Richard Hartfield - Solo Scrambling and Backpacking 1900km Across the Alps Interview

© Richard Hartfield

Over summer 2021 Richard Hartfield completed a two-month journey east-to-west along the length of the Alps, from Slovenia to the Mediterranean coast of France, a solo backpacking, wild camping and mountaineering epic of roughly 1900km (with 125,000m ascent). Adding even more to the challenge, he climbed around 65 peaks en route, often including via ferrata, scrambling, and even some graded Alpine climbing. And as if that wasn't enough, he managed to make a series of engaging films about the trip, all while putting in big mileage day after day.

Now 34, Kendal-based sound engineer, instructor and freelance outdoor writer Richard is a fan of long backpacking journeys. Was this trip his hardest yet? Here he looks back on the highs and lows of a life-defining experience.

UKHillwalking: You're no stranger to long solo trips. What have been some of the others? 

Richard: In 2016 I backpacked 40 days from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean on the Haute Route Pyrenees. That was my first taste of backpacking in high alpine terrain and I loved the scrambling and tricky navigation involved.

It's usually the really tough experiences that we look back on and value the most afterwards

In 2017, I spent six weeks backpacking across 14 different mountain regions in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. That trip was an amazing introduction to hiking in countries with less tourism infrastructure and fewer western visitors.

In 2018, I backpacked alone across the Greater Caucasus Mountains from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. My journey led me through several republics in the North Caucasus region of Russia; then across eastern Georgia and finally through Azerbaijan. It took me about nine weeks and I had to skip some sections of my route because I couldn't get all the permits that I needed. Before I left, I spent 10 months teaching myself basic Russian and trying to map out a route. There was so little information that I relied on poorly translated Russian mountaineering websites and advice from a few local mountain guides on the internet. It felt like a proper adventure with suspicious police, shepherds rescuing me from thunderstorms and local people inviting me into their homes and giving me directions. I came away feeling totally humbled. I'd assumed some of those places were really dangerous and corrupt, but the people living there were unbelievably kind and welcoming. The Caucasus is the most spectacular and captivating region I've ever visited.

On the summit of Petite Aiguille des Glaciers, Mont Blanc Massif, France  © Richard Hartfield
On the summit of Petite Aiguille des Glaciers, Mont Blanc Massif, France
© Richard Hartfield

What inspired you to consider the Alps journey?

The initial inspiration came in 2016 when I watched John Fleetwood's videos of his own journey on this route. I couldn't believe how he was able to cover such huge distances each day, whilst including all of the scrambling and mountaineering as well. It seemed like a perfect blend of all of the things that I wanted to do in the mountains: backpacking, running and climbing. Crossing the mountains in that way seemed like the ultimate type of freedom. As years passed the physical effort shown by John felt more achievable for me. After travel had been so restricted during the pandemic, a window of opportunity finally opened during the summer of 2021 and so I just threw myself at it.

John really encouraged me when I told him that I'd been thinking about trying his route. He shared his itinerary with me before I left, and I often called him from my tent during the journey to get advice on the route ahead.

"Some of the routes felt like proper climbs. One was the northwest ridge on Monte Disgrazia, AD-”  © Richard Hartfield
"Some of the routes felt like proper climbs. One was the northwest ridge on Monte Disgrazia, AD-”
© Richard Hartfield

Training – did you do anything in particular in the buildup to going, or did you rely on getting fit for the trail on the way?

Prior to the journey I'd spent most of the pandemic living in a van in Switzerland. Whilst there I'd spent lots of time running and hiking in the Alps, which improved my fitness and familiarity with the type of terrain that I'd be encountering on John's route. I'd also accompanied John on a huge link-up of hills and scrambles around Torridon in May 2021. We were going for 34 hours and made over 7000m of ascent:

It made me realise that I could push my body much further in the mountains. After that I felt I'd gained enough scrambling experience and mountain fitness to try the Alpine traverse for myself.

How much planning did you do in advance?

