Walking Holidays ~ from a genuine specialist

Organised & self-guided walking holidays in Europe’s most majestic mountains

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A big part of any holiday and experiencing a new culture is the food and the Tirol region of Austria certainly has plenty to offer! During a week’s walking in the Zugspitze Arena you are sure to work up an appetite, fortunately the routes pass by some fantastic mountain huts and restaurants to keep your energy levels high. Here’s some local favourites for you to try.

Kaiserschmarren is sweet dish of thick shredded pancake served with apple sauce or fruit compote. These large dishes definitely make for a good lunch option and are usually big enough to share between two. Available at most mountain huts and restaurants but we’d recommend the Zugsplitzblick (on the beautiful 3 Lakes walk) or the Coburger Hutter (above the Seeben See lake) for a dish with a view.

Strudel has long been popular across Austria, with a number of flavours and styles, however we think we have found a true winner here in the Zugspitz Arena. The Apple & Raspberry Strudel at Wolfratshausen has been the favourite of many guests and is so popular we now call ahead to make sure they have enough for our hungry hikers.

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Walking Holidays in Tuscany with Collett's Walking Holidays in Tuscany with Collett's
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Walking holidays in the Austrian Alps - food Walking holidays in the Austrian Alps - food
Walking holidays in the Austrian Alps - food Walking holidays in the Austrian Alps - food

One also cannot forget the fantastic bakeries in the region, from pretzels and pastries to the fantastic selection of cakes available. A favourite spot of ours for a post walk slice is the Pure Hotel in Lermoos with fantastic views over the arena meadows. Definitely deserved after a long walk day!

Despite being high up in the mountains we get some lovely hot days out here and a cool refreshing drink can definitely help put a spring in your step. We recommend a nice glass of Ski Wasser (Ski Water), a berry concentrate with sparkling water or lemonade, or a bottle of Alm Dudler, an apple and elderflower drink if you prefer something sweet.

On a more savoury note, the mountains are home to a range of delicious and filling meals to fuel your expeditions. Classics include Wiener schnitzel, dumplings and goulash however you may not have tried Tiroler Grӧstl. This traditional Austrian dish consists of a mix of potatoes, bacon and onion fried with cayenne pepper paprika and served with fresh parsley and a fried egg on top (or two if you’re lucky).

And finally although not food, most tend to enjoy a good drink whilst on holiday, we are lucky enough that Ehrwald is home to the Linzgieseder Schnapps factory, producing a range of fruity, herbal and fiery spirits to the Tirol region. They open for factory tours on Wednesdays, and have a gift shop that is open every afternoon except Sundays, pick up a bottle for a perfect holiday gift or souvenir.

Whatever your taste there’s plenty to sample in Austria, so treat yourself. Guten-Appetit!!

Spring came late here in the Pyrenees this year which means that the tops of mountains are still sprinkled with snow. The Sierra Partacua and Sierra Tendenera ranges that tower over our base in Panticosa look even more majestic as we hike below. Some of our higher routes still hold snow so the Pyrenees team have been getting creative with routes so that guests can enjoy the most stunning days out in the mountains. A little exploration has led us to the discovery of some absolute mountain gems.

It was with this in mind that I sat on our balcony one morning, cup of tea in hand, contemplating Cucuraza, a very inviting peak of 1767m and a hop skip and a jump from our village. I consulted the map. There was indeed a faint path leading to the top, 650m of ascent and the possibility of some stunning views of the Valle de Tena. I finished my tea and packed a bag. It was time to explore!

Walking Holiday Accommodation in Tuscany with Collett's - Il Rigo Agritourismo Walking Holiday Accommodation in Tuscany with Collett's - Il Rigo Agritourismo
Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees
Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees
Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees
Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees Walking Holidays in the Pyrenees

The path ascended steadily at first through lanes, then fields and then through the beautiful beech forest that carpets the mountain’s slopes. The trees provided welcome shade from the sun and soon I had climbed almost 200m. The sounds of bustling Panticosa gave way to sounds of the forest; insects, birds and my steady breathing. Cucuraza was making me work for those views! One of the joys of the Pyrenees is that you rarely meet people on trails at this time of year if you know where to go – access to a little local knowledge is a big advantage. After 45 mins of walking I had the beauty and solitude of this forest path all to myself.

A further 200m saw the wooded track opening out onto a clearing where, to my surprise, the last of the elderflower orchids were still in bloom. Pale blue forget-me-nots, tiny primroses and spring gentians all swayed between a carpet of buttercups. It was such an unexpected sight that I had to stop and enjoy the moment.

I needed the break as in the last 250m the path became steeper. The beech forest became pine and the trees gave off the most beautiful aroma. I imagine this is the smell that pine flavour air fresheners are aiming for – how can they get it so wrong! I can tell you that nothing beats the smell of a mountain pine forest on a Monday morning.

