Karen from Billings, Montana emailed to ask for suggestions for which alpine trek she should tackle next after her Chamonix-Zermatt and Alta Via 2 treks. Cicerone publisher Jonathan Williams runs through the main options in Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia. You may need to book several years off work.
We met Karen on the Chamonix Zermatt trek and shared several stages between the Cabane de Mont Fort and the Mattertal valley. She was with a group of friends from Billings, Montana, the home town of climber Jeff Lowe. She abandoned her trekking group and joined us for a higher day, taking in the new Cabane de Moiry with its 3.5 million Swiss Franc extension and panoramic window looking out over the Moiry glacier. Last year she returned to the Alps and tackled Alta Via 2 through the Dolomites.
Karen recently emailed Lesley and asked:
“After New Zealand I will start planning another Cicerone hike! Any suggestions? I will look on your website at your catalog of hiking books to get ideas. We are open to anything other than Switzerland or Italy.”
It’s a question we get asked a lot, so I am sharing my reply as a blog post so all trekkers can benefit from it.
The first thing is to drop the Switzerland/Italy condition. Different parts of the mountains are all very different in character, and the attractions of both countries shouldn’t be excluded. The Alps in central and western Italy are completely different from the Dolomites. Don’t forget the food. Switzerland is highly varied too, with areas such as the Rätikon in the eastern part of the country even more like the Dolomites than the Dolomites! Besides, many of the best treks cross borders. But looking at different countries first…
Austria is built for trekking, with a hut network even more extensive than Switzerland, if that’s possible. The whole country is mountainous, but the highest area is in the west, in the Tyrol north and south of Innsbruck. You could walk for a lifetime and only see a part of the country, it’s ideal for both treks and short tours of 3-5 days as well as day walks.
The tougher areas are in the southern Tyrol, by the border with Italy, with three ranges adjacent to each other: the Otztal,Stubai and Zillertal. The treks here are week to ten-day tours, with options for glacier crossings and a few straightforward peaks (PD grade climbs) if you have the desire and gear. This is steep country, but the Austrians are very good at putting cabling out where it gets exposed.
Still in the south and a bit further west you have the Silvretta and Rätikon areas, where the routes are cross-border into Switzerland. We have a new book out in May on this area. The walking is maybe a bit easier, but great, especially early summer when the flowers are out. We were out there with Kev Reynolds a few years ago on a research trip.
To the north of Innsbruck the mountains meet up with the Bavarian Alps of Germany where there are many possibilities, including a fairly new route, The Adlerweg or Eagle’s Way, wandering through the limestone alps.
Moving on, south of Austria and east of Italy is Slovenia. The star attraction there is the traverse of the Julian Alps, again a week to ten days, taking in the ascent of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak. Ideally you need a via ferrata kit and helmet to get the best out of these mountains safely, but if you do they are wild and fantastic. Huts are a little simpler, the diet is rather different and water is in short supply so you need to buy it in the huts. But these are minor inconveniences compared with the great experience.
France has a great line of mountains running down from Lac Léman, past Mont Blanc to the sea. The Tour of Mont Blanc is 10-12 days and although quite busy really is one of the great walks of the world. We have done it twice now and the superlatives are justified.
But Chamonix and Mont Blanc, like Zermatt and the Matterhorn in Switzerland, is a honey pot, drawing in climbers, tourists and trekkers as well. There are numerous possible routes in the area, such as the Mont Ruan tour. However, most of the French Alps are further south and the French keep them to themselves, with good reason.
Working south, the next range is the Vanoise. Running up to 4000m, with glaciers on the main peaks, this is wonderful walking territory with a range of options. The “daddy” is the Tour of the Vanoise, 12 days’ tour into and around the range. Wonderful in early summer for the flowers.
Next lie the Ecrins range, with the southernmost 4000m mountain in France and the whole Alps, Barre des Ecrins. The Tour of the Oisans/GR54 route circles the range, and its southern half is perhaps one of the toughest walking weeks in the whole Alps, steep cols, big days and a long way down.
The Queyras are south of Briançon, a little-known region outside France but many French trekkers will tell you it’s the finest place for walking in the whole country. We passed through on the GR5 a couple of years ago and promised ourselves that we would go back.
And further south the Maritime Alps above Nice and the Med are wonderful too. Routes here probably involve using the well known GR5. The access is from Nice, with a 1 Euro bus ride into the mountains.
I will just mention a few possibilities.
The Alpine Pass Route crosses Switzerland from east to west, passing along the whole alpine chain including the full Bernese Alps. Accommodation tends to be in the valleys in small hotels. Every day has a big col, but it’s a great 2-3 weeks. Concentrating on the central Bernese area, the Jungfrau tour takes 10-12 days, and offers great views of the Bernese giants the Monch, Eiger and Jungfrau.
Getting back into the Valais region that you have seen, there are two tours that circle the great peaks there, the Tour of the Matterhorn and Tour of Monte Rosa. These are fairly stern and need glacier crossings at around 3000m so you may need a bit of extra gear. But you get the chance to combine Swiss and Italian mountains and see these major peaks from all sides.
Eastern Switzerland has the Silvretta and Rätikon already mentioned, and a new trek in the Engadine area.
Italy is much more than the Dolomites, although they are great. There are routes in most major ranges, but I would mention the Gran Paradiso trek, an absolutely fantastic two-week route with views taking in the the whole of the western Alps.
And if you wanted to give it longer there are two much longer routes to look at. The GR5 through the French Alps is a great walk, 28 days from the Lake to the coast, of course splittable in several places (Modane, Briançon). And on the Italian side the GTA, the Grande Traversata dell Alpe taking slightly longer. That’s the one for us this year, although we probably won’t be able to do it all.
So, how to choose?
The biggest factor is the your ability and that of your companions. Time available might lead you away from the longer routes. Most start and finish points are accessible from major airports within a few hours’ travel, and European train systems work well. I have pointed out the tough ones. The rest are probably similar or slightly easier than what you have done already.
There are a couple of general books we do, Trekking in the Alps outlines 20 routes, and Walking in the Alps is full of ideas, while The Swiss Alps gives a lot of detail on the possibilities throughout the country.
Left is a summary table from Trekking in the Alps pulling out the main stats of days, distance, ascent etc on the main alpine treks as a useful aide for assessing time and toughness.
Or make up your own. The planning can be part of the fun.
Hope this helps you choose.