Photographing the Eiger…
Every story needs a bad guy. In the Book of the Berner Oberland, its the Eiger. Its history of mountain climbing is layered with one tragedy after another. From its Wikipedia page:
Since 1935, at least sixty-four climbers have died attempting the North Face, earning it the German nickname, Mordwand, or “murderous wall”, a play on the face’s German name Nordwand.
The mystique of this mountain is palpable the moment you lay eyes on it. From Männlichen, it appears like a blunt arrowhead piercing the clouds. From Kleine Scheidegg (above left), it resembles a lurking sharks fin. Both places are ideal spots for the classic Eiger photograph, but to capture images with a little more nuance, you really have to hike underneath the mountain’s legendary North Face.
We tooled around in the pastures underneath it at the Alpiglen train station (above right), located halfway between Kleine Scheidegg and Grindelwald, and it turned into one of the most transformative travel moments of my life. I’ll devote a whole blog post to it at some point, but in short, the Eiger began to shed loose ice chunks and snow plumbs in a display that was at once intimidating and exhilarating to witness. Our neighbor at the hotel hiked the North Face trail — which skirts beneath the entire length of the mountain — and he reported that at one point he discovered a single climbing glove beneath the rocks. Who knows how it got there, but it clearly captivated and slightly haunted him just seeing it there.
Photographing the Mönch…
There is not a whole lot said about the Mönch, which I suppose makes its name all the more fitting. It’s the strong and silent type.
Wedged between the Eiger and the Jungfrau, it is easy to put this 13,474-foot mountain in the backseat, but I would imagine that if it were located by itself anywhere else in Switzerland, it would be a major draw for travelers. From certain angles, it appears to be the tallest of the three peaks (its not, the Jungfrau is), and it is punctuated by a large glacier that oozes like an icy, mortal wound from its North Face. But it lacks the Eiger’s steepness and sharp angles, and the Jungfrau’s bulk and dominance. So, you’ve probably never heard of it as a result.
So, naturally, photographing the Mönch typically means photographing it with its neighbors, usually from that stellar view from the Månnlichen, or from Mürren. But its such a majestic beast in its own right, I’d suggest trying to isolate it for a few images as well. As I combed over the shots I came home with, only three really stood out as being just about the Mönch. One was a simple image cropped on the summit, which was simple and arresting just because the mountain is so huge. But I think the above two images tell the story a bit better. On the left is how the Mönch appears as you approach Mürren on the railway, which is an angle that best show’s the pitch of the mountain’s North Face. And on the right is a pair of hikers from near the Eiger Glacier station, who were gazing at the Mönch’s lower wall. They seem to be saying “holy crap” with their body language.
Photographing Staubbach Falls…
The Lauterbrunnen Valley is home to 70+ waterfalls, but hands down the most photographed is Staubbach Falls, which slips off an embankment of meadows and plunges 1,000 feet onto the valley floor, most of it in one unbroken fall. Situated right next to it is the tourist hub and namesake of the valley, Lauterbrunnen, so these falls get plenty of attention and a good deal of the postcard royalties.
I’ll devote a later post to the waterfalls of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, specifically Staubbach Falls and Trummelbach Falls. But I will note here that light conditions are best in late morning when the falls are hit by full sun. Shortly after noon, the spray of the falls catches great backlight, which is also fun to work with.
Where should you stay in the Berner Oberland?
It’s a question that seems to plague a lot of people based on TripAdvisor’s forums. We spent all six nights in Wengen and would highly recommend it (pros: within striking distance of the trails beneath the Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau, easy access to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, first ride up on the Männlichen gondola). Although, next time, we will consider staying in Mürren. For one, this is where Mürren is situated (dead center, below image).
Two, it appears to have the best hiking access in the area, with several trails cruising amongst the meadows below the Schilthorn, and the quickest access to this area’s closest thing to a wilderness area, Hinteres Lauterbrunnental, an UNESCO Natural Heritage Site that is tucked into the back of the valley, and home to several massive waterfalls. Furthermore, from Mürren’s cliff-hanging perch, you could probably throw an Aerobie across the narrow valley into the west face of the Jungfrau. The mountains are as in-your-face as any place I’ve been.
I also found it’s streets and architecture more photogenic than Wengen, Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen. There is a sector in the middle of town that is filled with older wooden structures typical of life in this valley before tourism. Like much of the Alps, these communities used to be quite poor as they were extremely isolated and depended upon the land and its unreliable climate for subsistence. The old sector of Mürren is a compelling reminder that tourism can completely alter a community’s economy forever.
Photographing the Swiss Life…
Quaint could be the most overused word in travel and tourism. I’d say its second behind charming.
They are so overused by writers that they have come to mean nothing, because any place that is desirable in some sense has been labeled so at some point.
But these two words do exist, and truthfully, travelers are irresistibly drawn to places that are simple, old-fashioned and pleasing to the eye. The rural Swiss aesthetic — particularly in the Berner Oberland — seems obsessed with capitalizing on it.
I’d be lying if I said “I didn’t fall for it.” I’m a sucker for the idyllic life probably because I’m not cut out for it. The back-breaking work… The changing weather… The smell of cows… The low wages …
But to see a wall of perfectly stacked firewood under the eaves of a rustic farmhouse? That’s camera fodder!
These images were taken at Alpiglen, a destination along the Grindelwald–Wengen railway that is situated below the Eiger’s North Face. The train station is literally surrounded by cows, and the trail to the Eiger passes through a working farm. In fact, any area with “alp” in the name indicates an area where farmers take their cows for the summer to feed on pastures and fatten up for the winter. Wengernalp, Grütschalp, Bussalp — this is where you’ll find your traditional Swiss cows and burly men of daunting constitution yodeling “Ricola” into the wind.
They move slow, they have massive bells hanging from their neck, and they have a rather vacant look in their eye. The cows that is.