Yeahhhh Baby – Swiss Strobist – CERN Workshop

strobist_cern-3Over the weekend I headed down to CERN in Geneva to check out the Strobist seminar on February 21st, 2009. I went down on Friday to shoot Geneva graffiti and ended up doing coverage of a Tamil Tiger demonstration at the United Nations, but those stories wait for another day. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like spending money on photography education, mainly because there’s nothing really complex or technical about taking pictures which seems to justify the cost of advertised offerings like the Luminous Landscape workshops. A camera is a lightbox, you add light with flashes or manipulate natural lighting, what’s there to learn? You take the vision in your head and make it a reality. But I do occasionally drop money here and there, a Joey L Photoshop DVD, a book on Skin, a book by Michael Grecco, and I figured it was time to join a lighting workshop.

The Strobist workshop was all day on Saturday. We started around 9am, and finished at 5pm with a few breaks in between. In the morning we listened to David explain lighting design and methodology, and in the afternoon we watched David setup and execute four different lighting setups.

strobist_cernThe morning focused on lighting basics, the thought process for designing lighting in different environments. Lighting concept takes a few minutes to describe in every possible detail, but the morning was filled up on designing lighting for different environments, shooting outside in the shade, lighting an interior room by starting with the ambient light and then adding flash where needed. By the end of the morning I had a good handle on the method, which I hadn’t really used before. I finished the morning with one key process in my head:

When shooting a portrait outdoors, find a shaded location, under expose the ambient environment light, add light to paint the final picture using the strobes. Use the same basics for interior portraits.

That’s it, like I said, photography isn’t exactly complex, so there’s no reason to take away confusing tidbits on lighting ratios. If you write up a business plan and ask for $500,000 from an Investment Angel for your startup, they will want to hear your idea described in 2-3 sentences (Swiss StartUp Camp 2009). That’s it, keep it simple. I see no reason why lighting design should be any different.

strobist_cern-9Aside from having the basic process of lighting design, the afternoon exposed us to how to “execute.” Using the seminar room, we talked about four different locations to use for portraits. Then David set about the room with umbrellas and his Orbis ringflash, photographing participants. From a certain perspective, David Hobby is like the kid who got all the toys he wanted for Christmas, and spends every day rediscovering their amazingness. This was the impression I had watching him setup the different portraits. It seemed like each light setup was like finding a rocket in the backyard and getting to set it off. This is the corner stone, getting a sense for the energy and problem solving method of the man at work – the message which I took away from the afternoon. This aspect which is more difficult to communicate on a website like Strobist, and a good reason to attend a workshop. The technical aspects are of course – trivial. Flashes are not complex, neither is lighting design, it’s how one executes the shoot which matters.

When photographing, be a kid at play and you’ll have fun and take away cool photos. That’s it, nothing too complex.

strobist_cern-4Yeahhhh, Baby. That’s what we heard every five minutes, David’s way of pulling an emotional response from his subjects. It made me think of Platon asking Bill Clinton to “Show me the Love.” By channeling Austin Powers, David pulled a smile from everyone in the room, every time he said the same line again, and again and again, it got a positive reaction. Apparently he has other lines, but since “Yeahhhhh Baby” worked every time, there wasn’t any need to bring out the reserves.

Basically much of the technical information I took away from the Strobist seminar is covered on Lighting 101 and 102 on the Strobist website. Of course, pretty much all knowledge is available on the internet, you can teach yourself JAVA programming, electrical engineering, and quantum physics if you’re disciplined. The question I always ask in my head, “was this really worth it?” Yes, in the end I left CERN happy that I’d dropped 150 CHF on a Strobist lighting seminar, plus travel between Zurich and Geneva and a sound-proof hotel room on Friday night, just as I’m still happy I dropped some 200 odd dollars on the Joey L Photoshop DVD.

And that’s the key to having a successful StartUp, give people something which they feel they need, and which they find value in, and you’ll be successful.

If you’re in Switzerland an interested in Strobist stuff, check out Swiss-Strobist. There’s a post about the CERN workshop and info on the 1st Swiss-Strobist meetup for 2009.

