Setting the scene

Saas Fee höhenweg.It is only comparatively recently that men have learned to enjoy the mountains. Not until the Romantic Age, starting in the late 18th century, were the mountains regarded as anything other than an obstacle to communications and commerce, and as a lurking danger, sending avalanches and rock slides into the valleys below. There are plenty of names that attest to this: Mont Maudit, Les Diablerets, Mont Terrible, Mauvais Pas, Schreckhorn, Eiger come to mind. Mountain peaks did not attract people. Mont Blanc, although technically easy, was not climbed until 1786.

Only in the mid-19th century did mountain climbing start to become popular as a pastime among the upper classes in Europe. The Alps became "the playground of Europe", especially to the British who were the most affluent people at the time. This is when most of the highest peaks in the Alps were climbed for the first time. But even then, such a "useless" waste of energy was often frowned upon, so the early climbers often claimed that they were really scientists, carrying barometers and thermometers on their expeditions. - The conqueror of the Matterhorn, Edward Whymper, was a young artist assigned to make engravings of alpine landscapes for his British magazine.

My own "playground" in the Alps has largely been the Valais canton (link to map) in the southwest corner of Switzerland, where the Rhône river is born. (It continues to Lake Geneva and ends in Marseille.) More precisely, I have been a regular visitor to Zermatt and Saas-Fee, but I have also visited many side valleys in the Valais, and of course the Berner Oberland (Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Adelboden) and Chamonix in France. In general, the western Alps are higher than the Austrian and German Alps, and out of the around 60 peaks that reach 4000 m and above, one third lie in the Zermatt area.

When I first visited the Swiss mountains in 1968, the mountain villagers appeared to me to be extremely poor. The buildings were grey and poorly maintained, the roads were terrible or non-existent. You could see peasants carrying hay on their back down into the valley. There were few hotels outside the main tourist resorts. - Today the situation has changed dramatically, thanks to mass tourism, government subsidies and general economic development. You see "Ferienwohnungen" (vacation apartments) and restaurants everywhere. I think that Zermatt, for instance, has changed more in the last 30 years than in the whole previous century. But in many valleys it is still possible to experience aspects of an earlier era, when people depended for their livelihood on raising sheep and cattle on the alpine meadows. In the summer, sheep were brought to the higher pastures while hay was harvested in the valley. In the winter, sheep and cattle were kept indoors. Hay and grain was stored in small huts resting on flat rocks that prevented rats from entering.

A journey in the Alps is as much a journey in the vertical dimension as horizontally. In Switzerland, you cannot judge distances from a map without taking altitude into account. To go from one valley to another by car, you have to cross an alpine pass (unless there is a tunnel). This can take hours, as the road snakes its way up and down steep hill sides. Even in summer, passes can be closed due to heavy snowfall.

On foot, there are two factors to consider besides the physical effort of walking up steep hills: as you gain altitude, it gets colder and the air gets thinner.

Descent to Zermatt from the Trift gorge.My own rule of thumb is that the temperature drops 6 C per 1000 m of altitude. If the village is at 1500 m and the summit is at 4500 m, this means a difference of roughly 18 C. While the village may enjoy summer-like temperatures of around 20 C (still a lot more comfortable than the 30 C in the Rhône valley), on the mountain it may well be freezing. This is in daytime - during the night it gets a lot colder. In addition, it is normal to experience strong winds on the mountain, and the weather is very variable. A snowstorm may develop very quickly, and then visibility is strongly reduced. - The nice thing about it is that you can move between the seasons during a one-day hike. You start on a summer morning, find yourself back in spring after a few hours, perhaps walk across a glacier at noon, and then reverse the process in the afternoon.

The other factor is air pressure. It decreases exponentially with altitude. Already at 4000 m altitude, it is only 60 percent of what it is at sea level. Of course, this is not as extreme as climbing in the Himalayas, but it is very noticeable. Not only does it sap your energy, it can also cause headaches and nausea. If you develop these symptoms ("mountain sickness"), give up and return to lower altitude. Do not expect things to pass. - Even in alpine villages at 1500 m altitude or so, the air seems different: sounds appear "thinner".

Before you attempt to climb a 4000-m peak, you should spend at least a week "at altitude", i.e. in an alpine village, and condition yourself by walking on the trails above the village, even if you consider yourself to be in good shape. This will help a lot in making the climb an enjoyable experience.

When going for a climb, you will typically walk up from the village in the afternoon to a mountain hut lying at about 3000 m, spend the night there, and then start the climb very early in the morning. This is to minimize the risk of rockfall (the rocks are still frozen) and to avoid having to wade through soft snow on the mountain or slush on the glaciers, and to have as much daylight as possible, in case you get into trouble.

Some other items of fatherly advice that I have picked up from my mountain guides:

  • Always take as small steps as possible. Each large step strains the muscles, and this over time will make you tired more quickly than a more relaxed gait, where your legs just swing forward naturally. This is also the reason why it is a good idea to use a walking stick on the trails. You may not be in any danger of falling over without one, but every time you find yourself off-balance, you tend to use your muscles more than you would if you carried a stick.
  • When you climb, use your feet to carry your weight and your hands for balance. Avoid pulling yourself up - your legs are much stronger than your arms.
  • Avoid small talk during a climb. It interferes with your regular breathing.
  • Do not underestimate the mountains just because conditions seem inviting. A typical accident is not a sudden fall coming out of the blue, but a result of getting into difficulties when conditions turn bad - losing your way due to reduced visibility or nightfall (the mountain can be a real labyrinth up close), spraining an ankle, getting cold...
  • Do not try to save money by attempting to follow a guide engaged by another client. It is unethical, and if you do not pick your own way going up, you are even more likely to lose your bearings going down.

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  Last edited or checked March 11, 2015.

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