The Alps have been a paradise for walkers and climbers since humankind first started to appreciate mountains as more than a mere encumbrance and saw in them the beauty of nature and the endless possibility of adventure.
Name: The Alps
Other names: Alpi (Italy), Alpes (France), Alpen (Germany), Alpe (Slovenia)
Highest Point: Mont Blanc, 4,809m (15,778ft)
Length of range: 1207km (750miles) from south-west France to Vienna, Austria.
Widest point: 201km (125miles) between Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany and Verona, Italy.
Location: Switzerland, Italy, France and Austria with lower peaks in Germany, Lichtenstein and Slovenia.
Introduction the The Alps.
The Alps are one of the world’s most famous mountain ranges. Home for humans for over 12,000 years, it has hosted some of history’s most famous journeys, including Hannibal with his elephants and Napoleon marching into Italy with 40,000 men.
The ubiquitous mountain term alpine, meaning something ‘relating to high mountains’, originated as a response to these incredible mountains. Two Southern Hemisphere ranges, the Southern Alps and Australian Alps, are named after this mountain range, (perhaps by nostalgic Europeans longing for home!)
As for the adventures these mountains offer, they are as varied as the range is long. But if it’s solitude you’re after, you might have to compromise in the Alps. It’s home to 14 million people and 120 million visitors annually. This tourism boom began after World War II and continues to define the Alps as an adventure playground, a cultural hot bed and an artist’s haven.
With so many possible landscapes to see, mountains to climb and cultures to absorb, any adventure in the Alps is bound to be unforgettable.
Geography of the Alps.
The Alps cover 207,000sq km in an arc 1207km (750miles) long from the coast of south-west France up to Vienna, Austria. Among the 1599 mountains over 2000m (6562ft) are the highest peak in the European Union (Mont Blanc), 1200 glaciers and seabed fossils ready to be discovered at their peaks.
This mountain range has such an impact on this continent that it significantly informs the climate of Europe, giving the drier weather to the south and the wetter weather to the north.
The Alps began to form some 34 million years ago, as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided and continued to rise for some 9-11 million years. Today, some parts continue to rise, though the rate of growth is around 1mm per year – slow even for mountains!
They are formed of different rock types, including limestone, granite and metamorphic rock. The presence of sedimentary rock, such as limestone, along with fossils of ancient sea creatures found on the slopes, points to the Alps’ distant history as a seabed. Up to 65 million years ago, the highest peaks were part of the huge Tethys sea, which lay between Africa and Europe.
The exact divisions of the Alps are debatable. A widely accepted division is into three sections: the Western, Central and Eastern Alps.
- The Western Alps lie predominantly in France, north-west Italy and west Switzerland, stretching from Nice, France to the Rhône valley, Switzerland. They include the range’s highest peak, Mont Blanc.
- The Central Alps, which include the Matterhorn, run from the Rhône valley to the Splügen Pass, north of Lake Como and cover parts of Switzerland, Italy and Germany.
- The Eastern Alps cover the rest of the range up to Vienna and include the Austrian Alps, the Dolomites in Italy and the Bavarian Alps of Germany.
Each country further delimits the Alps, informally creating the Swiss Alps, the French Alps and so on.
At their peak, some 2.5 million years ago, the glaciers of the Alps were up to 2km thick. Only the tallest peaks could be seen over an enormous ice field.
All the mountains ending ‘-horn’, (such as the Matterhorn or Weisshorn), were carved by glaciers. Today, some 1200 glaciers still challenge the rocks of the Alps to a destructive competition, and they usually win!
The glaciers are the source of some of Europe’s major rivers, including: the Rhône, the Rhine, the Po and the Danube. As such, water from the Alps reaches four seas: North, Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black seas.
However, as is the common narrative around the world, the glaciers in the Alps are retreating and disappearing.
On average, 3% of alpine glacial ice is lost each year; losses have been as high as 10% (2003). Some foreboding forecasts predict that the Alps could be glacier-less by 2050, with huge knock-on effects to the surrounding communities.
Wildlife of the Alps.
There are around 30,000 different animal species in the Alps, the vast majority of which are invertebrates. Of the larger animals, these mountains can list bears, wolves, golden eagles, griffon vultures and chamois as inhabitants. The adorable marmot can also be seen as little brown/ grey dots running across alpine meadows throughout the summer.
One of the highest living animals is the ibex. The ibex is a wild goat that defies gravity climbing near vertical walls at elevations over 3400m (11,155ft). Perhaps this animal with huge curving horns (only the males), is where the popular nickname for someone with incredible balance, comes from: he/she moves like a mountain goat!
