Tales of the Alps – Napoleon’s unpaid bill

Napoleon Crossing the Alps - painting

The story of a very longstanding debt owed to a very small village

At the dawn of the 19th century, newly republican France was at war with much of Europe. In the south-west of the country, the Alps formed a natural barrier against invasion, so the high mountain passes aquired a vital strategic importance. This story focuses on the region around the Swiss-Italian border in what is now the Valais region of Switzerland, only a few miles from the French-Swiss border.

Photo of Bourg St. Pierre
Bourg St. Pierre by Lucignolobrescia CC BY-SA 3.0

In May 1800, the same year that Barry the dog was born there, Napoleon Bonaparte led the French reserve army over the Grand St. Bernard Pass from Switzerland to join the campaign in Italy. With 46,292 men under his command, he needed a lot of supplies to sustain them. Napoleon demanded provisions from the tiny village of Bourg St. Pierre, the last settlement before the pass. Faced with this vast number of troops, the locals had little choice but to comply. The items comandeered amounted to the substantial list below.

  • 22 000 bottles of wine
  • 3 500 pounds of cheese
  • 400 pounds of rice
  • 500 pounds of bread
  • 1 800 pounds of meat
  • 2 037 trees (compensation for their destruction)
  • 3 150 logs (used for rolling cannon over the pass)
  • 188 cooking pots, of which 80 were not returned
  • Local labour
  • Rental of mules

The featured image above shows Louis-Pierre David’s famous 1801 painting of Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass, also known as Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Napoleon’s letter

At the time, Napoleon refused to pay a single centime for these services, but he did write a letter acknowledging the debt and promising that the French government would pay the sum of 40 000 Swiss Francs. Five years later in 1805 the French government did pay, but only 18 000 Francs. The inhabitants of Bourg St. Pierre kept Napoleon’s letter safe, presenting it to the French government at intervals and meticulously adding interest.

Napoleon plaque on wall
Plaque commemorating Napoleon’s visit

Nearly two centuries went by until 1983, when Francois Mitterand was President of France. At this stage, the mayor of Bourg St. Pierre was named Fernand Dorsaz. He demanded of monsieur Mitterand that the French government pay 150 million Francs (about £50 million), an amount equivalent to the original 22 000 Francs plus 184 years of compound interest. For a village population of around 200 people, that would have been quite a substantial windfall. The Mayor did generously add that he would accept a more modest sum of 30 000 Swiss Francs.

A year later, in May 1984, the French government’s Chef de Cabinet, Jean Claude Collier, presented a commemorative medallion, nearly a metre in diameter, to the village along with a letter from President Mitterand. Fernand Dorsaz might not have obtained the payment demanded, but he was happy with the symbolic gesture. After 184 years, he declared the matter closed.

Napoleon’s letter, the medallion and the Francois Mitterand’s letter are all held proudly in the village of Bourg St. Pierre today.

Ski tourers in a car park
Ski tourers at Bourg St. Pierre’s former ski area

Tales of the Alps – Barry der Menschenretter

Barry on display in museum

How a St. Bernard named Barry became a Swiss legend

Although relatively unheard of outside his native Switzerland, Barry is known as the most famous dog in the country to the Swiss. In German, he is called Barry der Menschenretter, or “Barry the people rescuer”. He was born in the year 1800 at the Great St. Bernard Hospice on the 2469-metre-high Grand St. Bernard pass which connects Switzerland and Italy. At the time, the St. Bernard breed had yet to be formally recognised, and he might have been known as an Alpine mastiff. Later on, these dogs came to be named for the St. Bernard pass where they lived and worked. For those unfamiliar with his story, here are the legends and the facts told around Barry the avalanche rescue dog.

The St. Bernard Hospice and Monastery

St Bernard pass and monastery
The St. Bernard pass in winter

The Hospice has welcomed travellers crossing the St. Bernard pass for almost a thousand years, since it was founded in 1050 by Saint Bernard of Menthon. Originally it was used by devout French and German making the pilgrimage to Rome. These days it is more likely to accommodates ski tourers and tourists than pilgrims, but it is still run by Augustinian monks as it was in St. Bernard’s day.

Sometime in the seventeenth century, the monks started to keep dogs at the pass in order to assist with rescues. Searching for lost travellers has long been part of the job for these mountain monks. Various breeds were probably used at first, but over time the dogs were bred for their strength and hardiness, producing the famous St. Bernard dogs we know today.

Barry the St. Bernard

Barry carrying a boy on his back
An image of Barry from an old postcard

Barry himself was an ancestor to the modern St. Bernard, but the breed had not yet reached the size of the dogs we are familiar with. He weighed around 45 kilos while an adult St. Bernard today can reach 80 to 130 kilograms. Over time the dogs were bred to be heavier and stronger so that they were better able to assist with rescues. Ironically, with the advent of helicopter rescue services, lighter dogs such as collies are preferred for avalanche rescue duties and St. Bernards are now considered too heavy.

Many stories surround the life of Barry, some certainly legendary. He is reputed to have saved at least forty lives over a twelve-year career. Most famously, he rescued a boy he found asleep in a cave of ice. The story goes that Barry warmed the boy by licking him, then carried him back to the hospice on his back. Legends of Barry tell of a dog that worked alone, going out into the snow and dragging back avalanche victims after digging them out. Only when a rescue proved too much for him would he alert the monks who would come to help. In reality it seems likely that the avalanche dogs of the time accompanied the monks as they patrolled the paths around the pass looking for travellers in difficulty.

