What are mountains used for?

High and low mountain ranges

The Feldberg in the Black Forest is particularly popular with winter sports enthusiasts. Because of its height of 1493 meters, it is easy to ski here. But the Black Forest, although it has high mountains, is one of the German low mountain ranges. The Alps, on the other hand, are high mountains. But what is the difference between low and high mountains?

The simplest answer is obvious: they differ in their height. High mountains start at 1500 - some say 2000 - meters above sea level. So there are mountains whose peaks protrude far above the tree line. Another typical feature of high mountains is that they are formed by glaciers and have steep mountain walls.

Low mountain ranges, on the other hand, have neither glaciers nor steep slopes. Your landscape is rather hilly and rounded. This is due to the fact that it was created much further back than that of the Alps. Originally, they too were piled high in the mountains - more than 300 million years ago. But unlike in the Alps, there has been no uplift in the low mountain ranges for a long time. They are only removed and their shapes are rounded. Some of them are already so badly weathered and worn that only the trunk remains of the former high mountains: the trunk mountains. These include, for example, the Ore Mountains and the Fichtel Mountains.

During their long history, the low mountain ranges have been constantly redesigned. Even the unfolding of the Alps did not leave them without a trace. The forces of the clashing plates put the old hulls of the low mountain range under a lot of pressure. Because of its old age, however, the rock had become so firm and rigid that it could not be folded any further. Instead, like a gigantic sheet of ice, it shattered into huge clods. Some sank, others began to rise. Sinking clods became deep trenches, rising clods developed into high plateaus. The landscape that emerged from it are broken clod mountains like the Harz. Its highest mountain, the Brocken, is 1141 meters high. That is not enough for the high mountains, so that the Harz clearly belongs to the low mountain ranges.


They dreamed of it for years, they climbed for weeks: On May 29, 1953 at 11.30 a.m., New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached their ambitious goal: They were the very first to stand on the summit of Mount Everest!

Since the beginning of May, a British expedition has been preparing to climb the highest mountain on earth. A dozen experienced mountaineers, 35 mountain guides and 350 porters with 18 tons of equipment have been on their way from Kathmandu to the foot of Everest since spring. A first attack on the summit takes place on May 26th. But the climbers Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans fail because of a defective oxygen device: Shortly before the finish line, the two have to turn back.

This is the moment for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who are waiting for their chance at base camp. As the second team, they begin the dangerous ascent. On May 28, they spend an icy night at an altitude of 8,500 meters. The next morning at 4 a.m. they start their last stage: 350 meters in altitude and a vertical rock step are still ahead of them - hardly manageable at this height. But at 11.30 a.m. the two actually made it: They are standing on the highest point on earth, the world is at their feet! Tenzing throws his arms around Hillary. The New Zealander pulls out his camera to capture the situation: the “third pole” has been reached! After 15 minutes on the summit, the two heroes set out on the dangerous descent.

For a long time, the 8,848 meter high Mount Everest was considered invincible. Many expeditions had failed because of the notorious giant in the Himalayas in the past few decades. Brits George Mallory and Andrew Irvine might even have made it before Hillary and Tenzing. However, they perished during the descent and remained missing. To this day nobody knows whether they actually stood on the "mountain of mountains".

The storm night before the summit storm

Before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest, they spent a terrible, icy night. Hillary described her incredible hardships as follows:

“The night was terrible. An icy storm swept over the highest peak on earth. Tenzing called it the roar of a thousand tigers. The storm swept relentlessly and relentlessly, howling and screeching, overhead, with such force that the canvas of our pyramid tent crackled like gunfire. We were on the South Col, a godforsaken place between the peaks of Everest and Lhotse. Instead of lying down, the storm was still picking up the force, and I was beginning to fear that our fluttering and creaking shelter might be torn from its anchorages and exposed to the elements without protection. In order to save weight, we had left the liners of our sleeping bags behind, which now turned out to be a serious mistake. Even though I was wearing all of my down clothing, the freezing cold got to my bones. A feeling of extreme fear and loneliness came over me. What was the point of it all? You had to be crazy to do something like that to yourself! "

