain had resurfaced on and off in the prior weeks due to my want to get back into exercising. I thought I need to work through it a little in the leading weeks, trying to get back into running and doing mobility and strength exercises. I did what I could to feel prepared but naturally there’s something that eats away at your mindset when you sit on a bus for thirteen hours. I had just bought a beautiful second-hand pack from Z-Packs, that added to the equation. I was confident with the pack, but weighed by the saying ‘All the gear and no idea’ as this was going to be my first long-distance trail and not an easy one to start with.
After an egg sandwich, some chocolate and the last of my smokes I arrived in Milano and met with Yuri. We did some prep-chores and met with Teo and Endo in the evening to do our food shopping. We sat, had a beer, got to know each other a little bit and I bought some more smokes on Yuri’s suggestion that quitting wouldn’t be as rewarding as smoking at the end of a long day on the trail. When we roamed the aisles for dehydrated meals, nut butters and all the bits we needed I started to finally feel excited in the company of the team. The guys seemed confident and calm and that tipped the scale a bit further in the right direction. We spent the night at another friend’s place, Leo, drinking beer, organising our packs and drilling me a new supercat stove. We said our goodnight’s and met at Milano Centrale at 1215 the next day for the train down south to Genoa.
The plan from Genoa was to take the ferry overnight to arrive in Corsica and then make our way to the start of the trail to begin walking on the evening of the 15th and to get at least half a stage in before camp. We had a lazy afternoon eating and drinking in Genoa waiting for the ferry to leave at 21:00. Quick negroni as we pulled out of the port and put Italy behind us and we set our mats up on the floor and slept inside the ferry.
Endo is trying to sleep on the ferry to Bastia.
We arrived early in Bastia moving straight for the train station to work out how much time we had before the next train to Calvi (where we could get a bus to Calenzana), which turned out to be eight minutes. Three hours later we were in Calvi, having some lunch, buying some capri’s and getting a short bus ride over to Calanzana where you begin the trail.
The GR20 and its 15 stages.
We were walking from 1500 in the afternoon and sweating like piglets as some clouds rolled in and we started to gain altitude. The trail is famous for wild evening storms, isolated as the mountain ranges wave and dip through the centre of the island. 17:30 we are watching a gnarly storm start to brew and crackle to one side of us, crawling along and getting gradually larger. As we walk the next hour of uphill dredging, thick, dense clouds start covering the trail all around us. Not far from the skyline we knew we would level out sooner or later, but visibility was very low and we were fearing the tales of Corsica’s mountain storms would prove to get the better of us on our first day. We top out onto a ridge, flat and grassy. Patches of thick dark clouds cover the mountain in all directions, with visibility being short and jagged through gaps in the clouds we could see what looked like a perfect spot to set up camp. The storm rolled through quickly and we started to set our tarps up in a grassy area established by free-campers with a small rock wall. We all fit in perfectly, counted our blessings and cooked our first night’s dinner. Around sleep-o’clock however the wind picked up and the rain started again, this time substantially worse than before. For half an hour we lay there, waiting for it to pass, until the wind collapsed the tarp Endo and I were sharing and blew Teo’s almost completely off the mountain. There was frantic movement outside as Yuri and Endo tried to re-pitch our tarp (whilst I remained sprawled underneath holding a walking pole to stop the tarp from completely collapsing) and Teo was diving in to bunk with Ricky. Shouting over the wind and the rain at each other with frustration and panic. After fifteen minutes, we all lay under our tarps, getting pummelled by the rain, in soaking wet clothing and sleeping bags. We lay like this most of the night, unable to sleep due to discomfort and the fear of our tarps collapsing again. We remained cold and miserable until around 0200 when the storm decided to leave us, for which we then faded to what was a few hours sleep.
Waking to the fact that the storm was over was enough to push those thoughts of quitting to the back of our minds. The mountains just wanted to tell us on our first night not to fuck with it, it is in charge here and we are lucky to get through each day warm, dry and safe. We moved our wet stuff to the ridge-line to lie facing east and try to catch another hour of sleep. The first rays of sun hit our sleeping bags and started to thaw us out like frozen prawns in a plastic bag.
A late start and we begun the first full day on the trail. Enough hours of clear sky for us to bury the trauma of the night before and start to think about enjoying ourselves once again. This was the first day we were exposed to technical terrain; crossing some boulders, traversing some steep edges and moving, jumping, crawling over rocky terrain. We found an easy free-camp spot with the small built-up rock walls about a thirty minute walk before the refuge at the end of the first stage and decided to call it a night. We set up camp, we cooked, we smoked a little and looked at the stars on our first clear night and after our first full day.
