Dispatches from the Alps, 5
We have used up the afternoon of our first day in Switzerland by touring the unique and almost unknown art collection at Furka Pass, but before descending back to the Valais, Janis Osolin leads us on a small detour to view the Rhône Glacier, which now has to be hiked to above the Hotel Belvédère, which was built down a few hairpins from the summit in order originally to look down on the ice. Now the glacier has retreated out of sight from the guests. He leads us to a gated dirt road, raises the barrier for us to pass through, and we park minutes later where the road ends at a massive granite fortification built in the 1890s as part of the National Redoubt. The rounded prow of the fortress gives it the air of submarine from a Jules Verne novel that has backed itself into the mountain.
Fort Galenhutte held several “long guns” that were more akin to naval guns than army artillery, armaments with a limited field of fire meant to control access to the pass against German or Italian forces. As Benoit points out, the Alps are a bit like Swiss cheese, tunneled through and through with civilian and military tunnels and facilities still being created today. Digging a 27-kilometer-long tunnel more than three hundred feet underground during the last decade for the Large Hadron Collider is simply part of a long tradition for the Swiss.
We pass in front and under the prow of the fort, its glowering brow like a set in a James Bond movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m thinking of Sean Connery in his Aston Martin DB5 dueling on the pass with Tilly Masterson’s Mustang, a car chase for Goldfinger that in 1964 established the need for a spectacular car shase in every future Bond. As we round the ridge the melt pond at the snout of the glacier comes into view, and then the heavily creased ice itself, which rises into the clouds and sleet. All thoughts of car chases are erased.
A regular grid of large melted sun cups marks where large white blankets have been placed on the end of the glacier nearest the Hotel Belvédère. They were laid out by the family that owns this part of the glacier (yes, most of the peaks and glaciers in Switzerland are actually in private hands). Each year since 1870 they have tunneled out a 100-meter-long ice grotto for tourists to explore after paying a fee. The ice at the melting end of a glacier tends to be dirty and dark, thus absorbs sunlight and melts even faster than the rest of the glacier. The white blankets, which look very much like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s early Australia wrap installation, reflect sunlight and help keep the ice from disappearing before the end of tourist season in the face of global warming. It’s a technique now being used on glaciers around the world, but more often to protect water sources.
Janis ends our tour by saying how much en enjoys the contrast between the small scale of the art projects and the large scale of the landscape. The art is not in competition with the place, but very much of it.