Once Upon The Alps

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

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The dawn is almost, but not quite, perfect. Looking east, the rising sun illuminates my trail undulating along the crest of a luscious green ridgeline. Silhouetted on the horizon just a half-day’s hike away is a row of spectacularly ragged peaks that just make me ache to be there among them.

But something’s missing. Then I hear it, drifting on the wind: a faint clanging. It crescendos until, by the time I finish breakfast, there’s a cacophony of bells punctuated by the baaing of perhaps a hundred sheep. A flock is descending from its high pasture toward a tiny building below treeline. Now things really can’t get any better. I settle back, steaming brew in hand, to soak it all in.

It’s not normal for me to be smitten by bells, livestock, or buildings in the backcountry. But this isn’t my backcountry; this is the Old Country-the Maritime Alps of southern France, to be precise. And let me be open about it: I’m head over heels in love with the entire 800-mile-long Alpine chain, from Slovenia through Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and, of course, France. Wherever I go, there I am throwing my arms into the air and twirling around with an ear-to-ear grin. I just can’t help it. Above-treeline campsites give me a bird’s-eye view of pastoral scenes complete with expansive, flowered meadows that you just want to roll around in like a kid. Peaks reach for the sky in such overpowering display that you can’t comprehend the forces that created them. This morning’s concert of chiming bells and bleating wool, for example, is part of the Alps’s charm–you just can’t get it anywhere else. It may be “unnatural” by North American trail standards, but it’s as musical to my backpacking ears as the bugle of an elk.

This dichotomy of intercontinental hiking reminds me of a saying the French used to have about the women’s movement and the seeming desire to homogenize the sexes. “Vive la difference” was their motto, which translates roughly to “celebrate the differences.” That’s the way I feel about travel. In North America, I walk to leave civilization behind. In the Alps, I embrace the culture of mountain worlds I can’t find at home.

It’s these differences I’m savoring as I break camp and follow the rolling ridge toward France’s Parc National du Mercantour. Yesterday’s hike began on cobblestone streets in the busy tourist village of St. Martin-Vesubie. Hiking is such a deep tradition here that trails lace the entire countryside, and when a village gets in the way, signs direct the walker through ancient alleyways to regain the more familiar open air. In America, I want trails to be the only visible work of man. Get me the heck out of town, and keep me away as long as possible. I don’t feel that way in the Alps. Passing through a thousand-year-old village, picking up a baguette and lashing it to my pack, and switchbacking up the other side of the valley are all in a half-day’s play. More often than not, a weathered-wood chalet spilling over with scarlet geraniums fits into the mountain landscape rather than mars it.

Since leaving St. Martin-Vesubie, though, I’ve seen remarkably few artifacts of civilization-the flock of sheep this morning, but otherwise only a solitary hiker and some cairns. As I cross the unmarked border into Mercantour, the peaks crowd closer and the ground underfoot grows bare and talused. I pause for a few minutes at the junction of four trails where at last I encounter fellow walkers. These hikers come in shapes and ages that I wouldn’t expect to see so high in the mountains. It’s obvious that many are enjoying Europe’s hills because they can spend nights in trailhead hotels or high-country huts. I move off the trail to let an old woman by; she grabs her husband’s unsteady hand as she nervously steps down a steep and rutted passage. Two young children with tiny daypacks jolt like baby goats beside their parents. I follow the energetic little ones up toward the Col de Fenestre (Window Pass) at the Italian border, where I’ll be able to see all the way to the Matterhorn.

Mercantour’s stony core reminds me more of high points along Colorado’s Rockies than it does of fertile European mountains where livestock have been grazing for a millennium or more. While Americans generally misinterpret “alp” to mean high snowcapped peak, ancient farmers had no use-or name-for such unproductive realms. For them an alp was something profitable: a high-altitude summer pasture.

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.

The Alps On Foot

All these routes have huts, but most allow bivouacking and tenting. Every hike can be shortened simply by adjusting the starting and ending points.

1. Maritime Alps, Parc National du Mercantour, France

The author’s hiking route. Be sure to catch the Vallee;e des Merveilles, where 3,500-year-old Bronze-Age engravings abound.

Length: 4 to 6 days.

Guide:Walking the Alpine Parks, by Marcia Lieberman (Mountaineers Books; 1001 SW Klickitat Way, Seattle, WA 98134, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineers.org).

2. Tour of the Oisans, Parc National des Ecrins, France

This rugged loop in France’s largest national park climbs over impossibly high passes, plunges into abysmally low valleys, and repeats the pattern day after day until you arrive where you started. In reward, you’ll witness the full glacier-clad glory of three of France’s highest mountains, and you’ll complete a hike that’s similar in distance and magnificence to the world-renowned circuit around Mont Blanc-but in a setting that’s vastly more remote and with a fraction of the crowds.

