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It hadn’t yet snowed in Chamonix, France, but as we gained elevation we found ourselves walking through the remnants of autumn’s unexpected first snowfall. At 2500m, high above Lac Blanc, we couldn’t find a campsite; all the usual spots people used were dripping wet puddles that would ultimately make for a cold, wet night in the Alps.
We decided to take a chance on what we collectively called the nicest campsite in France. With light winds and a favourable forecast, we hoped to get away with pitching our tent on an exposed flat space that offered surreal views. Mont Blanc, Aiguille de Midi and Aiguille Verte were all clearly visible.
Waking up to an incredible sunrise above Mt Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, was the perfect way to end a whirlwind hiking trip that took us through Switzerland, Italy and France. Only a week before, we canceled our plans to hike the 170 km Tour de Mont Blanc due to an incredibly wet-weather forecast.
We scrambled to make new plans as we chased sunnier weather around the Alps, and our week turned out spectacular. It doesn’t take much planning to have an incredible outdoor adventure, it just takes motivation. Here are 10 images (and tips) to inspire you to grab a backpack and explore the Alps.
10 Images to Inspire Your Hiking Adventure in the Alps
1 – It’s always sunny in the Alps
The alps are an incredible mountain range that stretch 1200 km across Europe; however, the weather is very localized. While we were hiking in a downpour near Chamonix, France, it was sunny in both Zermatt, Switzerland, and Gran Paradiso, Italy. All three locations are less than two hours away.
2 – Trails aren’t actually busy
I live just outside Banff National Park, so I know about popular tourist towns. The secret most people never realize is that while the towns might be crowded, the backcountry really isn’t. Although there were times we encountered large groups, it’d be unfair to call any of our hikes crowded. There was more than enough space to feel immersed in nature.
3 – It pays to join an alpine club
The alps have an incredible collection of mountain huts that make hiking incredibly easy. Hut-to-Hut hikes make it possible to carry a light backpack but travel longer distances. Add in some incredible food, too, and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. If I planned to stay in huts again next time, I would join my local Alpine club. It would have saved $10-$15 every night.
4 – Stay in the mountains, not the towns
Throughout our trip, we stayed in mountain huts or camped high up in the mountains and I would recommend it to anybody. The vast majority of visitors are only interested in day hikes, which usually begin after breakfast and end before dinner. By staying in a mountain hut, we extended our time in the mountains and scored some of the best memories of our trip.
5 – Cable cars, gondolas or long uphill walks
While hiking in the Dolomites, I discovered that cable cars are literally everywhere in the Alps, but the message was reinforced again in Switzerland and France. Cable cars and gondolas crisscross the Alps in every direction. For the second straight year, I didn’t take advantage of them but they’re a huge shortcut to the alpine. If you’re pressed for time, plan a trip that takes advantage of a fast ride to the top of the mountain.
6 – Watch the compass, not the clock
For avid photographers, I always suggest shooting both sunrise and sunset. It’s just the best way to guarantee good light. But whenever I have to choose one or the other, I make sure to pay attention to my compass rather than my clock. When I am on the west side of the mountains, I will shoot sunset. If I am on the east, it’s sunrise. This images was during sunset at Lac Blanc. As the sun went down to the west, it lit up the peaks beside Mt Blanc. Sunrise was a completely different – and less impressive – scene.
7 – Preparation and equipment
Outdoor adventure in the alps spans from day hikes on flat trails to some of the planet’s most established alpine climbs. Even for hikers, it is surprisingly diverse. I hiked in approach shoes the entire time and carried only a small backpack for both our overnight camping and overnight hut trips. But on two occassions, we wish we’d brought more equipment. Both the Argentiere and Monte Rosa glaciers have established hiking routes across them that only require basic gear like crampons and whippet.
8 – Wildlife
I was excited to visit Gran Paradiso National Park, in Italy, because it was established to protect ibex and its habitat. Although I spotted a single Chamois and a lone ibex, I didn’t have my camera ready while in Italy. I had better luck (and timing) just a few days later, as we finished our last hike in Chamonix. These close-up opportunities are rare; however, I’ve seen some wildlife during every hike I’ve done in the Alps.
9 – Look beyond instagram
I find it easy to get caught up chasing locations and recreating images seen on instagram, but I always make sure to slow down and appreciate my surroundings. I strongly believe adventure photography is much more than a list of photogenic locations. It’s a means of exploring the natural world and the biggest reason I spend so much time outside. As I hiked towards Lac Blanc, I passed the Cheserys Lakes and it became an instant favourite.
10 – A word on wild camping
Wild camping is illegal throughout the majority of the Alps; however, it is more common than you’d think. No matter where I camp, I always practice leave no trace principles to minimize my footprint on the environment. In France, at least, it’s legal to camp or bivouac above 2500 m. It just makes for a cold night in the tent.