Extreme hikers tackle vast distances. They might choose the traditional Rennsteig, the almost 300-kilometre-long Westweg, or the world-famous Way of St. James. But extreme hiker Thorsten Hoyer is very different from other fans of the sport. Because 44-year-old Hoyer covers his extreme distances in one go. He’s already cracked the 100-kilometre mark several times. One of his most extraordinary adventures was his non-stop crossing of the Alps on the E5 long-distance trail from Oberstdorf in Bavaria to Vernagt near Meran.
Downpour on departure
Skies are grey over the Allgäu on the day he sets off. In fact they’re an entirely different colour than that depicted on tourism posters of this popular holiday region. Torrents of rain lash down on the luscious green mountain landscape. Thorsten Hoyer doesn’t mind, in fact he actually welcomes the inclement weather. “I prefer showers to searing heat”, he explains and adds that “It also means that it there won’t be so many people out and about”. It’s 7.30 a.m. when he starts off on his epic tour and he’s not wrong. At this time of the morning, nobody’s out in the bucketing rain on the E5 – despite its popularity. In spite of his weatherproof trousers and jacket, Thorsten’s very quickly soaked to the skin. But it’s something this professional trekker tries to ignore. “Once you’re really wet, at least you can’t get any wetter”. He stoically pushes on. Even people who don’t know him quickly see that this is a man with his mind set on his objective.
After about four hours he reaches the Kemptener hütte. For many E5 Alp hikers, this hut is the end of the first day’s leg. But not for Thorsten. He briefly glances up at the hut, says hello and heads on towards Italy. Our extreme hiker is wearing Altai GTX® trekking boots…
The rain finally stops at around 3 p.m. The skies slowly start to look more like those on the Allgäu tourism posters. But the going’s getting tougher. The route continues steeply to the Memminger hütte in the Lechtal Alps. Thorsten’s now been walking for more than 13 hours and covered 42 kilometres when the hut comes into view. Although it’s nearly dark, he recognises it in the distance. It lies at 2242 metres altitude and is covered in fresh snow. At least it’s not rained up here…
Thorsten treats himself to a short break and some tea and chocolate. Like a mantra, he stresses to himself the importance of not getting too relaxed and comfortable. He keeps his Altai GTX® on and only his jacket is placed to dry briefly next to the warm fireplace. While the other guests are relaxing and enjoying the cosy atmosphere in the hut, Thorsten picks up his rucksack, bids the incredulous onlookers goodnight and sets off into the dark.
Up and down – day and night
Everything goes to plan during the first night. Thanks to his GPS device, Thorsten remains on the route despite the snow and the dark. Concentrating all the time, he covers the 2000 metres of descent. The path is sludgy and treacherous. He treads each and every step carefully. The aggressive profile on the soles of his Altai GTX® do their job. Thorsten’s also pleased to see that his feet are still warm and dry thanks to the GORE-TEX® lining.
The sleet slowly starts to subside when Thorsten reaches Zams in Inntal on Sunday at 5 a.m. He allows himself a short break and a drink before he takes the cable car (an exception) up the Venetberg, together with the other E5 hikers. At the summit station, rays of sun are there to welcome him and the exertions of the night are forgotten.
His next destination is the Braunschweig hut at the end of the Pitztal, which lies at 2795 metres. Thorsten moves easily through the pristine white snowy landscape. He follows a wide path – through the Ötztal glacier skiing area which is far too built up – and on to Geislach. Shortly before Vent at the end of Ötztal, after 40 hours and 110 kilometres on his feet, twilight signals the second sleepless night. Our extreme hiker is exhausted, but still stubbornly continues step by step. Fatigue forces Thorsten to proceed more slowly. For the first time on the E5, he takes slightly longer than the times shown on the small yellow signposts.
He takes a break in the drying room at the Martin-Busch hutte. Just before dawn breaks, Thorsten crosses the border to Italy and reaches the Similaunhütte at 3019 metres. He now completed all the ascents – just under 6500 metres. From the hut, he “only” has another 1200 metres downhill to Vernagt, his final destination.