After surviving the stormy night, the summit storm was imminent: “We had no time to lose. I hit the stairs again and began to look a little apprehensively for the summit. It seemed to go on forever, and we were tired and moving more slowly. In the distance the barren plateau of Tibet spread out. I looked up to the right and saw a snowy bulge. That had to be the summit! We moved closer together as Tenzing tightened the rope between us. Again I hit a step in the ice. And in the next instant I was on a snow surface with nothing but air - in every direction. Tenzing quickly followed me and we looked around in amazement. We found with tremendous satisfaction that we were at the highest point on earth. It was 11.30 a.m. on May 29, 1953. "


No sensible person would have thought that possible: Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler climbed the highest mountain on earth without an oxygen device. The two extreme mountaineers arrived at the base camp yesterday, completely exhausted but happy.

Your climb to the summit of Everest begins on May 8, in the morning at half past five, after an icy night in a tent. They have been on their way up from base camp since May 6th. They are not frightened by the warnings of many doctors: They want to climb the roof of the world without artificial oxygen. A failed attempt is already behind them. Another attempt now follows from a height of almost 8,000 meters. The ascent in the thin mountain air is an ordeal, every step is torture. But both of them are in top shape and they have experience.

At noon they reach an altitude of 8,800 meters. The legs are heavy as lead, the tiredness can hardly be described. But they overcome their pain and trudge on, as if in a trance. Finally they achieve the seemingly impossible: You are standing on the summit of Everest. World record! From exhaustion, they let themselves fall into the snow. After a long break, Messner takes his camera out of his backpack and films. Back in the tent, they radio the base camp: They made it!

During the night Messner is tormented by terrible pain in his eyes: he is snow-blind. Habeler's ankle is injured. Nevertheless, the two manage to descend to base camp on May 10th. Only now do they understand their success, a feeling of triumph fills them. The sensation is perfect: Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner have proven that Mount Everest can also be climbed without an oxygen device.

In the death zone

Doctors had warned Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler: Moving around 8,000 meters above sea level without artificial oxygen is extremely dangerous to health. Brain cells could die and suspend controlled thinking, including the threat of unconsciousness. "You will come back as a fool," it was said briefly and drastically.

In fact, altitude sickness is not to be trifled with. From around 2,000 meters, the thinning air can make itself felt through shortness of breath, dizziness, headache or vomiting. The lungs take in less and less oxygen with increasing altitude, and the body is undersupplied. Above 7,000 meters - in the death zone - most people will pass out if they do not get extra oxygen. In the worst case, the extreme altitude leads to death. This fact has already cost many climbers their lives. The fact that Habeler and Messner climbed the summit without breathing apparatus actually borders on a miracle. It can only be explained with meticulous planning, incredible physical fitness and an iron will.


Drei Zinnen, Rosengarten and Geislerspitzen - the steep rock groups of the Dolomites rise mightily over the otherwise gently undulating landscape. Because of their “unique monumental beauty”, the Dolomites have now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Its peaks protrude into the sky like sharp teeth. Anyone visiting the Dolomites is walking across ancient coral reefs and scrambling across the history of the earth. Like the entire Alps, the Dolomites began to rise and unfold from the sea floor millions of years ago. Over time, wind and weather formed gentle slopes at the foot of their peaks. Today cows graze here in summer.

Thousands of tourists come every year to marvel at the fabulous landscape. Extreme climbers perform circus-ready tricks on the steep walls. The fairytale-like setting attracts not only hikers and mountaineers, but also celebrities: Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Tom Cruise have already stayed here. And Reinhold Messner, himself born in Bressanone, began his career as an extreme climber on the walls of the Dolomites.

