The Spasimata Slabs: the day I nearly died on Corsica’s GR20

This is the last in a trio of posts about our recent trek along the legendary GR20 long-distance trail on the island of Corsica. The story began in my first post, Rosé, ridges and laricio pines and continued in A surfeit of scrambling. Strap yourself in for the final thrilling episode.

Jakob’s Norwegian weather forecast wasn’t promising. We’d had it pretty good for the best part of two weeks, but the rain gods were preparing for the last dance. In truth, they’d been threatening to start it for a few days, but the music wasn’t quite right. The overnight storm that we slept through in Manganu had squeezed itself dry by the morning. The Norwegian forecast had predicted rain yesterday as we crossed the highest pass of the GR20, but it hadn’t happened. But Jakob told us that everyone in Scandinavia trusted this particular weather service. If it said there will be rain then the rain was certain to come, which meant that on our final day, it was going to come in buckets and spades.

Today’s hikers fell into two camps: those of us who were determined to finish the last day of the trek willy-nilly, and those who had either had enough or felt that the forecast was rather too hazardous. Among the latter group were the Australians Liam and Jacqui, and one of the twins Ellie, while the former comprised Edita and me, the Danes Jakob and Martin, the other twin Tim, and the last man in to bat for Australia, Andrew. Wavering in the middle were the Dutch duo of Ramon and Petra, but I was happy to see at breakfast that they were willing to give it a go.

The hotel at Haut Asco
The hotel at Haut Asco

In the breakfast room, I spoke to Karl Pilkington’s doppelganger and his speedy friend, who told me they were also giving up.

‘You should go. You were flying yesterday,’ I say to the friend.

‘I don’t want to fly off a cliff,’ he replied.

I tried to look sympathetic, but in truth, I felt he was dramatising somewhat. It was true that the Norwegians were forecasting heavy rain, which would give any scrambling a little added spice, but my Met Office forecast was only predicting light showers. I was also swayed by the fact that until now, none of the scrambling had been particularly exposed. We had hardly touched the via ferrata chains, and unless the terrain was going to be very much more severe than anywhere else, then I believed we could continue, even in heavy rain. There was nothing in the trip notes to indicate that today’s trekking was particularly daunting (with the obvious caveat that some of the previous route descriptions had been a bit crap).

Fire salamander
Fire salamander

In any case, the weather was pretty good first thing in the morning. A baggage transfer to Calvi meant that we were only carrying light packs, and we had a good few hours to get well through the mountain section before any rain came.

As usual, Edita and I were the last to leave, bang on the dot of 8am. A straightforward if steepish trail leapt into forest right above the hotel and we made good progress for the first few hundred metres. After a short while, we left the forest and started ascending steeper rock steps beside a cliff. We raced past a couple of other groups, and were going so fast that I nearly tripped over a fire salamander. We’d been seeing rock lizards several times a day, but they were so small and quick that they always scuttled away before I got my camera out. In any case, they were a bit dull, just a few centimetres long with a browny-green skin. They resembled our native sand lizards. The fire salamander wasn’t going anywhere though, and it was so striking that it stopped me in my tracks. Jet black and flecked with bright yellow spots, it sat motionless beside the trail. As well as being the most nonchalant lizard in Corsica, it also has one of the coolest names in the animal kingdom.

Then we took a wrong turn. We followed an obvious path that kept alongside the cliff and eventually became blocked by impenetrable undergrowth. Realising our error, we spotted paint marks on the slabs far to our right and had to descend some way to regain the trail.

Scrambling up slabs to Bocca di Stagnu
Scrambling up slabs to Bocca di Stagnu

The paint marks veered to the right across the slabs then back to the left before heading straight up again. From then on, it was non-stop scrambling, back and forth, up and over slabs and between cracks, all the way to the top of the 1,975m pass of Bocca di Stagnu. It was easy stuff that I would have enjoyed in most events, but I was starting to get fed up with the relentlessly difficult terrain and longed for just an ordinary path.

Bocca di Stagnu was set among thickets of vegetation and was quite crowded. We reached it after 1½ hours, which was half an hour ahead of schedule. Although my stomach was still not happy, I appeared to be in better shape than I had been for two days. The hotels of Haut Asco were far beneath us now, and we had our last views of Monte Cinto, Corsica’s highest mountain whose shoulder we had crossed the previous day. Dark clouds hung over its forbidding black granite and the red scree beneath its top that we’d hurtled down. The rains had not yet reached us, but they were coming.

