Swiss Border Stories


The Heart of the Journey

   When is a people a nation, a border a boundary? Can I find out by encircling a small multilingual country with vast borders, one footstep at a time? And what about those mountains: Can I possibly climb them all in 100 days?

    “Border Stories” layers a challenging  physical adventure over an exploration of the history, culture, and environment of one of the most fascinating places on earth: Switzerland.

    I’ve been enthralled with Switzerland ever since I moved there from Germany at the age of seven, in 1963. After three years I had become nearly Swiss, but then my father died while climbing the Eiger and my family moved to America. But Switzerland never left my soul, and I’ve returned year after year, most notably to climb the Eiger myself in 2005. That journey was chronicled in the IMAX movie, The Alps: Climb of Your Life, and in my book, The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father.

    Emotionally, nothing will top climbing the north face of the Eiger—and out of Dad’s legendary shadow. But I’ve long had another dream also, much bigger and higher: to make a complete circumnavigation of Switzerland, staying exactly on the border and climbing each of the hundreds of summits that divide my former homeland from its neighbors. In the summer of 2010, I will take on the challenge.

                                                  The Borderline

    Officially, Switzerland’s borders with France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Italy span 1,858 kilometers (1,150 miles). In real life, those two-dimensional map distances mean little; the vertical relief tremendously increases the actual kilometers
Approximate map distances from start in Geneva.

Bicycle French border to Basel: 400 km

Bike & paddle German & Lichtenstein borders: 400 km

Hike & climb Austrian, Italian, & French borders: 1,100 km (Actual three-dimensional distances are much greater.)

on the ground, as well as the difficultly of walking them.

   According to simple map-distances, I covered roughly 800 kilometers by bicycle and kayak and 1,000++ kilometers on foot—including lots of technical climbing over difficult mountains. My original plan was to stick to the exact border the entire distance, which would have ascended roughly 170,000 vertical meters (and descend another 170,000). That’s like climbing Mt. Everest 20 times round trip from the sea. As it turned out, this was not only impossible for me, but also entirely misguided: the most interesting places weren’t the summits and ridges, they were the valleys and villages. So I ended up only doing the equivalent of Everest 12 times from the sea, or once every week in the Alps.

    The physical adventure was merely a personal challenge, good for a few stories (especially when things went wrong). The real point of this journey was to peer deep into the borderlands.

    From Julius Caesar’s forts on the Rhine to today’s fighter jets hidden in caves, from a tribal alliance in 1291 to women’s suffrage in 1971, from fielding mercenary armies to being the world’s icon of peaceful neutrality, from poverty to riches: Switzerland has long been at the paradoxical heart of Western history.

    And above all, I wondered: Why is THIS Switzerland? With four national languages (and dozens of dialects), why is the border here and not there? Is an Italian-speaking Swiss more or less like his German-speaking countryman than like an actual Italian on the other side of the ridge? What does this say about each of us—no matter which country claims us by accident of birth?

    History is a collection of stories, about people and places. After three months on the borderline in the company of experts and friends, I have a few tales to recount, including my own. If you’re interested in hosting my lecture, please get in touch.

Swiss Border Stories:
Map & Itinerary
Why Switzerland?
Favorite Themes
Borderline Overview
Swiss Border Photos
Sample Stories


This three-minute interview was filmed above Leysin just before I started the third and final stage of my journey. It reflects on what took place in 2010 and what I anticipated from the summer of 2011.

Many adventure would come during the next 70 days! Read most of them here on

Journey through the Alps” is an educational companion to the movie, The Alps. It’s aimed at school kids in the mid grades and uses some cool graphics and features to explain the importance of the Alps in geology, anthropology, political history, art, and adventure.