Unexpected Gifts

Hiking through fog to the Tete Blanche.

I returned from Switzerland a while ago, and haven't written anything about the trip for a number of reasons. First, unplugging for 10 days creates a pretty hefty backlog between my family and my work, and I feel like I've been climbing out of a hole for a while. Second, this particular trip had a profound effect on me, and left me somewhat confused for a few weeks. Third, something really embarrassing happened at the very end of my trip which has taken me a while to understand. 

Bill and I arrived in Geneva on Friday and took a shuttle to our hotel in Verbier to meet Andrew and Mark. Andrew was there, but Mark was nowhere to be found. Our plan was to ski at Verbier for a few days, then head into the backcountry with our guide, Hans Solmssen, for 5 days and 4 nights of alpine touring. We'd go to wherever the conditions were best, ski valley to valley, and stay in whatever huts were nearby, touring with small packs that contained shovels, probes, beacons, light mountaineering gear, extra layers, water, lunch, and not much else. Hans brought a small camera, and shot most of the images seen here (thank you Hans.)

My pack also carried a Fuji GF670 and 12 rolls of 120 film. The pace of digital work is always accelerating, with stills merging into video, gigabytes turning to terabytes, and I was ready for a breather. For this trip I wanted to turn things upside down, from fast-electronic-color to slow-analog-black+white. The Fuji is largely mechanical, is super quiet, compact, and has a fixed normal lens that produces huge, razor sharp negatives that are perfectly suited to huge, razor sharp prints. I set out with two goals: to slow down, and to create a body of work that would stand on its own as a monument to slowing down.

 

The Fuji and the film. 

Conditions on Saturday and Sunday were whiteout with about 20 feet visibility. We got a few small windows with gaping views of impossibly dramatic peaks, but most of the skiing consisted of "stick by stick" following the bamboo poles one at a time to avoid skiing off a cliff or into a crevasse. 

We discovered late on Sunday that Mark was so sick when he deplaned in Geneva that all he could do was check into an airport hotel and pass out. He couldn't get his phone or Skype to work so we communicated with him via email. The poor guy was laid up with the flu for four days, staring at the ceiling, unable to stand for more than a few minutes. By Monday, he was still a mess, so Andrew, Bill and I left for the backcountry and Mark began his four-leg journey back to Bend, OR.

The storm had blanketed the Alps in new snow, and on Monday morning, Hans was concerned about the increased avalanche danger, as well as the continued whiteout conditions. Our original plan to ski into the backcountry from the top of Mont Fort at Verbier changed to one involving a 1.5 hour taxi ride toArolla, a small town that serves as a gateway to the Haute Route. From Arolla we hiked to the top of Pas de Chevres where Hans casually introduced us to the pleasures of downclimbing a long metal ladder bolted to a sheer rock face while wearing hard plastic ski boots:

Extra gripped.

We then skied up to the Cabane de Dix, where we sat down to a dinner of red wine, hot soup, salad, steak and potatoes. Hans was turning out to be a fascinating character -- born in Hawaii, raised barefoot and on horseback, educated in Vermont, after which he moved to Switzerland and became the first American born guide to receive a Swiss Mountain Guide certification. He's been guiding skiing and climbing in the Alps for 30 years now, and knows more about the mountains and Quantum Mechanicsthan anyone I've ever met.

After another night of snow, and "sleeping" in a room full of stinky, snoring, snorting Euros, we awoke to crisp blue skies and a crystal clear sunrise. We could finally see the mountains that had surrounded us for the last three days, and they were perfectly white, the low sun just grazing their peaks. I was visually overloaded and ripped through two rolls with my new camera. We ate breakfast, geared up, and headed out for a long climb along the Haute Route to the Pigne de Arolla. 

Pow turns at sunrise, leaving Dix.

Traversing up through the Alps under blue skies on an untouched white canvas was surreal. I shot two more rolls, but couldn't help feeling that the setting was too majestic for any camera to truly capture. Everything in every direction was overwhelmingly beautiful. I was visually intoxicated. Eye drunk. 

We zigzagged our way up the crux passage at the Serpentine, a slope that is known to be avalanche prone, especially when loaded with new snow. I breathed deeply through the fear to keep my heart from racing as the slope steepened, completely present. It was scary and exhilarating, and made me feel acutely alive.

The Serpentine Passage, just after a storm. 

