Updated: Apr 23, 2020
The word ‘tough’ is a relative term, it has to measured against something else. I had a tough day at work or I just completed a tough crossword or ate a tough steak. We are comparing the present event with some past event. The GR20 (GR is the French designation for their long distance footpaths "Grande Randonnée" the number 20 is just the one in Corsica, there are others all over France) is a tough hike, no it really is tough. I have not walked all the hiking trails in Europe but those who have tell me the GR20 in Corsica is the toughest.
Let’s put this into context. I have walked longer distances, carried a heavier pack weight, climbed higher, completed far more technical dangerous climbs and scrambles and walked in hotter and colder conditions. So what makes the GR20 so tough?
Well I carried a tent and all my supplies every day, a pack weight of 16 kilo + 2 litres of water. The climbs were the steepest I have ever come across without using specialist equipment. The ‘footpath’ was in the higher parts simply a slightly different set of boulders to clamber over than another equally difficult set of boulders next to the marked route, take your pick. It was hot, sometimes sun bed, swimming pool and a glass of beer type of hot, except I had no choice other than sweat it out, literally. One day I drank three litres of water and never had to go to the toilet. One night it was so uncomfortably hot you wanted to take your skin off to cool down. The next night it was so cold, wearing all your spare clean and dry clothes, a sleeping bag and liner made no difference. The sort of cold that only those talking about cryogenic freezing would be interested in. The following night was a the most amazing thunder, lightning, hail stone and rain storm I ever had the misery of not sleeping through.
It’s tough because of all of the above and these three extra’s.
It is physically and mentally relentless, once started on the route you have two choices, go on or go back. There are no alternatives, no escape routes, no cafes, bars, rest stops, no way off the mountain and no half way refuge. You start, you climb, you descend and you get to the next refuge, that’s it. You climb 1,300m (4,000ft) like starting at sea level and climbing Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. You descend 700m (2,000ft), Day 1. Day 2 all the way to 9 is the same with varying numbers. The route goes from hard to really difficult and the only way to end the pain is to get to a refuge where there might be a three or four hour walk off the route. There is one day where you need to use chains to help climb and descend. And you can never get enough food to eat, you cant carry all the necessary calories. Drinking water, depending on the time of year and weather conditions, can be difficult so you carry more weight (1 litre equals 1 kilo) and you hope you can refill on the way, hunger and thirst walk with you most of the day.
Physically tough but mentally draining. Every moment you are walking your eyes need to be watching every footstep. A momentary lapse in concentration, just a split second of looking up instead of down and you stumble on a rock, slip on loose stones, twist your foot on a tree route, every time. A fall with the pack weight will be anything from painful to seriously dangerous. A sprained ankle, broken arm, smashed face (I saw them all) still means you walk out. There is no phone coverage so you walk or wait for another hiker, who could then have a four hour walk in either direction to get help. The only way off most of the route is by helicopter. There really is no other way, no tracks, no alternative paths. This walk is not for the weak or the “let’s have a go” attitude, you either walk or pack up and 75% of those who start pack up. Most physically fit hikers could manage it but it’s the mental grind of constant tiredness and total concentration which is so debilitating, it sucks the life and enjoyment out of you after 3 or 4 hours, then it’s just a test of your spirit.
After a long and gruesome day when all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep I had to then find the energy to pitch a tent. Usually this was on a slope and on hard rocky ground. Often I had to use boulders to hold the tent ropes because the ground was too hard for my pegs. The showers are always cold or freezing and there is a difference. Cold can be refreshing, freezing is just miserably freezing. Basically the water is piped from a stream and the stream is being fed from the ice melt and at 1,800m this means you are showering in a slush puppy. The outside temperature is dropping so now you are shivering and trying to dry yourself with a ‘microlight’ travel towel while the wind whips you from under the door, over the door and through the hole in the wall (no glass obviously). You try and get dressed pulling thermal top and bottom over still wet legs, arms and body. Try it, it really is funny in a masochistic way. Finally you have to sit shivering outside your tent, in the wind, trying to cook a ready made pasta meal on a little camping stove. The refuge might sell you a very expensive ½ litre of wine, which I bought for medicinal purposes, i.e. I didn’t want to imagine what the next day would be like. The night life is rocking, which means you sit on rocks or stand around talking to other hikers until very late into the night, usually 8.30pm so you can be asleep by 9pm. To get 8 hours uninterrupted sleep is impossible, it’s either too hot or too cold, you are too sweaty or in too much pain from grinding your hip, knee, shoulder on the rocks under your ‘too thin’ blow up travel mattress. And for men of a certain age there is always the pleasure of getting out of the tent and stumbling off to find somewhere to pee. At 5am it starts it all over again.
So why do it, seriously why would I put myself through all of this? This was a thought which went through my mind and the mind of every other hiker I talked to. The GR20 is a trail of regrets. On day one I regret not doing enough training, regretted not putting the pudding spoon down sooner, regretted every single gram of weight extra I put in my back pack and above all, I regretted ever hearing about the GR20. On day two, I regretted all of the above just more bitterly and yet …
At some point I stopped and for a moment gazed around me to see the most incredible mountain scenery, granite summits, valley’s of emerald scrub, dazzling snow trails and crystal waterfalls from out of the cliffside. On a midnight pee trip I stood in awe, amazed, breathless and in a moment of divine timeless beauty above me were more stars than I have ever seen in my life. The Milky Way was as clear as a child’s chalk scratching across the blackest of boards, it felt like I could touch it. In this instant I realised how inconsequential my life really is and it didn’t scare me. In fact I was, for the briefest breath genuinely grateful for the blink of an existence I call life, it made me joyful. As the days piled up so do my conversations with other hikers, we talked about our injuries (we all had injuries) our lives our belief’s. It was as if we all knew how small and simple our lives had become and we wanted to reach out and find someone else to listen to us. We were weak and vulnerable and wanted to talk with others who understood, this was no bad thing. These things are earned, no easy way to do it, walk, climb, fall, get scratched, bang knees, twist ankles, muscles ache and strain and cramp and be tired, so very very tired and then you will earn the GR20 experience.
If you are overweight, not very fit, carry any leg, foot or back injury I would say don't do the GR20. If you have never pushed yourself physically or mentally to the limit of your strength and endurance and managed to keep going then I would say don’t do it. If you are not comfortable with climbing and scrambling over boulders with some big big drops to test your confidence and competence then I would definitely say don’t do it. If you have never climbed steep and treacherous paths up to and over 2,000m (6,500ft) lungs gasping to turn air into oxygen so your legs don’t burn as much, then don’t do the GR20.
On the other hand of all of the above is niggling at you, like a splinter inside somewhere … Then start training, get to the gym, ride a bike, climb as many big hills and mountains as you can. Sleep rough, carry a big pack every day, to work, to school, to the park to the toilet, adding weight to it every week until you can carry 18 kilo with no complaints. Do this and more and it still won’t be enough but at least you were warned. Then enjoy, in a perverse kind of way, the toughest hiking trail in Europe.