This story begins high above the alps. It is a story of change. Of transition and of voyage. It is a story of simple contrasts, long trips, and the small details that define the world around us. It begins in the uppermost reaches of roiling clouds as they form along the border between the Austrian and Italian Alps. Casually adrift they eventually find themselves caught; snagged on jagged mountain peaks dotted by the sharp protrusions of evergreen treetops. As gravity takes hold and nature pulls the clouds downward a process as old as the earth unfolds. Water vapor rises, condenses, and crystallizes. Like a master tinkerer, the cloud crafts trillions of tiny stars. Each is an ever-so-slight variation of the star shape we picture as we close our eyes and dream of winter. These newly born stars float suspended in quasi-darkness thousands of feet above the earth waiting to launch themselves upon the world below.
With the gust of wind, a change in pressure, and a drop in temperature clouds struggle to free themselves of their mountain moorings. As they lighten their loads snowflakes begin their gentle descent. Some find themselves falling quickly, others drifting as they are tossed from side to side by alpine winds. They descend towards fallen brethren. Some revert to their watery origins – torn apart – by waves of heat. Others are thrown together, crushed within the feathers of sharp-eyed golden eagles or the furrows of an Alps-Crow’s black wings. Most survive to continue their reckless descent.
For some their trip comes to an untimely end. Extinguished by the heat of a child’s outstretched tongue. Others find themselves caught in the top branches of old trees and small spring saplings. A perch that lends a fabulous view of the valley’s white slopes and snow-covered fields, but which also offers them up as sacrifice to the sun in a way reminiscent of ancient Incan ceremonies.
Others find themselves surrounded by their brethren as they cast a thick blanket across the earth’s rich soil. It is a war of sorts. The war of seasons. In winter frozen snowflakes spread themselves across the soil’s surface, blocking it from the sun and denying it the liquid hydration it demands to survive. In summer, when the dark hues of rich humus and golden rays of the sun combine, the earth finds itself hungrily gorging itself on water that has long forgotten what it felt like to take the form of a frozen star.
As day ebbs and night descends a full moon’s white light is reflected off a trillion sparkling points. Each dreams of a life spent beside the moon in the deepest reaches of space as a small part of the Milky Way. Instead, small gusts of wind cast snowflakes back into the air, tossing and turning them before allowing them to crash back against their mates.
Morning’s early rays. Warmth. Blue skies. Sun. The shimmer of heat rising, reflected off white crystalline shapes. A reversion from tiny star to water and gas. A new voyage, this one slow but persistent. Soaking deep into the half-frozen soil. Drifting across slicked rocks. Carried along by un-melted snowflakes.
The birth of a small stream hidden beneath snowbanks. The soft gurgle of water splashing over stones as a trickle grows, freed by the sun. The promise of spring as weather warms. Tiny crystalline star after tiny crystalline star giving way to heat, sun, and the caress of water. Moments of uncertainty as the gentle onslaught of a stream slowly carves grottos beneath the snow’s smooth white surface. And then collapse as the strength of millions of interlocked snowflakes give way beneath their own weight.
Moments. Hours. Days of tentative equilibrium as stream, sun and snowflake reach a fragile balance. By day the sun beats down, forcing snow flakes to wither and drip their way toward the stream. By evening, night and early morning the cold caress of alpine winds, fresh snow, and freezing air strive to re-claim lost snowflakes.
Half-exposed segments of the stream re-discover their crystalline origins. These re-freeze on a much grander scale. Their struggle futile. Brief. But beautiful in its grand gestures. Others struggle in transition. Most of their form lost. They form pillars by gravity and circumstance that stand as bulwarks against the stream’s cold bite as they loom above the churning waters.
I captured these photos during a two-hour snowshoe hike provided by the folks at Obergurgl Ski School and the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl Tourism Board just outside the city of Obergurgl in the Austrian Alps. The weather was spectacular with blue skies and clean mountain air. As we hiked along a small stream made up of snow melt, I was taken by the beauty of the ice crystal formations. Those photos gave birth to this post. One which I hope you enjoyed. It is an incredible area full of stunning natural beauty. Photos were shot on a Canon 600D.