Photographing the Swiss Alps: A classroom of peaks and ice
Some things are best learned outside the classroom. Uniting her background in photography and education, ZOZI staffer Taylor epitomizes experiential learning as a trip leader for National Geographic Student Expeditions. Her most recent teaching trip, a 15-day journey through the Swiss Alps, taught nine high school students how to capture a picture-perfect photograph—but the reaches of their learning during the trip extended far beyond the lenses of their cameras.
Over 15 days, our group winded south through the Swiss Alps from Grindelwald to Chamonix on a National Geographic Student Expedition. This was my eighth expedition as a National Geographic trip leader. The main thing I wanted to teach my students was the exposure triangle: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. By the end of the trip, I wanted them to be able to shoot in manual, understand composition, and edit and develop their own photos.
Our first stop was Grindelwald, a small village in the canton of Bern, Switzerland, nestled in the Alps at 3,392 feet above sea level. We hopped on a bus that zigzagged us high into the mountains for a classic Swiss experience: a yodeling festival.
The bus dropped us on the edge of a cliff—but we had no idea because we were in a cloud. When the fog cleared, we were greeted by the songs of the Jodlerkulb, the local yodeling club.
Jodlerkulb sang, played music with their alphorns and sold traditional Swiss foods from stands set up on the side of the mountain. Luckily one student spoke German, so we were able to chat with the locals and tell them about our expedition. We stayed through breakfast and then lunch, where they served Raclette—a large half-wheel of local cheese melted on one side and scraped onto bread—eaten with gherkins, onions, dried meats and potatoes.
From there, our trip took us further up through high-alpine icy wonder to the Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest railway station at 11,332 feet. The Jungfrau railway connects Grindelwald, Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen and Wengen.
In the valleys, students captured snowcapped mountains and fields of Alpenrose, Globeflower, Alpine Stonecrop and Creeping Azalea that carpeted the ground with green, yellow and purple—a picturesque contrast to the towering peaks that surrounded us.
The ease of travel throughout the trip let us dive deeper and fully appreciate the landscape. Well-marked trails with easy-to-read signs made exploring simple. Plus, there were plenty of trails where you could ride a gondola up and hike back down, or, alternatively, hike until you're tired and hop on a gondola the rest of the way.
Traveling by train from Grindelwald to the Matterhorn was an effortless way to see the mountains. Huge seat-to-ceiling windows provided a panorama to the tops of the peaks as we rode through pastures and past traditional chalets.
In Zermatt, we stayed in a lone hotel at the top of a mountain, accessible only by hiking or gondola. You could stand anywhere and see the white-dusted peaks all around and the jagged Matterhorn towering majestically above, dwarfing everything in its presence. People travel from all over the world to hike, climb and ski at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (it's name describes it very well). It's the site of the highest cable car station in Europe, and you can ski every single day of the year there while gazing over mountains in Italy, France and Switzerland.
We spent about six hours hiking around the Theodul Glacier, located above Zermatt in the canton of Valais. Crossing rock and snow and ice, there were endless opportunities for good shots—and the students learned about glacial movement and global warming along the way.
Our final destination took us across the border to France, where we stayed in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. Another area renowned for alpine beauty and world-class mountain sport, Chamonix is the highest summit in the Alps and the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Cable cars like the famous Aiguille du Midi take skiers up to 12,605 feet above sea level, the highest vertical ascent in the world.
This time we hiked on a glacier, not around it. We rented crampons, pick axes, harnesses and helmets and hired a guide who taught us mountaineering skills. The fog was dense at times, and walking on ice and rocks amid low visibility with giant spikes strapped to our feet took some practice.
Along the trek we reached a 20- or 30-foot moulin, or a spot on the glacier where water melts and creates a deep hole in the glacier. Sometimes you don't know they exist because they're covered in snow—which is why we had a guide and wore harnesses. Donning all our climbing gear, we drilled holes, set up ropes and descended down 10 or 15 feet into the hole to check it out. Then we put our new mountaineering skills to the test, kicking our crampons into the slippery ice walls in order to hoist ourselves back out.
Part of what makes National Geographic Student Expeditions so special is they embody the values of National Geographic Society: storytelling, exploring, and conservation. Students on these trips gain not only photography or filmmaking skills, but also an appreciation for the world and how to travel respectfully within it. Students also get first-hand experience with inspirational explorers: We were lucky to have Robbie Shone, the world's preeminent cave photographer, join us on the trip.
There is so much opportunity for learning in the field, and some lessons just can't be taught as well inside a classroom. I was able to give students photography skills, but we also taught them about glacial melt, mountaineering, and treading lightly when you travel—both physically and culturally. On these expeditions, I get to watch students challenge their assumptions, open their minds, and find their passions, and it's those "a-ha" moments that make me love teaching and keep coming back for more.