Finally, I reached a col where the path flattened out. The top of Cucuraza is a long, flat, tree-covered tongue that juts out over the valley bellow. I was free to marvel at the 360 degree view. The mighty Punta Garbada and Punta dera Garmo were visible above, the turquoise of Bubal lake below, terraced meadows, trees of all hues, snow covered peaks and rugged mountain ranges in the distance. All enjoyed by only me and the birds.

The Pyrenees remind me every day why we puff and sweat up mountains. Moments at the top are precious beyond words. These are the memories we will remember long after the ache in our legs has disappeared.

After walking for five hours, ascending 1000 metres and with the summit of the highest mountain in Germany within our grasp, I took a moment to reflect upon our walk.

There was a lot to reflect upon! We had seen marmots slipping in and out of the rocks; watched a herd of horses gallop down the valley; we had watched people on the summit of the Sonnenspitze, a steeple-like mountain appearing inaccessible to humans; and we’d experienced spectacular views of the Mieminger range as its ridgeline traversed the sky. We had walked Collett’s Mountain Holiday’s “Zugspitze Challenge” and enjoyed every moment of it.

Upon reaching the summit of the Zugspitze, we were greeted with a magnificent panoramic view over hundreds of mountain peaks in four different countries. To the south-west we could see Italy and the outline of the Piz Bernina standing 4048 metres above sea level. To the east we could see the silhouette of the Grossglockner, Austria‘s highest mountain, and to the west was Switzerland, with more 4000 metre peaks. In the North were vast plains covering southern Germany all the way to Munich.

When standing on the top of Germany, it’s not hard to feel ecstatic!

Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena
Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena
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Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena
Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena
Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena
Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena Walking Holidays in the Austrian Alps - Zugspitz Arena

But what did send me down memory lane, prompted a retelling about my final Zugspitze ascent in the summer of 2016? It was the notion that I am returning to the Zugspitz Arena in Austria for another season working for Collett’s! Cue the (I hope) sarcastic groans of disappointment from my colleagues. I’m super excited. Who knew that a simple Google search in 2016 for “Work summer amazing places Europe” would yield such dividends?

Walking Holidays in the Zugspitz Arena

It is comprised of three different areas. Looking at the arena from above, at the centre is the Moos, a circular field on the valley floor approximately two miles in diameter. The Moos often provided an ideal warm up during the start of a hike or, alternatively, an idyllic end when the legs are heavy. Early in the season wildflowers bloom here and the fields (and hills) are alive with the sound of music (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t help it). Walkers gaze in awe at the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and it seems almost obscene that such ostentatious sights are so easy to obtain.

On the outer edges of the Moos are three villages: Biberwier, Lermoos and Ehrwald. Their locations within the arena yield unique views. Biberwier rests behind the steeple-like Sonnenspitze which looks very different from the rear. Its profile is triangularly shaped, less like a tower and a peak more like a pyramid cuts down the centre from its apex. Its face is sheer. Biberwier provides a waypoint for most southern walks and is the closest village to the unbelievably beautiful Blindsee lake.

The village of Lermoos is raised above the valley floor allowing unobstructed view across the Moos to the Zugspitze. Take a moment. Take two. Take as many as you like to appreciate, contemplate and meditate over the Zugspitze itself. At 2962 metres above sea level it stands literally hundreds of metres taller than the mountains in the neighbouring ranges. However, it is not the height of the Zugspitze which takes the breath away, more so its complete dominance of the skyline. It fills your visual spectrum and demands your attention. The absolute magnitude of the Zugspitze is highlighted by the village Ehrwald, which sits directly below the mountain. Ehrwald sits minute against the monstrosity of the Zugspitze. Curiously, last year, I found such contrast elicited existential musings from Collett’s guests about human significance, or its lack thereof, in the world.

The final village is Ehrwald. Tiny compared to the Zugspitze but the largest village in the arena, Ehrwald provides the accommodation for Collett’s guests (and u, the walk organisers!). The generosity of the locals match the size of the mountain they are beneath. The hub for our guests is the 4-star Hotel Sonnenspitze in the centre of Ehrwald. Despite the grand infrastructure, the employees and owners are grounded people who selflessly and willingly assist the Collett’s operation.

The final and most important component in the Arena are, of course, the mountains. They have been partly described already but deserve their own mention. There is surprising variety: On the Zugspitze, vegetation gives way to rock quickly, but on Mt Daniel bushes are seen almost to the summit; the spire of the Sonnenspitze is contrasted against the rolling nature of the Grubigstein. Thaneller stand alone, defiant, at the end of the Western valley and is a common target for the summit baggers. However, the broad variance between the surrounding mountains only serve to highlight their one commonality: their size. The sense of magnitude these mountains emanate is a major reason for why I am returning.

