F8 Magazine – Featured Photographer

Posted in Adventure, Cancer, Colorado, Conservation, Environmental Journalism, Europe, Glacier, Photography, Trekking, Utah, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2011 by chriscasephoto

I was contacted by F8 Magazine (an online photo magazine from Spain) late in 2010; they had found my work on Photoshelter and had perused my online portfolio and liked what they saw. So, they sent me some interview questions and asked for some of my favorite images and they put together a great spread in their second issue, just released in mid-February. Following are the layout and interview, but to see it all as it was intended to be seen, see the online magazine.

Hi Chris. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Connecticut and grew up along the New England coast. I received a degree in neuroscience and worked for a number of years as a researcher in that field, first with patients with schizophrenia and then, literally, slicing monkey brains in a study of Parkinson’s disease. It was in that basement laboratory, under fluorescent lights, slicing frozen monkey brains eight hours a day, that I decided to pursue photography. It was not a terribly difficult choice. Of course, it has been a bit more difficult to succeed as a photographer than it was to take that first step and apply to graduate school for photography.

F8 Magazine

What or who got you started in photography? Is there any formal training in your background?
I’m not entirely sure what my initial attachment to photography was. In college I was interested in art and photography, as a way to balance my life while studying neuroscience. I ended up with a second degree in art and art history, of which two photography classes were a requirement. The professor I had for that initial photography class would become a great mentor, friend, and influence on my work.

But, most important to my development as a visual storyteller, and the most influential and life-changing work I’ve been a part of came from one of my first “projects.” While I was still working in the neuroscience field, I was in a relationship with someone who was diagnosed with leukemia. I immediately started documenting her life, treatment, and recovery, and our life together. I had only known her for eight weeks, and we spent the next four years together. The camera became a part of both of our lives, as much a method for dealing with the circumstances as it was a tool for documenting our shared experience; I documented as many intimate moments as I could. See a gallery of images here. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Eugene Richards’ work “Exploding Into Life.”

Still, time spent slicing brains ultimately led me to seek a degree in the field. That’s how I ended up at the University of Texas at Austin for their master’s program in photojournalism. There, I became devoted to environmental issues, particularly water, and worked on a number of conservation-focused projects.

After graduating, I worked as a freelance daily assignment photographer for about a year, before I took a position as creative director of the American Mountaineering Museum. I was also the museum’s curator once it opened. This exposed me to great photography, old and new, as well as the feats of mountaineers around the world.

From there I diversified and started doing more adventure photography to complement the documentary and conservation photography that had come before. Now, I enjoy the balance of working on difficult, environmental and social issues with the delight of photographing the beauty and ferocity of nature.

F8 Magazine

How long have you been taking photographs professionally?
I’ve worked on personal projects for years, but only in the past 12 months or so have I had the experience, determination, and time to pursue photography professionally. Even still, it’s probably more accurate to call me an aspiring professional. I have certainly wanted to be a “professional” for much longer, but my methodical nature has always held me back. It’s a difficult business to pursue–there is not a singular path like there is when you’re a doctor or a research scientist, the world I came from. I suppose I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge to forge ahead unguided.

How do you describe your photographic style?
For the most part, I consider myself a conservationist as much as I consider myself a photographer. My passions are equally the preservation of wilderness, wildlife, and nature, and visual storytelling that aids in that preservation. That being said, I am also still fascinated by health issues.

As far as my style is concerned, it seems to be a reflection of the natural subject matter I’m photographing. It seems to be minimalist in nature; at least, it is in my mind, and that’s what I strive for. I am drawn to the “quiet” work of William Albert Allard, Sam Abell, and W. Eugene Smith. That is not to say I try to mimic their style, though I am fascinated by the balance of delicacy and complexity that they achieve in their best images.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my style further evolved over the years. Certainly, different styles lend themselves better to certain subject matter. The beauty of nature, for example, can effectively be captured in a minimalist aesthetic. Cancer? That’s not as easy. There, the style might often be about juxtaposition and irony, struggle or survival. It’s not as easy, nor necessarily appropriate, to depict those emotions in a simple, graphic composition.

F8 Magazine

If you could give someone just five tips on this type of photography, what would they be?
1) Stare. This includes climbing high (or flying high), getting dirty while lying on the ground, and finding new angles everywhere in between, all the while observing and analyzing the scene.

2) Be patient. The most effective composition is not always obvious; the most effective photograph may take you 100 attempts to get exactly what you want. Don’t settle for anything less.

