The Alps run in an arc through seven countries - France, Switzerland, West Germany, Italy, Lichtenstein, Austria and Yugoslavia - for around 1,200km (750mi). At its broadest, this mountain range is roughly 300km (187mi) across. Mont Blanc, or "white mountain", is the highest of all the alpine peaks of Western Europe. It reaches a height 4,807m (15,771ft).

The Alps were created around 40 million years ago, when tectonic plates, sections of the Earth's crust, began drifting toward each other. The plate bearing the continent of Africa moved north until it collided with the plate bearing Europe. As the two continents collided, the rocks between them buckled and folded. Eventually, they were forced upward.

Most of these rocks were sedimentary rocks, formed on the beds of an ancient sea. However, granite and schist were also caught in the collision. The rugged backbone of the Alps is made up of an amalgam of these very hard rocks, which have largely resisted the natural forces of erosion. They form many of the Alp's great peaks, including Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps, and the highest in Europe outside Russia

The softer, sedimentary rocks, such as limestone and sandstone, which lie at the margins of the Alps, have been weathered into a smoother landscape.

During the last ice age, which terminated around 10,000 years ago, glaciers gouged out U-shaped, flat-bottomed valleys from many mountainsides, creating some of the world's most amazing scenery.

Because the thin soils of the high alpine slopes made it difficult to earn a living, the Alps' ancient inhabitants had a seasonal lifestyle. During the Middle Ages, the village farming community lived in wooden, flat-roofed houses. In the spring, they planted crops in the fertile valley. Early in summer, they drove herds of cattle and sheep to the mountains, allowing them to graze on the rich grass that sprouted up after the snows melted. People in some remote districts still live this way.