On the other side of the pass the terrain was complex. It started off easy enough, with a good path traversing across the left side of another rocky rib. To our left the land dropped away steeply, but the path was wide. It soon became another scramble over jagged rocks. The trail remained horizontal for a while and we crossed it quickly enough; then it rose again, doubling back in a long zigzag to reach a second pass, the 1,987m Bocca di Muvrella.

The terrain immediately beyond the second pass was difficult. Loose scree alternated with sharp rock as we descended steeply, weaving between thickets of undergrowth. There were many people coming up, and we took more difficult alternate routes to avoid waiting for them. Nevertheless, we raced down, and by the time the gradient eased beside a lake, we were an hour ahead of schedule according to our trip notes.

Monte Cinto (left of centre) seen from the trail up to Bocca di Stagnu
Monte Cinto (left of centre) seen from the trail up to Bocca di Stagnu

There were more slabs to come. Had someone told me just how many, I would never have believed it.

We stood at the top of the Spasimata Gorge, and it was dramatic. Cathedrals of pink rock rose high on either side, and a narrow slit choked with greenery descended steeply between them. We were up on the right-hand side of this canyon, around 50 to 100m above the valley floor. The rock had eroded into a series of parallel steps that formed shelves as it descended the gorge. The GR20 loosely followed these shelves, but there were many sections of scrambling over smooth slabs.

We peered down the next steep section and saw Ramon, Petra and Andrew just beneath us. We overtook them when they stopped to chat to a British group coming up the other way. I exchanged words with a man from Gloucester.

‘Have you done the cheese rolling?’ I asked him, referring to a local event that I’m not even going to attempt to describe.

‘Not yet. It’s too dangerous,’ he replied. ‘Maybe after the GR20 I’ll be ready.’

On the trail between the two passes
On the trail between the two passes

We also passed someone who was a dead ringer for Alex Honnold, the crazy rock-climbing dude who was the subject of the film Free Solo. This made me wonder: if he’s doing it, how terrifying must it be lower down?

We were about to find out.

The trail crossed to the left side of the gorge and briefly became a proper walking trail. I believed the worst of the descent was behind us, but I was soon corrected. We were about to cross the Spasimata Slabs, by far the most dangerously exposed section of the whole trek, and we were going to cross them at the worst possible time.

Our trip notes hadn’t mentioned these slabs at all, dismissing this whole section in a single, unhelpful sentence, that any fool could have deduced just by looking at a map:

The trail continues down in the direction of the Spasimata river.

It was lazy research, but I’d been guilty of negligence of my own. Had I bothered to read Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook, that I’d left in my luggage to save a few grams in my backpack, then I would have known exactly what lay ahead. Paddy is a legendary guidebook writer, and you don’t get to be that without decent route descriptions.

Here’s what he has to say about the Spasimata Slabs. His route goes north to south, the opposite direction to ours.

Although cables have been fixed to the rock, most of the slabs are unprotected. Be warned that the slabs can be slippery when wet, and even a light frost will make them treacherous.

He goes into more detail:

Trekkers start crossing the sloping Spasimata Slabs high above the river. The first slabs are protected by a long chain and shorter cables. In dry conditions, these aids are superfluous, but in wet weather the slabs can be greasy and the cables prove more useful.

A further paragraph includes the following highlights:

…then more slabs have to be climbed, this time without the benefit of cables… Later, there are more slabs, climbed with the aid of a longer and shorter chain.

So, lots of slabs then. And we hadn’t even reached them yet.

The trail turned briefly to the right then back to the left as the gorge became narrower. A long chain ran down a sloping slab with a wall to the left. The rock was still dry and we were able to descend without using the chain, but there was a yawning chasm to the right and it would not be a place to fall.

The rain started just as we were turning left again, and it very quickly became torrential.

We stopped to put on waterproofs and rain covers. By the time we were ready to go again, we were already soaked to the skin. The gorge turned back to the right. We crossed some smooth, flat slabs by a series of rock pools. They were starting to become slippery, and we had to crouch like crabs to work our way across them.

