Day 11 – Stage 11A
Having set our minds on doing the alternative high route in pursuit of more stunning views, we agreed to leave at 7am. The girls were punctual as always, and at 7am they went to the boys tent to find them still sleeping! But the boys overslept after having a nightmare with the tent in the strong overnight winds. Agreeing on the shorter, easier low route, we enjoyed a hot chocolate in the refuge before setting off. We were delighted to find that the terrain was even easier than yesterday and we completed the 14km to Refuge di Verdi by midday. We were hoping to push on to Refuge de Prati, 4.5km into tomorrow’s stage, and where Max had decided to stay tonight. This would nearly halve the 1290 metres of climbing involved in stage 12. However, another group of hikers told us they’d just come down from there due to high winds. After a good half-hour of debating whether to push on or not, Georgios grabbed the bull by the horns and we flipped a coin… tails we’re staying. So we spent the rest of the afternoon by the fire reading Asterix & Obelix en Corse and playing cards with our new German friends, Felix and Caroline – Ironman triathletes who were hiking the GR20 for their third time.
“After 30 mins of debating whether to push on or not, Georgios grabbed the bull by the horns and we flipped a coin”
With strong winds forecast to continue for the rest of the day, the refuge staff advised us that nobody should attempt the high route today, since it involves traversing an exposed arête that would be dangerous in high winds
Day 12 – Stage 12
Felix and Caroline somehow managed to convince us to put ridiculous o’clock alarms on again to climb up the mountain before sunrise, but when we woke up and stuck our heads out the tents, there wasn’t a star in sight. We concluded it’d be too cloudy for a decent view so happily fell back asleep, setting off at a more reasonable 6am instead. Today’s hike involved two main climbs – the first up to the refuge we considered staying at last night, at 1820 metres (and Punta Mozza slightly higher up), and the other a steeper boulder-studded climb that zigzagged up to Monte Furmicula, at 1981 metres. It was just as we began the final descent towards Refuge d’Usciolu that the rain began, and once it started it did not relent. We miserably pitched our tents in the rain, shivering from the cold, and ate our dinner in bed before going to sleep at 5pm (well trying to sleep anyway…). The night that ensued was one of the worst any of us could recall. Water pooled under our tents and our flip-flops could be seen floating in the outer. Everything got wet, and even in all our layers and our survival blankets we were freezing in our sleeping bags. But it was the boys, and Harry in particular, who had it worst. After feasting on the world famous Corsican cheese, which according to some authors (see Uderzo et Goscinny, 1973) has the power to defeat an entire Roman legion, he was ill and threw up all over his sleeping bag, hiking boots, and tent. Georgios was not best impressed!
Day 13 – Stage 13⁄14
That morning was the lowest point of the expedition.
The rain had stopped and the sun was shining, but it was still very cold. During the night, the boys covered themselves with their survival bags, as the water pooling bellow the tent had a freezing effect. However, they didn’t account for perspiration and when they woke up, any clothes that were not wet because of the rain were wet because of their sweat. To top that they had to climb a 100m cliff in order to get the icy water needed for the tent to be cleaned. Tensions between the members were high, and understandably so. No one had a relaxing sleep and as girls were once again ready on time so they had to wait for around an hour, and were not pleased. However, after they learned about last night they were more understanding and helped the boys pack up faster!
“After feasting on the world famous Corsican cheese, Harry was ill and threw up over his tent”
Despite our intentions to double today, everyone was feeling quite grim, so we were unsure as to whether we’d be up for the double stage, but we didn’t have to decide until the turning, which was two hours into the day. Our kit was wet from the night from hell last night so our bags were heavier and the going was very tough as we scrambled across the arête. We eventually found our rhythm though, and gritted through both stages. It was the afternoon ascent of Monte Alcudina that really challenged us. Before the climb even began we’d already had a long day’s undulating hike; the incline was never ending and seemed to get perpetually steeper. As more mountains kept appearing above us, even Harry (who usually powers up the ascents) was left broken and collapsed in a heap at the top! We were glad to see Refuge d’Asinau only a short descent from the peak and spent the evening desperately trying to get warm in the communal tent space with the other hikers.
Another cold night ensued and everyone except Carla (who seems to sleep through absolutely anything) were kept awake by hail and a thunderstorm which left the mountain covered in ice and snow when we awoke the next morning.
Day 14 – Stage 15B
It was a momentous morning – for the first time in our GR20 experience the boys were ready on time! Perhaps even slightly before Diane and Carla, so they claimed. We set off, actually as planned, at 9am for the high route. Only 8km long, it involved a steep ascent up to Aiguilles de Bavella which provided a beautiful view over the East and South Coast from the rocky towers at the summit. The penultimate day of our expedition and we got our first peek of the finish. The descent was full of day walkers, filling us with anticipation of the small taste of civilisation waiting for us in Village de Bavella at the foot of the mountain. We could almost smell the pizzeria (which had a working oven this time – thank goodness!). Only 2.5km of hiking away, it took nearly two hours for us to complete the incredibly steep, rocky descent involving the use of chains in places. One part in particular involved a giant sloping slab of rock surmounted by an enormous jammed boulder which we heaved our way up on the chain then squeezed through a gap at the top.
“We eventually found our rhythm though, and gritted through both stages of the climb”
Once the day’s work was over, we booked into the gite d’etape (there were no campsites in the village) and went straight for pizza. We thoroughly gorged ourselves in the food we’d been dreaming about for days before a late afternoon nap to revitalise ourselves for the three course evening meal included with our accommodation! It was as if tonight was an appetiser for the luxuries we could enjoy when we complete the trail tomorrow.
Day 15 – Stage 16
Knowing only a matter of hours separated us from the end of the hardest trail in Europe, we relaxed (perhaps too much) at breakfast, feasting on bread and Corsican jams and left to the sound of live Russian music performed by Harry. We took our time, relishing the last 19km of the GR20 with Alex and Mandus, taking in the views for a final time. We all wore our team expedition polo shirts and took group photos at every opportunity. Our legs were weary, especially Harry’s, whose ankle was causing him trouble again on the tricky terrain, but we pushed on, reminiscing about our journey across the island. Today the landscape was like that of a different country all together, as we descended away from the mountainous spine of Corsica and own into the forests towards the sea. Even the pools we bathed in 5km from the end were described as ‘lukewarm’ in the guidebook.
They were by no means any description of warm but they were much more bearable than the mountain lakes and rivers we’d paddled in on previous days. The final few kilometres seemed to last forever but eventually we rounded a bend to a view of Conca not far below us. There was a lot of excitement and pride as we strode down into the village, where we were greeted by… well practically nothing! No glorious finish line or souvenir shops. There was barely even a sign to tell us where the official end actually was! But there was one small bar in the village where we found many of the hikers we’d shared our journey with, and just down the road was Max.
More than 2 weeks of trekking through the Corsican mountains had come to an end. We all agreed it was one of, if not the, best thing we’d ever done. We’d met some incredible people, bonded as a team, learnt some French (perhaps not Diane), seen the geology of the entire backbone of Corsica and, above all, completed the hardest trail in Europe. We’re incredible grateful to Imperial Exploration Board and the RSM trust for funding our expedition, and hope our adventure will inspire other students to undertake similar challenges.