Upon arrival in Calvi, the appearance of a reticent lifestyle soothed a traveller's mind. We lingered about in Calvi taking care of last minute chores before hiring a taxi to take us to the quiet hovel of Calenzana, which is dwarfed beneath the massive spired peaks of the backbone of Corsica.
The start of the GR20 ambled up a short stairway and, then, meandered through alley ways until reaching a fontana that heralded the end of concrete and the start of a dirt foot path. Up the path went until a junction split the foot travel in two. On the top of the rocky outcrop a large cairn, say 5ft. tall, pointed the way, as well as the ubiquitous red and white waymarks, the slashes that would guide the whole way. The Gran Randonee 20 (GR20) continued straight up. The notion of a lazy Corsican life soon upended in our heads as we laboriously plodded up hill. Bocca a u Saltu signified the first of many passes that would not disappoint in the vista department. To the west we could see Calvi and its half moon gulf littered with a few sailboats, Ile de Rousse, where we arrived via ferry, lay further north arched in its cape, and Monte Grosso and Capo Dente shot straight up into the sky. The orange stained rock basked in the afternoon sun appearing to get more rusted while Calenzana, the start of the GR20, sunk in the valley below tucked neatly under a hill, seemed perpetually frozen in time.
Through the laricio pine forest, the trail descended the pass only to abruptly climb through fins of rock and spines of lumpy granite shooting straight down the mountainside. About halfway up we encountered our first set of chains, albeit a small set, that supported trekkers through potentially dangerous positions. After negotiating the tricky climb we attained another pass that afforded us views of the rugged interior of Corsica. From the pass it was a short traverse to the first refuge of the GR20.
The GR20 is roughly 170km and connected by 15 stages, or etapes, where at the end of a stage a refuge, or hut, awaits a weary trekker's arrival. The GR20 is the brainchild of Michel Fabrikant, who in the 1970s conceived the notion to create a precarious path across Corsica's rugged mountain spine and watershed. His vision puts the trekker over severely exposed drop-offs and cliffs, traverses spiky ridge lines and loose debris in couloirs, and tests not only the trekker physically with the massive ascents and descents but holds the trekker at bay to the fear he/she can withstand, for the term 'trekker' on this trail should be dubbed 'climber' or 'scrambler.' The route is slow going and rather than leg out the stages in miles the guidebooks and Corsica's Parc Natural Regional set the stages in hours. For instance, the Cirque du Solitude is no more than a mile long distance-wise, however, the series of chains down an abyss of a couloir wedged between orange-stained and green lichen towers in which a hiker will utilize all fours including a butt slide here and there, only to boulder hop down loose scree, then climb immediately up a series of exposed ledges and shelves using more chains and even a ladder, will take a suggested 'clean run' of 90 minutes.
So with that in mind, we left our first refuge and suddenly plunged ourselves into the heart of the GR20. A 500m slog of a climb put us on top of Bocca Piccaia. I had gotten to the top before April did and took coverage from the wind behind some rocks. For about 20 minutes I sat in disbelief at the landscape in front of me. Dizzying cliffs fell straight down to deeply gouged chasms, spires of rock, granite towers and block monoliths, serrated ridge line after ridge line, and the Cinto massif dominated the horizon to the south. Intimidated by the views, I could not fathom where this route would take us. April finally clambered up and not seeing where I was sitting blurted out, "Oh my fucking God. Holy shit!" The scene was that dramatic, that insanely beautiful.
More great views and challenging obstacles ensued including a high traverse of an arête, more scrambling up and down steep shelves and outcrops, and a terrible crumbly descent on loose shale. Nevertheless, we made it to the next refuge, soaked up on water, and decided to push on up and over to Asco, a run down ski resort where we could get more food, some 700m up and a knee crunching 600m down.
Up and up we went scrambling on and over polished granite shelves. Up high in the lofty canyon walls above the rock seemed crumbly. But down in the chasm the rock was smooth and tarnished where water would seep across shelves and spill into the gorge below. Because of this type of travel we gained elevation quickly. Before we knew it an enveloping cloud bank oozed its way into the canyon. Mist hung in the air, as the rock became crumbly. As the rock dampened a murky metallic green stained the cirques above. We scampered over rock and climbed steeply up a chute before we decided to hunker down in case water fell from the sky in an unpleasant fashion. At Lavu di a Muvrella, about 300ft shy of the pass, we set up our tarp and fell asleep. Mist pelted our tarp throughout the night.
After a well rested day at Asco, a day that eventually surprised us in its overpricing; we hiked swiftly up the abandoned ski run. The morning brought a cold wind coming down from the pass. No matter to us. Actually, I enjoyed the hike immensely as the scenery resembled a jaunt into the High Sierra. But we knew why we were excited: the Cirque du Solitude.
At Col Perdu, nearly 800m higher than Asco, we peered over the ledge and saw the upper portion of chains bolted into a pleated wall of rock. Looking back across the valley from whence we came an enormous block tower illuminated a purple-red in the morning sun. I assured April she could do this. The other side of the cirque at Bocca Minuta seemed so close that you should be able to leap across the gap. The rock that stood in between was a sheer face of a mountain pinnacle towering hundreds of feet above. The cirque plummeted 200m straight down. After tricky and careful negotiation of the sheer steep rock we made it to a jumble of rock, oven-sized boulders, still at the same precipitous level as the chains above. We hopped from one to the other, moving like a frog.
The other side of the cirque managed a route through exposed shelves and heart thumping ledges, however, the ascent went a little higher up. At Bocca Minuta we rested over some goat cheese, dried sausage, and French bread while admiring the interior of Corsica which now seemed to open up a bit. A long gradient down a ravine awaited us. The descent seemed never-ending, as the 800m or so, toiled on our knees, although the total time it took to negotiate was a lot quicker than it felt. After an hour's tame amble through a laricio pine forest we again had to go straight back up another 600m. We both began to tire after such a strenuous day. Then, the Bocca di Foggiale which is a long stone's throw from the mountain refuge Ciottulu a i Mori. At the pass, Paglia Orba, Corsica's third highest peak and most distinguishable due to an uncanny likeness to a shark's fin, and Capu Tafonatu, another extremely conical peak, backdropped the mountain hut amid peach sun rays from a mega-glowing sunset that flamed the dying day in supreme glory and tranquility. Superb scenery, some of the greatest I have witnessed. To make matters even more dreamy, the gardien of the hut was on duty and cooked us up macaroni di mori. The gardien cooked us up our meal with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and with a Che Guevara flag overhead. His eyes crinkled from years in the mountains; the sun and wind had hardened this man. What a treat to receive a meal from a spirit sprouted within these Corsican mountains. We lined our empty bellies with the delicious meal as the peach of the sunset dimmed through the refuge's tiny windows.
The hardest of the scrambling and the slowest of goings is behind us, though from the flank of Paglia Orba a sea of mountains awaits us ahead. I am baffled, astonished really, at how the outlines of ridges seem to layer with no end, at how elevation here is so distorted at how drastic the terrain changes in in so little time and distance. This ruggedness, this violently eroded terrain, is soothing and tranquil.