Holy Cow, it's Switzerland!
Normally my photography travelling is done solo, but a couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days in the Appenzell Canton of Switzerland as a guest of Robert Juvet and his family.
Robert and I have competed against each other in some photography competitions on GuruShots and we have become friends through some photography related facebook groups - meeting in person for the first time earlier this year in Budapest. When he invited me to come and shoot with him in his home country of Switzerland for a few days I was very happy to accept.
The Finnair link from Helsinki to Zurich is another perfectly planned route, you can leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, allowing you to make the best of both travel days as well as enjoing the days inbetween, and I met up with Rob and his family by lunchtime.
Our first location was the Thur waterfall, a 10 minute walk from the village of Unterwasser.
The waterfall is at the end of a winding path which follows the downstream progress of the water, ending up in a cave like area in front of the waterfall itself. You can also follow a path up above the waterfall and view the spectacle from different angles. This was an excellent place, kind of hidden away near to a small village in the middle of nowhere, perfect.
One feature of this trip was the prominence of interesting bird life. On the relatively short drive from Zurich I had seen red kites circling over the motorway on at least a dozen occasions and here at the waterfall I watched a pair of common buzzards wheeling around overhead.
From Thur we continued the waterfall tour, following a steep, overgrown and vaguely unsafe path from a roadside car park down to Ober Glessenfall.
Our third waterfall of the day was Glessenfall II, but that scene did not really get my attention and I found myself a lot more interested in identifying the small birds that were flitting around the area, one of which was a grey wagtail - a species I had not photographed before. It is always nice to photograph a new species, even if - like this time - it is too far away and in too dark a place to get a good shot.
It always seems a bit unfair that the Grey Wagtail, a striking bird which is about 40% yellow, is called the Grey Wagtail... but it is a victim of the existence of the even brighter Yellow Wagtail and the stunningly yellow Citrine Wagtail.
The following morning it was time to head for the mountains. We took the cable car up to Ebenalp. I have been on a number of cable cars... and I guess I will be on a number more in future... but it never feels like a particularly safe way to travel.
We survived the cable car journey and were rewarded with fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, including the summit of Säntis (the highest point in the Alpstein massif) and the beautiful alpine lake of Seealpsee.
The area at the top of the Ebenalp cable car ride is a starting point for a number of different hiking trails and the route was a very popular one, people were crammed into the cable car in scenes reminiscent of the Tokyo subway.
Hiking, and photography were not the only activities taking place on Ebenalp, the area near the cable car station is a very popular launching point for paragliding. The considerable updrafts made for superb conditions for that activity and it seemed that the skilful paragliders were able to gain a couple of hundred metres of additional altidute and spend many hours swooping around.
The paragliding was hugely impressive to watch, but the fascination was not universal... the cows that were summering on the high pastures seemed completely uninterested.
After purchasing ice cream to combat the considerable heat we followed a hiking trail which led down and round the mountain side with the first notable stop being at Wildkirchli, a series of three interconnected caves with a small chapel inside the lowest cave.
The trail continued to wind its way around the mountain face to the remarkable Gasthaus Aesher, a tavern situated under a huge overhanging cliff. There were too many people there for me to take a decent picture but the place was certainly an interesting one.
Although we had already descended a few hundred metres from the cable car station, the views were still fantastic to many directions. While my kind host continued to capture landscapes, I was distracted by the presence, once again, of a black redstart, the bird species that has been following me around Europe, presumably to make up for always eluding me in Finland.
After hiking back up to the cable car station, and descending once more to the car park, we found an impossibly cute (and very tiny) kitten nervously exploring it's surroundings.
After sensibly restricting ourselves to less than 1500 kitten pictures each, we were able to break away and head for the next location, the Leuenfall waterfall. As we made our way towards the trail which led down to the waterfall, I got interested in how the light was filtering through the trees in the area of a small steam, and I ended up preferring that picture to any that I took at the waterfall itself.
The following day we visited the same area once again, but instead of heading up the mountain by cable car, we set off on foot on the steep climb to the beautiful Seealpsee lake. The trek to Seealpsee takes about one hour and, although the road has a good surface (it acts as a service road to the guesthouses and restaurants at Seealpsee), it is significantly uphill all the way. When the temperature is in the 30's and you are carrying 10-15kg of camera stuff (as well as any extra kilos that you might keep inside your body) then it is a hard slog. The effort however, is certainly worth it - Seealpsee is very beautiful.
After the strenuous climb, the walk around the lake is a very pleasant one. There are beautiful views to all directions and there is always the possiblity to use the lake for reflections. The alpine cows are ever present, happily chewing their way through their day surrounded by the beautiful scenery.
The lake itself features a number of different territories that are patrolled and defended vigorously by Eurasian Coots. These birds are a lot of fun to watch, especially if it is anywhere near the breeding season when they are likely to feel territorial.
When a "rival" (i.e. any unsuspecting bird of any species that just happens to be within 40m) happens to catch their attention then they launch their attack from a very long way away, running quickly and comically across the surface of the water to chase them away or start a vicious fight. When the rival is also a coot then there is the prospect of them both running after each other which looks even funnier.