3) Be intelligent and thoughtful and respectful. Know your subject before you begin photographing, then allow the subject to lead you to what you should be learning more about. Be open minded so that new observations are put to good use in framing the story, rather than ignored because of any preconceived notions of what the story “should” be that you might have started with.

4) Experiment. Forget what you learned and try a new approach. Perhaps that’s creating an abstract world from something familiar, or distilling something highly complex to a graphic essence.

5) Stare some more. Find something better, or different, or unique, and know that you’re the only one that is creating the work, and the audience’s reaction to it is often unpredictable. Don’t make photographs that you think people will like; make photographs you like.

F8 Magazine

You are the editor and director of photography and design of Trail & Timberline magazine, published by the Colorado Mountain Club since 1918. Tell us, what is the focus of the magazine and how does it expand your ability as a photographer?
Trail & Timberline is a reflection of the Colorado Mountain Club, so its focus is conservation, education, and recreation, specifically related to Colorado’s mountains and mountaineering. Ideally, there is a mixture of each of those things in every issue (see some samples here).

I am a staff of one: editor, photographer, writer, and designer. Besides being very rewarding, challenging, and fun, working on all parts of the magazine helps me to understand the packaging of photography and visual stories, which in turn makes me think about these things when I’m in the field. It makes me a better photographer, and a better journalist. Of course, there are certainly times when I’d like to be collaborating with a dynamic and creative staff; I’d like the pressure that would come with delivering for a photo editor. But, I have the challenge of balancing all of those roles simultaneously. It’s a very satisfying feeling when it all comes together.

F8 Magazine

What are the typical preparations that need to be made before a shoot? (Both in terms of camera equipment and researching the location itself / weather etc.)
Nothing beats spending time with your subject, whether that subject is a person or a place.

As far as equipment is concerned, I’m a minimalist. I carry three lenses most of the time; I never use a flash. I am often trying to capture nature, so I feel as if introducing unnatural light would be absurd. If my battery is charged, then I am ready to go.

As far as adventure photography is concerned, there are certain precautions that I take, particularly in the winter when there is the risk of avalanche. Checking the avalanche data regularly throughout the winter is just a habit now. Thankfully, in Colorado there is a great website for this.

Likewise, weather is a concern in slot canyons. If there is any chance of rain, it’s not a wise idea to be wandering around in a giant funnel of rock. Having patience and waiting for stable conditions is just a part of exploring that world.

F8 Magazine

Will you ever feel like your work is completed?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Certainly, there are times when I feel like nothing can change the environmental catastrophes that seem to be raging around us. There are times when I feel like all of my efforts to tell visual stories won’t change the overwhelming momentum that they’re up against.

So, I suppose my answer would be “no.” I don’t think my work will ever be completed because I don’t think there will be a time when conservation doesn’t need the help of story telling. In a more general sense, my work as a story teller won’t be finished because there will always be stories to tell.

I just hope that along the way I can contribute to the preservation of a particular landscape, or change the behavior of people, or excite and inspire someone through my work.

F8 Magazine

What’s the most inspiring location you’ve visited so far?
I seem to be fascinated by any new place I go, and tend to be inspired everywhere I go, whether that’s a delicate shortgrass prairie on the Great Plains, a lush estuary on the Gulf Coast of Texas, or the jagged drama of the Swiss Alps. That being said, I can’t remember ever being as awestruck as when I recently trekked the length of the Haute Route, from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. It’s not the most remote area, or the least populated, but there’s no denying that it’s gorgeous (see images from the Haute Route).

But perhaps the most inspiring place I’ve been is southern Utah. It’s like no place else on Earth. I’ve been countless times to explore the canyons, formations, alcoves, ancient dwellings, mesas, and mountains, and I’ve never been disappointed (see images of Utah). It is always inspiring to be present among such a unique landscape, with a palpable feeling of quiet around any corner. The forms, the shapes, the experiences you can only have in a place where time is evident in every rock around you, and you are perceptibly small in a vast spread of geologic time. As may be evident, it helps me to think and makes me philosophical. And the scenery never ceases to amaze me, or inspire me.

Unfortunately, much of this iconic landscape remains unprotected. And the threats to it only increase with time. This is especially true of places like White Canyon. To think that places like this exist nowhere else on Earth, yet remain unprotected from vehicles, development, oil and gas extraction, is alarming. I couldn’t imagine a world without them in their pristine state. That’s why I work with organizations like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to help them educate people to the threats these iconic landscapes face.

