New on Sidetracked:

Attitudes and Altitude: Mountains of the Mind

Fastpacking across the Alps
Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by James Roddie

It’s day three. I’ve made it about 90km from the searing heat of Ventimiglia and the dusty hills that climb up from the Mediterranean. Those first two days felt like some kind of Dantean punishment, making slow progress along an arid, drought-stricken ridge where every village was ruined, every fountain cracked and dry. The drone of cicadas invaded my dreams.

For two days my only water sources have been a concrete cattle trough, filled with green slime, and a puddle in a cave high on a mountain that nobody ever climbs. There were no other hikers. I met nobody at all. I could not spare the energy for running, and instead plodded beneath a blazing sky, legs caked with dust, dreaming ahead to better days.

I’ve now found running water, a village with a bar (‘Three cold Cokes, please – yes, three’), and my first clutch of 2,000m peaks. The air is cooler here. Chamois graze in a rolling landscape of limestone karst where a trail leads up to a high plateau. At last I find myself setting foot on a beautiful sinuous ridge – a ribbon of supertrail winding west towards the sunset, begging me to break into a run. So I run. It feels good. It feels right! But are you a real runner yet? the imposter syndrome asks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Robert Macfarlane’s classic book Mountains of the Mind. I read it many years ago, in my early years of obsession with the Alps, and one idea particularly struck me: that mountains become symbols, and that once these symbols have permeated our culture, they can inspire us to seek something in the infinite mystery of the natural world. I am out here, suffering through type-two fun, because the mountains of the mind might offer answers.


This question has been nagging at me for months, ever since I embarked on this new learning curve. It chased me on half marathons in Lincolnshire, pursuing me fastpacking across the Lake District, and running up hills in the Scottish Highlands through the rain. I’d been overweight and unfit as a teenager. The ghost of those attitudes never left me, even as an adult with a passion for mountains. You aren’t good enough for this stuff, my inner voice would say. You aren’t fit enough, and you don’t look like a runner. You’ll always be just a bit podgy. This voice had always limited me in the mountains.

Out on the trail, everything is simpler and answers always come – even if they aren’t the answers you’re expecting. The trail provides. This time, I hoped it would provide me with the perspective I was looking for, and give me the strength to overcome the voice of doubt in my head.

Two people close to me understood all this well: Jenny Tough, my friend and deputy editor at Sidetracked, and an endurance athlete whose fastpacking journeys I have admired for years; and my brother James, a professional photographer whose struggles with weight and body image had left him hospitalised for anorexia many years ago. Conversations with them before the trip had done much to change how I thought about myself and what I could do. In May, after Jenny’s talk at Keswick Mountain Festival, we found ourselves chatting with an audience member. He asked me if I was a runner. ‘Not really,’ was my automatic response. ‘Sort of. A slow runner.’ Jenny elbowed me in the ribs. ‘You are a runner!

So I took another look at my hiking plans for the summer and adapted them. Ventimiglia to Zermatt over the spine of the Alps had been the idea, 900–1,000km of mountain wandering. Why not run some of that? Why not combine my newfound skills as a runner, and what I’d learnt from short fastpacking journeys in the UK, with my passion for ultralight backpacking in bigger ranges abroad? I asked James and Jenny if they wanted to join me when I got to Arolla, 170km from the end, and imagined the conversations we’d have after hundreds of kilometres of hard trail.


Two weeks in, I am being thrashed by thunderstorms and my plan is in tatters. I’ve come over 500km and am feeling strong. I’ve adapted to the heat and the relentless elevation profile. I’m running the runnable downhills and feeling good about my progress. But something has changed. It started two days ago, when the uniform blue skies that had followed me from the Med clouded over in less than an hour and a sudden, savage thunderstorm chased me over the Colle di Costa Fiorita.

One thunderstorm is a novelty. Eight in less than three days is starting to feel like Russian roulette. I am never going to get to Arolla in time is the gloomy thought that dogs me as I slip and slide through the downpour, climbing another dusty trail turned to mud. I’m meeting Jenny and James on August 15th – only nine days away, and my progress has slowed significantly.

The rain keeps getting heavier. I stop and look up, suddenly disoriented by the sheets of water foaming ankle-deep down the hillside everywhere, surging up out of marmot burrows. The force of the rain against my saturated jacket feels like the hand of some vengeful mountain god upon me, pressing me down to kneel in prayer. I can barely see or breathe. The rain is not a veil or even a curtain; it’s an ocean.

It clears before I reach the col. I stumble, drenched, over a landscape transformed by the storm. Drifts of hailstones lie like fresh snow. A brown torrent is carving out the trail. The sun peeps out from above a towering shoulder of cumulonimbus and I am blinded by a thousand flashing reflections. The rock slabs of Monte Morion over to the west, black and dry only hours before, are now sheets of cascading silver light. New waterfalls thread every seam and gully. As I stand there at Colle della Crocetta – 2,641m above sea level and feeling horribly exposed – I look up to see an almost perfect circle of blue sky, walled in by the muscular battlements of at least four different storm cells. One, away to the south, sits squat over the darkened ridges of Punta del Rous, flashing and booming like an artillery bombardment. You’re next. The circle of blue sky is already closing. Blackness creeps over the landscape again.