Collett’s guests are the other reason warranting my return. We had some wonderful characters! Eighty year olds as fit as a fiddle. We had families with four generations who went paragliding, white water rafting, horseriding and canyoning as well as walking. We’ve had those who have walked in the Himalayas, scaled Mt Kilimanjaro, who have climbed in Kalymnos, Scotland and Wales. We had guests on their first walking holiday abroad, fresh into the spirit of things, enjoying new-found camaraderie with like-minded walkers. We had a mix of people from countries far and wide, and many guests whose genuine manner and personality provided the essence why every week was different but always fantastic for us, the walk organisers.

This year Collett’s are introducing hut to hut hiking in the Austrian Alps and 2017 is looking like it will be a wonderful summer season in the Zugspitz Arena.

We look forward to meeting guests, new and old!

From Ehrwald, the Zugspitze cable car is silhouetted against the sky line. It is a marvel of engineering, with just two stanchions and ascending almost two thousand metres. The stanchions are immense and protrude from side of the Zugspitze at an angle which appear to defy physics. Near the higher stanchion is the Wiener-Neustädter Hütte, yet another Austrian hut which has a proud mountaineering history. From the valley, it takes hours to reach the hut, however, the hut itself is well stocked aas supplies and produce are lowered from the cable car above.

This Hut also provides the apex point for the Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk.

The Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk is one of the toughest walks in the Zugspitz Arena. It begins from the bottom of the Zugspitze cable car station and, after 1200 metres of elevation, surpassing the tree line and reaching ‘moonscape’ territory, it finally reaches the Wiener-Neustädter Hütte. The ascent is exposed with incredibly large drops; cables are provided in many sections and scrambling skills are of paramount importance. After reaching the hut from the North West, the path descends on the South West face of the Zugpitze down an immense scree slope which runs almost all the way down to Ehrwald. The walk is only recommended for the most mountain-hardy of guests and, without exception, has always received a positive response.

Bergfeuers and the Wiener-Neustädter Hütte Walk

Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk Collett’s Wiener-Neustädter Hütte walk
Ehrwald, Austrian Alps Ehrwald, Austrian Alps
Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers
Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers
Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers
Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers
Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers Zugspitz Arena Bergfeuers
Ehrwald, Austrian Alps Ehrwald, Austrian Alps

At the beginning of July I walked the Wiener-Neustädter Hütte route with guests for the first time this season. We had an absolutely phenomenal day. Beyond the exquisite technical experience the walk itself offers, we were also lucky enough to see a family of Gams (chamois), make good friends with a herd of sheep and stand right above a rainbow. Cheers nature!

Before we opened the Wiener-Neustädter Hütte Walk to Collett’s guests I hiked the route to ensure it was in an appropriate condition. On the descent I encountered some strange activity. Flags of all different colours dotted the scree slope. They were spread across the area and there was more than 100 metres of ascent between the lowest and highest flag. Men were gathered and were consulting a bit of paper when I arrive. While friendly, they were all quite guarded so I took the hint and took my leave.

These were the Bergfeuer men or, in English, the mountain fire men.

On the 24th of June, these men set the surrounding mountains of the Zugspit Arena alight. Each flag I had seen represented a location of a fire and, when all the fires were burning together, they formed images for spectators on the valley floor. Traditionally the mountain fires were used to ward off evil demons and spirits and many of the images had Christian themes. Other images served to highlight the plant and animal world and human’s relationship with them. The objectives of other images were more ambiguous, like a picture of a Smurf standing above the village of Lermoos.

After dinner, with our guests wandered around the village soaking up the atmosphere. That night Ehrwald, which hosts the sleepy population of 2600 people, was inundated by folk who had come to see the Bergfeuers. Over 9000 people visited the Zugspitz Arena that evening. Biergartens were erected and the sound of live music drifted over the town. A thunderstorm was brewing in the South and the flashes in the distance created a truly powerful and unique atmosphere. Fortunately for us and, more importantly, the Bergfeuer men high in the mountains, the storm did not enter the valley.

The Bergfeuers event is a must see, a unique exhibition which is hosted by the Zugspitz Arena every year.

June the 24th 2018: put it in your diaries, have a word with Tom Collett and maybe we’ll see you here!

One hour west from the Zugspitze Arena, straddling the border between Germany and Austria are the Tannheim mountains. Known for cross country skiing and paragliding, as well as the Zugspitze Arena, the Tannheim region has also proved popular with Collett’s guests due to its own remarkable panoramic views.

The walk begins from the top of the Fussener Jochle cable car and traverses round to the Bad Kissinger Hütte and Aggenstein Mountain before returning to Gran, the hamlet where we parked. As we expected, the majority of Collett’s guests in the resort joined up for the fun, so we piled into the van and headed out, full of chatter and laughter.

Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps
Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps Tannheim Range - Austrian Alps

Choughed to be on a Collett’s day out: The Tannheim Ranges

In the valley the sun was shining and the day was beginning to warm up. However, at the top of the cable car we were immediately reminded of the stark wilderness that the Tannheim mountains provide. The cable car stands on the high outer ridge of the mountain range and clouds had descended into the bowl. Occasionally wisps of cloud boiled over the ridge, covering us and obstructing our vision. Fortunately, the cloud soon burned off and the famous 360 degree views appeared.