What kind of impression do you hope to leave upon others who see your photographs?
I believe all I can hope to do is make people think. A photograph doesn’t bring about change by itself. A person has to use that photograph, or be used by that photograph, in order for action to take place. And the first action is always thought.

F8 Magazine


Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 5

Posted in Adventure, Environmental Journalism, Europe, Glacier, Photography, Trekking, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2011 by chriscasephoto

This is the fifth and final installment of an article that first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here. Read the third installment here. Read the fourth installment here.

The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.

See a gallery of photos from the route here.


Day 12 | St. Niklaus to Europa Hut
We start our final push up the Mattertal valley, toward the iconic Matterhorn, with another intrepid refusal. While many people take the bus to the village of Gasenried to begin the Europaweg (the trail that runs up-valley high on the shoulder of the Mattertal), we decide our young minds, legs, and feet can carry us more satisfactorily. So we sweat our way up, rising high above the clutter of arteries, both road and rail, that squeeze through the neck of this glacial gorge.

With the Bernese Alps above Interlacken now at our backs, we rise higher still and gain immaculate views of glaciers, peaks, rivulets, waterfalls, rockslides, clinging hamlets, delicate meadows, and the steep and dramatic topography that Switzerland is so famous for. And the trail slices right through it all.


Well, soon after Brianna begins to question the trail, the “weg” (way) in Europaweg, as the way seems to be washed away by rock slides, avalanche, and glacial detritus. Now and again, we pass through exposed sections with signs that, when translated, read, “Run, but do so slowly” and frail-looking bridges with warning signs that actually say “Not swing!” It makes for our longest day. But, it is perhaps the most beautiful day, as well, with glimpses of the crooked finger that is the Matterhorn, and constant views of the imposing, monstrous Weisshorn and the many lesser, but no less interesting, peaks and glaciers that defy gravity, like cookie batter clinging to tree bark.

The heights, the precarious ledges, our dashes across sheer, sand-slope washes, make for a mentally taxing, physically demanding day, and the elevation gain of 5,200 feet satisfies us all the more. It’s official: We’re both bloody masochists.

Finally, we arrive at the Europahütte knowing we sleep on the floor. When they run out of room in the dorm beds, they open up the dining room for extras. And, tonight, we’re extra.

Over dinner, as if our brains hadn’t been stressed enough, we have a remarkable, but mind-numbing conversation with Florian (a native of nearby St. Niklaus) and Stefanie (from Strasbourg, France) in a dizzying combination of German, Schwyzerdütsch (the local dialect), French, and English, or “Freutsch” as I like to call it. Our heads hurt. Their heads hurt.

We drink beers, big and small, and Brianna finally drinks the glass bottle of wine that she bought in Zinal three days earlier!

Day 13 | Europa Hut to Zermatt
Could it be?! We had seen it the night before. We were told it was only three weeks old. With Florian’s binoculars I can see the prayer flags. And then, after dashing under an icy waterfall, we arrive at a brand new, Swiss-engineered, rockfall-defying, heart-palpitation-inducing, suspension bridge, the likes of which I have never seen before.

Strung between two rock precipices, over a filthy slope of crumbling stone and sand, it seems like an improvement over trying to cross this stretch of rockslide highway. And, it isn’t too bad, except for the part where you can look down to the chasm we are floating over and see the avalanche tunnel that has disintegrated under the crush of falling rock, presumably prompting the construction of this marvel of mountain trail enhancement.

It takes six and a half minutes of constant, steady walking to get across. I know, I have a video of the entire thing. A few deep breaths for Brianna and she’s ready for solid ground again.

Resting on the Europaweg

For a final day, we couldn’t be luckier with the weather, the temperatures, the scenery, or the company. We cruise much of the rest of the day with views of our new favorite mountain, the Matterhorn. We cannot take our eyes off it, with every step we see a new wrinkle, a better angle, a finer detail on its many weathered faces.

Did I say we were lucky? That is until we arrive at the Winkelmatten trail. On any other day, we’d be able to leisurely stroll on the partially paved trail and, in fact, there were families of smoking Dutch and baby-laden Italians doing just that alongside us. But now, oddly, they are doing all the passing.


Twelve and a half days after originally feeling excruciating pain, Brianna’s knee finally decides to return to threat level nine. We limp arm in arm through the peaceful village of Winkelmatten, then wrestle through the scrum that is Zermatt proper during its summer heritage festival.

We calculate that camping and eating in this luxurious and posh village will be almost as expensive as staying in a hotel we already know, Hotel Bahnhof, and cooking dinner in their fabulous kitchen. We trade the bad luck of a busted knee for the good luck of claiming the last room for the night, and have ourselves pleasant dreams.