The question comes again as I begin the soggy trudge down the northern side of the col. Are you a real runner yet? I laugh bitterly at my thoughts. There has been no running today.

‘They’re Princess Leia’s stolen Death Star Plans… she’s got them and it’s time to go…’

A few days after the storms finally cleared, I made it to Switzerland. Now I’m bombing full-speed down a mountain at 8.00am, singing ‘Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans’ at the top of my voice. It’s a Star Wars parody version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, and despite having only watched it once on YouTube I can remember pretty much all the words. The brain does funny things on the trail.

‘Vaaader’s heeeere… What would you think if I boarded your ship… Would you give those transmissions to me?’

This is it. This is the flow I’ve been seeking. There is no conscious link between my mind and my feet flying from rock to rock, switchback to switchback. My body thinks for itself. My legs are stronger than they’ve ever been and I can feel the muscles working to propel me at speeds I never would have believed only a few months ago – a graceful blend of power, control, poise. I feel so grateful for the amazing friends who have encouraged me and guided me to this point.

I descend 1,300m in less than an hour, and I keep running. Today, for a while at least, I feel like a runner.


I’ve made it to Arolla in time, but only because I decided to change my route after the thundery spell, cutting almost 100km in the process. I stopped feeling bad about this almost immediately. Who cares if I’m not the fastest person to do a big route in the Alps? That had never been the point.

Arolla feels like a homecoming. I’ve visited twice before, in 2010 and 2014, but I can’t reconcile the grey and dusty peaks with the pristine white mountains of snow that I remember. So much has changed in such a short time.

James is here – a slim figure with fastpacking rucksack and camera, ready to join me for the rest of the journey to Zermatt, and excited to be back in Switzerland for the first time in 14 years. Here, too, are my Sidetracked friends: Jenny Tough, who I’d been expecting, and John Summerton, whose surprise but welcome arrival means that we have a team of four heading up towards the Haut Glacier d’Arolla. After so long in my own head with my own preoccupations, time with family and friends is a pure joy. We chat excitedly together as we stroll up through the larch forest – in the 1830s this area had been under the glacier. It’s a bright but cool morning.

Mont Collon’s bulk seems to block our route dead ahead. John is photographing the jumble of seracs on the other side of the valley; it ends in an ice cave surrounded by freshly fallen blocks the size of cars, blue and raw. James asks how long it’ll be until we reach the ice, and I describe the view up to the glacier from a rocky knoll I know we’ll come to soon. I can remember it vividly from 2014: a great dragon’s tongue of ice gleaming white in the valley of stones.

John and James draw ahead, and I walk with Jenny for a while. ‘How are you feeling at this point in your journey?’ she asks me. ‘Emotionally, I mean?’ I reply: ‘I think I’ve stopped seeing much of a distinction between hiking and running – they’re both on the same spectrum. And maybe slowing down since the thunderstorms has done me some good. Running’s no longer this thing I have to do to hit a distance target. It feels more like play now. I’m taking it less seriously, and stressing about it all a lot less. Does that make sense?’ She nods, and says, ‘A lot! I love that our friendship is one of the few I have with someone who totally gets this stuff.’

We reach the rocky knoll. The valley opens up in front of us, but I can’t see any ice. Just endless rocks in heaps, erosion gullies, small landslides. For a moment I think we must be in the wrong place, and my disorientation is so extreme that it feels as if I’ve dropped through time. Everything is wrong. It’s impossible to convey the gut punch I’ve just experienced. So instead I say, ‘It’s so much worse than I expected.’ And it’s such a sunny day, and we’re all happy to be enjoying the mountains in each other’s company. Horror and joy marbled together like oil on a mountain tarn.

I’m used to thinking of human life as this short-lived daring fireball in the dark and the mountains as eternal, godlike entities. Once, many years ago, I’d been an alpinist of sorts – maybe I’ve just earnt a dig in the ribs from Jenny for that too – but I moved on to other ways of enjoying the mountains. The snowy heights explored by a younger me stand as monuments in my mind. You can always go back later in life and do the mountains you never climbed said a voice of comfort, following me down the years. While the snows of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn still gleam in the evening alpenglow, and young dreamers still gaze up at them, with new lifetimes of adventure ignited by those legendary peaks, somehow it will all be all right.

But perhaps summer alpinism is the daring fireball in the dark. Perhaps the future is dust and rubble and the memory of snowfields that have long since died. In summer 2022, glacial collapses and catastrophic rockfalls have killed climbers, changed classic routes beyond recognition, and led to the closure of countless peaks. Including, yes, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Glaciologists have recorded metres of ice depth loss on many glaciers in only a few months. Swiss glaciers lost around six per cent of their remaining ice mass in 2022 alone.