Really not a lot. The beauty of the Alps is that the trails are well-mapped and it's easy to find topos and route descriptions for climbs. I also had John's itinerary. It seemed better to map out my exact route as I went, since a lot of it would depend on the weather. I also wanted to feel free to explore and adapt my route as I went, just like John had done on his journey. A few days before I started, I plotted all the locations that John had passed through as waypoints on my navigation app. I used that as my initial plan. I mapped out the first five days in detail and then travelled to my starting point in Slovenia.

Camped high above the Aosta Valley in Italy  © Richard Hartfield
Camped high above the Aosta Valley in Italy
© Richard Hartfield

How often did you follow sections of named trails, such as the Tour de Monte Rosa?

I linked up with quite a few established trails, although usually never for more than a day or two at a time. Some of the ones I can remember are the Karnischer Hohenweg in the Carnic Alps; The Via Alta Verzasca in Ticino, the Tour de Monte Rosa, the Tour De Mont Blanc (which was very crowded!) and the GR5/GR52 in French Alps.

What did you use navigation?

As much as I love to navigate with a paper map and compass, this trip was all done using my phone. It made more sense to me than trying to use a heap of paper maps. With an app called Gaia GPS I could plot routes as I went and quickly figure out the distance and elevation profile. The app also gave me access to lots of topographic map layers like the French IGN and the Swiss topo maps (my personal favourites). I also plotted waypoints for things like potential camp spots, climbs and resupply points. To these waypoints I'd often attach notes, like internet links to topos or shop opening hours. I could also use the app to view the most recent satellite imagery, which sometimes gave a rough indication about the current snow coverage.

combining backpacking and mountaineering involved everything I love about being in the mountains

You were wild camping or bivvying most of the time – how easy was that to do unobtrusively?

It was usually easy to camp unnoticed because I was walking late into the evening when no-one else was around and I'd set off again at dawn. If there was no rain forecast I'd just bivvy without my tent. In some places like the Triglav National Park and the Vanoise, wild camping wasn't permitted so I had to use huts. The Dolomites were also very crowded, so that resulted in some awkward bivvy spots, like a leaky tool shed behind a locked cabin during a huge downpour!

I spent six nights sleeping in un-staffed bivvy huts, and on three of those occasions they saved me from trying to camp in a massive storm.

You'll obviously get a lot of variety over two months in the mountains, but broadly how did the weather treat you throughout the trip?

On the whole I had great weather. I spent so many nights sleeping under the stars and luckily I coped pretty well with hiking in hot temperatures during the day. I had a period of very bad weather during the week that I crossed the Carnic Alps and the Dolomites. One storm caught me out just as I'd reached the top of a high pass. To make matters worse, I discovered that the trail on my map was long-abandoned and had been totally destroyed by avalanches and rock fall. I had to descend around 800 metres on really slippery and loose terrain covered in dense vegetation whilst lightning cracked overhead. Then towards the end of my journey as I crossed the Mercantour in France, autumn had really started to set in. The temperatures dropped and the weather patterns became more unstable.

Backpacking amongst spectacular rock architecture in the Dolomites  © Richard Hartfield
Backpacking amongst spectacular rock architecture in the Dolomites
© Richard Hartfield

Food and drink – did you eat at huts where possible, or were you self-catering the whole way? How long were you generally going between places you could restock on food?

I rarely ate meals in huts because of the length of the trip, being on a tight budget and wanting to remain as self-reliant as possible. I'd resupply at a village shop every three to five days and only supplement that with the odd coke, beer or slice of cake from a hut. As the trip wore on, I became a lot more hungry and I ate a lot of cakes at huts during the final few weeks!

You were living on a 'pretty weird diet' you say in Ep4 of your film series: can you talk us through that?

After a few weeks of hiking, my body constantly craves more calories. But I was limited to what was available in a typical village store. Breakfast might be porridge or granola mixed with nuts, hot chocolate powder and Nutella. During the day I wouldn't eat lunch as such, just a snack every few hours. This would usually be more Nutella, or some cheese and bread, and many Snickers bars. I must have eaten well over 100 Snickers during the trip! Dinner would be some kind instant pasta sachet or couscous, to which I'd add melted cheese and olive oil for extra calories. Pudding would be more Nutella... and Snickers.

Going solo is quite a particular experience. Are you comfortable for long periods with your own thoughts?

