Forget about diamonds, silver, gold, oil, or even coal, the most precious commodity on earth is water. Life as we know it (and that includes you and me), would not be possible without it. Water is vital for survival. No matter whether the required quantity is large or small, water is fundamental to many natural processes. The earth's troposphere contains only a tiny quantity of water, but this is a very significant quantity for the weather. Without precipitation, a huge human effort would be required to irrigate the fields for food production. Mountains would not be sculptured by erosion, and oceans would not receive their sediments. The list is almost endless. You might look like a mammal made out of flesh and bones, with a control centre on top, but you are basically nothing more than a large bottle of water in a self moving packaging.
Your body uses water to regulate its temperature, transport energy and discharge waste amongst others. If there is not enough water to do these jobs (efficiently), you will suffer from dehydration. You risk an unpleasant time when running out of food during your vol bivouac. When running out of water however, you risk being sick and eventually dying after several hours or days. The precise duration for your demise depends on your physical condition and the environment. Count on a few hours in (very) hot weather and being (already) in a bad shape.
Humans need about two litres of water a day to live. Double that when doing exhausting, sweaty activities like hiking uphill with 20 kg on your back. If your vol bivouac lasts more than a day or two, then taking along all the water you need becomes impractical to impossible. Fortunately, finding water on the spot is not that difficult in the Alps. The search for water can be a bit more challenging in the southern part, where the climate becomes drier upon approaching the Méditerranée, but remains manageable and is far from hopeless. I tend to take along a bit more water when starting a vol bivouac in the south, compared to the north.
In ancient times, water did not flow from the tap, but from the village fountain. Inexhaustible source of water, as well as news, rumours, and gossip. And even though taps have conquered most houses by now, the village source is often still there. Usually the water is still there as well, unless the source has been turned into a giant flower pot by some perversive public spending program to attract more tourists. Road 'improvements' for a 'better' traffic circulation, have also taken their toll on village sources. If the water from the source is drinkable, there could be a sign that says 'Eau Potable' or just 'Potable'. When the sign says 'Eau Non Potable' or just 'Non Potable', you might be inclined to think that the water is undrinkable, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, the community could be reluctant to spent money on the quality control of the water, when it is obvious to everyone in the village that the water is all right. You are the customer, you have the choice. Using a bit of common sense, you will be able to make the right decision.
Throughout the years, I have taken water from 'undrinkable' sources now and then, and never had any problems with it. However, I will prefer an Eau Potable source when having the choice between the two, rather than take a small but unnecessary risk. The sources and fountains in the larger cities are nearly always the Eau Non Potable type, despite the absence of a sign saying so. Most of them have lost their natural contact with the surrounding mountains, and thus the corresponding quality. The good news is that you will find shops here, selling water in bottles and other civilised products to drink and eat as well. You are unlikely to find these (large and well stocked) shops in the little villages further away from the city. But, these villages still have one or more sources to drink from, so there is no need to buy bottles of water. It is all fairly logical and not very complicated, isn't it?
Assessing water quality
Natural water is always polluted, no matter where you find it. It is the dose of the pollution that makes water drinkable or not, as well as your constitution and attitude. Some people faint at the idea of a tiny beetle swimming in their Perrier, and throw up as a consequence. Others eat fat, juicy insects that crawl through the outback, rejoicing in the crunchy taste of one of the few water sources available out there. My guess is that I am somewhere in between. I have no watertight method to determine whether water is all right or not, but over the years I have developed a few rules of thumb and some observations that help me in minimizing the risk. I have never been sick in the Alps because of bad water quality, which I find an effective performance for a few simple rules of thumb. So, let's have a look at some of them. You might find them handy as well.
Getting your water as close to its source as possible, limits the likelihood of pollution. In practice this means getting your water as high as possible. That does not necessarily mean a long hike up, since farmers have often done that job for you already. They have hauled tubes up the mountain or dug canals, that capture the water at its source and carry it down to a basin. It you intend to relieve yourself somewhere on a mountain, then make sure you are not near a water source or intake. The people and animals drinking from the basin below, will be grateful for this.
The basin usually consists of a hollowed out tree (such as the one shown on the right, more frequent in the northern Alps), or a large carved stone (often interconnected with other stones to form a larger basin, more frequent in the southern Alps). When properly taken care off, a hollow tree basin could reach the respectable age of a century. Which I find an amazing age for a simple block of wood that is exposed to the weather 24 hours a day. Stone basins could last even longer than that, as long as the water in them does not freeze. Wood seems less robust than stone, since it is softer and could rot, but it is also more flexible and therefore often better equipped to withstand the forces imposed by the weather. A survival strategy that I encourage you to remember when facing a challenge that could be too big for you.
