The Day I Fell In Love With The Alps
I can tell you the exact time and place that I fell in love with the Alps, almost to the minute. It was at Berghaus Alpiglen under the north face of the Eiger on Sunday the 14th August 1988 at 8.15 am (give-or-take a few), exactly 34 years ago to the day as I start writing this article. I'd just moved to Basel as part of a sandwich course between my second and third years studying biochemistry at Aberystwyth University. I'd immediately fallen in with the international crowd my first weekend and three of them dragged me along on a jaunt up to the Jungfraujoch a week later. We even tried to blag room to sleep at the Mönchsjochhütte, but even in those days finding last-minute beds in such a well known hut was out of the question, especially on a Saturday in the middle of August, and so we took the train back down to Kleine Scheidegg and from there found a dorm for the night in the aforesaid establishment. Sitting eating a simple breakfast the following morning on the terrace it hit me: I'd found my place.
Yes, we have heather in the Alps too. I struggled all day to catch a patch in the foreground and this ended up the best I could come up with. The mountains on the horizon (Drei Türme and the Drusenfluh) form the border between Austria and Switzerland. In the mid-ground the rocky outcrop of the Wilder Mann.
The Majesty of the Alps dwarfed all of my Lake District and Snowdonia experience to date. The snow and ice (in summer!), the sheer scale of the rock faces, the waterfalls - all took my breath away and I wanted to capture it all. I forget what camera I had at the time, probably an old Canon or maybe even one of the analogue Olympuses (Olympi?). I do know that in 12 months working there I blew a whole month's salary on film and developing, starting with prints and progressing to dia-positives.
The fairytale-like path through the woods above the Garnera Gorge caught our eye on the way up to Ganeu. In the end I had to exposure-blend three images taken at +/- 2 ev to balance the light.
After returning to Wales for my last year of studies I knew I had to get back to the Continent after graduating and spent my last year hunting for positions in the German-speaking Alps, ending up in Munich in Bavaria, where we've remained to this day, almost 32 years later. The city has been our hub for exploring the mountains from Haute Savoie in the west to the Hohe Tauern in the east, taking in France, Switzerland, Italy (oh the Dolomites!), Austria and of course the local Bavarian Alps.
Even in the middle of August the cows were already being brought down from the high alpine pastures to the intermediate level. Catching them here in the hairpin bends was serendipity.
Appreciating the majesty of the central Alps has in no way diminished the appeal of my native British mountains. Every mountain range that I've found to date has its own unique character - and challenges. No two ranges are identical geologically, affecting not only the shape of the mountains - from the chalky limestone of the Karwendel to the granite solidity of the Ötztal. Geology also affects the flora and hence the fauna, but now I'm patronising you.
The Present That Is Called Today
As I write this 34 years later I'm sitting with my wife and constant mountain partner of 30 years in an apartment in Tschagguns at the far western end of Austria, where we've come back 5 years after our last sojourn here to hike in the high Alps and - yes - take some photos. Ideally I'd have liked to have stayed up high in the mountains using the Alpine Association huts, but we left booking too late. Heck, we couldn't even wrangle space on a campsite for a long weekend.
Looking out over the Tschaggunser Mittagspitze and into the high Montafon in the morning light. After all, who can resist a shot of layers like this?
The Montafon and neighbouring Silvretta regions lie at the heart of the Alps on the border between Switzerland and Austria; between the eastern and western Alps, between Rösti and Gröstl*. These mountain ranges are predominantly made up of hard gneiss and range in height between 2,000-3,400 m, putting a lot of the terrain above the tree-line.
*two potato-based dishes typical of Switzerland and Austria respectively
Looking west towards the setting sun in Tschagguns. I love this time of day in the mountains and some of my favourite images are from the cusp between the golden- and blue hours. It’s almost always worth waiting for the light to die.
As with many areas of the lower Alps, there’s little wilderness in the Montafon. This is a cultured pastoral landscape for the most part until you get significantly above 2,000 m, shaped by cow and sheep farmers and their need for huge quantities of grass to feed their livestock. Reaching a mid-level pasture plateau at 1,400 m on our last day we were delighted to find an open access fridge at one of the unoccupied barns selling cheese using an honour system; take what you want, cash in the box, though the farmer was at pains to point out that the box was unable to give change. The different cheeses were well packaged and the thoughtful farmer had put out sheets of newspaper to wrap it in to keep out the worst of the summer heat. In the end it proved effective enough to stop the cheese becoming molten in the hot car all the way home to Landsberg near Munich.
One of the things I love about the Olympus - sorry, OM Digital Solutions - system is the ability to take shots like this hand-held on a hike, meaning that I don’t have to faff around with a tripod. IBIS and on-board ND filters for the win!
The Silvretta is significantly wilder than Montafon by virtue of its altitude. Hikes here start at 2,000 m from the Silvretta Reservoir, a high lake at the heart of this grandiose range. There are few to no proper settlements along the Silvretta high alpine toll road between Gashurn and Galtür and even from the pass you can see the vestigial glaciers hugging the high peaks along the Swiss border. Here the cattle are only grazed on the lower slopes and that only during the height of summer. The cows were even being brought down from the high pastures in mid August. Not quite the classic sheep drives of central Valais, nor the late autumn cattle drive with associated festivities that we know well from the Bavarian mountains, both of which are worth factoring into any autumn trip to the Alps, but still a spectacle worth seeing and hearing - the cacophony of bells is so evocative.
Sometimes it has to be a pano! Reaching the shoulder between the Bieltalbach and the Ill valley; the border between Tyrol and Vorarlberg. From left to right Piz Buin, Piz Buin Pitschen, Signalhorn, Silvrettahorn and on the far right the Hohes Rad.
