The Alps 'for Dummies': Safety In Alpine Terrain For Beginners In Summer

 // by Polina Peskovsky
The Alps 'for Dummies': Safety In Alpine Terrain For Beginners In Summer
Thursday, 17 February 2022

This article was written in cooperation with the Mountain Rescue Service of Grainau (Bergwacht Grainau).

Summer is the hiking season in the Alps. Here are a few tips that are essential for a safe stay in the mountains.

…Shortly after 8 am, the sun is shining at the train station in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It will be a beautiful hiking day, and the Zugspitzbahn is full again. Tourists from all over the world are left behind to wait for the next train. 

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Some of the visitors waiting to start their trip to Germany's highest peak are mountaineers with backpacks and hiking poles, but most are leisure guests in sneakers or families with babies and strollers. For many of those this trip would be their first experience with high altitudes - in fact, the train is the only chance for them to see the high mountains from above with their own eyes. Normally, everything works well and you would get there and back without any problems. However, you should keep in mind that the mountains set their own rules for us humans. Challenging weather conditions, like strong winds or short-term weather changes typical for the alpine terrain, may sometimes interrupt normal operation of cablecars and railways, so in the rare but possible worst case scenario, visitors have to be evacuated.

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To ensure that our guests get to know the Alps from their best side, we have put together the essential information to help you get prepared for your tour and prevent risks.

Planning Your Tour

  • Maps or hiking apps? Today smartphone users can benefit from the excellent hiking maps available from hiking apps. However, apps have two disadvantages you have to consider at the planning stage: missing signal / internet connection in many areas and increased power consumption. Download the online map for the selected route into your smartphone in advance. In addition, take a hard copy of the hiking map with you. Hiking apps cause additional battery consumption due to large amounts of data transmitted. At the same time, most chalets do not let the overnight guests charge any electronic devices, so on Day 2 of your tour you won't be able to use your map - and more importantly, to make an emergency call when needed. For this case, it is highly recommended to take powerbanks with you.
  • Advice from the locals. Even if you are well prepared for your hike, there may be a few things you're not aware of. Feel free to ask the locals on site for advice and take their warnings seriously.

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If you were to plan a trip to the North Pole, what would be the first thing you'd think of? Right, the cold. You have to be crazy to travel to the North Pole without warm clothes, you would say. However, many people seem to miss the fact that the high mountains are a rough environment as well. A large part of the accidents reported to the Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service occured due to insufficient equipment or incorrect behavior. You will be amazed to see some of the visitors on Mount Zugspitze wearing flip-flops or high heels along with beach pants or a light summer dress. Sometimes a family picnic is planned away from the established routes. Before you start, please check that you have an appropriate outfit for high altitudes.

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  • Sturdy shoes. Hiking boots are a prerequisite for any hiking activity. Sneakers are insufficient shoes for hiking, even for easy routes! If you have a long distance ahead of you, take some blister plasters with you. On downhill stretches, hiking poles would help you avoid knee problems - many people suffer knee pains even after 500 meters of descent.
  • Drinks & provisions. Take enough water with you: at least 1 liter per person per 3 hours of hiking. Check in advance whether chalets are available on the route and their opening times. In doubt, take the provisions with you. If you drink water from natural springs, keep in mind that a clear stream often goes through an alpine pasture before it finds its way down. Therefore, look for very small springs that come directly from the rock. Many alpine plants bear nice-looking fruits, but most of them are poisonous. Do not eat berries that you cannot identify with certainty. And low-hanging blackberries, strawberries or raspberries may carry dangerous germs.
  • Warm clothing. Even when the weather forecast promises summer heat, keep in mind the weather conditions may be very different on the mountain and in the valley. The basic formula is 8°C cooler per 1000 meters of altitude. Also, in the mountains temperatures may vary 15 °C to 20 °C  between day and night: 7°C - 10°C degrees would be typical values in the valley in the early hours on a summer day, while during the day temperatures may range from 25°C to 30°C. If you are planning an overnight stay at a chalet, you should expect 0°C in the evening at 1,600 - 1,900 meters above sea level. Wear bright colours on your tours, so you can easily be found in emergency. For longer tours, pack a hat, gloves and a change of clothes (e.g. functional underwear), even in summer.
  • Rain protection. Under certain circumstances rain and wind make hiking and mountaineering impossible due to low temperatures and increased risk of slipping (see below). Always take a rain jacket or, for easier routes, an umbrella with you. Turn back if you notice that the weather is changing, or find a safe place where you can wait till the shower is over. Keep in mind that the wet ground quickly gets slippery.
  • Helmet & climbing equipment. Check in advance if your trail includes any climbing stretches. If it does, take a helmet and climbing equipment with you. On secured routes use the appropriate 'via ferrata set' consisting of a lanyard and two carabiners. NEVER take out both carabiners - always stay secured! Some routes of this kind are generally seen as "easy", so many hikers decide to go without appropriate equipment. This sometimes leads to fatal accidents.
  • First aid kit. You can buy a first aid kit at the supermarket or at the pharmacy.
  • Sunscreen & headgear. Sun radiation in high altitudes is notably stronger than in the valley, it can damage sensitive skin in no time. When the sun is high, wear your headgear to avoid sunstroke.
  • Light. Most city dwellers don't really know what darkness is. They assume that, after all, there is some light anyway. But this doesn't work in the mountains: shortly after sunset, it's pitch black. So watch the time and take care to reach your destination before the darkness falls. For more safety, always take a headlamp or a torch with you, with spare batteries for longer tours.

