7 Switzerland I 6/9-23/05 (2
weeks, 4 passes &
26,930' elevation gain)
Simplon or Sempione Pass
Poised for the Climb
I always dreaded the sight of road construction ahead when we started cycling over 10 years ago, but I quickly learned that it could be to our advantage. Sometimes is it a problem, like when being directed to ride through fresh asphalt that gums our tires and fenders with tarry bits of rock: or we are stuck standing in the hot sun too, too long; or the couple of times when flaggers have invited the oncoming traffic to proceed when we were still using the only available lane. But almost all of the time road construction tames the traffic and tilts the playing field in our favor.
We had left the Italian Lake District and were approaching our last overnight stop in Italy in the
small mountain town of Varzo when a huge sign indicated that our road into
Switzerland was closed daily for 5 hours for a month. Our
first reaction was horror as an ill-placed road closure would leave us
too little daylight for cresting the summit the next day. We rode on, stewing about the significance of
the closure and searching for road distance markers on this main road we had just
joined. The next mileage (or is it "kil-age" in kilometers?) marker
revealed that the
road closure would occur very early in our climb, creating the opportunity for 5
hours of riding with no traffic approaching us from behind.
We reveled at the thought of doing the long, hard climb with the road to ourselves. Would it be so incredibly deserted that we could celebrate the solitude by picnicking on the center line of this international truck route? Would we make it to the top without the expected escort of big rigs? Or would the length of the closure area be so long that we couldn't traverse it before the closure time and wouldn't even be allowed to enter the zone?
We weren't able to determine the length of the road closure once in Varzo--the best we could provoke was a restating of the facts that we knew from the sign. We'd be starting just over 3 miles from where the first barricades would go up at 10 am, so we settled on leaving at 8:30. We presumed that would give us enough time to arrive at the closure site and convince the personnel that we'd pass through it before 10. Not knowing the length of the closed area nor the grades involved, we were guessing and hoping that we'd have enough time.
But we quickly discovered that we had other problems. Of the 4 hotels we thought were in Varzo, only 1 really was in town. The other 3 were in the locality but a thousand or more feet up the steep ravine walls. After waiting a half hour for the decision maker to be available by phone, we were told by the hotel's bar staff that this, the only hotel, wasn't open. We fiddled around in Varzo for almost an hour and a half before we finally secured one of the 2 flunky rooms over a pizza restaurant. If that hadn't come through for us, it would have been the end of our Simplon Pass crossing. We would have had no other choice than to bike back down the hill 10 miles to the last town with a hotel and then take the train over the pass as the extra 10 miles would make the gain and distance required to reach the summit too great for our margin of safety.
Our tension around the lodging problem had been heightened by discovering that the 1 market in town was closed on Wednesday afternoons, preventing us from buying food or bottled water as we had planned. We had enough with us for dinner and a light breakfast, but were short the pile of food we'd need for the 5,000' elevation gain climb and 30 miles of riding.
Bill had cranked up the volume on our laptop's white noise generator software to smooth out the chaos from being sandwiched between the ravine-bottom railroad line and the main highway and being over a bar, allowing us to get enough sleep for the hard day. A brisk 7:30 am ride to the just-opening market the next morning spared our start time and restocked our chuck wagon for climbing. After several glitches the day before, the ride was on and we crossed our fingers that we'd be allowed to pass through the construction zone for hours of traffic-free riding.
Immediate steep grades made those first 3 miles slow going, but we were to the critical road marker before 9 am. To our surprise, there was little sign of road work. Eight or 10 young men in orange work suits stood around looking bored and we only saw one piece of heavy equipment. There was no posted sign about the work, no gatekeeper to question us as to how long it would take us to clear the area--there was nothing to add to our understanding of the situation. Pleased and puzzled, we rode on scanning for clues to the construction project. Nothing more ever materialized and Bill surmised that rather than roadbed work like we had assumed, the road closure might be for blasting for the adjacent new road in the works.
By the time we reached the Swiss border a few more miles up
the road, we assumed we were out of the construction zone. We could also see that
after the Italian's reopened the road at 3 pm, that the truck traffic would be
slowed by the tedious process of going through border control. Bikes and some cars
were waved on through without so much as a discussion of nationality, but the
trucks were often detained10 or 20 minutes or more with paperwork.
As we struggled up the steep grades that Map Man had predicted, we wondered if the 6 1/2 hours we had allowed to reach the pass would suffice. Our first concern had been being permitted to traverse the construction site, but seeing that it was primarily a shoulderless road made any truck traffic at all a serious problem. The huge container-sized trucks sometimes pulling a trailer barely fit on this scenic 2-laned mountain road, leaving little room for bikes.