Of the more reclusive creatures, the mountain hare and the alpine salamander are two of the more fascinating. The mountain hare lives in a huge range between 700-3800m (2297-12,467ft). It has different summer and winter coats, affording it relevant camouflage in the changing terrain year-round, (although it’s tail always stays white!)
The alpine salamander is found only in the western section of the Alps, and was only discovered in 1988. Found between 1200-2600m (3937-8530ft), its typical forest and grassland habitats are threatened and numbers are dwindling.
The alpine salamander is remarkable as it’s the only European amphibian to give birth to fully developed young. Given its primarily nocturnal behaviour, you should feel very fortunate if you manage to spot one on your adventure.
Eight percent of the 4,500 vascular plants are endemic to this mountain range. The alpine meadows, forests and grasslands that line the base of the peaks are certainly part of the Alps’ attraction.
Favouring limestone as its home, the white and yellow mountain flower Edelweiss can be seen across large parts of the West and North of the Alps. Made famous by ‘The Sound Of Music’, this national symbol of Austria has another important role. It is a traditional medicine used to treat abdominal and respiratory problems.
The net-leaved willow has adapted in a fascinating way to the severe conditions in high regions of the Alps. To cling on and draw up the nutrients it needs, it stands only15cm high, but has roots that reach several metres deep.
The natural forest is another feature of the Alps’ flora. Many areas of woodland and forest in Europe have long since been turned to quick growing timber. But in the Alps, many of the forests are recognised and respected as important habitats for animal and bird species.
Walking and Climbing in the Alps.
Three of the better-known mountains in the Alps are Mont Blanc (4,809m/ 15,778ft) in France, Monte Rosa, bordering Italy and Switzerland, (4634m/ 15,203ft) and the Matterhorn, also bordering Italy and Switzerland (4478m/ 14,692ft). Their translations speak to their wonder:
- Mont Blanc means ‘the white mountain’ in French, noting the year-round presence of snow on its upper sections.
- Monte Rosa translates directly as ‘the pink mountain’ but its real root is rouése which means glacier, and describes the ice covered sides of this mighty mountain.
- Matterhorn is slightly more complex, but means variously ‘Zermatt’s peak’, ‘peak towards the meadow’ (reflecting the alpine meadows present above the tree line) and defines it as a mountain carved by a glacier.
Made famous by copious literature, famous alpine adventures and their stunning geography, these represent only a fraction of the mountain population of the Alps. In fact, some 29 main peaks are members of the four-thousanders club and 146 are three-thousanders. Some of the most celebrated North Faces are to be found in the Alps, including the Eiger, which has spawned not only countless great books but also was the basis for a novel and blockbuster movie; Eiger Sanction, starring Clint Eastwood.
For a list of the best Guidebooks, travel books and tales of adventure see these links below:
- Guidebooks and tales of adventure on Mont Blanc
- Guidebooks and tales of adventure on the Matterhorn
- Guidebooks and tales of adventure on the Eiger
The five highest peaks in the Alps are:
- Mont Blanc – 4,809m (15,778ft), Mont Blanc Massif, along the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland.
- Monte Rosa – 4634m (15,203ft), Monte Rosa Alps, on the Swiss / Italian border.
- Dom – 4545m (14,911ft), Mischabel, Switzerland
- Liskamm – 4527m (14,852ft), Monte Rosa Alps.
- Weisshorn – 4506m (14,783ft), Weisshorn-Matterhorn, Swizerland.
The Matterhorn is sixth highest; the range in which it sits has the highest number of peaks in the top ten (four).
Key Trekking routes:
The TMB - Tour de Mont Blanc is a 170km adventure taking anywhere from 7-12 days, (taking the standard circuit). The TMB is a route that circumnavigates the highest peak, Mont Blanc, and passes through three countries. It is one of the most popular adventures in the world and even has it’s own app.
It’s also one of the best supplied, with well-equipped refuges, clear camping locations and a steady stream of fellow hikers along the route. Many choose to take the anti-clockwise route but it really can be walked in either direction. It is started equally well from any of the towns en route; Les Houches being a popular starting point.
This is an accessible adventure where you control the level of challenge you desire. There are several alternative high routes, including the Champed–Fenêtre d’Arpette–Trient route, which poses some of the biggest hiking challenges.
Hiking in the Dolomites of northern Italy is best done in the Autumn, when the widespread larch tree needles turn and the base of the mountains seem bathed in gold. There are a number of historic walks in this part of the range. Tunnels, caves and other relics of World War I can be visited. Of many hikes recommended in these mountains, The Alta Via Uno and Via Ferrata emerge as two favourable challenges.
Alta Via Uno, or Alta Via No.1, translates simply as ‘High Route One’. It stretches for 120km from Dobbiaco (north) to Belluno (south). At the beginning you will cross a number of World War I sites, see extraordinary scenery from the Passo Falzarego and can explore some steeper detours (including tunnels) with cables. In the South, the scenery changes to more of the towering Massifs.