Death and legacy

Memorial with inscription
Memorial to Barry: Tommie Hansen (CC BY 2.0)

In popular legend, Barry was killed during his forty-first rescue. As the story goes, he was trying to revive an unconscious soldier of Napoleon’s army. Suddenly, the man awoke. Mistaking Barry for a wolf he stabbed him with a bayonet. The memorial to Barry at the Asnières-sur-Seine dog cemetery in Paris alludes to this story. The French inscription states, “He saved the lives of 40 people… and was killed by the 41st!”

The true story is less dramatic. After twelve years of hard work, Barry retired and spent his final two years living peacefully in Bern, the Swiss capital. Following his death, his taxidermically preserved body was displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bern, where it can still be seen.

The tradition of the barrel of brandy that St. Bernards carry around their neck probably started with Barry too, even though this almost certainly never happened. Several nineteenth century writers repeated the story of the barrel of rum or brandy carried to provide warmth for freezing travellers. Barry’s exhibit in the Natural History Museum has worn a barrel around his neck for most of the two hundred years it has been on display. Occasionally a museum director has removed it for authenticity reasons, but tradition has always won out over facts and the barrel replaced.

Barryvox

Mammut Barryvox Pulse

Owners of certain Swiss avalanche transceivers might have wondered where the name Barryvox came from. The original Barryvox transceivers were developed for the Swiss Army at the end of the 1960s by engineers at Autophon AG, lead by Hans van der Floe.

The name Barryvox means “voice of Barry”, and comes from the idea that the bleeping tone of the device was like Barry’s bark as he approached a casualty, letting them know that help was coming. Modern transceivers made by Swiss brand Mammut still bear the Barryvox name.

The St. Bernard Pass today

St Bernard Hospice
Ski tourer approaching the St. Bernard Hospice

The St Bernard Hospice is as popular as ever with ski tourers and snowshoers in winter, or hikers and cyclists in summer. It lies on variations of the skiers’ Haute Route, and on the road-cyclists’ Tour de Mont Blanc. It is a beautiful location, lying next to a lake just a few metres from the Italian border. A night at the hospice is a unique experience where you can expect a warm welcome from the monks.

The St. Bernard dogs no longer live at the hospice year-round, although a few are kept there during the summer months and there is a museum dedicated to them. Most of the dogs moved to the Barry Foundation in nearby Martigny in 2004. The foundation also operates the Barryland museum in the town.

The featured image at the head of the page shows Barry on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern. Photo credit: PraktikantinNMBE, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What to bring on our navigation courses

Childrens navigation course

Covid-19 has led to a few changes in how we run our navigation courses, and this affects what you need to bring as well. As far as possible, we’d like you to bring your own materials rather than use stuff we give out, but of course, we don’t want you to have to spend a lot of money on maps and compasses to come on one of our short family or children’s courses.

In general, you’ll need access to some sort of map and compass, a pen(cil) and paper, plus suitable outdoor clothing and footwear for the length of the course and food and drink. In the past, we have given out printed paper maps, but the current guidelines suggest we don’t do this. Instead, we’ll ask you to print out your own maps before the course. If you can’t do this, we will still be able to provide printed materials, but we suggest that you bring a plastic wallet/sleeve to keep it in so you only have to touch it once.

Children and family courses in Les Deux Alpes

You’ll need to bring the following items on the day:

  • Maps (you can print these yourself – see below)
  • Compass (any sort of compass will do, including a compass app on a phone)
  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper (or write on the back of the maps you have printed)
  • Suitable outdoor clothes for the weather on the day
  • Snacks and a drink

To avoid handing out materials on the day, we’d appreciate it if you can print out the maps we’ll need and bring them along. Please print out and bring these two maps using the GeoPortail site (both links will open in a new tab).

Les Deux Alpes south, larger scale
Les Deux Alpes, smaller scale

Ideally, change the scale to 1:25000 before printing the second one. To do this click the scale (the 17 055 in the bottom left) and type in 25000 instead.

If you don’t have a compass, you can download a compass app for most smartphones. As long as it tells you where north is it is good enough. If you don’t have a compass or a suitable phone, we will have a couple of spare compasses available to use at your own risk.

The majority of the course will be run outdoors with some small indoor elements. In the event of bad weather we will move inside, but if it is only mild bad weather, light rain etc. we will continue to work outside.

Two-day NNAS navigation courses

You’ll need to bring the following items on the day:

  • IGN Top 25 map for the area – either 3336ET Les Deux Alpes, 3335ET Bourg d’Oisans or 3630OT Chamonix or 3335ET
  • A4 paper maps (you can print these yourself – see below)
  • Compass
  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper (or write on the back of the maps)
  • Suitable clothes and footwear for a day hike
  • Food and drink for a day hike

For the Bronze Navigator course, we would normally loan out compasses and IGN maps to candidates without these. However, to reduce contact we are happy for you to use maps printed on A4 paper and a compass smartphone app. If you are attending a Silver Navigator course, we would expect you to have your own compass and IGN map.

Maps for NNAS Courses

Printable Les Deux Alpes maps

MapPlease print out the large scale map of Les Deux Alpes south from this link. If you want to print out 1:25 000 maps for the Bronze course, rather than buy your own, you will need the area shown to the right (click the image to enlarge it). You will need to cover an area including La Moliere in the top left, Les Perrons at the bottom and la Grande Aiguille at the top right. Depending on your devices, you will probably need at least two sheets of A4. Make sure you set the scale to 1:25 000. If you have any difficulties with this, please let us know.

We may visit the permanent orienteering courses at either Auris or the Col d’Ornon. In this case, you will need to print out the orienteering maps for these locations. We will let you know before the course if this is necessary.