Swiss StartUp Camp Basel 2009

ssc09Organized on Amazee, the Swiss StartUp Camp 2009 in Basel was an awesome experience to be a part of. I arrived early on time the morning of January 31st in Basel, and as I walked into the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, I knew that I was out of my element, of this much I was sure. What was a photography-focused blogger doing at a camp for StartUps? More to the point, why did I give a presentation at a venue where the focus is totally out of my experience level? Because putting two opposite things together sometimes leads to unique solutions. There were people walking around who have startups, who finance companies with 10X more money that I make in a year. There were individuals, those who have concrete ideas and were looking for financing and maybe changing the world. I’m a mechanical engineer who publishes a blog about photography. So when those of us with things to say stood up and offered the titles of our talks, I was surrounded by people listing talks about getting funding, working with venture capitalists, protecting intellectual property and managing startups, I felt a shudder of fear and apprehension shutter through my spine. But I’d agreed to take the ride, and offered up a talk about creating new ideas and managing them.

The term StartUp is a dangerous thing to throw around in Switzerland or Silicon Valley (I would imagine). It’s like living in L.A. and saying you’re writing a script. Sure it sounds cool and will make people listen, but everybody in L.A. is writing a script, wants to be a director, has a stand-up gig on the side and is dreaming of bigger things than working at StarBucks. Trying to be something you’re not doesn’t work in life for more than 10 minutes. I have no StartUp, but you never know about the future, and in the present tense, I do know how to create and organize ideas, so that’s what I talked about.

The StartUp Camp was organized as a barcamp, which in theory means that everything is done on the fly. But the cool thing about the StartUp camp is that each time slot had one or two prepared talks. It was actually the perfect mix forethought and inspiration, offering room for the unknown and at the same time you knew there would be some good talks no matter who showed up.

The keynote speaker was Suhas Gopinath, at one time the 14 year old CEO from India. He had a cool story about pretending to be a prospective customer to various companies, and then refusing to do business with them because they didn’t have a website. Then he emails again and asks if they need help building a website. Deceptive, but apparently effective. The rest of the continuing story is internet company startup successful history in the present tense. We like to hold up young and successful people, no matter if they’re 14 year old CEO’s or 15 year old pro photographers like Joey Lawrence. Truth is, doesn’t matter how old you are, it matters what you do with the time you have. ?Howard Hughes is still my entrepreneurial hero.

The great value in un-conferences (BarCamps) is that you interact with people from a very broad spectrum of society. In research conferences, you interact with people from a very narrow spectrum of society, and this is one reason why I love attending BarCamp conferences instead of technical ones, I get exposed to new ideas, totally outside my area of understanding. I started the day with no idea what VC means, but by the afternoon I was well-versed in the difference between Venture Capitlists and Angles, what is expected from an investor standpoint, and how to get a business moving from concept to incorporation stage.

Fully reporting on everything I learned at the Swiss StartUp Camp would impossible, as I’m still processing it all and decided long ago not to be a journalist. A few of the most memorable things that will stick in my head for years to come came from a talk given by Stephan Bisse. I’ve no doubt missed a few words, but here are some of the core concepts,

“Contrary to popular belief, successful companies start off struggling.”

“Nothing is as powerful as an idea who’s time has come.”

“Be able to explain your concept in 2-3 sentences.”

Both Stephan and Fredi Schmidli shared experiences about their early startups not working because they tried to enter industries controlled by cartels. And of course, the personal skills are far more important than the technical ones, this tone reverberated around each talk I went to. At some point I remembered reading a recounting by Noah Dietrich from the biography of Howard Hughes (“Howard Hughes The Untold Story”, by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske),

He made them think they were the most important scientists in the world working on the most important scientific projects in the world.

pokenOne of the many cool sponsors of the camp was Poken, a cool little device thats helps to aggregate all your social networks into one place. At first glance it reminded me of a Tamaguchi and the phrase “impending lawsuit by the makers of Pokemon?” was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the little device. Basically the Poken is used to exchange “Pokes” with people in real life, then you plug the device into a USB slot and head to the website, all the social network stuff is then right there for everyone you exchanges Pokes with. Pretty cool, fairly neat.

And what comes next? Only the future knows. I’m planning on recording audio to go with my talk on Idea Generation, for now we have the slides. ?In mean time I recommend reading Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michele Root-Berstein. And then? Well, the other option is bouncing a few tissue engineering ideas around my brain and see what results.

Since I was too nervous and freaked out before my presentation, I neglected to record it on my Zoom H4. However, I did take the time to record a version of it using Keynote and after exporting, posted it as a video to Vimeo. I work best with a crowd in front of me, gets the fear creeping up my spine, which doesn’t happen in my apartment. Still, the main points are all there. Enjoy.

