A FAIR NUMBER of people have now asked me: “Why isn’t The Earth Beneath My Feet in colour?”
It’s a reasonable question, and one I completely understand. I’ve only ever read genuine curiosity in it – never criticism.
I usually answer by saying: “I wish it was!” After all, the wild Europe I walked across is a vibrantly colourful place – why shouldn’t I show it in its full glory?
The trouble is, printing a full-colour 378-page book is a costly exercise – especially for a small, independent publisher. If the book were to be full colour throughout, the price to readers would be astronomically high. In truth, no one but my mother would buy it – and perhaps not even her!
Although current ‘print on demand’ technology means that the black and white images in the book are grainy, I hope they do still complement the text and add something extra to the story. Arguably, the words should stand on their own anyway.
At some point in the future I intend to create a full-colour photo book containing the best of the images from the walk. On Sacred Ground will come before that, so the photo book is a little way off yet, but watch this space! I also intend to share far more colour photos from The Walk here on this blog… eventually. But I still have a lot of slide scanning to do first, and it is not a fast process. To be honest, I’d rather be out in the hills than scanning slides. I’m funny like that!
But in the meantime, I’ve put together this blog – 53 photos from the Apennine and Alpine stage of the walk. Of course, trying to sum up a 7,000-mile walk in just a few photos is truly impossible. These shots barely hint at what I was lucky enough to experience.
The journey took place before digital cameras and social media. (Ah, those were the days!!) If these few images do anything I hope they reveal the ‘other’ Europe that I went on my walk to find, the hidden parallel continent that still exists beyond road’s end. And I hope they also show how fulfilling and meaningful it was to spend 18-months immersed in it, travelling slowly, living life to the full.
The captions accompanying the photos give a brief and extremely limited recap of the book. They certainly don’t cover all of the themes the book explores. But I hope they’ll tempt anyone who hasn’t yet picked up a copy to consider doing so. Or I hope they’ll remind folks who have read the book that it might make a good Christmas present for someone else!
But most of all I hope they add a little extra colour to the story!
This first photo shows sunrise from the summit of Monte Marmagna in the northern Apennines, September 5, 1997. It was for moments like this that I began the walk. What I wanted was a journey I could lose myself in completely, something so long it could become more than ‘just a walk’. Prior to this, I’d already completed a six-month hike but, incredible as it had been, it ended too soon. After it, I dreamt of starting another journey that didn’t end when the summer ended. What I wanted was a new way of life.
In 1994 I walked the length of the Alps, and in 1995 the Pyrenees – two journeys that didn’t cure me of wanderlust, only increased it. The question was: where next? For a journey that was ‘more than just a walk’ it had to be somewhere special. The Rockies, Andes, and Himalayas all called, but I was also strongly drawn to thoroughly exploring my own continent first. But could Europe give me what I wanted? Was it big or wild enough? There were still two ranges I hadn’t visited: the Apennines in Italy and the mountains of Norway. Could either of those work?
How was I to choose between them?
In the end, someone else helped decide it. I was back at work, supposedly focused on the task I was being paid for, when a thought occurred: Why not walk the Apennines and Norway in one go?
‘Because it’s too far!’ came a swift reply from a colleague seated nearby. Apparently, I’d spoken out loud! Too far? Well now, how could I resist that? And so the plan pictured in this map was born!
The walk began on May first 1997 at the southern tip of Calabria, Italy, starting from a quiet Mediterranean beach. Within two days I’d left palm trees and cacti behind and was on the edge of the Aspromonte, ‘the rough mountain’. And rough it was, as well as extraordinarily different from anything I’d expected! Back in the mid-nineties, the internet barely existed. There were no satellite images to call upon, no guide books, no information easily found within the suburbs where I lived. I couldn’t even find maps, and neither could a London map store that was trying to find them for me! But the idea of not knowing what lay ahead suited me fine. As I still see it even today, too much knowledge can ruin a perfectly good adventure! For me, ‘finding out’ is one of the main points of travel.
But I did have a few expectations. For one, I thought the recently-established Aspromonte National Park would offer trails for walking. And two, I thought there’d be rocky peaks rising above the trees – typical mountains like the Pyrenees. I’d seen two photos that were supposedly of Calabria that showed tree-less mountains. But boy was I was in for a surprise!
This photo shows the walk’s second camp, up on the edge of the Aspromonte on May 2, 1997. By this point, I didn’t really know where I was. The only map I’d been able to track down was a small-scale map of the entire region, and it was extremely vague in detail. It was to lead to a great many ‘adventures’!
I spent the third and fourth days entirely ‘misplaced’, following a compass bearing across the Aspromonte. I forged a route due north across the grain of the land, dropping into narrow ravines, fording rivers, climbing steep snow slopes, forever descending and climbing, never once knowing where I was. The further I walked the wilder the forest became – less a European forest and more one from a continent that had never been explored. On one hand it was exactly what I’d come for, but on the other it was too wild too soon. I wasn’t ready. I’d hoped for an easier start – this was ‘in at the deep end’.
