(Blog & Video) In between Crevasses
Painting Aletsch Glacier, A Unesco World Heritage Site
I’m going painting on the Aletsch glacier. It’s part of a Unesco World Heritage Site and is the longest glacier in the alps, stretching over 23km. It sits between the northern slopes of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.
Currently shrinking about 50m in length each year, and at the fastest point, up to 200m per year. Being here and painting here feels somewhat like looking at a ‘nature mort’. A vase of flowers, that in a short period will no longer exist or at the very least, not look the same. It might have move, crack, or crumble any time soon. You hope not to be stood there when it does, it would be extremely dangerous. But ther is this looming sense that at any moment something might fall off. The glacier carries an incredible 11 billion tons of ice. It’s as delicate as it is powerful, and makes quite an impression.
Below is a map showing what Switzerland would have looked like during the last ice age about 18,000yrs ago. Of the peaks that surround us today, only the tops rose above the ice and just 11,000 years ago the glacier extended down to the Rhone valley.
Climate awareness aside, I have recently I’ve become more and more inspired by different forms of water in nature. Lakes, rivers, glaciers, snow clouds, etc, etc. I’ve decided to base my next exhibition around this theme. Painting will be done on location or ‘en plein air’, but the paintings themselves will be an exploration less of specific locations and places, but studies of nature. Focussing on the shapes, forms, reflections, and inspirations that are all around us, and the feelings these evoke in the viewer.
With that in mind, Robert and I have been talking about a few trips high in the alps for a few months now. I explained my various ideas and we came up with a few options/ locations to try and find what I am looking for. Robert is not only a good friend but he also happens to be a mountain guide. He has more knowledge of these regions than me and he keeps us safe.
Exploring these kinds of locations in the Alps is very time-sensitive. If we take skis, Ideally the snowpack should be thick enough to smooth over most crevasses if we want to ski down from painting locations. The avalanche risk needs to be low enough for us to stand about whilst I paint. Then, of course, the weather needs to be agreeable and the wind not too strong. So even once we have planned the trip we need to wait for a window where nature will let us work.
Packing and traveling to the destination
I drive about 2hrs from Fribourg to Engelberg to meet Robert, the family and eat some dinner. We spend the evening mostly packing bags and cramming as many snacks into them as possible.
1st day painting Aletsch Glacier
An early, 5;30am wake-up call and we drive to Interlaken East. From here the journey to the Konkordia glacier (at 3000 something meters) is a train to Grindelwald, then a Gondola with stunning views of the Eiger. Finally, another train to Jungfrau Joch. From the very top we ski tour around, just below Mönch hütte (photo below), and ski downward toward the Grunhorn glacier on our left.
It is all a test
I have never done this kind of trip on a glacier before, and not sure if the painting spots would even be accessible. We didn’t even know how heavy my skiing bag would be, or what we would find. We had to sleep in two different huts during the 4 days. So even if I wanted to, it was impossible to work consecutively on one big painting. With that in mind, I decided for the first 2 days to paint small works to see how things went. These could be potentially enlarged at the studio afterward if they worked.
Painting aside we also (at this point) do not yet know my climbing abilities with the bag on. Steep skiing and crusty snow could also prove extremely difficult with the heavy bag. Below is a selection of photos showing Robert and I looking for painting spots amongst the crevasses and ice blocks.
After 1 painting session, we ski down to the plateau below and make our way across the flat and up the ladder to Konkordia hut which will be where we sleep for the first night(image below).
We can see that the glacier has shrunk some 200metres in height since the Hut was first built in the 1800s. Getting from the plateau to the hut it’s an impressive, and vertigo-inducing walk up the stairs which are bolted into the cliffs.
Day 3: Looking for ice again and chasing the sun
Back down the ladder onto Konkordia Platz to check out some potential painting spots. We had seen them whilst skiing down yesterday. It looked as though there is a great view looking through the ice formations toward Aletschhorn. But from a distance (yesterday) there was no way to say how accessible these spots are. So we spend the morning roped together wandering about amongst the crevasses and I eventually settle on 2 spots. I start one small painting from each location.
Brief climbing history of my inspiration:
The Aletschhorn (the middle peak in the image below) was not climbed until almost 50 years after the first ascent of the Jungfrau. Jungfrau is the peak closest to the top of the train we took up to the glacier. So as you can imagine it was a different feat 50 yrs ago to climb these peaks. Climbers would have had to make base camp at Aletschfirn before attempting to go further up towards peaks such as the Aletschhorn.
