The circle completed

John Harlin ascends Mont Dolent to complete his border odyssey PatitucciPhoto

It's almost surreal for me to accept this so quickly, but as I look off the porch here in Leysin I can see with my own eyes that my journey is finally done.

This content was published on September 13, 2011 - 15:03
John Harlin III in Leysin,

I have walked, climbed, biked, and paddled completely around Switzerland. Right out there -in those high white peaks to the southwest - I can see the French border where I started, the place where I fell in 2010, and the peak where I just finished.

Connecting those points - where I broke my feet and where I summited a day ago - took more than a year and required following the borders not only of France, but also of Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Italy.

As Mark Twain said, Switzerland would be a mighty big country if you ironed it flat. I can vouch for his statement, though it would be a lot easier to travel a big flat country than a small one whose borders are mountains.

I don't know the true statistics just yet on exactly how many kilometres and vertical metres I've travelled. Next week I'll spend a few days on a computer at Switzerland Tourism drawing exact lines onto their digital topographic map in order to have those hard figures.

But such statistics aren't the truth of this journey, nor about Switzerland. I only need them because people always ask for such details. Numbers are much easier to grasp than the subtleties that life is really about. What matters to me are the memories. To my surprise, each and every one of the 105 days I spent on the border was rich and rewarding, no matter the difficulty.

55-year-old body beating

Sometimes the challenges were great, but I had expected and wanted to be challenged - that was a large part of the point, at least for me personally: I wanted to see if this 55-year-old body could power itself over all those passes and peaks, and to find out if my mind would fatigue from so many days on the trail. It turns out the body held out and the mind stayed engaged.

But more important than merely overcoming challenges was that I'd been given a tremendous gift: a chance to fully experience the Swiss border country. The primary goal of this trip was to feel with my feet and my heart. I wanted to learn from personal encounters with people and places why this small but great country is the way it now is.

A few of my favourite childhood years were spent in Leysin in canton Vaud; these years left me with a deep love for the country and its mountains. This passion has brought me back to Switzerland many times in adulthood, including in 2005 to climb the north face of the Eiger, the mountain that my father died on.

Delve into landscape

The genesis of my Swiss Borders tour was in large part a desire to connect even more, to delve into this landscape in the deepest way I could think of.

During the Facebook Swiss Borders Q&A last Friday, a woman asked for my conclusions. She wanted me to share in a few sentences why Switzerland is Switzerland. I couldn't do that, of course. It's much too complicated for off the cuff answers. I hope the 50,000 or more words I've written in my diary have provided some interesting first impressions, though it's important to realise that these are only a small taste of the full experience.

Writers often say that they don't know their own thoughts until they've written them down. For me that's very often the case. In the next year I'll be writing a book about my Swiss Borders journey, and during this writing process is when the real synthesis will happen.

That's when I'll be able to dig much deeper into Swiss history. I'll blend this incredibly rich background into my own personal experiences, and will finally discover what it was that I actually saw.

I can't thank my readers enough for their interest in this journey. It's bittersweet for me that it's finally over. On the one hand I'm pleased to have accomplished my goal and to soon be headed home to my family.

On the other hand, traveling the borders has become a lifestyle that I love. It is awfully tempting to throw the pack on my back again and just keep on walking through the endlessly interesting country that is Switzerland.

John Harlin III

John Harlin III was born in 1956 and grew up in Germany and Leysin, Switzerland. After his father, John Harlin II, 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 United States 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”. John is the editor of the “American Alpine Journal” (published by the American Alpine Club since 1929) and a contributing editor to “Backpacker” magazine. 

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Border Stories

John Harlin began his attempt to follow the entire Swiss border in June 2010. But barely a week in, he broke both of his feet in a mountaineering accident.

Once the bones had healed Harlin resumed his adventures. In autumn 2010 he paddled  the Rhine, cycled around Schaffhausen, biked the crest of the Jura and kayaked across Lake Geneva. 

In the summer of 2011 he travelled clockwise from eastern Switzerland and on September 12 finished the journey on the summit of Mont Dolent, where the borders of Italy, France and Switzerland come together and near the site of his accident one year earlier.

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Highs and lows

To follow Switzerland’s mountain border, John Harlin ascended and descended around 220,000 vertical metres. It was the equivalent of going up and down Mount Everest - from the sea to summit – 12 times.

Lowest point: The borderline running across Lake Maggiore (193m)

Highest point: The top of the Dufourspitze (4,634m)

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In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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