Anyway... on this occasion the coots were comparatively calm.
Before long we were making our way back down the steep service road and heading to our next destination, the cable car journey to the summit of Hoher Kasten.
This cable car journey was much like any other - looking forward to the view at the destination while slightly concerned about the possibility of falling to your death during the journey. This one had one unexpected difference, it stopped for a while, without explanation, a bit more than half way up... while you dangled about 100m above the ground. I guess it was intended to help you admire the amazing panoramic view... but without knowing that it was going to happen the first thought was that something had gone wrong.
When you arrive at the top of the mountain you are rewarded with views over 4 countries (Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and back into Switzerland).
At the right time of the right day this place would be an unbelievable photography destination, but on this day the light was very strong and direct and there was a considerable haze over the mountains, so no amount of post-processing could really rescue the pictures.
Another welcome feature at the summit is the large refreshment area with great viewing windows, perfect to get yourself together after the cable car journey.
The mountain section of this trip was now over and for the remaining days we would concentrate on other things, so I suppose this is a good place to call an end to this post... we certainly packed a lot into these couple of days.
As a final offering I will leave you with this picture of the moon at its First Quarter phase, halfway between a new moon and a full moon.
My report will continue with a new installment in a few days time. Huge thanks to Robert Juvet and his family for their amazing hospitality on this trip!
Back to the beginning...
My latest trip, to the Berchtesgaden area of Germany, was a return to the beginning in a number of ways. This magical area, with spectacular alpine scenery and the vertical elements that I always look for in my landscape photography, was the venue for my first ever photography trip back in April 2016. I was so taken with the place that it was also the venue for my second ever photography trip back in May 2016. Germany itself has long been a favourite country of mine. I lived there for about three years when I was very young, leaving when I was three and a half, which may have something to do with it, but I also spent a lot of time there while working with great colleagues from our Ulm site in the Nokia days. For whatever reason, the country as a whole is a comfortable destination for me, and the southern part of Germany is somewhere that I just love to be.
The town of Berchtesgaden, at an elevation of about 700m, rests in a valley surrounded by spectacular hills and mountains. The area has rich salt deposits which made it an important town, changing hands between various countries in the conflicts of the 19th century. For my purposes it is a perfect base for a photography trip as it is in the middle of an area which is filled with amazing sights. Within 15 minutes you can be on the shore of the beautiful lakes at Königsee or Hintersee, at the foot of the cable car to Jenner (1876m), looking at the beautiful Maria Gern Chapel, exploring the gorges at Wimbachklamm or Almbachklamm, or driving up Rossfeldpanoramastrasse for amazing views of the surrounding scenery.
Visiting the area in November is something of a gamble when it comes to the weather. I had been watching the forecasts closely and it seemed that the weather would be a mixture of cloudy and clear days with temperatures fluctuating either side of zero. This sounded pretty good to me, there may be a chance to capture the area covered in the first snow of the winter and there could be a balance between periods of capturing new shots and other periods of going through the results. It was definitely the off-season for the locals, the hiking and summer tourism season was well and truly over, but the skiing activities were not yet up to speed, and that also showed in some of the attractions - the Jenner cable car was out of action for maintenance and the gorges were just open routes rather than being staffed as they are in summer.
My biggest hope for the trip was to get an updated and improved shot of the Maria Gern chapel. This has been one of my favourite places to photograph since the moment I first visited it in April 2016. The beautiful chapel, perched on a hillside, with the road curling round it in an s-bend, and the crowning glory of the iconic Watzmann mountain in the background. My best picture from there in 2016 was taken at night, capturing the headlight trails with a long exposure.
I hoped that during the trip I might be able to enhance this shot with snow, stars, more headlight trails, sunset/sunrise colours or many of those. Getting such an opportunity would require some persistence and also some cooperation from the weather.
On the afternoon of my arrival I headed for Hintersee, a fairly small lake surrounded by mountains, with a level path winding its way around the shore, a fantastic place to go for a walk in any season. On this occasion, in a pattern that was to persist through the whole trip, the clouds were almost constantly too low for the mountains to be visible. I had to make do with occasional glimpses of mountain through the clouds.
My accommodation for the trip was the fantastic Hotel Edelweiss in Berchtesgaden. I have stayed there three times now and it is just about perfect. The family run hotel is in a prime location in the middle of Berchtesgaden and has direct access from the very convenient and not very expensive underground parking. The rooms are generous, clean and well taken care of. The breakfast is sensational. The service is always polite and helpful, and there is a great pool and spa area. Considering all these things, the price is very reasonable. I would highly recommend it to anyone, but please don't all go there in case the prices go up and it makes it harder for me to get a room next time.
While Maria Gern might be my favourite place to photograph in Berchtesgaden, my favourite place to be might be Rossfeldpanoramastrasse - a toll road which lets you ascend from the valley floor (700m elevation) all the way up to the top of Rossfeld (just under 1600m elevation) via a series of hairpin bends. This is a real pleasure to drive, and it offers spectacular views, to all directions, both of Germany and across the border into Austria. On a clear day you can easily see Dachstein in the distance, some 70km away. On this trip however, the visibility was often closer to 70m than 70km.