Printable Chamonix Valley Maps

MapPlease print out the large scale map of Argentiere/Grand Montets lift station from this link. If you don’t want to buy the IGN Top 25 map, you’ll need to print out the area shown to the right (click to enlarge) at 1:25 000 from Geoportail. You will need to cover an area which includes, as a minimum, the Flegere top lift station in the bottom left, Lac Blanc to the top left, Argentiere village top right, and Le Lavancher at the bottom.

Bourg d’Oisans

MapAlthough there is an IGN map (3335ET) titled Le Bourg d’Oisans l’Alpe d’Huez,we may well use IGN 3336ET Les Deux Alpes for courses in Bourg as the town is on the boundary between the two maps. We will let you know before the course which map to buy, but we will be most likely to use the Deux Alpes map for the Bronze course and the Bourg d’Oisans map for the Silver.

For the Bronze course only, please print large scale map one and large scale map two of the area south of Bourg d’Oisans. You will also need to print the Adult “Sportif” orienteering map which is the second of the three PDF links on this page.Map If you want to avoid buying the IGN map, you can print the two areas shown to the right at 1:25 000. You will need the area south of Bourg on day one and the Col d’Ornon on day 2.

Alpine flower notes: Alchemilla

Alchemilla alpina

Lady’s mantle Alchemilla

A fascinating plant that is easy to overlook, lady’s mantle can be seen flowering across the Alps from spring through to autumn. There are many species worldwide, but the most common in the Western Alps are alpine lady’s mantle (Alchemilla alpina) and common lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris). The latter plant is very similar in appearance to Alchemilla mollis, the version found in gardens. Another species, field lady’s mantle (Alchemilla arvensis) is also seen fairly often in the Alps.

Alchemilla alpina leaves
The distinctive leaves of alpine lady’s mantle

The lime green flowers may lack the showiness of more colourful flowers, but they are nonetheless delicate and beautiful in their own way when seen up close. The leaves are more fascinating to look at, being quite distinctive to the genus. Most species have fan-shaped, scalloped leaves with between five and eleven shallow lobes. The alpine version has separated, elongated leaflets, edged in white. In my opinion, these delicate leaves are much more aesthetically pleasing than the standard version. Several alternate names for the Alchemilla plant derive from the shape of the leaves. These include nine hooks, bear’s foot and lion’s foot.  Lion’s foot gave the mediaeval Latin name, Leontopodium. The name lady’s mantle first appeared in the German form, Frauenmantle in Jerome Bock’s History of Plants, published in 1532.

Use in alchemy

The scalloped leaves often hold a shimmering droplet of water. After rain, water will bead on the leaves rather than running off, in the same way that rainwater beads on the surface of a new waterproof jacket. The folds in the leaf hold these droplets in place like a tiny cup. However, their water management is more impressive than this. The leaves can actually excrete excess water through transpiration. It is possible to see new droplets of water on the leaves, even when it hasn’t rained. Another folk name from the plant is dewcup, a reference to the water collected by the plants in this fashion.

This water, sitting in spherical globules in the leaves, is the reason behind the Alchemilla genus name. In the past, it was collected by alchemists who prized its supposed purity and magical properties. The water was used as part of the process to attempt to transform base metals into gold. Given the small amount of water produced by each leaf, collecting it must have been a laborious process even with the promise of riches to come.

Water drops on alchemilla leaves
Water droplets on Alchemilla leaves

Alchemilla in herbal medicine

The other main part of lady’s mantle’s fame comes from its many uses in herbal medicine. It is usually taken as a herbal tea made from the leaves, although all parts of the plant have been used medicinally. Many of the uses are for treating women’s complaints, such as easing period pains, pregnancy or menopause. It has been suggested that the common name comes from this usage. However, the name is also said to derive from the leaves resembling a cloak worn by the virgin Mary.

The plant has a wide range of other uses in herbal medicine. Consumed in a tea, it was used as a sedative and anti-bacterial. The leaves and flowers were applied directly to wounds and bruises to promote healing. It was highly regarded for both internal and external use to treat bleeding, bruises, vomiting, convulsions and disturbed sleep.

Most of these uses belong in the medical history books, but lady’s mantle tea is still popular today, especially for regulating menstruation.

Next time you are out hiking, look out for these discreet but fascinating plants. And when you do see them, stop for a closer look. I love to think about the troves of folklore hidden in those lobed leaves.

Alchemilla alpina

Alpine Wildlife Notes: Eurasian Lynx – Lynx Lynx

Lynx

The Eurasian Lynx is a distinctive species of wild cat that was common in the Alps until the 19th century. Together with the grey wolf and the brown bear, it was one of the three big predators that were intentionally eradicated across much of Europe during the course of the 1800s. However, a successful reintroduction programme in the 1970s has resulted in scattered, small populations now observed living across the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.

Lynx Description:

Eurasian lynx range in size from 18kg to 34kg. They stand 50-65cm at the shoulder, with a body length of 70-130cm. Males are generally larger and heavier than females. Their coat is varied in colour and pattern. They can be grey, reddish-brown or yellow, with or without spots or stripes. Their distinguishing features are a short, bobbed, black-tipped tail, black tufts of hair on their ears, and flared facial ruff.

lynx cubs
Image by Bernard Landgraf shared under CC3.0

They are solitary animals and only come together during the mating season, from February to April. The female gives birth to 2-3 cubs after a gestation period of 67-74 days. The cubs are born blind and deaf, and spend their first few weeks in a secluded den built by their mother. They are totally dependent on her for the first couple of months of life. However, they grow quickly and are independent after around 10 months.

