Sunrise over the Matterhorn

The view of the triangular mountain from Zermatt village is appealing, and a walk through the lanes takes you past many people pointing their camera-phones skyward. The obvious photographic draw isn’t the most-photographed mountain in the world for no reason – its distinctive point sits isolated from surrounding peaks and, as such, is a magnet for the landscape photographer.

Having photographed the usual scenes from the village and on casual trips to the mountain slopes several times over the previous eight years, I started to feel the need to get more interesting, less repetitive views of the mountain. After walking from Rotenboden to Riffelalp in 2015 and photographing the golden larches, I decided to set my alarm early for the following day and photograph the sunrise.

The autumn sun reaches the Mattherhorn over two hours before it reaches the valley floor.

I tip-toed out of the hotel at 6.45 a.m. and made may way to an elevated viewpoint above the village. Hurrying through the chilly darkness, the summit of the mountain was already illuminated by the first rays of the sun. The peak is nearly 3,000 metres higher than the village, so the late autumn sunrise there is over two hours earlier than in the secluded valley. I’d worked out the location on Wiestistrasse myself, based on maps and other landscape photographers’ pictures, and I was over the moon with the choice. (Six years later, with the hugely-increased popularity of Instagram, the spot now has its own marker on Google Maps.)

Early morning in Zermatt, with the Matterhorn and golden larches on the upper mountain slopes in full sunshine

After the breath-taking autumn experience in 2015, we visited again last weekend. I had two goals in mind: the first was to capture some images amongst the yellowed larches, and the second was to experience another sunrise. So I found myself checking a suitable webcam, getting dressed quickly and quietly in a dark hotel room, and walking to the village station of the Gornergrat railway. I grabbed an iced coffee and a roll before joining the first train, at 7 a.m., in which my only travelling companions were a lone, elderly hiker, a family with young children (who were probably awake long before I was), and a small group of eager but sleepy young lads with tripods.

The cog-wheel train shook itself up through the edge of the village and onto the mountain, and I strained my eyes into the darkness to get my first sight of my subject for the day: a triangular outline against an impossibly deep-blue pre-dawn sky. I decided to tweet some “behind the scenes” photos from the expedition, and got some feedback from other early risers as they followed what I was posting.

I’d purchased a round-trip ticket, which allowed me to get on and off the train as I chose. Although I’d initially planned on travelling straight to the top-most station, I decided spontaneously to exit the train at Riffelberg and headed across the silent, empty landscape to a suitable spot, around ten-minutes from the station. Only a handful of chamois and I were on the slopes to witness the pink pre-dawn glow, as the train carried the other photographers on to higher viewpoints.

Blearily waiting for the first train of the day to depart
Set up and ready to photograph at Riffelberg
The Weisshorn (4,505m) was the first peak to catch the sun
-5°C and a light breeze. But worth it.
First light of the day hitting the mountain-tops

Unsurprisingly, the clear weather and spectacular landscape made for a very productive hour of photography. Wrapped up warm against the cold breeze – which increased as the sun started to come up – I took image after image of both the Matterhorn and the surrounding landscape. Although the routine of sunrise happens every day, just as it has for millions of years, it’s still an incredible and deeply calming experience. An hour-and-a-quarter after arriving in the pink pre-dawn glow, I packed up my gear and returned to the station and caught the next train of the day, heading up towards Rotenboden and to the next photographic stop of the day.

The very first minutes of dawn arrive at 4,478m above sea level
The mountain station at Blauherd catches the sun, whilst Sunnegga remains in shadow
The Weisshorn and snow defences, high above Zermatt village
Matterhorn under a pink, pre-dawn glow, photographed from Riffelberg
The Dent Blanche and Ober Gabelhorn peaks catch the sun before the Matterhorn

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