Over the next days, the weather failed to live up to the forecast, the clear spells did not arrive and the temperature did not go low enough to allow snow at the level of the valley floor (there was however an abundance of rain). I tried to find some breaks in the weather, moving between places and also changing elevation in case there was a way to get under or over the clouds, but it seemed like there was no relief. I realised that all the things I had in my mind to photograph on the trip were impossible without visibility of the mountains. This was pretty frustrating... but all I could do was keep trying and hope for a break in the weather.
On the third evening, there was finally a short window of opportunity, as the clouds lifted higher than the mountains for about 25 minutes in the period after sunset. Luckily I was ready for this at Maria Gern, and tried to capture a longer exposure image with the headlights of multiple vehicles coming and going.
This was at least something... but the dark and moody weather makes it very hard to get attractive colours to an image like this.
The following day there was another short weather break, this time while I was near the summit of Rossfeld. The clouds were split, below 1400m there was no visibility and there was also cloud cover above the mountains, but in-between there was a window of partial clarity and the impressive Göll massif (the highest peak being Hoher Göll at 2522m) was visible from Rossfeld for the first time during the trip.
At Hintersee there was an improvement in visibility also as the surrounding peaks came into at least partial view, but still the featureless grey skies were ever present. Those characterless expanses of grey do rather limit your options for making beautiful images.
That evening another small weather window opened after sunset, and it was possible to see through the cloud blanket at Maria Gern for the first time in the trip, for about 25 minutes before the clouds gathered again.
That night, finally, the first snow of the winter arrived to the lower elevations in the Berchtesgaden area. As usual on these trips, I was up and out at about 0530 - around 90 minutes before the sunrise. I headed for Maria Gern, for maybe the 10th time in the trip, hoping to find it blanketed in perfect fresh snow and also dreaming that the Watzmann mountain would be visible. As many in Finland can recognise, the day of the first snow is the trigger for everyone to forget how to drive, this manifests in many ways but the main ones are to drive far too cautiously and to drive nowhere near cautiously enough... both things being relative, each of us has the luxury to place ourselves somewhere in-between at the "just right" point and observe how everyone else gets it wrong.
Early that evening, back at Maria Gern for the umpteenth time, the skies were at least more interesting, with many shades of grey instead of one, but the mountains were still not visible.
At this stage, the trip was starting to feel like a disappointment from photography point of view, the mountains had been visible for a total of about 90 minutes during the past 120 hours, and I had not really been able to make much progress. There was one night left, and then possibilities to shoot until lunch time before heading back to the airport. Last chance.
The final morning was a a beautiful one, but the world was still shrouded in cloud - the cloud was however white rather than grey and looked like it might burn off as the morning progressed. I headed to Maria Gern once again, hoping that the sky would clear to reveal the mountains as the sunrise approached. Once again this was a frustrating morning... 2 hours on top of a hill in temperatures below zero... above me I could see clear blue sky, behind me I could see the first rays of the sun hitting the Untersberg mountain but ahead of me a bank of cloud obscured the view behind the Maria Gern chapel. Disappointed, I headed back for breakfast.
The Edelweiss breakfast lifted my spirits somewhat as I sat with my back to the window and thought about what time I would need to leave to get back to Munich airport. After eating an enormous breakfast I turned to check the weather - it was stunning. The clouds has burned away and it was a beautiful day. I hurried to pack my things and checked out in a terrible rush before making my final visit to Maria Gern where a fairytale scene awaited me.
After drinking in the beautiful view for a while, and taking many photographs, I realised that my wallet was not in it's usual place. I guessed it would be in the car and carried on. Returning to the car, it became apparent that my wallet was gone... along with my credit card, drivers license, etc. This was not good. I retraced my steps... fortunately it was not a long trail. I had the wallet when checking out of the hotel, then I went to the lift (10m walk) and descended to the car park before driving to Maria Gern. I double checked my route at Maria Gern and also triple checked the car before calling the hotel and driving back to the car park... where I found my wallet and all its contents. It had been lost for about 80 minutes. No harm done, but I do not recommend anyone else to try this experience.
After this unplanned detour I had about 2 hours before I had to leave for the airport. I returned to the summit of Rossfeld where the fresh snow and beautiful blue sky combined to make it a place of amazing beauty. There is no better place to be than in the mountains when the weather is like that.
It was a fantastic way to conclude my trip, in such beautiful conditions at one of my favourite places.
As with my other November trip, to Iceland, it had been a pretty challenging trip, with a lot of time and effort needed to squeeze out comparatively few good photographic opportunities, but once again I loved being in Berchtesgaden despite the difficulties. It is usually the case when dealing with landscape photography, that you are at the mercy of the weather conditions to some extent... occasionally you hit the jackpot, but often you are limited in your options. All you can do is be in position and ready to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that you didn't consider in advance.
Now I need to try staying in Finland for a little while, at least long enough to sort out the insurance claim from my Iceland trip equipment accident, and then consider what my best options are for this time of year, I need to find destinations that are less weather dependant and subjects that are possible to work with regardless of poor visibility, the 2017 mountain photography season seems to be done.
Until next time!
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