Expedition of a lifetime
How a historical puzzle launched one man’s repeat journeys across the Alps
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Up ahead the trail narrows, turns, and climbs steeply out of a ravine. Three men walk closely in single file. “Take little steps, Dad. Take little steps,” says the middle-aged man leading the way. The older man good-naturedly agrees and tries to shorten his stride up the hill. But he’s clearly not used to restraining his effort, and his son again prompts him to “Take little steps.” The third man, his hand firmly on the strap of the older man’s backpack and watching his feet, chuckles with resignation. “John is a big step taker,” he says.
John Hoyte is indeed a Big Step Taker. And these steps to cross a pass in the French Alps one month shy of his 90th birthday are no exception.
I’d met Hoyte barely a month before, half a world away, on a sailboat in the harbor of Blaine, Wash., near my hometown and Hoyte’s adopted one. My cousin had told me his age, so when a sportily dressed man strode energetically down the dock, I was sure it couldn’t be him. Only his pure white hair, combed jauntily to one side, and a crisp white goatee framing an open smile betrayed his advanced years. Within five minutes of meeting, Hoyte was telling me in an elegant British accent about his upcoming adventure: retracing the path of Hannibal through the Alps. Within 10 minutes, he’d invited me along.
That’s how I found myself on a late summer day, on a narrow mountain path, high in the Alps. Hoyte has made this trip with family and friends every four years for the last 25. It’s a tradition that started in 1959 when as a college student Hoyte hiked the pass to prove it was the same one Hannibal led his army along in his quest to attack Rome.
Though the forecast included thunderstorms, they were for late in the day. The morning sky radiated azure blue with a few puffy clouds wafting past. Still, we’d crammed rain gear into our daypacks, just in case.
Up a slow but steady incline, our group of 26 started off toward the Col de Clapier pass, 4.5 miles away. We all sported expedition hats embroidered with an elephant and the words “British Alpine Hannibal Expedition 1959-2022.”
Wearing well-used hiking boots and a blue jacket that matched his twinkling eyes, John Hoyte led the way.
“He’s my role model for staying fit and exercising into older age,” says Talya Efergan. She’s Hoyte’s son-in-law’s sister, about my age, on her third Hannibal Hike. We exchange notes about being daunted by our physical challenges and inspired by Hoyte’s example. “It’s even more remarkable when you know his story. He didn’t have an easy childhood,” she says.
John Hoyte was born in 1932 in Linfen, China, the son of medical missionaries. After an idyllic rural childhood, threats from communist terrorists and the Chinese civil war forced the family to move. The six Hoyte children went to boarding school. That same year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and invaded China. Occupying Japanese forces sent the children and teachers from Chefoo School to Weihsien prison camp. For five years Hoyte and his brothers and sisters endured the camp’s overcrowded squalor and near starvation. Only the devastating news that their mother had died suddenly of typhus 1,300 miles away eclipsed those hardships.
But even during those awful times, God was shaping young John Hoyte. Also imprisoned in Weihsien was Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell, made famous in the film Chariots of Fire. Liddell organized foot races and games for the children in the camp, infusing them all with a sense of worth and purpose and challenging them to love and trust Christ. The teachers from Chefoo also continued the Scouting club Hoyte’s mother had begun. Hoyte recalls keeping a log of walks round and round the camp perimeter to earn a physical fitness badge. “It was a challenge to be imaginative and make the Boy Scout badge thing work in a prison camp,” he says matter-of-factly.
Inspired by history
Hoyte put his Scouting experience to good use about 15 years later when debate over a crucial piece of European history hit a fever pitch.
Hannibal of Carthage is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time. The United States Military Academy still uses his ancient battle strategies against the Roman Empire to teach modern warfare tactics. In 218 b.c., Rome controlled the Mediterranean Sea and closely guarded direct overland routes. So to launch a surprise attack, Hannibal left his base in Spain, crossed the Pyrenees, and marched his army of 38,000 soldiers, 8,000 cavalry, and—most famously—38 African war elephants up the Rhone River. Then he and his army turned right, crossed the Alps, and descended to attack the Roman army on its home turf. It was an unparalleled feat of military strategy. But while it’s clear Hannibal and his army made it over the strenuous passes of the Alps as an early winter set in, no one has ever definitively proven which pass they used. And debate over that one detail has confounded historians for centuries. “Few historical problems have produced more unprofitable discussion than that of Hannibal’s pass over the Alps,” noted English historian Frank Walbank.