I generally thrive on this. Backpacking alone teaches you to follow your intuition because no one else can decide for you. If things aren't going well, you have to step back from the situation and find calmness and humour. When all of your stuff is soaked and you're huddled under a leaky tent in a storm eating Nutella with a spoon, you have to laugh at the situation or else you'd cry! Moving through the mountains alone also means being disciplined and honest with your decision making. I backed off several climbs because part of me knew that the conditions just weren't right or that I was feeling too tired. The times I struggled were when I'd had a few nights of really bad sleep in a row. I'd feel anxious about getting caught in a storm, or I'd struggle with logistical decisions like where to stop for the night, or where to resupply. It wasn't always easy to step back from myself and say: "look mate, you're just knackered, give yourself a break!"

Unstaffed bivvy huts often provided a welcome shelter for the night  © Richard Hartfield
Unstaffed bivvy huts often provided a welcome shelter for the night
© Richard Hartfield

Did you meet many people along the way, or have company on any stages?

I met a lot of nice people at huts and on the trail. The guardian of the Refugio Ponti in the Val Masino really helped me, because she encouraged me to try to climb the normal route on Monte Disgrazia just above the hut and gave me loads of good beta. I also walked with a lovely guy called Tano from Sicily for half a day in the Dolomites and we still stay in touch. On the whole though, I was travelling pretty fast and doing very long days so I usually found myself walking alone.

Did motivation or enjoyment ever flag significantly, and did you have any tactics for keeping psyched and pulling yourself out of any lows?

I definitely struggled with fatigue at times, but the mountains and the journey quickly pulled me out of it. For a start, I had a very clear purpose each day: to get to the next camp spot or resupply point, or to safely get through some piece of technical terrain. There was often no other option but to just get on with it. The main things that helped me were remembering to laugh when things felt bleak and reminding myself how lucky I was just to be living and moving through such beautiful places each day. Our lives are so short and it's usually the really tough experiences that we look back on and value the most afterwards.

On the summit of Monte Disgrazia in Val Masino, Italy - a granite paradise for climbers!  © Richard Hartfield
On the summit of Monte Disgrazia in Val Masino, Italy - a granite paradise for climbers!
© Richard Hartfield

There were a lot of back-to-back big days. Did you feel you got enough time for rest and recovery?

During the entire 61 days, I only took two full rest days. I actually found that momentum was what kept me going. That even came down to how long I paused for a break each day because often if I stopped for more than 20 minutes my muscles would start to go cold. I'd usually just brew up a quick coffee on my stove and then get moving again. I'd also focus on my breathing and slip into a pace that felt sustainable. I think that being a runner really helps with that. I also came into the trip feeling excited to push my body more than on any other walk I'd  done.

There were many days when I couldn't believe just how much mileage and ascent I'd managed. It gave me a real buzz having all of these mega back-to-back days that seemed to include a bit of everything. My motivation and determination grew as the kilometres racked up. Having done a lot of similar trips, I've also learnt how to listen to my own body. Things like knowing when to make myself eat; when to take a nap; rotate my socks, or skip a climb - they all come with learning to listen to what your body and the mountains are telling you.

Climbing along the SW ridge of Basodino in Ticino Switzerland  © Richard Hartfield
Climbing along the SW ridge of Basodino in Ticino Switzerland
© Richard Hartfield

Any aches, pains, or injuries?

I got lucky to some extent, since I've definitely had muscle and tendon injuries in the past that seemed to come out of nowhere. That never happened this time. My legs became pretty stiff and creaky in the mornings after about three weeks, but I'd just take the pace a bit slower until I loosened up. I often had little aches or pains that came and went throughout the day. I'd try to take a dip in a cold stream or lake whenever I could, because that really helped to revive my muscles and give me a second wind. The worst injury I had was during one morning in the Livigno Alps, when I sleepily stumbled and managed to entangle my leg in a trekking pole. It tweaked a tendon in the back of my knee which was pretty sore for a few days.

It'd be a major backpacking journey if you just followed cols and valleys all the way, so including a lot of summits must have seriously increased the challenge and made this much more of a mountaineering experience than many walkers would be comfortable with (especially solo). Was this element a big part of the appeal of the whole thing?