We decided to stop frequently for quick snacks instead of taking the time for our 2 planned lunches--hoping that would get us farther up the mountain before the trucks caught up with us. We had learned from past big efforts to start off with strong, enticing flavors to coax us to eat early in the ride and end the climb with bland food, which is all that is appealing at that point. The first stop was for 3 mini-sandwiches of bleu cheese on rolls and a bit of chocolate. We were already more calorie-short than expected as that first snack only whetted our appetites for tuna and rolls which followed soon after. Next it was pears and a bit of chocolate in a scant bit of shade of a roadside tree; then canned garbanzo beans and another square of chocolate; a handful of nuts sufficed for one snack; and a single roll with a dash of cheese and more chocolate would finally get us to the summit.
Looking back down our road once we reached the peak, Bill spotted a sign warning of 19 kilometers of 10% grade--that's almost 12 miles. But for most of the 30 km or 20 mile ride up to the pass, my inclinometer's bubble was stuck on the 10% line. Usually the brief breaks from 10% were only dropping to 8 or 9%, which surprisingly was enough change to feel. That bit of abatement in effort allowed me to relax by shoulder and jaw muscles that tensed with the continuous effort and allowed the legs a break from the monotony of the low rpms from only pedaling 3 mph. One time we cursed the sight of a down hill as it was a race against the clock to beat the trucker's to the top and a downhill would mean climbing part way up to that 1600 meter elevation a second time. But as we began the descent down, we realized that it was an optical illusion and our downhill was but a merciful 4% upgrade which provided substantial relief to our minds and bodies.
I though of Mt Everest climbers that speak of the supreme
effort to make each additional footstep as we crept up the road towards the
summit. Though I was no where near the
physiological edge that they experience, I sensed I was on the same continuum of
I carefully evaluated each deviation from the road. Anytime I wanted to pull
off for a rest stop or to move into a wider area of the road or take a tunnel
bypass, I scrutinized the relative effort involved. If the maneuver would add a
tad more steepness, require extra effort to restart or put me on an
energy-consuming rougher surface, I passed it by in favor of holding the course
I was on.
It was a hot day and even though it got cooler as we rode higher the direct sun took its toll. But like the exceptional road closure, the many gallerias were an unexpected treat and made for a more pleasant ride. Gallerias are tunnels built for slide or avalanche protection that have almost all of one side open. Instead of being a dark cavern they are illuminated by day light. We are always relieved to see that a marked tunnel is actually a galleria as they aren't dark, noisy or fumy. We primarily see gallerias in the Alps and on this hot day they were especially welcome: the many long gallerias provided miles of sun sheltered riding in temperatures in the low 50's, sparing our water and decreasing the stress from over heating.
We'd never done a relentless 10% grade like this before and
I dug deep to rally all of my skills. Early on it was remembering the importance
of eating often and proposing the most palatable snacks for the given stage in the
climb so we would eat enough. Drinking was essential on this hot day and sucking water from my
Dromedary bag was sometimes more than I could manage with the climbing effort so I vowed to chug from my
bottles whenever we stopped. It also meant remembering that whoever was strongest
that day needed to be the 'coach' and would be the one to suggest breaks and
snacks whenever it looked like the other person was fading. Near the top when
the thin air and tired bodies were making the going hard, 1 minute stops would
be called every few minutes. Cresting the top isn't the end--we must be vigilant and prevent excessive depletion on any level on the way up so as to
have our wits about us for the descent and the unexpected.
The climb to Simplon Pass delivered the promised stunning views and we were lucky to have a clear, though hot day to be there. We did our best to stay disciplined to keep moving so as to literally peak before the trucks came rolling through, but the closer we got to the top, the harder it was. The panoramas became grander and more expansive and the presence of the mountains became more intense. We would loved to have lingered an extra hour over the last mile or 2 but took some comfort in knowing that we had already experienced more of it than most of the people in cars.
Every eye-full was like looking at a postcard and yet there was such a simplicity about the panoramas: brilliant blue sky; green valleys and hillsides; and looming large mountains. The broad strokes of the seemingly few colors were reminiscent of the big blocks of bright colors used by some modern artists . The longer the eye lingered, the more detail emerged as distant waterfalls, remnants of glaciers, stone fences and small roads slowly come into focus. And yet these little details were so dwarfed by the vastness, the hugeness of it all. The the few isolated, stark, plain stone farm buildings were a surprising commentary on the harshness of the scenery that looked so grand on a summer day. And yet it was these occasional small structures that had the effect of painting people into the picture without actually seeing them--they were a symbol of human presence that made the terrain look inviting and approachable.
We once again struggled to understand why the Alps reliably
deliver such grand panoramas. When in the eastern Pyrenees, the look wasn't so
fabulous. The mountains were high but too distant for us to be drawn into their
drama. In the Alps we are often almost completely ringed by stunned mountain
tops. The look is like a well constructed photo, with something of interest in
the foreground, the mid-ground and background. We wanted to stay for hours and
soak it all in, but we needed to be on our way. We settled for long looks from
the saddle and occasional brief stops to savor the sweeping panoramas. Views are
like sunsets in that I want to hold onto them forever and yet I can't. They have
to be taken in and then left behind.