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Weather & Alpine Dangers

  • Planning. Pay special attention to the weather forecast and storm warnings at the planning stage. Also, check the weather before you start and on the way if possible: rapid weather changes are quite typical in the mountains. It is best to postpone your hike if the weather does not match the requirements for a safe tour. Sometimes a storm comes all of a sudden and you have to continue anyway - e.g. if you are already approaching  the end of the trail or you have booked an overnight stay at an alpine chalet. Then, try to estimate the remaining time on the trail and look for the possible hideaways along your way that you could quickly reach in emergency.
  • Increased risk of slipping on wet surfaces. Wet weather is more dangerous in the alpine terrain than in the valley. Stones and especially wooden steps on hiking trails become extremely slippery, so check them before you make the next step. Avoid narrow footpaths in steep terrain, especially after continuous rain or in spring when there is still snow in the high mountains. Such unstable paths can literally slide from under your feet into the abyss! It's best to go hiking a few days after a big rain, when the trails are guaranteed to be dry. In wet weather steep trails can often be climbed only in one direction: upwards. Check this in advance and find an alternative route for the descent that is not that dangerous.
  • Frost & Icing. Due to the differences in air pressure and temperature, weather conditions may considerably depend on the altitude. What looks like fog in the valley, may come as drizzle up in the mountains, making everything slippery. On the other hand, what used to be rain in the valley, may become snow at high altitudes if temperatures are low enough. In bad weather many hikers are surprised by the snow in the high mountains even in summer  - in the meanwhile they don't have crampons and cannot move further, so they have to be rescued by the mountain rescue service. The same applies to glaciers that melt at summer temperatures and become slippery.
  • Flood waves. During heavy rain, mountain rivers and streams can swell instantly, especially in narrow places like canyons. Meter-high flood waves can arise in no time. So during storms, avoid riverbeds and narrow valleys. Artificial reservoirs in the mountains and dams on power plants can be dangerous as well: under certain circumstances, the overflow is quickly dumped into the valley. So the areas below a dam are restricted areas that are not intended for a picnic.
  • Rockfall. Rockfall has many reasons. On limestone cliffs or during wind gusts, rockfall is quite typical. When planning your route, check if it is prone to rockfall - if it is, take a helmet with you. Limestone disintegrates over time due to the changing cold and heat, so small pieces of stone may fall from the rock face, especially on hot summer days. If you have triggered a rockfall - or have seen a stone fall from above - simply shout very loudly: "Stone!", so that fellow hikers below know that a stone is coming. Naturally, you should avoid hiking through rocky areas at the times when a storm warning has been issued for your location.
  • Avalanche danger. Avalanche danger is quite typical at higher elevations until the end of June. If you are planning a high altitude tour, check the snow situation on your route (you may need to speak to someone who has been there in the last few days).