The Aletschhorn was climbed first in 1859 by Francis Fox Tuckett, J. J. Bennen, V. Tairraz and P. Bohren. The party passed the night in some holes in the rocks above the Mittel Aletsch Glacier (on the east side of the mountain), and on the following morning, on 18 June, started the ascent and reached the snow arête connecting the Dreieckhorn with the main peak. The passage along this arête at a so early period of the year, before the snow has become well consolidated, involved some risk and a slope of snow lying at an angle of 50°, required care and good step-cutting. But the summit could be reached without too much difficulty. Like many other climbers, Tuckett took with him a barometer and made scientific observations. He noted the icy temperature and the very strong wind, blowing the snow and threatening to knock over the climbers.
After they reached the summit, Tuckett separated from Bennen and descended via the north face with Bohren and Tairraz. He wanted to descend directly to the Lötschental, but soon after they began the descent, an avalanche started right under the feet of the climbers. They cautiously went back and descended on the Mittelaletsch.
A Question of scale:
I’m constantly thinking about scale whilst I’m here, and how I can get a sense of this into the paintings. The grandeur of the place has imprinted itself on me and I need to find a way to share that feeling on canvas.
After the morning’s painting session we stop just above the plateau with a nice view for our lunch before hiking across the long flat toward Holundiahutte for our next overnight stay. I’ll spare you the photos but my Blisters developing fast and I can feel raw skin rubbing on every step. Note to self; Must have my ski boots adapted before the next trip! From where we are it looks like a stroll across the plateau.
What the unassuming winter snowpack nicely hides for us, is a 900m thick base consisting of ice and crevasses. Above snow, the scale is also hard to appreciate, until you start walking that is. Occasionally you see some specs in the distance resembling other skiers, then you realize how far away they are. It takes about 3 hours just to get across this flat part of the glacier. (See photo above) From the nearest edge of the shadow to the col on the far right of the picture.
I haven’t set out on this adventure or this next exhibition idea to talk about climate change in particular, but I can’t help but think about it as I’m walking across this immense natural wonder. It is a subject that currently interests me so maybe this will develop as my ideas move forward. The ETH Zurich’s Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology, and Glaciology have made this animation below showing the transformation of Swiss glaciers over the last 30,000 years which I found particularly interesting.
A new location:
The next two days we stayed by Aletsch Glacier in the same hut ‘Hollandia Hut‘. It’s impressive, as are, it seems most of the huts on this glacier. The view is never-ending, and we have impressive slopes of glaciers and rock right outside the window of the communal dining room.
Being here for two nights in a row means painting is a lot less stressful and we can leave some of our belongings at the hut to have a lighter backpack for the day. This makes ski touring and skiing a lot easier. Hollandia hütte is run by a lovely team and each evening they welcome everyone warmly before each evening meal with their tradition of providing everyone with a small glass of wine and weather information for the following day.
Click play below to see my amateur, but also quite an accurate animation of our 4 days on the glacier. Red train to start, then ski touring (upward or flat) is green, red easels which do not move are the painting spots, pink men are skiing downward and the orange bed logos are for the 2 mountain huts we used.
Day 4 & 5; Feeling vulnerable below the ice towers
We painted Friday & Saturday on Anungletscher below Mittaghorn. The glacier is in full flow here. you can see as the pressure builds up it rolls over itself and creates a large bump in the mountain before cracking and folding over. It is this particular section that caught my eye, it was imposingly beautiful. You can see the textures in the ice and sharp points where it has split apart into layers. Given that I was inspired by the sketchiest part of the mountain it does mean navigating the very large crevasses below it to arrive at a place (hopefully on some solid snow) to set up the easel. In the end, we found a place which was ‘safe enough’ Although looking from the side you would say that those ice towers looked ready to fall on us at any minute.
Saturday afternoon we skied down. What a ski this was! As you turn and see the valley shrinking slowly behind you on the way down the reality of a town center begins to set. With this comes thoughts of your propper bed and tasty food plans for the evening. Being tired and elated, there’s no debate, we head straight for the nearest burger bar.
I’ll leave you with this video, I won’t call it a film because it’s just myself and Robert waving a camera about trying to capture something. Along with the good times we had, it also gives an idea of the effort that’s gone into what is just the start of the upcoming collection. This trip is just one of many that I hope will eventually make up my next exhibition. Select paintings may be released for sale before the exhibition however you will need to sign up for the newsletter (‘Easel Editorial’) for a chance to reserve them. Please understand that prices from this collection may differ from those of other projects. These kinds of project/mountaineering trips require more effort and capital as well as producing works that are more exclusive so that will be reflected in the prices. If you enjoyed this and would like to see the finished paintings as they are unveiled in the near future you can sign up for the monthly newsletter. Thanks for reading, Dan