It all began innocently enough. We heard about new trails crisscrossing the Alps. The Via Alpina consists of five trails stretching from Trieste, Italy on the Adriatic to Monte Carlo. By combining ancient long-distance routes, they trace the backbone of the Alps for more than 5,000 kilometers.
As seasoned thru-hikers looking for a challenge, we were hooked. Why not? This trail would combine Alpine beauty, culture, nature, history and cuisine with some of the world’s most demanding trails and mountains.
Where to start? That’s the beauty of this design. It’s walking jazz. Constant improvisation. You set off in whatever region you like – Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France or Monaco – for as long as you dare.
Actually, I imagined it as a European Appalachian Trail -but with better food and wine. Faster than you can say “schnitzel,” I coaxed my wife Cheryl into escaping with me. We wanted to be among the first to thru-hike its eight-country length to the Mediterranean before the first snow hit.
After rigorous training for five months and outfitting with light gear from GoLite and Gossamer, we left our so-called normal lives for Trieste, Italy in June 2009. There was no turning back.
Unlike our historic hike across Tibet, we wouldn’t dodge Chinese soldiers. But there was every other challenge. To start, even though we had thirty topo maps from Omni Resources, finding trail markers was a daily headache across Slovenia. Often they were half-buried or mown down by snowfall.
Then there’s Alpine weather, as unpredictable as politics. At 6-9,000 feet, it can be sunny, showery, snowing and foggy – all on the same day. Forty days of pelting rain were followed by relentless Föhn winds.
Even for hikers carrying just fifteen-pound packs, the terrain is demanding. We tried to cover at least 20 kilometers a day, a virtual marathon, knowing another mountain awaited tomorrow. The autumn snows wouldn’t wait…
The first week
At first, the trails were slow going. Ice fields (11 on one particular June day) blocked our path across narrow scree. And let me remind you, it’s a long way to the bottom. During our first week, Cheryl dangled over a chasm, anchored to an ice flow by only her Nordic pole. A badly swollen knee threatened to end her trekking then and there. Yet we continued.
For the record, over the next 31/2 months, I guesstimate we climbed and slid down 700,000 feet -12 Mt. Everests measured from sea level. Then again, who knew lethal ticks and cow patties could ultimately prove more dangerous?
But hey, it was far from peril. We shared company with legendary giants like Mt. Blanc and the Eiger. Wildflowers abounded. Sighting steinbok, chamois and marmots made our day. We enjoyed hearing local legends, such as the tale of Mt. Jolly and the shepherd whose tears froze to form Mt. Blanc glacier.
As usual, there were the eccentrics, such as the hiker who stripped down to his skivvies at dinner to show just how lightly he packed. Or the dairyman who helped us escape a hailstorm to sleep in his barn above 80-bell clanging cows, a non-stop serenade.
But more often, we stayed in comfortable mountain huts run by mountaineering clubs or pensions with local families. Our daily budget averaged about $40/day per person, but you could easily spend more.
And food? No peanut butter on this trek. One fond memory is dinner eaten in a shepherd’s cabin by firelight. First, the grizzled fellow fixed socca, fried chickpea meal crepe. Then came wild nettle and potato soup, roast lamb with herbed onions, and four kinds of handmade cheese. As always, there was schnapps, hefeweisen beers and great wines at the end of tough days.
Hiking the Via Alpina is a demanding, yet tasty feast. Although you can, you don’t have to devour the entire 1200 miles in one bite. Choose one region for several weeks, matching the route to your interests and physical condition. Like I said, it’s like jazz. And you’ll be among the first to play this tune.
Each night I chronicled our adventure while muscles ached and clothes dried. Join us. My new book, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, sweeps you along for a gritty, sometimes funny, slightly crazed, totally uncensored look at the Alps – and at a couple who dare to follow their gonzo dream.