Excerpt From Hiking the Hexa by Claire McCall

In this book excerpt from Hiking the Hexa, self-employed New Zealand journalist Claire McCall and her partner James tackle an epic adventure — the HexaTrek, a new 3034km high-level thru-hike in France. After a post-pandemic lockdown, the opportunity to live the freedom of the open trail was too magnetic to resist. Claire put her work on hold and, at 55, began to walk this new European trail (which has a total elevation of 136,000m) in its pioneer year…

Progressing step-by-step south from the starting point in Alsace on the border of Germany, this is a travelogue of the body and mind. Walking in the footsteps of history and along the precipitous ridges of time, it is also an examination of the human condition – the need to challenge ourselves, and the nature of success and failure. It’s about acknowledging that life sometimes pushes you close to the edge and learning that, even in middle age, battling stubbornly upwards is sometimes easier than coasting down.

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Excerpt from Hiking the Hexa: Up, down and (almost) over the hill on France’s newest long-distance walk

There are no flat sections in the Alps. You’d think this might have occurred to me before I signed up to this challenge. It sounds naive — and it is. James, to his credit, did try to warn me when I first mentioned crossing the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees as an alternative to the Pacific Crest Trail in the States, but I pushed aside the statistics. I might have found the numbers scary if I had any concept of what feet and metres feels like in terms of actual boots on the ground. But that’s just it: I didn’t give them much thought. Instead, I ploughed ahead, captured by the dream of crossing France on foot.

Then, when I meet fellow Swiss hikers Béatrice and Isabelle, I suddenly understand how much of a city girl I am. They have known each other since childhood and are assured in the mountains. Whereas I have a measure of cardio strength which has been honed into hiking fitness over the past six weeks, I lack confidence. On the uphill sections I easily hold my own for my age but downhill, I become timorous and glacially slow. I daren’t put a foot wrong. I am afraid of skidding on gravel, of losing my balance for even an instant.  “Use gravity as a tool,” James advises. But I need to make doubly sure.

Then, there are the skinny paths that follow a ridgeline. I don’t bloody care how graceful the ridge is, I’d like a wider margin for error please. There have been times I’ve had to supress a panic attack as I spit out absurd statements: “I want to go home…right now!” 

So, you see, I am not made for the alpine environment, but here I am. And the Vanoise National Park has delivered in spades. We’re not walking huge miles here and having the time to appreciate the scenery has transformed the experience. It’s not just the snowy tops that are so special, but glistening glaciers, squishy marshlands, unexpected lakes, and masses of colourful wildflowers.

Marmots add a hop of humour. Their barking call punctuates the stillness and, as their fluffy bottoms pop up here and there in the 360-degree landscape, I feel a real sense of joy to be here.

Cooler days with cloud cover make the hiker’s life infinitely more pleasant. It’s as if the mountain gods have taken pity on me. That has helped immeasurably as we climb the 2469 metre Col de Bresson. Did I just say ‘gentle increments’? It’s a short, sharp hit, picking our way through a boulder-strewn pathway, that takes your breath away. At the top, our Swiss team-mates agree. That was hard.

Across the course of the summer-June days that followed I was loving it, then enduring it, head down making progress, then loving it again. But in the evenings, Béatrice and Isabelle’s good humour were the perfect pick-me-up. 

One night after a scenic 10km stretch through valleys that I declared my most favourite part of the hike so far, we camped outside a refuge just beyond the Col du Palet. We felt like genuine thru hikers since all our fellow walkers were checked in to the dormitories. Soon after we erected the tent, hurrying in the electric atmosphere Mother Nature was brewing up, a hailstorm swept through. Would our tent-work be up to the task? The Nemo stood fast, luminescent green amidst a pebble blanket of white. An amphitheatre of awesomeness surrounded us. With hot food and a dram of whisky in our bellies and, having shunned a cold shower (I’m secretly rather enjoying the freedom of a bare-bones ‘beauty’ routine), we snuggled down for the night, a tiny but integral part of the great, grand, baffling scheme of things.

So, yes, I am feeling stronger, but I have no illusions that I will turn into an authentic woman of the wilds. I’m not about to craft a shelter from hewn rocks or take up a bow to hunt for dinner.

Still, here and now, my body is adapting. I can bend over to scoop my hiking poles off the ground, without a second thought. Only six weeks ago that simple task would have elicited much grunting. And I no longer need to ask James to help me sling my 14kg pack onto my back. I’m also chuffed that I’ve had to fashion a belt from a camping strap to keep my shorts from dropping down like a teenager’s.

Our trackers tell us that we regularly clock 30 to 40,000 steps per day and the constant bracing against the fear of the fall has encouraged my knees to bulge with muscles. I barely recognise them when I look down at them working away to carry me ever forward. And forward it is: slowly and more contentedly.

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About the Author

Claire McCall is a freelance journalist and author based in Auckland, New Zealand who specializes in writing about architecture and design but also sometimes ventures off the beaten path — and can’t help but write about that, too.

This former magazine editor was born in South Africa and grew up in Johannesburg where she at first trained to be an advertising copywriter before the longer, narrative form of writing grabbed her imagination. 

Determined to pack in as many hiking challenges before her get up and go, well, gets up and goes, she has also climbed Kilimanjaro and has completed all but one of Aotearoa’s Great Walks. 

Claire is the author of two previous books: Discover New Zealand Food, published by Chanel Publishers, and Green Modern: Eco-Conscious Contemporary New Zealand Homes, published by Penguin NZ.

All images, including featured image, courtesy of Claire McCall.

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