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A week in Arolla, Switzerland – third year BSc Geography Fieldtrip

Studying Geography at Durham is the best way to make your friends envy you! The integration of fieldwork into our course provides for amazing trips abroad that not many other degrees can boast about. In my third year studying BSc Geography, I jumped at the opportunity to continue to develop my research skills while in the Swiss Alps. We spent a week planning our projects in June of the second year and come September, we jetted off to a quiet ski village in the Arolla Valley, in the south western corner of Switzerland.

The village is a popular starting point for mountain expeditions as it is situated at the foot of Mont Collon. It is also a stopping point for hikers on the Haute Route (a trek between Chamonix and Zermatt). In the winter it has a small ski piste with many hotels and apartments equipped for those interested. We stayed in Hotel Aiguille de la Tza, named after the mountain opposite. It’s a lovely, typical Swiss chalet -esque hotel.

On the first day we hiked around the valley, orienteering ourselves with the sites we would be working in for our research and visiting the village of Arolla itself. Much to our delight it snowed throughout the day and left for very picturesque views of the valley.

Following this, we spent the next five days on our projects. This involved collecting data to fit a research question. I was in a group with two others and we were investigating the change in river channel morphology as a result of sediment fan input. This meant we wanted to know if the rocks and general material that had fallen off the sides of the surrounding mountains had much impact on the shape of the river and its location. Other groups looked at the recolonisation of alpine vegetation after a known slope failure via a debris-flow fan. Another group carried out a similar investigation but on the exposed ski piste; looking at how the use of the piste would affect the vegetation growth.

Throughout the five days, we took a range of measurements and were able to use high tech equipment as provided by the university. I had the chance to use a Differential GPS which has impressive high precision measurements of 10cm, compared to the average GPS of 5-10m! Knee deep in the alpine river with our waders on, we also recorded sizes of the rocks to see how they change as you go downstream and took photographs of the sediment in order to analyse the size distribution later through the program PebbleCounts. The skills you gain on trips like this are crucial to those interested in research but are also undeniably helpful when reading academic papers as it is useful to understand the work they would have done to publish those results.

Every evening we would have an amazing meal in the hotel, comprising of traditional food such as a cheese fondue with tomato (pictured) and a raclette. Considering how expensive Switzerland is in general, this trip was a really nice and affordable way (the cost of the tip is highly subsidised by the uni) to experience Swiss culture in a beautiful valley while gaining valuable skills in fieldwork. On the last day we hiked up to Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla on a lovely sunny day – it is always so satisfying and rewarding once you get to the summit and see the views around you.

Post fieldwork, we have had practicals in order to go through our data and analyse it in order to answer our research questions. In the coming weeks, we will present our findings to our peers and then write it up in a scientific report as our summative assessments.

Fieldtrips are a really enjoyable element of Geography at Durham and unsurprisingly lead to many new friendships and unforgettable memories while seeing the world with your peers. At the end of the day, would you expect any less of a department ranked in the top 10 for seven consecutive years in the QS World University Rankings by Subject!

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Charlotte Landry-Jennings

Hi, I’m Charlotte and a 3rd year BSc Geographer. Surprisingly, I do more than just colour in – I take a seat in the uni Concert Band and Butler college’s Folk Band, and that’s when I’m not trying to figure out where I went wrong when using GIS.
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