For sure, it wasn’t the Italy I’d expected!
Steep ground and dense beech forests: typical Calabrian mountain scenery. This shot is a good example of the Italy that many visitors miss. There were no trails during the first week, and much of the forest was comprised of the ‘sottobosco’ – the infamous Apennine ‘under wood’ – an environment that covers great swathes of the Apennines. Dense, tangled and thorny, it was to come in many forms, and all of them severely limited progress. One of my aims was to travel in ‘good style’ and stick to the highest and wildest route possible. But the terrain surely tested that!
Spring finally arrived, greening the beech forests, and at 3,000 feet above sea level they were open enough to allow easier travel. There were still struggles and adventures, including several memorable run-ins with the Mafia, but there were also moments of great beauty, especially here in ‘Paradise Glade’. I named all my wild camps, and this magical site pretty much named itself.
Three weeks into the walk I reached the Sila Mountains, a rare ‘soft’ side of Calabria, high enough to still hold snow far into May. On this day I’d planned to cover many miles, but couldn’t when I came upon this spot. I’ll let this (abridged) excerpt explain:
“…on the mountain’s far side I found the perfect spot, a sheltered bowl at 6,000 feet. It had an unusually strong sense of place, as though it weren’t just another random corner of the forest but the forest’s very centre. Snow was piled around its edges, but the woodland floor in the middle was clear. One look was enough. I sensed an invitation I couldn’t ignore.
After dropping my pack I lingered in stillness. Mulchy woodland scents filled the air, sunbeams chased through the canopy, countless birds sang, and there was no sign anyone had ever been there before. I’d barely begun my day, but how could I walk on?
I wasn’t on The Walk to complete it as swiftly as possible, to set any records, test the limits of human endurance, or do something never before done. The journey wasn’t about bragging rights afterwards; it was about experience at the time. It wasn’t about rushing; it was about finding a natural rhythm, and stopping when it seemed natural to stop. And it wasn’t about collecting places; it was about finding them, and then savouring them. My goal was to seek out the continent’s special places, the places of natural wonder that few know exist, and this woodland bowl was clearly one such a place. Not for all the riches of civilisation would I have walked on.
Sitting quietly, I considered the journey, examining my slow, meandering approach. Before starting, several people had expressed surprise at how long I had said it would take. ‘I could do it in half the time,’ someone had even disparagingly observed.
Possibly I could have too, but successive twenty-five mile days weren’t the point. It would have been a poorer journey, a rushed journey: very much a wasted opportunity.”
At the start of June, after almost 400 miles of meandering progress, I reached the Pollino National Park and Calabria’s highest mountains. After a month of struggles in the steamy jungles of the sottobosco it was quite something to finally burst above the tree line and stand on mountains that deserved the mountain label. On June 2 I summited Serra Dolcedorme, at 7284 ft, 2267m the highest peak in southern Italy. It was the 4th anniversary of an accident I’d had in the Swiss Alps, a tumble down a glacier that could have killed me but instead changed the way I looked at life. The fall had prompted me to quit my job and leave behind an unfulfilling suburban existence, and standing on Serra Dolcedorme, watching the sun rise across the Apennines, I knew I’d made the right choice.
The walk wasn’t all about wild places, but also the human world. Although some of the encounters were a little too adventurous to be enjoyable (such as being woken in a remote forest by a blood-chilling scream and gunshots) most added a fascinating extra dimension to the journey. I grew to love the hilltop villages, especially because many – with their steep, twisting alleyways – could only be fully seen on foot.
This village is Malvito in Calabria beneath the Pollino mountains. There were many villages like it.
Southern Italy is sometimes called the Mezzogiorno, ‘the land of the midday sun’ – on account of the searing summer sun that blazes directly overhead. The region’s wildest corners challenged me in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and provided an entirely different kind of walk to the one I wanted, but by the time I finally left it behind I’d learnt to accept it, and treasure it, for what it was – not for what I wanted it to be. Learning to let go of expectations was a key lesson that the Mezzogiorno taught.
There was a certain poetic symmetry to starting the walk in the land of the midday sun, and aiming to finish it in Arctic Norway, the land of the midnight sun. Two very different worlds… linked by taking a few steps!
I ended up falling hard for the Mezzogiorno, even the many uncomfortable bits, but wasn’t too upset when it finally fell behind and I reached the higher mountains of the central Apennines. Pictured here is the first high range, the Monti del Matese, crossed on June 25th and 26th.
The walking up here was far easier than down in the forests, although my map woes continued. For this range I had to make do with a map of the whole of Italy – there were no other maps available! But by this stage of the journey I’d developed plenty of other tricks to assist navigation. One of them was flipping a coin at trail junctions to choose a route. It seemed an appropriately sporting way to undertake a long walk, to sometimes let fate take a hand. And it always led to somewhere worth being!
