Jeremy Laurance: Why a walk in the mountains makes you feel really high

Medical Life

Ah, the joy of walking. I have spent the last three weeks tramping up and down hills, first in the southern French Alps (the magnificent and little known Queyras national park, hard up against the Italian border) and latterly in the Swiss Alps, around the Eiger in the Bernese Oberland. The sun was hot, the air clear and cool and the mountains were magnificent. So much has been written about the physical benefits of walking – the best exercise, it is said, for those of a certain age – but somewhat less about its other benefits.

In the first days of our trip, as I set out each morning with the prospect of another 1,000m climb, I felt weary after an hour and was wondering how I would complete the day's walk after two. But then something happened, my steps came in rhythm with my breathing – huff, huff, puff, puff – and found I could maintain my pace with (relatively) less effort. By day's end, though my limbs were weary, my spirits were soaring, whether thanks to the vistas of snowcapped peaks unfolding before us or to the endorphins pumping round my brain.

The grandeur of the mountains and the "deep peace of the wild" has drawn visitors for centuries. Hermits and prophets have sought inspiration in solitude amongst the soaring crags and plunging valleys – and thousands still go on retreats today to isolated huts in remote areas.

But I wonder how much of the inspiration people find in the mountains, both now and in the past, has come from being close to "awesome" nature and how much from getting there. A walk in the hills is often a challenging and, at times, an arduous experience, and the rewards may come as much from the exercise as from the location.

After one particularly steep climb – to the 2,700m Hohturli Pass near Griesalp in Switzerland – I and a friend sat panting at the top, gazing at a pair of glaciers, their crumpled ice glowing blue across the ravine, a scree slope falling away below us bisected by the path of our descent receding into the distance. On top of the world, I reflected that no drug I have ever had the privilege to try was as good as this.

***

Monsieur le Medecin, the retired French doctor we shared a table with one night in the Queyras, was in no doubt why La Grippe had seized Grande Bretagne. Because it's an island. All infectious diseases, from scarlet fever to measles, are worse among island communities, he observed. I might have pointed out that Britain has a population equal to La Belle France, so is hardly an isolated, inbred community, but I held my peace.

***

Muesli, originally known as Bircher Muesli, after its introduction more than a century ago by Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher Benner, is one of Switzerland's greatest contributions to world cuisine. That, at least, is my opinion – my wife thinks it tastes like soggy cardboard. Dr Bircher Benner gave it to his patients after eating a similar "strange dish" while hiking in the Alps. Rolled oats, fruit, nuts and seeds soaked in milk – what better fuel for a walk in the hills.

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