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CHAPTER 1

LEAPS INTO MADNESS
(excerpt from Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps,
© Brandon Wilson 2010, all rights reserved)

STRANGE THINGS FLY THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOURE 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 like 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.

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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 on 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.

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.
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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.

What an adventure, I thought. If we trek the red route, we’ll be in the high Alps moving from hut-to-hut for maybe five months—and that’s not even taking into account any time off. Given the narrow window of opportunity in the high country between first and last snows, June to October, we’ll be pressed for time.

For better or worse, it’ll be similar to the challenge Cheryl and I faced when trekking across Tibet back in ’92, always wondering when the first blizzard would hit. Even though the Alps aren’t the Himalayas, it’s far from a walk in the park.

Back in Tibet, we’d discovered the beauty of “slow, deliberate travel” as we hiked the high Himalayan plains from Lhasa to Kathmandu with Sadhu, our Tibetan horse. Besides witnessing an endangered lifestyle as we “chewed the yak” with former monks and farming families around their fire each night, we uncovered an added bonus. Total immersion.

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Something happens to your perspective when you slow life down, when you wallow in your surroundings. You hear, smell and sense things you’ve never experienced before. You eat where locals eat. Sleep where they sleep. You see a side of their life that others miss. You share hopes and dreams. You learn tolerance and see how interconnected we are, even in distant cultures. You’re transformed by rediscovering your childlike wonder.

Plus, there’s a zen beauty to simplifying your life. Forced to carry everything you need for months on your back, your oozing blisters and aching muscles quickly convince you to travel lightly.

That’s an important lesson on any trail.

I’d taken that style of travel to heart. It became my passion; you might say, “my sweet addiction.” Over the next decade, I’d spent a month or more nearly each year trekking across Europe with a backpack on historic trails that include the Via de la Plata and Camino de Santiago (once with Cheryl) through Spain, the Via Francigena from England to Rome, St. Olav’s Way across Norway, and then again upon a long-distance trail from the Italian Dolomites to Prague.

I probably tackled the most difficult one in 2006 with a French friend, as we hiked 4500 kilometers on a peace trek from France to Jerusalem. Originally walked by those Crusaders who became the first Knights Templar, we re-blazed what I called the Templar Trail, narrowly dodging missiles and jihadist fervor.

We survived, but just barely.

Still, I was hooked and after two years of facing the scary sameness of a so-called normal life, I was itching for a new challenge. And something told me the Via Alpina would be unlike any of the others.

After doing a little research, it soon became obvious that it’d be necessary to apply for visas, if for no other reason than to be able to attempt to complete the vast trail in five months. Nowadays with the Schengen Agreement, many non-Europeans can only stay in the entire European Union for ninety days at a time—not ninety per country, as in the days of francs, liras and marks. Stretching it into two seasons, a hikus interruptus, was out of the question.

Why not, I figured, use this opportunity to experience the Alps more fully? Why not live there?

That’s the ultimate in immersion. Besides, after living off and on in Hawaii for decades, a change of scene was overdue. Mountains, four seasons, and evergreen were sure to be balm for the tropical soul. But where?

Ah, Grasshopper, that was the question.

Thinking back on all our travels, I remembered September 11, 2001, a day of infamy. With no idea of the tragedy which had just unfolded in New York City, Cheryl and I landed at Milan Airport and promptly caught a train to visit Siegi, a friend I’d met two years earlier on the Camino de Santiago. He lives in Brixen, a tranquil Alpine city in the Südtirol or Alto Adige region. Although now part of northern Italy, it was Austrian until the end of World War I and I was amazed by the way its mixed culture combines Tyrolean Alpine practicality with a refreshing sense of Italian la dolce vita.

Brixen, or Bressanone, as it’s known in Italian, is a valley town of 20,000 in a storybook setting. Once it was the center of the south Tyrol bishopric and its low skyline is still dominated by an imposing cathedral, Gothic archways, oriel windows and Middle Age towers.

Yet despite its 1100-year history, it has an air of normalcy. It’s not some fabricated, fantasy Tyrol-land. You sense the contentment as couples walk hand-in-hand down traffic-free, cobblestoned streets. Folks watch the world go by while sipping morning cappuccinos at outdoor cafés. People casually bike along the tree-lined Eisack and Rienz Rivers shouting a “Hoi, Griaßti” or “Buon giorno” as they pass friends in the easy-going, bilingual community. Why, even at the market, you can overhear one clerk gossiping to another in Italian, who answers in German.

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There, in the shadow of the legendary Dolomites, the crisp mountain air invites you to breathe deeply. Not surprisingly, it’s ideal for hardcore hikers. Locals take to the surrounding mountains for relaxing weekend walks on well-groomed trails and winter is anxiously awaited for the chance to ski, sled, and snowboard the Plose Mountain. Even Brixen’s indoor pool and spa seem more designed for locals than its frequent visitors. There’s certainly something special about that valley’s water, the sweetest I’ve ever tasted, plus the food is equally super-natural.