The World Heritage Committee was also impressed by the grandiose nature: On June 26th, parts of the Dolomites were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This means that the Dolomites are now under special protection.

How the “pale mountains” became the Dolomites

The Dolomites are also called “pale mountains” because of their color. The Ladins, the oldest inhabitants of the area, tell each other many stories about their mysterious mountains: There is talk of the dwarf king Laurin and his enchanted rose garden and of a dwarf people who have woven the peaks with threads of moonlight. This mountainous landscape has always stimulated the imagination.

The French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu, on the other hand, took a more sober look at her light rock. Upon closer inspection, he found that they were not made of pure limestone, as suspected. The salt magnesium oxide also had a large share. The newly discovered rock of the mountain range was named after its discoverer, Dolomieu: the dolomite. And the “pale mountains” turned - simsalabim - into the Dolomites.


Switzerland celebrates the breakthrough of its new record holder with great jubilation: on October 15, 2010 at 2:18 p.m., the last centimeters of rock of the planned Gotthard base tunnel were breached. The 57 kilometer long tube leads deep through the rock of the Swiss Gotthard massif. As soon as the tunnel is finished, it should cut the travel time through the Alps by almost an hour.

Huge drill heads with a diameter of almost 10 meters have dug the tunnel into the mountain from two sides, which at 57 kilometers will be the longest in the world. Its northern entrance is in Erstfeld in the canton of Uri, its southern portal in Bodio in the canton of Ticino. Up to two and a half kilometers of rock weigh on it. When the tunnel is opened to traffic in 2017, it will have cost a good nine billion euros.

What makes the construction work difficult again and again: Different types of rock lie close together, from hard granite to soft slate. On March 31, 1996, the catastrophe struck a tunnel: Thousands of cubic meters of softened rock shot from a borehole into the exploratory tunnel and flooded it. Six workers who were nearby were unimaginably lucky: they survived without injuries.

The aim of the record tunnel is that in the future fewer trucks will drive across the Alps and more goods will be transported by train. Because the train tunnel reduces the travel time between Zurich and Milan by around an hour. And because traffic across the Alps continues to increase, the next projects are already being planned: A 53-kilometer tunnel is to be built at Mont-Cenis between France and Italy, and another 55-kilometer-long tunnel on the Brenner Pass in Austria.

Tunnel records

The longest railway tunnel in the world to date is located in northern Japan: with a length of almost 54 kilometers, the Seikan tunnel connects the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. Half of the route is under the sea. The third longest tunnel is also under water: trains run between England and France through the almost 50 kilometer long Eurotunnel under the English Channel. The world's longest road tunnel is currently the Lærdals tunnel in Norway with a length of 24.5 kilometers. It is particularly colorfully illuminated so that drivers do not get tired when driving through it.

Mountains in motion

Mountains rise up mighty and rigid. It seems as if nothing and nobody can move them. But that's not true: mountains are constantly in motion - albeit so slowly that we cannot see the change with the naked eye.

The reason for this: the plates of the earth's crust move. And when two of these plates collide, the rock is compressed, pushed and piled up. Similar to a car accident, mountains fold up on the edge of the slab on impact. Mountains and valleys are thus a “crumple zone” of the slabs colliding. However, this does not happen suddenly like in a car accident, but much more slowly than in slow motion. The result is fold mountains like the Andes in South America. There the oceanic Nazca plate slides under the South American plate and squeezes the rock with incredible force. The elongated mountains of the Andes piles up, stretching over a distance of 7,500 kilometers. The Andes are the longest unearthly mountain range in the world.

However, there are also huge mountains below sea level. They run through the middle of the oceans. They too owe their existence to the movable plates. Where two plates move away from each other on the ocean floor, magma penetrates from the mantle through the oceanic crust. The hot rock slush cools on the sea floor and piles up to form mountains that are thousands of meters long: the mid-ocean ridges. Where the lava reaches sea level and swells beyond it, islands like Iceland arise. These mountains, which are born in the sea, are the longest on earth. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge stretches from north to south through the entire Atlantic - about 20,000 kilometers long.

