After the August trip, I wasn’t sure I would make it to Zermatt another time this year. I had plans for a few weekends in September already, and the weather wasn’t pleasant the others. October was going to busy as it was, then I had another trip in November that I was sure would take me up to the first snows. But the weather one weekend looked promising, and I thought I might be able to get away. So flee I did — and I probably don’t even need to mention to where.
The forecast predicted Sunday morning would be more cloudier than Saturday, and as it was this potential for the ensuing colors that excited me, I didn’t rush to get up after arriving late Friday. In fact, I really didn’t do much of anything on Saturday, sleeping in and mostly wandering around Zermatt, in awe at a sky I had never seen so cloudless. Eventually, I decided I’d scope out Riffelsee via Gornergrat Bahn for sunset, taking advantage of the steeply-reduced rate of an afternoon ticket. I started off at the lake, but with people roaming the middleground between the lake and the Matterhorn, I left to shoot a different vantage point. While some clouds had accumulated sometime in the afternoon, they weren’t really in an opportune spot, collecting near the southern base of the Matterhorn and doing their best to block any light from hitting the Matter valley. A streak of sunshine found its way around the translucence, eventually extinguishing itself once the sun dropped below the horizon and leaving the sky a light, almost white, shade of lavender. The sky didn’t turn any crazy colors, so I took the train back down, ready to hit the sack early and see if the following morning would unfold into the sunrise that, visualized in my mind’s eye, is the reason I can’t stop returning to this location.
Sunday morning, I hung out at the Rotenboden waiting room after a surprisingly quick (but not my fastest) hike up, staying warm in the small room but not realizing that the sky had started to lighten considerably. I bolted outside and made sure with a pair who had camped at the lake I wouldn’t get in their shot if I placed myself at my customary vantage point at the lake’s edge, set my tripod, and just barely managed to get the last remnants of dawn before the sky turned completely blue.
Of all the photos I’ve posted on this blog, this might be the one that’s required the most effort to make. First, there’s the obvious trek to the lake. It’s thankfully gotten easier, but it’s still a bit of work — the hardest part for me is getting out of bed for it. Furthermore, it’s not evident, but the single image above comprises 45 individual images whose sequence of capture spanned just under ten minutes. A single shot would be easier and faster but doesn’t hold up at larger print sizes. Due to how long it took to shoot the series, the sky had changed color between the first image (top-left corner) and the last (bottom-right), and although I compensated for exposure across the panorama, it’s a bit much to ask the sky color to stay the same for that long. As such, although this image is representative of what I saw at the lake, it’s the culmination of hours of work, the toughest ones for the post-processing needed to get the levels and saturation of the sky to match its reflection in the water. The smarter way to avoid some of the effort in the digital darkroom would be to start the panorama from the bottom-right. In so doing, from shot to shot the sky at its most colorful would be photographed after the frames with the less-colorful reflection. The classical progression of top to bottom meant I shot a rather monochromatic sky followed by an increasingly colorful reflection, leaving me with the only option of digital post-processing to bring back some of the colors that were actually evident. From my experience last year, I should have corrected my process, but the morning wasn’t as tranquil as the scene might suggest.
If the photograph evokes calm, I’ve done my job at reproducing what nature created, though I wouldn’t say that describes how the morning unfolded. Unsurprisingly, I was alone during my hike, but things were certainly busier at the lake. In addition to the two who had stayed the night at the lake, I was met by sunrise-seekers from the train that in 2015 had rescued my trip: this was one of the last chances to use the train to get to the lake by sunrise before the end to daylight savings time would upset the train’s pre-sunrise arrival. In 2015, I hadn’t yet had a successful hike to the lake and felt uncomfortable but relieved to have a train that bailed out my sunrise plans when I couldn’t achieve them on my own. This time, five or six sunrise hikes to the lake later, the thought that the sunrise train had become superfluous flashed across my mind as I was joined by a dozen others. There was so much commotion around me as I was shooting I gave up on a massive panorama; I only managed to shoot the single one above before people started to meander toward the western shores of the small lake. The hum of a drone then began to interrupt the still air, and as the sun began to warm the chilly air I simplified my workflow by shooting a conventional, single-row panorama, squeaking in the Matterhorn’s frame just as the first beams of sunshine glinted off its summit.
When I had come here three years ago almost to the weekend, I had the lake to myself, but Switzerland is arguably the (first) poster child for “if you Instagram it, they will come.” Zermatt has done an admittedly respectable job at controlling the impact that tourism has on landscapes, and in my coming here for seven years the only aspect I can lament is largely just the ever-present crowds and not to any significant degree the repercussions of the crowds on the nature. Even so, at a time of day when solitude is typically a given, shooting at the lake that morning seemed to further hasten what with twelve hours of driving is already an ambitious weekend itinerary.
All told, Sunday morning didn’t turn out to be as cloudy as forecast, or as colorful as I had hoped. The wispy, high-altitude clouds predicted never showed up to play, and even the single cloud between the Matterhorn and the Dent Blanche disappeared as the sun rose. On my drive back to Germany, more clouds eventually popped up, but they weren’t the subject of my attention as I twisted my way up the windy roads of the Furka Pass. I’m not sure if anything I’ve driven in the US matches the giddiness these passes effect — even with a car with less than 110 HP, these hairpins bring a smile to my face every time.
2019 will mark, whether I like it or not, the beginning to the end of what probably appears to be ceaseless Zermatt excursions. If after August I was left wondering whether I’d make it back in 2018, knowing that my contract will end by October — the month I most often end up visiting this valley — leaves me even less certain that I’ll see the Matterhorn again, without deliberate planning at least. Some solace comes knowing that statistics at least are on my side: in much the same way that no one ever expects an elevator ride to be her or his last, I don’t know that I won’t be back again in 2019. This place, tourism or not, truly is that addicting, and what’s gradually become clear with all my visits is, I might not sure I’m ready to leave.