Lazy Swiss Sunday – First Ski Tour

pizol_sls-5Some time in 2005 I walked into the Oerlikon outlet store of Baechli Bergsport and picked up a pair a yellow and grey Lowa Evo ski touring boots. They were on sale and I thought, “ski touring, always wanted to do that.” In the winter of 2008 I bought a pair of NAXO N02 touring bindings, a pair of Atomic skis, Black Diamond skins, a BCA avalanche beacon, Black Diamond probe…ready to realize my ski touring dream.

Dreams take time though, they need to develop over a certain period, especially something like touring. I hadn’t been on skis in like three years and I wasn’t in the avalanche dodging mood. My idea was to start out small and build up to some real mountain tours. So on a Lazy Swiss Sunday I decided to head to Pizol and tour around the avalanche (theoretically) free area of the Pizol ski area in Eastern Switzerland. Pizol is one of those all-inclusive winter sport places. You can ski, snowboard, winterwandern, paraglide, snowshoe, ski tour, whatever involves snow, they even do igloo adventure trips. I wanted an easy day so I took the gondola up the first station and then toured up the snowshoe trail to the top of the ski resort. I packed along an assortment of accessories including crampons, snow shovel, avalanche beacon and an ice axe. Not that I needed all of this to tour in a ski resort, but I figured I should load up my Osprey Exposure pack and train my legs. Plus, I felt fly in my mountaineering gear. I generally only use these things for ego-inspired photo shoots, so it was a joy to use my mountain stuff for a utilitarian purpose. Naturally I also packed along my Ricoh GR Digital, that fantastic high-quality compact digital camera that just fits in your pack, no matter what mountain you’re heading up.

pizol_sls-12At Pizol you have the option of heading on from the resort for another 600 vertical meters to the Pizol summit, but as I was alone, I decided to stay out of the backcountry. Avalanches sound like trains, and it’s ill-advised to stand in front of either one. I’ve had the pleasure of having an avalanche come down on me in Colorado, a pleasure as I ‘m still here to talk about it. It’s good to experience some things ONCE, and that once was once enough. At Pizol the weather was fantastic above 1500 meters. Down below in the valley was Das Nebelmeer, German for sea of clouds, that beautiful event where the clouds are pushed below the mountain peaks, and you look out from the sunshine. The light was perfect, beyond perfect, which is impossible, but it was.

pizol_sls-11Ski touring looks fly, but it’s surprising exhausting. I was vacationing in Detroit for Christmas and my Swiss mountain legs hadn’t been exercised in months. So when I skied down the slopes and tried to turn my legs revolted with deep screams of muscle fatigue. I’m a weak, flabby man, a poor example of a mountaineer, but there’s always next weekend. I made it back to the gondola without crashing and decided to head back for a relaxing Sunday night in Winterthur. “Why push it?” The best ski season in February and the best touring in March (so I hear) and I just want to be in touring shape for the days to come.? That’s the point of Lazy Swiss Sundays, to not kill yourself, but to enjoy life. Their are many firsts in this life. Many things to be remembered, and many things to look forward to. A lazy tour in a resort area doesn’t sound exciting when written down, but it was a start, a flickr of adventure for the soul. It was the start of the beginning.


BlogCampSwitzerland 3.0 Flickr-Blog Integration

I had the excellent opportunity to join in the third BarCamp in Zurich. BlogCamp Switzerland 3.0 was held on August 29th, 2008 at the Technopark in Zurich. ?This was my second attendance at BlogCamp Switzerland, I did a talk at the first one on March 24th, 2007 where I gave a talk called ?Photography and Writing for Blogs.

BlogCamp Switzerland 3.0 included a cool mix of people and ideas.  I listened to Cédric Hüsler (http://keepthebyte.ch/blog.html) talk about the impact of polling feed networks and how much traffic is wasted on checking if blogs have been updated.  In the afternoon I went to hear Patrick Liechti from Sun Microsystems talk about organizing a Startup BarCamp type conference to educate people on how to form and succeed with new startups.  This underscores the advantage of attending a BarCamp, lots of new ideas and exposure to new areas.  I’m looking forward to attending BarCamp Berlin 3, which will be the third for that awesome city.