In the south, most basins are under a roof or similar cover. They offer an excellent spot to escape sun and rain, while having a little picnic at the same time. If I have a 'freeze dried food diner day', this is the spot to have diner. It saves me the effort of carrying the water to rehydrate my food. And while the food warms up on the hot roof or on the stones that act as a solar powered stove, I am relaxing out of view from the burning sun, next to cooling water. If I am certain that the source is there, I could start 'cooking' by having my hydration pack on top of my backpack while hiking. Since it is black, the water gets warm and rehydrates the food a lot quicker than the cold water from the source. In case the source turns out to be dry, I still have drinking water left to continue my search for another source to rehydrate my diner. Anyone for tea?
Do not drink water from the river or stream that is flowing at the bottom of the (sub)valley itself. The valley floor is the lowest point in the area, and collector of all pollution that surrounds it. And if there is no pollution in it, then the station d'épuration might throw in some processed water now and then. So, do not get you water from the (little) river in the valley itself, but from its sources higher up the mountain. The closer you are to its source, the less likely your drinking water has been polluted while streaming down the mountain by things such as animal or human excrements and urine, fertilizers, pesticides, dirt, mud, or dead animals. For example, when hiking uphill, wait for drinking from a stream until you get near the (little) glacier or patch of snow that is its the source. If you have filled up lower down (because you were not sure of finding water later on), than this spot is a good opportunity to replace your water with a (probably) better quality. Remember that water lower down might not be as good as you want it, but definitely a lot better than suffering dehydration. Unless the lower water gives you instant diarrhoea of course, accelerating your dehydration. If you are having more doubts about the quality of your current water than about the quality of your newly found source, then go for a refill. For example, this could happen when unexpectedly stumbling on an Eau Potable source, after having filled up at a Eau Non Potable source earlier on.
When taking water from a stream, I always try to determine what is higher up the mountain. Even when I am (apparently) close to its source. Rocks, stones, gravel, and sand, as well as those little animals you can not even see, are not the problem here. Muddy water definitely is. It tastes unpleasant, and makes it hard to detect other possible pollutions. I like to see where the water originates from, such as a glacier or a spring. For example, the water in the image on the left seems all right, coming straight from the ice and snow on the rocks above. There seems to be no pollution to speak of between me and the sources higher up. In addition, there is nothing but sky above the rocks. I would prefer to drink water a little higher than the current spot, but I would also dare to drink the water here without exploring the above area, which I can not fully observe from were I am standing. It is an educated guess, rather than a fact. In this case, I had a good view of the upper area just a bit earlier on, when walking at a higher altitude. This showed me that the upper area contained nothing but patches of ice and snow (which blocked the path higher up the mountain, click on the image to have the same view). No stagnant water for example, or dead chamois. Which does not exclude the presence of the occasional chamois that is still buried in the avalanche that caught it four months ago (hundreds of big mammals die in winter because of avalanches), and is waiting to be unfrozen as a tasty meal for scavengers that are hungry after a harsh winter with little to no food. If you think the refrigerator was a pure human invention, then you are wrong. Nature has been using VLSRs (very large scale refrigerators) to stock food supply (including mammoths) for hundreds of millions of years. And all this without nasty gasses such as Freon polluting the environment.
Often it will be more difficult to see where the water is coming from than in the above example. Therefore, look ahead frequently when walking or flying. Look to other side of the valley or gorge for example, or just lower down the slope. Observe all those place that are hard to see from other viewpoints later on. It is easy to spot a lake, a swamp, sheep, or cows from above. It is almost impossible from below. Cows and sheep might have bells to warn you in case you do not see them, stagnant water has not. For example, a small stream that looks like its source is about a hundred metres higher up, could in fact be the trickling overflow of a lake or swampy area that is not healthy to drink (people swimming or even pissing in it, algae, rubbish, et cetera). Always look for human or animal presence above your water intake point. I do not mind seeing an occasional chamois or marmotte, since their number is often too little to cause serious pollution. However, houses, sheds, cabanes, refuges, restaurants, paragliding launches, as well as sheep, goats, cows or other cattle, are a no drinking sign to me.