The tallest and finest mountains in the Apennine chain rise in the Abruzzo region, and this photo – sunset from Monte Lorio on July 7, 1997 – sums up the region well. The area gave some of the best walking of the summer, with good paths to follow and high summits to climb to and sleep beneath. It’s a region I long to return to.
In the Abruzzo I finally had good topo maps, although they were still far from perfect. The map of this area showed a broad, rounded ridge – not the sharp limestone arête I came upon. Progress along the ridge while wearing my excessively large backpack (named Ten Ton back on Day 1) was thrillingly adventurous!
This, the Abruzzo at its wildest, is the Italy that very few people appear to visit, and many don’t know exists, a realm of wild beech forests and airy limestone ridges. Home to wolves, deer, chamois, and even a small brown bear population, it’s located a mere two hours from Rome. Down in the city there were most likely crowds visiting Rome’s many treasures, but from where I stood – after almost 1,000 miles of walking – I’d found treasures of a far more valuable kind.
June 30, 1997 – a chamois on an Abruzzo ridge. After WWII, Apennine chamois and wolves were almost extinct, but both are now increasing in numbers and range, a true conservation success story. Brown bears, however, are truly struggling. Like many places, the Abruzzo faces excessive development, such as expanding ski resorts, not good news for wildlife. Visiting the area for the quality of its nature, for wildlife tours, and supporting local businesses that focus on sustainable tourism, can go a long way towards helping preserve the qualities that make the Abruzzo special.
“Halfway along the ridge I noticed movement ahead on the skyline. I pulled out my camera and focused on a deer-sized animal. Its coat was beautiful, reddish brown; stylish dark stripes ran from eyes to snow-white muzzle; two sharp black horns curled over its head. A chamois, wandering the ridge in peace. Unaware it was being watched, it posed perfectly for half a minute before moving higher up the ridge to stand silhouetted against the sky. Five more chamois appeared and drifted towards the first, then all disappeared from sight, hooves making no sound whatsoever. Full of gratitude, I paused to give them time and space to move away.”
Camp, high in the Abruzzo.
I’ll be honest, I was on the journey as much for the non-walking as I was for the walking. My favourite moments were those spent in camp, soaking up the wild places, pulling them in with every sense, letting time drift by unmeasured, and then walking away quietly the following morning, leaving nothing behind but my gratitude.
The village of Scanno, July 5, 1997. I took a rest day on the edge of this village, but spent so much of it wandering Scanno’s fascinating alleys that I had to take another rest day afterwards! Some places are hard to resist.
For me, one of the joys of being on a long walk is spontaneity – being free to change the route on the spur of the moment, explore places without a plan, react to circumstance, accept fate. The route I planned across Europe was merely a rough guide. The freedom to detour on a whim was one of its founding principles.
A shot that sums up much of the central Apennines – a moment of glorious solitude on a remote ridge.
In 1997, I only saw two other backpackers over the four and half months I spent walking the length of the Apennines – a couple out from Rome for the weekend. There were only limited numbers of day hikers, too. It wasn’t until mid July, 1,000 miles into the trip, that I even shared a trail with someone else on foot. Europe is often thought of as crowded, as a continent over-developed and overrun – but that wasn’t the Europe I found. I imagine that many places have changed, but I’m also fairly confident that solitude can still be found with relative ease in these mountains.
Rich evening light spilling across the Abruzzo, late June 1997. Be honest – is this how you picture Italy?
On July 20, 1997, I reached the edge of the Gran Sasso d’Italia – the apex of the Apennine chain.
“Conditions remained stormy for several days, down through the earthquake-prone Aterno Valley and the city of L’Aquila, right up to the edge of the Gran Sasso d’Italia, the Great Rock of Italy. And then, as if by some command of the mountain gods, the cloud curtains were drawn aside. It couldn’t have been stage-managed better. The Great Rock of Italy suddenly appeared, rearing overhead. It was pure theatre.
The Gran Sasso d’Italia is appropriately named; it truly is a great rock. At 9,554 feet it stands head and shoulders over its neighbors. Its closest rival, Monte Amaro, is an undistinguished lump in comparison. On Gran Sasso, rock walls soar 3,000 feet. There are buttresses, cliffs, gullies, needles, ridges, slabs, pillars, towers. There is rock: everywhere rock, acres of it, filling the sky; exposed, solid, and unyielding. The Great Rock of Italy dominates the landscape with such vertical abruptness that it looks out of place. There is nothing else like it in the Apennines.
It had to be climbed.”
Sunrise from the summit of the Apennines – Corno Grande – July 21, 1997.