This time I put together a talk centered on using Flickr as a way to integrate photography into a blogging workflow.  This sounds a bit technical and boring, but I tried to get all blogging philosophical and hit on the idea that photos can be used to instantly communicate feelings in invoke emotional responses in ways which aren’t possible by blogging just using text.

The fusion of text blogs with Flickr postings means you can market your blog content to a large number of people who are interested in visual stimulation.  If your images communicate an essential message, they can be used as ways to bring traffic to your site.  Furthermore, using the community aspects of Flickr enables very good interaction with blog readers.  David Hobby knows this, the author of Strobist has skillfully used Flickr to build a reader base that wouldn’t have been possible if he had only blogged using his Blogger account.  And after learning some things from David, I used Flickr to market my blog posts about photographer Joey Lawrence and his Photoshop DVD Tutorial with the Strobist Flickr group discussion board.  I also hit on how Flickr is currently one of the best solutions to the problem of finding photos on an internet when search engines are still all text based.

Anyways, since I’m exploring the transition from text blogging to integrated photo blogging I thought I’d add some video and audio to the mix.  This first one sort of sucks, but I’m looking to improve.  Below I’ve embedded a version of my talk entitled:

Marketing Blog Content with Flickr

Timing and Community


Interpreting the world around you and understanding the small graphic design and photography aspects of ad campaigns can be very useful for any aspiring photographer. Open your eyes when you walk down the street, and take in advertisements you’re exposed to. By thinking about their message and how well the advertisers present their visual message, you can begin gaining insight into how the visual medium can be used to communicate different messages and concepts. In particular, lookout for the overdone cliche messages and sex-sells overtones which seem to permeate ad campaigns the world over.

After four years in Switzerland, I’m still generally at a loss when it comes to interpreting advertisements and billboard messages. Understanding these things is essential to becoming at least somewhat integrated in any society. How advertisers communicate with the public gives great insight into the mind set of a people.

One of the more peculiar ad campaigns in Switzerland, and particularly around Zurich is the LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS campaign to bring exposure to the idea of having only protected sex, and thereby reduce the spread of the most notorious sexually transmitted disease in modern history, the HIV/AIDS virus.

A primary visual communication tools for LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS is billboards; on street corners, at train stations, wherever people might glance and have their attention diverted to the idea of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. As with any advertisement, it’s the way in which the viewer’s attention is diverted which makes the LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS campaign stand out.

Each billboard involves two people having sex – somewhere. Attached is the message: LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS and promotes safe sex in Switzerland. The real attention grabber is the location. For some unrelated reason, the sex acts take place in unique locations: under water, in caves, in the jungle and…on Mars, yes, the planet – not the candy bar.


Now, there are various ways of interpreting this ad, obviously the message has to do with sex, seemingly of a homosexual nature, and the dull witted observer might suppose the idea is to have unprotected sex on Mars to stop AIDS – unprotected in the sense that Mars has no atmosphere, and if you open your space suit to engage in intercourse, the pressure difference will no doubt force your eyeballs out of their sockets; thus leaving the love-struck stud gasping for air like Arnold in Total Recall after he’s ejected onto the arid martian surface.


Poorly translated, the written part of the ad basically says, “Always with, also on the business trip” and no doubt encourages people to take condoms with them wherever they are going. Because, obviously if you’re going to Mars it’s going to be for business, as commercial tourist flights are not currently flying to that planet – and if you happen to have sex on the surface of the planet, using a condom is far more important than ensuring your space suit is properly sealed against the Martian atmosphere.

On some level the LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS message is communicated well using the gay-sex-on-Mars analogy. Now, it’s obvious that sex on Mars won’t stop AIDS, and that opening your space suit on the Martian surface will mean certain death. So in some sense the space suit could be analogous to using condoms during sex, implying that simply that engaging in unprotected sex in a dangerous environment will dramatically increase the possibility of contracting the HIV virus. Most likely the aim is that the shock value of displaying a somewhat graphic depiction of homosexual intercourse on the street will shock people and lock a visual marker in their brain, connecting condoms and AIDS prevention.

A thorough description of the 2008 LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS campaign can be found on the official Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) website. It includes TV spots, printed ads, and a pretty cool flash-based webpage (check-your-lovelife.ch), which shows that some serious design thought and photography was put into the LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS message.

Lazy Swiss Sunday – Bos Fulen

10,000 years ago, in the hunter-gatherer sense of our history, moving and beating the body to it’s core was needed for survival, so it is no surprise that some humans are not yet evolved enough sit in an office every day.