Animals can not write as we do, but a dead animal near or in water you like to drink from, is nature's universal way of writing the Eau Non Potable sign. I mean, how much intelligence do you need in order to read the sign shown in the image on the right? Waking up early one morning, I stumbled upon this carcass when going for a bath close to my bivouac. I took my bath a little upstream, having this image of another (unseen and even larger) carcass rotting somewhere further upstream. I had smelled something funny in the dark upon arrival the evening before, but my bivouac being upwind, the valley wind had kept away most of the nasty odours during the night. So, I presumed it was just some bad air passing through and slept comfortably. Probably much to the dislike of (unnoticed) scavengers lurking in the near distance, seeing their diner 'guarded' by a sleeping human.
Despite the millions of animals dying in the Alps each year, you will not see much carcasses, nor be bothered by them. Food, in all its forms, is a desirable commodity in nature. It has a similar role to money in our society, often evoking all too familiar conflicts. Animals will fight over it, steal it, hide it, stock it somewhere safe, use it for bribery or bargaining, buy friends with it, buy sex with it, or anything else resembling civilised human behaviour. It is food that makes the world go round here, not its watered down derivative called money. You won't see a lot of money laying on the street, since somebody else has probably picked it up long before you even had a chance of finding it. Likewise, scavengers will usually see a carcass long before you have a chance of being shocked or saddened by it. Consequently, pollution caused by carcasses is likely to disappear in a few days at the most. It could take longer in winter, as already noted above, when nature is more sleepy. But since the carcass is safely stored in the VLSR and not rotting away, this is not much of a problem most of the time.
Nature is very efficient in waste management, especially recycling, and certainly a lot better at it than humans with all their technological cleverness. This is mainly due to the scavengers being specialised, rather than trying to dispose the 'waste' in one go, as humans tend to do by burning or dumping it. For example, there are different kind of vultures that specialise in meat, skin, and bone respectively. Indeed, even the bones get eaten! By the gypaète barbu in this case. Recycling is a natural habit, and nothing is wasted. The carcass of the deer in the image above was processed by scavengers in only two days, except for a single leg bone with hardly any meat on it. Nothing remained after three days, except the entrails filled with shit hat got carried away by the river. This waste probably got eaten along the way by someone or something, I just did not feel like following the entrails and verifying it.
When you do not see a carcass, this does not necessarily mean there is none. Better look for secondary, natural signs rather than trust your primary senses. For example, there is a lot of activity going on at night and you better pay some attention to it in order not to become a victim thereof. Hearing strangling noises or death screams from (what presumably are) animals, are signs that someone could be having dinner nearby. Remember this, when you like to take water anywhere nearby the next morning. Vultures (or even ravens for that matter), are much better at spotting carcasses than you will ever be. If you see vultures circling and descending (or not gaining altitude), then this is a dinner sign, not the sign for a lousy thermal. Just give the refill a miss, if this sign is upstream from the point you would like to collect water from. I still vividly remember the first time this happened, flying somewhere in the Aravis. I observed vultures circling above a spot that seemed illogical for triggering a thermal, but they were circling nonetheless. Being a bit low, I considered that any thermal, even an illogical one, was a good one, and headed for the vultures. Circling with the flock, I slowly descended. No matter where I searched for the supposed thermal, I went down with the vultures. Getting closer to the ground, I could see a motionless chamois or sheep laying on the slope. Having just had lunch, I skipped the invitation, and did the now impending low save somewhere else.
Vegetation is usually not that much of a pollution problem. As you walk up the mountain, living conditions become tougher. Not only for you, but for most other animals and plants as well. At higher altitudes, you won't see that much vegetation polluting your drinking water. Lower down, any plant, leaf, or branch falling into the stream, gets carried away quickly, especially during or after heavy rainfall. And since most of these are not poisonous or harmful to begin with, it does not really matter when they are still in the stream when you drink from it. Just remember that vegetation near or in the water could be contaminated by parasites that could attack your liver and are spread by farm animals. Do not drink the water here, and cook the plants if you intend to eat them.
Always look at the environment before drinking natural water, even when using a regular water source with a lovely carved basin that looks well maintained. If you are in a very dry area, then be suspicious of an abundant water source. Try to find out whether this 'source' is really a source, and not taking its water from the nearby river. Remember that there is not really a need for water sources anymore in today's society, so people could have taken a short cut in order to (re)create ambiance rather than drinking water.
If you really want to be sure whether the water is drinkable, you will need a laboratory. If you do not have that with you, then look for pollution signs such as algae, yellowish white 'soap' bubbles, unidentifiable fragments, strange smells, a 'fat' feel, strange colours ('oil' traces), et cetera. Their absence will not guarantee you safe drinking water, but it will prevent you from taking in water that is likely to make you sick.