I try not to take all this personally. The mountains do not die, I tell myself later as James and I explore the withered lower glacier, hundreds of metres further up the valley than on my last visit. It looks like an entirely different place, and an unstable carpet of smashed rocks covers every surface of the ice. This deadly camouflage will accelerate the melt. No, but the mountains of the mind can die.

As we ascend what remains of the glacier, skirting crevasses and enormous sinkholes that roar with water boring down into the ancient blue ice, I struggle to comprehend this new feeling. It is as if something has become dislocated deep inside of me. I don’t know how to form words around this. We live in the age of solastalgia, a term coined in 2003 to describe distress caused by environmental change, but to me the word has always felt inadequate. Grief for future losses reaches back through time as a bloom of dread the colour of stone dust.


James and I hike, not run, our final week to Zermatt. There is no hurry, and I no longer feel the urge. Weeks ago anxiety would have gnawed at me for this, and I’d have asked myself things like What does this mean? and Can I be a runner if I prefer to hike? But I have nothing left to prove. To myself or anyone else. I know what my body can do and what it can’t. I know that I’ve barely lost weight on this trip, despite the heinous elevation profile, and that I’ll always be short and a bit stocky no matter how far I run. That’s fine! I’ll never be a FKT-setting ultrarunner, and that’s fine too. I have no wish to be. I’m still fitter than I’ve ever been and I can traverse 900km of Europe’s finest mountains without a blister. Am I a runner? Of course I am.

As we cross the last few passes back into Switzerland, exploring forests filled with ibex and goshawks and red squirrels, James and I talk about just how great this adventure has been. We talk about the future, too. ‘I think that summer alpine climbing is done for,’ I tell him as we cross the Monte Moro pass, looking back at the colossal east face of Monte Rosa. Just like everywhere else, so much ice has gone that it seems smaller than I remember. James has never seen this side before and he is awestruck by its magnificence. ‘Maybe it’s important to have these experiences while we still can.’

Just as knowledge of mortality – that we all gain as we grow older – can make life a richer experience, the idea that the age of alpinism is coming to an end changes everything. The birthplace of adventure itself is mortal. I have seen it turning to dust. The beauty that is so easy to take for granted will one day no longer exist, and when the mountains of the mind have faded, what then will drive us to seek the truths that can only be found beyond the human world? What will turn our gaze outward and upward, challenging us to be better people? It is all the more important to take every moment of magic that the mountains offer us, to learn all that can be learnt. Because time is very short.

The Alps may have been transformed almost beyond belief within only a few short years, but they are still beautiful. And time in the mountains with friends and family is still precious. Perhaps more precious than it has ever been. Snow still gleams brightly amongst the rocks and the alpenglow still lights up the Matterhorn at sunset.

We reach Zermatt and set up tarps in the old climber’s campsite where we’d first pitched back in 2007 as young and inexperienced alpinists. It’s busy with climbers and long-distance hikers – drinking, sharing beta and tall tales, decompressing from their adventures, and planning new ones. Memories surround us, highlighting all the more starkly what has changed. Above, the Matterhorn’s gigantic pyramid gazes impassively down on the town. I remember who I’d been back then, wracked with insecurity about whether or not I was a real climber. Younger me put such pressure on himself. But, in time, it all came down to having adventures with the people I cared about – people who accepted me for who I was and encouraged me to do the same. Eventually the questions stopped mattering, and now I wonder if the most valuable lessons need to be reinforced every once in a while, like servicing a vintage watch every decade to keep it running on time.


On the morning of departure we creep out of the campsite well before dawn. The stars still twinkle down from above, but the sky has begun to turn from black to a deep, inky blue, framing the Matterhorn’s deeper shadow as a sharp notch punching through the firmament. The archetypal mountain of the mind. As always, it’s higher in the sky than I expect it to be. And on the Hörnli Ridge I see the headlamps of a string of climbers: a constellation of stars bound to the mountain, questing upwards towards the summit. Although shaken to its foundations by avalanche and rockfall, the Matterhorn is open again. And adventure continues. I have never climbed the Matterhorn, and in all likelihood never will, but in that moment my heart fills with joy.

In summer 2022, our editor Alex Roddie set out on a fastpacking trip across the Alps: 900km from Ventimiglia to Zermatt, featuring countless mountain passes. This is part of a series of online stories about his project, helping you to go higher and faster in the mountains.

Attitudes and Altitude: Mountains of the Mind Feature Story
Attitudes and Altitude: Tranter’s Round
Attitudes and Altitude: Destination Guide to the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
Attitudes and Altitude: How to Go Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Guide for Alpine Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Review

The Attitudes and Altitude project was supported by Montane and LEKI
Written by Alex Roddie // @alex_roddie
Photography by James Roddie // @james_roddie_photography