Hiking the Via Alpina: An Eight-Country Trek Across the Alps

Cover art for Hiking X Alps

Imagine chucking commitments, selling possessions, tossing routine, and then set off on an eight-country trek across the Alps.

After decades of hiking some of the world’s great trails, adventurer Brandon Wilson heard about the Via Alpina, paths running the length of the Alps across eight countries. Besides offering immersion into Alpine life and wilderness, it would be the ultimate physical challenge.

It meant climbing more than 3,000 feet from valley to mountain hut every day for months over more than 1,000 miles. Intrigued, he imagined it was a sort-of European Appalachian Trail, only with better wine.

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of  Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps:

Strange things fly through your mind when you’re dangling by a thin blue rope in the pelting rain, hanging on in a white-knuckled grip as a freezing wind pushes you back and forth like a pendulum over a 1000-meter chasm.

Take my word for it. Unlike a Hollywood movie, my life didn’t flash before me. Oddly enough, only one thing came to mind: Ötzi. Who? Ötzi the Iceman, the Alpine hunter who disappeared high in the Alps some 5300 years ago. Only recently did some hapless hikers discover his mummified body, freeze-dried with a grimace on his face.

Though it’s nice to be ageless, I sure didn’t want to end up like him.

Did he know that fateful day of marmot hunting would be his last? Of course not.

Likewise, we had no clear-cut idea what we were getting ourselves into. We took a leap of faith. It’s a leap into the abyss; only with one, the outcome’s more certain. And just like the thin blue rope that now kept us connected to life, an equally fine line separates “adventure” from sheer madness.

This time, something told me we’d stepped over the line.

Let me explain.

As with past adventures, once again, it all started innocently enough. My ever-trusting wife, Cheryl, and I had heard about new hiking paths named the Via Alpina, which cross eight countries and cover 200,000 square kilometers. Its five trails run some 5000 kilometers or 3100 miles across the backbone of the Alps connecting existing long distance trails, many dating back to the days of the Romans and early traders.

I hoped some improvements had been made since then.

The Via Alpina begins in Italy and ends in Monaco, with six other countries in between.
The Via Alpina begins in Italy and ends in Monaco, with six other countries in between.

Five variations on the route come in a variety of colors: red, green, blue, purple and yellow. The longest, the red route, consists of 161 stages and runs from Trieste, Italy to the Adriatic Sea through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and France to finish in Monaco on the Mediterranean Sea. Although geographically separated by mountains, these trails occasionally intersect, allowing a hiker to hop from one to the other to explore whatever Alpine areas they like.

Exciting, right? But trekking it was not a challenge to take lightly.

Even so, it was especially appealing, masochist that I am, since it was still fairly unknown to hard-core North American thru-hikers who’re busy trekking the popular Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine or the Pacific Crest Trail from British Columbia to Mexico. It’s one of the newer faces in the trekking world. It was just 2002 when partners from Alpine countries founded the Via Alpina to promote sustainable green development.

This Via Alpina is different, I kept telling myself, a road truly less traveled. If we accept the challenge to hike its length, we won’t be the first, but we could be among the first handful to complete it.

And, Ötzi aside, who knows what we’ll discover up there?

Okay, I’ll admit I’ve long been fascinated by the Alps. Each snowcapped mountain has a tale to tell and personality all its own. The region still holds an inexplicable magic that’s been lost or forgotten in our lives today.

The majestic Alps
The majestic Alps

It’s a place of legends, of monsters, both real and imagined. It’s a traditional abode to kings in castles, to dark forests with gnomes.

The range is also home to wild creatures like the steinbok, golden eagle and mouflon, hundreds of plants like the edelweiss and Alpenrose, and marmots, the Alpine version of North American groundhogs.

It’s an area full of history and culture, as each passing civilization left their mark over millennia. It’s also the bastion of a fiercely independent lifestyle that’s as threatened as the melting glaciers on its highest peaks.

Finally, and how could I forget, it’s home to blonde, pigtailed, rosy-cheeked Heidi, my first boyhood crush. For a young kid in those days before Lara Croft, she was as sexy as it got.

I just knew there had to be something special in the alpine cheese.

However, the region’s more than stereotypes, more than cheese and gnomes. We wanted to discover the real Alps, to share it with others who’ve never ventured far off the beaten path, or who view Europe with a jaundiced “been there, done that” eye. Wild paths lead you far beyond the staid museums and cathedrals, bridges and bars found on the city-a-day tour circuit.

Then again, exploring the Alps is much more than simply “bagging peaks.” It’s the unique people, culture and unforgettable day-to-day experiences along the way.

And most likely, it also means confronting your own personal fears and limitations on a daily basis.

Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson has hiked 650 miles along an ancient pilgrims’ trail through the Himalayas from Tibet to Nepal. He has walked the Way of St. James, twice, as well as the Via de la Plata and St. Olaf’s Way in Norway. He hiked 1150-mile Via Francigena from England to Rome and the 2600-mile Templar Trail from France to Jerusalem.

Buy this book: Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps


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