“Soon—too soon perhaps—I reached the top. It was 5.45 a.m., and four minutes later the sun crested the horizon. Suddenly, the rock at my feet was on fire, luminous as the sun itself, and for a moment I wasn’t standing on a mountain—I was perched on a pinnacle of pure light. As the light strengthened, Corno Grande projected a long shadow west across lesser mountains, a deep blue triangle that soon stretched for forty, fifty, sixty miles. For a few minutes, only Corno Grande caught the light, so high was it above its neighbors, but then the new day touched other peaks one by one, painting their summits gold. It was like watching fires being lit one after another, a message of victory being relayed across the land. Look: night has been banished, evil overcome, death conquered! Spread the word, celebrate! Soon, daylight was spilling down slopes near and far, moving so swiftly I could grasp the spinning of the planet from it. Below, a mile and a half lower, the valleys remained deep in shade, night still holding sway. The darkness down there only increased the feeling of incredible, untouchable elevation up here.
I stood alone atop the highest rock in the Apennines, grinning like a fool. I think I laughed; I may have yelled, but I can’t be certain. I wasn’t paying attention. I was lost, entirely consumed by the moment. Where I ended and the world began I couldn’t have said. There was no separation.
I spent an hour and a half on top, and it passed in the blink of an eye. From up there the world looked entirely different. It was entirely different. And I could see so much more of it.
Change your perspective and you change everything.
Later, when I returned to Planet Earth and clambered back to camp, I did so with an extra spring in my step. It would be a stretch to say that the summit completely changed me, but it had a lingering effect. How could it not? We are the sum of our experiences, and I could feel the truth of it. This was the thing about the entire journey: every second of it, every step, every mile, every moment comfortable and uncomfortable, every single experience good and bad was all adding up, becoming part of who I was. Step by step, my knowledge of the world was expanding, my appreciation for it increasing, my place in it altering. I’d grown up as one thing back in the suburbs, but was becoming something else.
It was a thrilling thing to feel.”
Steep-sided mountain scenery in the Gran Sasso d’Italia National Park, July 1997.
As you might be able to imagine (!), walking through this kind of landscape day after day, unfettered by any kind of timetable, delivered a fairly high level of happiness! But I’m still not sure it matched the happiness attained by many of the upland shepherds I ran into, grizzled old folk who spent most of the summer outdoors tending small flocks of sheep. There were several memorable encounters with them, but perhaps the most memorable of all was the shepherd who put me up for the night during a downpour. He invited me into his remote hut, served an amazing stew, and plied me with beer! He was from the Balkans and lacked Italian or English, but we somehow managed to communicate anyway, using sign language and pictures. It was the kind of night that made travel worthwhile.
Shepherd and flock above the hilltop village of Castellucio, with the flat plain of the Piano Grande down below and above it the Sibillini Mountains, July 27, 1997.
I wish I’d taken head and shoulders portraits of the people I met along the way, but back then I was a shy youth with a bad stammer and was too timid to ask. This shepherd, however, at least gave me permission for this photo. He was an easy-going mountain gent, and didn’t even appear to mind when I offloaded the cloud of flies that were following me. Flies were becoming a curse, but on this occasion I transferred my tormentors to the shepherd and flock, and then dashed away downhill before the airborne monsters could catch up! But I didn’t feel too bad. It would take more than few extra flies to dent an Apennine shepherd’s zen-like calm.
Poppies and wildflowers edging the Piano Grande, beneath the Sibillini. This photo is a bit of a lie to be honest – the moment it shows looks peaceful, but in fact it was anything but! Mosquitoes midges and horseflies were mobbing me, and to take a photo without a thousand black specks ruining the view I had to sprint away then dash back and press the shutter before they caught up.
Swarms of biting horseflies were the worst of the flies, something I’d never had to deal with back in suburban London. Not knowing what they were called I asked several locals for their name, but it was a forester who provided the best answer.
“What do I call these flies?” he answered, looking at me with a grim, harassed air, as several of them homed in. “They are… BASTARDI!” he cried, which, really, said it all.
A benign evening on the summit of Monte Vettori, looking east toward the Adriatic Sea.
“I camped above the lake at 7,200 feet, and shortly before sunset climbed Monte Vettore, at 8,123 feet the fourth-highest Apennine peak. With no pack as ballast, just a camera over my shoulder and an apple in my pocket, the ascent was as effortless as an ascent could ever be. Vettore’s summit was a benign place, washed with warm light, caressed by a breeze so gentle it barely moved the air, and hung with a faint rainbow directly overhead. To the south, thirty miles distant, Corno Grande thrust its sharp summit skywards, and forty miles east the Adriatic coastline made a wide, sweeping curve. Hundreds of square miles of lower hill country were spread below, villages glinting seductively in evening sunlight; and as I studied it all, matching villages and mountains with names on the map, I realised that I was no longer in Abruzzo but on the border of Umbria and Marche. A real feeling of progress overcame me. Footsteps were such small things, but they added up. The surrounding mountains still looked huge, but the entire Apennine chain felt curiously reduced. Walking its length suddenly seemed the
easiest thing in the world.”
A zoom shot of the view from Monte Vettori’s summit, looking down at lower hill country. I included this image because it shows a typical Apennine landscape away from the highest mountains – endless forests, valleys and ridges dotted with settlements. In such places, it was easy to keep the walk wild, to camp in a beautiful forested spot, but also easy to find human interactions when wanted. The mix of wild and civilisation delivered real balance and richness to the trek.
