Attitudes and Altitude: a new Sidetracked project, and a journey across the Alps
I'll be spending much of the rest of the summer in the Alps, trekking and a bit of running from Ventimiglia to Zermatt. It's going to be an incredible adventure. I can't wait to begin.
On July 19th, I will take my first steps on a fastpacking journey between Ventimiglia on the Mediterranean coast of Italy and Zermatt in the heart of the Swiss Alps. The total distance will be roughly 1,000km. My planned route follows the Grande Traversata delle Alpi for much of its length before diverting west along stages of several classic trails: Gran Paradiso Alta Via 2, Tour du Mont Blanc, Tour of the Matterhorn, Tour of Monte Rosa.
This is my dream Alpine journey, and I’ve been planning it for months. But this time I am doing things a little differently. Unlike every other long-distance trail I’ve done, it won’t be an out-and-out hike; it will also involve running. On an average day I expect to hike around 70–80 per cent of the time and run some of the downhills. Because I’m pretty new as a runner, I am not biting off more than I can chew here – my plan is to average around 35km per day. That’s roughly 8–10km more than I would expect to average walking in such terrain. Given the elevation profile, that will still be a significant challenge and a push well beyond my comfort zone. But (and here’s the crucial thing) it is achievable.
I still struggle to see myself as a runner. That’s because the ghosts of old attitudes are deeply ingrained – I was an unfit, overweight teenager who hated exercise. However, as a 36-year-old man, I love running and I love big days in the mountains. My fitness has dramatically improved over the last six months or so, and I am no longer overweight, but I struggle to see myself as fit enough to do something like this.
The point of the project is to have an extended conversation with myself about it all, and hopefully to come to some kind of a personal consensus regarding my weight and body image. Then open up this discussion to a wider audience through our readers at Sidetracked. One thing I have learned over the last few months is that almost everyone can relate to these topics in some way.
I am grateful to my friends and colleagues at Sidetracked for this opportunity – especially John Summerton, who made the project possible, and Jenny Tough, who has been incredibly supportive of my running since day one, and will be joining me for a section of trail near the end. We have much in common regarding our relationship with body image and weight. Jenny and I have chatted about these things many times – and she has helped me to start accepting the fact that I am a runner and I do deserve to think of myself in this way.1 I am looking forward to the conversations we’ll have in person after around 800km of my journey. How will my perspective have changed by then? I’m also really looking forward to spending a bit of time in the mountains with my brother James. He is joining me at Arolla to provide photographic support, but more importantly so we can enjoy the last week on the trail together.
Our sponsors, Montane and Leki, deserve special thanks. Without them, this journey would have been far more limited in scope. Finally, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to talk to a live audience about my adventure at the final leg of the Sidetracked Creators Tour in Fort William on November 1st, 2022. Tickets are available here.
For a full introduction to Attitudes and Altitude, check out my prologue about completing Tranter’s Round in winter over on Sidetracked.com.
Now for the fun bit.
Those of you who have been reading my stuff for a while know that I love a good gear list, and this trip is no exception. Montane’s sponsorship is why my gear list has largely been taken over by items from Montane’s VIA range. A gear list optimised for hiking is not necessarily optimised for running. Montane’s range of running gear happens to correspond pretty well to what I need for a trip of this kind, so I approached them as my first choice of sponsor, and fortunately they were enthusiastic.
I have been using most of this gear for several months already on shorter trips, so it’s dialled in and I’m very happy with it. The clothing is particularly excellent; I’ve been a huge fan of the Allez Micro layer for years, and the Spine Jacket is easily the best lightweight waterproof I’ve used.
There remain a few question marks, mostly regarding snow gear (Microspikes or Petzl Leopard crampons? Do I need the ice axe at all?) and power (big power bank, or small power bank and solar panel?), but otherwise the list is settled. I will be sending a supply parcel to Arolla containing my snow gear and fresh shoes and socks. For the bulk of the journey my base weight will be approximately 5.5kg.
How I’m approaching social media on this trip
For a few years now, I’ve followed a simple rule: no social media while out on the hill or the trail, but I don’t hold back once I finish my adventure. This has worked well for me and has helped me find a good balance between experiencing and sharing. It’s even right there in the ‘Manifesto’ of my book The Farthest Shore.2
However, this time will be different. Part of my agreement with Montane and Leki is that I will be sharing weekly updates on Sidetracked’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. There will be tweets, Stories, and Reels.
Because I’m going to be online with my Sidetracked hat on anyway, I see no point in keeping off my personal accounts this time, so I’ll drop in the odd update. I won’t be live-tweeting my progress up a mountain pass or anything like that, but I will check in every few days (most likely once a week when I’m posting my Sidetracked updates).