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  • Thunderstorm. No doubt, a thunderstorm is the most dangerous event at high altitudes. The danger during a thunderstorm is not only the lightning itself, although up to 100 people in Germany are struck by lightning every year. Of course, you have to avoid hiking during thunderstorms by all possible means. You can check the weather in advance on the German Weather Service portal (Deutscher Wetterdienst) or download a thunderstorm app.
However, in reality it's not always possible to accurately estimate if the thunderstorm would come or not, as the conditions for the buildup of thunderclouds emerge locally at very short notice. From May to July, thunderstorms are predicted for almost every afternoon in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, often with 50-70% probability. The best possible solution is to start early and end your tour at lunchtime, since the typical summer thunderstorms normally occur in the time from the early afternoon to early evening. But what to do if you are up in the mountains and the thunderstorm is coming? Here are a few recommendations from the mountaineering portal
    • Recognize thunderstorms early and leave the summit as quickly as possible.
    • Retreat to the nearest possible shelter - away from exposed or water-bearing areas.
    • Do not hide under the trees. Especially stand-alone trees are often struck by lightning. Stay at least 2 m away from rock walls.
    • Tents or small grottos do not provide protection. Caves can be used if they are large enough: the distance to the walls and entrance must be at least one body length or more. You are only safe in a building equipped with a lightning rod.
    • Groups separate and spread out.
    • Put all metal stuff as far as possible away from you, then hunker down on insulating equipment (dry backpack, rope, etc.) with your legs closed and tightened. The less contact with the ground, the better.
    • On a via ferrata route, stay secured, preferably to an iron clamp rather than a wire rope.

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Body Preparation & Acclimatization

  • Don't overestimate your strength. Most hiking routes in the Alps are well signposted, so you can use them to estimate your hiking time. However, beginners should expect longer times: even if you are training regularly, e.g. in a fitness studio or a swimming pool, this does not necessarily mean that you are fit for mountaineering. You would need some time to get a feeling for your right pace and performance.
  • Altitude sickness. When people come to the high mountains for the first time, they may experience altitude sickness, which in extreme cases may lead to high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema. Possible symptoms include nausea, severe headache, and a feeling of exhaustion. Persons with altitude sickness must be transported to the valley as quickly as possible.
  • Do not leave signposted trails. There are lots of paths in the Alps, but only the marked trails are suitable for hiking. Never use a path without a sign or the one that is not marked on your hiking map. If you don't see a sign and are not quite sure if this was the right turnoff, turn around and look at the intersection from the other direction. This would help you to recognize the spot again (in case you have to walk back later) and know exactly which direction to continue. If you follow a path that has no sign and it suddenly disappears, do not continue - this can be dangerous. Try to return to the spot clearly marked on your trail map. Track your location on the map at all times - in emergency, this is the most important information for the rescue service.
  • Alpine Emergency Call 112. In an emergency call the rescue service - below are the instructions for the correct use of the emergency line. Keep in mind the following information
    • Where did the accident happen? You have to know this - the rescue service cannot locate you that easily. They can send a request to the cell provider, but the accuracy goes on kilometers and the procedure takes time. So it's best to track your own location - e.g. with your smartphone.
    • What happened? Describe the accident in detail.
    • How many were injured?
    • What kind of injuries were they? Any life-threatening injuries?
    • Who reports the accident? Leave your contacts to let the rescue service call you back.
    • Weather conditions at the accident site?

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Respect Nature, Leave No Trace

On your tours always take your trash back into the valley and leave no trace in the environment. This is especially true for dog owners. Do not leave your dog's feces in the mountains and on the alpine pastures. It is common for the animals to consume the others' excrements. Dog excrements contain substances that do not occur in nature, they are also toxic for other animals (especially for young cows) and plants, and they destroy natural environments in the long run. Please be sure to collect your dog's feces and take them back to the valley. In addition, dogs are not allowed to run unleashed through the mountain forest - this can disturb wild animals.

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We are just guests here in the Alps. Please help us to preserve our unique nature!

We wish you a great time on your tour. Enjoy the fantastic views and nature around you.


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