When I heard about the GR20, a 180km hiking route traversing Corsica, France, climbing and descending over 13,000 meters, I knew instantly I wanted to do it. The question always was, when? Like most epic mountain routes on my bucket list, the time frame is June to September, smack in the middle of a racing season. But, with a rather blank racing schedule for 2020, I finally had the chance. Now the only question remained was, how?
Of course, the obvious answer would be to run the trail. This style I have adopted before, attacking it in a multi-day style, but as lightweight and as fast as possible. Many ultra-runners have done this, some have even thrown down incredible single-push efforts to establish the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on this route. None of this, however, I wanted to do. Instead, I wanted to do something I had never done before. Nothing fancy, or groundbreaking, just something new to me. I wanted to backpack the GR 20. Now the only question remained was, with whom?
Endurance sports are primarily solo endeavours, and although an individual experience is impossible to share, by definition, there is a different dynamic at play when multiple people are embark on the same endeavour. I wanted to create a shared experience, to become a mini team. My teammate for the GR 20 became my friend, Christophe Aubonnet.
Christophe has a huge resume in practically every sport, from competitive ski racing to adventure racing, Not only does he have an abundance of stories (practically everything relating to an adventure race), he also has an abundance of insight and knowledge to share. He was the perfect co-captain for our trip, and thankfully, his orienteering skills from his adventure racing, came in real handy for navigating our route. Although neither of us had done the GR20, and only one of us had experience in backpacking with a heavy pack (hint: it wasn’t me); we came up with a backpacking plan of 6 days. An ambitious, yet reasonable plan, since most backpackers take around 14 days to complete the trek, while my ultra-running idols have whittled down the men and women’s FKT to 31 hours 6 minutes, and 41 hours 22 minutes, respectively. We figured 6 days was the right balance of fun and fast. (Check out the full details of our route on my Komoot Collection).
We made a gear list, packed the essentials, including a variety of clothes for all types of weather conditions, then divided up the tent (I carried that) the stove + fuel (for Christophe, along with the dry food). I was surprised that my ‘essentials’ ended up weighing 15kg all packed up (including water)! Christophe’s was around 20kg (he ended up packing some extra surprise treats).
Of course, we both were familiar with endurance and multi day adventures, but we weren’t familiar with the GR20, or how demanding the terrain would be. Planning to cover 3 stages a day seemed pretty straight forward, but the packs were heavy and it would take a while to get used to them. The northern part of the island is extremely technical, and I struggled on the first 2 days. I was unsure of my feet, where to place them, or how to stabilise myself as I scrambled over boulders and slabs of granite while my backpack seemed determined to throw off my balance. Christophe took the lead here, his sure-footedness providing me with an example and reassurance to my foot placement. My awkwardness, as I tried to scramble up rock slabs with trekking poles, then descend while holding back tears of frustration, was greeted with encouragement as Christophe took my poles and found the best way down. But that’s the thing about teams, when one person struggles, the other takes the lead. You lend a hand, or piece of advice, or share a story to lighten the mood and occupy the mind.
Time passed simply as we hiked, watching the changing landscape as we crossed the island, punctuating the day with pitstops at refuges to dry our clothes, rest our feet, share a warm meal or refill on snacks. I found my confidence grow and by day 3, the rocky terrain which evoked stress or uncertainty, was now welcomed, and the extra weight on my back, appreciated. We made new friends too, striking up conversations (in French of course) with fellow hikers and refuge caretakers, things that don’t happen as much when I’m running alone on the trail. We had time to find common ground, a love for the earth, outdoor recreation, and a familiar search for the inner satisfaction which accompanies great adventure. Throughout the course of the trip, sharing the moments I usually experience alone on the trail, became what I enjoyed the most. Especially when the search for the perfect bivy spot, finally paid off.
So what’s the whole point anyways? To share everything? Well, that’s up to you. What I can tell you is this: my experiences will always be my own, and while I relish my solo time in mother nature, it sure is fun to call up a friend, and sort through pictures and memories, recalling moments from the time we backpacked across Corsica.
Thank you to Christophe for capturing the moments, all the stories and all the dehydrated cappuccino packets to start the day off right.