The weather of the Alps doesn’t necessarily play by the rules. Long range forecasts are dodgy, areas in close proximity are extremely variable and rain showers (depending on where you are) are not unusual. Troy Haines, Alpinehikers owner and founder, and I recently sat down to discuss the complexities of weather when traveling by foot through the Alps.
Me: How long have you been navigating the weather of the Alps?
Troy: I have been studying and experiencing the weather of the Alps first hand since I first moved to Switzerland in 1997. I lived there year round for 2 years and have been back every summer since.
Me: What makes weather in Switzerland so unique?
Troy: Switzerland weather comes from the northwest across England. When it reaches Switzerland it is really the first time that it meets mountains and like a lot of places around the world, this elevational uplift can drop a lot of moisture. In particular, the jet stream moves moist warm air from the North Sea into Switzerland and as it climbs in elevation, precipitation results. This is why certain areas are drier than others. For example, Chamonix and the Bernese Oberland are wetter and greener with more waterfalls because they are on the wet side of the mountains. If you head to the other side of the Alps or further south or east, Courmayeur, Zermatt, the Haute Route and Sass Fee are much drier as the moisture has already been dropped. Often you will see rain in the Bernese Oberland and sun in the Valais.
Me: What is a typical day in Alps?
Troy: The most typical day in the Alps is mixed with some sun, some clouds and some showers. You may see a forecast of rain that shows itself when you back in your hotel enjoying your post hike beverage or well earned half board dinner. It’s a shame but the weather forecasts scare people, with high probabilities of rain. That might be technically true, it did rain that day, but it doesn’t accurately reflect what the day is really like. Even if it does rain on a hike there is usually plenty of time during the day when it’s not raining. Well, except for the times that it does…
Me: When can you expect snow in Switzerland?
Troy: Mid summer trips might be sunny and warm but it could also snow. I saw a website that had a picture of a Switzerland pass on a sunny day in July. Then it showed another picture of this same pass in July but under a raging snowstorm. These extremes are very possible. My advice, people should embrace it and bring clothes to be comfortable in whatever weather. It can and does snow to about 5,000 feet every summer at some point. And of course if it’s snowing in Murren (5413 feet), it could easily be 8 inches or deeper higher up on a pass. It probably won’t snow on your summer trip to the Alps but if it does… it’s not so unusual.
Me: What’s your go to weather source in the Alps?
Troy: I like to use www.meteocentrale.ch. You can type in a particular town and they have the forecast in English. You can look at Grindelwald and it gives you 5 days of accurate local info. It displays 7 different images with clouds and other icons so that you can see the trends every 3 hours giving you a better sense of what is going on throughout the day. They don’t give you text for anything more than beyond today and tomorrow. I also sometimes use meteoschweiz.ch but this site gives more detail that isn’t always more helpful.
Me: What’s the challenge with a more detailed forecast for the Alps?
Troy: So many of the big general pages like weather.com will put out a 10-15 day forecast when in reality they have no idea. I don’t even know why sites put out something that is more than 4-5 days in the Alps. They are pretty good with today and tomorrow but once they get out to 5-6 days in the future its more than likely going to change. I would say at least ½ the time it’s not the forecast that was predicted. This makes a long range forecast very challenging. On top of that, it is not unusual for these sites to use incorrect weather data. For instance posting data from Jungfraujoch (11371 feet) and showing it as data for Grindelwald (3392 feet).
Me: Why is it so difficult to forecast weather in the Alps?
Troy: There is huge variability in temperature and precipitation when you take into account elevation and topography. It could be raining at the base of a mountain but clear 10 miles away. Elevation is tricky because for every 1,000 feet in elevation gain, temperature drops 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, Interlaken is only 7.5 miles from Murren but its weather is radically different. Murren sits over 3,500 feet above Interlaken so it is much cooler. Murren is also closely rimmed in mountains which create specific local weather effects.
Me: What’s your favorite time to travel in the Alps?
Troy: There really isn’t a bad time to be in the Alps. Every month has its highlights. For example, I like the long days and the wildflowers and waterfalls of late May and June. Typically there is still a lot of snow and trails can be challenging but the lower valleys are spectacular. July and August are a great time for hiking in the Alps but it is high season and busier and often more humid with clouds and a hazier quality. September is perhaps my favorite time to be in the Alps. It’s typically cooler and the days are noticeably shorter. But, because it’s drier in September, sunny days can be the most crystal clear days of the year. On these days the mountains look so close that you could just reach out and touch them.
1. Check a local forecast like www.meteocentrale.ch. Often you’ll find links for good weather information on hotel or local tourist office websites.
2. Bring all the gear. It may be a bit heavier but it is well worth it.
3. Don’t hesitate to break plans if the weather isn’t cooperating. Don’t feel like you have to go out in bad weather. It’s vacation and you should be able to find something else fun to do.
4. Check in the morning instead of making plans a day or two in advance. Morning forecasts are the only ones that are really reliable and they are typically very good. The local same day forecasts are the best.
5. Don’t worry, embrace what will be and enjoy.