By Denise Lodge
Gudrun and Peter Seifert’s mission is “to get people to hike more, for better health of body, mind, and soul.” They are passionate about hiking, because they have experienced its many benefits.
Originally from Germany, Gudrun, an English teacher, and Peter, a mechanical engineer, moved to the United States in 1964. In 1998, they decided to take early semi-retirement, and go on a hiking holiday in the French Alps. For the following six summers, they returned to hike a new segment of the 2,100 kilometres from Nice, on the French Riviera, to Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Addicted to Hiking
Gudrun and Peter say they “discovered” hiking twenty-five years ago, when they were about fifty, during a summer vacation in Colorado. When they first walked up some Fourteeners (mountains exceeding 14,000 feet, or 4,267 metres), they “loved the views” from the top, but admittedly felt “pretty exhausted.” Despite the fatigue, they felt a desire to do more, and after a day’s rest, hiked up Mount Sopris, and reached both its 3,951-metre peaks. Instead of tired, they felt “addicted”; they also felt proud of their achievements, reporting their feats to impressed friends.
They continued to visit Colorado to hike during summers, and ascended 17 of the 56 Colorado Fourteeners, some taking more attempts than others. They found that hiking rewarded them with improved physical fitness, including lowered blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. The benefits they saw were not only physical; hiking also challenged their mind and memory.
Hiking in the Alps
At age 62, Peter experienced health problems as a result of work-related stress. For the sake of his health, Peter decided to work part-time, with longer holidays, and sought a relaxing activity.
After their experiences in Colorado, “hiking a full month in the Alps sounded just fine” to the Seiferts. They found that it really helped: the complete change of scenery and daily routine, attaining new goals, and even learning and employing a new language (French) gave them “a new feeling of success and achievement.”
Gudrun and Peter find hiking in the Alps much easier than the American Grail Trails, such as the 4,345-kilometre Continental Divide Trail and the 4,264-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail, which both extend from Mexico to Canada, as well as the 3,500-kilometre Appalachian Trail, which extends from Georgia to Maine. They say the Alps are “like dessert” in comparison: the variation in languages, geography, history, weather, people, foods, villages and hostels occupy their mind and imagination.
Their first trip to the French Alps was the beginning of an exciting and invigorating adventure: the following year, the Seiferts returned to France for more. The idea to hike all the way to Vienna in segments lingered in their minds, and, over the following six years, became their “retirement project.” Between 1998 and 2004, with backpacks weighing 15 and 25 pounds, they annually hiked one segment between Nice and Vienna. They bypassed little stretches along the way because of excessive snow, but in 2006 returned to hike them and thereby cover every step from Nice to Vienna.
Typically, the venturesome couple hiked between five to seven hours per day, “from nine o’clock to three in the afternoon,” averaging about 13 kilometres per day, but sometimes pressing on for 24 kilometres. Their annual hike usually lasted about one month. Because they are now so used to walking, distance is not a primary issue, but with elevation differences they “are more careful: an ascent of 1,000 meters is no problem, but at the top, there should be accommodations.”
When asked what about the French Alps draws them most, they list a plethora of attractions: they enjoy the dramatic landscapes, national parks (Parc national du Mercantour, Parc national de la Vanoise), Chamonix and Mont Blanc, weather conditions that include little rain, French cuisine, and picturesque “perched” mountain villages. They are also interested in historic aspects, such as “Bronze-Age monuments, or reminders of Hannibal, the Romans, the Visigoths, and Napoleon.” Despite having “been there many times,” one of their favourite places to revisit is Central Europe. They say that “there is so much to still see,” such as “the medieval Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals, or Monasteries, like in Mustair, Switzerland; the museums and Konditoreien (cafés) in Dresden, Berlin, Cologne, and Vienna; and historic Ravenna,” in Italy. “Most of all,” they relate, they “would like to revisit the entire region of the Alps.”
The most memorable moment of their hike, they report, was “stepping out of the last wooded area, like in front of a curtain, [arriving] at the top of a wide vineyard. It gently sloped toward a small village and, beyond, there was Vienna, the famous, historic metropolis between East and West, the capital of Austria.” The achievement and beauty of the moment was something to celebrate; in the Seifert’s words, “it was a moment for hugging each other.” There were tears of joy as they arrived at the once-so-distant culmination of their journey. It is one of the greatest projects they have ever undertaken, and they testify that it enriched their “retirement years in ways never before imagined,” and made them “healthier and younger.”