By the end of August, 1,600 miles into the walk, I reached the final high mountains of the Apennines, the ‘Crinale’, and spent a magical week following a high ridge. This photo of evening light on Monte Giovo, seen from Monte Rondinaio, sums up the wild perfection of this stretch.
A spectacular perch along a narrow section of the Crinale, September 2, 1997.
“I spent each night camped in glorious solitude, increasingly connected to the land. The more time I spent upon it without interruption the more immersed I became. There were other people about—a smattering of tourists at passes where roads crossed the range, a shepherd astride a dirt bike watching his sheep, a few walkers on summits, a lone blueberry picker—but conversations stretched no farther than ‘Buon giorno’ and they didn’t disrupt the flow. A string of small refuges sat below the ridge, often near lakes I might otherwise have slept beside, but I avoided them. Refuges were permanent structures—intrusive to my eyes and the opposite of all I sought. By avoiding them I turned the Crinale into the wildest stretch of the summer, and it lifted me to another level of existence. And yet I knew it paled in comparison with the scale and remoteness I’d find in Norway. If I felt this liberated from ordinary life here, experienced this sense of belonging, what effect would Norway have? I couldn’t imagine, but loved knowing that I’d one day find out.”
A fairly typical wild camp beneath the Crinale. Enough to make backpacker’s drool? 🙂
The long distance views from the northern Apennines were spectacular, including this one across the flat plain of the River Po to the distant Alps – the direction I was soon to head.
“Using my compass and my small-scale map of Italy, I identified all the prominent mountains in view. South-west, back down the Apennines, was Monte Catria, 120 miles distant. South-east, across the Ligurian Sea, rising sharply into the Mediterranean sky, were the mountains of Corsica, an impressive 150 miles away. And due north were the Alps, shining white above the industrial murk of the Po Valley. The soaring Adamello group was 140 miles away, the glaciated ice kingdom of Piz Bernina 20 miles further than that, and most distant of all, etched in white against the horizon, was the Rheinwaldhorn—the source of the River Rhine—an astounding 180 miles from where I stood.
It was quite a thing, seeing so far. A panorama 300 miles wide. It delayed progress for some time.”
High spirits in the northern Apennines – an embarrassingly cheesy photo perhaps, but I hope it hints a little at the soaring emotions and sense of ‘a life fulfilled’ that a long wilderness walk can bring!
From the Apennines, I marched north across the Po Valley (a horrible four days on pavement in hot and humid conditions), but then climbed into the Alps to start a three-month, 1,000-mile meandering tour through many Alpine regions I hadn’t visited during previous trips.
This photo shows a typical Alpine landscape a few days into the range – so different from the Apennines, and so full of variety. For those who believe the Alps couldn’t possibly offer much value to a thru-hiker, just examine the landscape pictured here! This view certainly excited me: big mountains stretching ahead, and the freedom to wander and camp for weeks on end… or at least until winter hit.
A late September wild camp with the castle-like peaks of the Brenta Dolomites rising in the background. I collected a new tent for the Alpine stage of the journey, a larger and more robust tent that would hopefully cope well with the approaching winter. (I’m still using this tent, 24 years later!)
Wild camping in the Alps may not be officially sanctioned, but it’s perfectly doable in off-the-beaten-track locations, and no more harmful here than anywhere else when care is taken to leave absolutely no trace. Perhaps surprisingly to some, it isn’t hard to find wildness in the Alps.
“I felt the wildness high on Carè Alto, up on its glacier at dawn and in the rugged cirque where I slept. I felt it the day after as I trekked off trail across the grain of the land, weaving around crags, carefully crossing torrents of glacial meltwater, picking a precarious traverse over teetering boulder fields that few travellers likely ever crossed. There was wildness in the remote valley I stumbled into early that afternoon, a secret bowl surrounded by a needled skyline of rock, through which a mountain stream splashed and sang; and although my intention had been to walk many miles more, the bowl was so remote and wild I simply couldn’t pass by. For the rest of the day I wallowed in deliberate idleness in a location that bore no sign of my own species. And yet it wasn’t unoccupied. Marmots chased each other from boulder to boulder; alpine choughs reeled overhead, jet black against the deep-blue high-altitude sky; chamois crossed the valley below camp, en-route from one foraging ground to another, heading nimbly uphill through a maze of rock; and bees and other insects droned, hard at work in the warm summer air. Some people believe they know the Alps. But do they know these Alps?”
Pre-dawn from a glacier at 10,000-feet, a precarious place to be alone, but worth it for the rewards it gave. September 26, 1997.
