Dagger in the Clouds

Matterhorn: king of mountains, definition of mountains, the raw heart of a mountain after ice and erosion have stripped everything superfluous. Standing high, monstrous pyramid of unbreakable gneiss.

Matterhorn1

Switzerland: home of mountains. I’ve been needing to come back here for a long time. Even the train from Geneva painted alpine through the windows, pure white ridges and their epaulettes of clouds, cut in pieces by high towers of bare rock. At their feet are lakes as blue as gentians, and meadows that remind the rest of Europe that modern agriculture does not have to mean environmental death.

From the train CH

From the train2 CH

And so, into the Mattertal valley, on a cog railway that clings to the narrowest of ledges between mountain shoulders and a canyon that plunges to a milky glacial river, criss-crossed by stone bridges that make you giddy even while seated on the train. But, for certain, there is only one mountain, and rounding the last curve of track it greets you, a dagger pointing above the station to the stars.

Matterhorn3

The Matterhorn is irresistible to humanity. Flanked by higher peaks, yes, but none so perfect, none so tyrannical. It is easy to imagine the terror of early travellers across the 11,000 foot Theodul pass, shadowed to the west by this highest of triangles. Early mountain people speculated that the summit held a city of the dead – unreachable, and mystical.

But not everyone was convinced that it was beyond mortal man. It was my own country that supplied some of those who first scrambled up there – in a time before crampons, GPS or headlamps. Edward Whymper survived that day in 1865; four of his party did not. The rope that broke on their descent now lies in a glass case in Zermatt. It is hardly thicker than a human finger.

Matterhorn rope

Today, most people who climb the Matterhorn do so under the watchful eye of highly experienced Alpine guides. The mountain ignores them, shouldering its glaciers and dazzling the valley just as it has since humans learned to count time.

Matterhorn glacier

As Luna rises over the forests of Monte Rosa’s flanks, it is time to reflect with a map and ponder tomorrow’s hiking trails.

Luna and pines CH

Not going too close to the king of mountains. But its presence adds a royal intensity to the path.

Matterhorn2

There is only one mountain, and this is its realm.

Small Details

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of memory lately. The basic themes may set the tone but the small details are what bring thoughts alive. That holds true with the outside world, too.

Take Dorset, for example. I barely knew the county before last month, but it is easy to describe in broad brushstrokes: an erratic quilt of heath, farmland and trees, heaped up high into grassy hills, threaded with tiny lanes and dotted with quaint villages. To the south it is underscored by vivid white: mighty chalk cliffs guarding the channel, crumbling cradle of a thousand dinosaur bones.

Old Harry Rocks May 18

The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, of course. Even away from it, the countryside is refreshingly free from motorway noise.

Dorset countryside2

Zoom in a little, and exploring is flavoured by small details. Sundews are not unique to the south-west, but are intriguing little things. They are carnivorous plants that eat insects.

Sundew Dorset 17 May 2018.jpg

Another heathland predator is very seldom glimpsed. This is the shed skin of a smooth snake Coronella austriaca, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Smooth snake skin 17 May 2018

I have only ever seen one, and that was in western Surrey last year.

Smooth snake 09 May 17

Back in Dorset, the flowers are shining.

Centuary 17 May 2018

…or not. The twayblade is one of the green orchids and easily overlooked.

Twayblade orchid 17 May 2018

Quiet and reclusive perhaps, but it is just as important ecologically as any of its brighter peers.

Keep looking. Keep remembering.