Bös Fulen is neither incredibly difficult, nor is deceptively easy to summit.  It’s the mountain to climb when you need to get away and are looking for a nice green – field – glacier – alpine climb for the day.

The starting point is Braunwald, situated at just over 1256 m it’s accessible by train in about two hours from Zurich.

Along the way we walked through the green fields and yellow and purple alpine flowers and came upon a group of four edelweiss.  The reclusive Alpine flower is placed on pretty much everything from hotel names, climbing stores, airplanes, and most souvenirs from Appenzeller, but are so rare that most people have never seen them in real life.

The summit of Bös Fulen is reached at 2801 m, after first climbing the glacier as high as possible, followed by free climbing the rock face.  You might find an old rusted piton here and there along the climb, but the hand holds are enough for one to feel secure.

There’s a bit of a scree field before the summit, and the keen climber will wait for those teams climbing ahead to summit before following the same line.  The alternative is to duck falling rocks and pray that one doesn’t take your fool head off.

Although it looked like a rather exhausting climb from below, the actual ascent was probably only like half an hour.  The hand-holds are bomber and the foot edges are wide enough to dance on.

The view from the summit is rather spectacular.  All the eastern alps are around, the klettersteig up Eggstöcke, the Glärnish Massif, Clariden and Ortstock.

Once in a while I get the feeling that mountaineering is for those who have realized the presence of their mortality, but not yet seen the wisdom in standing far away from the divide to this life, for one who needs some measure of sustenance to keep their fool unevolved spirits in line.

For the descent we traversed along the east ridge and then down the slope.  If you go too far you might notice the 1000 m drop down the east face, we didn’t stray too far and then boot-skied down the glacier.

The glacier was covered with small pockets of dust and dirt deposits.  They blow over from the Sahara and form these small depressions in the snow layer.  The dust absorbs more energy from the sun and then helps melt the glacier.  It’s like pricking someone a million times with a thin needle and after enough time all of their blood is gone.

If I return in ten years to climb Bös Fulen again, the likelihood that it will be climbable in the same condition is as absurd as buying a freezer in Alaska during December.  Bös Fulen is a fantastic climb for those who wish to see first hand the slow death of the last great European glaciers.

On the way back to Braunwald we happened upon a mountain rescue.  Nothing serious, looked like someone sprained their ankle and needed to be flown out.  Still, watching the rescue helicopter do a nose-dive landing was cool as all hell.

Some could write that mountaineering is a latent fool’s Provence.  Who taught the Swiss to climb?  Who conquered Everest and who starts the wars in the world?  Is it done by those with too much time and with nothing with which to lend fulfillment to their souls and have nothing to fill their days?  Is it like the writer who does not possess the courage to actually do something in this life, and takes to writing in an effort to provide an outlet for their ambitions?  Some might say so, but others might counter that mountaineering is also just a nice way to pass a lazy Sunday and take in the natural beauty which the world bestows upon those who seek the high-country.

All depressive attempts at writing aside, Bös Fulen is an awesome climb, and if you are so inclined I highly recommend it.

A Personal Day in the Alps

For some reason the pressure cooker was working harder on my head than normal.  Probably something to do with writing my dissertation, trying to find a job, and organizing a research trip to Japan.  In any event I felt a need get out of Zurich for the day.  So I took a personal day and shifted the weekend foreword by one day.  Friday morning I got out of bed at 4:30 and biked to my girlfriend’s place to retrieve the trekking poles I had forgotten there.  An hour later I was heading to Zurich and then on to Kandersteg.
Of all the mountain valleys in all the regions I’ve visited, the view from the Kandersteg train station is one of the coolest in the world if you’re looking to get into the thin air.  The Blumesaple rises at the end of the valley like a fortress of mythic bygone kings.  You think of monasteries in the Himalayas and tales of adventure and journeys through time.  I was up at the Bluesalp before, the hut there is one of the highest at 2800m, and even has it’s own T-shirt for sale.  This time I took the cable car up to the opposite side, along the route leading to the Gemmi pass.  Three weeks ago the avalanche conditions were about a 4 out of 5 in this region and the cable car from Leukerbad to the Gemmi Pass wasn’t even working.

