I’m having trouble getting used to the magnificence of the Alps

I’m very proud of my adopted home state of Minnesota (I’m not originally from there) and I have always told anyone who asked that Minnesota is truly beautiful with its 10,000 lakes, its rolling hills, the spectacular fall colors, the north shore of Lake Superior, and the pristine Boundary Waters to name just a few of its most appealing features. But there is one thing that Minnesota lacks, and that’s mountains. I’m making up for that now, living so close to Europe’s major mountain range, the Alps.

I’ve featured some photos and videos of my experiences in the Alps in previous posts, but I haven’t dedicated an entire post to mountain range itself. This post offers my view on what I believe to be some of the more interesting, and perhaps lesser known facts about the Alps.

Where are the Alps, exactly?
The alps are a crescent shaped mountain range, extending from the south of France, eastward then southward about 800 miles capping the northern border of Italy completely, and separating Italy from France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. Parts of the mountain range also extend into Germany and Croatia.

What geological event created the Alps?
The Alps are the result of the collision of the African tectonic plate colliding with the Eurasian tectonic plate. But the interesting part is that the two plates collided in what was once a large sea between the two continents, so the rocks on the highest peaks contain not just materials from the low lying Eurasian and African continents, but sediments –including remains of shellfish– from the seabed.

What is the tallest peak in the Alps?
It’s Mount Blanc, at 15,781 feet, which we can see from our apartment and which I’ve described in previous posts. A week or so ago, I took the tram up to the Selève, and then took the short hike up to the ridge. It was a crystal clear day, and I shot the video below. (Note the number of “sub-peaks” in close proximity to Mount Blanc. There are nearly 100 peaks over 13,000 feet in the Alps. I think that that is the biggest difference between the Alps and the mountain ranges in the western U.S., where the tallest peaks are typically more isolated because they are created more often as a result of volcanic activity and not plate tectonics.)

How do the Alps influence weather?
Where we live, the prevailing winds move across the Alps from north to south so the mountains “trap” much of the moisture as it travels across the mountains. This phenomenon is illustrated in the video below, which I took from the Selève on the same hike, but facing north toward Lake Geneva and the city below. It comes complete with musical accompaniment, that is if you consider bagpipes to be within the musical realm, which I do.

What does the term “Alps” really apply to?
The term “alps” is a something of a misnomer. “Alps” is actually the term given to the high mountain pastures where cows are brought for grazing in the summertime, as illustrated in the photo below, and not the mountain peaks. One explanation for the origin of the word “Alps” as the name of the mountain range is that it derives from the Latin word “albus”, meaning “white”.

The "alps" are the pastures, not the peaks.

The “alps” are the pastures, not the peaks.

Like the Alps themselves, this post has become pretty big. Three more facts, very quickly:

1) The Alps represent just 11% of the land area of Europe, but supply 90% of the water to the lowland areas.
2) The Winter Olympics have been held in the Alps many times, most recently Torino Italy (2006), Albertville France (1992), Innsbruck Austria (1976 and 1964), Grenoble France (1968).
3) The longest tunnel in the world is currently under construction, 35 miles long under the Gotthard Massif in the Swiss Alps. The tunnel itself is complete and it will be ready for traffic in 2016.

Here are two more photos I took that show the breathtaking majesty of the Alps. This one I took from atop La Dole in the Jura mountains, on my recent hike with my friend Leo…

The Alps from La Dole, across Lake Geneva

The Alps from La Dole, across Lake Geneva

This one I took driving to Genoa with Chris last summer. Safe to say that road construction workers in the Alps generally have pretty good views from the work site.

Italian Alps on our way to Genoa

Italian Alps on our way to Genoa

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