We set out just after 10am and made good progress. The track ascended a short way on the Western ridge line before heading into the ranges, and before long it was possible to see the Hut on the horizon against the back drop of the Aggenstein mountain, which still had its head in the clouds. With few stops and time for photos, our group reached the Hütte.

(Mountain) Location, location, location…

I’m continually astounded by the Austrians ability to construct beautiful Huts in amazing locations. The Bad Kissinger Hütte is one such building. With a proud mountaineering history, and located right on the border, the Hut is well equipped to cater for walkers, mountaineers, climbers and long-distance hikers. At this point our party split into two. My colleague Alex (who was feeling lethargic after climbing 1300 metres up Mt. Daniel the previous day), took half the group into the Hut for a hot lunch whilst my group ascended the Aggenstein mountain.

We started and very quickly the path became steeper, so much so that the final ascent had cables to assist scrambling. Just when I was starting to feel jealous of those enjoying hot lunches at the Hut, the scramble ended and all my thoughts of food were blown away as we reached the summit.

The views were phenomenal…

The flat lands of Germany ended against the sheer face of the Aggenstein. Across the West and South mountain ranges stretched into the distance. As we arrived a group of climbers were ascending the final pitch on the North-East face of the mountain and others were already at the summit enjoying a well-earned lunch. Alpine Choughs were present and scouring for food. The birds had no fear of humans and, by using the thermals running over the mountain, they could stall in the air, motionless and silent by our heads waiting to pick food from our hands. What was initially disconcerting quickly became hilarious as the birds starting landing on our heads, shoulders, knees (but not toes). When we descended to the Bad Kissinger Hütte, right before we regrouped, the Aggenstein treated us to one last piece of nature: a Hummingbird, gathering nectar from the alpine flowers.

After we had regaled the group who had stayed at the Hut with our experience (who may have cared more if their own lunch hadn’t been as fantastic as it sounded) we started descending back to Gran. The descent was long but group morale was high and, with much conversation and laughter, the time flew by.

A stream ran at the bottom of the mountain and there was no hesitation to have a paddle and soothe the feet. It was an ideal finish to the hike.

I noticed the van ride was considerably quieter on the return to Ehrwald than it was in the morning.

A vintage Collett’s Mountain Holidays walking itinerary.

If the Dolomites are the home of jagged, cliff hanger peaks, and Austria is the centre of well-organised Alpine tourism, then Spain is wild. Gone are the lift stations, regular buses and crowded viewpoints. Instead, tucked just behind the idyllic coastline of Northern Spain is a land of rolling vineyards, sleepy villages and wildflower meadows. The Picos de Europa is one of three locations in Spain that Collett’s have on offer along with the Pyrenees on the French/Spanish border and Andalucía in the South.

 

Hermida Gorge

When thinking of Spain many imagine it to be dry, dusty and hot, hardly the environment for walking right? The Picos however is a coastal gem. Only an hour from the nearest section of coast Tama, our home in the Picos, sits just beyond the Hermida Gorge. The Hermida snakes its way though the coastal line of mountain defence that was first named by sailors upon return from the Americas. The hazy peaks mark the northern edge of Spain and serve as an impressive indication that land is close! Modern visitors will appreciate the same view on the approach of the Bilbao or Santander ferry. In many ways the Picos is like a land that time forgot. Designated a National Park the locals take pride in their traditions and their homesteads. Many of the farmers still cut their fields by hand, livestock are collected at the start of the summer and taken up to the higher pastures on foot and cider apples are pressed and lovingly to made into the bittersweet drink. Up until recent times higher farmsteads were still only accessed by zig zagging mountain tracks.

The slow introduction of tourism to the area has seen the construction of the occasional funicular, museum and conversion of old mining lifts into cable cars but in the most part the joy of this area is being able to get away from it all. On the walks here it is rare that you’ll see that many other people around. Quiet tracks and woodland paths navigate a landscape that has a lot to offer. The Picos boasts deep, limestone gorgers, rocky moonscape plateaus and glacial scarring in some areas which serve as enough challenge for those looking for higher level walking. Those who prefer easy/moderate walks can explore the lower valleys which are home to extensive wild flower meadows, golden farm land, thick pine forests, vineyards and fig trees. There’s plenty of wildlife too with bears, wolves, vultures and eagles inhabiting the area and in the spring the hills are painted with wildflower colours.

The Green Coast

The close proximity to the coast means that weather rolls in from the sea, clashes with the mountains and keeps the area green and luscious, hence the name ‘Costa Verde’ or the ‘Green coast’. The Picos experiences is fair share of this weather with snows in the winter and storms in the spring. Evening rainstorms keep the land healthy and as a result it has become in many ways like the Alpine hills we know of in Austria or France. This combined with a pleasant Spanish heat means the area has a very unique feel. Spanish people from the South come up to the area to escape the high temperatures in mid-summer to enjoy the mountain air.  The rain that visits overnight makes a habit of clearing as the morning progresses, making way for blue skies by midday. The evenings are long and warm, perfect for a cerveza on the terrace at the Posada el Corcal when office hour comes around.