Vive Le Haute Route!

40,646 feet of elevation gain

38,852 feet of elevation loss

114.4 miles

13 days

11 passes

6 Snickers

4 new friends

3 walking sticks

2 feet + 2 feet

1 Matterhorn

0 chairlifts, buses, trains, or cars

Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 4

Posted in Europe, Glacier, Photography, Trekking, Uncategorized, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by chriscasephoto

This is the fourth of five installments of an article that first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here. Read the third installment here.

The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.

See a gallery of photos from the route here.


Day 10 | Zinal to Gruben

We catch The Irish Ladies and learn they’ve managed to get a place to stay in Gruben, the next destination on our route. We had tried days earlier to reserve beds and were told there was no room. We stand there in the rain, in the woods, and bashfully place a mobile phone call. I can’t say I enjoy this jarring use of technology, but, lucky us, we now have a place to stay.

And the rain continues.

Brianna gets so excited about the rain, she decides to play slip-and-slide in a mud bank. I kid, of course. Her screeches alert me to her cartoonish troubles. Like a sprinting cat on linoleum, her strides amount to wasted energy and nothing more. Finally, after I’ve screamed instructions through the now-horizontal rain, she makes her way up under the tree I’ve found for cover. I compliment her mud-covered butt and admire the filth that drips from her pack.

We pass the time by playing a word game, reciting back and forth a series of words whose first letter is A, then B, and so on, taking turns while adding a word each time. Artichoke. Balthasar. Cacophony. Deuteronomy…

Stage 11

As the slope rises to the pass, we spot the first signs of snow and near a pair of German-speaking mountain bikers, half-naked in the mist. They’re changing into dry clothes after having crested the pass, heading in the opposite direction from us. They are large men and they’ve just carried their bikes down from the snow-covered scree fields in the clouds. They smile, or maybe smirk, then ask us if we have schneeshuhe as they point in the direction of the fog-shrouded pass. They raise fingers stretched 6 inches apart.

“Nein, nicht schneeshuhe,” I say, fumbling with the German word for snowshoes. Of course, I’m thinking, “We’re from Colorado. We live at the same elevation as this high mountain pass of yours.”

We figure they are more local than the two of us and, thus, take pride in having a little fun with the foreign couple.

We scramble up through the snow, which turns out to be nothing more than a thin, rimy coating. Nothing treacherous really, unless maybe if you happened to be carrying a mountain bike.

As we pass over the Forcletta, we witness slightly clearing skies; but there are still no views. We emerge from the confines of the basin and enter another series of lonely shepherd villages, and on to Gruben and the German-speaking portion of the Swiss region of Valais.

The tiny hamlet of Gruben is dominated by an intimidatingly large hotel, Hotel Schwarzhorn. We’re greeted by a wonderful cat that bounds to us, rolls for us, gets his fill of us, and runs from us as cats do. This fleeting moment of feline exuberance fills us with sheer joy, knowing that the innocence and enthusiasm of cats is shared the world over. Now we are exuberant.


After plodding around bashfully with wet clothes and dirty boots, we find our room, a fine example of the simple yet finely crafted and handsome woodwork of our many Swiss accommodations.

Brianna attracts more awkward moments: She knocks on the shared bathroom door and a naked man exits into the hallway to tell her he will be a minute; he then returns to the bathroom. She finds another shared bathroom in the lobby and quickly realizes that she is interrupting two people sharing a moment in the shower.

I wonder if, with the change in language, we will note a change in menu, or decor, or personality. I don’t have to wait long, as our first dinner in German-speaking Switzerland was pork and a big beer. Big.

As our schedules seem to be diverging from that of The Irish Ladies, we bid them good luck and farewell.

Day 11 | Gruben to St. Niklaus
The next morning is filled with drizzle. We hope to get an early start to beat the crowds that now occupy the trail; our route now overlaps with the Tour of the Matterhorn. We fail and are behind large, meandering groups all day.

The rains quiet the woods; the pass is covered in snow again. Today we slide over and through the Augstbordpass, famous as a trade route from the Middle Ages onward between the Rhône valley and Italy. We don’t see much besides rime-covered sign posts and hints of the shattered walls of rock that surround us. It’s eerie and gorgeous, though we reckon less dramatic than if we could see through clouds.

