Solo across the Alps

Applying for the Tony Balthasar Award, I shared with the award committee and my friends the idea of how I wanted to individually conquer the Alps in Europe. A personal challenge, and goal, that was only made possible by being a lucky recipient of the Balthasar Award. The year 2014 would see me take an undulating 1,000km from Nice to Lake Geneva and then on to the principality of Liechtenstein, entirely alone and entirely on foot. I now try to summarise those crazy long seven weeks into just a mere handful of paragraphs.

After making the long journey to reach the other side of the world, I was finally in Europe for the first time in my life. Restless and full of excitement, I jumped straight into making the most of my three days free time in Paris before catching a train to Nice in the south of France. Nice was my chance to assess my equipment, buy food and recount my plans for one last time before I departed on what was going to be my largest undertaking by far. The nerves not being helped by comments from both newly-made friends and those at home cautioning over injuries, wolves, getting lost, to not go crazy and most importantly, to not fall off a cliff. Slightly reassured by my preparation and a little self-confidence, I set off as planned on the 12th of July, following the streets north of Nice where I would find the edge of town and the start of my first of many, many hills.

With six days straight of heavy rain and thunderstorms, I did begin to wonder what I had gotten myself into. These first sections through the Mercantour National Park did also see a bit of a learning curve as I got into the swing of things, however I did take solace and motivation from the odd human encounters along the way. After 11 days and 262km, I reached the regional city of Briançon for some much-needed rest.

Day 14 would see me reach my highest peak throughout my adventures, approximately 3,200m altitude atop of Mont Thabor. Coincidentally I also got a pleasant surprise looking at my map, to see that the mountain opposite me was named Point Balthasar. This was also a long hard day with two mountain passes and an afternoon full of rain, hail, snow and thunderstorms. I was fortunately rewarded with a beautiful rocky view, with bare scenery that somewhat felt like something from the moon, and later a massive hearty meal in an alpine hut sheltered from the miserable weather. More snow entailed over the coming days, sometimes with complete white-outs, which sounds like strange weather for summer but anything can happen in the Alps.

After passing through the visually amazing Vanoise National Park, a place teeming with wildlife, my next big milestone came on Day 22. After a few days of walking under the imposing shadow of Mont Blanc, I entered Chamonix. A very beautiful city and the major access point for Mt Blanc, Chamonix made for a great halfway break. And with over 500km ticked off, I did everything but hiking.

From Chamonix I made my last dash on French soil and after a few days I reached the town of St Gingolph on Lake Geneva. So with the successful completion of the French GR5 trail finally behind me, I now entered Switzerland for the second half of my journey, with the sobering thought that I was about to walk the full length of a small country!

My first week in Switzerland was a fresh change, walking through the beautiful cantons of Vaud and Bern, plus the sudden change from French speaking to German speaking putting my communication back to square one (with an embarrassment or two). The day I left Adelboden saw me start to get really excited – from here I knew I was entering the Kandersteg valley this day. That meant KISC! The Kandersteg International Scout Centre is a bustling place set amongst the beautiful Swiss mountains. Big campfires with the whole Scout centre, smaller fires with Irish and UK Scout troops, barbeques with an American troop, exploring the beautiful mountains and meeting people from all around the world, what wasn’t there to enjoy!

With several days break and meeting Scouting members from numerous countries, I eventually had to say a sad goodbye to Kandersteg and KISC. The track out wound past the Oeschinen Lake, taking me amongst glaciers and over the stark Blüemlisalp. The following days led me to the cantons of Obwalden, Uri, Glarius and St Gallen as I continued the final legs of my journey, passing Lauterbrunnen, Jungfrau, Grosse and Kleine Scheidegg and many more picturesque locales.

After 51 days and many ups and downs, mentally and physically, I finally reached my finish point on a hill in Liechtenstein overlooking its main city of Vaduz. I sat down fatigued beyond all means but with a big smile across my face, a couple of local walkers gave me puzzled looks but little did they know what I had just accomplished. Nearby I met Robert Ashley, a former Normanhurst Rover whom Nick Buchner helped me connect with and happened to live with his family just across the Swiss border from Vaduz. With his kind hospitality, I took some much-needed rest, between exchanging Rover stories of course.

I am ever thankful to the Balthasar Award committee for providing me with this amazing opportunity. It has without a doubt become one of my biggest achievements in my life, let alone the wonderful memories throughout. I will be forever looking at my photos and wishing I could do it all again!

Owen Cooke
Normanhurst Rover Crew