In the 1950s, debate over Hannibal’s pass flared anew in England, and not just among academics. While historians argued the question in public forums, curious readers and listeners followed along through reports published in The London Times and on the BBC. In 1956 Hoyte and two classmates from Cambridge University joined the fray. They spent the summer hiking all the possible passes, poring over original texts from ancient historians Livy and Polybius for clues. Eventually, they chose the Col de Clapier in the southeast Savoy region of France as the winning candidate with the most necessary criteria: space at the top for a vast army to camp, high enough to encounter remains of the previous year’s snow, and a view of the Po Valley below. Hoyte and his classmates hiked the Col de Clapier, and for Hoyte that settled the matter—until a friend suggested that to truly prove his point, he’d need to do it again.
With an elephant.
In a moment characteristic of Hoyte’s limitless sense of adventure, he wrote to the British consuls at Geneva, Lyon, and Turin, the closest major cities to the Col de Clapier, asking if they happened to know of anyone with an elephant he could borrow. For a trek following Hannibal’s route. Not really expecting an answer, he boldly signed his letter on behalf of “The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition.”
He was amazed when the consul general at Turin replied a week later: “I am happy to inform you that I have been able to secure the offer of an elephant for your projected crossing of the Alps.” The Turin Zoo had just taken ownership of an energetic 11-year-old elephant. The zoo’s director was pleased to send Jumbo off on an adventure—and pay all her expenses. Lloyd’s of London insured Jumbo for the expedition, and Life magazine offered to sponsor it, bringing even more media attention. So with Jumbo leading the way, Hoyte and a team of eight others—including a veterinarian and an elephant keeper—began the British Hannibal Alpine Expedition on July 20, 1959.
As we retrace those steps 63 years later, we stop at an overlook marking the former border between France and Italy. Hoyte points down the steep valley to the village of Bramans, 3,000 feet below. In 1959, because of stormy weather, he had to split the group and send the elephant up an easier route to rejoin the rest of the expedition at the top. But Hannibal and his troops and elephants had come up the narrow, steep path we now looked down. The engraved stone marker is a reminder that numerous layers of history have marched through this region: Between Hannibal and the time when the border moved in 1861, Napoleon Bonaparte also led an army through here to conquer what is now Italy.
We take photos and sips of water and start walking again. Hoyte’s granddaughter, Nicki Loewy, in her early 20s, walks ahead with her 5-year-old cousin Alma. “Every so often, turn around and make sure the others are behind you,” she tells her. “Make sure you’re going at a good pace.” It’s the kind of hiking advice she surely heard herself as a child, and that her mother heard from Hoyte. It’s this kind of care for the group that gives cohesion to a hiking team this size. Eventually younger members move ahead, eager to point out landmarks recalled from previous hikes: the stile where the two-tire track ends, abandoned ruins of shepherd huts. Meanwhile Hoyte walks a tiny bit slower than he did at the beginning, but he never stops moving.
All easy going
Like his energy, Hoyte’s imagination and curiosity never seem to run out. Along the Alpine path, his keen eyes rove all around. “Is that a gentian?” he asks, pointing to a small blue flower. Farther along, he regales those nearby with the story of Hannibal’s elephants, how many he took and how many perished on the way. And another question that’s always perturbed historians: During 14 years in Italy, why did Hannibal never directly attack Rome? “Was it love?” asks Hoyte. “That’s the story Hollywood told, that for love of a Roman woman he spared her city. That’s probably not the real reason.”
We stop more regularly now, Hoyte resting against a rock or the remains of a stone wall. But never for long, and he’s always the first one on the move again. At every stop his children ask how he’s feeling. “I’m fine!” Hoyte exclaims goodnaturedly, drawing out the last word. “And how are you?” Occasionally someone tells him they’re proud of him. “Well, I’m so proud of all of you, for coming all the way here and hiking this path!” he says.
From the ruined stone huts, we step across a dry streambed and walk a half-mile across a grassy plain. Past the plain, the path climbs alongside a torrent and through a boulder field. On either side, mountains loom 3,000 feet higher than the trail, patches of snow clinging to their flanks. We hear marmots whistling to each other among the rocks as we pass and sometimes spy the one sounding the alarm. Cows on the other side of the river lift their heads to watch us, the movement tinkling the bells that hang from their necks. The view is magnificent, but each step on the uneven ground requires concentration. Hoyte’s son-in-law, Ben Loewy, holds on to Hoyte’s backpack in case the older man slips.
Finally, the path levels out at Lake Savine, where the valley opens up into a flat plain a half-mile long and a third across. Hoyte gestures with triumph. “Can’t you just imagine it? There’s definitely room for an army to camp here!”
One last short climb at the end of the valley and we’re at the pass, altitude 8,126 feet. Hoyte’s son Jonathan digs huge bottles of Prosecco from his backpack and passes around plastic tumblers. Three-year-old Irene pulls a plush elephant from her backpack to honor Jumbo, and we all toast Hoyte, his original expedition, and the current one.