Habitat and Diet:

They live in a variety of habitats, including thick forests and rocky mountains. They are most active in the evening and early morning and tend to spend the daylight hours sleeping concealed in undergrowth or caves. Lynx are territorial, and each adult lynx will have its own home territory. Female territories tend to be in the range of 100-200km, while male territories are larger, in the region of 240-280 km. Territory size is inversely proportional to prey availability, where prey are more numerous, territory sizes are usually smaller.

lynx in tree
Image by JoachimKohler-HB / CC BY-SA

Lynx are strict carnivores, eating only meat. In the Alps, their preferred prey are roe deer, musk deer and chamois. However, they will also hunt foxes, rabbits, rodents, sheep and birds where larger animals are unavailable. They are ambush hunters and stalk their prey silently, before pouncing and killing them either with a bite to the neck or by biting down on the snout and suffocating the animal. Lynx can kill prey 3-4 times their own size. Any meat that is not immediately eaten is cached for later.

In the French Alps, lynx often inhabit the same areas as the grey wolf. As long as prey is not scarce, the two tend to co-exist, showing neither avoidance nor attraction behaviours. This is thought to be due to the difference in prey selection – the grey wolf preference is for larger red deer, while the lynx favours the smaller roe deer. However, where prey is scarce, there is evidence that grey wolves will also hunt lynx, both to eat and in order to reduce the competition for food.

Adaptations:

lynx in snowThe paws of the lynx are very well-adapted for walking in deep snow. Their paws are large, webbed and covered in fur on the underside. Their large size and webbing create a snowshoe effect and stops the lynx from sinking into the snow. Meanwhile, fur covering on pads helps to maintain traction.

It is less clear what purpose (if any) their bobbed tail and dark ear tuft adaptations serve. It has been suggested that the ear tufts may enhance their hearing, although this has not been proven. One theory for their short tails is that lynx have little need for a longer tail. Since they spend much of their time on the ground and climb relatively little, they don’t need the balance that a tail provides. In addition, their ambush-style hunting strategy doesn’t rely on long chases, where a tail would provide a ‘rudder’ effect.

However, this theory isn’t entirely satisfactory. Other cats, such as tigers, have tails that don’t appear to be particularly beneficial. Meanwhile, gibbons spend much of their life climbing trees and have no tail at all. Perhaps instead the lynx’s short tail was simply the result of a natural and neutral gene mutation, like that of the Manx cat, and perhaps this ended up being the dominant form purely by chance.

Extermination and Reintroduction:

Along with the grey wolf and the brown bear, lynx populations across Europe have declined over time as human populations expanded. These large predators were seen as a threat to both people and livestock, and their eradication was often an objective in agricultural societies. In addition, the expansion of farming resulted in a reduction in their natural habitat, meaning they had fewer places to hide.

By the 1800s lowland lynx populations had all but disappeared. Within central Europe, the only remaining populations were in the mountains of the Pyrenees, Alps and Massif Central. By 1930 even these individuals had disappeared.

Since the 1900s, governments across the Alps have passed legislation to limit the impact of human farming on the natural Alpine environment and provide protection to the native animals. A small reintroduction programme in the 1970s released 8-10 lynx from the Carpathian Mountains into the Jura Mountains. No research programme accompanied the release, and so the numbers were not subsequently monitored. However, in the last few years, lynx sightings have become more frequent. One such sighting in Chartreuse made the local newspaper in March 2020 [1].

Lyngurium:

lyngurium

One of the most interesting myths associated with the lynx is that their urine solidifies and transforms into a gemstone. This gemstone, called lyngurium, was first described by the ancient philosopher Theophrastus (c.370 BC – c. 287 BC) in his scientific work De Lapidibus (‘On Stones’). He described it as being cold, hard and clear, with the ability to attract other objects including straw, leaves and thin pieces of copper. In his work, he claimed that male lynx produced superior lyngurium to female lynx and that the stones of a wild lynx were better than those of a tame one.

Despite no examples of this stone ever having been recorded, belief in the gem persisted up until the seventeenth century. The story of lyngurium is repeated over and over in medieval lapidaries, all evidence for its existence seemingly coming down to the report by Theophrastus. However, by the mid-seventeenth century, authors such as de Laet and de Boot had started to dispute the existence of lyngurium, and the name slowly died out.

Lynx are still incredibly rare in the Alps. Their elusive nature and low numbers make it a very difficult animal to spot in the wild. In our next blog, we will be looking at an altogether more common and easily-spotted animal native to the Ecrins: the European Green Lizard.

[1] https://www.ledauphine.com/environnement/2020/03/09/chartreuse-un-lynx-apercu-sur-une-route-du-massif

 

Main image credit Bernard Landgraf (User:Baerni) / CC BY-SA

Le Sapey walk

Le Sapey and Pied Moutet

An almost circular walk from Les Deux Alpes to Venosc via the delightful pastures in Le Sapey.

Distance: 15km
Ascent: 500m
Descent: 1100m
Sustenance: La Moliere early in the walk, and Venosc village at the end

Once a thriving farming community, the isolated hamlet of Le Sapey is typical of the alpage settlements in this region. Two hundred years ago, there were fifty full-time residents living in ten farmhouses. In summer, more farmers would bring their livestock to graze on the rich alpine pastures. Today, the village often stands empty, but a few dwellings are kept in good condition and their owners visit from time to time.

This walk takes you in a circular route around Pied Moutet, taking in woodland, pastures and Le Sapey itself. You pass through beautiful pastoral settings with great views of the surrounding peaks. The route takes you anti-clockwise from Les Deux Alpes to Venosc, from where you can take a gondola

back to the start. If you still have energy, you can finish with the steep path back up to Les Deux Alpes instead.

