Where once there was a glacier

Zermatt sits at the SE end of a side valley off the major Rhone valley. A road and a railway provide access to it via a twenty-mile, narrow, dramatic gorge; but if you want to travel further you use your legs, or cable cars, or a rack and pinion (cog) mountain railway, or a variety of other up-lifts that operate in winter for winter sports enthusiasts.

Zermatt is surrounded by 4,000 metre peaks and it’s also a hub from which high valleys radiate like the spokes of a wheel. Some are broad and long, some are steep ravines – gaps between  mountains. Some lead to high passes (cols) that have been used for centuries as crossing points into adjoining valleys. And the majority of these valleys were once filled with glaciers – we know that through the clues that glaciers have left behind. Three cluesin particular. There are Erratics – the name given to large boulders found miles beyond the end of a glacier today but transported by one to that place millenia ago. Valley side walls and floors that have been smoothed by the passage of ice that carried small boulders and grit that acted as nature’s sandpaper on a giant scale; and debris that has been swept aside by a glacier’s progress forming lateral and terminal moraines. All provide evidence of the extent of glaciers long ago – in length and depth. Finally glaciers very often create flat-bottomed valleys.

And so, eventually, to the headline image of today’s post. A classic view of the majestic Matterhorn from the slopes of the Findeln valley, about a half-mile short of the Fluhalp mountain hut (Click here to see the hut in winter) – one of my favourite destinations. The view from Findeln is panoramic. The edge of Zermatt can be seen deep in valley lower right on the intersection of thirds. To the left of the Matterhorn the horizon marks the border with Italy, and in winter this area – known as the Matterhorn Glacier paradise – is one of the major ski areas. But the area I want to talk about today is the ‘U’ shaped, flat-bottomed valley to the right of the Matterhorn. This is the Schönbiel valley that runs past the north face of the Matterhorn. The snow slopes on the distant horizon mark the Col d’Herens, a crossing point into the Arolla valley, 10 miles distant from where this picture was taken. Click on the image to see it full size. The image below is a telephoto view of the same valley taken later on the same day when the light had softened considerably. Extracting a quality image from the RAW file was very difficult – I’m still not happy with the result despite a lot of work on it – but it tells a story.

It provides a bird’s eye view of the Schönbiel valley floor that was once filled with the Zmutt glacier. The grey slope on the right edge of the floor is the old glacier’s lateral moraine. A number of glaciers have fed into the Zmutt glacier from the left, and the right, and the slopes that fill the distant horizon. Click on the image and you will spot an oblong highlight on the small green slope just right of dead centre. That is the Schönbiel Hut – eight and a half miles away. To walk to that hut from Zermatt takes about five hours but it is an immensely rewarding walk. The last time I did that walk was six years ago and the next two images are views taken on that last walk from the path along the lateral moraine looking towards Findeln (the reverse view) and down onto the valley’s floor.

From Schonbiel lateral moraine to Findeln. Centre horizon: Rimpfischhorn, Strahlhorn, Adlerhorn (from Lt)

This valley floor, now resembling a river’s delta of multiple melt-water streams, was once covered by the Zmutt glacier. I remember standing here six years ago and thinking: I must explore that area sometime. Finally, last month I did exactly that.

It was a two and a half hour walk from Zermatt through the forested slopes on a 4×4 track to get to Stafelalp – a little collection of old hay lofts and a well-known restaurant. (You can see the line of the route sloping diagonally up and right in the topmost image). It was trying to rain most of the way up, barely a drizzle, and clouds and mist swirled around. Not ideal but as the day wore on I was actually quite pleased that it wasn’t full sun and blue skies – the subdued light seemed to suit the pictures that I was capturing.When I reached the edge of the valley floor there was a grandstand view of the lateral moraine and in the distance, on a small little hillock with mist behind it, the Schönbiel Hut was clearly visible. Looking back through the mist I had a telephoto view across to Findeln with the Fluhalp Hut easily spotted – see image below.I spent a couple of hours exploring the flat-bottomed valley floor that lay ahead of me. The water is harvested to generate electricity, one of a number of Hydro schemes around Zermatt. Sustainability is now a high priority and Zermatt is now self-sufficient in both power and water.

It is only when you start to walk this area that you realise how extensive it is. I covered only a fraction of it. A series of small dams control the water flows.

To one side, the rock wall at the foot of the N face of the Matterhorn has been smoothed by the original glacier’s progress.

A collection of inter-linked small lakes covers a wide area. Water levels were quite low when I visited and the lakes were carpeted by sedimentary deposits creating elegant lines.

In other areas water meandered its way through young forest.

And wild flowers added colour. This I believe is Alpine Willowherb (Epilobium Fleischeri).

There was so much to photograph and a lot yet to be explored. What struck me most was the fact that nature is an Artist. I saw it in the elegant lines created by water flows; the placement of rocks and boulders; and the shaping of the broader landscape. I must return her again. I am already thinking ahead to next summer, but before then there is a skiing season and this winter I will be back here again, skiing down from the lower slopes of the Matterhorn to Stafelalp and from there down the track to Zermatt. This flat-bottomed valley will be carpeted with snow.

Enjoy the gallery below. Click on the first image and navigate through.






About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'.
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6 Responses to Where once there was a glacier

  1. paula graham says:

    What can I say: stunners , every one of them.


  2. bluebrightly says:

    Such a grand place the Zermatt area is on our earth. You made it very clear about the glacier evidence – it’s easy to see from your photos. I love the braided rivers and their aqua blue color – also the photo with the young forest. It must have been a memorable day up there!


    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks very much Lynn. Yes, it was a special day. I hope to get back there next summer and explore further. It’s proof that time spent at lower altitudes quietly investigating an area can be just as rewarding as recording the climb to a high summit and seeing the world laid at one’s feet.


  3. E. Brooks says:

    What a beautiful set of photos which clearly tell their story. That’s the kind of place where my mouth just naturally tends to fall open. 🙂
    Well captured, Andy!


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