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The Matterhorn, Zermatte Switzerland
The Matterhorn, Zermatte Switzerland

Matterhorn Photo Quest


During my spring, 2017 whirlwind photo trip through Italy I wanted to throw in a couple of other photo opps, Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and Zermatt’s Matterhorn in Switzerland. They were only a country or two away, no problem.

After my night in Fussen Germany to shoot Neuschwanstein Castle, my wife Sharon, and I set off for Zermatt. Switzerland, the Alps had been a dream since I was a child. A very rainy day it was for our six-hour drive.

I am new to GPSs and I have mixed reactions of them.  They are largely fine but can throw you for some loops, misdirection, and roundabouts.   Oh it took me right through Southern Germany, a tip of Austria, and without much problem across Switzerland.  There were some pretty places along the way.   Since I didn’t have a map I would have previously studied, and continued to referrer to along the way, as in days of yore, I got to Zermatt and couldn’t really tell you with any specificity where I had been.  I took some photos, but couldn’t caption them with specificity because I was following screen prompts instead of graphic lines on a map. I think we went through Luxembourg, had I have known where I was at the time, I likely would have photographed it for a record shot. I had been looking for a sign to no avail.

I saw some of the oddest log building along the way, there would be a lower level often like a daylight basement, the upper floor though had a makeshift second stilt & stone foundation for a second story. As much as I stared at them, the function was lost on me.  They had clearly been there for multiple decades, possibly centuries, and as flimsy as they looked, they were still standing. Upon a bit of research upon my return home, explanations were revealed.

These cool looking buildings can be up to 300 years old. They were barns where people would thresh their grain, and storehouses where they would dry their meat, slaughter their animals and store the harvest. They were known as Gadis, where the cattle were housed on the bottom floor, and the hay stored on the top. The stilts attached to the roof of the lower level were topped with round stone slabs to prevent rodents and insects from coming in - brilliant. The roofs on these buildings are often covered with stone shingles.  My building inspector friends, Greg Balvin and Charlie Allen would be aghast. There are about 50,000 of these Gadis still in existence. The preservation of the Gadis is of growing importance to the Swiss Heritage Society. These odd old buildings symbolize the customs, traditions, and farming culture at the highest altitudes in this alpine region. Many are being repurposed for living in, and for tourist accommodations.  I’m glad their historical value was recognized before it was to late.

It rained cats and dogs the whole way, we crossed some high mountain passes and I was relieved to find rain at the tops instead of slushy spring snow.  We also had to put our Peugeot on a train for a trip through a mountain. I was surprised at the industry in the valley bottoms.  In a country of mountains, beautiful valleys are all that is left to put your ugly industry.

Researching Zermatt, logistics for a town without cars presented challenges for this auto dependent photographer. A mountain with a reputation of rarely appearing from above its cool blanket of clouds presented other problems. My optimism was being kept in check.  Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst is a valuable mitigation mechanism for the photographer. It facilitates ecstatic feelings of mediocre results, yet cushions the blow of dashed aspirations. There is no time for disappoint while traveling.

Zermatt’s quaintness is preserved by not allowing cars in this cute Swiss chalet style village, I had read with skepticism that everything in Zermatt was an easy ten-minute walk, I had to assume that the easy part was predicated upon walking without suitcases, and a camera backpack loaded to the airline limit. Dreading a death march up to a mountain view hotel without Sherpas, Sharon and I opted to stay in a hotel in the town just north of Zermatt and depend on the short train ride connecting them.  The train runs often 24/7.

We drove right up to the Mountain View Hotel in Tasch the neighboring village to Zermatt, we took our bags to our room, lightening our load, freshened up, then headed for the train to Zermatt and hopefully the Matterhorn.

Upon exiting of the train station, we were met by a fleet of electric carts with luggage trailers that looked to be a lot more capable than any Sherpa for slogging luggage to Matterhorn view hotel atop a steep grade.  I wish I had known of these when I was choosing hotels.

Sharon and I made a quick reconnaissance of the village; I then sent her shopping while I wandered around trying to find some soggy compositions of the Swiss landscape below Zermatt’s pesky cloud cover.  The rain was still with us.