The idea of combining backpacking and mountaineering was a huge part of why I wanted to make this journey. It involved everything I love about being in the mountains. To just walk past all of those incredible routes would have felt like a missed opportunity and quite boring.

The variety of terrain and scrambling made the journey feel so much more engaging than if it had been just a walk. I got hands-on at some stage on perhaps half of the days on the trip. A lot of the peaks were out-and-backs, so I'd leave most of my kit stashed at the bottom. It felt like I was floating without all of that weight on my back! Many other climbs were traverses, which meant that I was carrying everything with me. The climbs definitely added a huge amount of daily elevation. I'd usually set myself up to climb a peak first thing in the morning, only to then continue with a full day's walk immediately afterwards. There were several days when I made over 3000 metres of ascent and descent.

What I look back on most fondly is the feeling of immersion and connection. The mountains became my home

For a solo walker (often with pack) you were doing some pretty spicy stuff too, linking scrambles, via ferrata and even graded climbing. Can you tell us about some of the more exciting days?

There's obviously a very grey area between scrambling and climbing and I'm by no means an accomplished mountaineer. But some of the routes I did definitely felt like proper climbs. One of them was the north west ridge on Monte Disgrazia, which is graded at AD-. There was a glacier approach, followed by a stunning knife-edge ridge of pristine granite with some small sections of mixed climbing. I was just wearing trail runners and very lightweight crampons. Some way behind me were two Austrian guys who were fully kitted out and pitching the whole thing (they gave me some very disapproving comments when I passed them!).

I also climbed an obscure peak in the Mont Blanc Massif called Petite Aiguille des Glaciers. I didn't have any route beta so I just wanted to explore and see how far I could get. The rock was often really loose, but it ended up being one of the most rewarding routes of the whole trip. I was climbing in absolute solitude above an ocean of cloud, looking out at glaciers and the summit of Mont Blanc. Towards the end of the trip, I also climbed Monte Viso which was my highest peak at 3841m. I was surrounded by lots of teams who were roped up. But by then I felt like a mountain climbing machine and I was back down before most people had even summited.

Mountaineering means extra gear – did you carry a helmet and VF kit the whole way?

I carried my helmet the whole way but I sent my via ferrata kit home after I left the Dolomites. I also carried a lightweight ice axe and crampons. I didn't set off until late July, so there really wasn't much snow and ice left. But even that late in the summer I still needed my crampons and ice axe for many of the peaks and a few sections of trail.

Most nights were spent sleeping under the stars  © Richard Hartfield
Most nights were spent sleeping under the stars
© Richard Hartfield

We may think of the Alps as being over-run, but how true would you say that really is? In your films you look like you're alone for so much of the journey. In Ep4 Ticino looks really wild, for instance, and you seemed to take real inspiration from that. What were some of your favourite areas/ranges on the journey?

Some regions were definitely crowded at times, particularly in the Dolomites and the trails around Mont Blanc. I think the beauty of my journey was that it led me into harder terrain; doing long days, and sleeping up high. This made it easy to get away from other people. A lot of the peaks I climbed were also really obscure, so I was often completely alone on them. I loved the Julian Alps in Slovenia and the Carnic Alps because of all the dramatic limestone formations and huge forests. The Val Masino region around Piz Badile was also a real highlight with its immense granite peaks and wild, rocky terrain.

Out of those 61 days, do any particular moments stand out as highlights?

Overall, what I look back on most fondly is the feeling of immersion and connection to the mountains that the journey gave me. The mountains became my home. I had some unbelievable bivvy spots. In the evening I'd just lie there and watch the landscape transform with the sunset, looking out at distant peaks that I'd crossed over the previous days. That felt deeply satisfying.

Some of the harder peaks like Monte Disgrazia, Monte Viso and Petites Aiguille des Glaciers were huge moments for me, because it felt like I'd ventured into proper climbing territory. There was also the day that I finished crossing the Val Masino. My route coincided with the notorious southern descent route from Piz Badile. I had to cross five high passes equipped with via ferrata chains. The terrain between them was really challenging, with endless boulder fields and some really steep moraine. I finally got down into the valley near Chiavenna in the dark, having descended over 4000 metres. Then I carried on walking until 11pm before bivvying in a field beside the road. It probably sounds mad, but I got a real buzz from cramming all of that into one day!

