The mighty Alps straddle the borders of seven nations. At the heart of this formidable massif lies Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain, and thrust skywards at a time when the Earth’s crust heaved and buckled under its own stupendous forces.
Snow-capped peaks glisten in the sun as eagles, soaring on thermals rising from the valleys below, scour the hillsides for prey. These are the Alps, a range of mountains that on a map of Europe looks like the spiny backbone of some prehistoric lizard.
The Alps were created around 70 million years ago when two tectonic plates – sections of the Earth’s crust – one bearing Eurasia, the other Africa, collided, grinding against one another with unimaginable force. Under these immense pressures, the Earth’s crust rippled and folded over. Rock that had been buried deep within buckled and rose up to form a chain of mountains.
These peaks appear very different today from when they were first created. Most Alpine rocks are sedimentary, and at the edges of the range erosion of this relatively soft sandstone and limestone has weathered them into a more rounded landscape. The backbone of the range, however, id of much harder igneous rock, and it is the erosion of softer rock covering the granite that has given Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and other great peaks their spectacular, craggy appearance. The last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, made its impression on the Alps, too. Glaciers gouged deep valleys in many mountainsides, to create the unique environment left behind when the ice retreated.
Mont Blanc the ‘white mountain’, in the western Alps on the border between France and Italy, reaches 15771ft (4808m), the highest point in the whole Alpine system. The Mont Blanc massif is scarred by many glaciers and bristles with ten peaks more than 13,000ft (4000m) high.
This dramatic landscape is characterized by great extremes in climate. Warm Mediterranean air moves up from the south, while chill Arctic air flows down from the north. Moist air arrives from the Atlantic, and dry air, cold in winter, hot in summer – drifts in from the east. Whether there are blizzards or sunshine in the Alps depends entirely on the direction of the wind. Rainfall above 5900ft (1800m) is rare. At that level, snow falls in prodigious quantities – depths of 30ft (9m) are not uncommon. Even on the valley floors, temperatures often sink to 23 degrees F (-5 degrees C) and they plummet further at higher altitudes. But of more significance is the wind-chill factor, the combination of low temperatures and wind, which can magnify tenfold the effects of cold.
The mystery of the Ice Man:
In September 1991, two German hikers on a remote pass high in the Tirolean Alps stumbled on the body of a man lying half buried in snow, with one hand shielding his head and eyes as if to protect himself from a snowstorm. The corpse was first thought to be that of one of the many climbers who have perished in the mountains over the last 200 years; later it was discovered by fascinated scientists to be the mummified remains of a Bronze Age man more than 5000 years old. The dead man was about 5ft 2in (1.57m) tall and weighed 121lb (55kg). He wore leather shoes and a leather tunic leggings which had been padded with dry grass for insulation against the cold. The stone bead strung on a leather thong around his neck may have been worn as jewellery or was perhaps a badge of rank. He also carried hunting tools.
It is quite interesting and baffling that such a prehistoric hunter was carrying a flint knife, a longbow and arrows in a wooden-framed quiver along with an axe, its copper head bound to the handle with leather thongs. Scientists believe that the mummified corpse was caused by a combination of wind, sun, snow and glacial movement. Scientists who examined his remains at the University of Innsbruck in Austria gave him the nickname Otzi, after the Otztaler Alps where he met his death. The body is now in a museum at Bolzono, Italy.
The volatile climate that claimed, and preserved, the ice man has forced intense adaptation in the flora and fauna of the mountains. As altitude increases, deciduous trees give way to species of hardy conifers until eventually even these cannot thrive. Between this point and the fringe of the year-round snow line are the alpages, the lush high meadows which take their name from the Alps. Sheep and cows graze here during the short summer months, but the alpages and surrounding slopes then become the exclusive terrain of creatures better adapted to the harsh winter conditions. The grouse-like ptarmigan, for example, develops white plumage as soon as the first snow falls; its toes are feather-covered for warmth and to grip the ice, and it burrows deep into the insulating snow to sleep.
Weapons and tools discovered in the Alps indicate that people have been living here for some 50,000 years, but little is known of the early inhabitants, except that they were itinerant hunters. Even in the Middle Ages, the thin soil and savage climate meant that people lived here only on a seasonal basis, moving high into the mountains to take advantage of summer pasture, and coming down into the valley to winter. This way life continues in some remote areas, but in most places, with the influx over the past 100 years of tourists, walkers, climbers, and now skiers, it has undergone a major change.
The first visitor to publish his impressions of Mont Blanc in 1744, was Peter Martel, son of a French refugee in Geneva. His description of the mountain established a fashion for visiting the ‘glaciers’ and kindled in some adventurers to climb the mountain. But it was not until August 1786 that the local doctor Michel-Gabriel Pacard and Jacques Balmat, a guide displaying great fortitude in the face of terrible hardship, became the first to struggle across the ice fields and reach the summit.
The intrinsic inhospitality of Mont Blanc meant that even as late as the 1940s it took 18 hours to travel the one treacherous route around it. In 1959, construction began on a road tunnel under the mountain to join France and Italy. The 7 mile (11.6km) long, 30ft (8.6m) wide link, of immense economic and social importance, opened six years later, and one barrier formed by the formidable mountain was overcome.