Sanetschorn, Valais Alps
Foreign climes this week, and a photo taken during fieldwork for my undergraduate dissertation, which adorns the wall above my fireplace. As a physical geographer, keen on glaciology, I jumped at the chance to study abroad (not many glaciers left in the UK…), and we spent a month wild camping on an alp (as in the high-level summer pasture*), high above the town of Sion while we collected our data. I spent the bulk of my time studying the surface features of a bump (hummock) on the exposed bedrock, and this view is not far off what I saw every day. The idea was that I would be able to suggest how the glacier had flowed over this irregular surface, based on the presence (or absence) of scratches on the rock called striations, calcite crusts (reconstituted dissolved limestone) and channels cut by meltwater. By the end of the month, mapping microgeomorphology had become a bit less interesting (loathe to say boring), but my data was good, and I was able to get a really good piece of work out of it (and a great mark). It meant I could interpret a great deal about subglacial drainage, glacial motion, and do something genuinely different from what had been done before.
*we even had to keep the cattle out of camp with a fake electric fence made from climbing rope!
What really fired my enthusiasm was the setting. The glacier was (still is) receding over a plateau some 2,400 metres above sea level, and the views across the Rhone valley were superb, with the Matterhorn away to the southeast, Mont Blanc to the southwest, and with the Grand Combin, Dent Blanch and many other well-known peaks in between. So, on clear days the views were superb, and the alpenglow at sunset truly spectacular. But even on the less clear days, the immediate surroundings provided plenty of interest, as tall thunderclouds built up from the valley below in the late afternoon, or the nearby peaks became shrouded in mist before a shower, and as a geographer of course the whole environs were just generally interesting. This combination of a stunning field site and interesting subject matter made the experience totally inspiring, and has driven me to try to inspire others about geography and working out of the classroom in general. (Until this point I’d pretty much thought I’d be an outdoor instructor, or a farmer or something related, so this trip pretty much changed my life!)
Photographers might be surprised to know (or maybe not, depends if you like the picture!), that this was taken on a point and click camera that I’d had since I was about ten, and was as simple as they come. It was, however, its last outing, as the lack of zoom, and any additional controls were hugely frustrating in a setting like this. Plus something had damaged the winding mechanism, and a few of the pictures ended up with scratches right through the middle of the frame. It was replaced with a Pentax Espio 738 later that year. In spite of all that this is still a personal favourite image.
Best printed at 6×4 etc..
All images © Stephen Tyrrell, Mountains, Wild Places & Water, 2013. All rights reserved.