Photographically-speaking the decisions are relatively easy here: Aperture priority with medium or small aperture depending on whether or not the foreground plays a role, shutter priority with around a ⅕” for the fast-moving water. More often than not hand-held thanks to the Olympus IBIS. Occasionally exposure bracketing to cope with the contrast associated with shooting in the midday sun... The usual drill.
One of the characteristic aspects of the Alps is the architecture and the way this almost instinctively blends into the landscape. A lot of photographers tend to deliberately compose their images to remove all traces of ‘the hand of man’ from their work, even in the Alps, ensuring the purity of nature. Although this is a choice that I respect, personally I don’t ascribe to this school of thought and in fact all the images from the calendar I put out last year have buildings of one sort or another in them. If the building belongs to the scene then it stays. When the material is wood, the building is more likely to fit in, whether a weathered old barn or the rich dark timber of a mountain cabin.
Arriving at the farming settlement at Ganeu we found the pastures dotted with huts like this where the farmers (and tourists) will stay for part of the summer. The locally sourced fir planks have long since developed their natural red colouring as the tar is baked to the surface in years of sun.
It’s probably this ‘taming’ of the landscape that has deterred at least the Anglo-Saxon photographers from central Europe in favour of wilder climes - the recent trends of Iceland and the Faroes speak to this, or is it because the Alps have been overdone? Are they simply too accessible? For me the symbiosis between mankind and mountain is almost a symbol of hope, that we can exist sustainably on this planet, integrated into the geography without ruining it. Now I appreciate people’s need for wilderness and adventure, the desire to get away from it all. All I ask in return is that you respect my need for an ice-cold wheat beer and schnitzel for lunch at 2,400 m!
As we descended to the valley we were alerted to the presence of a colony of marmots by the high-pitched whistle as the hiker in front of us passed through their patch. As we reached the area we took 15 minutes to wait for them to feel safe enough to scout the region to see whether it was safe to come out.
Of course no day out in the high mountains is complete without some of the typical fauna. Whilst we didn’t see any ibex or chamois, our descent from the Wiesbadener Hütte was accompanied by the shrill warning whistles of marmots. If I think there’s a chance of beasts or birds I’ll pack my Olympus M. Zuiko f/5.0-6.3 100-400 mm zoom. Although it’s m43 equipment, at 1.3 kg I have to be reasonably sure that I’ll be putting it to use before strapping it to my rucksack. The lens is also great for butterflies like this Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, allowing frame-filling photos from a safe distance (for the butterfly, not the photographer). Sadly the kestrels we saw were too far off even for my super-zoom. Had we been there to shoot the birds, we might have invested the time to try to get closer, but we were there for the mountains.
This fritillary was patient enough for me to get some snapshots of it feeding off the greater knapweed.
After three days of uninterrupted sunshine, the weather broke on the third night and we had some much needed rain, leading to a much more atmospheric start to the day. The forests on either side of the valley were steaming as the sun broke through the clouds. It’s as predictable as day following night in the mountains in the summer - misty forests on the back of fresh rain. We all know about shooting in misty forests in the autumn, but Alpine photographers know to watch out for summer rain, especially after a prolonged warm period.
The massive Lindauer Hütte at the foot of the Drei Türme is more hotel than hostel, providing space for over 160 alpinists and even has a sauna. Lying at 1,744 m the hut is serviced by a dirt road rather than cable car - or even helicopter, as is sometimes the case with the higher-lying huts.
Looking Back With Fondness
A lot has changed in 34 years. The quality of the cuisine has improved a lot in the mountain huts, but on the down side it's become a lot more difficult to secure overnight places, even as a member of the Alpenverein. Equipment has improved a lot - weight is down and performance/reliability is up. The glaciers have shrunk a lot and there are some routes that I've done that are no longer doable. Or even huts that no longer exist. On that fateful Sunday in 1988 we made the ascent to Berghaus Bäregg, which at the time was about 20 m from the edge of a moraine above the Untere Grindelwald Glacier. To get there you had to pass along a gallery blasted from the rock to allow shepherds and their sheep passage to higher pastures in the summer. Twenty years or so ago I was dismayed to read that they'd raised the hut to the ground after the moraine gave way as the glacier shrunk leaving the building half hanging over the edge. Similarly, at the time of writing, the route to the Gouter Hut on Mont Blanc is closed due to the frequency of basketball-sized rocks cannoning down the gully on the main route and consequently the hut as well, cutting the Alps tallest summit off from Joe Bloggs. The Boy Child (20 in the meantime and freshly graduated himself from a Welsh University) has recently expressed an interest in following his parents footsteps in ascending said peak (yes, we have done it, it was the last thing on our bucket list of things that we wanted to check off before embarking on the adventure that is parenthood, but that ascent is another story).
After the rains the forest which had been warming in the summer sun for the previous week had no choice but to give up the fresh water back to the air in the form of water vapour, giving us this spectacularly moody scene on the valley side above Gashurn.
Plan A for us is to take early retirement in a couple of years and relocate to a sleepy corner of the Austrian Alps not far from the Dolomites and set up a small guest house where we can share my passion for these mountains and help people to create images that they can look at to help bide the time between fixes. Hello. My name is Mike, and I am an Alpaholic.
After growing up and studying in the UK, I came to southern Germany in 1990, where I have lived ever since. My interest in photography has grown out of my love for the mountains and a desire to share the beauty with friends and family. Photographically-speaking I would describe myself as a serious amateur, always looking to learn something new and share the knowledge and images via my blog.
Even in its dilapidated state this simply constructed hay barn provides so many interesting features for the eye to rest on.