The drive to the coast is scenic and the time flies quickly by as you approach seaside towns such as San Vincente de la Barquera. Towns like this have become surfing hot spots and the golden beaches and clear water are still in view of the mountains. A dip in the sea here is a welcome change for tired legs and many Camino walkers pass through on their long journey to Santiago de Compostela. The towns themselves serve fresh seafood and the paella is great as expected.

Activities

There are plenty of activities to keep the whole family entertained too. Local outdoor adventure companies run canyoning and kayaking trips just a short drive from Potes, the main town in the area. Surf schools rent boards and offer lessons at a good rate on the coast and the gorges are home to plenty of climbing routes and even a few via ferrata! There’s also horse riding, bike rental, cave visits, paddle boarding and much more that could easily fill a week or so holiday.

So if you’re looking for a new European destination, away from the crowds and with a great cultural combination of land and sea then the Picos is the place to go!

Europe is famed for its mountain ranges and the culture surrounding them. The Alps in particular attract around 120 million visitors every year who come to take in the landscape, traditions, wildlife. We’ve already looked at the history of the Alps and its climate, now it’s time to look at Alpine plants and animals. 

Plants and vegetation

The Alps are home to many kinds of plants, many of them specific to the area. Full, colourful meadows are rich with wild flowers and dense forests in the lower regions are home to many species of deciduous trees.

In the higher regions, evergreens like spruce, pine and fir trees thrive and when climbing higher still, at around 1700m/2000m alpine meadows, mosses, shrubs and unique flowers like the edelweiss are commonplace. In the highest plains intricate rock gardens nestle between moonscape boulder fields.

Rarer species such as the lady slipper orchid can be found in the Alps and many flower species that can be found across the world have their own Alpine twist due the soil or affecting climate.

 

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Click image for full infographic

Animals

Animals specific to the Alps have had to evolve to adjust to the harsh Alpine climate it is thought that there’s at least 30,000 animal species including 80 types of mammals and 200 species of birds. Thicker coats, hibernation patterns and specific diets have all come about due to the high altitude and harsh winters.

Ungulates: Chamois are native to Europe and thrive in the rocky Alpine environment. They are somewhere between a mountain goat and antelope with a thick coat that changes from brown in summer to grey in winter. They are easily recognisable short, curved horns, white face with black markings and a black stripe along its backbone. Chamois are protected by law.

Ibex are well suited to navigating steep rock faces and lives above the tree line. They can have long curved horns which made them a popular target for hunters in the early 19th century. They were brought to the point of extinction during this time but now there are tens of thousands of them in the Alps. In the winter months Ibex move to lower ground.

Rodents: Marmots are the most well-associated rodents with the Alpine environment. This squirrel/guinea pig-like rodent can weigh up to 14 pounds measure more than 2 feet long at times. They emerge in spring after hibernating in the winter months. During the winter they wake up intermittently to feed from specialized stores within their burrows. They live in family groups and are very territorial. The family territory is unlikely to change throughout their lifetime and their intricate burrow systems even include nurseries for young and waste elimination areas. They can be heard from long distances letting out short sharp squeaks that serve as a warning of predators or other dangers. They have look-outs in a very similar way to Meer cats.

Invertebrates: There are 30,000 animal species in the Alps, 20,000 of which are invertebrates. There are many types of spiders and beetles at high altitude despite the harsh climate and lower down butterflies and moths can be found in great numbers in the flower meadows. Even the hardy snow flea enjoys the iciest parts of the Alps.

Birds: 200 species of bird can be found in the Alps another 200 species again pass through in migration. Golden Eagles, Vultures, buzzards and hawks all patrol the skies. Friendly mountain chuffs join walkers and climbers on the highest peaks and the Wallcreeper’s vivid red wings flit about the rocky canyons and cliffs at high altitudes.

Amphibians and Reptiles: The Alps are home to fifteen types of reptiles and 21 amphibians. The Alpine salamander prefers humid, grassy or wooded areas and will come out after rainfall or at night. It also hibernates however so may not be easily spotted. It excretes a toxic liquid so mustn’t be touched. Many species of snakes, lizards, newts, toads and frogs can also be seen.

Carnivores: In the late 19th century the Lynx became extinct in the Alps due to vanishing food sources and hunters. It was reintroduced to the region in the late 20th century, but is still sparse and in need of close monitoring. Other reintroduction programmers include that of wolves and bears.

