The Grande Traversée des Alpes
The Grande Traversée des Alpes

I started telling people about my plans to walk four hundred-plus miles alone through the Alps—from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean—the way you tell people you’re going to drop out of school to join the circus or that you know it sounds crazy, but you might have been abducted by aliens last night: braced for skepticism, nervously confident, library-quiet.

I would be walking the GR5, I said, also known as The Grande Traversée des Alpes—a relatively popular walking trail (among Europeans) in southeast France that can be hiked refuge to refuge in about a month. It would involve more than 130,000 feet of climbing, a number which meant absolutely nothing to me. Dreaming of adventure, I had discovered the GR5 while doing a google search for long, spectacular, mountain walks. It’s considered by many in France to be an absolutely classic route, one that takes the hiker through the Savoie region, briefly into Switzerland around Mont Blanc, across the Vanoise and Queyras national parks, and over the sunbaked hills of the southern Alps.

I tested the idea on close family and friends first, not a hiker among them. Pretty much everyone had the same basic questions: 1. What? (as in, “Wait, what?”) 2. Why? 3. How?

Fair questions, I said. After all, I had never shown the slightest inclination toward anything even remotely outdoorsy, let alone in or near mountains. In fact, I’d spent the previous decade ensconcing myself in larger and larger cities, not really understanding what people meant when they said they missed green spaces and fresh air. Plus, I was born and raised in Kansas, where mountains are held in the same real-but-not-quite-real status as, say, the giant squid.

Still, I was determined to convince people, especially myself, that this was not only a good idea, but an important, even necessary one. That I really had no choice but to walk through the mountains. So, patiently and with as much forthrightness as I could muster for a subject I knew nothing about, I answered.

To question number one, I showed people a map of the GR5, a walking route that plunges headlong into all manner of high mountains just south of Geneva and doesn’t come out again until it unrolls itself into the sea near Nice. I also had pictures (courtesy of a careful google search) of happy, healthy people making easy work of gorgeous rolling hills covered in wildflowers. Tall, ice-covered peaks lined the horizon in the distance. Jaws usually dropped when I showed the pictures. “Okay,” they said. “We can sort of see why someone would want to do that.” (The implication, of course, being “someone, but not you.”)

To question number two, I leaned hard on vague platitudes like “because I can” or “why not?” or “it’s now or never” or “for the adventure.” The truth is that I didn’t know why I wanted to walk through the mountains so badly, only that, from the moment I saw a picture of the route, it was all I could think about. “The mountains are calling and I’m coming,” I might have actually said to someone in a moment of a regrettable corniness. I figured the reason would reveal itself at some point along the way. Mostly though, again, I showed people the pictures.

The last question—how?—was the hardest. To say that I am out of my element in the great outdoors is a bit like pointing out that a polar bear is out of its element in the Sahara, only the polar bear is out of shape and The Sahara is a Mediterranean restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about what such a hike would entail and I worried, probably correctly, that if I looked too far into it, I would only end up talking myself out of it. I did not read the message boards. I did not scour the internet for tips. I went out of my way to avoid practical information. (I did check a John Muir book out of the library, though—for inspiration.)

Learning on the Fly

At my local outfitter, I cagily sought advice from a handful of robust, knowledgeable people on everything from backpacks, to boots, to socks, to sleeping bags, to sleeping pads (didn’t know there was such a thing), to tents, to—I swear—how to walk, all while being careful not to reveal exactly what it was I would be doing. Since I’m agonizingly intimidated by, and in profound awe of, real hikers—people for whom what I did (and what I keep going on about) would be a literal walk in the park—I kept my cards very close to my chest. Once, I let it slip that I was planning to hike a few weeks through the Alps. The man helping me stopped his demonstration of a camping stove mid-sentence, tucked his chin into his chest, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Son, are you sure about this?” To which I could only answer, “No.” “Well, he said, “I guess you’ll figure it out on the fly. Or you won’t.”

I was fine with that—with learning on the fly. Experience is the best teacher anyway, I told myself and increasingly-concerned family members. Then on a damp August morning a few weeks later, I donned my very-unconvincing (and rather expensive) hiker’s costume and started walking south out of a small French village at the foot of the Alps. The ground tilted ever so gently to the sky and within an hour, my legs were on fire and I was sucking oxygen into my lungs as fast as I could. This would be the first of many lessons—a lesson in pain that would last, in one part of my body or another, until I reached the sea over a month later.

The second lesson was a lesson in beauty and it hit like a ton of bricks that first night when I stumbled on aching feet to a refuge just on the other side of the Swiss border. The humble building was set on the edge of a small lake turned a brilliant green by the setting sun and surrounding hills. It was without question the most stunning place I’d ever seen, a shimmering emerald world in the middle of nowhere. I could hardly believe a place like that existed, and that I had somehow found it. Daily from then on, I would crest a hill, or turn a corner, or emerge from the woods to views almost too gorgeous to describe: Mont Blanc at night, sleepy valleys waking up at dawn, the orange roofs of Nice and the sea from only a couple days away. Like a child, I strolled wide-eyed through landscapes so breathtaking they managed to take the pain away— or at least distract from it temporarily.

There is the solitude, too, which amplifies the voice inside your head until it’s like walking with another person and you’re no longer alone; and the wonder of real companionship when you’ve had enough of yourself. A friend from New York joined me for a week in the middle, and it’s those few days I think of first when I think of the Alps. Along the way, I met too many kind, humble, intelligent, welcoming hikers to count. They were quick to share information, to talk to me about the mountains, or walk with me in silence for hours. Where I felt like an imposter, an intruder, they found my lack of experience amusing and wasted no time welcoming me into their world, which is now, in a very small way, my world as well.

Now, the most common question I get is, would I do it again. The simple answer is, of course, yes. But truth is, I can’t. I mean, I could. I could start at the exact spot and walk the exact paths and finish on the exact beach in Nice. But it wouldn’t be the same. Sure, I’d still be an utter novice, falling all over myself to get up and down the mountains, but not the anxious, excited, ever-astonished, naive, novice dead set on jumping in the deep end and learning, painfully and wonderfully, on the fly.

Jonathan Arlan, author of Mountain Lines
Jonathan Arlan, author of Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps

About Jonathan Arlan

Jonathan Arlan is an editor and travel writer based in Kansas City. In addition to fumbling his way through the Alps, he has spent long periods of in other countries including stints in Egypt, Japan, and Serbia. His first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps was selected by the New York Times as a recommended summer travel book. He can be found online at www.jonathanarlan.com.)

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