At the top of Pigne de Arolla we took in clear views of the Alps for a thousand miles in every direction. We ate our baguettes and chocolate on the sunny, windless summit before skiing several miles of dreamy, untouched powder to Vignettes, our next hut. The day was unreal and will easily go down in my books as one of the best ski days in my life (and I am realizing that I am going to run out of superlatives before I get to the end of this entry.)

Bill and Andrew, en route to the Vignettes Hut, visible on the ridge behind.

The next few days were more of the same. Meditative climbs through mind-blowing scenery, moody weather that brought more fluffy snow and sublime light, luscious rolls of 120 film, long velvety powder descents, home cooked dinners, cold Swiss beer, alpenglow sunsets, conversation and laughter. While skiing uphill I'd spend time visualizing the Boulder opening of my "Alps // 40" show -- a collection of large, beautifully crafted black and white prints that would transport people from their dry, flat reality to a soothing alpine sanctuary, if only for a daydreamy second.

Extra gripped, part deux.

The Fuji was a blast to shoot with, and as the week went on I fell more deeply in love with its simplicity and precision. I shot one frame of whatever I saw that resonated with me -- regardless of geographical or temporal significance. If I liked the shape, the light, or just the feeling, I'd take extra time to compose, meter, and steady myself with each frame. I can't remember the last time I was so happy just pushing that little shutter button. It was pure photographic joy in those moments, and I felt like I could have kept shooting this way forever, never actually getting the film developed -- just dropping exposed rolls in my little black bag and moving to another shot. 

The final day of our tour took us on a long climb from the Bertol Hut up to the Tete Blanche, down the other side via the Stokji Glacier, all the way to the Swiss-German town of Zermatt, where we checked into a small hotel, showered, and went out for beer and Raclette. The next morning we sampled some of Zermatt's epic terrain, following Hans from one powder stash to another and riding the extensive network of trams, cable cars, and chairlifts to Italy and back. 

Mmmmm, Swiss powder.

It was the perfect exclamation point at the end of our Swiss story. We were still a 3 hour train ride from Verbier, but the trip had kind of concluded, and each of us started to consider reentry into our lives back home. We left Zermatt, connecting three trains and a Telepherique back to our hotel in Verbier where we had one last dinner with Hans at Fer A Cheval.

Hans, Bill, Some Dude, Andrew, and me.

Each day of our trip offered a stratospheric high as well as some sort of physically terrifying but ultimately manageable situation. However, nothing would have prepared me for the terror I experienced on Sunday. I'd spent Saturday night in Geneva, and woke up early the next morning to take a train to the airport. While waiting for the train, I used my Fuji to shoot some pictures of the platform, it's meticulous network of steely Swiss perfection. 

I arrived at the Geneva airport, checked my bag, and headed to the security checkpoint. I reached into my backpack for my precious black bag of exposed film so that I could request a hand check. I couldn't find it.

I tore my backpack apart. Not there. Searched where I stood, then backtracked to the check in desk. Nothing. I felt my heart racing. I ran out the door, and retraced my steps back to the train station, down the escalator to the platform where I'd exited the train earlier. Nope. Ran back up the escalator to check the lost and found at the train station. Negative.

At this point I just started laughing, as the irony of the situation became perfectly clear. A flawless, indulgent, sublimely perfect trip like this was destined to eventually be offset by some sort of painful, cosmic tax. In 20+ years of shooting I'd never lost a roll of film, box of slides, flash card, or hard drive, and it made perfect sense that this would be the one where I'd pay.

I ran back to the check-in at the airport, checked the lost and found there. Nada. The United agent tried to pull my checked bag from the plane in case I'd put the film in my other bag, which I knew I hadn't done, but I wanted to check it off the list. No luck. My plane was boarding in 30 minutes. I was sweating, stuck in a strange space between tears and laughter. I spiraled deeper into despair as I pictured that little black bag of film sitting helplessly on the platform back in downtown Geneva, and steeled myself for the long, painful road ahead.

On a whim, as a desperate last effort, I sprinted back to the train station and checked the lost and found again. 

Bingo.

I don't know this guy, but I love him.

Someone had found the film somewhere in the train station and turned it in. I have no idea how it left my backpack, but I am eternally thankful and grateful for Swiss precision, and for the kind soul that took the extra minute to turn it in. 

That little black bag wasn't the 40th birthday gift that I expected, but I'll take it.