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Facts About the Alps

Updated on April 6, 2014

The Alps are a famous mountain system in southern Europe. It occupies an extensive area including Switzerland, the northern border of Italy, several departments of France, and most of Austria, with indefinite ramifications into Germany. The mountains lie mainly between 44° and 48° north latitude and 5° and 18° east longitude, and are almost equally distant from the North Pole and the equator.

The Alps are also the focal point of lesser-known ranges -the Apennines, which traverse the length of Italy; the Dinaric Alps, which outline the rugged eastern coast of the Adriatic; the mountainous spine of the Balkans; and the Carpathians. Through the peaks of Greece and the Greek islands they may be said to continue, with slight interruptions through Asia Minor, to the loftier ranges of Iran and central Asia. This geographic panorama, though confused and ill defined, is a glimpse into the remote past, when the Alps arose in the same crustal convulsions that reared other ranges all the way from the Atlas Mountains on the Atlantic to the hinterland of China.


Origin of Name

The name Alps comes from Alpes, the Latin name for the mountains, but its origin in Latin is obscure. It apparently is derived from the Celtic Alb, which is thought by some authorities to signify "white," by others "height." Either would be appropriate to these snow-capped summits. In the region of the Alps themselves, the word alp denotes a high pasture, above the tree line and below the snow line. These pastures are sustained by mists and mountain showers and provide forage when lower lands have been seared by the sun. The early dwellers in the region were herdsmen, more concerned with their flocks and herds than with the inhospitable peaks that towered above them. Meanwhile, the word has become almost synonymous with mountains and appears in such expressions as "alpine heights" and "alpine flora."



In conventional usage the name Alps is restricted to the sweeping arc of ridge and valley that stretches from the Gulf of Genoa on the Mediterranean Sea to Vienna, Austria. This area, though considerable, is less extensive than the more ancient Urals or the mountainous regions of Scandinavia. It is further subdivided into three main sections, the Western, Central, and Eastern Alps, all three embracing a number of prominent ridges. Some of these were differentiated by the Romans, whose knowledge of the region was fairly comprehensive; others have been given a more modern nomenclature.

Among the ranges of the Western Alps, the Maritime, Cottian, Dauphiné, Graian, and Pennine Alps are outstanding. The Maritime Alps, as their name implies, rise abruptly from the shoreline of the Riviera and the plains of Italy to form the western bastions of those mountain ramparts that Roman orators called the "Walls of Rome." They contain peaks rising over 10,000 feet, which in turn are overtopped by loftier ridges beyond.

Particularly imposing is the Pennine range, some 60 miles long, which includes the most massive, the loftiest, and the most spectacular of all Alpine summits. On its western extremity, where France and Italy meet, looms the ponderous mass of Mont Blanc, which Lord Byron termed the "Monarch of Mountains." Crowned with enormous snowdrifts, gullied by glaciers, and fringed by dizzy crags, it rises 15,781 feet above sea level, or more than 1,000 feet higher than Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains. Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe, outside the Caucasus. On the other extremity of the Pennines, Monte Rosa towers 15,203 feet, while on the Swiss and Italian borders the Matterhorn, most photographed of mountains, lifts its knifelike ridges and overhanging precipices 14,691 feet, resembling, as John Ruskin observed, a colossal "rearing horse."

Across the valley of the Rhône River are the Bernese Alps, the main ridge of the Central Alps. It has such towering peaks as the Finsteraarhorn (14,022 feet), the Aletschhorn (13,763), and the incomparable Jungfrau (13,642), admired above all other European mountains and justly acclaimed one of the most beautiful summits in the world. The Pennines and the Bernese Alps, roughly parallel and some 20 miles apart, present what is probably the grandest scenery in Switzerland. The Central Alps also have several other ranges with noteworthy features, such as the Lepontine, Tödi, Glarus, Bernina, Albula, Silvretta, and Rhaetian ranges.

The Eastern Alps, though presenting less lofty peaks, are noted for their beauty. The valleys are heavily forested, but the limestone rocks support only poor agriculture. Among their more prominent ridges are the Bavarian Alps, the Julian and Carnic Alps, and the Dolomites, famed for their precipices of crumbling limestone.

Alpine valleys vary greatly. Some are canyonlike gorges, down which foaming streams are broken into innumerable cascades and waterfalls. Others are broad valleys, which usually run parallel to the main ridges. There are also transverse valleys, usually much shorter, through which glacier-fed rivers have chiseled out passes leading into the interior. Some of these transverse valleys, however, are extensive, 150 miles long or more. From the Lepontine Alps they open into northern Italy to form the basins of beautiful Italian lakes.


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