Le Sapey
Le Sapey

Le Sapey Itinerary

You can start on any of the various paths from Les Deux Alpes to La Moliere. I would usually go from the bottom of the Vallée Blanche chairlift. Alternatively, I might take the balcony path from the Flocon d’Or to the Kanata if I was starting at the Venosc end of the village. After La Moliere, the path continues across the steep slopes above Les Travers to a small bergerie (shepherd’s hut). Continue past this through woodland until you reach a junction. A left turn leads in a few minutes to the lovely pastures of Le Sapey.

After Le Sapey, the path gets a bit more challenging, with occasional fixed equipment (rungs and chains) to aid progress. You eventually join a signposted discovery trail which takes you into Venosc village. After exploring the quaint old old streets, and perhaps stopping for refreshments, wander down through the village to reach the gondola back to Venosc.

The gondola is open until 8 o’clock in the evening in summer, so you have plenty of time to do this walk. A return ticket costs six euros at the time of writing, and a single costs exactly the same.

This walk features on our summer programme of guided day-hikes around Les Deux Alpes. Please get in touch if you would like to walk it with a guided group.

La Moliere
La Moliere

Alpine Wildlife Notes: Grey Wolf – Canis Lupus

Female Wolf

The grey wolf is one of the three large predators that disappeared from the French Alps towards the end of the 19th century, the other two being the lynx and the brown bear. However, in the past few years, small numbers of wolves have migrated from the small remaining Italian populations and re-established themselves in the French Alps. It is estimated that there are now 300-500 wolves living wild in France.

Grey Wolf Description:

This large canine is native to much of Europe, Asia, and North America. Adult wolves range from 105 – 160cm in length and can weigh from 25 –79kg. Their size depends to an extent on latitude, with larger animals found in colder environments and smaller animals in warmer climates. In Europe, the average weight of an adult male is 40kg, with females weighing 10-20% less than males.

The wolf’s winter coat is very thick, allowing it to stay warm even in extreme cold. The fur is made up of two layers: a thick, fuzzy underfur that traps air and heat, and a long coarse outer fur of water-repellent ‘guard hairs’. Together these make an extremely efficient insulation for the wolf. Tests of heat loss from their fur have shown that virtually no heat escapes from the wolf’s body. In the spring, they moult, losing some of their thick underfur and ensuring that they don’t overheat in the summer.

Extermination & Re-introduction:

wolf walking
Image by Musicaline / CC BY-SA

During the middle-ages, wolves lived across most of Europe. They were largely exterminated during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as human farming expanded into their natural habitat. The destruction of their environment led to a reduction in numbers. In addition, large predators such as the wolf, the lynx, and the bear represented a threat to livestock. Most agricultural societies sought to eradicate these animals to protect their farms. In particular, the wolf has always been feared and hated, and many authorities paid bounties for wolves killed. The result was that by the early 1900s, very few wolves remained. Small populations still lived in Italy, but across most of the Alps, they had been eradicated.

From the 1900s, governments across the Alps passed legislation to limit the impact of human farming on the natural Alpine environment and preserve the original habitat. Reforestation and conservation measures were implemented, all of which improved the Alpine ecology. This helped a number of previously eradicated animals, such as the ibex and the wolf, to re-establish themselves. The Bern Convention of Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (1982) gave protected status to wolves. Since then, wolf populations have slowly increased across much of the Alps.

Habitat & Social Structure:

Wolves are adaptable and can live in a variety of environments, from tundra to forests, grasslands, and deserts. The grey wolf can be found wild across much of North America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Populations are now also growing in the French Alps, Italy, Northern Spain, and central Scandinavia.

grey wolf pack
Image by W. Bulach / CC BY-SA

They are social animals and live together in packs. The average size of a pack in Europe is five or six individuals. It used to be thought that these packs were dominated by an ‘alpha male’ or an ‘alpha pair’. However, studies have shown that wolf packs are based on a family structure, with a parent pair and their offspring.

Wolves are monogamous and pair for life. Females produce one litter of pups per year, in spring or early summer. Litter sizes vary on average from four to eight. The pups are born blind and deaf and totally dependent on their parents. They weigh only 300-500g at birth, but grow quickly. They spend their first few weeks with their mother, in the den where they were born. During this time, the adult male brings food to the female and the pups. By the time they emerge from the den, after a month or so, they are agile enough to be able to escape from danger.

The pups stay with the parent pair for anything from one to three years, after which they tend to disperse to find mates and form their own packs. If they stay for more than a year, the female will give birth to another litter, and the pair will continue to take care of the older pups in addition to the new litter.

Hunting:

Wolves are carnivores and their diet consists predominantly of wild ungulates (hoofed animals), including deer, sheep, chamois, and ibex. However, when food is scarce, they will also prey on smaller animals – rodents, lizards and snakes, as well as supplement their diet with berries and fruit.

When hunting large prey, wolves generally attack in packs. There is much debate over whether their hunts are coordinated attacks, showing forethought and communication, or whether they are simply groups of individuals hunting prey. Some studies have suggested that wolves display both ‘ambushing’ and ‘relay chasing’ (a cooperative chase in which pack members take turns to play different roles) behaviour when hunting, thus displaying an understanding of their hunting strategies.

Other studies have used mathematical simulations to show that group hunting characteristics emerge naturally from wolves following simple rules, without the need for complex thought. Muro et. al. [1] results showed remarkable convergence with observed wolf hunts using the two rules: 1) Move towards the prey until a minimum safe distance to the prey is achieved and 2) When at the safe distance, move away from the other wolves that are within the safe area. They concluded that no social structure or communication skills are necessary for a successful hunt and that the animals in a pack act individually rather than work together.

There is still disagreement even among wolf experts as to the level of communication between wolves during a hunt.

