Modern life is beset with ironies. Like how we all earn more, yet have higher stress jobs and less time to reap the benefits and go play. No wonder increasing numbers are heading to the mountains to recharge, but our fickle weather can often wreck carefully laid plans.
As a result, walkers are expanding their horizons and visiting Europe’s mountains for a change of scene and weather. The rise of budget airlines has ushered in an era of cheap flights to regional airports so even long weekends are a viable reality. But just how different is it from walking in Britain?
When and where?
Europe is a big place with lots of mountain variety. You can pick from classic Alpine and Pyrenean ranges, ancient forest clad mountains of Slovenia, arid scarp landscapes of Italy, Croatia and Greece, the granite spine of Corsica, or Provencal vineyards. With so much difference, choose your destination and time of year wisely. Suffer from heat and dehydration? Avoid July and August. Hay fever? Go in the early spring or autumn. Don’t like snow? Go later and stay lower.
The biggest difference apart from language and culture, is that the mountains are higher and cover bigger areas, giving more ascent per day than you’re used to. Add the moderate altitudes, typically between 1000 and 3500 metres, and the net result is that it all feels more effort. This will partly be due to reduced oxygen as you go higher, but acclimatising will only take a few days and if you are reasonably hill fit, you’ll soon forget any extra physical effort as the views and atmosphere quite literally take your breath away.
Another consequence of bigger ranges is huts and refuges. In the UK, options for multi-day walks are either carry your home on your back and camp high, or descend each night. In most European ranges wild camping is not allowed, instead there are excellent networks of huts, allowing walkers to stay high for days, travelling hut to hut. Facilities vary considerably from fully catered with bars, double rooms and feather duvets, to basic unmanned huts where you bring your own food, cook in candlelight and sleep under scratchy blankets. The freedom of carrying a day sack on a multi-day trip is incredibly liberating, yet the comfort of a well cooked meal and glass of wine waiting at the end of day brings a sense of security. Watch out though, huts can be expensive places since everything is delivered by helicopter.
Mountain huts lend themselves to linear journeys, but this does pose the problem of how you get back again! You could walk in a circle, but fortunately most alpine nations have excellent public transport, so a return journey can be very straightforward. Switzerland in particular has a reliable system, letting you book and pay for your whole journey in advance by bus and train, in any combination of directions and connections. You could of course use a hire car, or drive your own. Whichever you choose, heading off with a small sack, money and a list of pre-booked huts has got to be the best way to experience these mountains.
If it’s your first time walking outside Britain, it’s prudent to undertake a few day walks first to get used to the differences, before rushing off and committing yourself to an epic. There are many details that could go against you. For example, maps – this isn’t to say that every map outside of Britain is useless, but certainly in some places, it’s the norm to expect mistakes. Contours may be at different intervals, unusual scales or different magnetic variations might be used, and there may not be a grid. If you use GPS then you’ll have to select the correct data system to match, and deep valleys and thick forest canopies may affect accuracy more than normal.
Hydration is a major issue – the combination of more effort, hotter temperatures and altitude all conspire to rob the walker of their fluids. It’s essential that you drink plenty of water before, during and after each day. Most huts will have a good supply, but in some you may have to pay. It’s tempting to drink from streams, but remember that whilst you probably have the natural bugs to deal with UK bacteria, you won’t necessarily have them for somewhere different. Also glacial melt carries nasties you can’t naturally deal with and should always be treated or boiled.
If your route goes onto snow or glaciers, then be suitably equipped, experienced and trained. Even if your planned route stays below the snow, you will often find lingering patches late in summer that may cause problems. Many walkers carry an ice axe as a precaution, but that’s no good if you don’t know what to do with it. Another hazard are steep sections of paths, where a straightforward path suddenly climbs over a band of steep rock. These can occur even on the easiest of paths, but are usually very short. To help make passage easier they will usually have some equipment fixed in place - a steel ladder, chain, or maybe just old pieces of rope. If you don’t have a head for exposure, then avoid them through careful advanced planning with guidebooks, talking to local Guides or Tourist Offices.
Don’t be put off by all this talk of snow, glaciers, altitude and fixed equipment though, since with so many different areas, every walker, whatever their experience, should be able to find the appropriate level of challenge and enjoyment. Planning is the key – there are a plethora of guidebooks available and overseas maps are often easier to get here in the UK.
Finally as well as enjoying new food, culture and making an effort to speak the local language, make sure your travel insurance is adequate to get you out of the mountains and back home, should the worse happen. With insurance you get what you pay for, so check out the small print on cheap policies - it’s cheap for a good reason. And if it all seems too daunting you can always hire a professional for your first trip. Use the services of either an International Mountain Leader or an International Mountain Guide. Enjoy your euro-trekking and bon route!
Bob Timms is an MIC, IML and deputy training officer for the British Association of International Mountain Leaders. He works part time for Plas y Brenin as well as co-running a small holiday company - see www.activechoiceholdays.co.uk.
Don’t rely on a bloke in the pub, ask the experts what they think. This issue the expert is Karl Mather. Karl is an IML holder who spends most of his time guiding in Europe.
Q. I’d like to stay in a hut - do I need to book?
A. This depends on when you wanto travel. During the summer months some huts are near impossible to book last minute. So if you’re planning a summer trip along a popular route such as the Walkers Haute Route or the Tour of Mont Blanc you need to be booking in the autumn prior to your trip. These days it’s all easiest via the web.
Q. I’m planning a high level walk. Do I need to take all my food with me?
A. Some huts offer meals. In others you can cook what you bring with you, but they don’t normally stock much other than chocolate bars and snacks.
Q. Does a reciprocal rights card make huts cheaper?
A. The Reciprocity Fund, managed by the Swiss Alpine Club, allows the BMC to supply its members with a card entitling the holder to discounts (normally between 20% and 50%) in the many huts owned by the organisations that are signatories to the agreement (the Alpine Clubs of France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Holland, South Tyrol, Austria and Spain). The Reciprocal Rights card is sometimes also recognised by other organisations.
Q. Can I drink stream water in the Alps?
A. Alpine stream water from glaciers looks cloudy and is full of tiny mineral particles. These can make you feel very uncomfortable at the least, so the answer is no. Drink bottled water, at least two litres a day and take a filtration kit for emergencies. Check that you can replenish your water when booking into a hut.
Q. Can I wild camp in the Alps?
A. Wild camping isn’t allowed except in an emergency. To help save the fragile environment in the Alps you will find that Guides and IMLs use huts wherever possible.
Q. I’ve heard about AMS, but am just going walking. At what height would this become a concern?
A. This depends upon the individual, but could start from around 2500m. An extra day or two at altitude prior to the start of your walk definitely helps, as does taking it easy - don’t be over ambitious with your walking plans. You’ll find that trips led by qualified leaders include acclimatisation days and allow individuals to get used to walking at a higher altitude.
International Mountain Leaders
An International Mountain Leader (IML) works in the hills and mountains of their home country, the alpine regions and further afield. They used to be called European Mountain Leaders (EMLs), but since the establishment of the Union of International Mountain Leader Associations (UIMLA), EMLs are now known as IMLs. For their award to be valid an IML must be a member of a national association, such as the British Association of International Mountain Leaders. An IML carnet displays the UIMLA logo.
See www.baiml.org for further information.