The finish – exhausted, but happy
After a brief, but well-deserved rest, he’s back on his feet. For the last time. Thorsten knows that he now has to tread carefully to avoid slipping, or spraining an ankle. Maximum concentration is required, particularly because he’s so exhausted. Our extreme hiker chooses to go slower because the risk of accidents is greatest when you’re tired. He generously allows himself seven hours to reach his destination. The trail is rocky and varied. Thorsten’s welcomes this. Time goes faster than on the open paths; despite the tiredness it’s more enjoyable.
At 8.30 a.m. and after 48.5 hours, Thorsten Hoyer reaches his destination. Exhausted, but happy, he reaches the south Tyrolean village of Vernagt. He’s gone non-stop on foot from Oberstdorf. Exhausted, but happy, he arrives at the south Tyrolean village of Vernagt. He’s come non-stop on foot from Oberstdorf – 120 kilometres away. A lonely arrival at the finishing line. Thorsten grins. He’s made it.
Interview mit Thorsten Hoyer
When I heard you’d crossed the Alps non-stop, I was full of admiration, but then I started wondering why. Why would you want to do that?
That’s a good question and I’m not even sure I know what the answer is (Thorsten says grinning). But let me stress that it’s not about breaking records. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. What motivates me is something that sounds a lot more trivial – it’s curiosity, pure and simple. I wanted to find out how crossing the Alps non-stop works. I’d covered long distances in the past; I knew that it wasn’t a problem. Now I was endeavouring to combine a long route with huge differences in altitude.
And how was it?
Super. I succeeded and it was great fun, although conditions weren’t ideal.
In what way weren’t conditions ideal?
I started off in heavy rain which higher up meant snow – and remember it was August. From the Memming hut onwards the route was snowed over and at the Braunschweig hut it was knee deep, so I wasn’t sure that I’d get through. But I did. The weather improved and I was able to manage the difficult sections well.
Did you take many breaks and did you stop off anywhere?
I never take long breaks on my trips. The longer and cosier a break is, the harder it is to press on. While crossing the Alps, I took the first break after 14 hours of walking to have two cups of tea and an energy bar. If I ate more it would be impossible to get going again. But my body’s used to that and I don’t suffer from hunger pangs when hiking.
How do you keep yourself awake for so long?
I don’t drink any coffee, nor do I take any stimulants. I just mentally prepare for the long hike beforehand. And I don’t find that I have any problems staying awake. After all, I’m always on the move.
But honestly now, how long was your hike across the Alps fun and when did it become agony?
(He laughs) The trip was mostly agony at the beginning because it poured with rain from Oberstdorf to the Kempten hut. Everything was soaked through – me included and quite honestly I felt pretty exhausted. But once the weather improved, everything was great. Above all, the nights were a lot of fun. You have to concentrate on where you‘re going. Up in the mountains you can’t afford to slip. Which is why I had a companion at night. In the dark, that’s important for safety.
Do you prefer hiking by yourself or in a group?
On really long hikes I prefer being on my own and relying on my own resources. Otherwise I like being in a group.
Aren’t you bored when you’re hiking alone?
No, not at all. That’s because I’m outdoors with the nature. There’s so much to see that you don’t have time to get bored. On a treadmill in the gym on the other hand I don’t think I’d last ten kilometres.
What boots do you normally wear?
My two standard models are the Tatra and Altai GTX. For the Alps, the Altai GTX was a very good choice. It’s very stable, but still flexible and not too heavy.
How long do your shoes last?
I don’t know how many kilometres the Altai GTX has already done. My Performance GTX trail shoes lasted an incredible 2,500 kilometres. And thanks to their cemented construction, I was able have them re-soled.
I’m sure you didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to hike 200 kilometres non-stop… How did you get into hiking?
I used to hate hiking at school. Later I discovered travelling and realised that you get to know a country best when on foot. A trekking trip to Greenland in 1993 triggered my interest in long-distance hiking. Since then I’ve hiked a lot and it’s become something I love doing. In 2004 I took part in a 24-hour hike for the first time. After that I knew that I was capable of more. As the curiosity I mentioned before got the better of me I started extreme hiking. I was very lucky to be able to turn this demanding hobby into my job.
What other projects are in the pipeline?
Next year I’m off to Albania to write a hiking guide. I’m also planning a trekking trip to Nepal. And 300 kilometres non-stop is another project on the agenda…
Text and interview: Julia Englhart / Amrei Kommer