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February 2000

Once Upon The Alps

In the European high-country Alps you can wander through the most stunning mountains in the world. Vive la difference!

From my trail in Mercantour, a sweep of the eyes takes in the summit of Mt. Gelas, 2,500 feet overhead, then plunges 6,500 feet from the peak to the valley below. Still, as impressive as Mercantour is, its mountains pale in comparison to the Alps elsewhere. You can’t hike out of the Swiss town of Grindelwald without getting a kink in your neck from eyeing the Eiger’s summit snowslopes 10,000 feet directly overhead.

As I top out on the Col de Fenestre and the human kids chase off after young head-butting ibex (wild Alpine goats), I stare down a barren rock-covered valley into Italy and wonder why this landscape feels so different from others I’ve hiked in the Alps. Then I realize what’s missing: glaciers. The nearby Mediterranean has had its influence. More northern Alpine mountains are still being sculpted by flowing ice as wide and powerful as the Mississippi.

On the way up to Col de Fenestre, I’d noticed stone embankments by the side of the trail, and the tread had seemed much wider than it should be. But my mind was on the surrounding landscape and I ignored these observations. Now, on the way down, I’m noticing more. Dips have been built up to grade. In places the tread is actually cobbled. This “trail” seems vaguely familiar, and yet I can’t place it, so I pull out the guidebook. Sure enough, the French didn’t build this path, or at least not voluntarily. The Romans did. They laid these stones some 2,000 years ago as a supply road for conquered territory in what was then the tribal turf of the Gauls.

Suddenly I see this pass in a whole new light-as more than pretty landscape, but history, too. For me, such revelations are vital ingredients in an intoxicating Alpine potion. I feel adrift here, floating between past and present, caught in a hybrid of nature and man, not knowing where one ends and the other begins. I doubt there’s a place in the Alps where you can hike for a day without witnessing a work of man, ancient or modern. And yet somehow it all feels natural, as if this is how it always was. How it should be.

During the next few days, I’ll wander the Mercantour’s trails, occasionally stopping in a hut to experience French dining (four-course meals being the standard in popular mountain huts), but always sleeping out alone with my thoughts and the stars. I’ll then move on for three more weeks of Alpine wanderings. I’ll hear choral groups burst into song at a Dolomite hut-part of an old tradition of mountain singing found only in northern Italy and southern Austria. I’ll be snowbound in early August high on the Matterhorn; in our small hut six languages will sound. I’ll hear the haunting melodies of 10-foot-long alpenhorns in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland and yodeling that night in the valley below. In Germany, I’ll scramble chamois trails so high and dangerous that I fear for my life. All in all, I’ll witness such varied mountain landscapes that it’s nearly impossible to believe they belong to a single chain in one tiny part of a very big world.

But all this is still to come. Tonight, at the edge of a Roman road high on a French pass, I hunker into a bivouac sack. The dayhikers and hut-to-hut travelers have all moved on, leaving behind a lonely world of empty cloud-shrouded peaks. Then a sound drifts upward through the fog. At first I can barely hear it, but as darkness closes in, the music grows more distinct. It’s deeper, richer than this morning’s bells.

A sheep serenade? No, cows–a carillon for sweet Alpine dreams.

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