On Sacred Ground - A backpacking tour de force Review

© Andrew Terrill

Long books about big walks can be almost as hard going as all those miles trudging under a laden backpack, but this account of an epic solo mountain adventure is a fresh and engaging exception. The second volume in Andrew Terrill's two-parter, On Sacred Ground leads from the foothills of the Alps to the far north tip of Norway - and it's a rewarding journey to join him on, says Dan Bailey.

Ours is a busy and heavily developed Continent. Can genuine wildness still be found in Europe? Is there really scope these days to drop far off grid among mountains and forests, for days, weeks or even months? Towards the tail end of the 1990s, one young man from suburban London set off to find out.

On Sacred Ground  © Enchanted Rock Press

His answer to both questions, many hard months later, was a resounding yes. Sticking to the high ground, out in all weathers, and largely alone, Andrew Terrill's 7000-mile mountain walk from the southern tip of Italy to Norway's far North Cape, was an incredible feat of backpacking endurance. The two-part account of his journey is also a cracking good read.

Covering the first half of the odyssey, up the Apennines and into the Alps, volume one, The Earth Beneath My Feet, proved a big hit with reviewers last year. Here's what we thought of it:

Part two, On Sacred Ground, picks up where that left off, alone in Austria's foggy forests in the November snow. From here it's the dense pines of Bohemia, the Frankenwald and Germany's under-sung Harz mountains in the deserted depths of a Continental midwinter. Dank, gloomy weather and darkness interchange with heavy snowfalls and days of dazzling frozen clarity.

Winter camp along the Rennsteig trail in the mountains of central Germany, January 1998  © Andrew Terrill
Winter camp along the Rennsteig trail in the mountains of central Germany, January 1998
© Andrew Terrill

Like me, he might have assumed in the planning that the huge bit between the Alps and distant Norway would be a trudging test of resolve, but in the walking it proves far emptier and more inspiring than that. This part of the book offers insights into wilder forested reaches of central Europe that most of us will probably never have spared a thought for.

But beyond the teutonic wald come the endless north German plain and the North Sea Coast of Denmark; bigger, flatter, colder and even less exciting than Norfolk; weeks of trudging into a headwind that I, for one, am happy to read about briefly (perhaps not quite briefly enough) and then pass over forever.

Sacred ground, Scottish style, and no shortage of biting beasties: Seems an appropriate place to read it  © Dan Bailey
Sacred ground, Scottish style, and no shortage of biting beasties: Seems an appropriate place to read it
© Dan Bailey

"I'd wanted a long, cold, snowy winter" he writes "and now I'd had one. I'd found much within it to reassure, but it had taken a toll. Damp clothes, numb extremities, a squalid tent, overused muscles, a feeling of always being on, seldom able to fully relax - the discomforts had worn me down. Like the boots on my feet and the pack on my back I was slowly coming apart at the seams. I wasn't sure how much more I could take."

But take it he does, day in day out; quite the feat of staying power for anyone, but perhaps particularly impressive considering his youth, a time of life when many of us lack such focus and application.

Yet another river crossing in the Svartisen region of Arctic Norway, August 1998  © Andrew Terrill
Yet another river crossing in the Svartisen region of Arctic Norway, August 1998
© Andrew Terrill

By turns grim and uplifting, Terrill's winter wanderings in the woods are as solitary as the rest of his journey, and it's hard not to marvel at his ability to abide his own company weeks on end. As in part one, he doesn't shy away from the bouts of loneliness, or periods when his moods seem as bleak as the weather; but there's humour in the self-imposed suffering too, and even something touching on nobility in the purity of his self-propelled and self-sufficient journeying. And whenever things begin to get too introspective, there's a witty or memorable encounter with people met along the way.

Saving the best til last, Norway is the promised land waiting to reward all that effort, the wildest, most serious stretch of the journey, and a backpacking challenge that only his long apprenticeship thus far could have prepared him for. When it finally comes it is everything he'd dreamed it would be, only massively more so.