‘The essence of experience cannot be recorded’
As I write this blog post, ‘in the steamy, stuffy Midlands, ‘neath an English summer sky’3, I can’t help but feel a tremendous rush of excitement when I think about the weeks to come.
I completed my last major long-distance trail on August 21st, 2019. I had just finished hiking 832km between the Atlantic and Mediterranean over the crest of the Pyrenees – an experience that changed my life, forever pushing back the limits of what I thought I could do. Then the pandemic came along, and although I’ve done plenty of backpacking since then, I haven’t done any multi-week trips. There is a qualitative difference between a long trip and a short one. For me, things begin to change after about two weeks on trail. A quote from The Farthest Shore:
My mind felt like a different thing – no longer an algorithm or a shard of the machine, more like a river-washed stone. My thoughts felt slower and less frayed, less multithreaded. Was this a permanent change? Was it really a change at all?
Adventure is such a simple word but it contains multitudes. It is the cocktail of that delicious slowness blended with personal challenge, physical exercise, glorious natural beauty, a sense of purpose, and powerful personal narrative. This blend can help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. Trail Alex is fitter, kinder, more sociable but also more comfortable with solitude, more vulnerable and open, more creative, less stressed, less anxious, and less concerned with worldly goods and status. He is braver, wiser, and better able to see the poetry in the gleam of stars and the rush of water in a canyon. Trail Alex does not merely hear the buzzard’s cry; he listens to it, and perhaps takes another step towards understanding it. Maybe this is why mountain friendships are some of the most intense friendships of our lives.
Trail Alex is the person I wish I could be every day. But the poignant truth is that the magic does fade. Its afterglow lingers for a few weeks or months beyond the end of a momentous trail, and some lessons never leave us, but we forget what it is like to be that person. At least, I do. Here is another bit from The Farthest Shore, just because it sums up how I see this so well:
I knew that no matter how many photos I took, how many words I wrote in my journal, I could never capture exactly what I had felt and done and who I had been. The essence of experience cannot be recorded. These moments would be gone. Such is the pathos of being human, but at that moment I felt the echo of that future loss keenly.
Another lesson I have learned is that no adventure is ever quite how you expect it will be. I visualise now what I believe it will feel like to be a week, two weeks, into my journey, but I know that when I am actually there I will feel different. And this is because I will be a different person, living a different life. But we hold the heights we have won.
A note about my online writing from now on
Regular readers will have noticed that I haven’t published much personal writing online this year. In fact, this website has been stagnant for months due to two major server failures. It’s now ridiculously out of date.
In my last newsletter, I mentioned a few of the reasons behind my blogging hiatus, and they haven’t changed – I’m still in the process of building a new website, everyday life is still busy with work and projects and time outdoors, and I have been enjoying the lack of pressure to be constantly publishing personal work.
However, I’m starting to miss that pressure. I’m also between book manuscripts at the moment. Last month I spent a few days in North Wales with a select crew from Sidetracked and Trash Free Trails. On the train home, Emily Woodhouse4 and I were chatting about our individual approaches to writing. I said to her something like ‘I’m enjoying the fact that I’m not actively writing a book at the moment, but I’m also wary about finding myself a year from now still not writing anything.’ The same is very much true of blogging. I need to start carving out the time and headspace for personal writing again. My day job goes a long way towards scratching that itch, but it isn’t quite the same thing.
My new website is inching its way towards completion. When it’s done5, I will merge my newsletter with my blog – this will be a far simpler and more sustainable option for the long term. This means that I will shut down my Substack newsletter and just post everything on alexroddie.com. I’ll ask people to subscribe there instead. I believe that I’ve learned a great deal from running a separate newsletter over the last few years, but it’s time to simplify things and apply the lessons I’ve learned to my blogging instead. I know I’ve written this before, and other things tend to get in the way, but I hope to get back to a more consistent publishing schedule.
It won’t be long before the next book manuscript comes along, too. The thing about writers is that they’re never happy unless they’re writing – or at least they won’t stay happy for long.
If you’d like to support my writing and photography, you can buy me a coffee. Thank you!
- Jenny’s superpower is helping people to realise that they are stronger than they think. It has 100 per cent worked for me. ↩︎
- Under Seek Silence: ‘I’ve found it beneficial to impose a personal rule when I go hiking or backpacking: no social media while I’m actually out there.’ ↩︎
- A.D. Godley, from Second Strings – a poem about wistfully looking back on past seasons in the Swiss Alps. ↩︎
- Our sub-editor at Sidetracked, and someone whose perspective and sharp eye I have quickly come to rely on. ↩︎
- This almost certainly won’t be until well after I get back from the Alps now. ↩︎
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