Tall mountains everywhere make their own weather, and the Matterhorn at 17,000 feet qualifies as one of these weather makers.   I do though know I have extraordinary luck.  Living in the mountains myself, I know that some of the most dramatic photos you can make, are taken when clouds part and reveal the mountains above. When I had gone to Japan; of course, I wanted the iconic photo of Mt. Fuji, as mentioned, I knew there was a very slim chance of seeing Mount Fuji in my seven-day window, so I rented a room with a view of the mountain so I would know if, and when it appeared.  This trip though was a trip of Italy with a Zermatt add on, so the Matterhorn was just a roll of the dice, not a make it, or break it, for the trip.

Originally I had scheduled two days for Zermatt, but having the knowledge of the chances of luck being small to none, and not having a desired week, I trimmed my Zermatt stay to a single night remembering the six days it took to get a great shot of Mt. Fuji.

Below the clouds, just beyond the village boundary, I found an alpine landscape with beautiful green meadows with sheep, and cows with bells.  All quite pretty and gave me something to shoot while hoping for a parting of the clouds. When you wait for a parting of the clouds from your hotel room, the opening is often closed again by the time you return to the field. Soggy Swiss pastorals it was.

Just before dark the clouds mercifully parted only enough to shine a bit of evening light on a portion of the legendary peak.   I got the Matterhorn.  My window opened then closed, I then found Sharon and we wandered the village a bit, then headed for the train.

The following morning, as usual, I awoke early and looked at the sky hoping for stars but saw nothing but a sea of black, it was still cloudy.  Dang it, no reason to rush to the 24/7 train. I did a bit of computer work doing my best in post processing to make a mediocre peek of the Matterhorn into a masterpiece. I checked the window often and at the first promise of light revealed a breaking up of the clouds.  I flew in and out of the shower, my camera gear, prepared the previous evening for a rapid departure was already ready and out the door to the train station I flew.

Departing the train station, not wanting to miss a moment I quickly headed to the Bahnhofplatz where the Gornergrat Cog Train station and was disappointed to find I had missed the first train of the morning and the next one wasn’t until 8:24.  Plan B, the ski lift.

I hired an electric cart cab to take me to a ski lift on the far side of the village and upon my arrival I found it also didn’t open until 8:30, dang it, my effort to get closer to the base of the mountain already towering above me was proving difficult.

The Matterhorn towering above now sporting a cobalt blue sky seemed to be looking down on me mocking my efforts I had time to walk down the hill to the Cog Train depot. Oh well.  At the cog train station I discovered I still had a long wait before departure. I could have lingered at the top of the village a while longer and captured the cows with bells and sheep, this time with the Matterhorn piercing the deep blue sky above while I waited, had I been a good planner, I wasn't.

My legendary luck was holding the blue sky was expanding instead of closing.   The photography from the train wasn’t bad, there were many openings revealing the mountain and the Zermatt landscape along the way, none of the compositions being clich├ęd shots.   The window opened a bit from the top so I didn’t have to shoot through a dirty window.

When not shooting I noticed that when approaching the shade of a tunnel, hill, or grove of trees, a reflection of the pretty Asian girl in the opposite seat would appear in the window.  I was fascinated by her look of awe as she admired the majesty of the landscape beyond the window.  A photo opp was born.

The cog train has several stops; I scouted them as I rode to the top.  At the top, I wandered around and captured the magnificent landscape. The top is known as the Gornergrat a rocky ridge hosting a view more than twenty-four thousand meter peaks of the Pennine Alps whose highest are Dufourspitze (Monte Rosa massif), Liskamm, Matterhorn, Dom, and Weisshorn, As well as an awesome view of Gorner Glacier

As grand as the Gornergrat was, I concluded this spot likely wasn’t the best vantage for photos of the Matterhorn.  This was a magnificent place to view the surrounding mountains, valleys, and glaciers, but it was so high, it made the Matterhorn more diminutive than could be captured from a lower vantage point, I caught the next train down to a lower spot named Rotenboden.

From Rotenboden, I was now looking up to the mountain instead of across at it, and this perspective returned the element of size and towering grandeur to the mountain. I shot away. After working the scene, I returned to the valley floor and caught up to Sharon who had slept until the post 8am train to the village. While showing me photos from her smart phone, I saw a photo from the top of the village I wish I had taken of the lush green hills, cows with bells, with the Matterhorn towering above.  All my photos from the cog train had old snow foregrounds.   All is good though

It was now time to rush off for Italy’s Lake Como which turned out to be a wasted destination; there are many better choices in Italy.

Zermatt exceeded my expectation and I’m glad I rolled the dice.


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