The Via Alpina: The Toughest Hike You’ll Ever Love by Brandon Wilson

Have you always wanted to do more than just see the Alps from a distance? Ready to experience them? Well, now there’s a new way to discover this legendary region. The Via Alpina consists of five hiking trails stretching more than 5,000 kilometers from Trieste, Italy, to Monte Carlo. They combine Alpine beauty, culture, nature, history and cuisine with some of the world’s most demanding trails and celebrated mountains across eight countries.

Where to start? That’s the beauty of this design. What speaks to you? The majestic Mt. Blanc circuit? The grueling Eiger? The tranquil lakes of the Julian Alps? Panoramic vistas from rustic Austrian huts? Or maybe a bit of them all? Set off in whatever country you like—Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France or Monaco—and hike as long as you dare through areas that interest you. Think of it like one of those chocolate samplers. Whether it’s nuts or chews, dark or white chocolate, it offers a surprise every day.
How well I know. Recently, I coaxed my wife into escaping with me to be among the first to thru-hike its eight-country length from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Sea. As seasoned long-distance hikers, we imagined it as a European Appalachian Trail—only with better food and wine. We’d forgo the chili, chips, and beer to search for regional treats like polenta, alpenkäse and wine.
Unlike our historic 1,000-kilometer hike across Tibet, we wouldn’t dodge bullets and blizzards, but we’d face every other challenge. Right away, spotting trail markers became a contest as we navigated ice fields (11 on one June day) over narrow Slovenian scree paths. It’s a long way to the bottom, as Cheryl discovered. One misstep left her precariously dangling over a 500-foot chasm, anchored to an ice flow by only her Nordic pole. Although a badly swollen knee threatened to end her trekking then and there, she gritted her teeth and insisted we continue.

Then there’s Alpine weather, as unpredictable as love. At 6-9,000 feet (1800-2700 meters), it can be sunny, showery, snowing and foggy—all on the same day. As luck would have it, we faced the most rainfall the Alps have experienced in more than 40 years—40 days worth—followed by relentless squalls. Föhn winds are said to make even the locals crazy; with us, we were already halfway there.

We pride ourselves at being light-hikers, carrying just fifteen-pound (71/2 kilo) packs on the Via Alpina. Still, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wondering what we could leave behind. Only our sense of humor was indispensable. Have no doubt, this terrain is demanding, both physically and mentally. Although we tried to hike at least 20 kilometers a day, a virtual marathon, in the back of our minds we knew another mountain awaited tomorrow…and tomorrow…and tomorrow. Over 31/2 months, I guesstimate we scaled and slid down 700,000 feet (211,000 meters)—12 Mt. Everests as measured from sea level. But who’s counting?

However, each day brought unique rewards. We shared company with celebrated goliaths like Mt. Blanc and the Eiger. Foggy days were brightened by a calliope of wildflowers. Statuesque steinbok, chamois and marmots always provided a pleasant surprise when we rounded a bend. Nothing beat finally arriving at a rustic mountaintop hut to enjoy a steamy shower, cold beer, and jaw-dropping sunset. As darkness fell, we enjoyed hearing all the local legends, such as the tale of Mt. Jolly and the far-too-sensitive shepherd whose tears froze to form Mt. Blanc glacier.
Then how could we forget the eccentrics, such as the fellow hiker who taught us “seductive duck walking” as he waddled side-to-side down the mountainside? Or the dairyman who helped us escape a hailstorm to sleep in his barn above 80-bell clanging cows for a cacophonous serenade. But usually, we bunked in cozy mountain huts run by mountaineering clubs or in pensions with local families. My mouth still waters as I remember Austrian breakfast spreads that included sliced meats, cheese, bread or pastries, müesli, fruit, coffee, juice and milk. Although our daily budget averaged about $40 each, as always, you could easily spend more.

No, there was no peanut butter on this trek. One of our fondest memories is of a feast in a cabin by firelight. First, the shepherd fixed socca, a traditional fried chickpea meal crepe, similar to what you’ll find on the French Riviera. Then came a wild nettle and potato soup, roast lamb with herbed onions, and four kinds of handmade cheese. As always, there was schnapps, unfiltered hefeweisen wheat beers and great local wines, especially welcome at the end of a tough day.
Although hiking the Via Alpina is demanding, it’s a tasty feast. Although you can, you don’t have to devour the entire 1200 miles in one bite. As I said, it’s like a chocolate sampler. Choose one area, matching your interests and physical condition. Today, you’ll be among the first to bite into this tasty nugget. Think of it as an uncrowded holiday, providing much more than postcards and a few souvenirs. Besides, there’s no better weight-loss program.
Each night I chronicled our adventure while our muscles still ached and lungs still wheezed. My new book, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, sweeps you along for a gritty, sometimes funny, tell-it-like-it-is look at the Alps—and at a slightly crazed couple who dare to follow their gonzo dream. Join us. Whether you’re a fellow hiker, or never walk farther than your couch, it’s a journey to remember.