Some of the Alps highest and most well-known peaks:

  • Mont Blanc 4809m
  • Matterhorn 4478m
  • Jungfrau 4158m
  • Ortler 3905m
  • Gran Paradiso 4061m
  • Finsteraarhorn 4274
  • Eiger 3070m
  • Weisshorn 4406m
  • Grossglockner 3798m

For more on the Alps, download our guide  here, our Alps infographic here or visit our Alps landing page here.

Europe is famed for its mountain ranges and the culture surrounding them. The Alps in particular attract around 120 million visitors every year who come to take in the landscape, traditions, wildlife and history and names like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn are known across the world for their beauty and fierce, unforgiving nature. The range stretches 1,200 km/750 miles across eight countries; Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland. As the youngest mountains in Europe their peaks are more dramatic, raw and jagged, striking out recognisable and memorable horizons.

alps_infographic-history-and-climate

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History

Millions of years ago the African and Eurasian plates collided and an area that was then beneath the sea began to fold and climb with the heat and pressure, creating the Alps’ highest peaks. The process created newly formed granite and gneiss rock as well as limestone which formed on the seabed. Much of the modelling of the mountains we know now happened during the ice age. About a million years ago the Alps was plunged into the depths of a continuous winter and the land became one of snow and ice. Glaciers carved their way along the rock creating valleys and moraines which became the sights for some of our greatest rivers and lakes when the ice receded. The ice age still leaves its mark in some places, the largest surviving glacier in Europe being the Aletsch in Switzerland at around 25km long.

Human activity in the Alps dates back to the Palaeolithic era. A local legend here in the Dolomites, Otzi the Iceman, was found in 1991 preserved in a glacier. Originally thought to be a lost walker who’d fallen into the ice Otzi was removed from his resting place to be examined. It was then that people started to realise he was a little older than that, around 5,000 years older in fact. Otzi is now recognised as one of the worlds’ most significant anthropological discoveries and increasingly improving technology is helping to rewrite what we thought of people at the time thanks to his discovery. Otzi is now housed in a permanent exhibition in Bolzano, the capital of the South Tyrol.

Since Otzi’s time the Alps has had a long and colourful history:

  • In the 6th century BC, the Celtic Le Tene culture well established. The original Celtic homeland was in Austria but they spread to much of continental Europe and Britain. The Celtic culture has since made a lasting impact on much of Europe with many of us descending from them, speaking languages influenced by them and embracing their intricate designs in clothing and jewellery.
  • Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with an army of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 38 elephants. Recent evidence suggests the army may have even passed within sight of the Matterhorn. Many did not survive the harsh conditions of the Alpine passes.
  • The Celts were a great force in Europe but as the Roman’s started to spread across Europe much of their land was lost. By 117 AD the Romans were at their zenith. They had defeated the Allobrogi in 121 BC and Julius Caesar overcame the Helvetii during the Gallic Wars. The Rhaetians were finally conquered when the Romans turned northward to the Danube valley in Austria and defeated the Brigantes. Towns such as  Martigny and Lausanne in Switzerland, and Partenkirchen in Bavaria are all examples of Alpine Roman settlements with baths, villas, arenas and temples.
  • In the Napoleonic wars many Alpine territories were taken and at one point Napoleon crossed one of the mountain passes with around 40,000 men. After the fall of Napoleon many Alpine countries developed heavy protections to prevent any new invasion. For example Savoy built a series of fortifications in the Maurienne valley to protect the major Alpine passes.
  • In the 18th and 19th century a rise in the popularity of naturalists, writers, artists (in particular the romantics) saw some of Europe’s finest art produced.
  • The mid-1800s are regarded as the Golden age of alpinism. Few people attempted to conquer the Alps in the early centuries but a sudden rise in popularity meant that many Alpine peaks were then conquered as climbing became a popular sport. Equipment and procedures improved and some of the world’s most famous mountaineering routes were laid down. In 1786 two Frenchmen became the first to reach the top of Mt. Blanc, Europe’s highest. Nowadays modern equipment has improved immensely and each year more than 2,000 alpinists climb to the summit of the Matterhorn which is considered to be one of Europe’s’ most difficult mountains.
  • In WW1 and WW2 the Alps were reshaped once again. Borders were changed, fortifications built and cities were flattened leaving Europe in disarray. Mountain warfare left its mark on places like the Dolomites and the tunnels and wire walkways left behind have now become popular tourist attractions and Via Ferrata routes.

Among all of these developments the high mountain settlements have kept much of their tradition true. Cattle farming, cheese making and woodwork are still alive and well and are synonymous with Alpine culture.

The Alps has also been home to the Winter Olympics a number of times with Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria and Germany all hosting the event.

The mountain range is divided into three sections. The Western mountain range –which includes the highest mountains, the central Alps that lie between the Great St. Bernard and Lake Constance and the Eastern Alps with include Austria, Northern Italy, Southern Germany and Slovenia.

There are around a hundred peaks over 4,000m giving way to some unique and specific wildlife. Flower enthusiasts, bird watchers and animal spotters flock to the meadows, cliffs and valleys to witness rare species.