Be careful when drinking water after rainfall, or even when bathing or washing for that matter. After a long vol bivouac, you will be looking forward to that shower that gets rid of all the dirt and dust that has settled on you. Likewise, mountains like a natural shower of rain now and then as well. All dust, shit, dirt, branches, trees, and a lot more as well, are carried down the slope. This results in streams and rivers with a brown to black colour, possibly turning from gently streaming into wild roaring nightmares that swallow up boulders, trees, animals, people, cars, houses, roads, railways, buses or bridges, all joining the great pollution procession. The thunderstorms in the Haute Savoie that followed the 2003 sécheresse, spring to mind here. Especially the one that visited the Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval valley, leaving an impressive amount of mud in the valley. Luckily, the people in the valley were evacuated without casualties as far as I know. Remember that these kind of extreme events always could happen when bad weather announces itself. Do not get caught up in it.
Needles to say that you should not drink the water in this case. Wait until the weather has dried up, and the terrain a little as well. Drink your fill and fill your bottles to the rim when expecting bad weather, before it is too late. Things usually settle down after a day or two at the most, but do not count on it. It could take days for a stream to clear up, especially if the rain returns now and then. The proper (village) sources usually remain clear during the bad weather (or clear up faster than streams), since they get their water from below the earth's surface. From places that usually (and hopefully) are far removed from the turbulent events on the surface.
So far, I have only addressed pollution that you can sense. When you are not smelling, feeling, seeing, or tasting any pollution, this does not necessarily mean the water is safe for drinking. Germs living in the air, earth, and water are too tiny to the naked eye, but could hurt hour health nonetheless. Most germs are harmless (lots of them live in your body without causing harm), but there are infectious ones that could make you sick. These infectious agents come in a variety of shapes and sizes such as viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and helminths (parasitic worms). Viruses are the smallest villains in this group and basically nothing more than a container with genetic material. Therefore, viruses need a host to survive. A virus squats one of your cells and takes over its machinery in order to reproduce, causing the cell to die in the process. Bacteria are single-celled creatures that can reproduce by themselves. Most bacteria are not harmful or even help your body (digesting food for example). Less than one percent of all bacteria makes you sick. Protozoa are single-celled creatures that behave like tiny animals and, for example, actively hunt bacteria and microfungi. They are larger than the more vegetative bacteria and can live inside as well as outside a host cell, depending on their mood and the situation on the real estate market. Fungi are often visible to the naked eye, especially when fruiting. They feed on dead and rotting organic matter. You probably have eaten fungi such as mushrooms, or have been confronted with their less appetising presence in ventilation systems when your office block suffered from the sick building syndrome. Helminths or parasitic worms, feed on your body. They reside in places such as your intestines, lungs, or even brain. They are usually big enough to the naked eye, yet you won't see them since they enter your body in the form of (the much smaller, hence less visible) eggs they produce. These helminths might not look like the most intelligent species living here on earth, but they nonetheless have a certain control over you. They can make you scratch your bottom, for example. In the process you will harvest a sample of their eggs, which will end up in your mouth eventually (unless you thoroughly washed your hands after the scratching), and the process starts all over again. It is no fun being a parasitic worm farm, rather than a highly intelligent mammal at the top of the food chain.
Is this all bad news? Not really. Nature has been around for a while. This means the system has balanced itself over the years, otherwise nature would have become extinct a long time ago. If one of the species involved in the system becomes too numerous, it will be running out of food. This shortage will cause a decline of the population, giving other species time to recover or even take over (and decline as well upon becoming too numerous). In addition to this natural balance, mother nature has given her children weapons to fend off attacks. By (partially) dampening (the ferocity of) the attacks, the overall system becomes more stable and only the weak or unfortunate succumb. For example, humans have an acid stomach fluid, as well as an immune system. The former fights enemies entering the castle through the main gate, the latter attacks those that broke through this line of defence. In other words, your body is able to handle natural pollution, as long its defence system is able to handle the dose. When in a healthy state, your body can beat the occasional small army that passes by on a plundering quest. However, the castle is unlikely to withstand a full scale war by an overwhelmingly numerous and well equipped army.
If there are bacteria living at a depth of 2500 m in the ocean, near black smokers reaching 400°C, then there are probably bacteria living in the glaciers I am drinking from, and almost certainly in the earth near a water source or stream. Apparently, their quantity or characteristics have not been able to overwhelm my defences during the last decades. Somehow, natural pollution is quite manageable to the body, especially when it is used to it. Be aware though of pesticides and other chemicals. These are often hard or impossible to detect without the proper equipment, but even little doses can cause harm (in the long run).
