Reflections on a Year's Walks - 2012

I've had an amazing year. Eight walking trips, 95 days of full- on walking and loads of adventures.   At the moment, as well as trying to keep fit on the South Downs, I'm busy working out a schedule for 2013 and reflecting on the lessons I've learnt this year.

The lessons with hindsight seem blindingly obvious.

The first - already having an impact on plans for next year - is that you can't have too much of a good thing.  I had thought that 7 weeks in Nepal would satiate my appetite for the Himalayas but it had the opposite effect.

Although I didn't get to the top of Mera Peak (the weather was exceptionally bad this spring and very few groups did),  I had an amazing adventure.  The memories of the night at high camp (perched on a 5,400m cliff on the edge of a glacier in a ferocious storm), the attempt on the summit next day (a fall into a crevasse followed by an agonising trudge through fresh snow a metre deep) and the descent the following day with arguably the best mountain view in the world (clear sight of five 8,000 m plus summits including Everest) will stay with me forever.

The view to Everest from Mera

The Annapurna Circuit was completely different, and although it's fashionable to knock it because of the crowds I think it's still special.  The scenery is amazing, much more varied and sustained for instance than Everest Base Camp, and the unexpected can and does happen (check my diary entry for the Thorang La Pass)   I like the experience of walking with trekkers from all over the world and because everyone is on the same schedule you really get the chance to meet people and swap adventures.

Both trips were with Exodus Travel and led each time by Jangbu Sherpa, a wonderful man, great fun but very professional.  My sleeping bag was completely inadequate for the cold on Mera Peak and Jangbu happily swapped bags - I still feel grateful for his kindness but guilty for accepting it.

Trudging up to Thorang La
So it's back to the Himalaya's again next year.  Have already booked a trip (July) on the Grand Traverse of the Indian Himalaya which should take me back to to the Tibetan style scenery (high plateau - very dry) we glimpsed at on the Annapurna Circuit.   I'd also like another Mera Peak type trip and I'm hoping to do Dhaulagiri Circuit in October.  There is an option to do the Dhamphus Peak which like Mera is non-technical and also over 6,000 metres.

The second lesson from this year, again an obvious one, is that if you're walking in the Alps go high and get above the trees.  When I did the E4 I did the "sub-alpine" option and walked along the Maximiliansweg through Bavaria - nice but not wonderful like the Alps proper.  This year I did a slice of the Via Alpina (red variant) right through the heart of the Austrian Alps and it was fantastic.  When I did the E4, I was worried about the extra time you needed for the high alpine route and the extreme nature of some of the trails.  Although you did occasionally need a head for heights on the Via Alpina it was an excellent route with breathtaking scenery.

On the Via Alpina

So next year I want another high altitude trip to the Alps and I would really like to go around Ecrins Circuit on the GR54.  Have got the Kev Reynolds Cicerone Guide and it looks great - doable in about 10 days - and the plan is go in September with Christine.

The third lesson, as blindingly obvious as the other two, is the need to think a bit harder about the calendar.  Now I have finished work (just past the two year anniversary) the constraint is no longer when I can go, no need to fit a holiday around work constraints, but rather when is the best time to visit a particular place.  I really do need to plan more based on when is the optimum season of the year to walk in a particular place.

This came home to roost big time on the Grande Escursione Appenninica (GEA).  The weather in October was good but the season had finished, the refuges were shut and so were a lot of the hotels. This, and the fact that there were too many trees (from now on the description "sub-alpine" will ring alarm bells), made for frustrating walking.  The season in the Alps is very short, three months really (July, August, September) and given the crowds in August, September is really precious and in future will be reserved for Alpine expeditions.
Trees and more trees on the GEA
The fourth lesson is perhaps less obvious.  It's about how the availability of information influences your choice of walk.  I like to plan my trips some time in advance and finding information on the web or in a guide means I'm enjoying it even before I start.  I get a real buzz from making contact with locals and getting information sent to me months before setting off. The first walk I did this year, the brilliant GR 48 in Spain, has a wonderful website and contacting the editors via Facebook and being sent the English version PDFs guides gave me a lot a pleasure (well it's harmless!).  The danger though is that the availability of information filters and constrains your choice.

The strongest element of this filter is the English language - if you don't speak German, French or Italian then the availability of an English guidebook in general, and the Cicerone catalogue in particular, tends to point you in particular directions.

A good example of this was my decision to walk the GEA.  I'm trying to walk in at least one new country every year and non-Alpine Italy qualified on this criteria. In the UK, getting information on Italian walks outside the Alps proved hard work and availability of a relevant Cicerone guide was key.   Of course when I got there I discovered a much more popular route (the GEA followed it for much of the way) was the Via Francigena which, because it has a German language guide (and much better web resources), had lots of Germans walking along it.

Karnische Höhenweg

"Follow the Germans" (or German speakers) might in fact be a motto worth adopting, particularly when walking in central Europe.  It was the recommendation of some young Austrian walkers that took us to the Carnic Way (Karnische Höhenweg), a fantastic walk (the last part of my Via Alpina trip), incredibly popular with Germans and Austrians and with an excellent German language guide, but unknown to the English.

Climbing 1,000 metres a day and enjoying huge views is a good reason to go to the Alps or the Himalayas but it's not the only reason to go on a place to place walk.  I also get enormous pleasure from walking through a landscape where the echoes of shared rural heritage still ring out.  Whether it's the cobbles on an ancient trail, the terraces in fields running alongside, or the hill-top town reached at the day's end - these echoes provide another reason to walk.  The inevitable truth however is that the echoes are getting fainter and to keep hearing them you either have to walk further or be more selective about where you go.  After being disappointed this year in my failure to find the remnants of an Italian rural idyll on the GEA, next year I'll be going back to Spain for a long trip on the GR64 - advised by my friend Juan Holgado ("follow the Spaniard) - I'll be trying to recapture some of the best bits of my E4 experience.
An ancient cobbled trail
Of course I learned some other things this year: it rains a lot in Ireland; accommodation costs an arm and a leg along the South Downs Way; there are five seasons when it comes to sleeping bags - but I won't bore you with the details.  Body willing, particularly a dodgy knee, I'll be learning another set of lessons next year.  Watch this space for details of my next set of adventures.
It can be fine in Ireland 


  1. John,
    Your website is a fantastic resource and thanks for all the effort you put into it.

    I note your conclusion that September should be retained for the Alps. We came to this conclusion a long time ago but still lament the fact that September is only a month long (if you see what I mean)!

    I can highly recommend the GR54 Tour of the Oisans, we really enjoyed it. If you are staying in refuges/hotels again don't forget to go early in the month as there is a big shut down on the middle weekend of September. We went anti-clockwise, rather than clockwise as Kev R suggests, and this proved crucial for us with a mid trip snowfall. It also worked better for our logistics as we went at the end of Sept and camped on some of the nights. More info at the following if of interest:


    1. Hi John

      Great tips John and thanks for the interest. Had a look at your schedule and will definitely use it when it comes to make final plans. Early September it is!