“Carè Alto’s glacier had looked safely dry from across the valley, free from fresh snow that might hide crevasses. But now that I was upon it I discovered an ambiguous surface, neither bare ice nor old snow. Frost crystals six inches deep coated the glacier, hiding whatever lay beneath, and when I stepped onto them they shattered and splintered like fragile glass, giving way until I found solid footing. The slope directly ahead lacked any suggestive hollows, cracks, or obvious signs that crevasses might lie hidden, but glaciers often hide their secrets well. Mountaineers are always falling into crevasses. Usually it’s a sudden and unwelcome surprise.
Tense, but relishing the tension, I moved on. The frisson of adventure, of being on the edge, far removed from help should I need it, was why I was here. Detractors say there is no wilderness left in the Alps. How can there be, they ask, when the Alps have been inhabited for thousands of years, when they have been built upon, civilised, overdeveloped, overrun? It’s a valid question, but the answer becomes clear when you step alone onto glacial ice and know with every instinct you possess that you are far beyond civilisation’s reach.”
One of the characteristics I love about the Alps is the incredible variety of environments the range offers within relatively small areas. A few hours can take one from a glacial summit down through forests to a rich green valley filled with cabins and rustic charm!
Since I went on this journey, I’ve grown to love ‘bigger’ and less developed wild places (Alaska and the northern Rockies in Canada weren’t too shabby!) but the Alps remain special precisely because people live among them. People are part of nature. We belong in nature, not just visiting but living within it, and a wild landscape without people is arguably as unnatural as a human-dominated landscape without any wild. Or so I think – although I’m sure some folk seeing this will disagree!
My route through the Alps – like my route through the Apennines – did NOT follow a straight line! Straight lines are for urban planners and mathematicians, not long-
distance walkers. By the direct route, Calabria to North Cape is only 2,500 miles, not 7,000. The direct route would obviously have been faster, and possibly even saner, but it would have missed too much. Back in the Apennines I came up with an equation that perfectly explained my meandering approach: ‘The shortest distance between any two points is equivalent to a wasted opportunity.’ I’d laughed aloud when I’d thought it. Yes, give me curves, loops and detours. Give me the path of most resistance. Give me the longest route between any two points!
The landscape in this photo – the Adamello mountains and the Mandron glacier – hadn’t been on my original planned route, but a postcard I saw of this view helped me change my mind. Once there, it was a location I couldn’t rush from, and stayed for a couple of days, amazed that I could have such a place all to myself. September 29, 1997.
Classic Alpine scenery in the Stelvio National Park, with valley chalets barely visible beneath the glacier-capped Ortler (12,812 feet / 3,905 metres), October 5, 1997.
“Being post-summer, the trails were fabulously empty, and the mountains felt wilder for it. With each lonely mile a feeling grew that I was Getting Away With Something, or possibly even cheating, being here when everyone else was not. Without the unceasing bustle of summer crowds, immersion into the range came swiftly. Stripped of distractions, the unique spirit of the land—its epic scale and the richness of its contrasting environments—sunk deep. I’d walked across the Alps in high summer during other visits, and knew first-hand how busy certain famous locations could become. I understood why some wilderness connoisseurs dismissed the range. But for what I found now—out of season and away from the big resorts—I saw how this was a mistake. These Alps were different from the Alps summer visitors knew; they were lonelier, bigger, wilder. It was almost like stepping back in time, seeing the Alps as they were before the masses discovered them. Although the junk of industrial tourism still befouled mountains elsewhere, in the Adamello and Stelvio I felt far removed from such damage. Genuine wildness wasn’t hard to find. It may not have been hundreds of miles wide, but it was most assuredly there.”
On previous long walks in the Alps and Pyrenees winter had hit in mid September, burying the mountains in feet of snow. But in 1997 the summer kept on going, right through September and on into October, and it was such an unexpectedly perfect stretch that I ended up labeling it ‘The Endless Summer’. It was an unoriginal name perhaps – but it was a wonderful thing to experience!
This photo, of an early October wild camp, perhaps shows just how wonderful it was. It also shows the impact on happiness that six months of wilderness wandering can have!
In mid October conditions finally began to change, although I wasn’t about to complain! This is a dawn view from camp, looking east from the Stelvio mountains to the distant Dolomites, my next destination. I believe I forgot to eat breakfast!
Above the clouds and detached from the world, October 10, 1997.
“Dawn came with fire in the sky, but soon a monochrome grey ceiling developed, and by the time I set out the fog had risen back from the valley, smothering the view once again. The route I’d planned plunged straight down into the fog; but instead, heeding an instinct I couldn’t explain, I set out along a narrow path that curved upwards. The reward came quickly, as it often does when instinct is trusted. Within a third of a mile, and with a wolf howl of delight, I burst free into clear air, and for several hours afterwards walked in a never-never world sandwiched between two layers of cloud: the overcast above, the inversion below. I didn’t rush the miles, and paused often. For several hours I was even more detached from the rest of the world than usual—as unshackled as the mountain winds, as free as I’d been at any point during the preceding 2,000 miles.