Simply put, if you do not trust your source, then do not drink from it. You can not do much about chemical pollution, as far as I am aware, except abstinence. When you are only worried about natural pollution such as dirt and bacteria, then boil the water before using it (and boil it for a least a few minutes at higher altitudes because of the lower boiling point), filter the water, chemically disinfect the water (with purification tablets), use UV radiation, or use any other purification method you fancy. However, do not count on these tools to remove all pollution. Better use common sense to find a (more or less) reliable source and still filter or otherwise purify the water, rather than relying on these tools to turn a polluted source into a healthy one. Remember that these tools (considerably) reduce the risk, but do not eliminate it. For example, the quality of filtered water depends on the purpose and construction of your water filter. A filter designed for high throughput could be less effective in filtering than one with less capacity. A very healthy filter that is hard to clean, might turn fetching water into a frustrating and time consuming affair, making the filter less effective than planned. In some cases, you still might need water purification tablet after filtering. Just remember that the chemicals used for purification might have undesirable health consequences. I'll say it again: nothing beats a good source. Even if it is further away than you like it to be.
I have never had any need for the above tools (stove, filter, tablets) in the Alps, always having found drinkable water so far. I guess I have developed a little practice over the years, or some resistance. Probably both. During my hikes through the Andes, Amazon, and Himalayas however, I have always taken purification tablets along, just in case of doubt.
Now that we know more about judging the water quality, let's start looking for the it. Not in the obvious places such as the village fountain or a glacier stream, but in places that are more difficult to identify. Places you are more likely to encounter than a village, so better get used to finding them. A keen sense of observation is a great helper here, lots of practice even more. If you have not got the feeling already, simply try to develop it by observing your surroundings all the time and draw conclusions from it. Just a little practice could save you from the frustration of needing water and not finding it (forcing a descend or other detour), while you could simply be standing on it.
I always have an eye open for water. Not only when hiking, but also during flight and when driving my car. When hiking, I look, hear, feel, and smell for water. Often I will be hearing water, long before I see it. Everything falling down a mountain makes noise, and water is no exception. If I do not hear or see the stream because it is too small or too slow to make significant noise, then the air around it will give it away. The air near a river or stream, no matter how small, tends to be colder and damper than the rest of the environment. A change of temperature or humidity thus triggers my attention. Vegetation is also a good indicator for finding water. The 'drier' the vegetation, the less likely the presence of water. And vice versa, of course.
For example, have a look at mountain in the image on the right. What do you see? You probable notice an excellent thermal source, especially for low saves. Do you see the water source as well? Not the water in the creek at the bottom of the valley, but the water source on the mountain. I agree that the image lacks quality (the mountain being reconstructed from a two dimensional satellite image), but this Google Earth substitute is better than no image at all. There must be a better image somewhere in my private collection, but apparently I am better at finding water than pictures. But even with this lower quality, you still should be able to find the water source here. If you do not see it straight away, then carefully look at the vegetation on the rocky slope. Or click on the image for the answer.
As you can see, there are quite a few gullies on the slope, transporting rainwater down the mountain. Vegetation profiting from this occasional supply of water (we are in the southern Alps here), has grown in the gullies, especially lower down the slope. When the rain stops, these gullies slowly dry up, except for one. There is a spot of trees and grass at the start of one of these gullies. This spot seems to lack a gully that feeds it with water from above during rainy weather. Yet there is an abundance of vegetation in comparison with the rest of the slope (especially lower down in the gully). Just below this spot, there is a large sand coloured erosion spot. It looks like it has been created by water erosion and the colour of its surface differs from the rocky colour on the rest of the slope. From these observations I conclude that there is probably water coming out of the mountain here, rather than that the vegetation has to wait for rain. The grass that is visible on the better picture (that I can not find), confirms this opinion. You won't see that kind of grass on a rocky slope, unless there is water nearby. Walking past it, you will notice that it is a fairly small source. Its steady trickle filled my two litre hydration pack in five minutes or so. That is slow compared to the average fifteen seconds for a regular source, but a lot faster and certainly a lot less fatiguing than going all the way down to the village (and possibly finding out the fountain is dry due to maintenance, which happens now and then). The source even worked at the end of a hot summer, the last time I visited it, when a lot of other natural sources in the region dry up. A mountain like this is an good resting place, because of the easy landing on top, natural food in the vicinity, shade from the trees, and water not too far away. If there would have been a place to shelter on top, as well as water, this would be an excellent place to spent the night.