The rest of the day is spent in the fog until, finally, we stop for lunch on a rock, waiting for the clouds to part. We’d learned that near this spot is one of the most breathtaking vistas on the entire two-week trek. What can we do but wait and hope that the god of itinerant travelers  grants us our wish? We must have wished halfheartedly, as the clouds part, but only briefly to reveal the enormous Dom.

The Dom

Damn, it’s very brief! Shooting clouds rush through the valley, but we’re left wishing we had more time to sit and wait.

We are faced with the proposition of another knee-cartilage-shredding descent from Jungen to the Mattertal valley, a precipitous 2,700-foot drop in less than 2 miles. Our goal has, to this point, always remained the same—the Haute Route by two feet. So it is. “Down with lifts!” we mumble, our enthusiasm waning with the thought of surgery.

We forge downward, literally and figuratively. Brianna is more of a masochist than I had originally expected. Good for her.

For the first time our room has a TV but we refuse to watch it. Weren’t we supposed to be living in a tent? The luxury we’re subjected to when faced with limited choices in accommodations is alarming.

Continue to Part 5.

Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 3

Posted in Adventure, Europe, Glacier, Photography, Trekking, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2010 by chriscasephoto

This is the third of five installments of an article that first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here.

The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.

See a gallery of photos from the route here.


Day 7 | Arolla to La Sage
We must travel back up to Arolla in the morning for its grocery store. A granite staircase makes for a fine breakfast nook, around the town square of ten quiet buildings. The day starts calmly, with a grassy stroll past Lac Bleu to Les Haudéres in the rain. I think we both miss our friends, though we don’t mention it. Without any large ascents this day, we’re each left strolling at our own pace, with our own thoughts, memories, and questions. Will we ever see our friends again? Should we plan a trip to Scotland to see our friends? Are they on Facebook?

We make it to La Sage in the mist, and stay at an interesting cafe/restaurant/dortoir with few rooms, the only place in town. Is this a town? It’s maybe a hamlet, but it feels like the perfect place to have a home, and make a fire, and celebrate friendship.

Well, you can’t have it all so early in life. Brianna gets grumpy after seeing a man walking around in his underwear and walking in on another in the shower room who forgot to lock the lock. She is more bashful than the wrinkly old men from the Old World seem to be. She also just doesn’t like seeing naked old men.

Glacier du Moiry

Day 8 | La Sage to Cabane de Moiry
We climb and climb out of La Sage, through more rain and mist, among long silky grasses, past shepherd villages, and weathered shacks with rock roofs. We climb above the cows, their pastures, and their shepherds, and find ourselves in a scree-filled basin near Col du Tsaté, at 9,400 feet. We eat what must be the world’s finest Snickers bar. My god, it is so…satisfying. Finally, we see the sumptuous sun down in the valley of Moiry.

Haute Route, Stage 9

We work our way under the clouds, down to incredible views of the Glacier du Moiry, frozen in mid cataract from the rough-hewn slopes of the valley’s head. Our elation doesn’t last long for once, as we notice the depressing views of the parking lot and bus stop that comes up from the other side of the valley. Our five hours of climbing should be rewarded with solitude, we vehemently argue. Instead, we find eroded trails and those evil bus-riding cheaters strewn about, relaxing with their picnic lunches. I find little satisfaction in thinking about how much less satisfying their Snickers must taste since they haven’t climbed 5,000 vertical feet to get it.

We try to relax; we remind ourselves that this isn’t the middle of Flat Tops Wilderness area. The Alps possess other qualities that make up for its lack of solitude. After lunch, spent off the main trail but directly in front of the majestic moraines and frozen milk of the catatonic glacial cascade, we forge up the short but relentlessly steep final pitch to Cabane du Moiry. An early 20th-century stone hut fused with a 21st-century iron and glass dining room, anomalous among the rocks and ice and organic vistas, the hut sits just in front of and over the most sheer slope of the crystalline blue glacial ice. The juxtaposition is difficult to comprehend, especially when you’re enjoying a vegetarian meal of beans and beets and beans with 12 other very hungry hikers. That evening, a few days removed from losing our Scottish friends, we form a new bond with “The Irish Ladies,” Kay and Nora. We had seen them for a number of days; unfortunately, we were focussed on another territory of the Commonwealth at the time. Kay is probably 45; Nora maybe a decade older. They are tough and tenacious and Irish.

Day 9 | Cabane de Moiry to Zinal
We set out early, down the jarring slopes from Cabane de Moiry and out along the belvedere, hugging the contours high above the Aquafresh-colored waters of Lac de Moiry. Brianna is so excited by the color of the water that she decides to do a somersault off a cliff. I kid, of course. She was once prone to clumsiness; it happened to return here. Luckily, a rock stopped her from plummeting the 2,000 feet or so to the lake.