But these were now bright, stable, low avalanche days.  I took the first cable car up, half of my fellow travelers were 60 something, since this is what many Swiss senior citizens do to pass the time.  The rest were back-country skiers and one pair that had their ice climbing gear.  I took the well-groomed walking path for a bout a mile before taking an extreme left and strapped on my snowshoes for the ascent.  My goal was the Rinderhorn, an easy 3200m peak which, given the agreeable weather, wouldn’t be an avalanche factory.

The other people on the ascent were all skiers, and probably had stayed in the hotel the night before.  Yes, there’s a hotel at the Gemmi pass, sitting there at just over 2000m above sea level.

Every excursion into the Alps looks good on paper.  The topographic map does little to convey the physical power needed to ascent the slopes.  I looked up and the skiers were as ants on a white hill.  I cursed them for being so fast and wished I had bought that touring ski-snowboard for the season.  The skiers came down, some in perfect tight turns and some looked as though they were just concentrating on not crashing and looking the ski-fool.

Soon I was alone and the incline took the inevitable turn to the extreme.  These are the features I never get from maps, at first it looks find and you think, "yeah, sure, no problem."  The thing is, all I had for breakfast was some birchelmuseli and a coffee; then two white-bread sandwiches, one salami and one cheese.  This is not what one would consider a healthy breakfast for one who needs to ascend 1000m on foot.
Below the ridge is the worst, the mind start asking the logical question "why am I here?"  Does the last 30 meters really mean that much?  I’ve come most of the way, it’s been a nice hike, why not go down, avoid the last extreme slope the…

Then you look up and the sun crests over the ridge and you can almost see the cool blue expanse beyond, that vista, that fleeting moment that draws from your bed at 4am.  The slope was too steep for snowshoes and I put on my Grivel crampons – at last getting to use my climbing gear for something besides a photo shoot.

The last 20 meters were an amazing lesson in perseverance.  My energy was gone, because given my pitifully breakfast, I was hiking on empty.  The snow was now hard and my spikes bit in and held firm.  I was pouring sweat inside and thought my heart might explode.  You just focus on your feet and keep moving…a few minutes later you crest the ridge and realize anew why you came.

The Rinderhorn is one the easiest mid-alpine peaks, the cable-car gets you most of the way and then it’s just up the slope.  So I was confused when I looked at the map and saw an easy route, but looked at reality and saw a rather intense 30-40m rock climb to the summit.  It was no matter, I had to be down for the last cable car and it was already 1pm.  I was in fact, standing on the ridge to the Balmhorm, slightly higher at 3600m, it would take far too long to summit and get back down.

On the descent I became slightly aware that I was standing on a 50 deg slope without an avalanche beacon and no one to hear me scream.  Not that I would, screaming is a waste of energy, and when a mountain is bearing down, you run like hell because it’s what your survival instincts say is needed.
I imagined the mountain letting loose and rushing at me, pulling me down into the valley.  I probably could’ve ridden the bastard out.  As long as you stay on top you’ll survive.  But fear swam through my blood.  Now in these older years I could feel it.  I had no desire to leave this life so soon.


