In the summer of 1982 I took my first flight to Greece. I was sitting in a starboard window seat reading a new travel guide, the first edition of the first Rough Guide by Mark Ellingham, when the clouds below cleared.
We were high over a confusion of jagged sharp crystals. The Alps were scattered below us and far into the distant haze. Today, in spite of overdosing on Google Earth, I still press my nose against the plastic porthole and try to decipher the peaks, ridges and lakes whenever the map of the Alps unfolds below.
15 years before that flight my father had been too busy in the shop to take us children away in the summer and instead he took us away at Easter. The night before we travelled, the excitement reached fever pitch as our mother replaced our eiderdowns with blankets and sat beneath the cone of light from the Anglepoise to fold over and sew up the bottom and side of our eiderdowns to make sleeping bags which were then stuffed into a sailors’ canvas kit bag thrown down from the attic.
We did not sleep much that night, it was a cold early Easter before double glazing and central heating and we were too excited. In the morning we ran up the steps into the rear door of the Dakota and climbed the surprisingly steep slope to our seats for the short flight to Blackpool. We squeezed family and possessions into a hired Bedford dormobile (camper van) and rattled south.
Our hired dormobiles were always rattling. The interiors were as big as cabin of a Folkboat but with a push up roof. Unlike a yacht there was nothing in a dormobile that was well made and nothing that was secure. Bits fell off, doors flew open, cutlery and crockery clattered and broke, handles snapped, pop-up roofs didn’t and taps always dripped. On reflection I wonder if they were fitted out by Ikea.
In no time we were in London and in no time we were lost. To this day I am proud of my father’s initiative. He hailed a black cab and asked the driver to take us out of town and onto the road to Dover. This was the stuff, still on our first day of the holiday and in a real life car chase through central London. He led us through a maze of streets but we stayed on his tail. The cabbie received a pack of 200 ciggies, brought for such an occassion from the shop, as his tip and appeared to be as pleased as we were when we made the ferry with a few minutes to spare. My next memory is being woken by a Belgian customs man’s torch as he counted the sleeping children in the back of the van.
My father drove the family of two fighting children and one well-behaved older sister to Italy through the Alps. I have a postcard sent home from Grindelwald “….no casualties on either side so far…..”.
But no view of the Alps from the ground, even the high ground looking down the Aletsch Glacier brought home how vast the Alps are. For an Islander brought up with British hills and Munros it was only the view from the plane’s window years later of countless pointy, snowy, icy and rocky peaks that seemed to go on forever that brought home the steepness and complexity of the Alps.
10 years ago I had cycled home over the Alps from Milan and had always promised myself that one day I would walk across too. Ahead of the walk A. and I joined the German Alpine Club DAV to qualify for a discount in the huts and we bought half a dozen maps that covered the Alps along the E5 long distance trail from Germany across Austria and into Italy
A website tells me there are over 3,000 “huts” in the Alps and that may be true. Some of these huts have capacity for up to 300 and most are a mix of rustic hotel and hostel.
The bunks are often in two tiers and packed as close as the berths on a slave ship but if you are used to camping or hostelling then you will have no problem sleeping and you can walk through much of the Alps without a heavy pack.
Most huts serve simple but very good food, wine and beer. My note from the Kemptner Hut says “scoffed pasta and big cake for tea”. The views are as breathtaking as the climbs and the company of climbers and walkers of all ages and many nationalities was always refreshing.
We started early in July in South Germany at Oberstdorf and headed up and out of Germany, over the Austrian Alps, crossing the Allgäuer, Lechtaler und Ötztaler Alps and finally down through the Tyrol into Italy.
We were early enough to avoid the busiest time, the route follows part of the E5 long distance trail and is a popular route in summer for German hikers. Most hikers who have just 2 week holidays stop at Merano for the train back to Germany but we had such perfect weather that we made good time and we cracked on through glorious rolling hills all the way down into Bolzano.
My notes on the back of hostel napkins and beer mats record some of the strongest impressions. The 6,000 foot descent on the 3rd day down the vast valley to Zams, the steep icy snow field below the Pitztaler Jöchl at 10,000 ft and crossing the Timmelsjoch from Austria into Italy with an unforgetable run down from the pass. It always feels great to arrive in Italy by whatever means of transport.
Instead of sewn up eiderdowns we took silk sleeping bag liners as light as silk scarves together with the smallest box of watercolours, the 1 pixel camera and a change of clothes.
The heaviest baggage we carried, at least at the start of the day were our water bottles. The heat, we had 35° the first day, and the steepness of the ascents in the first week were shattering until I learned to slow down a little and find my pace.
The mileage is meaningless, all the signs are simply in hours and these times are always spot on, but you could only keep to them if you didn’t stop even for 5 minutes.
We took maps and not GPS, anything to avoid the unnecessary intrusion of technology with its cables and chargers. I found another note that may have been scribbled down at Messner Mountain Museum near Bolzano. It is a quote from the Colombian writer Nicolás Gómez Dávila:
“Technology does not fulfil the old dreams of man, it imitates them” .
The trails with their paint splashes are mostly easy enough to follow in fine weather and it is always good to leave the journey open to discovery and surprise.
After 2 weeks in the mountains Bolzano was the perfect cultural immersion. The cafe’s were packed with trendies drinking what I thought was Scotland’s other national drink, Irn-bru. It turned out that it was something called Aperol mixed with fizzy white wine and probably it had never seen a girder. I can’t see that nonsense ever catching on!
We arrived early enough to squeeze in a couple of days crossing the Schlern plateau above Bolzano. For the first time we had a room in a hut to ourselves. I pushed open the heavy old wooden shutters and the late afternoon air was still hot. The only sounds were the feeble calls of boisterous Alpine Choughs, (poor vocalists when compared to our own red billed fellows). That evening the last of the sun washed the spiky Dolomites in warm oranges and reds.
There are few greater pleasures than to be tired after a long day in the mountains, to share an ice-cold beer with someone who travels at the same pace and in generally the same direction, to spread out the next day’s map on the picnic table outside the hut, to peg the corners down with the beer glasses, to look up together to try to identify the peaks, to image the view of somewhere new from the ridge and to ask…..