Un-roped and sliding down a chain into the abyss below, I wondered, for the hundredth time in the past few days, why I was here. Here was two hours into day four of the Grand Randonee 20 (GR20); the hardest part, of the hardest day, of the hardest walk in Europe.
The week before we had arrived on the sunny northern coast of the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. At the airport I had scoffed at the lazy sun-seeking tourists. Who would want to get sunburnt on an over-crowded beach when there were mountains to climb, chasms to tackle, and stunning views to see? Days later, as I slid precariously down another snowdrift, sunbathing on an over-crowded beach sounded like bliss. The GR20 is a 180km trail that traverses the island from North to South. My family was hiking the northern half from Vizzavona to Calenzana, a six-day stretch known as the hardest and most beautiful section.
Adrenalin and Bragging Rights
Revered for its challenging terrain, GR20’s reputation should have been a warning, not an invitation to lace up the hiking boots. Yet we were not alone in wanting to take on the challenge. Every summer, hundreds of hikers arrive on the island to tackle the grueling climbs, rocky paths, steep snowy drops and, most notably, the Cirque de la Solitude; a chasm that has risen to a near mythical reputation for being not only incredibly difficult but also completely terrifying. None of these aspects seem to make for a pleasurable holiday. Maybe we were just adrenalin junkies, sacrificing precious vacation days purely for the excitement and bragging rights of completing this challenge.
Throughout the walk, “Why are we doing this?” was a common topic of conversation. Dad, who takes any hikable mountain as a personal challenge, wanted the bragging rights; mum disagreed. In parts, the hike was as mentally challenging as it was physically, and with moments of near hysteria, mum did not see the pleasure in putting herself through extreme psychological distress. I was somewhere in between. The feeling of pure happiness in completing a challenge is often worth the pain and discomfort getting there; although that can be hard to remember when you’re climbing up a slippery rock face without a rope.
It seemed that others agreed.
The night before the Cirque crossing, a young Canadian woman who we had come to know seemed all confidence; however, my discussion with her the next day was very different. “Of course I was terrified,” she said. “It was one of the scariest moments of my life; but the challenge was great — we should always challenge ourselves.” Other conversations and online comments about the GR20 show that this is a common perception.
According to academic psychologists, voluntary risk-taking is something that many of us frequently undertake. The increased epinephrine hormone in our system, or adrenalin, can be addictive. In addition to this, the satisfaction felt upon completing a difficult challenge makes the risk even more attractive. The GR20 combined both these effects. Not only did we frequently feel bursts of fear followed by adrenalin, but we also had the bragging rights of having completed the ‘toughest trek in Europe’. The feeling of climbing out of the Cirque de la Solitude was one of pure joy, relief, and fulfillment. One that I think I shared with the excited group of jumping, laughing, photo-happy hikers next to me. At the end of the trek there was a certain camaraderie felt between the people we had began with the week earlier. Completing the GR20 had set us apart from other hikers. We were serious trekkers, now. If we completed this, we could complete anything.
On Top of the World
As I hauled myself up to yet another steep, rocky cole, I stood on what felt to be the top of the world. Corsica’s sheer beauty was overwhelming and I realised that this is why we were here. While the promise of adrenalin and bragging rights may attract many, such as my dad, to the GR20, it is the spectacular landscape that makes it worthwhile for those, like my mum, who do not find pleasure in walking on poorly made tracks, climbing without ropes, and scrambling over boulders.
Below me, steep granite mountains gave way to green forested hills that hid crystal-clear waterfalls and icy cold rock pools. Where the pine forest ended, the dry coastal fields welcomed the Mediterranean; glimmering in the hazy heat it beckoned us out of the mountains.
But I wasn’t ready yet. In my nostalgic, end-of-hike haze I wanted to savour the last of these bewitching mountains that seem to defy gravity in their haste to escape the sea below.
Despite the bravado and ‘cred’ associated with the GR20, there is no denying that it is these moments that draw us to the challenge. The pleasure of arriving at such a breathtaking view is made all the sweeter by the blood, sweat and tears that we (literally) shed along the way.
To start the trek from Calenzana, fly to Sainte-Catherine Airport (also known as Aeroport de Calvi) — access to Conca on the other end of the trek is by bus or train. Trekking season is usually in the summer from June to September. Air France flies to Sainte Catherine via major airports in France. For more information go to airfrance.com.vn or alternately check out aircorsica.com. To find out about hiking in Corsica, click on corsica.forhikers.com