An intrepid couple digs deep to face their most gonzo escapade ever—hiking the backbone of the Alps across eight countries. Join them as they face the daunting Via Alpina—and their greatest fears—in this empowering, original, and wildly subversive tale.
• 2010 Book of the Year Bronze Award (travel essays), ForeWord Reviews
After decades of hiking some of the world’s great trails, adventurer and author Brandon Wilson was excited to hear about the Via Alpina, new paths running through eight countries along the backbone of the Alps. Besides promising total immersion into Alpine life and wilderness, he knew it’d be the ultimate adventure. It meant climbing nearly 1000 meters from valley to rugged mountain hut every day—almost 1900 kilometers—for months. It’d also provide perfect fodder for Wilson’s fourth exciting travel adventure book, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.
Originally, Wilson envisioned it as a European Appalachian Trail, only with better food and wine. Faster than you can say “schnitzel,” he coaxed his desk-jockey wife into leaving their cozy Hawaiian home to join him.
Brandon & his wife Cheryl left Trieste in June 2009 to begin their 111-day thru-hike across Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and France, planning to arrive in Monte Carlo in September before snow covered the trail.
Unlike their historic 1992 trek across Tibet, they wouldn’t dodge bullets. But given the climbs, they’d sure miss Sadhu, their Tibetan equine Sherpa.
It was an expedition of highs and lows. The couple trekked over mountain terrains in extreme conditions, from freezing temperatures high atop Alpine passes to dreaded Föhn winds, hail, ice fields, snow, and more than 40 days of rain—and this was summer weather. As always, there were injuries plus the daily mental challenge of completing 20 kilometers, a virtual marathon, knowing it meant climbing yet another formidable mountain again tomorrow. For the record, they ascended and descended 211,000 meters total—the equivalent of climbing 12 Mt. Everests from sea level in just 3 1/2 months. Then again, who knew lethal ticks and cow patties could prove even more dangerous?
However, it was far from all pain and peril as they hiked in the shadows of Mt. Blanc, the Eiger, Mt. Triglav and the Dolomite Range. Little could compare with the rarefied beauty, serenity, wildlife, legends, delicious cuisine and eccentric folks they’d find along the way. And what a unique and ecological way to witness Alpine culture–one-step-at-a-time.
Asked why they set-off on this quest, Wilson explained, “The Alps are so much more than gnomes and cheese. For folks seeking peace in these difficult times, I can think of no better solution than to simplify, disconnect from the distractions of the world and head off the beaten track. Sure, it was one heckuva challenge, our toughest ever. But ultimately, I hope this tale of our journey will help open this unique trail to others. Plus,” he added, “there’s no better, more exciting, weight loss plan!”
Wilson’s keen eye and dry wit captures it all in Over the Top & Back Again, as they witness the Alp’s changing lifestyle and fragile landscape. As with the other three books in this exciting adventure series, each night Wilson chronicled their wild adventures while muscles were still sore and clothes were still wet. It’s all here, the triumphs and “agony of de feet,” captured in his witty, gritty, award-winning style.
Join this intrepid pair, among the first to tackle this route, as they confront their most difficult escapade ever. Inspiring, empowering, humorous, (yet slightly crazy), Over the Top & Back Again sweeps you along for an unforgettable look at the peerless Alps—and at an everyday couple who once again dare to follow their wildest dream.
Over the Top & Back Again is the first Via Alpina travel narrative book published in English, with 53 photos by the author, maps, and custom illustrations by Ken Plumb. It provides a humorous first-hand preview for those who dream of making a similar journey themselves—on foot or maybe just in their mind.
STRANGE THINGS FLY THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOU’RE DANGLING by a thin blue rope in the pelting rain, hanging on in a white-knuckled grip as a freezing wind pushes you back and forth like a pendulum over a 1000-meter chasm.
Take my word for it. Unlike a Hollywood movie, my life didn’t flash before me. Oddly enough, only one thing came to mind: Ötzi. Who? Ötzi the Iceman, the Alpine hunter who disappeared high in the Alps some 5300 years ago. Only recently did some hapless hikers discover his mummified body, freeze-dried with a grimace on his face.
Though it’s nice to be ageless, I sure didn’t want to end up like him.