As hoped, we just about made it to the top of Simplon Pass by 3 pm, the scheduled time for the road to reopen on the Italian side. We had expected the oncoming traffic to pick-up earlier, but its effect on our ride was inconsequential. It wasn't until 3:30 that the first motorcycles came roaring through, later than we expected. And the first trucks didn't appear in our rear view mirrors until almost 4. Instead of a giant wave, the trucks came in 2's and 3's because of the slow custom's process we observed during our rest at the border crossing.
bonus for the descent was the series of road construction stops on the Swiss, downhill side.
Each site was a single lane of traffic, so vehicles lined up for their turn to cross
with the construction site traffic lights. We'd
ride up to the temporary light and sit off to the side, letting the cars and the couple of trucks
go first and we'd hop on the end of the 'train' since we were the slowest.
Positioning ourselves at the rear and the timing of the
lights meant that we had each stretch of road work to ourselves. And since the road down into Brig was peppered with
work sites, we were
never passed by a truck after the road closure took effect, either going up or
After seeing what a rare treat this month long road closure created we were surprised that there weren't loads of bikes on the road. A bike shop mechanic in the nearby Andermatt knew that this was a special opportunity for cyclists to safely ride an otherwise menacing road and we were stunned that others in the region weren't cashing in on it.
Zermatt & The Matterhorn
Exhausted, we tumbled into our Brig hotel beds after our hours of snail's paced riding to the top of Simplon Pass and our start-and-stop descent, not quite knowing how or when to proceed to our next destination, Zermatt. Less than 30 miles away, though over 3,000' up, it was in striking distance. Map Man had planned for us to ride up the steep road the next day, spend a couple of nights there and do some hiking. But the ride to Simplon pass was more depleting than expected and we'd need a rest day or partial rest day before proceeding under our own steam. The high prices for both the bottom-end lodging at Zermatt and of the train for a day trip there left us floundering and we fell asleep disappointed not to have a plan.
When we awoke in the morning the intense blue sky enticed with the imagine of more grand mountain panoramas so we scrambled to the train station choosing to disregard the cost. We'd climbed the pass in gorgeous weather the day before and that evening in Brig a German tourist had commented that it wasn't often to have such a great day in the mountains. Our hotel host just shrugged his shoulders when Bill inquired about the forecast so dashing up the mountain to grab the clear skies was a gamble.
On the train to Zermatt a young
Indian man traveling from London said rain was in the forecast for the next day.
He had been following the forecasts on the internet and had his
girlfriend in tow for a quick get-away to take advantage of this favorable weather
interval. The $60 price per person for a 30
mile ride was an outrage, especially since a longer distance in nearby Italy
would be about $13. But the weather can make or break the day, so we
congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and sat back to enjoy the views from
the cog railway.
We took another deep breath and forked out more money to take second, shorter cog railway from about the 5,000' level up to Gornergrat at almost 10,000'. The 2 roundtrip train rides for the 2 of us was now a gut-wrenching $200+ for the day . We knew Switzerland was expensive, but these prices were more startling than the views.
The horrific expense for the day diluted the experience somewhat, but the anticipated grand panorama was delivered and none of the peaks were obscured by clouds. The stiff winds of the previous afternoon had quieted and we had an enviable day to take in the 360 degree view of peaks. After the only bargain of the day--our usual picnic lunch at the top--we rode the train part way down the mountain back to Zermatt. We opted to walk the rest of the way down the steep slopes for a brief hiking experience in the area and to try out our new walking sticks.
We began debriefing the day as we walked and continued the process on the dinner-hour train back to Brig. Yes, it was a spectacular day and it isn't every day that one can so effortlessly get to the 10,000' level, but it wasn't so good that we'd repeat it. Other places we've been in the eastern Alps were equally stunning and we'd taken cable cars from the 7,000' level that got us up as high or higher for equally breathtaking views for a fraction of the cost.
We both also missed the tranquil, connected with nature feeling that we are accustomed to experiencing when we see these grand panoramas in the Alps--as we had done the day before on the road to Simplon Pass. We couldn't tease-out whether that great feeling we have come to expect is amplified by the physical effort we usually expend in getting there or if the Matterhorn view was lessened by feeling like we were on a tourist conveyor belt. The press of sightseer's on the little train and the construction work and crane at the top at Gornergrat was hard on the 'magic in the mountains' feeling. And even our trek down part of the mountain felt less like a communing with nature and more like being a part of a throng. Yes, Zermatt was cute yet seemed a bit contrived--a little too much like Disneyland for a peaceful mountain experience.