Communication:

Regardless of whether wolves communicate during a hunt, they do communicate with each other at other times. While they also bark and growl, probably the most well-known example of wolf communication is their howling. They howl to assemble the pack, find each other and warn of danger. Their sound can carry great distances, particularly on quiet clear nights, which is perhaps why the sound is often associated with malice. Despite what is commonly believed, they don’t howl at the moon.

They have a very keen sense of smell and this plays an important role in wolf communication. Large numbers of sweat glands are found on their face, back, feet and under the rectum. They use these, together with urine, to mark their territory. This is also the way females communicate their reproductive state during the breeding season.

Humans have a complicated relationship with wolves. Their reappearance in the Alps has generally been more contentious than the reappearance of the other two ‘big predators’, the lynx and the bear, both of which have recently been observed increasing in number in the Alpine regions. In our next Alpine Wildlife blog post, we will be taking a look at the Eurasian Lynx and how it has been successfully reintroduced to the Alps after being hunted to near-extinction.

[1] Muro, C., Escobedo, R., Spector, L., Coppinger, R.P., 2011. Wolf-pack (Canis lupus) hunting strategies emerge from simple rules in computational simulations. Behavioural Processes 88. (2011) 192-197.

TMB or Haute Route?

Italian Val Ferret

Which long-distance hike is for you?

Chamonix has long been a centre for mountain sports of all kinds, and this definitely includes long-distance trekking. Many hikes of all lengths pass through the valley, from a riverside stroll to a months-long traverse of the Alps.

Given ten days to a fortnight, there are two famous long-distance walks starting from Chamonix, the Tour de Mont Blanc and the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route. If you are thinking about embarking on one, you might want to consider how they compare.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc from Lac Blanc

The Tour de Mont Blanc, or TMB, makes a complete circuit around the Mont Blanc massif, most commonly with a start and finish point in the Chamonix valley. It passes through seven different valleys which surround Mont Blanc, and the mountain itself is visible for large parts of the route.

The Chamonix-Zermatt route is often called the Walker’s Haute Route to differentiate it from the higher altitude skiing or mountaineering Haute Route. It takes a route from the foot of Mont Blanc to the foot of the Matterhorn. This involves some sustained high-level sections and numerous Alpine passes and valleys.

Both routes have many variations and can be done in either direction. The TMB can also be started at any point on the route. Because of the numerous options, the distances and timings given below are approximate and depend on the actual route taken.Hikers on Bridge

Difficulty

Hike on a col
A TMB high point – Col de la Seigne

Among the famous long-distance walks of the European mountains, the Tour de Mont Blanc ranks as being reasonably accessible. The standard route only goes above 2500 metres three times – at the Col de Seigne, Grand Col Ferret and Brevent, and most days are around six hours’ walking time by Naismith’s rule. The totals of 170km and 10 000 metres climbing are impressive, but averaging 17km and 1000 metres per day is attainable for a moderately fit hiker. This is equivalent to climbing Snowdon or Scafell Pike from sea level each day.

Judged by the statistics, the Walkers’ Haute-Route appears only a little harder than the TMB. At 180km and 12 000m ascent, the daily averages are similar or slightly smaller if tackled over 12-14 days. However, the reality is that this is a much more difficult route. Although not the toughest trek in Europe, this is certainly up there as a challenge. A couple of easy days give a welcome respite, but you have to work harder for the rest of the route to make that total altitude. A succession of passes above 2800m ensure a physically demanding trek. Five of these are crammed into just two days, between Cabane de Mont Fort and Arolla. The technical difficulty is significantly harder than the TMB as well. Although the difficulties are not sustained, high crossings such as the Col des Chaux and the Pas de Chevres require concentration.

Glacier panorama
The Moiry glacier and refuge on the Haute Route

Culture

Both routes pass through idyllic mountain valleys with remote villages and long-established farms. You will experience traditional mountain cuisine and the heritage of the high Alpage. In these regions can feel like the way of life has not changed for decades.

Baroque church
Baroque church near Les Contamines on the TMB

The TMB passes through three countries, each with its own version of the Montagnard culture. French is spoken along most of the route, but you will normally spend around three days in Italy so Italian is useful as well. The Italians are justly proud of their espresso coffee, and a night in Courmayeur is an opportunity to sample authentic Italian cuisine.

The Haute Route also passes through mainly French-speaking regions. French is spoken as far as Zinal, nine or ten days in. From Gruben onwards the language is German. As on the TMB, the change in language is sudden. Many people in Zinal speak no German, while most in Gruben speak little French.

Facilities along the route

Swiss Val Ferret
End of the road in the Swiss Val Ferret

Another difference stems from the different nations’ approaches to the mountain economy. In Switzerland, you will see more small-scale farming and less tourist infrastructure in the valleys you walk through. In France, you will find more cafes and buvettes dotted around the mountains. Perhaps because of its history as a major ski resort, the Chamonix valley feels far more developed than other parts of the TMB. However, almost every stage of the TMB has numerous places to stop for lunch or refreshments if you don’t want to carry a picnic. This is still true for the Swiss and Italian parts of the route, but the valleys are less crowded than Chamonix.

On the Haute Route, the further you get into Switzerland the scarcer the facilities become. After Le Chable, finding refreshments on the route is much less common. And after Le Chable, you won’t be able to withdraw cash until Zinal, six days later. Shops get rarer too, but most overnight accommodation options will provide you with a packed lunch for the following day. Zermatt itself is a large resort town with plenty of facilities, but on the approach to it, there is only the occasional mountain refuge and a handful of restaurants along the valley floor.