Did he know that fateful day of marmot hunting would be his last? Of course not.
Likewise, we had no clear-cut idea what we were getting ourselves into. We took a leap of faith. It’s like a leap into the abyss; only with one the outcome’s more certain. And just like the thin blue rope that now kept us connected to life, an equally fine line separates “adventure” from sheer madness.
This time, something told me we’d stepped over the line.
Let me explain.
As with past adventures, once again, it all started innocently enough. My ever-trusting wife, Cheryl, and I had heard about new hiking paths named the Via Alpina, which cross eight countries and cover 200,000 square kilometers. Its five trails run some 5000 kilometers or 3100 miles across the backbone of the Alps connecting existing long distance trails, many dating back to the days of the Romans and early traders.
I hoped some improvements had been made since then.
Five variations on the route come in a variety of colors: red, green, blue, purple and yellow. The longest, the red route, consists of 161 stages and runs from Trieste, Italy on the Adriatic Sea through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and France to finish in Monaco on the Mediterranean Sea. Although geographically separated by mountains, these trails occasionally intersect, allowing a hiker to hop from one to the other to explore whatever Alpine areas they like.
Exciting, right? But trekking it was not a challenge to take lightly.
Even so, it was especially appealing, masochist that I am, since it was still fairly unknown to hard-core North American thru-hikers who’re busy trekking the popular Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine or the Pacific Crest Trail from British Columbia to Mexico. It’s one of the newer faces in the trekking world. It was just 2002 when partners from Alpine countries founded the Via Alpina to promote sustainable green development.
This Via Alpina is different, I kept telling myself, a road truly less traveled. If we accept the challenge to hike its length, we won’t be the first, but we could be among the first handful to complete it.
And, Ötzi aside, who knows what we’ll discover up there?
Okay, I’ll admit I’ve long been fascinated by the Alps. Each snowcapped mountain has a tale to tell and personality all its own. The region still holds an inexplicable magic that’s been lost or forgotten in our lives today.
It’s a place of legends, of monsters, both real and imagined. It’s a traditional abode to kings in castles, to dark forests with gnomes.
The range is also home to wild creatures like the steinbok, golden eagle and mouflon, hundreds of plants like the edelweiss and alpenrose, and marmots, the Alpine version of North American groundhogs.
It’s an area full of history and culture, as each passing civilization left their mark over millennia. It’s also the bastion of a fiercely independent lifestyle that’s as threatened as the melting glaciers on its highest peaks.
Finally, and how could I forget, it’s home to blonde, pigtailed, rosy-cheeked Heidi, my first boyhood crush. For a young kid in those days before Lara Croft, she was as sexy as it got.
I just knew there had to be something special in the alpine cheese.
However, the region’s more than stereotypes, more than cheese and gnomes. We wanted to discover the real Alps, to share it with others who’ve never ventured far off the beaten path, or who view Europe with a jaundiced “been there, done that” eye. Wild paths lead you far beyond the staid museums and cathedrals, bridges and bars found on the city-a-day tour circuit.
Then again, exploring the Alps is much more than simply “bagging peaks.” It’s the unique people, culture and unforgettable day-to-day experiences along the way.
And most likely, it also means confronting your own personal fears and limitations on a daily basis.
Kyle Wagner, travel editor, The Denver Post (Colorado, USA)
“This is my favorite kind of adventure tale: Against all odds, in the face of health, weather, interpersonal, navigational and culinary issues, Brandon Wilson and his somewhat reluctant wife hike it because it’s there – or, it’s supposed to be. I laughed, I winced, and then I started checking to see when I was next scheduled to be anywhere near the Via Alpina.”
Richard R. Blake, Midwest Book Review
“Informative, entertaining, and original. Award-winning author Brandon Wilson is a pioneer in a groundbreaking genre of travel writing.”
This lighthearted hiking narrative reflects the positives of such an experience: overcoming hardship, laughing at their inability to find trail blazes, Europe's apparent fear of switchbacks on trails ascending 1000-plus meters per col, and the bond and struggle with your trail partner. Another celebration of simply putting one foot in front of the other with everything you need on your back and faith in the trail ahead.… Recommended for armchair travelers and anyone interested in hiking the Alps."