Stage 10, Lac de Moiry

We climb amongst the clouds and cows, to the Col de Sorebois, with glimpses of the ferocious Weisshorn. It’s another fine vista from which to enjoy Snickers and chips while perched on a rock.

We end today, as we have many days in the past, with a descent into a small village in a picturesque valley, the chimes of church bells and the tinny thud of cow bells calling to us. Today, it’s Zinal. And, today, the descent is dizzying, with 100 switchbacks or more. I can only think, “I’m glad I’m not Brianna’s knee.” She looks a bit pale by the time we reach the town, but  we find a market, and its entire aisle devoted to chocolate (a solid 30-foot section), is enough to revive her.

Whereas in the U.S. you might be overwhelmed by the number of, say, toothpastes that you must choose from, the Swiss have flipped the paradigm on its head. You only really need one kind of toothpaste to brush after you’ve chosen from the 500 kinds of chocolate. I like it here.

We search for the campground that’s said to be in town. No luck. We place a call to the tourist information office.

“Is the campground still open?” I ask.

“Um, it’s the summer.”

I’ll take that as a “no.”

We find the small but lovely Auberge Alpina, whose windowsill flower boxes neatly frame our views of the surrounding cirque.

And then it was time for lasagna.

Continue to Part 4.

Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 2

Posted in Adventure, Europe, Glacier, Photography, Trekking, Uncategorized, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2010 by chriscasephoto

This is the second of five installments of an article that first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. Read the first installment here. The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.

See a gallery of photos from the route here.


Day 4 | Vilette to Cabane du Mont Fort
We start the day with a bang: Stolen walking stick!

Fantastically, the trail climbs quite steeply. And it does so for five hours.

We spot a girl coming up behind us as we’ve stopped for a snack of Toblerone and fine, Swiss potato chips. It seems to be the same British girl from the previous day. But where’s the Yankee? She greets us with bon jour and now we’re quite confused. Didn’t she hear us speaking English?

Once past, Brianna and I discuss the possibilities. Is it a different girl? A doppelgänger? Are our eyes failing? Were the two of them not together in the first place? Finally, after much conjecture on this most serious of matters, I reckon he’s just being lazy (or suffering from an injury) and has taken the ski lift while she’s hiked.

At the next trail junction, she happens to be there again, looking confused. I decide to inquire.

Two points for me. It was the same girl we had seen the day before; and he was taking the lift. Turns out he had injured his groin. I mention his groin only because it makes for an interesting aside later in this tale; normally I wouldn’t talk about groins.

Kerfuffle settled, Brianna and I push on and head toward Cabane du Mont Fort, amongst the clouds.

That night, we see the two of them together again. I approach and tell the man that he is a rotten scoundrel for being lazy and taking the lift. We strike up a conversation and make new friends over dinner and card games. We learn the game of whist.

Minus two points for me. Our new friends are Aashray Lal and Mandy Crawford, both from Glasgow, Scotland. Ashray is of Indian descent; he spent his childhood in India, Saudi Arabia, London, and, now, Glasgow. Mandy is Glaswegian, through and through. They are young medical students. Mandy’s backpack must be big enough to carry Brianna in it the next day.

Outside this stone-built alpine hut, the sky shifts from misty, backlit sunset to soupy fog bank and back again.

Day 5 | Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri
We have breakfast with Aashray and Mandy, the first faces that have become familiar to us. They head out a few minutes before we do. When we leave, we see them coming back towards the hut.

“Getting a bit of a warm-up in before tackling the real route?” I ask. It turns out it wasn’t their first wrong turn.

Lucky for us, we acquire new trekking partners on this, one of the finest days of our fortnight on the trail. We’re in known chamois and ibex territory, and in combination with the dangerously spectacular views, the lush green mountain slopes we’re coursing through nearly bring us to our knees. It’s all broccoli-green slopes merging with sinister tongues of glacial debris, whipped-cream snow bowls, and shark-teeth ridge lines. Then, passing from one valley to the next by another drastic col, it’s all barren metallics and glacier-scoured rock valleys.

From Cabane du Mont Fort

Meanwhile, it was getting warm and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go swimming in a glacial tarn. Yes, I did it for beer—a beer from each of the three witnesses. But, in the end, it was most satisfying to know that I just swam in 33-degree water in polar bear-themed boxer shorts in front of two near-complete strangers.