Then came the crux. Another series of slabs descended for half a mile, smooth as a baby’s bottom, convex, and disappearing into the gorge on our right. A fall anywhere here would have meant certain death. Luckily, for half a mile there were chains and cables on the left to grab onto: more cables in one short section than we had seen on the rest of the GR20 put together. We had hardly touched them until that moment; now I grabbed onto every one of them for dear life. These chains were not here for the dry weather that had accompanied us for nearly two weeks, but the pounding deluge we were now experiencing. The slabs had become a skating rink; only thanks to the chains were we are able to descend them at all.

Our pace slowed to a crawl as we tiptoed anxiously down. My eyes were glued to my feet and I tried to ignore the abyss to my right, but it wasn’t easy.

Edita stands at the top of the Spasimata Gorge
Edita stands at the top of the Spasimata Gorge

Then the slabs gave way to a gravel path and a bridge appeared across the gorge beneath us. I heaved a sigh of relief.

‘If that’s the bridge, then our troubles are at an end,’ I said.

I understood from our trip notes that the liaison path down to Bonifatu turned off to the left straight after the bridge. But with salvation just a salmon’s leap away, there was another nasty moment as I felt myself about to fall. I had been suffering from stiff knees for several days, the combined effect of carrying a weighty pack and the relentless pounding of feet on granite, quickened by gravity, day after day. As I adjusted to avoid a drop, the only thing holding me in place was my flexing right knee – a knee that had been refusing to bend for days. With sickening clarity, I realised that a fall then, with that creaking knee taking the strain, was going to mean a serious injury. I let out a yell, expecting to feel a gruesome crunch in the joint, but by a miracle the knee held firm, and I avoided falling.

But I was badly shaken, and my troubles weren’t over.

Ahead of me loomed a long suspension bridge, high above a crashing river.

Paddy had this to say about the bridge:

It is a very wobbly bridge, bearing a request that no more than two people cross it at a time.

He didn’t mention that the bridge also appeared to be half-finished. For some reason that only its builders will know, there was a 10cm gap between each slat, giving trekkers the opportunity to stare right through the bridge as they crossed, and down to the raging torrent beneath them. It was as though only half a consignment of slats had arrived, and instead of ordering another one to complete the job, the builders had made the most of what they had and called it a day

My nerves were already jangling, and the bridge didn’t help to calm me. I was about halfway across when the bridge started rocking violently. I assumed that Edita must have started crossing behind me. Without turning, I yelled back for her to stay where she was. But she was still standing on the bank. Had I paid more attention to Paddy’s route description, I would have known that I had simply reached the wobbly bit.

I made it across, and Edita followed behind me with rather less fanfare. I stood on the right-hand bank and looked for the easy trail down to Bonifatu. I could see that the Spasimata Valley veered left and descended to the west: where we wanted to be. Meanwhile, a side valley branched steeply upwards to the right, taking the remaining section of the GR20 with it, up and over more mountains. This was decidedly not where we wanted to go, as our transport was waiting for us down in Bonifatu.

There was, however, no sign of a junction after the bridge, only the red and white paint marks of the main trail. We continued to follow them as they climbed high in the direction of the side valley. There were yet more precarious slabs to cross, one with a rope on either side. As I tiptoed down this one, taking tiny steps to avoid slipping, I was annoyed when two women came up the other way without waiting. They seemed careless of the fact that if I fell here, then I would sweep them into the gorge with me.

We crossed the first slabs while the rock was still dry
We crossed the first slabs while the rock was still dry

‘Bonjour!’ they said breezily. I ignored them and concentrated on my feet. If only they knew what was coming.

As the trail climbed higher and the valley angled away to our left, I became convinced that we had missed the turning and were climbing these slimy slabs unnecessarily. When were they going to end?

Then came a slab so smooth that Johnny Depp could have done his makeup in it. It slanted steeply above another yawning chasm, without a single crack to provide any purchase. I watched Edita cross it carefully, but I had no idea how he she managed it. When it came to my turn, I inched my way across in tiny movements. It sloped both downwards in front of me, and off to the left for four or five metres. The left side ended abruptly at the edge of the gorge. I could not see below, and where it led after that was anybody’s guess. My only refuge was a giant chain of the sort that holds a ship’s anchor. It fitted neatly into the palm of my hand, and I clung to it firmly as though it were the only thread connecting me to life (a thought which seemed alarmingly close to the truth).

My shoes had no purchase whatsoever on the wet rock, and the trekking pole in my left hand might just as well have been a conductor’s baton for all the use it was. After a metre of shuffling, the inevitable happened. My right foot was wrenched from beneath me and suddenly I was falling.

