Via Alpina: Don’t Look If Heights Scare You

The Via Alpina boasts numbers that would intimidate even the most ardent long-distance trekkers.

The walk, which begins in Triest, Italy on the Adriatic Sea and ends in Monaco on the Mediterranean, spans 1,200 miles, travels through eight countries, and (close your eyes if you are scared of heights) ascends and descends nearly 700,000 feet. It also takes trekkers through the best the Alps offers on a path shaped like a giant, rounded mountain.

Before you cross it off your list, you could consider choosing a section or one country (Switzerland?) and save the rest for later.

Brandon Wilson and his wife Cheryl, though, wanted it all, and in Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, Brandon narrates their 110 days of walking through Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, and Monaco. They stay mostly in huts or albergues. Most of the time, they travel on the red trail, rated the toughest, even though Cheryl battles knee problems. She takes a couple of breaks to rest her knee and meets up with Brandon later.

Brandon and Cheryl are no ordinary couple, having completed other tough treks, including a walk across Tibet. Longtime Hawaii residents, they secured a one-year visa in Italy to allow time for the Alpine walk. The Via Alpina offers accommodations, but Brandon complains about accessibility; some were closed or full when they arrived. He was also unhappy when accommodation hosts complained that he had not called ahead. But, he was intent on living in the moment, easier to do on a walk like the Camino de Santiago, another trek Brandon completed–twice.

I was drawn to Over the Top and Back Again because Sue and I are always looking for our next adventure. Brandon’s descriptions and honesty helped me gain insight about the Via Alpina and I compared it to our Alpine walk on the Tour du Mont Blanc, which travels 110 miles with 60,000 feet of elevation change, slightly less climbing and descending per mile.

Brandon describes a host of problems he and his wife endured on the trek, but, in the end, he is proud (as he should be) that they completed it. And, it reminded him why he walks. The self-discovery, simplicity, and rhythm of walking with an up-close view of Earth’s raw beauty.

Could we do it? Ten times the mileage of the Tour du Mont Blanc, 11 times the elevation. But, it is not a race, so with breaks, we could take even more than ten times the days. But that presents an issue: Linger too long in the Alps, and weather will end your trek, like it or not. Distance trekking is never easy, but that’s why Brandon and Cheryl (as well as Sue and I) love it.

Should we try it? Or, you could go first and let us know how you like it.

Mont Blanc: Camino Lessons Travel to the Alps

See that speck of a building below the glacier? It is Refugio Elisabetta, one of a collection of remote hostels on the 110-mile Tour du Mont Blanc.

I would never have stayed there if it had not been for my hiking adventure on the Camino de Santiago.

Perched on a spur in the Italian Alps, Refugio Elisabetta offered triple bunks in a crowded coed dorm and bright orange clogs for walking around an outdoor setting that left me gobsmacked. I showered in minimal privacy, shared a sink with other men, and waited to use the only toilet with a seat. We had lucked out with a private room with barely enough room for one set of bunks, but its tiny window opened to a view of the glacier. The dirty duvet made me wish I had packed my sleeping liner, but I was grateful for the bed after several exhausting days of climbs and descents.

Refugio Elisabetta was a highlight of our two-week trip around the Alps’ tallest mountain. The delicious communal dinner came with quick-binding friendships with trekkers who had traveled from throughout Europe. Some were sleeping in tents in the campground down the slope from the building.

In Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows, I describe the restless night in my first albergue in Spain and how I had ruminated about the lack of privacy in coed dorms and bathrooms. Our first long-distance backpacking adventure eventually guided me to come to terms with ghosts that had haunted me since childhood.

And, oh, so thankfully, the Camino lessons led me to Refugio Elisabetta.

Mont Blanc: Are We Really Going Up There?

Courage. Sue and I needed a backpack full of it on the Tour du Mont Blanc as we faced climbing into the mountains behind us.

During our two-week adventure around the highest peak in the European Alps, I packed more courage (mixed with a measure of fear) than I ever imagined possible as I tackled the greatest physical challenge of my life. My courage was born on the paths and in the albergues during our walk on Spain’s Camino de Santiago. And I borrowed bravery from Sue, for whom “give up” has never been an option.

Our book, Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows, tells and illustrates our story. Click on reviews on the menu to see comments from readers. I would love to hear what you think.