Au revoir les montagnes (2015-16)

In some strange way, with the rise of nationalist, ultra-conservative, macho politicians (mostly male, anti-abortionists…) who thrive on dreams of battles fought and victory rallies, I think we are witnessing a struggle between reality (shows) and nature. Culture has become synonymous with entertainment and tweets seem to be the deepest we are supposed to think. Populists denounce investigative journalism, scientific research and weighing the pros and cons of an argument as not representative of the way “normal people” face the world.

But the natural cycles of the planet are in disarray, weather patterns are increasingly disrupted – to use one of the buzzwords of 2016 – and there are serious concerns about the quality of the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Not to mention the loss of biological diversity through the destruction of habitats, species disappearing, forests cleared and landscapes plundered. Not surprisingly perhaps, these phenomenon appear to play a negligible role in the mental maps of those who speak of making country x, y or z great again.[1] Which makes me wonder how great is a country without water, where the inhabitants suffer from toxic particles in the air and where green is a colour that few can remember?

Does this wailing in the wind make any difference? Once again I escape to the caravan…

As an enthusiastic observer of nature, I found that there was plenty to admire in Switzerland. From January 2015 to January 2016 I maximised the use of a half-price railfare card and travelled around the country as much as I could, to see the highlights of the highlands! I particularly enjoyed gazing at the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger from the cable cars and mountain railways between Grindelwald, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg on a May day when I had expected the highland snow to have melted so that I could go for a hill walk. The north face of the Eiger is as impressive and awesome as rumoured…

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In both July and September I went on trips to Fiesch and Bettmeralp in the Valais to get as close as possible to the Aletsch glacier. The train journey from Geneva takes around 3 hours. Lene joined for the second trip and afterwards I wrote some notes as follows.

The air is clean and clear at 2000 meters as we swing slowly upwards in a cable car, leaving the green valley below with blue sky above and faint wisps of cloud in the distance. We have come this way by train, along the Rhône valley, past the vineyards and small towns with castles and stone walled irrigation channels. It is autumn.

Then we realize that we’ve left our binoculars behind at the bed and breakfast. It is too late to go back, but we feel silly, knowing that there may be movements of birds and animals on the hills and rocks that would be worth closer scanning. The ridges and jagged peaks of the mountains sweep in all directions, rolling in giant waves towards the horizons.

From a bench at the top of the cable car we gaze down at Europe’s longest glacier, curving from the 4000 metre peaks of the Bernese Oberland, south and west. We can hear the melt waters flowing along the sides of the glacier. The summer has been warm and estimates of glacial shrinkage are dramatic, but now winter approaches and new snowfalls.

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After absorbing the sight of ice moving imperceptibly, we head off for a couple of kilometers walking along a path below the rocks, with a spectacular view south towards the Matterhorn and the mountains along the Italian border, culminating with Mont Blanc, far, far away, but still clearly visible on this sparkling day. The sun warms our faces although the air is cool.

We take another ride upwards to another peak and the comfort of the Berg Restaurant. The views are extraordinary. We are served heavy mountain meals, sausage and cheese pie. We drink beer and I notice that the air is a little thin, even though 2700 meters isn’t a great altitude. Outside there’s a panoramic signboard with the names of the distant peaks.

We stroll through a carless village, a hillside huddle of holiday homes and hotels. There are flower boxes on every window ledge. I wonder what it is like at the height of the skiing season. There’s a church perched on a low rise in the middle of the village, seemingly out of place in the jumble of holidaymaking infrastructure. We relax on a bench and soak the sun.

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In December I took off for a long day trip to Zermatt with an extra ride on the cog railway up to the Gornergrat station and observatory at over 3000 meters. Like countless other travelers heading towards this remote ski resort village, my main objective was to view the Matterhorn, the ultimate mountain. I was lucky to go on a stunningly beautiful day, with bright sunshine, but there were few daylight hours and the temperatures hovered around zero.

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There is restricted road access to Zermatt, which means that the streets are full of pedestrians and small electric vehicles as well as some horse-drawn carriages. I wandered around looking for good places to take pictures of the Matterhorn and then headed up a frozen pathway to the edge of the forest around the village. There I found an excellent bistro, which served a classic rösti, Swiss potato dish. After lunch I found my way back to the station and enjoyed the train ride winding up the steep valley sides to the viewpoint at Gornergrat.

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I rounded off my year aux montagnes with a mid-winter excursion by train and postbus to Les Diablerets and Gstaad in terrible sleet. The weather conditions prevented any attempt to reach a skywalk between two peaks at 3000 meters. But on the final stretch of the journey, as the train crawled down a hillside with fantastic views across Lac Leman above Montreux, I was able to take some snapshots looking towards the Dents du Midi (the southern teeth…) in the late afternoon, just before sunset.

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[1] It was a slight shock to discover that a favorite slogan of the Nazis in the 1930s was to make Germany great again, as noted by Norman Davies in his ”Europe – a history” (Pimlico, 1997).

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