When the time eventually came to descend, I passed the foggy barrier in seconds. Beneath it all was grey, damp, and dark, the land subdued and melancholy. The village residents were going about their business with heads down, seemingly oppressed by the low clouds overhead. From down here one wouldn’t believe that a bright, fairy-tale world existed so close above. If I hadn’t seen it myself I probably wouldn’t have believed in it either. The hidden otherworldliness of it perfectly symbolised the entire Walk.”
Another benefit from being in the Alps out of season were the ‘winter rooms’ that many refuges offered, small rooms left open for passing hikers. After so much camping they were hard to resist, and this one was impossible to walk on by. Perched above a drop, with a window making up one entire wall, I labeled it ‘The High Altitude Conservatory’.
I had some trouble with the wood stove – the room was soon filled with a dense smog – but once I’d let the smoke drift away the view wasn’t so bad!
I was asked “Why are you doing this?” several times. This picture might be a reasonable answer!
On October 17th I reached the Dolomites. It began with an extraordinarily emotional encounter with an Italian who’d just lost his brother, and became like a new brother to me… then there was scenery and moments like this.
“As the sun dipped west I remained rooted to the spot. The world spun, shadows lengthened, and the rock beneath my feet began to glow. Soon, the colours that had so entranced me the evening before returned, tinting the world gold, and this time I wasn’t just watching the display, I was part of it. On the highest rocks behind me a stone arch had been built, and hanging from it was a brass bell, and to celebrate the moment I almost reached for it—but didn’t. There was magic up here that required reverence, not bell ringing; there was something precious that a single thoughtless act could destroy. As day slipped towards night I simply stood in awe, treasuring the moment, and the throbbing silence was sound enough. It wasn’t until the final glimmer of daylight faded from the highest peak that I returned to earth and acknowledged my position: alone on an Alpine summit with night almost upon me. With reluctance, I turned downhill.”
A week into the Dolomites, I finally had company on the trail – one of my brothers and a friend joined me for 8 days. Unfortunately, their timing wasn’t ideal. The Endless Summer finally ended, and how! Temperatures fell as though someone had pulled out some kind of climate plug, draining away all warmth and plunging the mountains into midwinter cold. The temperature dropped to zero Fahrenheit, minus eighteen Celsius, freezing rivers solid overnight.
The reality of the long winter ahead finally hit, and when my companions left I hit a low point of loneliness and doubt. I faced five months alone of winter walking, (and possibly more winter when I reached Norway).
I’d survived the emotional challenges and aloneness of my previous six-month walk just fine – but continuing on into winter made this walk an entirely different game. For a time, the journey was hard to face.
I left Italy on November 11, crossing into Austria via the Pfitscherjoch.
“The two-mile climb took most of the morning. It seemed appropriate: I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Italy, and it seemed Italy didn’t want to let me go; at least not without a fight. And a fight it was; a long, hard, sweaty fight. By the time the angle eased, and I reached what I guessed was the pass, my thermal shirt was clinging wetly to my back and my hair was plastered flat beneath my hood. From the feel of it I might have just completed a marathon, and a break was long overdue, but in my sweat-soaked state pausing at the wintry pass didn’t seem like the smartest idea.
And yet it was hard not to. This was a key moment in the journey—a stage of my life was about to end. I didn’t want to rush the passage into Austria. I wanted to mark the border, celebrate walking the length of Italy, set the moment apart. What I desired was a sign from the mountain gods that I had done well, to be granted an award for all I’d achieved. But, of course, I got nothing. Literally, just a great blank nothing. The map showed a private refuge close to the pass, and there was probably some kind of marker at the exact border, but I couldn’t see either. In these conditions I could stand thirty feet from the refuge and not know it. I wasn’t even sure I was still on the trail. Nothing was going to happen. Clearly, the mountain gods didn’t care.
But then, just as I took a step to move on, it happened—exactly the way it was supposed to. From out of nowhere the gods breathed, the fog stirred, shifted, and suddenly a great rent was torn. Sharp snow peaks came into view, hung with tatters of cloud: the mighty Zillertal Alps. With astonishing speed the clouds shrank before my eyes, making way for a dazzling sun, and within five minutes the fog, falling snow and utter blankness had become a distant memory. The Pfitscherjoch sparkled, magical beyond belief. No reward could have been finer.
The clutter of buildings at the pass was now revealed, as was the border itself, fifty yards to the north. Leaving a trench in the snow I ploughed to it, rejoicing with every step. The border was marked with a four-foot stone pedestal and a large metal sign that read: ‘Confine di Stato, Staatsgrenze’ (‘State Border’). A smaller sign beside it held a paragraph of text in German and Italian, important entry information no doubt, but I gave it little thought. I was ready. Whispering a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ at the land I was leaving I stepped from the South Tyrol to the North Tyrol, from Italia to Österreich, and didn’t look back.
Within minutes, obliterating fog rolled back in.”
