Field Notes September 17th 2021
Written by Daniel Finch-Race, Stephan Hochleithner

Photographs by: Offshore Studio

Rhone Glacier and the Eisgrotte


We met outside the shop in the village of Oberwald to split into vehicles for the journey to the Grimsel Pass, following breakfast at our respective overnight accommodation (coffee, bread, cheese, yoghurt, tomato pasta…). The sunlit drive to the small lake in the crook of the Pass (Totesee) took us through the lower reaches of the Furka Pass – a backdrop to James Bond’s adventures in Goldfinger – alongside the modestly sized Rhône River and railway to Gletsch, from where we were able to glimpse the bottom of the Rhône Glacier before snaking up the hillside to the car park by the Grimsel Hotel and St Christopher’s Chapel, where we abruptly encountered thick fog.

Having gathered up a good deal of warm clothing and equipment for recording the journey through the heights enroute to the Glacier, the group steadily began the ascent of the hillside above the ‘Lake of the Dead’ with visibility limited to a few meters.

Morale was high, and the pace was sensible. A little while into the climb, the sun began to shine through, and the group was greeted in short order by blue skies and excellent visibility towards the peaks and reservoir system around Lake Grimsel, in particular. Heading northeast along the invisible border between the cantons of Bern and Valais, we encountered stony outcrops, grassy expanses, plus a handful of cairns and wooden structures, in addition to a camera recording the numbers of hikers.

A particular highlight was the mirror-like small lake around an altitude of 2500 meters (Remersee), shortly before arriving all of a sudden at a Glacier overlook, from where we had an all-too-clear view of the tarpaulin being used as an emergency measure to reduce melt from sun exposure, as well as the defunct hotel-restaurant that was well renowned in the nineteenth century.

Our stop for a lunch of bread, cheese, and fruit was full of good humor and conversation in the sunshine and breeze, after which it was straightforward to make the return leg to leave enough time for driving to the Glacier and getting up close and personal with the earth-being on foot.

* * *

A little while into the climb, the sun began to shine through.

A particular highlight was the mirror-like small lake around an altitude of 2500 meters (Remersee).

View of the tarpaulin being used as an emergency measure to reduce melt from sun exposure, and the defunct hotel-restaurant that was well renowned in the nineteenth century.

Visit of the Eisgrotte
Yes, we had already seen the glacier from above. Chewing on our sandwiches and snacks after the hike to the overlook, we had been gazing down at its lazy body, as it lay in its bed like a grey slug. But the only stereotypical glacier-white we had spotted from up there had turned out to be the tarpaulin, that is used to cover this earth-being's lowest lying bit.

Not (only) to maintain the glacier but the cave, which is cut into its ice, every year anew, to attract tourists like us. And the prospect of walking  into the inside this tremendous piece of ice did indeed not fail to appeal: Most of us had never been to a glacier before, so we felt quite curious when we made our way down that picture-book-kind of an alpine road towards the entrance of the attraction.

Parking was located right in front of the attraction's entrance building, just across the abandoned Hotel Belvedere. Once letting passersby catch a glance of the swarms of tourists from all over the globe that vibrantly buzzled inside, the picture windows of the hotel's ground floor restaurant were now all boarded up. The building sat there like an old toad, rather sensing than watching us through the closed shutters of its weary eyes as we fluttered around the parking lot in our human speed.

It had seen it all: the touristic pioneer days in the 19th century, when the glacier still reached down to the bottom of the valley and business was going well; the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century, when the glacier was still mighty and people paid a lot of money to sleep and dine with the ice right at the doorstep; and the years since then, when the glacier, shrinking at a pace of ten centimeters a day, steadily turned from a somewhat exotic experience for humans into an inconvenient reminder of the consequences of the planetary experience with humans. The toad's belly was now empty, but it really didn't seem to care.
Having crawled out of our vehicles, everyone in the group was in high spirits, despite the physically quite demanding hike in the morning. We were eager to get close to the glacier. Excitement even abruptly spiked when someone discovered that the men pissoir of the entrance building was built around a wet rock. Everyone who was willing to piss while standing readily paid the extra of two hard Swiss Francs to do their business right next to that piece of the wild that so uncannily intruded into the sanitary space. It was marvelous. Energized and freed from any potentially pressing issues we paid the entrance fee and finally scurried through the turnstile.

There it was, right in front of us. We couldn't help but feel a sense of awe in the face of the scene that now unfolded in front of our humanly dim, hardly comprehending eyes. A range of harsh mountains flanked that tremendous icy tongue that sluggishly lay there in front of us. It felt as if we were looking into the wide-open mouth of a giant deceased whale. A lake had formed at its tip (the dead whale's drool). It was of a greenish-blue color that Rony Emmenegger clearly identified as RAL 5018, the very same in which he had just ordered his new kitchen paint.

Chunks of ice barely noticeably drifted on the still, mirror-like surface of the small lake. The peace, which this scene emitted, was in a weird way even amplified by the roar of a cascade that impressively showcased the forces of gravity where the lake's waterbody met a rocky bluff towards the valley bottom. We were amazed.

Our group scattered now, taking photographs, recording audio, shooting video, and doing curious stuff like laying face-down onto flat pieces of rock. The sun had come out and it was getting warm quickly, though. So eventually all of us headed down towards the entrance of the ice cave, to finally inspect that earth-being's guts.

The agitated atmosphere that our excitement had created immediately changed as we entered the cave. Over the first 20 meters or so, it wasn't actually a cave but rather a two meter deep trench carved into the ice and covered by the tarpaulin overhead. The fabric that had appeared so white from outside was quite smudgy and thus rather brownish from the inside. And it kind of glowed with the sun's light seeping through it. We walked on wooden planks, slowly, carefully. Everyone who entered lowered their voices, all human noise was suddenly like dampened and most of what could be heard now came from the trillion drops of melting ice and the wind, which tore at the tarpaulin every now and then.

Further into the whale's belly, the trench eventually turned into a cave (Stephan Hochleithner later met the guy who was responsible for maintaining the grotto; he was grumpy, only spoke French, and carried a huge chainsaw). Everything around the visitors was now made of blue ice.

The light of the sun illuminated it here and there, and, looking closely, one could see how millions of little air bubbles had been frozen up inside. Striae of bubbles constituted little formations inside the crystal clear ice, reminding of documentaries about the macro-cosmos of life in the primeval sea.

We lost ourself in staring into this frozen universe and already risked to wax poetically. However, luckily, a group of teenagers came stomping along the planks and started posing at different spots to take some pictures for their Instagram. It was time to leave the whale's belly.

It took a while for our group to reassemble back up at the entrance building. Until then, we loitered around the parking lot in changing flocks and collectively contemplated what we'd just seen. Everyone seemed calmer now. Was that because of our close encounter with the glacier or just from the long day we'd all had?

We felt quite content when driving the cars along the serpentine road back to Oberwald. The sun was already going down and everyone was looking forward to a hot shower and a beer. The latter with the others of our marvelous group, the first before the other members of our marvelous group would use up all the hot water. Later that night, we had delicious Pizza at Restaurant al Ponte in Oberwald. 


Essential references 


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