Dan Stewart waiting for his cat stoved meal.
We started what would end up being a well respected tradition by the end of the trail, by beginning the day with an omelette and a coffee. Although we ate our space-rations at camp, after packing down and walking the thirty minutes to the refuge (Refuge de Carrozzu) we couldn’t resist the idea of getting our bowels moving from some eggs and coffee (and for me a cigarette, it is like clockwork) before the day’s walk ahead. The refuges are semi-glorified mountain huts that have a series of basic amenities like showers, toilets, places to cook and eat but also serve as a ‘shop’ for hikers on the trail. If ten euro’s for some cheese doesn’t sound too outrageous, consider burning more than 3000 calories a day and being on the trail for a week and a half. Every time you get to a refuge you have polished off the cheese from the last one and the bread, the chocolate, the meat and the snacks that you bought, plus you want your omelette if it’s the morning, an espresso regardless of what time of the day it is and definitely a coca cola if it’s too early for a beer in the evening. Expensive to say the least… but over the next week these refuges truly saved us from turning into primates.
The terrain was beautiful, we crossed rivers, winded along peaks and topped Col de Stagni (2010m) all with the ocean on the horizon, as we were still close enough to the northwest of the island. We slept that night in a beautiful wooded area by a river, just a long stone’s throw to the left of the trail before the end of the second stage. There was no line of sight to the trail, so we lit a big old fire and cooked our dinners on the coals, sitting around drinking some grappa and whiskey and chatting away. Avoiding camping at the refuges lead us to some beautiful spots and I was starting to feel the sheer isolated beauty of Corsica. By the third night Endo and I had graduated tarp-pitching-school and slept in nothing but the peace and quiet of each other’s company. Good-timing because the next day was supposed to be the most amount of ascent and descent in one stage.
The day started with a 1200 metre ascent up to the highest point of the day Col de Minuta (2218m) , followed by a half descent and re-ascent and then a final descent back down to finish the stage (Refuge de Tighjettu 1683m), shaping in altitude like an ‘M’. The climb was steady and hot, taking us just over an hour as opposed to the two and a half that the guidebook said. The terrain was the usual semi-scrambling ascent, walking both on loose and fixed rocks ranging from the size of peas, to watermelons, to small automobiles. A few large granite slabs had fixed chains for hauling oneself up, these are very awkward to use so we only used them when we couldn’t climb or traverse with our poles or hands. We sat at the top for an hour, snacking, rehydrating, smoking and enjoying the views and company of other trail-goers then we decided to do another stage till Refuge de Ciottulu di i Mori (1991m). The terrain continued for the half descent and re-ascent ranging from awkward crumbly rock sections to technical movements over large, smooth slabs of granite with drops on one or both sides. We maintained a good pace through the walking sections but quickly found the technical parts to require total concentration and physical and mental focus. Arriving at a refuge at 1900, we rested, snacked and drank some Colas. Motoring on for another half-stage into the valley before finding somewhere to camp in the evening.
