Four mountain passes in four days
Trip Start May 29, 2005
25Trip End Dec 17, 2005
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Four mountain passes in four days
Interlaken to Germany.
Mountain pass 1 - Grindelwald, easy on the gas
15 July, Friday
Start point: Lauterbrunnen (SE if interlaken)
End point: Innertkirchen
Total Ascent(m): 1299
Max Altitude(m) 1974
Max Speed(Km/h): 46.1
When I awoke, I opened the tent I was greeted to the most amazing view of a waterfall down a sheer cliff. (See first picture)
I knew the lift to the top of the highest mountain in the region, the Jungfraujoch station at 3454m was expensive. When the lady asked for 80 pounds I said I'd have to think about it - which I did for about 2 seconds. If I'd got the bus, hiked part then I could have done it for less but with the weather turning on Monday I decided it was time to press on. Besides, it would not be the only Mountain View I'd have over the next couple of days.
This was the part I'd been looking forward to. Some of the highest and hardest mountain passes in the heart of Switzerland and the heights of the map told me I was in for a treat. I had 4 passes planed over the next 4 days. The first one, Great Scheidegg starts at 600m, climbs to a ski resort called Grindelwald and then the traffic free section continues up the valley to 1962m. The peaks of the mountains lining the valley are a towering 3701 and 2928 meters in a classic U shaped valley - if you can't remember what that means from your geography lessons then imagine a flattish valley floor with steep sides rising into sheer cliffs, these towering 2000 meters high. It's all a result of glacial action years ago an in some places further up the valley - it's still ongoing.
The pass over Great Scheidegg is the ideal beginner mountain pass because the last half is closed to cars, the road is sealed, natural springs provide drinking water en-route and the vies are spectacular.
My progress was hampered after finding an internet connection. I needed the next set of maps uploading onto my GPS and had numerous other jobs to do. The second factor was a poor choice of diet. Eating too much pasta left me feeling a little bunged up so I purchased a bag of dried fruits. Big mistake. Lets just say it lead to a build up pressure and a general feeling of bloatedness.
Rather smartly, those who attempted the pass did so either on super lightweight racing bikes or mountain bikes. I got odd looks as I edged my way slowly but steadily upwards on a touring bike laden with bags, tent and bottles of booze. The rewarding views made it worthwhile, the pictures speak for themselves. I spotted my first glacier which ended in a torrent of melt water and I watched the legendary Eiger Mountain at 3970 meters pass by on my right hand side. This combined with perfect cycling conditions, I couldn't be happier. The whole effort was undertaken at a slow but steady pace. A whole day is easily enough time to walk the pass so I was not worried about having to rush.
I arrived at the top of the pass - much to the astonishment of a guest in the only hotel at the top. He was taking pictures of the sun dropping below the distant peaks. We chatted and I asked him to take my picture. The decent down the other side was a dream. It followed a stream of milky near freezing glacial melt water, stunning scenery, woods, hair pin bends, cliffs to name a few. Further down the valley the gradient became less severe and soon I was whizzing down a gentle incline following the path of the valley. There is over a 10 DegC difference between the temperature at the top of the pass to that of the valley floor below and I realised the contrast when I arrived at the first campsite located at the mouth of the valley. It had been rather warm there that day and the campsite owner was surprised when I found it difficult to write my name because my hands were so cold - after pulling off a pair of winter gloves. Sure enough the other guests were complaining about the heat and told me how they cooled off by taking showers.
In summary, Day 1 in the mountains was a success. A change in diet and application of more DEET based replant would have solved any of the inconveniences caused during the climb.
As I pitched in the dark, imagine my surprise when I opened the zip of my tent to see this!
A view from the campsite
Ski town of Grindelwald
That's a glacier behind me
View from the top
Early evening on the way down
Glacial melt water follows the road on the way down.
The cows for company
Mountain pass 2 - Susten Pass, Tyre splitting
16 July, Saturday
Start point: Innertkirchen
End point: Altdorf (Near Lake Urner)
Via: Susten Pass
Total Ascent(m): 1664
Max Altitude(m) 2264
Max Speed(Km/h): 54.6
Awoke to the unexpected sound of pitter patter on the tent followed by the odd rumble of thunder. I decided to take the day off and wandered over to join a group of bikers from Preston, England, for a chat. They'd just come over the pass I was due to attempt today. "On a bicycle? Are you mad", I changed the subject. "The forecast is good for this afternoon" they said. That was all the encouragement I needed so I packed up and headed off into the rain. Soon the sun was shining and I was climbing slowly but surely over pass number 2 - the Sustenpass.
For me cycling up a sustained gradient over 12% on a touring bike laden with bags, tent, provisions and junk is challenging. The reason is in order to maintain your balance, you need to be going a certain speed. At 12% you are forced out of your natural comfortable pace to push harder to maintain the speed required for balance. The first pass had some steep gradients and required a little more effort than I normally expend. The Sustanpass was built for cars (or was that carts?) and rarely reaches a sustained 9%. This means the whole thing can be achieved, all be it slowly, with a comfortable level of effort. A trike is a very good idea in this respect! When I'm 60 I hope to be tacking equally challenging terrain on three wheels or with some other means of stabilisation combined with very forgiving gear ratios. Who knows??
