It is hard to imagine Switzerland without its mountains. The Alps may be Switzerland's largest geographical region, stretching from Lake Geneva to the Swiss-Austrian border, but its population density is very low. The Swiss Alps also have 48 mountain peaks which are over 4,000m, as well as countless lakes and an extraordinary variety of flora and fauna.
The Alps cover two thirds of Switzerland, making it the country's largest geographical area. The mountains run the width of Switzerland – from Lake Geneva in the west to the Austrian border in the east. Switzerland shares the Alps with seven other countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Slovenia. All eight Alpine countries have signed the Alpine Convention which aims to harmonise policies and promote sustainable development. The protection of Alpine regions is also enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
The highest mountain range in Europe
There are a host of reasons why the Swiss can be proud of their mountains. They have 48 peaks that are 4,000m or higher, a European record. At 4,634m above sea level, the Dufourspitze, part of the Monte Rosa Massif, is the highest of Switzerland's peaks. The canton of Graubünden has more than 1,200 mountain peaks which are between 2,000 and 3,000m high, but the canton of Uri has the highest density, boasting a 2,000–3,000m-high summit every 2.5km2.
A national symbol
It is hard to imagine Switzerland without its mountains. The Alps have moulded Switzerland's identity since time immemorial and are of great historical and geopolitical importance. Although the Central Plateau remains the country's economic epicentre, a sizeable share of the national economy depends on the mountains. Switzerland's mountains are a major tourist destination and many Alpine passes and tunnels are key transit routes.
The Alps make up 60% of the country's surface area. Forest cover in the central Alps is around 23% and almost 50% south of the Alps. Nearly all of the forest growth between 1985 and 2009 was in the Alps. The region is home to only 11% of the population. There is relatively little agricultural land in the Alps – under 20% in the western part of the central Alps, less than 13% south of the Alps, and roughly 30% in the eastern Alps.
Lake Thun, Lake Brienz, Lake Zug and Lake Lucerne are in the Pre-Alps and the northern section of the Alps. Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore are on the southern side of the Swiss Alps. There are also hundreds of small natural lakes and reservoirs, most of which are also in the Alps. Like clockwork, run-off from the Alps replenishes water levels in the Rhine, Rhone, Po and Danube river plains every summer.
Inhospitable but teeming with life
With its sheer rock faces, barren rocks, sparse vegetation and extreme temperatures, the mountains appear inhospitable. Yet many species of animals and plants have adapted to this environment and thrive there. The ibex, black kite and black salamander are just some of the flagship alpine fauna. Plants and flowers like the iconic edelweiss and gentian are equally well adapted to this pretty hostile environment. Some even take root in glacial zones, such as the dwarf willow, one of the smallest trees in the world.
Until the advent of mountaineering and tourism, the mountains had no economic value. If a peak served as a landmark, then it had a name. In contrast, mountain passes and alpine meadows had a value and therefore had names. Many names refer to the appearance of the mountains, especially their colour. A few are named after mountaineers, scientists or public figures.
The Swiss Alps can lay claim to quite a few records:
- Europe's highest train station is the Jungfraujoch station. Altitude: 3,454m.
- Europe's highest brewery is in Monstein in the canton of Graubünden. Altitude: 1,600m.
- Europe's highest tram is in Zermatt in the canton of Valais. Altitude: 2,222m.
- Europe's tallest outdoor lift is the Hammetschwand lift on the Bürgenstock in the canton of Nidwalden. Height: 153m
- The world's steepest cogwheel railway is the train between Alpnachstad and the Pilatus in the canton of Lucerne. Gradient: 48%.
- Europe's steepest funicular is the Gelmerbahn, at the foot of the Grimsel Pass in the canton of Bern. Gradient: 106%.
- Europe's steepest public bus (PostBus) route is in Kiental in the Bernese Oberland. Gradient: 28%.
- Europe's longest glacier is the Aletsch Glacier in the canton of Valais: Length: ~23km.