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The variances in nomenclature in the region spanned by the Alps makes classification of the mountains and subregions difficult, but a general classification is that of the Eastern Alps and Western Alps with the divide between the two occurring in eastern Switzerland according to geologist Stefan Schmid, at 3,905 m (12,810 ft), respectively Series of lower mountain ranges run parallel to the main chain of the Alps, including the French Prealps in France and the Jura Mountains in Switzerland and France.

The secondary chain of the Alps follows the watershed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Wienerwald, passing over many of the highest and most well-known peaks in the Alps.

The highest portion of the range is divided by the glacial trough of the Rhône valley, with the Pennine Alps from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa on the southern side, and the Bernese Alps on the northern.

The peaks in the easterly portion of the range, in Austria and Slovenia, are smaller than those in the central and western portions.

The mountains were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided.

Extreme shortening caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentary rocks rising by thrusting and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

A mummified man, determined to be 5,000 years old, was discovered on a glacier at the Austrian–Italian border in 1991.In areas like Chiasso, Switzerland, and Allgäu, Bavaria, the demarcation between the mountain range and the flatlands are clear; in other places such as Geneva, the demarcation is less clear.The countries with the greatest alpine territory are Switzerland, France (21.4%), Austria (28.7% of the total area) and Italy (27.2%).The Alps have been crossed for war and commerce, and by pilgrims, students and tourists.

Crossing routes by road, train or foot are known as passes, and usually consist of depressions in the mountains in which a valley leads from the plains and hilly pre-mountainous zones.

The altitude and size of the range affects the climate in Europe; in the mountains precipitation levels vary greatly and climatic conditions consist of distinct zones.