When to do the Haute Route or TMB

Hikers on snow in the TMB
Snowy approach to Col de Croix de Bonhomme

Although hiking in the Alps is possible from late-May until well into the autumn, the season for these long walks is limited by both weather conditions and by the availability of accommodation. Snow cover persists well into the summer in the higher pastures.

The TMB has a longer season, with treks beginning early in June. For early season treks, the biggest problem is the snow cover, which in some years can make certain sections impassable. In June you will need to be prepared to alter your route, and the more challenging variations are not usually feasible. At the other end of the summer, September brings quieter paths and the weather is often settled. But the temperature is dropping and most accommodation shuts down at some point in the month. By October it is very difficult to complete the route unless you are self-sufficient with a tent.

The Haute Route is trekked infrequently before late-July, as the snow lies on the high crossings until then. It is not uncommon to finish in early-September, but after this accommodation can be a problem. The cooling temperatures in September mean that bad weather can bring snow to the high passes instead of rain. Going late increases the risk of not completing the route.

Train in snow
September snow at the Gornergrat Station above Zermatt

Fact files

Tour de Mont Blanc

  • Usual start: Chamonix valley
  • Usual finish: Chamonix Valley
  • Ascent: 10 000 metres
  • Distance: 160 kilometres
  • Time: 10-11 days
  • Highest points: a few crossings over 2600m
  • Season: early-June to mid-September
  • Summary: a tough ten-day route, but both technically and physically easier than the Haute Route. Crowded in July and August.

Walkers’ Haute Route

  • Usual start: Chamonix valley
  • Usual finish: Zermatt
  • Ascent: 12 000 metres
  • Distance: 170 kilometres
  • Time: 12-14 days
  • Highest points: many crossings over 2900m
  • Season: late-July to mid-September
  • Summary: a tough, long route. Harder than the TMB but less crowded.
Lac de Dix
An early morning view of Lac de Dix on the Haute Route

Conclusions

These are both excellent and challenging routes. If you want an accessible long-distance walk that is still a big achievement then the Tour de Mont Blanc might suit you. If you want a tougher challenge, a longer trip, or you are going in July/August and don’t like crowds, then the Walkers’ Haute Route could be just what you are looking for.

Whichever you pick, make sure you are properly prepared. Both treks demand a good level of fitness and a head for heights. And remember that the weather can be changeable. Over the course of ten days or more in the mountains, you will probably have a mixture of good and bad weather. Carry waterproofs and some warm layers, as well as sun-cream, sunglasses and a hat.

Either walk should be a great experience that you remember for a long time. However, there are many more great long-distance walks in the Alps and beyond. The fact that some are less famous is a bonus, as they feature equally good walking with fewer crowds. Routes to consider are the GR54 Tour des Oisans, the GR20 Corsican Haute Route and the Alta Via Routes in the Dolomites. There are also some much longer routes such as the GR5 (Geneva to Nice) or various variations of the Pyrenean Haute Route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. These typically take months to complete, but it can be well worthwhile to do a week or two-week section at a time.

The Matterhorn
The Matterhorn. Photo by Buaidh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Alpine Wildlife Notes: Alpine Ibex –Capra Ibex

Alpine Ibex

With its large curved horns and incredible climbing ability, the Alpine Ibex is one of the most instantly-recognisable animals in the Alps. Also known as the Steinbock or Bouquetin, this species of goat lives wild in the European Alps and can regularly be spotted on hikes in the Ecrins National Park.

Alpine Ibex Description:

Image by Roylindman / CC BY-SA

Alpine Ibex display extreme sexual dimorphism, with females significantly smaller than males. Males grow to a height of 90-100 cm and can weigh anywhere between 70 kg and 117kg, while females generally weigh less than half of this and grow to a maximum of about 85 cm. Both sexes have backwards-curving horns. However, the male horns are far larger than those of the female, reaching up to nearly 100 cm. Female horns rarely exceed 35cm. Both males and females of the species have similar dull brownish-grey coats, with dark markings on the throat and chin, and a dark stripe running down the back. They are quite long-lived, and in the wild they can live to about 19 years.

Alpine Ibex Description:

Ibex have lived in the Alps for many thousands of years. In fact, images of the ibex have been depicted in some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. However, excessive hunting had nearly wiped the species out by the 1800s. It was prized both for its meat and for its use in traditional medicine. In addition, trophy hunters valued the beautiful horns of the males.

In 1821, a report on the near-extinction of the ibex prompted Charles-Felix, duke of Savoy and King of Sardinia to ban Ibex hunting on his estates of the Gran Paradiso. This was quickly extended to the entire kingdom, and in 1854 the Gran Paradiso was declared a protected hunting estate by King Victor Emmanuel II. With this protection in place, the animals thrived and increased in number. They naturally dispersed into the neighbouring Vanoise National Park, where they have since become the official emblem of the park. Since then, there have been several very successful reintroduction programmes to bring the animal to other areas of the Alps, and today, the Alpine population is thought to stand at around 30,000 individuals.

Habitat and Behaviour:

Image by kallerna / CC BY-SA

Alpine Ibex tend to inhabit steep, rocky ground between 1800m and 3300m. They are herbivores, feeding mainly on grasses, mosses, bushes and flowers. The low nutritional content of their diet means they need to spend a large part of each day feeding.

These are social animals and live together in herds. However, the herds segregate both sexually and spatially and they come together only during the breeding season in December and January. After this, they separate again. Females give birth to one or occasionally two kids, after a gestation period of around 167 days.

Female herds are generally larger than male herds, with around 20 females to a group, compared to 6-8 males. Social segregation may in part derive from the different behavioural characteristics of the sexes. Even from a young age, male and female of the species exhibit different preferences for play. Young females tend to avoid the rougher play of the young males, leading naturally to segregation.

