MEGA PINTS AND MEGA VERT ON THE GR20 IN CORSICA
Words and Photos from Dan Oliver
It started with one of those nights where the forest sounds like an ocean, the winds gusting with such force that you lay awake, fighting to recall how well you checked for dead limbs above you before setting up camp. This time, however, it was jet lag that had me up, not the lingering thought of death by blowdowns.
The day before, I was in New York, and on this night, I was on Corsica–A French island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. It's a popular summer destination for European tourists looking for pristine white sand beaches and beautiful weather. But for those who seek adventure, it's also home to a 110-mile thru hike with some serious elevation gains (roughly 41,000').
Hiker midnight had long passed, and so did actual midnight by this point. I was coming to terms with the possibility of not sleeping when suddenly I heard a noise over the blowing of the leaves. I popped my head out from under my tarp–BAM! A white Quechua two-person tent that had gone unused at the refuge campground came tumbling down the hill and crashed into me, knocking out tarp stakes and taking some gear with it before finishing its run of destruction in the bush next to me.
Unscathed from any actual harm, I had a good laugh and collected my belongings before continuing to lay awake. The first light had arrived anyways.
With an early morning start, I never imagined seven miles could take up an entire day of hiking, but that's the kind of trail the GR20 is. Constant ascents and descents along the rocky spine of the Corsican Mountain Range will have you lifting and lowering yourself through rocky obstacles. After that section, I was ready to take full advantage of the refuge amenities and now even had some friends I met on trail with whom to enjoy the first post-hike happy hour.
Our group spanned five countries which included me from the US, Sheena, a solo hiker from Canada, a group of Brits, two brothers from Germany, and a couple of guys from Italy, only hiking the northern half. All of us instantly hit it off, and I ended up talking with the older German brother for a while after finding out he hiked the PCT last year; I had done the AT, and we knew many current PCT hikers. His name was Craftsman because he makes his gear, so sharing thru-hike stories and gear knowledge was a blast that night.
I wish I could say I woke up that next day refreshed, but jet lag was still fighting with me, and it was another tough night. Luckily it included some sleep and no destructive tents. The climb out of the refuge was 4,500 feet up to the high point of Corsica–Monte Cinto. From that peak we were rewarded with 360- degree views of the Mediterranean Sea. You could see every spine we had hiked and every spine we had ahead.
As we headed down from the summit and onto the refuge, the wind started to pick up heavily. I wasted no time spotting a campsite atop the hill blocked by a rock slab to protect me from any 'objects' that might come crashing through my setup in the middle of the night.
Although it was windy, the sky was completely clear, and I took the opportunity to skip the tarp and cowboy camp under the stars. I think it was the right call.
One of the countless highlights of the trail was the resupply options at all the refuges. Not only did that mean you only have to carry a day of food with you at any given time, but you could feast on breads, cheeses, and meats that are fresh and local to the island.
Coming out of Castel de Vergio, I grabbed a round of sheep's cheese to eat for lunch when we reached Lac de Nino. It's a beautiful alpine lake with some grassy flowed lands, so after flying the drone around a bit, I posted up with Sheena to enjoy our local spread. By the time we reached the refuge early that afternoon, I was in rough shape with my stomach bloated and the sweats.
Sprawled out on a picnic table, I concentrated on not dying, and when it was time, that cheese came out of me just as fast as I had put it down. Still feeling off, I tossed the tarp up and the pad down and dozed off, clenching my stomach. Then with no warning and not even enough time to sit up, the rest of that cheese was coming, and I lunged my body out from under my tarp and threw up in the bush next to me. Never in my life have I been so happy to have not been in a tent. There was no way I'd have been able to work a zipper door in the time I had.
Feeling okay enough to enjoy others' company, I met up with some of the crew on the patio. Most of the refuges only have access by helicopter, and we could see workers getting supplies ready for an evening pick-up. This would be so cool; the helicopter was going to be right above us! Or so we all thought.
We had so much excitement as the helicopter roared through the valley. A huge group came out to the patio to check it out as it hovered above and took off with cement bags and tools.
There were a lot of supplies and tools, so that wasn't the only trip. That initial excitement wasn't at quite the same level the next time the helicopter returned, especially after Sheena came back from our tents with the news that the helicopter had blown out the stakes of my tarp.
The excitement was now TERROR when I headed over to check out the damage; the helicopter came screaming back overhead, and my tarp was now uprooted and getting blown down into the stream gully!
As I ran after my tarp, I saw that Sheena's tent was also getting pummeled by the hurricane-force winds blowing down from above. When we regrouped, it was defeat and anger on our faces. My entire camp, sleeping bag, and pad were covered in an inch of dust, and her tent had a tent pole snap. This was no cheap tent either–an MSR Hubba Hubba–the same tent that I've spent nights riding out wicked storms in.
