Alps, Exploration

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The Alps are one of the great mountain range systems of Europe stretching approximately across eight Alpine countries from Austria and Slovenia in the east, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and south east Germany, to the west. Monaco and Italy to the south. The mountains were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. Extreme shortening caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentary rocks rising by thrusting and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains about a hundred peaks higher


Radiocarbon dated charcoal placed around 50,000 years ago was found in the Drachloch (Dragon's Hole) cave above the village of Vattis in the canton of St. Gallen, proving that the high peaks were visited by prehistoric people. Seven bear skulls from the cave may have been buried by the same prehistoric people. The peaks, however, were mostly ignored except for a few notable examples, and long left to the exclusive attention of the people of the adjoining valleys.Shoumatoff (2001), 188–191 The mountain peaks were seen as terrifying, the abode of dragons and demons, to the point that people blindfolded themselves to cross the Alpine passes. The glaciers remained a mystery and many still believed the highest areas to be inhabited by dragons.

Charles VII of France ordered his chamberlain to climb Mont Aiguille in 1356. The knight reached the summit of Rocciamelone where he left a bronze triptych of three crosses, a feat which he conducted with the use of ladders to traverse the ice. In 1492 Antoine de Ville climbed Mont Aiguille, without reaching the summit, an experience he described as "horrifying and terrifying." Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by variations of light in the higher altitudes, and climbed a mountain—scholars are uncertain which one; some believe it may have been Monte Rosa. From his description of a "blue like that of a gentian" sky it is thought that he reached a significantly high altitude. In the 18th century four Chamonix man almost made the summit of Mont Blanc but were overcome by altitude sickness and snowblindness.

Conrad Gessner was the first naturalist to ascend the mountains in the 16th century, to study them, writing that in the mountains he found the "theatre of the Lord". By the 19th century more naturalists began to arrive to explore, study and conquer the high peaks; they were followed by artists, writers and painters.Fleming (2000), vii Two men who first explored the regions of ice and snow were Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799) in the Pennine Alps, and the Benedictine monk of Disentis Placidus a Spescha (1752–1833). Born in Geneva, Saussure was enamored with the mountains from an early age; he left a law career to become a naturalist and spent many years trekking through the Bernese Oberland, the Savoy, the Piedmont and Valais, studying the glaciers and the geology, as he became an early proponent of the theory of rock upheaval. Saussure, in 1787, was a member of the third ascent of Mont Blanc—today the summits of all the peaks have been climbed.

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