Another highlight was arriving at the tiny bivvy hut beneath Monte Viso after a 14-hour day. I wanted to climb the peak the following morning. I stumbled into the hut in darkness and it was packed full of Italian climbers. I was soaked to the skin and looked completely wrecked. The other climbers were bemused to find this lone English guy turning up so late. They asked "where have you walked from?!" and I told them "Slovenia!". They quickly offered me a large glass of vodka and a seat at the cramped table. They cheered me on up the climb the next morning as well. That felt really special because it helped me to realise just how much I'd achieved.

Rugged scenery in the Mercantour National Park in France  © Richard Hartfield
Rugged scenery in the Mercantour National Park in France
© Richard Hartfield

Not content with all the above, you were filming yourself as you went, and must have captured many hours of footage. What sort of faff and work did that add to your typical day?

Filming certainly adds a lot of faff. It can be a real struggle finding the energy to talk to the camera amongst all of the planning, navigating and walking. I've tried to get better at documenting these long trips though. Having video footage gives me something to look back on afterwards. It also feels rewarding to be able to share part of the experience with other people.

The camera can become an outlet when you have no-one else to whinge to. I'd try to regularly do a piece to camera throughout the day, just to explain how I was feeling and what was going on. I'd also try to make the effort to set up my little tripod and capture some shots of me in the landscape. That was the most time-consuming, because I'd have to walk away from the camera and then walk back again! I also wore a Gopro for some of the climbing routes, but sometimes it felt like too much of a distraction. I didn't want to climb something beyond my comfort zone just because it would look cool on camera.

I just used my phone, a small tripod and a Gopro with a helmet mount. I had to back up my phone to an SD card pretty regularly, which took a lot of time to transfer.

How much effort has it been to edit the raw footage into coherent episodes?

Editing the videos is really time-consuming for me. It can be unbelievably frustrating when I haven't captured a particular experience or place on camera properly. You can't just go back and do it again! Trying to make such a demanding journey whilst also doing all of the documenting alone means that it's impossible to capture everything. But I really enjoy trying to carve an engaging story from the things that I did capture on film. It also feels really heartwarming when people tell me that it's inspired or resonated with them in some way.

Are there any plans to do a piece covering the whole journey in one long film?

This is definitely something that I'm considering, but perhaps in collaboration with another filmmaker. Feel free to get in touch!

Let's get a bit geeky. Can you give us a rough gear list?

Excluding food and water, my rucksack weighed about 7kg. This included mountaineering and via ferrata kit.


  • Single skin backpacking tent pitched with trekking poles
  • Three-season down quilt.
  • ¾ length mattress.
  • Dyneema groundsheet.
  • Cooking:
  • Alcohol stove
  • Titanium pot/lid/spoon
  • Coffee cup


  • Via ferrata lanyard
  • Lightweight harness
  • Lightweight helmet
  • Aluminium ice axe
  • Aluminium crampons

Extra Clothing:

  • Hooded fleece
  • Hooded down jacket
  • Running shorts
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket/trousers/overmitts
  • Thermal long johns
  • Spare pair of socks
  • Thin fleece gloves

Items worn:

  • Trail running shoes
  • Trekking poles
  • Altimeter watch
  • Lightweight walking trousers
  • Long-sleeved base layer top
  • Baseball cap
  • Sunglasses
  • Synthetic boxer shorts (only pair!)


  • 21,000mha USB battery
  • Gopro camera
  • Basic first aid/repair kit
  • Personal locater beacon
  • Water filter

How much thought did you put into choosing all that lot before the event, and were there any items you wished you'd done differently?

I knew that keeping my rucksack as light as possible was crucial because of the scrambling terrain and the long days. I've already refined my kit a lot during previous trips, but I still always make a point of weighing every single item and plotting it onto a spreadsheet beforehand. This means that I can add, subtract and swap things out and see exactly where the weight is coming from. The most important thing is knowing what is tried and tested and works for me. I could have gone a bit lighter with items like my tent for instance, but I knew what weather it could and couldn't cope with, so why risk trying an unknown, lighter shelter, or a less-stable tarp instead? The only regret I have is that I didn't bring a small monocular with me. I always take one now because they're amazing for viewing wildlife and checking out terrain in the distance.