Starting 625m and climbing to a dizzying 2224m, the Sustan Pass is the highest in altitude of all the four passes planned. Either side are sheer cliffs ending in the peaks of the Sustanhorn (3503m) and Mount Titlis (3238m) . The further you go up the valley the steeper the gradient gets until you are locked into a series of hairpin bends for the final ascent.
If you are a keen motorbike tourer, Graham, then this is one of the places to head for. For every car I saw 3 bikers and they were not riding Pooch Maxi's or CB100 either. The highlight was a detour to a glacier where I refuelled with a mess tin full of _posh smash_ next to a river of glacial melt water. Still far from the top I continued upwards until looking down onto the glacier I had lunched by. Although not freezing, the temperature was around 10 DegC in the shade but the strong direct sun made it feel much warmer. Going through the tunnel at the top I heard a noise not in time with my peddling, but in time with the rotation of the wheels. Any cyclist will tell you it is one of the things you subconsciously listen out for and when you hear it you know there's something wrong. In this case the rear tyre split. The rubber coating parted to expose the fabric lining. Since the fabric is Kevlar, I didn't worry too much and continued on my way - just taking precautions on the corners and not 'letting go' as much as I would have done for fear of a blow out.
The pattern of ascent mirrors that of the decent. Sharp aggressive hairpins, followed by a steep straight run into a valley with the sight and sound of the glacial melt water never far away. When reaching the bottom of the valley I followed the old main road through towns and villages. A motorway had been built within the last 15 years that took all the traffic from what must have been a busy, dangerous, slow, noisy and unpleasant road - now it was just me following a very gentle gradient downhill, watching the sky turn pink against a layered backdrop of mountain silhouettes that disappeared into the distance.
I arrived at the campsite to be confronted with the barrier down and a very prominent sign saying it was full. Since my bike fitted under the barrier, I wheeled it in and parked by the reception. "Hello, are you full?", I enquired. I was lead to a special private spot in the residents area surrounded by wood cabins and well kept gardens. "Please, camp here". It was the special kind of service that I hoped a weary cyclist would get and I was very grateful to receive.
Start of the pass
Part way up
Lunch at the end of a glacier
Nearly up the top, the strain shows...
The final sets of hair pins at the end of the valley to take you over the top
Still patches of winter snow at the top
Not bad for a days work!
Mountain pass 3 - Klousen Pass, No flies on me
17 July, Sunday
Start point: Altdorf (Near Lake Urner)
End point: Flizbach, Lake Walensee
Via: Klousen Pass
Total Ascent(m): 1526
Max Altitude(m) 1953
Max Speed(Km/h): 52.2
They call them Bremsen and they make mosquito bites look like a mere dimple in comparison. They come in two sizes; Big and fcuk off gigantic. One thin, sleek looking the other bigger than a bumble bee and both sh*t brown in colour. They don't have a proboscis - a needle to suck your blood from beneath your skin, these things do their damage with what looks like a pair of face mounted wire cutters. These fekkers simply land and just start chomping at your flesh until they've excavated a cone shaped hole that fills with blood. Then the guzzling starts. It does not hurt because of the large amounts of anaesthetic they somehow apply and when you swat them away you're left with a blood oozing wound that very feels like a cross between a nettle sting and a mosquito bite. The wound swells in the next 24 hours to a lump covering the area of a beer mat that doesn't half itch - but stings somewhat at the same time which makes you less inclined to scratch and this is despite application of copious amounts of antihistamine cream. As luck would have it insect repellent works wonders. The mistake I made was on Day 1 of the mountain passes after my dose of dried fruits. You guessed it, I nipped into the trees and exposed untreated flesh to the blood sucking critters and I soon realised 3 of them were feasting on my right thigh. I all I got 6 bites in a line - which is lucky as it could have been a whole lot worse! A valuable lesson learned.
Sunday means all the shops are shut, and that includes bike shops. Close inspection of my rear wheel showed the Kevlar had some way to go before reaching the inner tube so I pressed on with pass number 3, the Klausenpass. Built in the 1930 and although not the highest at 1948m it starts lower down at 458m in the town of Altdorf. Without a doubt the pass covers some very difficult terrain and represents an engineering marvel. There was no way the road could follow the valley floor as it quickly turned into a vertical rock face. The road building approach used was to cling to the side of the valley rising gradually, with the odd hairpin and double back until reaching the top of the pass. The whole effort could be carried out with a few hours of steady and unhurried pedalling. The Sunday weather brought out the crowds and though a designated cycle route, the frequency of motor vehicles - one every few seconds was somewhat disconcerting and this required awareness of road positioning rather than the sights around me. I did have the advantage of being able to stop in many more places and take in the views and take pictures. The traffic reduced after lunch and the descent was quite straightforward - and more importantly, GREAT FUN. 1500 meters drop in 20 minutes.
