I've just returned from a short trip to Italy, where I was introduced to a walk with a difference. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie (Road of 52 Tunnels) is an extraordinary legacy of World War One; a mule path cut into the face of the Pasubio massif in the Veneto region of Italy, overlooking the strategic Venetian Plain.
The road winds between Bocchetta Campiglia (1,216m) and the Porte del Pasubio (1,934m) and was designed to keep the flow of men and supplies to the Italian forces outside the range of Austro-Hungarian artillery.
Built between February and November 1917, the Strada is simultaneously a testament to engineering and the madness of war, but it also gives wonderful access to this dramatic corner of the eastern Alps, with stupendous views and the underfoot conditions to open them up to even the averagely fit.
As you wind your way up the mountain, threading through dank tunnels, it's impossible not to imagine the lives and deaths of the 5,000 men who used this road to and from the mountain battleground. The standard width of 2.2m was calculated to allow two mules to pass abreast, but inevitably the press of men, animals and equipment, including heavy artillery, sent many plunging into the valleys.
The army, included numbers of young Sicilians, whose sense of isolation and misery must have been intense in this alien northern landscape, surrounded by an almost foreign language and winter weather conditions they could scarcely have imagined. The preservation of the Strada delle 52 Gallerie is an evocative tribute to their sufferings, and in its modern use, a wonderful asset to their descendants.
On this moving and inspiring trip, I met and roomed with John Manning; like myself the editor of a walking magazine, but unlike me a walker of prodigious achievement. Apart from being extremely good company and possessing a snore of such riotous cacophony that it could not only wake the dead but probably make them dance, John has the distinction of having 'thru-hiked' in 2004 the incredible Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the US-Mexico border to Manning Park (yes, really) in British Columbia, Canada. The PCT crosses many of America's most challenging wilderness landscapes, including the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountains, and is one of the world's great walking experiences.
The PCT is the achievement of a lifetime, but it's just one component of a far-greater challenge whose numbers alone are an inspiration. The 'Triple Crown of Hiking' requires the completion of the PCT (2,654 miles), the Appalachian Trail (2,184 miles) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles); a total of more than 7,900 miles and over one million feet of vertical ascent. It's a supreme challenge – and in 2005, Irishman Matthew Hazley, known on the trail as 'Squeaky', became the first person ever to complete it back-to-back in a calendar year. Words fail.
The natural world is breathtaking and awe-inspiring; but for better and sometimes for worse, people are even more impressive. There is surely no more genuine way of demonstrating the value you place on the planet than by investing the time and effort it takes to see it at first hand. That doesn't have to mean setting aside six months or a year at time; other challenges are available.
Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine. www.walkingworldireland.com