Hiking for their lives

Hiking for their lives

The Alps offered the Seiferts opportunities to explore scenic landscapes, while using the region’s well-established network of trails and lodgings.


Find out about the journey that changed the lives of two retirees from Ohio

Gudrun and Peter Seifert are avid hikers on a mission. Originally from Germany, the Seiferts spent two years in Switzerland before coming to the United States in 1964. After taking early semi-retirement, Gudrun, an English teacher, and Peter, a mechanical engineer, traveled to Europe in 1998 for a hiking holiday in the French Alps. While on this trek, the Seiferts hit on a bold plan. They would hike the Alpine mountains from Nice, on the French Riviera, to Vienna, the capital of Austria. This journey would eventually extend over eight summers, becoming one of the greatest experiences of their lives—and helping them overcome adversity.


In 2002, at age 66, Peter underwent coronary bypass surgery. As he recovered, his desire to complete the epic hike helped him immensely, he says, during the time he spent on treadmills and exercise bikes. “Think Vienna” became his motto and his motivation.


Now aged 68 and 71, Gudrun and Peter are busy publishing a book, Hike for Your Life, to encourage their fellow retirees to take up hiking for the benefit of body, mind and soul. In their book, the Seiferts “share the story of the Alpine trails, accommodations, food, culture, history, and anecdotes with fellow or future retirees.” They also explain their feeling “that such a hike is an achievable dream for a reasonably fit person.”


The Seiferts see themselves, in a way, as “a product of this society’s care for the aging,” as they have benefited “from general advice, medical help, and facilities available today through many venues.” To find out more about the couple’s adventure in the Alps, the Journal on Active Aging® recently asked the Seiferts to describe their experiences and the lasting impact the journey has had on them.


JAA: Please tell us how your hiking in the Alps came about.


Seiferts: In years past, we had spent a week or two backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, as well as a few summer vacations in Colorado, where we walked on to easy, but physically quite demanding, “Fourteeners” peaks. Later, responding to a health problem, we decided to see if hiking was easier in the French Alps, from Nice to Lake Geneva. It proved a wonderful experience, even though we only made Briançon, the halfway mark. We loved the climate, landscape, flowers, and the air filled with the scents of rosemary and thyme; and we could virtually touch history from the Bronze Ages to medieval and recent times.


Initially, we did not set out to walk to Vienna, nor did we start directly in Nice. That grand plan grew out of the experience we had in 1998, the first year, and guided us to the final destination in 2004—six annual segments, each about one month long; a total of about 1,300 miles. We originally passed up several little sections, mostly because of excessive snow, and we hiked these in 2005 to cover every single step from Nice to Vienna.


JAA: How did you undertake these hiking trips?


Seiferts: Logistically, we traveled to a starting point by public transportation— train, bus, sometimes a rented car. Our backpacks held maps, clothes, water, duct tape, and more; these packs weighed about 15 lbs. and 25 lbs. each. Along the way we bought guidebooks and detailed hiking maps. We also updated our list of hostels, mountain huts, bed-and-breakfast places, hotels, and the like whenever possible. However, we did not have a fixed itinerary.


We followed marked trails, their numbers indicated on the maps. Usually, we targeted a village for the day, arrived early afternoon, and “sniffed around” to see which place we liked best to stay the night. When walking towards a mountain hut, we called ahead to ensure it was open, made a reservation, and asked for advice about the trail or the weather. This may sound organized now, but in the beginning, it was not.


Most importantly, we recognized that we did not like walking exclusively on the very high trails, over rocks and snow. Up there, the real possibility of a slip or fall existed. We were most happy and relaxed halfway between the valleys and the mountain peaks. And in bad weather, we stayed put.


JAA: Why did you decide to hike the Alps from Nice to Vienna?


Seiferts: In the first year, we sought relaxation from work and health stress, and on recommendations by others, we wanted to hike in the French Alps. Then we expanded the scope and aimed for Vienna, starting in the second year. The idea of our book was born later. For this project, we felt we needed the geographic continuity of the trail, so we became much more careful to walk every single step and went back to fill in the small skipped sections.


We felt good about the physical aspects, health benefits, mental relaxation, achievement, stimulation, and daily discoveries while hiking. Most importantly, we were happy on the trail and always eager to walk another day.


JAA: What were your hiking treks like?


Seiferts: We walked six hours per day on average and 11 hours at most, or eight miles per day and 16 miles at most. Sometimes the weather was an issue, and we learned to pay great attention to it.


During strong rain, we did not walk. We looked for possible shelter on the trail or escapes to a village. Only once did we get into a severe thunderstorm—and after losing a confrontation with some cows sheltering under a tree, we were so drenched that it was useless to try to find the protective tarp. Fortunately, the storm soon ended, and we reached the village safely. The trail markings were missing at other times, or we overlooked them. And a few times we got lost, made detours, returned, or ended up somewhere else.


But all the little troubles were quickly forgotten. What remains today is joy and gratitude that we did both the Nice-to-Vienna hike and the book. In fact, we will be on the trail again this summer, heading back to Nice from Vienna.


JAA: How did you benefit from your hiking experiences?


Seiferts: We are healthier and ever conscious of keeping up the good habits of eating right and exercising. These guidelines are not a burden now. Rather, they are a means to grant us more joyous hikes.


Family and friends congratulate us on our achievements, and the grandchildren will now come along for little stretches. But for many people, our project is still strange.


We wrote our book to explain the ease of hiking in the Alps to future retirees in North America. The existence of this network of trails, accommodations, maps and guidebooks is hardly known here. If more people learn to hike long distances, perhaps demand will grow to build a trails-and-lodgings network in North America, opening up more of the continent’s mountains to older, reasonably fit people. We are on a mission.


JAA: What lasting impact has your Alpine adventures had on you?


Seiferts: The feeling of being active in retirement, having a sense of purpose, having plans and projects is rewarding. Before retirement, we could not really imagine a life without work in our respective professions. On our hiking trips, we learned about hiking, being careful, and judging the weather, of course; but the additional experience was writing the book. Perhaps the success of the hike encouraged us to take on that new task. We learned how to do everything to create the manuscript—from designing the cover to the text, maps and pictures. We founded a printing shop and a distribution company, created a website, and on and on. Recently, we even did our first radio talk show.


JAA: What advice would you give other retirees about doing a similar hike?


Seiferts: There is so much to consider, avoid, do. All our wisdom on the matter is in our book, but some key points for further study include:

  • Make a plan.
  • Buy boots tomorrow.
  • See the doctor.
  • Buy a language phrase book.
  • Buy and study maps.
  • Start hiking at home.
  • Build up to 10 miles per day, several days in a row.
  • Include hills, and build up to 3,000 ft. vertical.
  • Keep safety in mind.
  • Observe the weather.
  • Walk slowly.
  • Look at the trail when walking.


Above all, we encourage people to go ahead and hike for their lives.



The Journal on Active Aging® thanks Gudrun and Peter Seifert for their assistance with this article. Information about the Seiferts’ book, Hike for Your Life, and how to order this publication is available at www.hikeforyourlife.com. This 172-page book includes 150 color photos, seven mapsketches, a daily log and a packing list. Hike for Your Life offers practical advice on such things as where to sleep, what to eat, and costs involved in hiking the Alps. It also compares Alpine trails with trails in the United States.


Photos courtesy of Gudrun and Peter Seifert


This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging www.icaa.cc