From above it is far easier to scout for water, since you have a much better view of the environment and its geological formation. For example, it is easy to see that a mountain has more streams on one side than the other, when flying over it. Hiking up on the dry side of this same mountain and not finding any water at all, could have you wondering all the time whether you should turn back and fetch water from the village below or should continue to the top and have a look at the other side of the mountain. A side which could be just as dry as the one you are struggling on right now. It is also easy to see little streams from the sky, often blinking in the sunlight. A lot easier at least than looking for them when hiking, having your view obstructed most of the time by slopes, rocks, trees, bushes, et cetera. The greatest advantage of searching for water during flight however, is that you can search a very large area without really getting tired. Crossing a valley or a mountain range could take a few hours when walking, or a couple of minutes when flying. Every source is welcome when hiking, since the next one might be far away. Scanning the ground below you for (possible) sources when flying, allows you to be picky and choose the most convenient one.
Observing your surroundings not only is a delight in the mountains, it adds to your comfort and safety as well. Geological forces have shaped the mountains over the years, and continue to do so, giving each mountain a unique character. Understanding this character helps you to adapt to it, rather than fight it. Harvesting profits, rather than problems. Different as mountains may be though, they share some basic properties. Especially when sharing geological similarity. A discovery on one mountain, is likely to help you in a similar situation on another mountain later on. By spending a lot of time in the mountains, you will begin to understand their nature and peculiarities. Your understanding will never be complete (flying and hiking are be risky activities, remember?), but enough in order to profit from it. The knowledge you discover over the years, could help you in finding water in places you did not even care to look before.
Let's have a look at one of those places, in the image on the left. What do you see? A cave probably. The result of slow and patient, but never faltering geological forces at work. Do you see the water as well? Congratulations if you did! If you did not, then have a better look at the roof of this cave. It has sunken in or maybe even collapsed. This means precipitation enters the cave through the ceiling and gathers at the bottom of the cave. Sleeping in a pool of water is not comfortable, and drinking from it is probably just as bad an idea. Snow on the other hand, might remain drinkable for quite a while. After all, streams often originates from the snow and glaciers higher up the mountains. And we drink from these as well. We are well below freezing level here, beginning of July. There is no snow on the slopes anymore, but if the cave is deep enough (i.e. far removed from the warm air on the surface) and has no ventilation to speak of (i.e. cold air descends to the bottom of the cave and remains trapped), there still could be some left of all the snow that fell in into this cave during winter. In this case, there was a pile of about two metres high at the bottom of the cave. Click on the image to see it. The (icy) snow in the pile has been polluted on the surface because of the dirt and dust settling on it over the months, but nothing serious prevents you from using it as drinking water. In this case the snow was white (as snow should be) and clean underneath its greyish cover and tasted well. I was on my way down and knew I would encounter a drinkable source after a few hours at the most. I still had enough drinking water and I skipped a refill here. However, if you somehow forgot to take water before going up this mountain (fool mode) or you have landed here to sleep and do not want to go down in order to get some (expert mode), then here is some water for you just 300 metres below the summit.
As a reminder, always be careful when entering structures. No matter whether they are human build or natural. Mountains might seem majestic monuments of solidity to you, which have been and will be there forever, but this is a dangerous delusion. And human built constructions do not even come near the lifetime of even the weakest of mountains. The forces that shaped the cave here, are still working. All the time. Nature never sleeps. The roof of the cave consisted of a single large stone (about two metres long and one metre wide), that had been eroded to a size smaller than the hole it was covering. The only thing that kept it from falling was a strategically (but probably accidentally) placed stone the size of my fist. This means the roof was about to collapse, speaking from a geological point of view. Thinking from a human time perspective, I estimated the risk of the roof falling on my head in the next three minutes (after being held by the little stone for so long), acceptable. That assumption is complete nonsense of course, but wanting to have a look around the cave, I needed a reason to justify the risk and found one. In geological processes there is a lot of noise. A predicted earthquake could happen in two weeks, in two years, or in two hundred years from now. Noise tends to drown out clear signals. If there is a lot of noise, reason has far less effect on the outcome than chance. I had a look around at the bottom of the cave and I am here to write about it. But having been right this time, does not prove that rocks that have been unstable for a thousand years might not fall in the next minutes or seconds. I have had rocks falling on the place I had been standing just a few seconds earlier. Having taken an intuitive step back just before they were falling, had saved my day. Sometimes intuition is a better mechanism to deal with risk than (over-)analysing it.
