Counting Steps on the Via Alpina
I know I’ve mentioned it once or twice but the hiking trails of the Via Alpina (and really throughout Switzerland) are impossibly steep.
Here’s how most days of our Swiss hiking days unfold:
You crane your neck all morning looking up at the next pass, hiking the relentlessly uphill trail and willing your body to just please go one. more. step.
When you finally reach the top of the pass, the relief is palpable. Your legs are still shaking from the workout but you are delighted to be on top of the world, especially if the sky is clear, because ohmygoodness THE VIEWS.
But the relief is short-lived, because thirty minutes after you start down, your knees are screaming at you for slamming them into the ground step after step after step.
You finally hobble all the way to your hostel where you have a seat, a drink, a shower, some food and some sleep before you wake up to do it again. Seriously, it’s both AMAZING and AMAZINGLY HARD.
And that goes for the uphill AND the downhill.
But it’s the uphill struggle that we tell people to prepare for on hikes in the mountains.
For months, I send out emails and texts encouraging folks to go walk the hills closest to them. Go up and down them as many times as you possibly can. For people who don’t live near any hills, I suggest finding some stairs or at the very least, a stair master machine at the gym.
But no matter how many stairs you force yourself to climb, you probably won’t reach the equivalent of what you will climb in a day on the Via Alpina.
When you’re staring at the side of a mountain and wondering how much further it is to the top, the answer is always: further than you think.
So how do you tap into the place deep within yourself that pushes you to keep going further than you’ve trained to go?
I don’t know how other folks do it, but being a person that does not excel at “will power,” I have developed a system for how to bypass the part of my brain that is telling me to quit.
I’ve been flinging my body up mountains for a long time, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have reached the place where I feel that I cannot take another step.
And this is what I do.
I tell myself I don’t have to climb all the way to the top. I only have to take 100 more steps.
So I count to 100 steps, and then I stop and catch my breath for a count of 10.
And then I repeat.
I take 100 more steps, then stop and take 5 deep breaths. In (1) and out (2), in (3) and out (4)…until I get to 10.
And then again. And again.
When 100 steps begins to feel insurmountable, I drop to 50.
I reduce the number until it is the amount of steps to which my brain will say yes.
In the Colorado Rockies, where the altitude is high and my lungs cannot seem to catch the air I need, I have reduced the number of steps all the way to 10. 10 steps, 10 breaths.
A slow plod.
When I am doing counts of 100, I stop for a longer break after 5-10 sets. Drink a little water. Have a bite of an energy bar.
And this is how I get up the mountain, in little bite-sized chunks.
Importantly, the counting takes my concentration.
It fills the space that is usually buzzing with all my thoughts.
When will it end?
Whose idea was this trip?
Why didn’t I train more ahead of time?
I think everyone else here is faster than me.
Instead of this pattern of unhelpful thoughts, all I can think is: one step, two steps, three steps…
Once I start counting steps, I can even get in a sort of meditative zone. I’m just stepping, counting and breathing.
I love walking with others because of how the time passes. Sometimes someone is telling me a story while we’re walking and I don’t even notice how many miles we’ve gone. But on the Via Alpina, there comes a point when the trail is so steep and you’ve been at it for so long that no one is talking anymore. You can’t spare the oxygen for talking, so you are just left alone in your own head.
This summer I began to share my counting system with some of the others who might have been similarly struggling to climb the Swiss Alps.
A few of the gals took this system of counting steps and made it their own, developing routines of how many steps to take, when to stop for a water break and when to stop for food.
It gave me great joy to see that the system that I have used with success since I was a teenager was also helpful to others. If you ever find yourself on the side of a mountain thinking that you just cannot go any further, I encourage you to give it a try.
PS. Here’s a little video Taido took of the steep ascent of switchbacks getting up to Bunderchrinde pass (2382 meters) on the day we hiked from Adelboden to Kandersteg on the Via Alpina. You can see Anna and I waaaay below, making our way slowly up the mountain. And I can promise you that I am counting steps.