For lunch we have a snowball fight, then make our way to Cabane de Prafleuri, where a liter and a half of water is a luxurious 8 CHF. I settle for three beers.

We sleep next to 20 others, including the “hand man.” Without any barriers between mattresses, I give Brianna the wall slot. I deal with the man whose hand seems to creep ever closer to me throughout the night. I go to the bathroom and when I return? Yes, his hand is draped across my domain. Needless to say, Brianna stayed warm the rest of the night with a human blanket.

Day 6 | Prafleuri to Arolla
Without words, we’re now a group. We head out together, down past Lac des Dix, Pas du Chat, all the while learning about our new friends. They’ve both traveled quite a bit. Aashray has toured southeast Asia, trekked to base camp on Everest, visited cousins in Santa Cruz who say “oh…my…god” a lot. Mandy lived, worked, and wandered through Australia for six months, and has been skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine with her primary school. To that I gasp, “Oh….my….god!” To fly across the Atlantic to ski at Sugarloaf seems mad. The Scottish don’t think it is particularly out of the ordinary, and then we learn how inexpensive it is for them to go just about anywhere in the world. Hence, their palmarès.

Glacier du Moiry

I finally ask: it turns out they are not a couple, though they’ve known each other for a decade or so. Aashray comes from a long line of doctors. Mandy’s father is an accountant who works in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and takes the ferry from Scotland every week.

We slowly work our way down to Arolla, having tackled another sharp ascent and descent which seems to roil the knee; they cruise ahead. We’ve finally found another place to camp—only our second opportunity to legally do so—while they stay at Hotel du Glacier for their last night on the trail.

We meet for dinner. With their stay they receive a fine four-course meal; for us, it’s the savory melted cheese in a pot (fondly called fondue). We play no cards, but remain embroiled in conversation. We talk about what we like to cook and eat when we’re at home. We all agree that hummus is one of the best foods there is. And, chocolate is also very special.

We say goodbye and Brianna gets some Scottish pain ointments from Aashray. He had been putting them to good use on his groin; she will now slather them on her knee. It is of no concern to her. She seeks relief.

We head down to the campground in the rain, in the dark, on a trail of mud in our sandals. A fellow camper has decided to set up his tent two feet away from our tent door, though there is a soccer pitch worth of grass to choose from.

Good night.

Continue to Part 3.

Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 1

Posted in Adventure, Europe, Trekking, Wilderness with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by chriscasephoto

This article first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. This is the first of five installments.

See a gallery of photos from the route here.


Of walkers, Robert Louis Stevenson said, “He who is of the brotherhood does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours—of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest. He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off, with more delight.”

We arrive by train from Paris, late in the afternoon rain. Brianna and I are traveling like the rather strapped fans of spontaneity that we are. What to do? Well, there’s finding a  cheap place to sleep and a cheap place to eat. And then there’s wandering in Chamonix.

We wander a bit; European villages are best discovered through the art of impulsive choice. Why worry about later when you can feel good about what you’re doing now?

Eventually we find Hotel Le Boule de Neige. Just maybe, the Hotel Snowball is the same place I stayed years earlier, when passing through Chamonix (having traveled over the Alps from Italy by a series of big téléphérique and small télécabine) before heading to Barcelona.

The Snowball has everything we need, which at this point is a well-built roof; the rains are still trickling. We’re shown to our room: we have Mont Blanc views, and the crisp Alpine air blowing through the window allows for a warm, mummified sleep in the down duvet. We dream of backpacks.

Day 1 | Chamonix to Trient
We’re treated to homemade banana pancakes in the morning. Then, it looks to be a fine day for some walking.

Chamonix to Argentière to Le Tour to Col de Balme. Before you begin, the names don’t mean so much—they’re just foreign names that you may even have a hard time pronouncing. Then, you spend all day climbing toward these names, these places, reading them over and over again in your guidebook, on the trail signs, buildings, and alpine huts. Then, you’re in these names, in these places, and they become something: they become your own discoveries. You’ll never forget their sound, their sight, that feeling of freedom. So many more places to absorb.

We cross the border from France to Switzerland at Col de Balme. Brianna’s mysterious knee pain commences somewhere on that first ascent. Over hours of descending, the pain level increases to what we’ve dubbed “threat level nine.” Reluctantly, we let it dawn on us: The entire trip is, as unimaginable as it may seem, in jeopardy. Do we abort? Already?