Length: 10 days.

Guide:Tour of the Oisans, by Andrew Harper (Cicerone Press, www.ciceroneguides.com).

3. Tour of the Vanoise, Parc National de la Vanoise, France

The long circuit takes in many a gentle valley with modest ridge–crossing interludes where you’ll see ibex (wild goats) or chamois (small antelope).

The short version, Tour des Glaciers de la Vanoise, sticks to the high country with intimate views of its namesake ice floes.

Length: 3 to 4 days or 10 to 12 days.

Guide:Tour of the Vanoise, by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press).

4. Alta Via della Valle d’Aosta No. 2 Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, Italy

This is the best place to see herds of the Alps’s largest wild animal, the ibex, which provide perhaps the finest wildlife spectacle on the continent. This ibex trail offers views of many of the park’s 57 glaciers and traverses valleys that have been called “as peaceful…as you can find outside a real wilderness.” This isn’t a circuit, so you’ll need transportation to return to the trailhead.

Length: 7 days.

Guide:Walking the Alpine Parks, by Marcia Lieberman (The Mountaineers Books) for piecing together dayhikes. Long Distance Walks in the Gran Paradiso, by J.W. Akitt (Cicerone Press) for the long stuff.

5. Walker’s Haute Route, Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland

From the foot of 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, to the base of 14,692-foot Matterhorn, the continent’s most beautiful and famous summit, this route serves up a daily dose of the world’s most gorgeous scenery and Alpine hamlets picturesque beyond imagination.

Length: 14 days.

Guides:Chamonix to Zermatt, the Walker’s Haute Route, by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press).

6. Tour des Combin, Western Pennine Alps, Switzerland and Italy

On this little-known circuit hike, you’ll witness “as fine an assortment of mountain profiles as you could wish to see,” according to guidebook author Kev Reynolds. Towering peaks, massive glaciers, hanging valleys, high lakes, turbulent streams, quaint villages, and rustic farm huts. On the Italian side of the border, the route is poorly marked in places and you’ll have to be careful not to get lost.

Length: 8 days.

Guide:Walking in the Alps, by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press).

7. Alpine Pass Route, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

The 200-mile, 16-pass, 60,000-foot vertical gain and loss, 15-day Alpine Pass Route nearly traverses the length of Switzerland and fully absorbs much of her most sublime terrain. Or take a seven-day abbreviation through the best of the best past the Eiger and the Jungfrau. While much of the route can be walked by anyone with two moving legs, a thru-hike of even the short course requires exceptional fitness and the willingness to cross steep, icy ground that in places has fixed handlines for steadier traveling.

Length: 7 or 15 days.

Guide:Alpine Pass Route, by Kev Reynolds (Cicerone Press).

8. The Stubai High Route, Stubai Alps, Austria

This route crosses ridges so steep you’ll wish you had goat hooves for feet; hang onto the cables during vertigo attacks. If you want to bag a few mountains during your Alpine holiday, this is the place to do it. And the lodging and dining each night are the finest in the land.

Length: 7 to 9 days.

Guide:Hut to Hut in the Stubai Alps, by Allan Hartley (Cicerone Press).

9. Seven Lakes Valley, Julian Alps, Slovenia

“A bit of western America in Europe,” is how one world traveler described the rolling plains, jewel lakes, and open pine forests in this nook of an otherwise rugged range of limestone crags. Wander through some of the wildest landscapes in the Alps and on up 9,400-foot Triglav.

Length: 3 to 30 days.

Guide:Walking in the Julian Alps, by Simon Brown (Cicerone Press).

10. Tour of the Central Brenta, Dolomites, Italy

Come to the Dolomites to witness the most spectacular mountains you’ve ever seen. Surreal shapes of towering limestone walls-often more towerlike even than a castle’s turret-stand atop exquisite Alpine meadows. But don’t come here if you aren’t willing to tolerate throngs of fellow mountain lovers busily snapping pictures. The really adventurous can try one of Italy’s famous via ferratae, or “iron ways,”-steel ladders that ascend into terrain unreachable by mountain goats. The classic and awe-inspiring Sentiero delle Bocchette provides one of the most spectacular and hair-raising “hikes” in the Alps.

Length: 4 days for the tour; more if you add a via ferrata.

Guides:Walking in the Dolomites, by Gillian Price. And, if you’re so inclined, Via Ferratae-Scrambles in the Dolomites, by H?fler/Werner (both Cicerone Press).

-J. Harlin

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