You should allow around 10 days to complete this trek, which is considered to be a good challenge with plenty of refugios (refuges) and villages en route allowing you to take a smaller pack.
The Via Ferrata, translated as ‘Iron Path’, is not actually one route but rather a network of assisted hikes and climbs throughout the Dolomites. Consisting of cables, chains and ladders, these routes allow hikers to connect different trails and traverse routes that would otherwise be too great a challenge.
Given the vertical nature of the mountains in this part of the Alps, these Vie Ferrata were essential in World War I. Troops on each side used them to gain a mountain stronghold. Since the war, the Italian Alpine Club began have cared for them.
To use them, you will need to bring basic mountaineering equipment, as there is significant risk involved in the routes that are more climbs than hikes. Ask to local authorities and guides for more precise information.
Another classic hike stretches from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, and is known as the Haute Route or ‘High Route’. It winds 188km west to east from Chamonix to Zermatt and takes in plentiful alpine meadows, forests and high passes. Following ancient trade routes, you will criss-cross through passes along the north side of the Mont Blanc Massif and the Dolomites.
An adventure first walked by the British Alpine Club in 1861, today’s typical route stays below 3000m (9843ft) and is considered non-technical. Many of the 11-14 days that make up a classic inn-to-inn itinerary involve decent amounts of ascent and descent, but are achievable by any hiker with moderate fitness. As with the TMB, this is a route that more experienced hikers can make more of a challenge by taking detours and climbing some of the peaks en route.
Summitting Mont Blanc.
It’s possible to summit the highest mountain, Mont Blanc, during much of the year, though March to September is the favourable season. There are two main routes:
The Gouter route.
(Nid d’agile – Grand Couloir – Gouter refuge – Bosses ridge)
The classic route. To reach Nid d’Aigle (2372m/ 7782ft) requires cable car from Les Houches. The first day, to Gouter refuge (3817m/ 12,522ft), is around five hours of ascent. The second day, to the summit and return can last 7-12 hours, depending on whether you fully descend to Les Houches or back to the refuge. A far more popular route, you will need to book your place at the refuge well in advance.
The Cosmique route.
(Aiguille du Midi – Mont Blanc du Tacul – Col du Mont Maudit)
A more technical challenge and as such is quieter. To reach Aiguille du Midi (3,842m/ 12,605ft) requires a cable car, from where you take the short hike to the Cosmique refuge (3,613m/ 11,854ft). The ascent and return is then completed within a day and can take up to 12 hours.
Other adventure sports.
Skiiing – Unsurprisingly, skiing is a huge draw in the Alps, and with good reason. With a large number of peaks with reliable snow fall and resorts catering to any level of expertise, there is great variation of skiing or snowboarding in the Alps, (including climbing Mont Blanc to ski down).
The eight Winter Olympics that have been hosted within these mountains reflect their pedigree for Winter sports.
Trail running – In the summer, why not fly across those mountain peaks by enjoying the ‘ultra’ challenge of trail running. The Alps are home to one of the most famous ‘Ultra’ races in the world, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, and a number of other circuits or straight routes.
A fantastic physical challenge, this is one way of experiencing the scenery with a lighter pack. Organised tours can transport your heavy packs from refuge to refuge lighten your load.
Mountain Biking – But why go slow at all? Mountain biking is hugely popular in the summer across the Alps. You can even plan your adventure to follow lifts that take you up most of the route so you almost entirely go downhill! A good option for this adrenalised adventure is to base in a village or town and take in a number of day rides in the surrounding mountains before moving on.
The Alps, covering such a vast area of Europe, are easily accessed from any of the countries that border it.
Some major airports close to the range include:
- Geneva, Switzerland – serving the Western Alps,
- Turin or Milan Malpenza, Italy – serving Western and Central Alps,
- Zurich, Switzerland – serving many Swiss ski resorts,
- Lyon, France – serving the Western Alps,
- Innsbruck, Austria – serving the ski resorts of Austria.
The Alps are also well-served by roads and rail, with a number of tunnels and passes making travel across the range simple. These include:
- Ten road tunnels and numerous passes that cross the range, the highest being the Col Agnel connecting Queryas, France to Sampeyre, Italy at 2744m (9003ft)
- There are also driving adventures to be had, including the highest road in Europe: Col de la Bonnette in the French Alps.
- TGV quick trains run throughout France. St. Gervais le-Fayet is only 20km from Chamonix, (served by a local train service).
- For a more scenic route, take an alpine train journey through the Alps, including the famous seven-hour adventure on-board the ‘Glacier Express’ from St. Morritz to Zermatt.
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