I thought my 2016 travels would end with Vienna, but any remaining frugality gave way to a lingering hunger for the high mountains. It started with a landscape photographer‘s exhibition in nearby Isny; after seeing his photographs I wanted a panorama that I myself could print two meters wide and knew exactly which scene I wanted for that hanging. Or, perhaps, it started with my awoken mountain fascination in 2007 and was thereafter stoked with my discovering Zermatt in 2011. But so it was that I forwent Thanksgiving 2015 and borrowed a set of snowshoes to take that panorama of a lake I had photographed nearly a half-dozen times. The mountain pass was frozen and closed, so again I took the car train under the mountain and to my lost valley. Different year, different month, different car; same inexplicable thirst.
This time the deep snow didn’t start at the exit of the tunnel but instead only at about 2200 m elevation, halfway into my hike up to the lake. I had superb weather while I was in Zermatt and visibility — had I been higher — long into the French and Italian Alps. With most of the pistes still closed, low season also brought nearly complete solitude for much of the hike up.
In summer, the path took me about 2.5 hours from valley to lake, so I budgeted five hours in winter. After a couple detours and the joys of sinking up to my knees in deep snow, seven exhausting hours later I arrived at Riffelberg and decided not to trek the remaining 300 m to the lake. I ended up watching the beginnings of sunset from the station instead as I waited for the train back down to the valley. The conditions arguably couldn’t have been more perfect. With low season, I didn’t have to worry about stomping across the closed ski pistes, eliminating my exposure to avalanche risk in the backcountry, and with the warmer temperatures I didn’t have to snowshoe the entire way from 1600 m to 2800 m elevation, greatly reducing my workload. On top of that, there were simply no clouds blocking the mountain during the entire day. Nevertheless, the ascent had been more taxing than I had expected, and frustrating as it was I decided to forego the 1 AM start to catch sunrise the following day. The panorama I had come to take would simply have to wait.
I used my choice to skip sunrise to sleep in, but by 10 AM the following morning I was on the way to Zmutt, a small hamlet tucked under the shadow of the Matterhorn’s eastern face. The temperatures were unseasonably warm, and the path was snow (but not ice) free. The views to the mountains beyond (Dent d’Hérens and Dent Blanche, I believe) were superb and without a single cloud in sight.
With the warm temperatures the snow that had fallen at Zmutt ten days prior was melting, but in the shade snow formed interesting patterns as it melted on restaurant patios. It’s been many years since university, but it was nice to see a practical demonstration of heat transfer!
Back in Zermatt, I had coffee with a local who himself immigrated a couple decades prior; he and his wife now live in Zermatt. As the ratio of tourist to inhabitant is likely somewhere in the order of 20:1 at any given point, it was refreshing to get to know someone of the local culture. He pointed out a possibility for sunrise and sunset that didn’t involve a six hour hike, and with the last rays of sunshine fading, I moved quickly to go check it out.
I had been at that exact location in July when I hiked back from the Stellisee, and the location had indeed looked promising for sunset. Clouds had started to form late that afternoon, and just before the sky darkened the clouds were particularly interesting. I still haven’t invested in a graduated ND filter, and this pre-show reminded me that sooner or later I would regret not having one. For the moment, though, I was concentrating on what to shoot and keeping my fingers warm.
While I was waiting on the colors to arrive, I chatted with one of the staff at the chalet next door. They were preparing for a party of Zermatt hoteliers that evening, one they host annually. I asked how much the chalet ran for in the low season and the response was astonishing. “85 CHF,” he said, which I thought was almost laughably reasonable for such a nice place with an unobstructed view of the Matterhorn. I asked if he was talking per person per evening, thinking I could get a group of friends to join me for that money. His reply nearly ended the conversation. “No, 85,000 CHF for a week.”
As the last light left the sky and I rebuilt my pride, the colors grew more and more impressive. I wanted a shot of the city and the mountain together, but with an obnoxiously-lit skating rink (I’m sure the skaters appreciated the lighting, however!) in the city and the clouds largely east, I decided to shoot the snowline instead. At this point, the cold stopping bothering me, but just as I finished collecting my jaw from the asphalt, I again went slackjaw at the masterful painting unfolding before my eyes.
While I had grown tolerant of the cold, my camera’s battery had not, and as night fell I decided to leave the shutter open until the battery was spent. What the eye can see and the sensor not is one thing, but what the sensor can gather with minutes of data that the eye cannot in a blink is another. Light pollution from the city began to haze the lower parts of the image, but the overall colors, far more blended together than distinct, made me happy enough, even if I weren’t high up in the mountains that evening. When my camera shut off for good, I went back to the hotel to recharge it and my hunger.
The next day, I set off for sunrise from the same spot, this time with the town still sleeping and the hockey rink dark. The clouds had mostly vanished in the night, but as the sun crept over the Breithorn and its massif to the east, the tip of the Matterhorn burned red briefly before the color faded.
Sometimes a photography trip is thwarted by weather or poor planning or timing. Other times a missed shot is due to the photographer. While it was disappointing not to come back with 32 images that would when combined form a file that would then be printed for wall display, I have anything but regrets for having been in Zermatt. Three days of perfect weather, hiking in November with a topping of showshoeing, and seeing the skies finally light around my alpine refuge was exactly the refreshment I needed after many months of being away from crisp mountain air. That shot I want will come again, and now that I know the exertion needed to get it, I’ll be ready for it when it comes. Or, you know, I could just buy it from someone who’s already done the hard work, but that would just be too easy.