on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

The Decaying Alps

Humanity’s Presence

Alex Roddie

An outdoor writer, photographer and editor with a passion for the wild places of Britain and Europe. He writes for the UK outdoor press and is happiest when on a mountain as far from civilisation as possible


Think of an image depicting the Swiss Alps. Chances are, you’re visualising a gorgeous scene of the Matterhorn, perhaps rising above a meadow of wildflowers, maybe reflected in the still waters of a pool at dawn. The Matterhorn is a dominant visual motif in popular Alpine imagery. But how accurate is that depiction of an unspoiled natural mountain environment? And as photographers, is it our duty to tell the full, uncensored truth?

I first visited the Swiss Alps in 2007. I wasn’t a photographer then – I came to the mountains as a climber, a passion that slowly morphed into a love of landscape and mountain photography. But I remember feeling puzzled at the disconnect between reality and my expectations. Almost every image I’d seen published of the Swiss Alps portrayed pristine, beautiful desolation – or, at most, a minimal human footprint on the land. A quaint wooden chalet or cobbled street leading the eye over the rooftops and back into the mountains.

But I remember feeling puzzled at the disconnect between reality and my expectations.
The reality I saw was quite different, and yet perhaps no different to any other mountain landscape. Switzerland is a developed country, not a wilderness. Humanity’s presence is everywhere – even if landscape photography rarely embraces that presence to its full extent. The same can be said of the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, or even Iceland.

But it was only when I returned to the same spot a decade later, in 2017, that I comprehended the true scale of this reality gap in the Alps.

On an intellectual level, I knew that climate change was affecting the Alps, that glaciers were in retreat, but there’s nothing like seeing it for yourself to drive the point home. When I returned to Zermatt in September 2017 and revisited some of the climbs I’d done ten years before, I was shocked at what I found.

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  • Mike Chisholm

    What an excellent and timely piece, Alex. The irony is that it is only us, humanity, who notice, reflect upon, and care about the changes we ourselves are bringing about. “Nature” itself is as indifferent as it has always been to such changes, and your photographs convey both sides of this process beautifully. ~ Mike

  • Adam Pierzchala

    Good article and I can only agree with you having seen for myself how the glaciers that I walked on with my father 30-40 years ago have changed.
    But I am not convinced that showing the “ugly truth” is the way to bring the effects of climate warming to the public’s attention – even though a picture is supposed to be worth those thousand words. I suspect that most people tend to gloss over ugly landscape images, preferring to linger over those that look pretty – postcards if you like. However, well written punchy short articles, preferably describing real natural events with dramatic content may well be more potent in getting the message across. I would say though that this almost certainly does not apply to events where human tragedy occurs.
    Now I admit to not looking very closely at your photos of the rubble scattered at the glacier edge, but I did take note of massive collapse, evacuations, landslide and people being killed. Maybe it’s that words have a greater effect on me than a picture of the ugly truth, or maybe it’s because I have seen for myself the glaciers decomposing in real life. None of this is to decry your very good intentions, pictures of destruction are certainly one way of bringing attention to what’s happening right now.

  • I have just returned from a couple of days in Engadine and the pace of glacial retreat is frightening. Not because it is happening but because it appears to be accelerating. I photographed the Morteratsch glacier first three years ago and on Thursday I returned to approximately the same vantage point to make a follow up image. I was alarmed to see that the glacier has retreated over 200m in just those few short years.

    I also hiked out to the Roseg glacier and that, too, was in poor shape. Switzerland seems to suffering a faster rate of warming than other countries – possibly because so much of its landscape should be covered in a reflective covering of snow for most of the year and increasingly isn’t…

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