A constant race: uplift versus erosion

The Matterhorn or Mont Blanc would actually be over 12,000 meters high today - if wind and weather hadn't constantly attacked them. Because while the mountains are raised by forces in the earth's interior, they also shrink again at the same time: their rock is washed out and sanded off by water, wind and frost. In the case of the Alps, uplift and erosion are currently in balance. They stay about the same height.

Unlike the Alps, the Himalayas grow about one centimeter in height every year. In this region, the Indian plate presses against the Eurasian plate and raises the Himalayas further - so much that the erosion cannot keep up.

But there are also mountains where the unfolding has come to an end - they only shrink. These mountains were formed over 300 million years ago, so they are much older than the Alps or the Himalayas. Many of our low mountain ranges belong to them, for example the Rhenish Slate Mountains or the Bavarian Forest. They were abraded over millions of years and are now lower than 2000 meters.

The "race" between growth and shrinkage can also be observed in volcanic mountains: extinct volcanoes are constantly losing height. The Kaiserstuhl on the eastern bank of the Rhine, for example, is badly weathered. Today only ruins are left of the former volcano. Etna in Sicily, Europe's most active volcano, on the other hand, can suddenly grow a few meters in the event of an eruption. However, it occasionally loses height again when the cold lava collapses.

From rock to grain of sand - weathering

Today the north of Canada is a gently undulating landscape. However, many millions of years ago there was a mountain range here. In fact, even high mountains can turn into small hills over a very long period of time.

The reason for this transformation: The rock on the earth's surface is constantly exposed to wind and weather. For example, if water penetrates into cracks in the stone and freezes, it splits the stone apart. This process is called frost blasting. The rock also becomes brittle through temperature changes between day and night and through the power of water and wind. In other words: it weathers. This process can also be observed on buildings or on stone figures.During the weathering, the rock breaks down into smaller and smaller components up to fine grains of sand and dust. Different rocks weather at different rates: Granite, for example, is much more resistant than the comparatively loose sandstone.

Some types of rock even completely dissolve when they come into contact with water, for example rock salt and lime. Rock salt is chemically the same as table salt - and that already dissolves in ordinary water. Lime is a little more stable, but limestone also dissolves in acidic water. Acid is formed, for example, when rainwater in the air reacts with the gas carbon dioxide. This “acid rain” attacks the limestone and dissolves it over time. The weathering leaves rugged limestone landscapes on the surface of the earth, and caves are formed below the surface.

But not only solution weathering, heat and pressure also wear down and crumble rock under the earth's surface. Wherever plants grow, roots dig in, break up the rock piece by piece and also ensure that it is removed millimeter by millimeter.

In this way, weathering not only works on individual rocks, it gnaws at entire mountain ranges. It will take a few million years for the Black Forest to be as flat as northern Canada.

Why does it look different on earth than on the moon?

It doesn't look very inviting on the moon: the surface is dry and covered with a layer of gray dust. Meteor impacts have torn huge craters in the ground that filled with lava from inside the moon. Around these lava basins, kilometer-high crater edges pile up as mountain rings.

Our blue planet is completely different - if only because three quarters of it is covered by water. The water not only covers a large part of the earth, it also forms its land mass: rivers, glaciers and the surf of the sea process the rock, crush it and move it around. This is how valleys, coasts and ever new layers of rock are created.

The interior of the moon is solid and rigid today. The earth, on the other hand, has a liquid mantle on which movable plates float. The movement of the tectonic plates causes mountains to unfold, deep-sea trenches to form and volcanoes to spew fire and ashes.

Unlike the moon, the earth has a shell of air, the atmosphere. The weather is created in this atmosphere. Wind, rain and snow have worked and shaped the earth's surface over millions of years. In addition, the atmosphere acts as a protective shield that slows down meteorites and lets them burn up.

