John Harlin III, the star of the smash IMAX movie “The Alps”, is back in Switzerland for another epic adventure. This one could make climbing the Eiger look easy.
“About 2,000km,” he says, a map of the country splayed out before him. “But when you consider all the up and down, it’s probably going to be more.”
Harlin, an accomplished American mountaineer and writer, is about to embark on a three-month odyssey to trace the entire Swiss border under his own power. The idea is to stay “within a stone’s throw” of the line, dropping down to villages when he can to gather supplies.
The challenges are huge. Up and over icy 4,000m peaks, down the burbling Rhine and along the gentle crest of the Jura many weeks later, Harlin will climb, row and sweat his way counterclockwise back to where it all begins on Tuesday – St Gingolph in canton Valais.
“I feel most at home in the mountains and Switzerland is the home of mountains,” he says. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a very long time.”
While he’s out there, Harlin plans to meet fellow alpinists, scientists, historians and others (maybe even you) to hear stories and paint a meticulous and nuanced picture of the country viewed from the geographical, political and cultural lines that hold it together.
Readers can follow Harlin online at www.swissinfo.ch/harlin. He’ll be carrying a bevy of gadgetry – three smart phones, extra batteries, solar chargers and an HD camera – to post daily reports, pictures, and short videos, each “geotagged” to reveal on a map exactly where he took them and when. Readers will be able to see where he is at just about any given moment thanks to a GPS-enabled smart phone.
“John is the best ambassador for Switzerland you can imagine,” says Roland Baumgartner of Switzerland Tourism, who is helping with logistics.
“His testimonials will convince potential guests to spend some days in this gorgeous landscape. Maybe not high up crossing the Dent d'Hérens and the Matterhorn but maybe enjoying the view from a train ride up to a place like the Gornergrat.”
A good adventure
Harlin, 54, is no stranger to challenges or to Switzerland, which came together in 1966 to produce a life-changing event.
His story has been the subject of a book and the IMAX movie, which follows Harlin back to his boyhood home of Leysin in Vaud. His mother was offered a job at the international school there in the early 1960s, while his father, John, served in the US Air Force in Germany and had become famous for climbing daring routes in the Alps.
“We once got a post card addressed to ‘Eiger John, Switzerland’,” Harlin says. “As a boy it was a dream to live here. Dad had wanted to take me up the Matterhorn but that never happened.”
When Harlin was nine, his father was putting up the hardest route on the terrifying north face of the Eiger when his rope snapped, sending him cartwheeling to his death. Some four decades later, Harlin returned with a film crew to climb the same route.
The movie proved to be a hit as much for the scenery as for the story and Harlin has spent the past few years on a world tour to promote it. But unlike that project – which involved numerous re-enactments and actors taking his place on the peak from time to time – swissinfo’s Border Stories expedition will be 100 per cent real. (Harlin really did climb the entire route, however, just not on film.)
“I’m looking forward to telling a story that isn’t so personal,” he says. “It’s just a good, solid adventure.”
Fast and light
Shortly before Harlin begins his trip, he is busy sorting through the mounds of gear that an adventure like this demands. A friend in Leysin had donated her living room floor, now covered with ice axes, crampons, an ultra-lightweight tent, a camp stove and more electronics than a Media Markt store.
“Before coming I’d been training in the mountains behind my house in Mexico, hiking up to 3,000m and feeling pretty strong,” he says. “Then I strapped on a pack with maybe 35 pounds in it and suddenly it was taking me twice as long to get anywhere. I have to be light. Really light.”
He’ll also have to be patient, though time isn’t his friend. Storms roll in. Supplies run out. Daylight fades. Sometimes he may lose a day or more coming down to get food and water.
Harlin’s face is etched with the deep lines of a man who’s happiest on some windblown ridge gazing out across a sea of peaks just begging for his boots. But even with his outdoor experience, this project produces many challenges.
Geology: how to safely navigate exposed ridges like the Bregaglia traverse between Italy and canton Graubünden. Politics: A frustratingly gnarled border around Schaffhausen that will force him back the way he just came. Cultural: He’s forgotten his German, and Spanish is elbowing out his French.
But the hardest part of all? Leaving his wife and 14-year-old daughter behind for so long.
“They gave me this,” he says, opening a small waterproof can. Inside are dozens of little notes. “Each one is numbered for each week I’ll be gone.” He can’t wait and opens the first one early. It says exactly what a father and husband wants to hear.
For now though there’s no time to be homesick. Dark clouds are gathering over the skyline he plans to walk toward in the morning.
“This is going to be fun,” he says. And he means it.
Switzerland's changing borders
There is nothing inevitable about Switzerland's modern borders. They cut across language, religious and geographical areas.
The period from 1798 to 1815 saw many changes.
In 1798 the allied towns of Geneva and Mulhouse became part of France. In 1802 Valais was detached from the Helvetic Republic. For a few years it was independent, but in 1810 Napoleon made it part of France.
With Valais separated from Switzerland, the French had two important passes in their hands - the Simplon and the Grand St Bernard - and no longer needed the right to march through Swiss territory.
Switzerland also gained some territory: the former Austrian possession of the Fricktal on the Rhine just east of Basel. The French invaded it in 1799, but made it part of the Helvetic Republic in 1802 as a separate canton. It eventually became part of the new canton of Aargau, and has remained so ever since.
Graubünden changed hands several times between the French and the Austrians in 1799-1800, but the French were eventually victorious. In 1801 Napoleon made it Switzerland's 16th canton. Nevertheless, portions of the old canton remain part of modern-day Italy.
Climate and borders
With so much rock and ice lining the border with Switzerland’s southern neighbours, scientists say a changing climate will have unusual impacts.
Around ten per cent of the 750km border between Switzerland and Italy, traditionally marked by a high-point on a ridge between the two, will be affected as ice melts to change the shape of the ridge. In some places it will move 100 metres at most, authorities say.
When the border was devised, officials defined it along text descriptions, which now have to be matched to geographic coordinates.
The border should have changed as glaciers moved, but no one has done so up to now.
Daniel Gutknecht from Switzerland's topographical service says that as rock faces become exposed, officials will be able to determine more permanent spots to mark the border.