Snowshoeing into the Norwegian wild, April 1998  © Andrew Terrill
Snowshoeing into the Norwegian wild, April 1998
© Andrew Terrill

After so many months of hard plodding, cold camping, spartan meals and all that business of taking his own thoughts for a long walk, both he and the reader might have been forgiven for getting a bit jaded by the whole project. But not a bit of it. He is blown away by the scale and beauty of the Scandinavian fjells and fjords, a setting of elemental magnificence that his writing rises to meet.

There's still a huge distance to cover on the ground and in print, plenty of suffering along the way courtesy of weather and mosquitos, and moments of real jeopardy on the snowbound high ground still gripped by winter, but even with the end in sight and yet another winter creeping steadily down the hillsides and darkening the days as he progresses north, we're not so much willing him to finish as enjoying the intricacies of the way. Does he make it before his meagre funds run dry? It really doesn't matter: these books, like the journey, are about far more than an arbitrary end point.

At home in the Norwegian Arctic, September 1998  © Andrew Terrill
At home in the Norwegian Arctic, September 1998
© Andrew Terrill

What's it all for? Terrill is at his best when he's showing, rather than attempting to spell it out. He says as much here, when trying to explain his motivation to a sceptical father:

"[My stories] explained the whys far more clearly that any distilled answer ever could... I'd shared tales of Alpine cloud seas and ice-glazed Bohemian forests. I'd described the kindness of strangers, the hospitality of families. I'd talked about growth, about learning to understand and trust my own capabilities, about becoming more with each step, about finding meaning and purpose in moving forward..." 

Written over 20 years after the events they depict, both books gain from the maturity of a distanced and grown-up perspective, and yet the quality of Terrill's writing loses nothing of the sense of youthful wonder and romance that must have powered the strides of his younger self. There's a vivid immediacy to the account, thanks to the detailed journals that he had the foresight to write along the way. But more than that, the walk still seems to be fresh in his mind, a huge and formative experience that Terrill, now living with his family in Colorado, clearly still carries with him.

Arctic sunset  © Andrew Terrill
Arctic sunset
© Andrew Terrill

In a moment of inspiration that I can only salute, he takes to calling his mouldering tent Auld Leakie. Aside from this flash of genius, the whimsical habit of naming everything, from his rucksack to each of his campsites, does begin to get old. I'm not sure, too, that the book is at its most persuasive in the occasional digression into lessons learned and such; but the philosophising is minimal and light-footed, and would certainly be a lot more painful in the hands of a more self-indulgent author.

Throughout the actual narrative Terrill's writing is fresh and unaffected, a deceptively simple style that - as I said last year - comes over as far more engaging, more real, than any number of erudite twiddles and portentous banalities that substitute for originality in so much contemporary walking-and-nature-inspired prose. Descriptions are vivid, not florid; the difficulties and discomforts of the journey are conveyed with honesty, never bombast; and the inevitable introspection is mercifully leavened once in a while with a self-deprecating half-smile. Above all, we share in Terrill's unalloyed wonder at being out there, in amongst it all - the hills, the forests, the wildlife, the weather. We're left in no doubt what an incredible, immersive experience it must have been.

It's an instant classic of the genre  © Dan Bailey
It's an instant classic of the genre
© Dan Bailey

Andrew Terrill's two-volume epic is a rewarding and inspiring account by an accomplished wilderness traveller who has also proved himself a fine writer. Whether you dream of disappearing on a big adventure of your own, or are happy simply to enjoy a vicarious journey from the comfort of the sofa, if you're into long books about big walks then, just like its predecessor, On Sacred Ground is a must-read.

  • Published by Indie-publisher Enchanted Rock Press of Colorado, On Sacred Ground is available via Amazon 
  • For more writing from Andrew, see andrewterrill.com

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