How difficult is it to travel along the entire Swiss border by paddling, cycling and – the really hard part – climbing? All this summer (July–September), the news and information website swissinfo.ch will be presenting the attempts of one man to do just that.
Sometimes, you wake up one morning with an idea that just doesn’t want to go away. Last year, John Harlin, an avid mountaineer and writer on mountain matters, decided he would like to literally circumnavigate Switzerland by tracing its borders. Harlin began realising this idea on June 23, 2010, on the south shore of Lake Geneva in the village of St Gingolph that borders France. He had set aside three months to achieve the feat, but about ten days into the trek, he took a major fall and broke several bones in his feet while climbing the Aiguilles Rouge du Mont Dolent on the French border.
The intrepid mountaineer was determined to resume his journey once the bones had healed. But in the meanwhile, in October 2010, he opted for a less foot-based activity of paddling along the northern border with Germany (Rhine River and Lake Constance), mountain biking the wild western frontier with France and kayaking across Lake Geneva.
For Harlin, tracing the nation’s borders is also a way to contribute another perhaps meditative answer to his own Zen-like question: “When is a people a nation, a border a boundary?” The answer is perhaps more readily found between the covers of books detailing the history of this country of rebellious tribes who defied Europe’s aristocracy. Or in the wealth of monuments from the monastery of Romainmôrtier, to the motorway service area at Pratteln or the broadcasting tower at Beromünster that also reveal a great deal of the country’s evolution. But a man sitting in an armchair reading books or helping himself to fried foods in a late 1970s pit stop would be of no interest whatsoever to today’s twitterati and Facebook junkies.
Harlin will not be alone. While he clambers up and down Switzerland’s rocky borders, he will be vicariously tracked by an army of Monday-morning “mountaineers” through his online, multimedia diary available on swissinfo.ch/harlin, Facebook and Twitter, and pinpoint his exact location thanks to a customised and integrated Google Map. He is using a smartphone instead of pen and paper, allowing him not only to take notes, snap pictures and shoot videos, but also upload them in near real time to the exact location on the map where they were recorded. The process has been more or less automated. More than 21,000 people from around the world already decided they “like this” by clicking on the corresponding icon. Harlin’s latest “Border Stories” updates are then sent directly to their Facebook profiles. And he has been picking up fans on the way, like one Catherine Deegan, who enthused through a forest of exclamation marks: “John, thank you so much for sharing your adventure with us! Like so many others, I too have followed every step of your journey and enjoyed the photos and videos. I look forward to next summer, where you can count me in!!!! Enjoy the rest!”
The excitement is mounting, as it were. This summer, John Harlin will resume his conquering of the thin and often dangerous line that separates Switzerland from its Austrian and Italian neighbours. If he were to stay on the exact border, it would involve about 280,000 vertical metres of up and down. So he has planned to follow more trails and not climb every mountain. “If I stick to that plan, it is only 220,000 vertical metres,” he says. “That is like climbing Mt. Everest twelve times round trip from the sea.” The other great challenge he might encounter is the weather. Storms, wind and even snow would force him onto trails and off the peaks. “No matter what, there are certain important peaks that I really want to climb. The Matterhorn, of course, but also Monte Rosa, Piz Buin, Piz Bernina, Mont Dolent, and many others. Traversing these mountains is a big part of the adventure,” Harlin says.
Whether or not the deep question about borders and boundaries and Swiss national identity and international recognition through the ages is being answered by a mediagenic walk around the national borders is perhaps irrelevant. Altruism is often just a by-product of an ulterior motive. For Harlin, the Border Stories are essentially a way of challenging himself while at the same time literally embracing a country that he has made his home: “It is a really big, extremely interesting adventure, bigger and more interesting than any I have done before. Switzerland has always fascinated me. I lived in Leysin as a youth and somehow Switzerland became a part of my soul like no place else. It is mostly the mountains, but not just the rock and ice and tundra – also the people and chalets and cows.”
John Harlin III
John Harlin III was born in 1956 and grew up in Germany and Leysin, Switzerland. After his father died in 1966 attempting to be the first to climb the direct route up the north face of the Eiger, his family returned to the US to live.
He finally climbed the Eiger north face himself in 2005, a feat that was the focus of the popular IMAX film, The Alps. He is the editor of the American Alpine Journal (published by the American Alpine Club since 1929) and a contributing editor to Backpacker magazine.
Follow Harlin and his multimedia Border Stories live on:
swissinfo.ch is one of the enterprise units of SRG SSR, Switzerland’s public-service radio and television broadcaster. Its remit is to inform Swiss people abroad of what is going on at home, and to raise awareness about Switzerland beyond its borders. To this end, swissinfo.ch operates a news and information platform in nine languages. www.swissinfo.ch
Human beings are compulsive, Mother Nature a lot less. For centuries, wars have been fought over at times irrelevant bits and pieces of territory, but natural erosion and the effects of global warming have also had an important role to play in shaping nations. Unbeknownst to many, for example, Switzerland has been expanding. Not enough to excite real estate investors, of course, especially since the territory gained is mostly around inaccessible mountain peaks and ridges – though one should never underestimate the creativity of asset managers. The reason is that the borders between Italy and Switzerland were established using the water divide on top of glaciers. These have been melting rapidly in Switzerland’s favour, lowering the divide to the nearest land ridge, the core parameter in establishing borders. Glacier depletion near the Furggsattel (Matterhorn region) shifted the border by up to 150 metres into Italy. Seen from the perspective of a topographer, then, John Harlin III’s Swiss border adventure is probably inaccurate. Similarly, river borders are drawn in the middle of the streams, be they rivers, like the Rhone and the Doubs, which separate France and Switzerland, or tiny streams. They, too, tend to shift around naturally.
Article by Marton Radkai