Climate

 Throughout the year the Alps will show all types of weather. Being a mountainous area the climate can often be tricky to predict and the weather from one valley to another can differ greatly. Typically the Alps have a highlands climate. This means that the higher areas are subject to more rainfall and snow colder than the valleys below because the cold air cannot hold as much moisture.

Sometimes however a warm dry Foehn wind can move along the mountain sides originating in the Mediterranean area and climbing over the Southern Alps. Here it loses almost all of its moisture becoming dry and warm melting snow and ice and giving way to a rise in temperatures.

There are three main types of climate in the Alps, the Atlantic climate, the Pannonian climate and the Mediterranean climate. Air mass is divided into four types: the western winds with mild, moist air masses from the Atlantic sea, the cool polar air from the north, the dry continental air masses from the east and the warm, Mediterranean air from the south. A warm air mass known and the Foehn also effects the Alpine weather system.

The Southern Alps tend to be influenced by the Mediterranean climate which provide mild winters and hot summers. The Eastern Alps are ideal for vine-growing due to the continental climate.

We like to think of ourselves as Alps experts here at Collett’s. Check out our guide to the Alps here, our Alps infographic here or our Alps landing page here

The highest and broadest mountain range in Europe, the Alps is full of history, incredible scenery and a remarkable variety of plant life and animals. Our infographic has everything you need to know about the mountains, from mummies to Mont Blanc.

Check out our dedicated Alpine holidays page here and get the embed code at the bottom of the page to share the blog on your site.

 

Alps facts

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Translated as “iron way”, Via Ferrata can be one of the best ways to access the mountains without the need of complicated gear or technical climbing ability. Steel cabling is attached to natural lines in the rock at intervals creating protected climbing routes for all abilities and often include the assistance of steel rungs, pegs, steps, ladders and bridges. Basic technique, specific but simple equipment and a head for heights are needed for routes that can range from easy scrambling to steep overhanging climbs that demand strength, exposure and fitness. These routes allow people to access the mountains using a method somewhere between high level walking and serious climbing.

 

Even the “easiest” of grades can feel airy and exposed in places so shouldn’t be taken lightly. That being said the views are almost always expansive and rewarding and the climbing enjoyable when you get into the rhythm of it. The descents tend to be a mixture of down climbing on wire and scrambling but sometimes it’s possible to simply walk off.

Here in the Dolomites, home of the Via Ferrata, there are hundreds of routes. Many come to the area just to explore them especially as it is possible to link many together, staying in rifugios overnight.

History

The majority of the Dolomites VFs were constructed between 1915 and 1918 during WW1, to aid troop movement when the Italians and Austrians were fighting. Ropes, ladders and tunnels were laid into the rock so that soldiers could transport ammunition and supplies high up into the mountains to places of strategic importance.

In 1930s the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) and the Societa Degli Alpinisti Tridentini (SAT) began working to improve access to routes in the Dolomites. They took care to follow natural lines in the rock and kept climbing aids to a minimum and replaced the ropes and iron with the steel cable we use today. Many of the routes deliberately don’t access summits so as to encourage climbers to enjoy the VF, not just use them as a tool to get to the top.

In the 1970s and 80s tourism benefits were recognised and they were further developed by alpine clubs, local communities, outdoor centres, cable car companies and rifugios.

The very first VFs date back to the 19th century due to the growing popularity of alpine exploration and tourism. The first recorded VF was on the Hoher Dachstein, the second highest mountain in the Northern Limestone Alps in 1843. In 1869 a rope was fixed between the summits of the highest mountain in Austria, Grossglockner. Then in 1873 fixed protection was added to the Zugspite. Austria’s example was followed in the Pyrenees in 1880 when protection was added to the Pic du midi d’ossau in 1880 and the Ordesa 1881. Other routes then began to spring up in the Northern Limestone Alpa throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Locations

Over one thousand Via Ferrata now exist most in Europe and around the world. Here are some of the best international Via Ferrata locations around the world.