Miraculously she had a pole splint and was able to keep the tent up, but the refuge guardians felt bad for us and said we were free to use any unreserved Quechua tents at the refuges for the rest of our trip if we needed, free of charge.
The sunset gave us conflicting emotions. It was simply, fire.
Still unsettled from the night before, we needed a turn of luck, and our hopes were high. We had a great mountain pass coming up that was one of the last in the northern section. Additionally, our refuge for the night would be Refuge de L'Onda. While hitchhiking to the trailhead, another hiker tipped me off about them having this trail famous goat cheese lasagna for dinner and said it was not to be missed.
The pass, Bocca alle Porte was absolutely incredible and looked down on two alpine lakes, Lac de Capitello and Lac de Melo. The ridge created an amphitheater which we hiked along that included sections of scrambles and chains.
After hiking over the next pass, we arrived at Refuge de Petra Piana just before noon. Were those French fries that we smelled?
This refuge had a patio with music playing, with cheerful guardians frying potatoes non-stop and dishing out soft serve ice cream on the side of a mountain. The view stretched out as far as we saw from the summit of Monte Cinto. We were back! Forget the past; we had French fries and ice cream in the present and lasagna in the future.
The rest of the day felt like a breeze as we caroused across the ridge with happy bellies. We passed by free-roaming livestock and a herd of goats a hundred large. When that same herd followed us down into camp, it became clear why the lasagna would be made with a goat cheese ricotta.
The word on the lasagna had gotten out, and this dinner had over sixty people ready to feast. We had typically done beer or small wine carafes our previous nights, but we were finally ready to take on the jugs.
The refuges served red and white wine in three sizes–glass, half liter carafe, and full liter carafe with the prices typically being 3, 5, and 10 euros, respectively. So, to put it simply, you can get more than a full bottle of wine for 10 euros in the middle of nowhere, and it's Europe, so it's some very drinkable stuff.
That liter became known as a 'mega pint' the rest of the trip based on the recent pop culture trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard and the ensuing memes of Depp enjoying a mega pint–his name for a large glass of wine.
Dinner was served with a course of charcuterie, then salad, followed by the lasagna, a cheese course, and a chocolate mousse. We felt like the furthest thing from hiker trash.
The next day we would reach the halfway point and officially enter the southern portion of the trail. Vizzavona is the largest town, and it separates the two halves. The terms largest and town are both relative here. The town consists of a refuge, a hotel, a restaurant, and a train station, but hey, we'd take anywhere that could dish out a couple of celebratory cold ones for making it through what is known as the more challenging half.
What we thought by people saying the south was the easier half was more along the lines of 'the south is flat.' It's exactly how hiker rumors start, like hearing the AT gets easier in Virginia because it's flat. The south had some very lovely flat forest and meadow sections which the north had none of, but in terms of elevation, it still had plenty.
Our group had started picking up the miles because to skip a refuge you'd now be up to about 17-20 miles of hiking for the day. With that, it turned out that one of our hardest days was our first full day in the south when we didn't show up to camp until around 7. Sure, we took an extended lunch soiree at a refuge that looked out to the sea but nonetheless, it was a full day of hiking.
Sheena and I hadn't taken up the refuge guardians about the free Quechua tents yet, so we decided instead of setting ours up, we'd see if they'd hook us up with some free unreserved tents for the night.
Bingo – we were in luck, and after tossing our bags into two pop-up tents on a platform, we were on the patio waiting on our friends to arrive.
We lucked out with those Quechua tents because that night Craftsman, who was sharing a pyramid tarp with his brother, had pieces of gear picked off by a fox during the night! They ended up tracking the fox back to its den and retrieved their gear, and found other people's stoves, utensils, stuff sacks, and other accessories that had been taken.
I'm sure I'd have been on that thieving foxes hit list in my tarp.
There were now less than 30 miles of trail to hike, and it would be only a couple of days until we found ourselves joining the vacationer crowd soaking up the sun on the beach. Those miles felt like a blur as we enjoyed the last refuge dinner and went over the last mountain pass, which again surprised us that the south had such intense sections of rock scrambles and chains.
The last several miles were some of the prettiest as we hiked through the afternoon sun and stretches of forest descending down towards the coast. We popped out of the woods and onto the streets of a quiet and peaceful town called Conca. We picked citrus fruit right off the trees as we made our way to the town center together.
It may have only been a 110-mile thru hike, but we celebrated that night like we had just triple crowned, with mega pints and all!