Because the moon has no such atmosphere, meteorites hit its surface unchecked and suddenly crumble the rock into dust. But meteorites are the only forces that shape the lunar landscape. Because there is no water, no atmosphere and no plate tectonics, the influences that make our earth's surface so varied are missing.

The first people to step onto the barren moonscape were astronaut Neil Armstrong and his colleague Edwin E. Aldrin. The footprints that they left when they landed on the moon in 1969 can still be seen today - because neither wind nor water cover their tracks on the moon.

Folded and reshaped - the creation of the Alps

Every year Munich and Venice come half a centimeter closer. It's not a lot, but it's measurable. The fact that the German and Italian cities are slowly moving closer together has to do with the formation of the Alps.

Compared to other mountains, the Alps are relatively young. Its story begins “only” around 250 million years ago when a shallow sea formed between the continents of Eurasia and Africa: the Tethys. Rock debris and remains of living things settle on the sea floor over a long period of time and turn into limestone.

About 100 million years ago, the African plate set out on a journey: It drifts north, pressing violently against the Eurasian continent. The rock is compressed by the pressure, it folds up in a wave-like manner. The individual folds can reach a few millimeters or hundreds of meters. In some places the folded layers slide over one another like roof tiles and form what are known as rock ceilings. Eventually magma also rises; at the moment when the African plate dips under the Eurasian plate. The rock is melted in the interior of the earth and rises upwards, but still cools below the surface of the earth. For this reason, the central Alps consist of the igneous rock granite - in contrast to the limestone of the northern and southern Alps.

The folded area eventually rises above sea level under the great pressure. At first, the folds appear as elongated islands in the sea. But the archipelago is pressed further upwards and slowly pushes up to a high mountain range in which the rivers cut deep valleys. Large amounts of rubble are piled up in the foothills of the Alps. During the cold periods, huge glaciers carve deep trough valleys and steep mountain slopes into the rock. Only now is the typical high mountain landscape of the Alps forming, which attracts us to hiking or climbing in summer and skiing in winter.

The African plate continues to drift north to this day. That is why the Alps are still being lifted and compressed. This compression is the reason that Venice and the entire area beyond the Alps move a tiny bit closer to us every year.

Mountain climate and altitude levels in the Alps

It can even snow on the Zugspitze in June and July. And not only there: On some alpine glaciers, skiing is possible in summer, even if there is bathing weather down in the valley. But why is it that there is a completely different climate just a few kilometers away from each other?

As the altitude increases, the temperature drops by around 6 degrees Celsius per 1000 meters of altitude. It may be that on the Zugspitze at 2,962 meters above sea level, only -1 ° C is measured. At the same time in Munich, at 519 meters above sea level, the thermometer rises to 14 ° C. In mountain regions, because of the high altitude, it is much colder than in lower regions of the same latitude. And something else changes with altitude, namely the rainfall. Because cold air can store less moisture than warm air, it rains or snows more above than below. Even in the tropics, there is therefore snow on high mountains such as the Andes or Kilimanjaro.

Depending on the falling temperatures and increasing precipitation, the type of vegetation also changes. In the mountains, different vegetation zones, called altitude levels, are formed in a small space. In some cases, the boundaries of these altitude levels can be clearly seen, for example the tree or snow line.

In the Alps and other high mountains of the moderate latitudes, the altitude levels begin with the so-called hill country level, in which agriculture is still practiced. The mountain step with mixed and coniferous forests follows in the direction of the summit. Above the tree line, only various dwarf shrubs and meadows thrive, which in summer are often used as pastures for alpine farming. Above the snow line there is no vegetation because cold, snow and ice prevent plant growth.

Mountains also have such altitudes in other climatic zones. However, other plant communities thrive there and the altitude levels are shifted: the snow line in the tropics is much higher than in the Alps, for example.