  • The Dolomites: Italy has around 400 routes. More than half of these are in the Dolomites. It is regarded as the home of the sport and rightly so.
  • Austria’s boasts approximately 550 Klettersteige routes of all difficulties.
  • Chang Kong via Ferrata in the Shaanxi Province of China includes a tough trek up steep/near vertical steps, a gondola ride and rickety plank walk to the Taoist temple and teahouse.
  • Ogden Via Ferrata in Utah is accessed only by guided tours but is a great choice for beginners with its specialist training wall. Climbing on the vertical walls of Waterfall canyon the views of the waterfall, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake and the surrounding ski country make it a destination of choice.
  • Chamonix is a popular location for thrill seekers from all over the world with extreme climbing, skiing, paragliding, base jumping and much more it’s not surprising that it has a VF too. The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier sits up above the town and the VF route starts from the town centre. Ladders descend from the train station onto the MDG climbing trails and end at refuge du Courvercle. France itself boasts around 200 routes.
  • In San Juan mountain range, Colorado sits Telluride. This is a popular location for outdoor sports, especially during the winter season. The VF follows an old mining trail with impressive vies of Box Canyon.
  • Yes Africa has a Via Ferrata. In fact it has the world’s highest in Mount Kenya national park. At 16,355 feet above sea level the VF climbs through the dramatic canyon crevasse filled terrain of an extinct Volcano.
  • The Aletsch in Valais Switzerland is the largest alpine glacier at 46 square miles. The VF route circles a dammed glacial lake turned reservoir and includes steep cliffs, tough hiking, and the longest suspension bridge in the Alps. Switzerland has around 150 routes in total.
  • The Sacred Valley VF, Ollantaytambo, Peru has a 984 foot vertical climb up steel rungs. From the top views of Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River can be taken in before making the choice between rappelling down or taking the often preferred zip wire!
  • Coldback Mountain VF at Isafjordur, Iceland is the countries only Via Ferrata. It traverses a narrow ridge before scaling the side of the mountain with expansive views of fjords below.
  • United Kingdom: Though our mountains may not be as big we too have Via Ferrata. Honister VF in the Lake District is in an old slate mine. Climbers are given the choice of classic and extreme. The more extreme version has more exposure, vertical climbs, a bridge and cargo net crossing. There’s also a VF in the Yorkshire dales at How Stean Gorge.

Grades

There’s a number of ways of grading VFs.

  • The Smith and fletcher scale is widely used and numbers them 1-5. One being the most basic and five the most difficult. The Dolomites now has a 6 too.
  • The Kurt Schall guide books grade them A-E (F was also recently added). In this system Via Ferratas can also be intermediately graded, for example C/D.
  • The website www.klettersteig.de also uses 1-6 as a climbing scale.
  • In France they use the following system: F Facile, PD peu difficile, AD assez difficile, D Difficile, TD tres difficile, ED extrement difficile.

Here in the Dolomites we use the following scale to explain VFs to our guests: 1-5 (The technical difficulty of the climb itself in terms of exposure, hand and footholds etc. Sometimes the scale will extend to 6) and A-C (The remoteness of the VF in terms of aid, escape routes etc). Cia Spitz for example is an excellent entry level VF and is graded as a 2A. Whereas Magnifici Quattro is the most difficult Dolomites VF at 6B.

Equipment

All you need is a harness and a set of tails/lanyards (Two carabiners attached to you by a piece of rope or safety cord), a helmet and a good pair of shoes. As long as you have a good head for heights these routes can get you into places that would be impossible to hike normally. You get the achievement of a big mountain day without as much difficulty as an actual climb. This not only makes it an attractive choice for the less experienced but also well-practised climbers as they can cover a lot of ground quickly without needing a climbing partner. That said it is best to do these routes with company for safety reasons, like any big mountain day.

Originally VF climbers used to use carabiners fixed to short lengths of rope/slings attached to the chest or harness. Although effective at keeping the climber on the wire this did not prevent serious injury as the short length of rope was unable to absorb the energy of a fall. Gaps in the anchor points mean the fall factor (a scale to measure impact force effected by the climber’s height, weight and the rope/gear they are using in event of a fall) can be much higher than in normal rock climbing. Therefore the risk of equipment failure and serious injury was high.

New devices have been designed as shock absorbers or progressive brakes with the aim to dissipate the energy of a fall.

Modern VF sets use one of two systems.

The first and more popular will have an energy absorbing system, usually an extra length of coiled rope/cord that will release with great enough force. It is sewn together specially to allow progressive tearing. It can only be used once if a serious fall has happened.

A metal braking device with a rope passing through it to the harness is the second design. The device provides large resistance if the rope is pulled which gradually absorbs the energy. The advantage of this is they can be used multiple times after a fall. However a fatality due to equipment failure in 2012 with this system means that they have been largely withdrawn and are often less favoured.

VFs can cover a lot of ground and varied terrain. Depending on time of year, altitude and location the equipment that should be taken changes greatly. A helmet, lanyard and normal climbing harness should always be worn. It is important that climbers do not try to construct their own VF lanyards using rope and or slings due to the high falling force. On long, harder VFs special padded gloves may be worn and in some of the WW1 routes head torches will be useful for sections of tunnels. During early season or if attempting a winter VF crampons, ice axes, rope, and belay devices will be necessary. In terms of footwear it comes down to personal preference. Some like to have sturdy boots, especially if attaching crampons whereas others prefer approach shoes. As long as they are tough and have good grip it should be just fine.

For more information on any Via Ferratas in the Dolomites please don’t hesitate to ask a member of staff in one of our office hours. VF kits with helmets, harnesses and lanyards can be hired easily and inexpensively close to the chalets and guidebooks are to hand with excellent route descriptions. Via Ferratas are a fantastic way to see a new side of the mountains, up close and personal.