On the treacherous Spasimata Slabs in a rainstorm
On the treacherous Spasimata Slabs in a rainstorm

There was no immediate fear: I was already resigned to the fact that this was about to happen and I didn’t think about where I might land. I had my hand on the big sturdy chain to my right. I had no doubt that it would hold me, but I crashed violently onto my right side. I winced in pain as the back of my rib cage struck the rock and my arm was tugged from my shoulder.

I was now hanging by my full body length, anchored by a single hand on the chain above me. Below me was a drop of uncertain distance into the gorge. Fortunately, my feet could now just reach a small horizontal crack in the bottom part of the slab. I squirmed sideways along it towards the safety of the path on the other side of the slab, keeping my hand on the chain above me.

Edita had been facing away when I fell. Now she turned around and saw me lying on my side, whimpering as I edged my way to safety, and slithering like a snake in the grass. She was unaware of the events that had led to this.

‘What are you doing? It’s easy,’ she bellowed.

My nerves were shredded by the time I reached the trail and took a deep breath. I was fighting back tears as we continued onwards, so desperate was I to be free from this endless scramble.

Edita crosses the unfinished Spasimata bridge
Edita crosses the unfinished Spasimata bridge

It turned out that this had been the very last slab. The path descended into forest. A few minutes later, we finally reached the junction where the yellow paint marks branched off to Bonifatu, the one I’d been expecting as soon as we crossed the bridge. It was as though the GR20 had been determined to grind my pride to a fine powder before spitting me out. Now that I had survived the ordeal, I was released from its clutches and allowed to go home.

We walked a little further down the path into the forest, then I slumped in a clearing beside the trail for some lunch. My heart was beating a death march. We’d been walking non-stop since 8am. It was now 1 o’clock, and any time we’d gained earlier in the day had long since evaporated. The rain had turned a brisk scramble into a tense struggle, demanding every ounce of concentration. I sat morosely, grunting single syllables in response to Edita’s cheery conversation. On the plus side, we’d been given a nice lunch for a change. Edita tucked into a sizeable salad while I munched away on a turkey sandwich.

I re-read our route description and tried to reconcile it with what we’d just experienced.

The trail continues down in the direction of the Spasimata river. Eventually you will arrive at the Passerelle Suspendu, a swing bridge that you will need to cross. This is a good swim spot. Once across the bridge you will pick up the Liaison Bonifatu GR20 path.

There was no mention whatsoever of slabs or scrambling, or long exposure above a deep gorge. The bit about picking up the Liaison Bonifatu path was plain wrong and led to me mentally switching off long before I should have. ‘Swing bridge’ put me in mind of tourist barges floating leisurely along the Caledonian Canal while traffic waited patiently for the bridge to move back into position. As for ‘good swim spot’ – which idiot decided this was more valuable information to put in a route description than slabs, or scrambling, the long lines of via ferrata chains or the dizzying exposure?

I don’t know if it’s possible to insert a swim spot up someone’s back passage, but I decided that if I ever met the person from Corsica Aventure who wrote this, then I was going to try.

Thankfully, the dangers really were behind us now. There remained a 6km hike through forest either side of the river. On the first steeper section, the trail was still quite rugged. My right side was throbbing painfully. I ambled slowly, still in a daze, and wincing at the strain of descending each high step. I became convinced that I must have broken a rib in the fall. Edita kept stopping to wait for me.

We crossed another bridge back onto the left bank of the river; the trail became easier and quite pleasant in places. I begin to regain my composure, and even started to make conversation again.

The greasy slabs continued on the far side of the river
The greasy slabs continued on the far side of the river

‘At least I have a story to tell,’ I said when we stopped for a gulp of water.

Edita’s eyes opened like saucers as I tried to put my experience into words. It was only then I realised that she had no idea that I’d properly fallen, and that a single hand on a metal chain had saved my life. Her lack of sympathy seemed out of character; now it made sense.

‘You didn’t know?’

‘I thought you were just being silly, like that time you slid down the rock on your butt,’ she replied (see the previous post).

The last few kilometres to Bonifatu were as delightful as the slabs had been detestable. A wide, leisurely dirt trail led through pleasant woodland. Occasionally the trees to our right thinned, providing breathless views into the forested gorge beneath us. Our pace quickened with the end in sight. The only annoyance was the large number of people coming the other way whose goal was the infamous swim spot.

