Anita Hamilton

Anita Hamilton and Stephan Kettmus had done numerous long-distance hikes when they decided to walk from Munich to Venice across the Alps. This is how Anita described the experience in July 2014.

We’re back from boot camp (a.k.a. our trip from Munich to Venice over the Alps). I’ll admit right off the bat that I’ve never done anything more difficult – and at times scary – in my life. However, I’m also really glad to have done it. The difficult side is more than balanced out by the unbelievable beauty one sees, the clean, clear air one breathes, as well as the joy one feels at having accomplished it. Quite an experience! 

We started off in Munich and hiked along the River Isar for 3 days before we got to the mountains, which was good for getting acclimatized to it all, including carrying a backpack again. I hadn’t expected to enjoy hiking out of a city, but it turned out to be a lovely experience as Munich is beautiful and they’ve maintained park space all along the river. Still, it was nice to be out in the country and heading gradually towards the mountains.

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It didn’t take long for the hiking to take a more strenuous turn as we started climbing but, my goodness, it was all breathtakingly beautiful. The red and white marking in the next photo is the waymarker for the route. These markers were nice to have, but were not always there. Whoever placed them seemed to love putting them in places where one was clearly on the route, yet seemed to forget to place some when there were alternative ways one could go. Maps and a GPS were a “must have” here.

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Hard to believe one is still on the proper route in the next shot, but there’s the marker, as we head up yet another mountain.

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Of course, when you go up, you have to come back down again – and the slow way is preferable. 🙂

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In the above photo you can see some snow. We had expected snow as we knew we’d be up high; however, what we had not expected was that this past winter the Alps saw more snow than in all the time they’ve been keeping records. This meant that we often had to either change our route or come down the mountain, take a bus around and go up again to the next hut, thus bypassing the impassable snow. Neither way was appealing. With the former, it meant that we did routes that had far, far higher degrees of difficulty than the “official” routes, as these were for more experienced mountaineers, were far less travelled, often not marked and were not cleared as well. As for the latter, having to go down and then back up again is a real drag.

When you hike in the mountains like this, you stay in mountain huts, which can vary in size and quality. Mostly we slept in dorm-like rooms, with up to 30 beds/bunks side by side. We brought sleeping-bag liners (a “must have” in these huts). Pillows and blankets are provided. There were times when we were able to have our own room or be four in the room, but  mostly we were in the dorm, with any number who happened to have stopped there. People do day hikes or hike for a long weekend quite often up there, so the huts are well used. How comfortable we were, and how well we ate and drank, depended somewhat on how high up the hut was and how much access there was to provisions (including water) up there. Mostly it was surprisingly good. And evenings were enjoyable, spent chatting with fellow hikers about how their day had been and what the plans were for the next day.

Here is another one of the detour routes. Generally we made our way from one hut to the next. These could be closer or farther apart, plus the degree of difficulty played a role in how long it took to get there. Our longest days were the ones on which we had to take detour routes (due to snow) to get between huts. Our longest day took 12 hours, whereas a “normal” day (on the prescribed route) would take 5 to 7 hours and be along routes that were not nearly as exciting – for lack of a better word. (Of course, this is comparable to camping in heavy rain with the tent getting washed away, etc. It’s the great story. No one talks about all the pleasant, sunny camping days when nothing untoward happened.)

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Beautiful as the scenery was, one could only look at it when one came to a full stop. I’ve never hiked with such intensity before. Mostly, there was no walking and looking at the same time. I had to focus on each step – where I put my foot, how I put my foot, where and how I placed my trekking poles. Often in the evenings as we sat around in the huts, mention would be made of someone slipping off the trail and having to be rescued, or someone who was killed – and all within the previous week, not at some point way back. Mountains are unforgiving. An “oops” can have pretty dramatic consequences. We were very aware of that and certainly weren’t looking for any “consequences.” At the same time, this kind of focus is something special on its own. You are totally there in the moment. Every fibre in you is awake and aware. That’s unforgettable.

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We didn’t try to bypass all of the snow. In any place where people had gotten through and there was a path, we went as well. Below you can see some of the snowfields we crossed, as well as a couple of hikers we got to know along the way, who were doing the same trip as we were.

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Avalanches are a common occurence during the winter. Rocks topple down and trees get damaged, or broken off completely. It’s amazing that they grew there in the first place.

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There were so many places that had the typical beauty one associates with the film The Sound of Music. I kept half-expecting Julie Andrews to show up in a dirndl dress and start singing. There are little huts all over the place and animals abound, mostly cows – all with bells around their necks, clinking and clanking away. The bells are of different sizes, so that there is an infinity of tones ringing out. Added to that was a huge abundance of wildflowers – one more beautiful than the next. Both the quantity and the loveliness of them took me by surprise. Here are some “friends” we made along the way, as well as some typical shepherding huts. So many of these scenes and sounds are burnt into my memory.

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And here is what our “huts” looked like. This was the last one we stayed in before we came down the mountain.

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The last trip down the mountain was, again, due to snow. The route we had planned had not yet been passed and we were not about to be the first ones. What we did not know when we headed back down was that the route we were taking was partly destroyed by an avalanche in 2009 and still not fully repaired. Also, that a section of it was not a path, but a steel cable along a cliff with a 25-metre drop to the little path below. And it wasn’t just a matter of stepping along rocks that jutted out: parts were undercut so you couldn’t see where to put your foot, and other parts (where the rock was smoother) had only little iron spikes drilled into the wall for a foothold, also barely to be seen. I would say that this was the scariest moment of my life. I came very close to not doing it; however, the way to that point had been pretty unpleasant, and Stephan was already partway down and he encouraged me to think that I could manage it. And I did. But I sure had the shakes for a minute or two – then it was time to move on.

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Soon after this point, the path disappeared on us altogether and we had to make our way down this very steep mountain by doing a lot of sliding and falling. The mountainside was covered in a deep layer of dead leaves. They were slippery and we had no idea what was underneath them that might start us sliding (such as rolling on a rock or stick). Often we made the choice to slide when we knew we could stop ourselves at a tree. It would have been bad enough to slide or topple uncontrolled down the mountain, but our biggest fear was that we might end up at another cliff’s edge. Then we came to this river. My heart just about stopped again, but it was actually easier to cross than it looked, thanks to the steel cable.

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Once we were down at the bottom, I was ready to kiss the ground. There were some kilometres of hiking along level ground, and then along real roads, and we got to a point where we could take the bus to Belluno. The following morning we were set to hike up the very last mountain (just a little one), but after 1½ hours of hiking upwards in pouring rain (we’d been lucky with the weather up to that point), we both realized that we suddenly weren’t having fun anymore. To go all the way up there just to have done it, and then another four days of not pleasant and boring hiking (by all reports) to get to Venice was just not appealing. And to do five days of hard walking just to say we walked all the way to Venice was too high a price to pay. So … we hiked back down and took the train to Venice.

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And had a second, totally different holiday of 10 days in Venice. We rented a little apartment in an out-of-the-way place where Venetians themselves live and spent the time seeing all there was to see, including many of the islands. It was lovely really getting to know the city (for me – Stephan had lived in Venice for a while years ago). We can even tell you where, when and how the garbage collection takes place and how the recycling works. 🙂

Obviously there are easier ways to get to Venice, but certainly none as exciting, nor satisfying. With huge thanks to Stephan for being there for me and without whom none of this would have been possible

Photo credit: Stephan Kettmus