This is one of those walking days I barely remember and of which I have few photographs from to which to recall our experiences. All I know is two things, firstly we took a slight morning detour and we walked for what seemed like forever throughout the day to arrive at Lac De Nino (1760 m) for a late lunch. The detour took us up to a different plateau in the mountains to a public café where we bought some bread and saucisson for breakfast and looked on a big map how far we had come in three days. Just when we thought we would never arrive at Lac De Nino, the heat taking it’s toll on our endurance and patience, we topped a ridge and saw the lake below us. Lac De Nino is a lake inside a valley basin, surrounded by wet grass and wild horses and cows. Interesting to see the Corsican horses (cavalli) roaming around and being friendly with people, but all in all a pretty underwhelming location compared to the rest of the stunning landscapes we walked through or had the chance to look out to. We ate lunch in the shade of some trees, topped up our water at a source guarded by horses and cows and motored on to the next refuge, something like another four hours walk away. We arrived at the Bergerries de Vaccaghja (1621 m), separately, and I found out over some beers that Ricky didn’t think he could go on, after re-initiating an old injury in his knee. There was some sad deliberation, another beer, and we asked for some (what turned out to be ineffective) instructions from the refuge owner as to how Ricky could get from this part, about a third of the trail length in, (now totally surrounded by mountains and with the coast not visible at all) by himself, back to Milano. We couldn’t wait too much longer at the refuge with the thought of everyone having to get enough distance from the refuge to camp. Ricky wouldn’t part ways until the morning, so he had a full day of light ahead of him. The refuge looked out over a valley and the trail continued from the refuge directly through the valley floor, so as remaining in the line of sight of the refuge for a few kilometres. We had to be somewhat cautious of this as the refuge owners aren’t allowed to let you free-camp, so if you’re going to do it nearby, it needs to be totally out of sight. We looked for a spot for camp as we moved along the valley floor for about an hour. We couldn’t find anything secluded enough and out of sight of the refuge, but as the light was starting to fade Endo found a miraculously flat and spacious area tucked in behind some trees. This was invisible to both the trail and the refuge. This was our first night of cowboy camping. Three days of perfect weather after the initial storm, a clear night’s sky and the fatigue starting to settle in, it was easier to risk cowboy-camping and save fifteen minutes putting tarps up in the evening and packing away in the morning. This was when I fell in love with cowboy-camping. A tarp can offer you protection under specific circumstances, but with low wind and warm weather we thought we would take the opportunity to fall asleep under the stars.
We woke to the sad reality that Ricky was parting ways and going to struggle his way on a series of alternate trails and roads back to the coast. We exchanged some hugs after breakfast, checked over Ricky’s navigation instructions and started to move in separate directions. Sleeping did us the favour of processing his departure a bit better. He knew he should go, and we knew he had to leave. So taking his spirit with us we set our sites on Vizzavona. The halfway point. 90km in, 90km to go. A town, with maybe a restaurant, a shop, more smokes. We knew we couldn’t make it today as we had two big stages to do, and a third one to get to Vizzavona. We woke up to heavy condensation on our sleeping systems, so hung them politely over nearby bushes to soak the sun while we ate breakfast and got ready for the day. The first section was more of the same, mixed sections of long and short ascents and descents over technical and semi technical terrain. Some more scrambling with hands and fixed chains, and some more beautiful mountain tops and cigarette rest-breaks. At 1400 we were most of the way through the first stage and midway through a slow ascent of two hours through increasingly high rock formations. We plateaued in a semi-grassy area, surrounded by big white and green boulders. Perfect for lunch. We rummaged through packet noodles, peanut butter, energy bars and chocolate, taking the opportunity to get our hands and feet on some boulders without our packs on for the first time.
We stopped abruptly. Teo asked us if we all heard that. We waited and heard nothing and conversation continued. The next time, we all heard it, some screaming of some description coming from a part of the trail we had passed already but not sounding far away. It stopped, and continued, and stopped and continued as we analysed whether it was a distressed scream, a joke, or someone enjoying themselves. We decided pretty quickly it didn’t sound like a joke or cries of joy and we leapt up to see what was going on. We found a young French boy, maybe nine or so. I asked him if he was okay and he looked at me like I had asked him the strangest question on earth, replying ‘oui’ and walking onwards. Our hearts sank with relief, but we walked back to our lunch spot confused as he continued up this daunting section of the trail alone and relatively content. Maybe ten minutes later as we were packing up from lunch a middle-aged man passed by who turned out to be the boy’s father. His family were all about ten minutes apart, communicating with a series of shrieks and shouts as they ascended slowly. Whoever thought that was a reasonable way of communicating on the trail with two children, is a stranger to me.
Teo and Dan before descending to refuge Pietra Piana.
A two hour push, summiting and descending to reach Refuge de Pietra Piana(1842m) for about 16:15. This was a big day, we were feeling it. We slumped off our packs and had a Coca Cola, some bread, and some cigarettes. Talking amongst ourselves about the next stage we had to complete today. Luckily, not as long and tedious as the stage we had just completed, but still with six hours of walking to reach the next refuge. Teo asked the refuge owner if there were any alternative trails to arrive at the next refuge, (looking to shave any time off of our day) having clocked seven hours of walk time already. He prompted us to a section of ridge lines that cut across the valley we had to walk through. Saying this section was more difficult, more beautiful and would take our walking time from six hours to four or so. The decision was easy and unanimous. We were going ridge walking. As we shouldered our packs again, and moved through the refuge grounds to reach the start of the trail, we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man from South Africa. Through the process of a few minutes he had motored through two Mars Bars and a can of Coca Cola, telling us he had started the trail yesterday and was planning to finish in forty-eight hours from now. He was going to run this ridgeline route that we had been recommended by the refuge owner. We paid him our dues and started the trail.