Crossing snow slopes in South Tyrol whilst climbing Vertainspitze  © Richard Hartfield
Crossing snow slopes in South Tyrol whilst climbing Vertainspitze
© Richard Hartfield

So, would you recommend this journey to others, and if so is there any advice you might offer for a successful and enjoyable experience?

I would absolutely recommend it! I think the beauty of this journey was adapting John Fleetwood's route as I went and feeling free to explore, which is what John did on his journey as well. If you're a reasonably competent navigator, there's absolutely no reason to just follow a predefined route like the Via Alpina. The Alps are full of incredible trails, huts and climbs to suit all levels of fitness and experience, so open a map and try linking some up for yourself.

In terms of the big back-to-back days and the scrambling terrain, that definitely requires a good level of experience and fitness. For the climbing, I was glad to have plenty of grade 3 scrambling and easy trad climbing experience behind me. I was also already comfortable moving on loose rock and steep snow and dealing with exposure. If people aren't sure what they're capable of, I'd encourage them to take time to research technical sections beforehand, and compare it to what they've already done. It's also important to assess conditions you  find on the day. Websites like UKC and are particularly useful for finding detailed reports, route descriptions and topos for routes in the Alps. Asking about conditions at nearby huts is also really helpful.

Morning sunlight hitting the surrounding cliffs during the climb of Monte Viso  © Richard Hartfield
Morning sunlight hitting the surrounding cliffs during the climb of Monte Viso
© Richard Hartfield

Sound engineer, outdoor instructor and freelance outdoor writer – interesting mix of work! Can you tell us a bit about how you balance these jobs, and their varied attractions?

Music and the outdoors are my two main passions so I've built my life around them. As a live sound engineer, I tour with bands either mixing their front of house sound (what the audience hears), or their monitors (what the performers hear on stage). I love being able to help the musicians perform to their best. It feels amazing when the crowd connect with the performance and it's all happening in the moment. The job involves operating technical equipment; being creative with how you shape the sound; as well as supporting the artists and the other crew members. Touring takes me all over the world (it's a great way to visit different climbing walls!). The live music industry definitely isn't always glamorous though - you don't get to see your friends or family for weeks on end, and a lot of that time is just spent on a motorway or loading heavy equipment into dark venues. During the show, technical issues can crop up and we have to fix them as fast as possible.

Being able to balance the stress of touring with spending time in the mountains is a great way to decompress. I've done quite a few long-distance backpacking trips over the years and outdoor writing has become a really rewarding way for me to share my experiences.

I'm also starting to do some outdoor instructing - I received my Summer Mountain Leader award in 2019 and soon I'll have my Rock Climbing Instructor qualification. I really enjoy teaching people how to navigate; how to select camp spots; plan their own routes and interpret the weather. It's all about connecting with the outdoors and showing people that they can be free to explore the hills when they learn these skills. Working freelance allows me to be in control of my own time, which I value far more than money. Before I was fully freelance, I'd have to quit my job every time I went on a long trip, which was rubbish! Being freelance obviously comes with its own challenges though. My income and work can fluctuate a lot month-to-month which can cause a lot of anxiety. Overall I'm happier this way than when I've tried working in a nine to five job though.

Have you got any big plans for 2024?

I've got lots of ideas for future long-distance walks, but I'd also like to focus on getting more outdoor instructing experience, as well as doing more climbing in the Alps. There's also the possibility of making a film about this journey!

About Richard

Richard Hartfield is a long-distance backpacker and climber who loves crossing mountain ranges. He was once guided by shepherds and dodged Russian police to traverse the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Richard works as a freelance outdoor writer and is a qualified hillwalking instructor.

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23 Nov, 2023

Utterly inspiring. What an adventure. There's something magic about solo trips.

Yes, what an amazing journey. I love his films too

23 Nov, 2023

Does anyone know how he kept his mobile phone and Gopro camera charged up?

I'll ask him Chris

24 Nov, 2023

Hey Chris! I carried a big USB battery pack that usually lasted me 5-7 days. I kept it topped up at huts and campsites along the way.

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