I love mountains and hiking. I feel cradled by the mountains and love the inner and outer journey that pushing onward to the summit of a mountain (and making it back down again safely) reveals. It’s about so much more than just physical abilities; there’s an exploration of stamina and courage, and sharing the joy of camaraderie with others who are on the same journey.
For me, that’s what Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps illustrates beautifully. And what a journey it is.
This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Over the Top & Back Again is about (and written by) Brandon Wilson and his wife Cheryl; an experienced couple of hikers who take on the Via Alpina – a 1200 mile (1900 km) path across eight European countries, through (and more often than not over the tops of) the mighty Alps.
It’s a tough trek that takes five months, and they’re constantly and consistently tested with bouts of bad luck including relentless rain, injuries, poorly marked trails, and other unfortunate circumstances.
But amid adversity, Brandon and Cheryl find silver linings, which shine throughout the book. For example, after being followed (or rather, led) by a stray dog for a while, Wilson comments:
..the pure joy reflected in his eyes reminded me why I take to the trail. It’s the fresh air, the heart pounding, air-gasping pace; it’s the lure of something new around each bend and the freedom to explore. It’s the sweat and strain to accomplish something measurable each day. It’s the memorable views from a mountaintop. It’s reducing life to its primal essentials and finding satisfaction in the smallest things: a hot shower, a warm meal, a soft pillow, or word of encouragement. It’s the new people you meet every day and experiences shared. It’s the personal peace you find when you reconnect with nature and the Universe. (page 215)
Despite this mention of a hot shower and warm meal, hot showers and warm meals aren’t always forthcoming, and the reader hears about it. Over and over again. My beef with the book in general is that it is somewhat monotonous in nature…wake up, shiver, hit the trails, get lost, get wet in the rain, shiver more, and eventually arrive at sub-standard accommodations which leave something to be desired. And in each day’s journey, at least one – if not two or three – mountains are summitted in the process.
I voice this disappointment because I was soooo excited to read this book. I love mountains, I love hiking, I love living vicariously through good travel writers, and I love funny writing – which often indulges in a little hardship. But the daily doldrums and repetition of recounting mountain after mountain eventually became a slog – much like the trek itself. I found this surprising, and it makes me wonder how well I’d fare an actual trek of this nature if I had trouble getting through a book about it (despite the injection of humour throughout).
However, despite the repetition, I found pearls of wisdom in the realms of both travel and mountaineering that were absolutely beautiful, and made me understand why Wilson is an award-winning author. In fact, Over the Top & Back Again was named finalist for the 2010 Book of the Year award (travel essay category) by ForeWord.
Here are a few quotes that illustrate why:
More than anything, long thru-treks are much more than climbing another mountain. They’re an exercise in concentration, focus, and a chance to re-affirm your own worth and sense of self. They’re empowering. Each day is a challenge. Some days, every step is one. As in life, it’s important to celebrate the triumphs of the little steps – and not to hold ourselves back waiting for the big victories. (page 74)
While crossing the first particularly steep ice-field, I heard [Cheryl] cry out, “I’m really scared.” It was the first time in all our adventures, including climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and trekking across Tibet, I’d heard those words from her mouth. But no matter what others might have you believe, trekking is a solitary challenge. We each face our own demons. (page 28)
Mountains know no nationality. They’re simply mountains; they salute no flag, march to no anthem, answer to no president or potentate. And they’ll remain long after all of us and our so-called “countries” disappear. (page 160)
What I felt the book brilliantly does for the avid mountaineer and traveler in me, is to marry both topics and show the beauty of both.
It’s not so much the places you see; it’s the folks you meet along the path. Traveling simply, you throw yourself out into the universe with abandon, depending far on fate and the kindness of strangers. Simply put, it means trusting, letting go, and letting life unfold in a natural and beautiful way. It’s a remarkable exercise. (page 91)
Even though we have different nationalities, languages, culture, politics, and sometimes-odd cuisine, the simple act of sharing food at the end of a tiring day creates bridges and allows us to see each other simply as fellow travelers walking this path called life. (page 100)
Once again, we’d seen how the Via Alpina’s so much more than hiking mountains, although it has double its fair share. It’s the people, sharing traditions and cultures, touching lives. Twice that same day, when our morale was at its lowest, we found extraordinary kindness. (page 188)
I started reading this book curious about the Via Alpina and wondering what it would be like to take on a behemoth mission like this 1200 mile (1900 km) trek. As somebody who has been considering the 800km Camino de Santiago for years, I’d have figured that it would be right up my alley.
But after reading about Wilson’s equivalent summit of 12 Mt Everests from sea level, I must admit I was actually quite happy to play the armchair adventurer for this particular trek. I got to have all the fun without any of the blisters.
Editor’s Note: I received a free copy of Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps for review, and there are affiliate links in this post.