An Alpine day
What is a typical day in the Alps? Let's say we're staying at a hotel in Austria. Our aim is a hut where we'll be staying the night. Breakfast in the hotel will probably be fabulous: some form of eggs and meat, salad, cereals and breads. Coffee is either brought to your table or on tap at a machine. We check out (Alpine Exploratory has paid) and set off.
If the day ends at another village then we might walk uphill to a col all morning.. perhaps from 1,000m to 2,000m.. and down to the village in the afternoon. If staying at a hut then we'll stay higher in the mountains. The routecards and maps that we supply show where to walk and describe the difficulties of sections. There can be rocky steps and ridges, drops to the side - it depends on the route. None of our routes involve any climbing or via ferrata being entirely walking routes.
We get to the hut perhaps mid-afternoon and announce ourselves to the warden. We're pointed to our dormitory or room - some huts have private rooms - and take a shower if the hut has them. Most do. There's time to relax and see the views before dinner, typically served as a set menu at communal tables. It's a companionable way to travel and you never know what trekking tales you'll hear. Then it's further drinks but perhaps the day's exertion will surprise us: to bed for what can be a very solid sleep!
Ecrins National Park, French Alps
The continent of Europe is hot and dry during Summer, much as it's cold and dry during Winter. Rain tends to come in big bursts: a feature of the Alps that differs from the English Lake District or Scottish Highlands is the higher risk of afternoon thunderstorms. Nevertheless a normal day starts warm and becomes hot, followed by a cooler evening if up high; trekkers might be in shorts and sleeves, then in the evening putting on a fleece and jacket to sit outside the hut.
In temperatures we might see 20-25 degrees C in the valley and correspondingly lower, 10-15 degrees, on the cols. Generally just one or two warm layers are needed to trek with, plus base layer and waterproofs. We advise on kit in your info pack, before your trip.
Days can be steadily wet, too, and it is essential to trek with good waterproof jacket and trousers. Both are needed, because trousers quickly wet through and might not get the chance to dry.
What might a seasoned walker in other parts of the world find different when going to the Alps?
As well as the Winter-Summer split mentioned above, within the Summer some one-off events dictate patterns of life (and trekking) in the mountains. Here are three of the many natural phenomena of the Alps:
Winter and indeed Spring snows fall in a reasonably regular pattern but only to an accuracy of a few weeks! It is never known beforehand at what point the walking passes will be clear of snow. If we reckon on late June or early July on a certain route, then it could be as early as the start of June or as late as mid-July. The depth of the Winter, and Spring snows in May, and the heat of Spring, all combine to the result. In fact warm rain during May and June is the best way to clear the snow: think of running a warm tap on an ice cube!
When looking at Alpine Exploratory's season dates, our start dates are set conservatively to avoid the snow lingering on the cols. As we approach the season we'll advise if there is more than usual and any precautions this might mean. In one or two years on the Tour du Mont Blanc, for example, we have recommended micro-spikes (mini-crampons) and trekking poles in early July, but this is rare. While all trekkers should equip themselves as they judge the conditions, an ice axe and crampons are not part of the expected kit for any of our treks.
May: still snowy in the mountains (here above les Chapieux, TMB)
Steeper and craggier mountains combined with extremes of cold and heat through the year, give the conditions for rockfall in the Alps. Paths that run across the hillside are susceptible to minor rockfall, for example in gullies (small valleys across the hillside, cut by streams). Paths tend to re-form on popular routes, but there is always the risk of a slip or of futher falls from above.
Rockfall reshapes hills (here at Randa, Walker's Haute Route)
One very visible rockfall occured in Spring 1991 on the Western side of the Mattertal, the Swiss valley at whose head sits Zermatt. The walking route through the valley passes directly under its foot, near the village of Randa. The Chamonix to Zermatt Walkers' Haute Route can be taken this way: our route skirts the fan of boulders that resulted.
River crossings are not normally a feature of our routes in the Alps, but one thing the early-Summer trekker often sees is the power of water! Snow melts from the mountains and channels itself through the streams, often greatly increasing the flow. In some parts, such as the Haute Savoie in France, bridges across rivers are deliberately taken out until the height of water has passed, to avoid the bridges being washed away - they are then reinstated for the Summer season. In the villages, deep channels lined by boulders are common in order to handle the annual flow.
Cold, powerful glacial meltwater (here at Les Contamines, TMB)