Preparing for a Hiking Vacation
The 2,100-kilometre hiking adventure in the Alps was not a walk in the park, but neither was it a stressful ordeal. The Seiferts “hike in early summer, the pre-season, [when] most snow has melted, mountain hostels (“huts”) have just opened, and are especially fresh and clean.” When aiming for a mountain hut, the Seiferts advise making a phone reservation, and talking with someone “to confirm the hut is indeed open, and to ask about trail and weather.”
Because of their pre-season timing, they are able “to walk to a village without a reservation,” and look for vacancy signs, or ask about vacancies at the tourist office. Generally, they find that “reservations in hiking provide a false feeling of safety, because they force a schedule” that cannot always be followed, in cases of inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances.
Another consideration to make when travelling abroad is potential language barriers. Both of the Seiferts speak German and English, Gudrun studied French in high school, and Peter studied Russian in high school. Despite this impressive linguistic store, Peter’s lack of French skills bothered him. Their son challenged him, “Well Dad, if it is that important to you, why don’t you learn French now?” Peter undertook the challenge, and, “aided by an audio-tape course for beginners,” he learned basic conversational phrases and greetings. “It was not much,” he says, but the couple was able to find their way, make reservations, purchase food, and explore in French. It was a team effort: “Peter was more courageous in speaking, and Gudrun understood the replies.” They report that “the French were very friendly, understanding, forgiving, and helpful.”
Hiking Inspiration and Advice
After their first summer hiking experience in Colorado, the Seiferts learned that they were not as physically fit as they had thought, so “took up walking in the neighbourhood and nearby parks” to improve their fitness and their hikes. For those who have never hiked, and want to begin, they recommend walking at a “brisk pace, faster than a stroll, but not to be out of breath.”
Before going on a longer hike of several days or weeks, they recommend visiting the doctor, bringing along enough medication for the duration of the trip, and making sure your health insurance will cover you in a foreign country. They also advise planning short segments of about 12 kilometres and reasonable elevation gains (initially not more than 600 metres per day). Although it may be tempting to race until you are out of breath, the Seiferts advise walking “slowly, but steadily.”
Gudrun and Peter do not consider themselves “healthcare or mountaineering professionals,” but are guided by common sense. To avoid sunburn or sun damage, use sunscreen, “even if it is cloudy.” To avoid cramps, “carry and drink enough water.” They recommend “tougher, long-legged pants,” such as blue jeans, to avoid scrapes, as well as “light gloves on downhill or rocky stretches” to protect your hands. Sprains and strains are the commonest hiking injury, and the Seiferts advise watching your step, going slowly, and stopping to look around and be aware of your surroundings. They also recommend testing your cell phone to make sure it works in the area. If you are abroad, be sure to know the emergency number in the area; for example, if visiting a member state of the European Union, the emergency number is 112.
In their words, Gudrun and Peter are not “gear” people. They each have “one umbrella and one adjustable hiking pole, with a hard tip, and a well-aged backpack.” They wear flexible hiking boots with ankle support and well-padded interiors, and soles with a coarse, deep profile. They opt for hiking boots one full size larger than their walking shoes “to protect toes on downhill stretches or in stumbles.” For navigation, they use hiking maps with elevation lines, by Kompass (an Austrian brand) or FFRP (available in French only).
Up Ahead: More Adventure
This past summer, Gudrun and Peter walked for four weeks “from near Brixen (Italy), through the Dolomites, across the Tauern Mountains, to Zell am See (Austria).” “One of these days,” they say, they will do the “Tour Mont Blanc,” a ten-day hike around the entire massif. When asked if there is anywhere else they would like to hike and visit, they have numerous locations in mind: their current list includes the “Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, Alaska, Grand Canyon, Peru, and Scotland.”
The Seiferts’ is a love story, their daughter suggests. It is a story of the love of mountains, of freedom, of dreams, of the new, and of each other. For the Seiferts, love is the power against which “strain, pain, rain, heat, or cold become just little side matters, to be ignored or gladly accepted.” And soon they will begin another adventure: they are putting together a new trail, from Vienna back to Nice, and “cannot wait to hit the trail again next year.”
Hike for Your Life: The Book
Gudrun and Peter have penned an exciting account of their adventure in the Alps, detailing their trail from Nice to Vienna. Hike for Your Life includes a detailed daily log, with locations, distances, elevations, and time spent on the trail.
If you would like to win one of three free copies of Hike for Your Life, signed by Gudrun and Peter, simply comment on the story, below, or on Impowerage‘s Facebook page. Moreover, the Seiferts are offering a special 20% discount to Impowerage readers. Simply email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let them know you are an Impowerage reader.
The draw is now closed. Congratulations to Tara B, David C and Brenda W for winning a copy of the book.