We limp down the neon green grasses into Switzerland and the Trient Valley, stumble through the scattered homes of Le Peuty, and reach the village of Trient and its one accommodation, the Relais du Mont Blanc. As we try to find beds, confusion ensues: a concoction of language troubles, unfamiliar customs, and chaos in the combination dining room/reception desk/bar/convenience store. Perhaps it’s because I don’t speak French, and Brianna, who does, can’t feel her knee, her leg, or her tongue at this point. Alas, we get beds, a fine dinner, and more.

As we eat, we eavesdrop on the strangest trilingual family dynamic that we’ve ever witnessed, including a dinner-time, pants-unbuttoned belly rub by the young mother. An American man speaks English to his German-speaking son and wife. They respond in German. He speaks to the waitress in French. Occasionally, the parents converse in fluent German. Sometimes, the father would make the son speak French to the waitress. It is hard to comprehend. For all their conversation and intelligence, their entire dynamic is awkward. They don’t seem enthusiastic about life, or each other.

Come to think of it, Brianna doesn’t either, given her knee has exploded (or is it imploded) on this, the first of 13 days of Alpine trekking.

A British man is left at the bar by his hiking compatriots. He orders two more beers and two more shots of whiskey and sits quietly by himself.

We’re off to bed, avoiding the obvious.

Day 2 | Trient to Champex Lac
Sticker shock. Swiss extortion. We learn that dortoir must mean “little for lots” in French. We pay 70 CHF (Swiss Francs; about $70) per person to sleep on a 2-inch thick mattress next to 14 strangers.

We put those terrible thoughts behind us. We are in Switzerland. It is beautiful.

We debate the terrible thought of broken anatomy. Our procrastination is aided by the communal computer in the corner. Where should we go? Zurich? Rome? Hell, Prague isn’t that far away. A short search for train tickets across Europe leads us nowhere: We both know what we really want to do is move on, onto the trail, outside, up the path, through the pastures, over the col, onto the next valley, and on.

We get our packs and start walking somewhere, desperate not to stop. Finally, the ubiquitous yellow-signed junction forces a decision. Do we proceed? Do we veer off course and toward a bus link?

“F*** it!” Let’s do this.” She is angry at her knee. At 5 feet 2 inches, 110 pounds, Brianna is a force to be reckoned with. We continue upward; she’s just committed to 12 days of various amounts of pain. Me? I’ve just let her.

We head for the Fenêtre d’Arpette, a ragged col some 4,457 feet above where we now stand, alongside a magnificent scene: the Glacier du Trient. We borrow a branch from the side of the trail; young people never start with trekking poles. The scenery, the stick, the sensation of being lost far from home bring the pain down to level two.

Over the col, we head down to Champex Lac in the rain. The long day is saved by the mighty stick. We eat a Swiss favorite, rösti, made of potatoes, cheese, bacon, onions, and tomatoes and it is just right: It is warm, and it is filling. We only slightly wince at the price.

We transfer weight from pack to pack, hers to mine. I scold Brianna for bringing reading material. That’s because she has chosen one of her favorite books to bring along: the 6-pound unabridged translation of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

It gets left at the campground treasure bin. Look for it when next you’re trekking  through Champex.

Goodbye, Count. Hello, knee.

Day 3 | Champex to Vilette
From Champex Lac we stroll along grassy trails, passing back and forth with what sound like an American young man (with his New York Yankees hat) and a British young lady. We’re strolling through beautiful pastures and working villages, passing by understandably gruff Swiss lumberjacks. It’s all a pleasure to see.

We get caught in the rain again, so the rain gear goes on. The sun comes out; the rain gear comes off. Dark clouds; rain gear on. Winds pick up, rains turn to downpour. Now it’s the hood-down, wet-stare walk. Of course, the skies clear, and the heat builds. The rain gear comes off.

We reach the day’s terminus village and, again, we find ourselves wandering, this time through rustic Le Châble. There’s meant to be a bed and breakfast here, but we’re too foreign to find it. Along the way we spy the hay in people’s garages, stilted homes from the 1600s, and the character of this Swiss hamlet, defined by its craftsmanship, tidiness, humble proportions. Nothing here feels large or daunting or pretentious.

At the only hotel we can find, Hotel du Gietroz, across the river in Vilette, we consume an exquisite dinner of lamb in a burgundy sauce, a fried mountain of polenta, soup, salad, and chocolate mousse. And we thought we were going to live inexpensively. And eat poorly. And sleep in a tent. And dine on bread and cheese and chocolate. But we can’t. And we’re fine with that.

Continue to Part 2.


Posted in Photography, Uncategorized with tags , on November 24, 2010 by chriscasephoto

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