The air gets slightly thinner towards the top and rather than getting tired legs, I actually started to feel short of breath at times. Lunched at the top and chatted to a charming lady from Lichtenstein. Although rather too old for me (60) she had walked to the top of the pass having started early that morning. We talked about reasons for the journey and her son who worked in Falmouth. She was worried about safety following the terrorist attacks in London, but I put her mind at rest by pointing out far more people die of preventable accidents every day - so worrying about terrorists was not where she should focus her concern. I asked what he did. Rock climbing. I changed the subject.
On the way down I came across a section of the old pass that had been bypassed in favour of a different route. Inquisitive as ever, I ducked under the barrier and took the old route along a cobbled road through stone tunnels lined with stone arched barriers. I was a glimpse of the pass frozen in the 1930s. If it was late I could have pitched my tent in the middle of the road in the mouth of a tunnel and had a night of undisturbed sleep. Time allowed me to press on, I had my eye on a campsite at the beginning of pass number four.
Again the valley flattened and soon I was speeding down a gentle gradient following a river and single track railway. The route was a national cycle way and was again perfectly sign posted. It passed through pretty villages and sites of industrial heritage interspersed with wide areas of grass flat land. These passes often end in a lake and this one, Walensee, is famed for its crystal clear waters and as luck would have it, a campsite too.
Instead of a shower I opted for a dip in the lake. From the water I watched the sun silhouette the mountains in a pink aura while listening to the sound of kids larking about on the pontoon. The water was a bit too cool for me, but OK for everyone else and I emerged refreshed but with numb fingers and toes. It was one of those things I just had to do. Next time I'll take the hot shower.
Start of the pass
When you cycle up a road that end in this, you know theres a bit of a challange ahead
A look back
On the way down
Old closed section of the pass
Streaming along the valley
Deserted towns on the old main road
Evening bathe in the lake
Mountain pass 4 - Amden Pass, and I'm in Austria
18 July, Monday
Start point: Flizbach, Lake Walensee
End point: Feldkirch (near Liechtenstein), Austria
Total Ascent(m): 1250
Max Altitude(m) 1526
Max Speed(Km/h): 48.6
Pass number four was the shortest, lowest but the most challenging. I climbed quickly to Amden, the first town on the pass. Afterwards, the remaining section is closed to through traffic on account of its surface (patchy), gradient (steep) and width (narrow). A hard stretch of pedalling is required to keep balance on the way up. Although very impressive, the passes of the days before offered unrivalled views and I focused on the task in hand which was to reach the top and down the other side. I got caught in a swarm of the dreaded horse flies and stopped every so often to reapply repellent, evens so, one nibbled through my cycling top and chewed a bit off my shoulder. Reaching the top I cooled off and prepared for a steep descent on the other side. Unlike the other passes, I actually encountered fellow tourers - not racers or mountain bikers of which there are plenty. I was on my way down so I stopped for a chat. The couple were having a difficult ascent too and had stopped to admire the view and take some pictures while cooling off. Gave them advice about what was ahead warned them about the flies. They didn't have repellent and mine had run out - I was eking the remaining DEET from the tube with water. I expect their bleached bones will be discovered at some point in the future.
Now I really had to find a shop to fix the bike. At the next big town I replenished food stocks and it was at this point the sky turned black and the rain lashed down. Mountain passes completed I felt rather smug at the timing aspect. I knew on the Monday afternoon the heavens would open and paced myself accordingly. While in the shelter of the supermarket I ate a bar of delicious Swiss chocolate and watched people leap in and out of cars carrying bundles of shopping and drive away with the head lights cutting through the darkness. Thunder storm over I continued to a sports shop where I made enquiries about bike shops. Yes there was one, she phoned to check to opening times, I had twenty minutes to wait. The rain started again with equal ferocity. "Would you like a coffee while you wait?", now that's my idea of sitting out a thunder storm. One brand new tyre later I was on my way into the light rain.
How I ended up in Austria is quite straight forward. The cost of the tyre cleared all my Swiss Francs, so rather than go to a cash machine to draw out enough for one nights camping, I popped across the border and camped in the first site I came to in Austria where I could dig into my remaining Euros left over from France. Problem solved.
Look back at the lake I swam in and camped by
A shop that JUST sold cow bells, talk about a niche marketing!
One day I hope to but this, keep sheep and shout at children
Decent into the valley on the other side
A day off. The boss said I could have one
19 July, Tuesday
Start point: Feldkirch (near Liechtenstein), Austria
End point: Feldkirch (near Liechtenstein), Austria
Rain stops play and I had a well deserved day off doing odd jobs, eating, sheltering from the rain, drinking wine, eating, eating again, updating diary, listening to the BBC World service, route planning my next stretch through southern Germany and tomorrows itinerary. Chatted to other tourers and generally took it easy. The campsite has a warm and comfortable room where I could write the last few diary entries as the last 4 days I only had enough time to write reminders of what I did. Now I have the time to flesh it out. Tomorrow I will be in Germany passing through the towns in the foothills of the Alps drinking beer and eating dried sausage.
Where I stayed