Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


One of the many ski tours that I have led in Europe is the traverse of the mountainous spine of Corsica following the route of the summer walking trail the GR20. This journey was completed over 2 trips in 2003 and 2005. Here is a description of the Southern section which was covered in 2003. The party was myself, Ian Steen and Kim Mason.

There is a link to the second part of the journey undertaken in 2005 on the Northern section of the route at the foot of this page.

David Hamiliton



Ian Steen

2-14 February 2003

From out of season seaside Nice we were almost the only people on the ferry to Isle Rousse on the northern edge of Corsica. There we were met by a taxi which we had arranged to take us along the coast to the southern end of the well known summer path, the GR20.  As we turned inland from the sea we saw the spectacularly beautiful dissected mountain spine silhouetted against the red sunset.  In Zonza we rented a room from a Messr Giovanni who had arranged for us to dine at the local restaurant, which we found was closed!  An apologetic Messr Giovanni gave us hard bread, local sausage, walnuts, fish and apples and a good local red wine.

In the rain next day, he took us to Quenza where we walked up the road in blustery showers.  We hitched a lift from a farmer who took us to the snow line.  Then we walked to a Ski du Fond station apparently never opened in 15 years because of a typically Corsican dispute with the farmer.  We skinned over a plateau in variable visibility, eventually to a bergerie at Allucia, where we found the most southern building had been recently been renovated.  It was comfortable and civilised but had the air of the Marie Celeste with an abandoned meal on the table and carpenters materials left ready for use. The following morning, a snow storm with thunder and lightning kept us indoors.  Talk about heroic mountain survivals kept us entertained.  The meteo told of snow-boarders missing and maximum avalanche risk everywhere and the night was punctuated by thunder, lightning and more and more snow.

We left in brilliant sunshine and much enjoyed the climb in new powder through characteristic hêtraie (beech) woods out onto the main ridge with spectacular views.  As we traversed close to the crest, black clouds swept in from the west.  We arrived at the narrow crux as the wind tried to blow us off.  We retreated, debated and in a lull, tried again.  We roped for a short tricky exposed bit, where I got cold hands and hot aches.  The rest was easy, but breaking crust slowed us down, and eventually we climbed up to the good hut at Uscoliu.

Next, we had a strenuous but short day through deep and crusty snow, mostly crampons, to make the 'hut' at La Prado, which we found does not exist so we had an 'uncomfortable' night in a wood shed.  Feeling refreshed the next morning, we skinned easily up the ridge to a shoulder and made a long contouring pleasantly exposed traverse and climb to a col with large granite pinnacles. Then we skied down in the evening sunlight though beech woods in perfect powder, the only perfect ski of the tour.  We climbed 300m to the hut in a hollow on the shoulder of the ridge.  The Prati hut was a contrast to the previous night's bivouac.

We skinned easily to the end of the broad ridge and then faced with steep icy slopes which would have been a great ski in good conditions we cramponed and clattered down, traversing to join other ski tracks which lead us through ever denser beech jungle to the road at Col de Verde.  There we met three Corsican raquet randonneurs and walked and chatted with them along the trail.  After bush-wacking to cross a stream on a fallen tree, we had an arduous skin in hot sun to bergeries Pozzi in an open valley above the tree line.  We excavated the most promising building, and threw out a lot of snow to uncover a basic and dirty room.  As we debated the route and cooked with diminishing fuel, clouds descended and the pressure dropped.

From Bergeries Pozzi, in moderate cloud, we skinned up to the head of the valley and made a slightly exposed icy traverse across the flank of a cwm to the broad slopes of Mt Ronosso.  As we climbed to the summit we found much water and wind ice.  We met groups of French coming up as we went down and we followed their tracks into Capanelle, a small ski resort.  Here we looked for the refuge, but David bumped into Denis Arnaud who runs the local youth adventure centre (UCPA) down the valley in Ghisoni, and he invited us to stay.  Much in need of a shower and a good meal, but not knowing quite what to expect, we gratefully accepted.  He drove us with his family down to the town.  They looked after us well and provided us with real food (as opposed to de-hi) for the next part of the traverse.  As it was a week-end the centre was empty, mercifully free from crowds of petits monstres. In the morning Francois Boraly a guide working at the centre drove us to Vizzavona.

We traversed onto the route via the ruins of a Napoleonic fort which dominates the pass.  And as we climbed and the tree cover thinned, it got ever hotter in the concave mirror of a valley, and we felt the weight of the heavier packs and balling snow.  We reached the col late and skied down the far side aware that as it got steeper there were cliffs below us.  Fortunately, we found a ramp to the left leading to easier ground.  As we reached the valley bottom, we found much water ice under the snow.  We were investigating skiing the line of the stream where there appeared in the flat light to be a bit or a drop, when Kim slid on the water ice. Her skis could not grip and she disappeared over the edge. There was silence, a bang and then silence.  I arranged a belay while David got out the rope and abseiled to the end of the doubled 45m rope.  Now cries from Kim told us that she was alive.  Amazingly, she appeared only bruised having fallen on her rucksack on the deep snow in the stream bed, but had broken a ski.  We helped her down and arrived at the hut as it got dark.

It was too late to try to call a helicopter and we monitored her throughout the evening and night.  In the morning she said that she thought she could ski.   We strapped up her broken ski which is just useable and took the easy descent to the valley and the railway which crosses the mountains close to Vizzavona. So we spent the last few days of the fortnight as tourists.  When checked on returning home to Edinburgh she found she has chipped a bone at the top of her neck and a small chip on bridge of her nose.  She had a lucky escape.

Up to that point, it was a splendid if strenuous and challenging traverse of a most beautiful mountain chain where we met some wonderful people.  It was made more difficult by the bad snow conditions, which meant we were continually changing between skins, crampons and skiing. In addition we had to carry a week's food and some fuel as there is gas only in some huts.  It will be nice to complete the northern section another year.

Party: David Hamilton (Leader), Kim Mason, Ian Steen

Guide Book: Corse Haute Route à Ski; Parc Naturel Régional de Corse ISBN 2-905 468-12-2; a guide to be read with caution - as by general consent it uses the summer times for winter conditions and does not exactly mention the absence of at least one hut - it is also only in French but understanding the meaning of 'forêt des hêtres' will get you a some way.  It would also greatly help if someone has the GPS coordinates of the huts where they do exist.


Note : David Hamilton, Kim Mason and Richard Cowper travelled to Corsica in February 2005 to complete the journey. The story continues here....



David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
CV10 0SG


Telephone:    From UK    02476 395422
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