Watching the Perseid Meteor Shower

On the night of 12-13 August, I took some friends up to the top of a small mountain to watch the annual Perseid meteor shower. This year was predicted to be particularly good, largely due to the peak of the shower being just a few days before a new moon, making for optimal (i.e., dark) viewing conditions. The weather forecast called for a clear night sky, so we were all excited to watch this show (with an expected 50-100 meteors per hour) from a high and dry vantage point away from the city lights.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet that goes around our sun in a 133-year orbit. Every time the comet comes close to the sun, it heats up and releases small particles that linger around in its path. And every year in August, Earth passes through this debris field, causing many of these particles to hit our atmosphere at high speeds (over 200,000 km/hr), burning up, and giving rise to a spectacular light show. Here is a nice 1-minute video from BBC News that explains a bit about the meteor shower, together with beautiful photos of actual meteors streaking across the sky.

The meteor shower’s peak for this year was predicted to be during the night of 12-13 August. Since the best way of viewing it is between midnight and dawn, away from any major light sources (such as cities), I decided to hike up a small mountain and spend the night there, inviting some friends to come along and enjoy the show. We took a train from Lausanne to Les Avants, a small mountain village above Montreux, and from there we walked for two hours to get to the top of Le Molard, a local mountain peak at 1752m. On the way up, we witnessed a beautiful sunset over nearby Lake Geneva.

Sunset over Lake Geneva from halfway up the mountain.
Sunset over Lake Geneva from halfway up the mountain.

We reached the top just after sunset, enjoyed some snacks and a glass of wine, and then rolled out our sleeping bags to get at least a couple of hours of sleep. We woke up again at 1am, and watched the meteor shower for about two hours. I have seen the Perseid meteor shower a few times in previous years (also from a high and dark place), but I have to say that I have never seen so many and such bright meteors. They just kept coming, one after another. A spectacular show indeed.

Lake Geneva at night.
Lake Geneva at night. The bright spot on the right is Lausanne. On the other side (on the left) is Evian, France. Photo credit: Eric Pinto.

We then tried to sleep a bit more, but I woke up again at 5:30am when a faint light started to show up in the eastern sky. After watching the horizon turn red and pink and orange, finally the sun itself popped up from behind the mountains. Another spectacular view.

The sun appearing from behind the mountains in the east.
The sun appearing from behind the mountains in the east.

Since my friends had to work that day, they started walking down right away to catch an early train back home. I lingered around on top a little longer, and then decided to take an alternative trail back down to Les Avants. Instead of taking the train, however, I actually continued on through the Gorge du Chauderon, a narrow canyon that stretches all the way down to Montreux. There are many beautiful waterfalls and rock formations inside this canyon, which is a delight to walk through.

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One of the waterfalls in the Gorge du Chauderon.

So, after a night with little sleep and then hiking a total of 1400m downhill, I finally arrived in Montreux, from where I took a train back home. Unfortunately it had not been possible to take any pictures of the meteors with my simple point & shoot camera, but the memories will certainly remain. And even the views of the sunset and sunrise from the top of the mountain already made it worth the trip!

You can view more pictures of this hike and the beautiful sunrise.