By the time he ran passed us, we had gained a few hundred metres of altitude and were watching the landscape drop increasingly on both sides. Besides the trailrunner, we passed a few solemn cows and saw no one but ourselves until we reached Refuge de l’Onda (1430 m). This section was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. With the sun dropping towards our waists as we followed this elevated path through the valley. You could see in every direction except for behind us, where a mountain lay between us and the refuge we had come from. Dropping altitude for an hour it hit 2100 marking 13 hours on the trail that day, and we could see an assortment of tents below us about eight-hundred metres.
The arrival at Vizzavona was nothing but sweet. We had an easy six hour stage arriving in town around lunchtime. When I say town, it’s a train station, with two bar-restaurant-shop-cafe’s opposite one another. That was all we needed. Buying new packs of smokes, using our newly found phone-signal, eating pizza, drinking beer and knowing that the hardest half is over. This was the sixth day, little did we know we’d finish the remaining stages in the coming three days. Ricky was supposed to have made it to the coast by now and yet we hadn’t received any confirmation that he was okay. We sat in a dreamland for hours at Vizzavona. Slowly as the town cleared out we became the only hikers left at the bar, sitting outside, drinking, smoking and talking. We checked our phones every hour or so to see if something had come through from Ricky. Unlike all the other hikers that had populated the town during lunchtime and the early evening, we weren’t in a rush to set up camp because the Ragas had spotted an abandoned hotel on the road that leaves the trail and winds down to the Vizzavona. Less than five minutes walking, we knew we would have a roof over our heads and realistically the longer we sat and drank and relaxed for, the easier it would be to commandeer the neglected hotel without causing any ruckus amongst the townspeople (all be them very few).
Today was more of the same. We left Vizzavona, feeling ambitious and re-energised at the idea of starting the second half. In the evening we reached Bergeries de Capannelle (1586m) about two hours before the end of the stage. Same situation as the trail certified ones, except a bit more expensive and a little bit nicer. We had passed a very comfortable looking spot only a few hundred metres previously before the refuge, where we thought we would back-track to cowboy camp when the sun went down. We took the opportunity to have a few beers and recalibrate. Endo took the moment to freshly shave his face, using one of the twenty razors he brought with him. As the light was fading we tried to retrace our steps to get to our intended camp site, but the refuge owner was onto us. Technically you can’t sleep outside of the confines of a refuge. When you’re far enough away (or haven’t just been sitting and buying beers from the owner) you are likely to have no problems.. out of sight, out of mind. However he knew the direction we’d come from and we couldn’t find an excuse to why we might be walking in the wrong direction to the next refuge. We told him we intended to walk through the night for an hour or two to finish the stage, so he redirected us on course and watched us walk away. We climbed through the dark for an hour with our head torches on, getting further away from our glorious camp spot that we left behind and moving into super uneven and bushy terrain, based on an steep incline. We followed the trail slowly and irritated, looking with our torches for any sign of a clearing or plateau. Eventually, we found something, on the rounded section at the top of a hill, a few metres to the side of the trail. It would have to do. After Yuri and Teo scared off a family of boars that were in the neighbouring bushes, we tied our food up to some tree branches, scrawled out our mats and bags and fell asleep to the stars.
We woke early and ate and packed efficiently, knowing we had two big stages in front of us. We’d been walking less than twenty minutes before Yuri’s pack broke. It was a Ray Jardine Ray-Way pack that Yuri had sewn himself. It had seen Yuri through many expeditions and many days, it was just the Ray-Way’s time to retire. He rigged up a couple of small body bags and a belt and we portioned out the remainder of his gear. If we hadn’t come so far already, Yuri most likely would have had to pull out after unsuccessful attempts at repairs with needle and thread. We faced four stages left, ranging in difficulty. Looking at each other, we were growing tired of the trail and hoped to finish in two days of walking. That meant covering three or four days of walking in two, to finish the trail and arrive in Conca. I have no photographs on my phone of this day until 20:00. That tells me I was trying to save battery, or we did nothing but walk. I remember it being long, tedious, and repetitive. The taste of finishing the trail had entered our mouths early and seemed to curb the feelings of fatigue. It made putting one foot in front of the other surprisingly easy. We are now at day eight. Although we reached some sort of elevated efficiency from the accumulation of repetitive days walking and camping, we were letting the mental demands of the GR20 trail affect us after all this time. The trail requires almost total concentration, almost the entire time. Not only were our bodies getting battered by the repetitive climbing and descending, but as our minds fatigued it was harder to concentrate on foot placement. The path is a minefield mostly. It was this day we started to note how we were becoming more clumsy with our feet as the idea of finishing was only a day away.