Sometimes you have to get out and prove to yourself that you can do something besides wasting away behind a computer screen Mon.-Fri. On Sunday morning I took an early train to Bad Ragaz, and from there planned on taking the cable car to the top and then head up Pizol. Pizol is the mountain to go to from Zurich for a day of skiing or an easy glacier climb. In September I took my dad there for a short 4 hour hike that turned into a 7 hour ordeal and, as he tells it, almost killed him. That was back when the ski area is a hiking heaven. The cable car takes you from the valley at 546m to the Pizol hut at 2222m and from that elevation one can frolic in the Alpine sun. The cable cars run during the winter, but this being some time inbetween the tourist seasons, well, the mountain transport was abandoned and not in operation. Of course, I had paid 30 CHF for the trip and had no intention of turning back. So I started hiking from the valley. Through roads and wooded trails and then snow, I finally crested a ridge and strapped on my snowshoes for the final approach to the hut at 2222m. There were a few impediments along the walk, mainly the fact that all the wonderful yellow, never-get-lost hiking signs had been taken down for the winter and I lost an hour going the wrong way along trails that lead no where that I wanted to go. From the hut the summit was only another 400 vertical meters. It was 3pm and the skies were grey. Pizol is not a hard assent. It’s the uncrevassed glacier you learn on and most people more or less run up it for kicks. But these were high winds with no sign up letting up. Plus, going for the summit would mean descending the glacier and mountain ridges in the dark, possibly in fresh, unsettled snow. I knew in my soul that I could do it. But while I am a bit crazy, I am by and large not a particularly stupid person. Plus, I have this unwritten pact with my mom; she doesn’t hassle me about not living in the US and more or less supports my ambitions – and for my part, I more or less promised that she’d never have to come visit me in a small cemetery in a quiet Swiss village. I didn’t attempt the summit and instead descended the slopes on snowshoes, soon finding my way to the trails leading down through the woods. Before leaving the alpine level I looked back towards the summit. The skies around Pizol were clear and painted in those fleeting layers of red and magenta mystery that master landscape photographers can barely capture with any true integrity. I could have made a weather-safe ascent, but I also have time till they kick me out of the country, and ignoring the effects of global warming, mountain summits, unlike women, will always be there, and there is no reason to attempt the peak if things seem a bit hairy. It was dark and the forest, while not threatening – did evoke Blair Witch Project chills all along my spine. There was a full moon, and while it looked romantic enough, it was also covered in clouds and the crunchy fall leaves seemed to follow a bit too close to my heals. I spun around once or twice to see if a tree Nome was stalking me with a hatchet. Eventually I came to one of those covered bridges, the kind you see Ichabod Crane walking along before the headless horseman makes a move for his neck. At any moment I expected Johnny Depp to come at me from behind wielding a giant candy cane Scythe. An hour later I was down in the valley and on a train headed to Zurich. There was a Budweiser (the Czech kind) beside me and a chicken-avocado wrap between my teeth. I was reading Wicked, the book about the misunderstood Witch of the West. A little girl in the next train stuck her tongue out as her car passed by. Without hesitation I returned the salutation with my own out stretched collection of pink soft tissue and taste buds. She seemed astonished, and my inner child smiled.

Prayer Flags

Glacier Napping – Oberaletschhütte (un)Tour

Let’s recap, get all the facts in place – establish the sequence of events that lead up to me deciding not to do anymore multiday hiking this year.

Early Saturday AM: Bought a ticket to Blatten, the plan is to hike up the Oberaletsch Glacier to a hut (Oberaletschhütte) and the next morning climb the Fusshorn, a somewhat secluded, somewhat taxing alpine rock climb.

Mid Saturday AM: Got to Blatten and found there’s not much there, no cable car to Belalp and nothing makes sense according to the map. I double check the bus stop; Blatten, it says Blatten. For sure I’m in Blatten. By chance I look at my guide book and note that there are actually two small Swiss towns that are essentially in the exact same part of the country but are separated by a few rather giant mountains and glaciers and are both called Blatten. As you might guess, I bought a ticket to the wrong one.

Early Afternoon: Get back on the bus and take a train to the town of Brig. Wait for an hour to get to Blatten (the one I want).

Late Afternoon: At Blatten, catch the cable car to Belalp and start to hike. Now it’s 2000m and 4pm and ETH to the hut is about 4.5 hours. I have a headlamp and the correct map so I’m not worried. 20 minutes into the hike it starts to rain, not hard but enough to soak through the very breathable non-waterproof jacket I’m wearing.

Pre-Dusk Saturday PM: Get to the glacier, it’s not the traditional wind swept inclined flatness you might expect. This is a block glacier. A glacier that is essentially dying, the rocks that were encased in ice that was flowing down to the valley is mostly gone. The rocks remain and the ice and snow have formed a rushing river at the end of the mass.

By rocks I mean pebbles, small bits of the mountain carried by the rivers. I also mean sand and sentiment. Unfortunately I also mean fist sized rocks, body sized, up to mid-sized sedan size and a couple of Hummer H2 sized behemoths balanced here and there. In short, it’s great god-damed blessed maze of rocks and ice canyons. IF you know the way it’s easy. I have a headlamp, I’m not worried.

Late Dusk Saturday PM: It’s getting dark and the sky is covered in clouds, which means I can barely make out the land marks I’m headed for. I have a headlamp but with the cloud cover and light absorbing terrain I have a visibility of maybe 30 ft in front of my nose. To make things better, I hiked up the left side of the glacier, and when I tried to cross and head towards the hut I notice a rather steep ice wall drop off in front of my path.