As the rest of us dig into our picnics, the Loewy family members engulf each other in a private group hug. Ben swings his arm to work out kinks from holding it out straight for three hours. I’m struck with the effort they’ve put in to make this moment reality. “This is all about John,” Ben says. “He’s been preparing for this since COVID. It’s important to my family because it’s so important to him.”
Hoyte’s daughter Lisa spreads a blanket on the ground, and he stretches out and closes his eyes. A few minutes later, I attempt the same. Too late. Hoyte is suddenly up again, reciting from memory Hannibal’s speech to his troops:
“My men, you are at this moment passing the protective barrier of Italy—nay more, you are walking over the very walls of Rome. Henceforward all will be easy going—no more hills to climb. After a fight or two you will have the capital of Italy, the citadel of Rome, in the hollow of your hands.”
A passing hiker takes our photo and wonders at the matching hats. “I’m John Hoyte, leader of the 1959 British Hannibal Alpine Expedition,” Hoyte says. As he tells the story, I watch the man’s face change from patience with an old man, to interest. “Oh yes, I’ve heard about that expedition,” he says. Then his expression morphs into utter respect as he does the math. “How old is he?” he quietly asks one of the group. It’s a transformation I’ve already witnessed a few times. The previous day, Hoyte pointed out a chalet where the owner had let them camp, Jumbo tied to a tree in the garden. “I wonder who owns it now,” he said. “I think I’ll just ring the bell and introduce myself.” The chalet owner came to the door perplexed, but when Hoyte left, he had a new friend and an invitation for drinks on the terrace. When asked about that, Lisa chuckles. “He’s never met a stranger. My brother and I aren’t as extroverted, but we trained our children that sometimes we have to wait because ‘Grandpa is talking.’”
Quite an adventure
A cold breeze suddenly blows up from Italy, bringing dark clouds streaming over the ridge. It’s time to move. Halfway along the lake, rain starts falling in heavy drops, making a clatter on the rocks and our wide-brimmed hats. As we drag out our rain gear, a long roll of thunder rumbles in the distance. The rocky path grows slippery. We’ve gone a half-mile: 4 to go. Thunder rolls louder. Another hiker looks at me with wide eyes. “We’re doing everything they say not to do in a storm: in the mountains, in a group, on a flat place, next to water,” she says.
Off the plain, the rain streaks down in sheets as we slowly pick our way through the boulder field. Our group, so good at staying together on the ascent, has scattered. Hoyte now takes up the rear, moving slowly. Ben calmly talks him through where to plant his hiking poles and where to place each foot. But now Hoyte wears a rain poncho, and there’s nowhere for Ben to hold on to it. We take fewer stops now. My legs are tired, but I keep thinking of Hoyte on the way up: Step by step. Short break. Start again.
Thunder booms suddenly, very close by, making me jump. I admit that I’m afraid: Lightning struck a friend of a friend, hiking in the Alps just like this, on her hiking poles. Then I remember the story Hoyte told earlier in the day, recalling a violent storm that caught them in the open on the original expedition. He had prayed for safety for the group and then kept moving toward shelter. So I do the same.
On the last uphill to the gate, it starts hailing. The six of us in the rearguard laugh, especially when the sun comes out again as we see our destination in the distance. “Well! That was quite an adventure!” Hoyte says, then breaks cheerfully into the Boy Scout marching song.
“He has a positive attitude, no matter what,” Ben Loewy says. “I always say that if he lost his right hand in an accident, the first thing he’d say is, ‘There’s a wonderful piano concerto for the left hand only. I’ve been looking forward to learning that.’”
Hoyte doesn’t ignore the hard things that have happened to him. After he immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and started a successful business, his wife Alma died of cancer when his children were still young. He wrote poignantly of that grief in his memoir, Persistence of Light. He also acknowledged the gifts of a loving God to assuage that pain. In 1991 he married poet Luci Shaw.
At the end of the trail, the group lines up on both sides to welcome Hoyte through a triumphal arch as glorious as any Hannibal could have dreamed of. Hannibal walked to Italy to bring destruction. In 1959 Hoyte walked to prove a point. This time he walked for resolution. Narayan Lindsay is the boyfriend of one of Hoyte’s relatives. He’s in his 20s. “I told my girlfriend, if I can hike this pass when I’m 90, I will have succeeded at life,” he says. One granddaughter says she plans to return, but implies wistfully this will probably be Hoyte’s last hike here.
But Hoyte himself is already looking ahead. He points out that his father lived to 93, “and he was very sedentary. So who knows? Maybe I’ll get back here in four years.”
I later learned he’d been researching donkeys and Joelette wheelchairs for this trip, just in case. He didn’t need them. Maybe next time he will, but my money’s on the hiking boots.