In the summer, the male herds generally migrate to lower alpine pastures, to feed on the nutrient-rich new grass. Female herds, however, tend to stay closer to cliffs rather than follow the males to the open pastures. This is likely due to the cliffs providing greater protection for their young. Winter shows a greater spatial overlap of the herds, with both male and female herds moving to steep, rocky slopes.

Ibex in Winter:

Image by Frederik Vandaele / CC BY

Winter poses problems for many animals in terms of finding adequate food supplies. Smaller mammals often deal with this by hibernating. However, larger animals tend not to hibernate. It is thought that this is because their larger size makes them difficult to hide, and therefore more vulnerable to predators.

Ibex, in common with many other northern ungulates, are able to lower their metabolic rate in the winter. This considerably lowers their energy requirements, allowing them to get through the cold winter months with far less food. In fact, studies have shown very strong seasonal variation in their daily heart rates, with heart rates up to 60% lower in winter than in summer. In addition, they engage in ‘basking’ or sunbathing, similar to that done by reptiles, to further reduce their energy requirements.

Climbing:

Claudio Bedin / CC BY-SA

Ibex are well-known for their exceptional climbing ability. They can quickly cover vast distances over tricky terrain when threatened and can jump nearly two meters straight up. In Piedmont and Lombardy, they can be observed climbing near-vertical dam walls to lick the salt from the stones.

They have several adaptations that allow them to climb with such remarkable skill. The most important of these is their special hoof design. The ibex hoof has two toes, which can move independently. The outer edge of each toe is comprised of the same hard keratin that makes up skin and nails, while the inner sole of the toe is soft and rubbery. The hard edges allow them to dig into tiny ledges in the rock, while the soft inner sole moulds to the surface. The fact that the toes can move independently gives them greater manoeuvrability over tricky surfaces, allowing them to use just one toe if the ledge is particularly narrow.

In the Alps, ibex have few predators. Until recently in many areas, they tended to die of old age, starvation or disease. However, that has changed in the last few years, with the introduction of wolves across much of the Alps. We will be taking a look at the wolf and its role in the Alpine environment in our next Alpine Wildlife blog post.

Tales of the Alps – The Devil’s Bridge

Pont du Diable

This story recounts the legendary origins of the Pont du Diable, or Devil’s Bridge, in St. Christophe-en-Oisans. 

Saint Christophe-en-Oisans is a sleepy alpine hamlet halfway up the Veneon Valley. The inhabitants keep livestock in the high pastures, or welcome the visitors who come for the spectacular mountains on all sides. In winter, a few discerning skiers descend from Les Deux Alpes or La Grave when the snow is right. These adventurers stop for lunch or a drink in the two restaurants before disappearing down the road by minibus.

Skis in St Christophe
The main street in St. Christophe

In Les Deux Alpes itself, skiers often wonder why the Diable sector is so named. Two chairlifts and a number of steep pistes bear the name Diable, which is French for Devil. The short answer is that the area takes its name from the jagged Crête du Diable ridge, which runs behind the Super Diable chairlift. Beyond the Diable ridge, steep cliffs plunge down to St. Christophe, which sits above the Torrent du Diable river. And crossing the river’s deep ravine lies the Pont du Diable bridge, which is at the centre of our story.

Skiers crossing the river
Skiers cross the Torrent du Diable en-route to St. Christophe

The Pont du Diable legend

A modern bridge takes the valley’s one road across the river gorge. Hidden below it is the original bridge which dates back to Roman times. Without crossing the Diable gorge, the only way to access St. Christophe and the upper Veneon valley would be to walk along the valley floor, alongside the Veneon river, before climbing steep hillsides to reach the village. This route is exposed to avalanches in the spring and floods when the river is high. The current route avoids these dangers by staying higher up on the north side of the valley. It is easy to see how the inhabitants of the upper valley in centuries past would have wanted a way to cross the gorge to reach their homes and livestock more safely.

According to local legend, the villagers of St. Christophe made numerous attempts to construct a bridge. However, the task proved difficult and dangerous due to depth and steep walls of the gorge. The works collapsed into the torrent several times before they could be completed. One day, a stranger appeared in the town and offered to build a bridge across the river in a single night. The local inhabitants realised that this could only be the devil himself. The offer was tempting, but they demanded to know his price before accepting. The stranger answered that he would take the first soul to cross the bridge as his payment.

The villagers considered this proposition at length. The price was a high one, which few were willing to pay. On the other hand, a bridge was sorely needed and the small farming community lacked the expertise to build one. Reluctantly, a delegation from the village approached the devil to accept the deal.

The stranger disappeared, with no sign of the new bridge as night fell. Next morning, the locals awoke early and rushed to the edge of the gorge. Sure enough, a new stone arch spanned the river. At the far end, the stranger waited to take his payment. The villagers formed a huddle. Nobody wanted to be the first to cross the bridge but reneging on a deal with the devil is not to be taken lightly either. After some discussion they settled on a plan involving a rat, a cat and a dog. They released the animals in turn so that the rat fled across the bridge pursued by the cat, which was in turn chased by the dog. The furious devil had to be content with these trophies, and the villagers got to keep both their souls and their bridge.

New bridge in St. Christophe-en-Oisans
The new bridge spanning the ravine, seen from the old bridge

The Bridge Today

Hundreds of years later, the old bridge is still carrying visitors across the torrent below. Vehicles pass over the modern arch just upstream, whilst walkers can enjoy the pleasant path through the woods below the village church which takes the old bridge across the river. If you ever drive up the Veneon Valley in summer it is well worth a stopping the car just before the new bridge to take a walk down to the old one.