Hey, you have to consider these details.

The region’s vineyards and apple orchards offer fruit straight from their trees, not warehouse-stores, and supply a New England-like blast of autumnal color. Dairy farms produce fresh hormone-free milk, cheese and yogurt, and the valley celebrates its abundance with festivals featuring tasty smoked ham, apple strudel, breads, beer and wine served to an oompah beat.

Ultimately though, something impressed us even more. During that time of terrorist turmoil, we could never forget how sympathetic Brixners had been, welcoming two strangers far from home with open arms.

Consequently, it seemed like a logical (and did I say delicious?) choice. Its central location in Europe would make it so much easier for us to plan our annual treks without having to take out a second mortgage to fly halfway around the world. That never makes much sense when you’re trying to live simply and lessen your carbon footprint.

Besides, I’d secretly hankered after a cool pair of lederhosen, or leather pants, to complement my annual Oktoberfest chicken dance outfit. So, why not try Brixen?

That decision opened the floodgates on what could have been a logistical nightmare. Soon we were swamped with the details of applying for an elective residency visa and all its various stamps. Fortunately, Siegi came through for us in flying tri-colors, as he knows everyone and greased the wheels.

We also contacted Nathalie, the Association Via Alpina network’s go-to person, explaining that we were interested in hiking their trails and in sharing our experiences. Although I vowed to write my usual warts and all account, bound to offend everyone in some small way, they made us official partners and provided a letter of introduction for officialdom.

Every little bit might help our case.

While the consulate deliberated on whether to let us stay for a year, there was no time to waste. We switched into phase two: gearing up and finding the absolute best and lightest equipment available.

There’s an old Swiss joke. Every day the TV weather forecaster calls for the same thing: “Sunny with rain and a chance of snow.” True. That makes it especially tricky to plan for all Alpine weather contingencies. Given the distance and workout of climbing 1000 meters (3200+ feet) up and then back down mountains every day, we knew it’d be suicide to carry more than seven or eight kilos (15-16 pounds) each. That truth had already been permanently etched in my soles.

So after careful deliberation, we decided to pack just the essentials: a change of clothing, extra socks, rain ponchos and pants, running shoes, lightweight hiking boots, gaiters to keep snow or gravel from our boots, hats, down jackets and sleeping bags, cameras, LEKI Nordic poles, and sachets of a powdered energy drink. We would divide a basic medical kit, compass, maps, and power cords among us. However, we decided against carrying crampons and ice axes. The trails would most likely be clear of snow and ice by June and they’d just add weight and take up far too much space.

Even though we were traveling techo-lite, I’d take a GPS backtrack gizmo which would supposedly allow us to retrace our steps if (when) we became hopelessly lost, if nothing else. Cheryl would also bring her trusty compact Mac iTouch that’d allow us to read a Via Alpina PDF for directions, since there was no English guidebook available then, and to possibly check our emails—if or when we ever found Wi-Fi coverage in the Alps. That was a huge unknown.

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After hours of research into a dizzying number of innovative designs, we contacted GoLite to get their new lightweight packs, bags and clothing. I’d carried their gear on two former expeditions. Then Gossamer Gear, light-years ahead in their designs, supplied a tent weighing just a kilo that’d be handy in case of an emergency, if we were stuck in a blizzard, or tucked into a crevasse between villages. And finally, Omni Resources provided thirty precious topographic maps we’d carry a few at a time.

Meanwhile, to physically prepare, Upcountry Fitness, a local health club, mercilessly beat our flabby office bodies into submission with three months of strength and aerobic training. Although I sensed it might be “too little, too late” at the time, I have to admit their treadmill incline worked wonders.

Cheryl transformed from desk jockey into a mountain diva. Better still, I could see this challenge of trekking across the Alps appealed to her inner jockette. There was a little-disguised bounce to her step and refreshing sparkle in her hazel eyes.

Finally, we picked up our visa-required health insurance policy, which to be honest was little more than a security blanket. If we slipped off a 3000-meter peak, there wouldn’t be much left to cart to a distant emergency room.

Nature gives no quarter. We were ultimately on our own.

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Speaking of which, let me make this positively clear right up front: I have great respect for the mountains. It doesn’t take much for them to shake you off, like a dog ridding itself of pesky fleas. Unlike some, I’m convinced there’s no such thing as “conquering” mountains. With luck, you merely hope to survive them—and to reaffirm the value you place on life.

That said, the enormity of our journey didn’t fully register until our topo maps arrived. One evening, Cheryl and I sat surrounded by them sprawled across the living room rug. As she called out each village name, I carefully traced a line between our daily stages. My orange marker went from valley to mountain summit and back down again, sometimes several times a day, before we reached a cabin. It wound around glaciers. It looped entire regions in crazy mandala circles, only to come back again.