 ‘How far to the bridge?’ we kept being asked.

Of course, we had no idea how long it would take them to reach the bridge. We were racing down. They were going up and still had a long way to climb, some of it over wet slabs. Were they fast or slow – who knew? Did they mean the first bridge or the second one? It was the archetypal ‘stupid question’. I gave the same stock response to all of them.

‘Oh, just two minutes. Keep going, you’re nearly there.’

Edita homeward bound in the Cirque de Bonifatu
Edita homeward bound in the Cirque de Bonifatu

A kilometre short of Bonifatu, we burst out of the woods into a car park at the end of a dirt road. Edita took a photo of me looking ‘relieved and happy’, as she described it. I’ve looked at that photo a dozen times and I personally think I look like a clown who’s been smashed in the face with a banjo.

I could smell the beer as we walked briskly along the road. There wasn’t much to Bonifatu, just a handful of houses on a tarmacked hairpin. But the garden of the Auberge de la Forêt was an enchanting haven to battle-worn travellers like ourselves.

We walked in at 3pm, bang on schedule according to our trip notes. Martin and Jakob were sitting on the terrace with large jugs of beer. They told us that Tim was waiting for us at the Refuge de Carrozzu. We had bypassed this hut two hours earlier. It was tucked away in the forest where the Bonifatu liaison path had left the GR20. I was shaking like a snowman with a hammer drill then, and the last thing I wanted was to sit down for a chat. It was reassuring to hear that Tim was there should Petra, Ramon and Andrew need his help. With other things on my mind, I had forgotten all about them until we were speeding through the forest. They would also have been caught on the slabs at the worst possible time. I hoped they were OK.

We sat down with our friends the Danes, ordered drinks, relaxed and let the events of the last two weeks seep from us like raindrops.

Mark at the car park beyond Bonifatu looking "relieved and happy"
Mark at the car park beyond Bonifatu looking “relieved and happy”

We had stories to share, but so did somebody else. At 4pm, Tim walked up the steps into the garden, accompanied by a bruised and battered Andrew, Ramon and Petra. The physical bruises belonged to Ramon who, we discovered, had suffered exactly the same fate as I had. It was a different slab and it had happened more quickly. He was turning to help Petra when he suddenly lost his footing and plunged towards the gorge. Like me, he was saved by a single hand on the chain.

The mental bruises were with Petra and Andrew.

‘I walked round the corner, so I didn’t see what happened,’ Andrew said. ‘All I heard was this blood-curdling scream. I looked around. The slab was sheer. I thought Ramon was gone.’

Unlike Edita, Petra had been watching when it happened. For one terrifying instant she thought her beloved Ramon was about to fly over the edge. I discovered later that the word spasimata means ‘heartbroken’ in Italian, which could have been painfully literal. Ramon was a much bigger man than I am, a former basketball player. But the chains were sturdy, and his grasp was true.

‘Petra screamed, did she,’ I replied. I couldn’t resist the last word. ‘Funnily enough, Edita didn’t scream. Her first words were, “what are you doing; this is easy!”’

We all laughed, mostly from relief, but with a good sprinkling of happiness. We had been avoiding the chains when we came across them earlier in the trek, thinking the terrain was easier than everybody claimed. Now we understood why they were there.

The GR20 was done; it had been amazing; it had been terrifying, and I thoroughly recommend it. We will return to Corsica for sure.

You can see all my photos from our trek in my Corsica GR20 Flickr album.


To receive email notifications of my blog posts about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.
Note: I get a very small referral fee if you buy a book after clicking on an Amazon link.

2 thoughts on “The Spasimata Slabs: the day I nearly died on Corsica’s GR20

  • December 6, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    Great episode, Mark. I’ve enjoyed the entire Corsican Wandergeschichte.

    Be fair to Edita — you are occasionally silly, aren’t you? On purpose, of course.

    Is it possible that the bridge would have been less wobbly with two people on it rather than one?

    As for the carpark photo — you look like me at my most athletic and intelligent. Congratulations.

  • December 8, 2023 at 7:46 pm

    Amazing. You did it so I don’t have to. Respect. Your honesty and candour has always been so refreshing to read, never more so here.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published, but it will be stored. Please see the privacy statement for more information. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend, please read the commenting guidelines before posting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.