Early Evening Saturday: Backtrack, try to descend into the middle of the glacier, somehow find my way through the rivers of ice where the water has carved out fantastic canyons, canyons with 30 ft walls that i need to find a way around because they were impossible to see in the dark.

10pm Saturday: I might be on a rock plateau, and if I keep going I might find the hut, but it might be another ice drop off over the horizon of my visibility. There’s no guarantee I’ll even find the hut if I’m in the general area of it and I haven’t seen a trail indicator in over two hours.

I say fuck it and call it quits.

The rains are done with and I put on all my warm dry clothes, new socks, eat an array of power bars and a curry for dinner, and lay down next to a compact car sized rock for the night. the good news is: those emergency space blankets really do work. The bad news is they don’t replace 0 deg mountaineering sleeping bags. I only have a small foam pad and my backpack to sleep on. I get maybe two hours sleep and spend the rest of the night shivering and trying to induce adrenaline rushes by imagining falling from a cliff. On the plus side the clouds clear now and again and I get to see the stars and mountains.

Early Sunday AM: I have a mad craving for a coffee and a chocolate croissant. I skip the climb and start hiking to keep the uncontrollable shivers at bay. I get off the maze of rocks and eventually to the Zurich direct train at Brig. I sit down with some pastries and a coffee and am content. I resolve to spend no more nights in the mountains (this year).

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. (Like that validates my stupidity)

Lazy Swiss Saturday

For one of those weekends when you don’t know what to do with yourself, here’s my suggestion:

1) Wake up at 5 am, let the alarm go until 5:15, think about it again, and then get out of bed.

2) Find your way to the main train station in Zurich and take the 6:12 train to Ziegelbrücke. Curse yourself for not getting to the station early enough to buy a coffee, then ask yourself why you had the idea to get up so early to go hiking in the first place. Praise the Gods when the guy with the food cart comes by on the train, get yourself a coffee and chocolate croissant. All will then be well in the world.

Switch trains at Ziegelbrücke and get off at Braunwald. Hike two hours towards the Eggstöcke, your goal is to do a Klettersteig (protected climbing route) to the summit.

Extra Credit: take the wrong path, look up and realize you’re quickly becoming lost, trail blaze up the side of the mountain and after crossing the scree (loose rockfall from the mountain) and basic class two unprotected climbing, get to the start of the Klettersteig.

3) Do the Vor Eggstöcke Klettersteig, pass all the slow people and take 10 minute breaks here and there for energy bar consumption. Finish the first Klettersteig and continue to the next, more difficult one. Extra Credit: Climb halfway up the second Klettersteig until your arms start shaking and your feet become unstable, debate about continuing, look down and imagine loosing your grip and falling 2 meters before the rope catches you. Climb down and have another energy bar. After watching two other sets of climbs do the climb you just retreated from get up off your lazy ass and climb it as well. Summit the peak and feel good for doing something that means nothing.

4) Follow the blue alpine ridge trail off the summit and start descending from the Eggstöcke. Extra Credit: loose the path and start down a section of half solid, half crap crumbling rock.

Bonus Points: Grab a big handhold in your right hand and watch helplessly as it breaks away from the mountain and gets deflected by your right knee and leg before free falling through the fresh alpine air and joining all its other friends on the slopes below.

Double Bonus Points: Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and should have died in the mountains years ago, climb back up and find the trail. Descend along the alpine trail, at times balancing on a rock ridge with a width twice as wide as your boots. Look to your right and notice the multi-hundred meter straight-down-drop that ends in jagged rocks. Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and climb down to your left so you don’t fall to your impending death.

4) Leave the ridge and descend through the field of giant boulders and smooth rock left by the last glacier. Imagine Kate is hiking next to you and singing the chorus line from the Sound of Music. Look across the boulder field to the snow dusted ridges of the Ortstock and think about climbing it instead of getting hiking back to Braunwald and catching the next the train. Remind yourself that you’re a dumbass and take the trail back to Braunwald.

5) Change into your Chaco sandals on the train and relax.

Extra Credit: Sit in the dining car and drink a beer while recounting the day in your Moleskin journal. Bonus Points: Have the bright idea of turning your Lazy Saturday into a blog entry. 6) Get back to your place, bake a fresh mozzarella pizza, reflect on the fact you went hiking for 9 hours. Go to bed. Double Bonus Points: Mess around with the digital camera Sunday night after cleaning your room.

Journals in Motion


Climbing Switzerland Alps Braunwald