Since November last year, I’ve been wanting to re-re-re-re-re-re-re-revisit Zermatt and get a panorama of that special lake. I print my photos periodically, and since discovering alu-dibond as a terrific material for displaying images (far better, in my opinion, than on photo paper) I’ve been craving a large format with this lake on it; I have a few walls where a nice 2 m wide print would fit beautifully. I was thwarted last year, so with a fair amount of stubbornness on making this photo myself I started the hike up after an extremely short sleep a few Fridays ago, arriving at the lake as the moonless night began to lighten into a blue wonder. It was my ninth visit to the touristic village.
I was supposed to have been in Zermatt some weeks prior, but dubious weather as I was planning the trip made me reconsider (I ended up in Croatia instead). As it turns out, the weather played its hand anyhow, and not wanting to lose another opportunity I decided I’d take my chances before the autumn snows made the hike up unpleasantly long. After a rough summer for hiking, I needed a full three hours to get to the lake this time, up from less than 2.5 hours the summer before. Fortunately, European summer time had not yet ended, so I still could start at the “reasonable” time of 3:45 AM. Though the Monta Rose group blocked much of the early color on the Matterhorn, I waited for the sky to fully light anyhow before the trip down to Zermatt. I wrapped up my lake shooting as travelers via train began to arrive at the lake. From above the lake I shot one more panorama.
I stitched my two sets of photos from the lake that evening and had to chuckle to myself — neither one turned out. In the first, I panned too much between shots, leaving a chunk missing in the resulting image, and in the second I set my exposure time too long, giving clouds the chance to move in between frames, which resulted in an wildly discontinuous sky. It gradually occurred to me while processing the photos that using an iPhone for a panorama is much easier (and the result is instantaneous). Panoramas during the day are a little easier to manage as the lighting conditions are more consistent, but one challenge regardless with post-processed panoramas is exactly that it’s not possible to know the result of a panorama until post-processing. Experience gained.
Exhausted from the effort and from the almost lack of sleep the night before, I slept most of the rest of the day, deciding late in the afternoon that I’d give the next day a chance at the lake but only by taking the train up. It turns out I made the right choice: the entire ride up was shrouded in fog, which would have been a frustrating result at the end of the hike had I tried to hike again. Not surprisingly, the Matterhorn itself was also obscured, but this time my panorama was at least successfully stitched; I could print this photo 2 m wide if I want! (Despite this, technically the imagine is still lacking, as I am missing a part of the foreground still. Panoramas are not as easy as they might look.)
It might seem a propos to call my mission thus far unaccomplished, but the morning had far more in store. It had begun to snow ever so lightly and between fog, cloud, and snow the sun only rarely penetrated. But when it did, oh, the wonder! It was like a magical game of hide-and-seek. As dawn began to appear on the horizon, so did the mountains around me, but only occasionally and only parts of them. The Breithorn and Lyskamm playfully showed their summits first,
and later, Pollux and Castor, too.
In between, the summits all hid, revealing in between wisps of cloud only their broad lower slopes.
I kept running between the lake and the slopes around the lake, trying to take in the light show to my east and the taunting Matterhorn to my west. The Matterhorn never really appeared over the lake in any meaningful way to build up a new panorama, so eventually I packed up the tripod and hiked up toward Gornergrat.
Most of the ground remained dry, although some white showed on the ice that had begun to form at the edges of the lake. The Riffelberg, too, picked up an ashen north face that wouldn’t last in the warmer temperatures in the following days. The most I ever saw from the Matterhorn was its sharp summit, peaking inquisitively above the clouds.
One might think that the first morning with its cooperating clouds and brilliant blue skies was somehow more satisfying than the second. In fact, I felt the opposite was true. I was joined by a good dozen visitors who had taken the train up the first day, giving the area a bit of the touristic feel I’ve described in the past. The second day, I was alone with the mountains for the entire time I was wandering around. The playful and ephemeral light made every moment worth it. What I had envisaged to be shooting maybe 50-75 frames and heading down within a half hour ended up taking a staggering six times as long and resulted in nearly 400 pictures on my memory card. The panorama I had (and still have) in mind could never convey the sense of place this morning gave me; I can confidently say that no one else took anything like these pictures because there was literally no one else there with me. The resulting impression was a very, very curious mix of contentment with isolation, searching for belonging, and immense appreciation for the silent vastness I found myself in. While I had once again failed to get the shot permanently affixed in my craw, I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything.
I watched two trains climb up toward Gornergrat during my fascination with the clouds and light, and grudgingly as I watched my watch tick toward noon and the approach of a third I decided it was time to head back to the village for lunch, a nap, and a return to reality. Blue skies had prevailed above the railway earlier, but clouds again blocked the view upward as I watched my train approach. The sigh of the air brakes as the train came to a stop reflected my own bemusement — so much for my panorama this time, but for a tenth time, or an eleventh, or a twelfth… or beyond, I’ll certainly be back, whether for a successful panorama or to experience this incredible breed of solitude only the Swiss Alps can convey.