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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.

YOU CLIMB AND DESCEND 19,000 FEET IN A SINGLE DAY
After recovering from my fall, I was able to complete the more level northern border sections—mostly by kayak and mountain bike—in the fall of 2010. I came back to finish the steep stuff in the summer of 2011. I was planning on easing in. But I wasn’t planning on Andrea Vogel.

In 1991, Vogel became the first, and as far as I can determine, the only, other person to hike, bike, and paddle the entire Swiss border. Vogel was 35 at the time, and he did it in 82 days, with a support van and a fleet of top local athletes. I had arranged for Vogel to join me on my first day back on the border, and I trusted him to choose the route and the distance. Big mistake. Turns out that Vogel hasn’t slowed down in two decades. After 14 hours on the go, I felt like a lumbering granddad as Vogel waited for me in the pouring rain, just below the top of 9,724-foot Schessaplana. To hell with the summit, I wanted to go down, and I told him so. 

“No, no,” said Vogel, “This peak is important!” Schessaplana is the highest of his home mountains. If I wanted to climb the most significant peaks along the border—and I did—then I’d have to climb this one. And if I wanted to do it with Vogel, I’d have to do it today.

So we headed up in the deluge, which cleared into a rainbow just before we reached the cross that’s bolted to the summit of nearly every mountain in the Catholic parts of Europe. By the time we stumbled into his father’s hunting cabin 16 hours after leaving the Rhine, we’d hiked 22 miles, ascended nearly 12,000 vertical feet, and descended 7,000. 

I later calculated the distances and elevation change for my entire border route. The grand total: 688,000 vertical feet of combined up and down, or an average of nearly one round-trip on Everest, from the sea, every week. Stats like that used to intimidate me. But on this adventure, I learned to break the numbers down. The old adage is true: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

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