Yuri’s Ray Way Backpack.
After more than twelve hours on the trail we summited an amazing section of rocky terrain that looked like a moonscape. It was 20:00 and we had panoramic views beneath a huge wooden cross, as the light started to diffuse. Teo and I slumped our packs off, rolled a smoke and fired up a coffee. We knew we had at least an hour to the refuge before we could sleep and Yuri and Endo were out of sight behind us. They summited, we relaxed and we set off just as the sun was dipping into the horizontal belt. This was one of the nicest landscapes and by far the greatest light we experienced in Corsica. One of those nice moments that symbolises why you’re there. Unfortunately short lived as we knew we had an hour’s descent ahead of us. It was a very difficult section of mountain. Dropping a lot of altitude in an hour whilst moving downwards over choppy granite blocks. This might not have been so tolling if we hadn’t walked twelve hours already that day and were attempting the descent in total darkness. We had our head torches on. Slipping on smooth surfaces or loose rocks, and scrambling down metre gaps between slabs. What should have taken us an hour, took us two in the dark. Now it was late, we were pretty exhausted and we passed the second last refuge to find somewhere to camp. We found no where for half an hour as the trail moved over large boulders and cut through dense bushes, so we agreed just to shack up on a boulder, in the middle of the trail. We didn’t care any longer, we were out of sight of the refuge and we were buggered, we cooked on the trail and lay down to get some sleep.
We woke just at first light, cooking and packing quickly so we could get off the trail and out of people’s way. Knowing we could be in Conca tonight, with this whole thing behind us. 180 kilometres of trail and 15 kilometres worth of altitude gain and loss. In order to finish we had two six hour stages to do, which early in the course of the trail would have been fine, but the fatigue had caught up with us pretty good and all of our bodies hurt from the descent the previous day. It was in some sense the hardest and easiest twelve hour day we did. We finished the first stage at around 14:00, arriving at the last refuge (Refuge de Paliri 1055 m).
We had our final Coca Cola of the GR20. We felt no more pain or fatigue either. We laughed a lot, smoked a lot, and cooked in the sun for an hour before deciding to get this thing over and done with. It’s bittersweet, those moments. That last six hour stage. No more refuges, no more camping, no more climbing, no more progress. The finish was upon us. We found a waterhole for a bath around 19:00 and around 20:45 we peaked through a natural rock gateway that signified the start of the descent into Conca, just as we rounded a bend and could see the town lying amongst the mountains in front of us. Less than an hour later, we put our hands out and touched the plaque that signifies the end of the GR20 trail and the arrival in Conca. After many hugs this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction started to build within us. The plaque is on a brick wall that is the side of a bar. This bar must hold so many significant celebrations, both personal and communal and it was the host of our celebration that evening. Endo went off down the road to book us a room in a hotel (fuck camping) and we sat until early in the morning drinking beer, eating mediocre panini and feeling like kings. I said it many times throughout the trip as it seems to have become an emblematic motto to my life, so I said it again as we sat there and did a cheers with our beers and congratulated each other. “What a time to be alive.” Albeit good or bad times, we are lucky to be alive and it’s just right to take any moment and appreciate it for what it is. We were to start the long and slow slog back to Milano the next day, but for the meantime we tried to live completely in the moment, nurturing the last parts of being away from work, our families, our friends and everything that makes up the day to day life of living in a city. These small trips symbolise the whole experience of life, compressed into a short, contained period. You travel every spectrum of emotion, and nature gives a sense of perspective on life as a human being. Mix this with a sense of community or companionship and overcoming physical and mental challenges and you’re left with a highly fulfilling experience. Something that gives you clear, defined and measurable purpose – something that the ‘real world’ doesn’t let you have so easily. Thank you to Yuri, Teo, Endo and Ricky for a great trip. What a pleasure to walk with you all for the first time and thank you for your guidance both in the lead up to and whilst on the trail. Rayon Vert GR20 Corsica, 2019 Report officially finished. What a time to be alive.
The team (without Riccardo) at the end of the trail.