We didn’t say much, didn’t have to. We’d been together long enough. One look said it all.

Dammit. Just what have we gotten ourselves into this time? We aren’t mountain climbers, just trekkers. Sure, my last hike was across eleven countries. But as you know, it’s not length that counts; it’s the ups and downs, the backs and forths. A thousand-meter climb and descent every day, for months on end, would be harder than we’d ever attempted before.

Still, it was meant to be. The stars came into alignment.

The mail arrived one afternoon and we were so startled to receive our Italian visas that our screams left the bananas outside shaking from their stalks. Yet with one major hurdle crossed, packing up our lives was another daunting challenge. How do you sort through a lifetime of possessions to lighten your load?

For better or worse, about this same time, Cheryl was laid off her job and came to my rescue, pulling me out from under boxes just in the nick of time. Plants, furniture and cars all eventually found new homes, as well as far too many accumulated things. Did you know that kitchen cups multiply like bunnies when left alone in dark cupboards? It’s true.

Our shedding continued right down to the garden gnome who was left, still smiling, at the simple wooden cottage. At long last, we carted our remaining worldly possessions to a shipping company where our boxes were so tightly packed a feather couldn’t fit between them. Looking at the single wooden crate, we beamed like proud parents, satisfied to see our nomadic lives reduced to a more manageable size—yet shocked at the implications.

This time we’d definitely burned a bridge.

The days flew off the calendar like in one of those cheesy black-and-white films as we set off on a new chapter, the start of another trail. This one just happened to also be an exciting new path in life. We flew high on a surge of adrenaline. Mentally we were eager to escape paradise for a while, although I admit we were touched by sadness at leaving our circle of friends and family.

After saying “aloha” to them in Hawaii and on both coasts, we nervously flew to Munich and then connected by train to Brixen. Unfortunately, our arrival didn’t provide the rest or reprieve we’d long anticipated. With the clock ticking loudly in our ears, we faced a deluge of nagging last minute details, especially applying for what they call the permesso di soggiorno with all its various stamps and processing at the local INAS (National Institute for Social Assistance), and then an added trip to the police station, the tobacconist for tax stamps, and finally the post office.

Although we already had visas, the permesso was our permission to actually live in Italy. Given the national backlog, we’d heard it might take months for them to schedule our personal appearance, at which time we had to produce more documents and have our fingerprints taken.

By then, with any luck, I figured our trek would be completed. We’d be back in our Tyrolean hideaway and overdosing on schnitzel and schnapps.

Before leaving Brixen, in one final stroke of genius, Siegi signed us up for the Alpenverein Südtirol. As members of their regional mountaineering association, we’d save 20-30% for a bunk bed at the alpine huts. Since this expedition was entirely self-funded, every euro counted. Unlike previous treks, we couldn’t depend on staying in inexpensive hostels or refugios, and the anemic American dollar would put our budgets to the supreme test.

Then again, I thought, this is hiking. It’s about as Everyman an activity as you can find. How much could it possibly cost?

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Ultimately, our endless checklist was completed. Only then did we take time to mix a little pleasure with last-minute errands. On the way home from neighboring Bolzano, Siegi drove us to a quiet, shady park outside Vahrn for a brisk walk in a sluice flowing with icy water.

Kneipping, named after the Bavarian priest with the same name, is a teeth-chattering naturopathic treatment—and perfect for returning plane-swollen feet to almost normal size.

Too bad, I thought, I can’t fit my entire body in this channel.

Until at last, we ran out of time. The evening before we left for Trieste to begin our trek from the Adriatic Sea, we drove to a neighboring village to launch our great adventure. The restaurant was traditionally Tyrolean from its sturdy handcrafted rustic furniture to the ceramic-tiled woodstove, from its unpronounceable menu down to the apple-cheeked waitress in her poofy dirndl dress with laced bodice and checkered apron.

It was perfect, just as I’d always imagined. Yet we ate in near silence, overwhelmed by last-minute doubts about the long odyssey ahead. However, I still remember that last meal.

Cheryl savored speckknöderl soup, a broth featuring floating baseballs of ham and flour that taste like Thanksgiving dressing, while I dug into the spinach ravioli and Siegi had gnocchi, all washed down with a local Magdalena red wine poured from an earthenware jug.

Afterward, the three of us shuffled out to the sun terrace just in time to catch an ethereal pumpkin light illuminating the jagged, snowcapped Dolomites, spectacular towers of ancient coral rising above us. At last, speechless, we relished our long awaited “whew” moment, topped off by a delicious dollop of Alpenglow for dessert.

Looking back, I optimistically took it as a good sign; there’d be clear sailing ahead. The Universe, well, had other plans.

© Brandon Wilson, 2011, from "Over the Top & Back Again"

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Read another brief excerpt from Over the Top & Back Again at The Accidental Extremist.com.
(photo: Brandon Wilson, illustration: Ken Plumb)