Interview: John Fleetwood's Alps End to End

© John Fleetwood

Ultra distance fell runner John Fleetwood is about to embark on his biggest challenge by far - an end-to-end journey along the full length of the Alps from Slovenia to Monaco, with no mechanical assistance. On this epic of around 1850km he aims to stick to the high ground as much as possible, including - weather permitting - via ferrata link-ups and ascents of some major peaks along the way. John starts his adventure on 11th June and, optimistically perhaps, has already booked his return train ticket from Nice for 15th August. 

John, who goes by the name Full moon addict on this site, has an impressive record of extreme hill routes. See this article on a winter Broxap round for starters, and his website for many more. And his son Ben is no slouch on the hills either, for a while holding the record for the youngest Munro round.

Five Sisters from Saileag  © John Fleetwood
Five Sisters from Saileag
© John Fleetwood

Your trip is inspired by a combination of Conway’s 19th Century journey through the Alps, and the 5000km trail network the Via Alpina: how long have you had this notion? And how long have you been sitting down and planning it?

It's been around six months planning, but I first had the idea about five years ago to do something of this nature.

What are you most looking forward to?

I think the main thing is that it's an opportunity to experience the Alps as a whole in one long trip and have time to get away from information overload. That said I do still want to share the experience with others - hence the blog which I'll update as I can. If the weather allows, the link up of so many via ferratas could be amazing: I've not found information on anyone who has done anything similar. I'm really looking forward to climbing lesser known peaks as well, and to have the freedom of movement in the mountains that comes from going relatively lightweight and not doing too much glaciated travel.

What’s your current knowledge of the alps like? Have you visited much of the range in the past?

I've climbed in the Swiss Valais, Jungfrau region, Zillertal Alps in Austria, Italian Dolomites and Chamonix area, about 10 trips in all.  I've probably done around 20 of the 4000m peaks.

What sort of average daily distance/ascent are you looking at?

30km and 2600m ascent

Piz Palü and Piz Bernina  © LukeO
Piz Palü and Piz Bernina
© LukeO, Jul 2011

Your UK mega hill runs are comparatively (only comparatively) short distances, done fast. Doing the Alps end-to-end seems to be more about sensible pacing and long-term endurance than any of your previous trips. Is that a fair assumption, and if so how different will it be as an experience?

Yes indeed, a fair assumption! And it will be very different; I've never done anything quite like this, which is part of the appeal. I really want to immerse myself in the journey, which I can do over somethign of this length. I'm not taking any form of electronic devices apart from a basic phone and a compact camera. That will allow me to switch off from the constant intake of information that I am used to in my job and life (mainly analysing companies and data). That's very attractive! A journey is very simple - I won't have many choices to make, I'll just get up and go from A to B with no distractions.

Since you’re going light and unsupported, how are logistics going to be handled? Food, replacement gear, whatnot…

I will have some support for the high mountaineering, so they will bring ropes and mountaineering boots. But by and large I'll be carrying everything I need - helmet, via ferrata gear, harness, crampons, lightweight axe plus clothes, stove, mat, sleeping bag etc.

Are you planning to carry paper maps of the whole route all the way, or pick them up as you go?

I don't want to rely on smartphone and battery life, so I'm using paper maps the whole way. I've cut them up to save weight and will pick up/drop off maps at two places en route.

Climbers descending Bosses ridge of Mt. Blanc
© TonyM, Jul 2006

As well as camping, presumably you’ll be using huts as much as possible to help save weight and hassle?

I'm taking a hooped bivvy to give me flexibility but I'm not a fan of lying in a bag in a storm. And given that I'll be solo for a lot of it, and I do like some company in the evenings, I'll use huts/bivvy huts quite a lot. Also I'll eat hut food quite a lot of the time to keep weight down.

Ideally you’re taking in a lot of summits and interesting ground such as via ferrata; how flexible are you making these plans to accommodate the weather?

Very flexible - I'm under no illusions that I may well have to miss out a lot of summits if the weather dictates, but I'll try to stay high wherever possible. I've made this clear to people I'll meet up with so that they aren't too disapointed if we can't do a particular peak.

So how much glaciated stuff is there likely to be?

Some - Piz Palu to Piz Bernina, Monte Disgrazia, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa to the Breithorn, the Ortler, the Grande Casse and other minor glaciers. I don't really want to solo crevassed areas, so will do this with a partner.

Since you need company and a rope on these bigger mountains is that something you’ve got all worked out in advance, or will you have to make plans on the hoof depending on available partners?

A bit of both. I've got most of the bigger mountains covered but could still do with some support in places, and elsewhere timings might not work out. I would like it if people were to join me on the traverse from Mont Blanc to the Aiguille de Bionnasay and Domes de Miages for instance. Anyone fancy it? Do get in touch.

The amount of snow still lying up high is bound to impact on you: do you have any idea what the ground conditions are like this spring?

James Rushforth has kindly said that he will report snow conditions for me in the Dolomites as he's a local.  That way I can be more prepared. At the moment there looks to be a lot of snow still up high, but things seem more cheery than they did a week or so ago.

Why have you opted to go east-west?

To do the big mountains a bit later in the season

John on Whiteside Pike, his 100th day in a row up a hill this winter in preparation for the Alps  © John Fleetwood
John on Whiteside Pike, his 100th day in a row up a hill this winter in preparation for the Alps
© John Fleetwood

What training have you been doing for this, and how physically ready for it do you currently feel?

Very little actually. In the autumn/winter I went out for a short run every single day which got me used to continual exercise, but really my reasoning is that I will get fit on the trip. I also went to the rainforest in Bolivia recently and came back with giardia or something similar and couldn't keep anything in for a week. I don't have a lot of fat spare and an enforced diet for a week wasn't what the doctor ordered. It also left me feeling very weak, and I then caught a cold and still haven't fully recovered. So my plan is to just to feel generally healthy and not weak before I go, and then to get fit in the first couple of weeks. If it weren't for the fact that I've done a lot of testing endurance days in the past I'd be worried, but as long as I feel well I reckon I'll be OK.

What’s the significance for you of the two charities you’ve chosen to raise money for through the trip, Manna House and Amazon Savers?

Manna House is a charity local to me that works with the homeless. I am privileged to have the time any money to be able to do something like this and I felt I should do something to help those that aren't so privileged. I'll be sleeping in a bag some of the time (by choice), so there's a resonance with people that have to sleep rough (not by choice).

Amazon Savers, the charitable arm of the Cochabamba Project, is tackling deforestation and the poverty that lies behind it, in the Bolivian Amazon. I help to raise funds for this and have visited the project four times. It's a fragile world and this project is helping to tackle root causes of the deforestation which is a major contributor to climate change - potentially the biggest issue of our time.

I also hope to raise some awareness of the European Outdoor Conservation Association, a charity that sponsors environmental projects on behalf of outdoor gear manufacturers who fund EOCA. They are looking for more projects in areas like the Alps, so I'll keep my eyes open!




28 May, 2015
Awesome John - looking forward to following the blog. What a journey!
28 May, 2015
Looks like fun. John - Have you looked into what Nicolas Crane did quite a while back? A longer route and no doubt lower down but pretty epic at 18months long and unsupported. Its a good read.
28 May, 2015
yes - read this. a great read and an immense walk. different in character to my forthcoming journey. I don't have as much time!
28 May, 2015
Good to see you're still going out on these little casual jogs, John! Have a wonderful journey! Best wishes Simon
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