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TOURISM

Heatwaves close off classic Swiss and Italian Alpine hiking routes

Little snow cover and glaciers melting at an alarming rate amid Europe's sweltering heatwaves have put some of the most classic Alpine hiking routes off-limits.

Heatwaves close off classic Swiss and Italian Alpine hiking routes
A number of classic hiking routes in the Swiss and Italian Alps have been closed due to hazards resulting from glacier melt and thawing permafrost. File photo: OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

Usually at the height of summer, tourists flock to the Alps and seek out well-trodden paths up to some of Europe’s most iconic peaks.

But with warmer temperatures speeding up glacier melt and thawing permafrost — which scientists say are driven by climate change — routes that are usually safe this time of year now face hazards like falling rocks released from the ice.

“Currently in the Alps, there are warnings for around a dozen peaks, including emblematic ones like Matterhorn and Mount Blanc,” Pierre Mathey, head of the Swiss mountain guide association, told AFP.

This is happening far earlier in the season than normal, he said.

“Usually we see such closures in August, but now they have started at the end of June and are continuing in July.”

Alpine guides who usually lead thousands of hikers up towards Europe’s highest peak announced earlier this week that they would suspend ascents on the most classic routes up Mont Blanc, which straddles France, Italy and Switzerland.

The Guide Alpine Italiane said on its Facebook page that the “particularly delicate conditions” caused by the temperature spike made it necessary to “postpone the climbs”.

Mountain guides have also refrained — reportedly for the first time in a century — from offering tours up the classic route to the Jungfrau peak in Switzerland.

And they have advised against tours along routes on both the Italian and Swiss sides of the towering pyramid-shaped Matterhorn peak.

Ezio Marlier, president of the Valle D’Aosta guides association, said having to steer clear of routes most coveted by tourists was a blow after the Covid slowdowns.

“It is not easy… after two almost empty seasons to decide to halt work,” he told AFP.

He stressed that the Italian Alpine region had shut only two and that there were many other breathtaking and safe routes to take.

But he lamented that many people simply cancelled their trip when they heard their preferred route was off-limits.

“There are plenty of other things to do, but usually when people want Mont Blanc, they want Mont Blanc.”

Climbing on some of the thousands of glaciers dotting Europe’s largest mountain range is also proving trickier.

“The glaciers are in a state that they are usually in at the end of the summer or even later,” said Andreas Linsbauer, a glaciologist at Zurich University.

“It is sure that we will break the record for negative melts,” he told AFP.

He said a combination of factors were contributing to a “really extreme” summer, starting with exceptionally little snowfall last winter, meaning there was less to protect the glaciers.

Sand also blew up from the Sahara early in the year, darkening the snow, which makes it melt faster.

And then the first heatwave hit Europe in May, with subsequent ones following in June and July, pushing up temperatures even at high altitudes.

The rapid melting can make glaciers more dangerous, as seen with the sudden collapse of Italy’s until then seemingly harmless Marmolada glacier earlier this month, which saw 11 people killed as ice and rock hurtled down the mountain.

While scientists have yet to draw clear conclusions on what caused the disaster, one theory is that meltwater may have reached the point where the glacier was frozen to the rock, loosening its grip.

Mylene Jacquemart, a glacier and mountain hazard researcher at Zurich’s ETH university, told AFP there were many unknowns about the catastrophe.

“But the general theme is definitely that more meltwater… makes things complicated and potentially more dangerous.”

Mathey, who said warmer temperatures had put mountain guides on high alert, also voiced concern that meltwater filtering under a glacier posed an “additional and invisible threat”.

But despite the challenges, he voiced confidence that guides would find solutions, seeking out alternative routes to keep showing off Alpine splendours.

“Resilience is really in the mountain guides’ DNA,” as is adaptability, he said.

“Humans have to adapt to nature and to the mountains, not the other way around.”

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Five European cities you can reach from Zurich in less than five hours by train

Switzerland is a beautiful country, but it also has a great location right in the centre of Europe, making it an ideal starting point for train travel. Here are five destinations you can reach in less than five hours from Zurich.

Five European cities you can reach from Zurich in less than five hours by train

As summer is still in full swing and there are many vacation days (or free weekends) to enjoy the sunny weather, it’s not the wrong time to do some travelling. Switzerland is a beautiful country, but it’s also centrally located in Europe. This means that many major European cities are reachable in just a few hours.

If you are located in Zurich, for example, then you are very near Germany, France, Italy, Liechtenstein and Austria. In less than five hours, visiting beautiful cities in these five countries is possible by taking a comfortable train ride.

So, select your final destination, get your ticket, and enjoy the ride.

READ ALSO: Switzerland’s ten most beautiful villages you have to visit

From Zurich to Strasbourg

It will take you just about 2 hours and 30 minutes (including time to stop and change trains in Basel) to get from Zurich’s mains station to the beautiful and historical city of Strasbourg, in northeast France.

Prices vary depending on several factors, but we found one-way tickets for just around CHF 23 on a Friday.

From Zurich to Munich

The capital of Bavaria can be reached from Zurich’s central station on a direct train in just 3 hours 30 minutes, allowing for short stays.

Munich may seem quite far away on a map, but the fast trains without stopovers actually make the journey quick and pleasant. We found one-way tickets for around CHF 70 on a Friday trip.

From Zurich to Vaduz

The capital of Liechtenstein is easy to reach in less than 2 hours from the Zurich central station. In fact, some journeys will take just about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

The lovely town bordering Switzerland has many tourist attractions, from its pedestrian historical centre to castles and parks. Train ticket prices always vary, but we found tickets for a one-way journey on a Friday costing CHF 20.

READ ALSO: Travel: What are the best night train routes to and from Switzerland?

From Zurich to Milan

Depending on the train you take, you can get from Zurich to Italy’s fashion capital in three to four hours with a direct train.

Before 2016, when the Gotthard Base Tunnel was opened to rail traffic, a trip from Zurich to Milan took an hour longer. It’s possible to find tickets for about CHF 70 for a one-way trip on a Friday.

From Zurich to Innsbruck

From Zurich, it is possible to hop on a direct train and, in just over 3 hours and 30 minutes, arrive in the beautiful town of Innsbruck, in the mountains of Tyrol.

Ticket costs vary, but we found tickets for a relatively short-notice one-way trip on a Friday (without discounts) for CHF 84.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Cost:

Fares depend on several factors, such as time of the day and day of the week when you travel.

While a rock-bottom cheap fare may be available one day in the morning, it won’t necessarily be offered the next day (or week) in the afternoon, or vice-versa.

Prices also depend on whether you are entitled to any discounts and which wagon you choose.

If you are interested in travelling farther afield, including with night trains, or if you are in other Swiss cities, these articles provide more information:

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