If you missed the two previous water clues, do not let this discourage you. It takes practice to develop a skill. Below there is another practice opportunity . You probably notice the path along the slope, stabilized by a wall of natural stones. Just an ordinary path it seems. There are thousands of these in the Alps. You would not be surprised if someone told you these are the remains of an ancient voie romaine, which were following the mountain slopes rather than the valley floors below, infected by swamps and frequent inundations. The surroundings look dry here, yet there is water. If you do not see it, then have a better look at the stone wall. What is it doing here? Is it really needed to stabilise the path? There are lots of paths on even steeper slopes in this region that have not been stabilised this way. And why is the path level? The answer is that you are actually walking on water here. You are walking on an ancient canal. Clicking on the image will take you to its source.
The Alps have seen extensive use of canals that distributed water to the communities maintaining these canals. The water was mainly used for irrigation, but also for powering various tools. The Alps are not unique in this aspect. Water is the same in mountains all over the world. Using its power efficiently, is physics rather than culture. So, improvements made over hundreds of generations tend to converge these water tools all over the world. I have seen simple water mills at work in the mountains of north Viet Nam, which closely resembled those in the Valais. Here, in one of the drier parts of Switzerland, they even have a special name for such a canal: bisse.
A lot of these canals, mostly the smaller ones, have fallen in disrepair because they are no longer needed. Some of these small canals , such as the one here, have been 'improved' by burying a plastic hose or metal tube in (the remains of) the canal. A plastic tube requires less maintenance, but the resulting efficiency often accelerates the erosion of (what remains of) the canal. Its structure is partly demolished this way and the (little) maintenance that was there, simply stops. The good news is that some of these broken canals have been partially rebuilt by heritage foundations, farmers recognising the value of (free) water, or communities discovering the value of tourists visiting these canals. Somehow, these small canals give me a moral boost when walking near them. This is caused by the noise and sight of the happily streaming water of course, but also by their modest scale. A scale that says 'thank you mountain' upon receiving a gift, rather than robbing the mountain from it. Anyone who has ever flown over a busy ski area (such as Grandes Rousses) during their flight and seen the 'improvements' men has made to the mountains, probably recognizes this feeling. And it is not just roads, hotels, apartments, ski-pistes and ski-lifts that bother me here. The use of those far less conspicuous snow canons for example, has far reaching consequences for the water balance in the mountains. Some even speak of an ecological disaster for the Alps. Villages that got their drinking water from the nearest mountain for as long as the inhabitants can remember, now rely on bottled water because their sources have been polluted by the relentless greed of the skiing industry.
On Col de la Forclaz (there are lots of those, but this one is between Chamonix and Martigny), you will see the end of a wooden canal on stilts. This canal (or rather bisse, considering the location), is about three kilometres long and fetches water at what was once the foot of the now more distant glacier. The path on which this bisse has been (re-)built, is much wider than needed for it or for someone walking along it. This is because it used to have tracks that allowed carts to carry the ice from the glacier to the col. From there, the ice was transported to about anywhere within melting distance, some of it even ending up as ice cubes for bohemian drinks in Paris. The glacier did not mind that much. The ice that had been removed during the day, would be replaced by the glacier advancing during the night. The glacier showed various sizes throughout the years, until it retreated to its current, distant location in the last century. This was not due to hyperactive ice harvesting, which already had been abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, beaten out of the competition by artificial ice factories replacing natural ones, but rather a change in the climate. It is interesting to look at pictures from that century, especially when they show glaciers. Most of them reaching much lower down than they currently do. It is a bit sad to see these beauties retreating, but most people that like to see them grow, often do not realise that they might receive more than bargained for. They probably do not realise who made all those fertile and lovely valleys where they have planted their crop, built or bought their (second) home, or operate that large factory. The Alps where nothing more than one giant glacier once, with a few mountain tops barely sticking out. And I am sure this will happen again. Probably not in the French or Swiss Alps, but in the Mediterranean Alps that will be build in the future. The big question is not whether the glaciers will be around by then, but whether we will be around to see them. Nature always changes, all the time. Nature does not care about the climate, melting glaciers, nor humans for that matter. Nature is the climate. Humans do not like change. If humans would have been the first creatures here on earth four billion years ago and in power to do something about climate change, we would be living in a very stable, very boring world right now.
