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A winter crossing of the Alps from Menton to Vienna

The Via Alpina network of signposted trails is intended for use in the summer months by hikers traveling in Europe’s mountains. But what is it like to make a long distance journey through the Alps in winter? 

 British mountaineer David Hamilton spent 3 winters making a ski route from the Mediterranean coast to Eastern Austria. This was a journey of 86 stages completed in 112 days, covering 1750km distance with 99,628m ascent.


Before setting out he knew this would be more difficult than a summer journey. Three years later he has completed the project but realises that the challenges are greater than he expected. He explains below the main differences between ski touring along the crest of the Alps and a long distance summer hike through the same terrain.


Different route: The best route to follow in winter is not the same as the best summer route. To maximize the time spent on snow the ski route must stay on high ground wherever possible and avoid descending into valleys where the snow cover is less reliable. Additionally some sections of summer paths are dangerous in winter and impossible to use. The need to study each individual stage of the journey and redraw the entire route requires a lot of time and effort before starting out.


Less accommodation: Much of the accommodation available for summer hikers is closed in the winter months. This has to be taken into account when planning the winter route. Each daily stage must end at some sort of shelter and this is often a factor in selecting the route. All private refuges in the mountains are closed and only the Alpine Club huts have basic winter rooms. On a long winter journey approximately half of the overnight stays will be in valley hotels/hostels and half will be in unmanned winter rooms.


Route not easy to find: Even where the best winter route follows established trails and paths these will be buried under snow and impossible to see. Navigation is much harder when the line of the path, signposts and paint markings on rocks and trees are hidden from view.


Heavier packs: Despite very careful planning the pack weights will always be more in the winter months. It is necessary to carry more warm clothing and additional safety equipment (ice axe, crampons, harness, rope, shovel etc). Food, stove and fuel must also be carried for use in the unmanned huts. Without food it is difficult to keep pack weights below 15kg. When food and water for several days is added this weight rises to over 20kg.


Move slower: Most people will be surprised to learn that a ski party following a similar route to a summer party will take roughly 20-30% longer to complete the same journey. The ski party may be a little quicker on the descent sections if conditions are good, but this is more than cancelled out by the time lost due to route finding and navigation issues and the efforts of breaking trail through deep snow. Narrow paths through woods can be hiked easily in summer but pose more challenges, in ascent and descent, in winter.


Less daylight: To ensure adequate snow cover in the valleys it is best to travel early in the ski season and this brings the challenge of shorter days. On some of the longer stages it is necessary to start out before dawn and the destination will not be reached until after dark.


More delays caused by bad weather: In summer it is possible to proceed with a journey under most weather conditions. Light rain and low clouds need not prevent progress and only heavy storms force involuntary ‘rest days’. In winter poor visibility and snowfall create dangerous travel conditions. As a result there are many days where travel is not possible, and it is necessary to wait for improved weather.


No other people: Travelling through the Alps in winter will almost always be a solitary experience. All the buildings in the mountain areas (farms, holiday homes, hunters lodges, tourist facilities) will be uninhabited. Often they will be buried under several meters of snow. Except for the very few areas that are popular with skiers there are no people travelling in the high Alpine areas in winter.


Additional dangers: While it is possible for hikers to cross the Alps in summer the winter journey requires the skills of a mountaineer. Passes that can be crossed easily on footpaths in the summer months often require specialist equipment in the winter. The winter route will travel on glaciers where crevasses are a risk. An understanding of snow stability issues and an awareness of avalanche risk is also essential in winter.


Conclusion: Crossing the Alps in winter is much harder than making a similar journey in summer. For those with the necessary level of experience, skill and stamina it is probably the most interesting long distance ski tour in any of the world’s mountain ranges.


Further Information: Details of David Hamilton’s journey is available at:


David Hamilton has wealth of experience in the high mountains. He has led 26 expeditions to peaks over 7,500m and climbed Mt Everest 8 times.