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Backpacker Magazine – March 2012

Hiking Switzerland: Around the Alps in 80 Days

Well, maybe 105. But who's counting? Contributing editor John Harlin defies conventional wisdom with a 1,400-mile circumnavigation of this mountainous kingdom.

by: John Harlin, Photos by Patitucciphoto

The author climbing Monte Rosa Glacier (John Bird)
The author climbing Monte Rosa Glacier (John Bird)
The author at Hermance, Lake Geneva (Jay Sherrerd)
The author at Hermance, Lake Geneva (Jay Sherrerd)
Ofenhorn (John Harlin)
Ofenhorn (John Harlin)

Online Exclusive
View an interactive map of John's route and read his daily trip reports at backpacker.com/switz12.

The age of real adventure is over. All of the exploring has been done, all of the discoveries made. What a load of baloney. Sure, these days it’s harder—though not impossible—to get yourself eaten by cannibals or kidnapped by pirates. But that’s not my thing. I’m drawn to traveling wild places under my own power, which I’ve done from Tibet to Peru. So where have I had the biggest epic of my life? Easy: Switzerland. Never mind that a century and a half ago, intrepid Brits used Swiss peaks to launch the golden age of mountaineering. Trekking? The Alps are ground zero. You’d be forgiven for thinking Switzerland is the last place to go looking for new adventure. But you’d be wrong. 

I found the real thing—and then some—on a hike-climb-paddle-bike journey around the Swiss border. The idea of circumnavigating Switzerland has been with me so long that the goal seems simultaneously vague and vividly clear, like my memories of living in a Swiss mountain village almost five decades ago, when I was 10 years old. The journey stared at me every time I opened a map of Europe: the perfect loop trip. Mountain travel? Tracing the exact border on a topo map revealed a staggering 600,000 feet of vertical ascent. Discovery? The complete border covers 1,400 miles along the edges of five countries, most of it far from anything described in a guidebook.

So what does it mean to have a real adventure? I take my cue from a well-known Supreme Court case: I’ll know it when I do it.

YOU KNOW YOU'RE ON A REAL ADVENTURE WHEN:

YOU ABANDON "PLAN A" ON DAY 1
When I launched onto the Swiss-French border at St. Gingolph, my plan was to stay within a stone’s throw of the border from beginning to end—100 days, or whatever it took. To cheat a bit, I thought about bringing a slingshot so the stone would fly farther. I would recruit climbing partners periodically, but today I was alone on a steep ridge, well above timberline (left foot in Switzerland, right foot in France). A cloud obscured the peak in front of me. The route wasn’t clear—there was no trail—but it was my very first day and I had no doubts about my strategy: follow the exact border and the rest would sort itself out. Then the clouds parted and my heart sank: My ridge dead-ended at a 400-foot cliff. I scoured the wall, hoping to find a climbable weakness. Instead, I was forced into a multi-mile detour. At first, I tried to skirt the bottom of the cliff, but soon even this became steep and dangerous, forcing me ever lower and farther from the border. This wasn’t my plan. At the time, I felt devastated. In hindsight, I laugh at my naïveté. 

Before that day, the “exactness” of the border seemed to have real meaning. But I soon learned that my left foot in Switzerland felt just like my right foot in France; Swiss rocks look like Italian rocks; Swiss trees are the same as German trees. What changes across the border are the people, their history, their culture, the roofs on their chalets, the number and type of languages they speak, their views on whose money should be used to bail out Greece and how angry to be about it. I realized that Switzerland’s geographical boundaries—lines determined long ago by politicians or warriors—gave me an outline for a route, but not the route itself. 




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