“The walk developed a new rhythm in Austria. It was slower and more restrained, heavily influenced by the winter-subdued land. Progress became less about what I wanted and more about what conditions would allow. As in Calabria, the natural environment dictated life. Previously, I’d learnt to bend to heat, dryness and tangled forests, but here in Austria it was cold, dampness and snow, and it wasn’t bending that was required but complete submission. The Endless Summer was now a distant memory, and life was no longer straightforward but, oddly, as time passed, a sense of ease returned. Progress was slower and harder, camping took more work, chores were more time-consuming, and attention to detail was more critical, but repetition transformed daily tasks into manageable activities, while acclimatisation robbed the cold of its sting. My body and the processes that carried it across the Alps slowly adapted to the new season, and winter, it turned out, wasn’t as uncomfortable as I’d feared.”
There were certainly compensations to being out and about on foot, having the wintry Alps all to myself!
‘Coping’ with winter in the Hohe Tauern, November 17, 1997. In fact, I was soon able to do more than cope…
“In contrast to the ever-sunny Apennines, no two days in Austria were the same. A grey overcast one day gave way to swirling snow the next, to dazzling wall-to-wall sunshine the day after that, and then to finger-numbing fog, to driving sleet and rain, to snow again, and then to penetrating frost. These ever-changing conditions may have increased the journey’s difficulties, but they also added great theatrical drama, and I wouldn’t have traded them. Predictable was for people living indoors, for people following routines little affected by nature. Unpredictable was far more exciting. What new challenge would conditions bring? What else would I have to do to adapt? Day by day I lived with the tides of the season, not shutting out the elements as I’d done back in suburban London, but surrounded by them. My wandering way of life had never felt more removed from the settled life most people lived. I was free to embrace the discomforts that most people spent their days avoiding. I was free to study what most people barely noticed. A snowstorm might be a minor inconvenience to the average citizen, but to me it became a major event around which my life was forced to revolve. Back during the Endless Summer I’d considered myself fully immersed in the land and its rhythms, but it was nothing to the immersion I experienced in the Austrian Alps.”
My weaving tracks across the Kitzbühel Alps, November 19, 1997.
“Happily for me, long stretches remained relatively free of development. I stole through forests where I felt like the first human visitor ever, wandered above tree line and felt like the last person alive, spent many days and nights in glorious unbroken solitude. Snowfields were marked with nothing but the prints of deer, chamois, and countless smaller mammals; forests rang with birdsong. From close range I watched a woodpecker fiercely drilling a pine trunk, hunting for insects without mercy—the wild drama of untamed life and death visible right there before my eyes. In a sun-filled forest clearing I came upon a magnificent roe deer stag, its antlers held high and proud. For a moment, we locked eyes and stared at one another intently, as if seeing into each other’s souls, and I was transported to another place, charged with energy from another time, overcome with emotions so ancient they predated civilisation, with ideas that predated even language. And then the stag turned and leapt away, powerful and alive beyond imagining. Yes, wildness in Austria definitely remained.”
Cloud sea beneath the Wilder Kaiser, November 23, 1997.
Morning view a few steps from camp late in November.
By early December, the Alpine snows were finally deep enough to make progress a real challenge. A blizzard turned me back from crossing the Steinernes Meer and I almost left the Alps with my tale between my legs, defeated by conditions. But I battled upwards one last time on the approach to Salzburg…
Ethereal evening above the Salzachtal, December 4, 1997.
“The highlight came as daylight faded. Stirred by the subtlest suggestion of a breeze, the fog began to shift, break apart, and soon the Salzachtal came into view far below. I stared down at its quilt-work fields and toy-sized cabins, across it at endless hills and mountains, and upwards at the craggy limestone giants rising so fearsomely above camp. Unable to believe my good fortune I grabbed my camera and rushed outside, and the evening became a clear reward for all I’d endured—for all the miles, effort, and discomforts. Even for my failed attempt at crossing the Steinernes Meer. Across the valley the highest summits glowed, while below them the entire landscape was glazed with a piercing cold ethereal light. Layers of silver-blue mist drifted above forests; frost coated every surface, pine needle and branch; virgin snow swept smoothly down the mountain from my feet. No landscape between here and Calabria had been more pristine. Elated, I ran through an entire film, and then ceased rushing, slowing myself with a single breath, pausing to let the hard-won moment sink deep, stilling myself to reconnect with both the earth and with myself. I’d endured much to be present right here right now. This was what I’d come to Austria for; this was what I’d been seeking; this was why I’d begun The Walk in the first place. This was perfection, wild nature at its best, arranged entirely as nature wanted it, and I grabbed it as tightly as I could.
Lingering long after sunset, I stood knee deep in winter, happy with the choices I’d made. Overhead, the clear sky blushed red, as though it knew it had performed well. There was no doubt about it: this was finishing the Alps in style.”
Warning: long distance wandering can lead to a serious case of extreme elation!
I’d traversed the length of the Apennines, weaved through the Alps, but journey’s end still lay over 4,000 miles away. This shot shows the joy of ‘completion’, but there was still plenty of ‘adventure’ still to come…
And more photos, too, eventually!