I will always keep an eye open for these (smaller) canals, even though lots of them may no longer be functioning. If the canal has dried up or fallen apart because is no longer in use, then the water source that fed the canal is probably still there. If I do not notice the canal itself, because it has been destroyed, eroded, swept away, or covered by vegetation and rock, then the path I am walking on will indicate its (former) presence. Paths in the mountains tend to go up or down. When a path remains (nearly) level over a long distance, it probably has been used for building and maintaining a canal. When I have been walking level for a while, I start looking for a canal almost in a reflex. Following a (broken or dry) canal upstream, generally leads you to its source. This can be quite a distance though, a few kilometres being the rule rather than the exception. And some are a lot longer than that. I remember walking along part of a bisse once, running on the southern slopes of the Rhone valley between (roughly) Martigny and Sierre. The complete system covered a distance of roughly 40 km as the crow flies. Probably double that when walking along it.
Water flowing down a mountain creates erosion, such as seen in the image on the right. It is not the water by itself that causes so much erosion, but rather the sediments in the water. Water can have the volume and speed to move car sized boulders like a little toy, but without teeth it would not be able to munch a mountain the way it does. There are other erosion forces at work of course (freeze-thaw, chemical, biological), but without sand and stones moving along with the water, there would be far less erosion in the mountains. The mountains would probably be a safer place without it, but quite a bit duller as well.
The water streaming down the mountain creates little gullies on its slopes. The water erosion enlarges these gullies, increasing their capacity. This leads to more water, thus more erosion, accelerating the process. Once you have become a gully, there is no way back. I have seen this little-to-large-gully process happen over just a few years. Please remember this process when driving you car over the take-off, being too lazy to walk a few metres. Those tire tracks you leave behind could be one metre wide gullies in a few years, making the take-off less practical (halving its size, for example) or even making it dangerous (breaking your leg by stepping/falling into a gully when taking off, for example).
After all snow has melted or the rain has stopped, the water on the mountain dries up. And so could the gully, if the mountain has not soaked up parts of the water. The water stored in the mountain slowly descends, pulled by gravitation. Along the way, it is helping vegetation to survive, which in turn is helping animals to survive. Since the gullies are the relatively lowest point on the slope, this water seeping down the mountain will eventually end up in one of the gullies, small or big, and flow down the mountain as a (little) stream, where it will be captured by a thirsty hiker.
The mountain in the foreground of the image (Tromas), has steep slopes and no ice or snow on top. There is no reservoir of (frozen) water on top, and any precipitation falling on it, quickly streams down the bare rocky slopes. The chances of finding a water source here are small. The mountains in the background of the image offer better opportunities. They have (a little bit of) snow on their peaks and flanks. Their slopes are less steep here and there, which gives them a chance of soaking up precipitation that (slowly) finds its way down their slopes. And the valleys of course, the largest gullies of them all, always have water in them. But they are a bit low for reliable drinking water, unless you encounter a water source here (mainly in the villages).
When flying, have a look in these gullies in order to see if there is any water in them. A bright, silver like reflection is usually a good sign. If the gully is dry, then search for water a bit lower down. As the summer progresses (or any extended time between rainfall), the mountain becomes dry from the top down. If you find the gully empty, then descend (not fall!) along the gully in order to find the point where the water starts. This tactic always works, but you might end going down all the way to the valley if it has been really dry on the mountain for a prolonged time and you insist on finding water this way nonetheless. The water in the gully here is too close to the valley floor for my taste, but might come in handy during an dehydration emergency.
Water availability influences my flight planning. I tend to minimise the possibility of landing in a remote (no civilised water), dry (no natural water) and hot (lots of sweating) area. And when I am already low on water, this possibility should be excluded from happening. This could, for instance, mean that I will not fly through a dry and hot area when I am low on water, but rather follow the wetter areas surrounding it.
If you are running low on water, then do not wait till the last drop. It might be too late to start looking for it when you have none left, especially when you are (very) thirsty. Go down to a village or farm, or similar places that are likely to have a source for a refill, before trouble catches up on you. It could mean a long walk (or a short flight) down, followed by a long walk up. But this tiring walk will be a lot more pleasant than suffering dehydration, and a nice opportunity to meet other people as well. Maybe there is even a bakery in the village, selling those fresh croissants or apple pie that you were dreaming of this morning. There is quite a chance you might find out something about the region or the weather that you do not know yet, especially when talking with a farmer or shepherd on the mountain further down. They have spent a lot more time on that mountain than you ever will, and often are a great source (sic!) of local information. They might even pinpoint you the source that was just hundred metres further along the ridge you were walking on, before you gave up and started your descend. You will certainly remember this information the next time you are hiking or flying along this ridge....and still go down to see the farmer or shepherd to say hello! There are some wonderful people out there worth a visit, running short of water or not.