Back in Brig we decided to head out the next morning, being content with excellent weather in which we had viewed the Matterhorn. While taking in the towering Matterhorn, we were also looking at the other side of Monte Rosa, the mountain cluster we had viewed while riding the Italian plains towards the Alps and when in the Italian Lake District. The Matterhorn is the second highest peak in the Monte Rosa cluster and while at Gornergrat we were less than 10 miles away from the highest point we reached in Italy near Macugnaga with our friend Mulvey not many days earlier.
Switzerland is sooo expensive--every time we turned around we were bumping into the high prices. At least there was one fee we didn't have to pay, which was the $32 to bring a car across the border. But the map of the chairlifts that looked like it was a 'freebie' was $4 and Bill dropped what turned out to be a poorly spent $60 for maps of bike routes. We were going to the ATM everyday to keep up with the stream of cash flowing through our hands. From postcards to food, almost everything was running 2 to 4 higher than we had been paying elsewhere in Europe this year.
We switched to a "modified Iceland diet" to save money, as we did in Iceland last year. We didn't have boiled cabbage every night as in Iceland, but we did cut our fruit and vegetable intake in half. The tasty and cheap Italian bottled waters that we enjoy were dropped and it was strictly tap water, though it wasn't as good a substitute as the Icelandic tap water had been.
Though lodging wasn't quite double in cost, it still made us feel like paupers. Like in Iceland and the UK last year, we often found ourselves selecting a class of accommodations 1 step up from dormitories, with the rock-bottom price in Switzerland being about $65 for 2. Even youth hostels would have run about $50 a night for the 2 of us with substantially less security for our bikes and belongings.
Needless to say, we decided not to linger in Switzerland. We'd put off taking extra rest days and postpone any shopping that we could until we were back in more affordable Italy. But like Iceland, we decided to see the sights we wanted to see, knowing that we'd only be there once. We were reminded that "nothing in life is certain", which includes both our good health and the value of the dollar which could become weaker in the future.
Swiss Cycle Routes
After laying over in Brig to visit Zermatt and see the Matterhorn, we headed north to Fiesch to view Aletsch, the largest and longest valley glacier in Europe. But we were immediately disappointed in the expensive Swiss "Veloland Schweiz" official route books our first day of using them out of Brigg and cursed them as the days went on. Our first minutes went fine as the map directed us onto a pleasant urban multi-use path but without a clue from the route map or posted signage, the path became unpaved as it dived under a rail line, made a blind turn and then just as quickly resolved with a rough surfaced though short 15% upgrade. Were we less skilled cyclist's, I would likely have dumped over and created yet another obstacle for Bill who was close behind on the confined path. That is the kind of hazard we hope to be warned about on detailed cycle route maps--at least with a steep grade indicator--but none was there.
The route for the day had indicators for 3 steep grades but Bill anticipated a gentle uphill climb for the rest of it. The lack of markings on the cycling map combined with the route following both a railroad and a river in a valley all pointed towards an easy going ride. But this was Switzerland and the general rule of a maximum of 4% grades doesn't apply for trains as this turned out to be a cog rail line we were following and those can claw their way up steeper grades than we can sustain. And though the road followed the course of the river, this steep-walled valley provided the road builder's with ample opportunity for more severe grades than the stream banks suggested. Again, we expected a guide book series for long-distance cyclists to be more disclosing than it was about this very difficult course for loaded cyclotourists.
Bill sat down and carefully translated the German text for one day's
route to assess if the information we were longing for was buried in the
narrative rather than shown on the map, but that was not the case. The
accompanying paragraphs were historical and sightseeing tidbits rather than
essential route information. Unhappily, his small library of pricey bike route
maps were a waste.
We approached our second day with the Swiss route books with caution. This was the first of 2 days to climb up to almost the 8,000' level at Furka Pass and we looked forward to the bike route at least keeping us out of traffic. But after a couple of exhausting hours of chasing an often unpaved path up and down unmarked and under-marked grades up into the teens, we finally took a steep gravel path to rejoin the road. The up and down grades had wiped us out and the unpaved miles with rain-slicked rocks and tree roots too close to a precipitous drop to the river felt downright dangerous. No matter what the traffic, we felt we'd be safer out there with the trucks than on the tortuous bike route.
Depleting ourselves on the steep and circuitous bike route had crushed our plans for the 2-day pass crossing.: we had needlessly wasted energy and hours and stopped short of our critical destination for the day. We had hoped to get to the 1 hotel at the 5,500' level but instead settled for spending the night where the only other hotels were, which was at the 3,300' point. Had we taken the road and not the bike route, we'd have easily made our planned destination.
Riding in the Alps means climbing high passes and Furka Pass was to be #2. Unlike Simplon Pass a few days before, Furka Pass was not on a truck route and we didn't need a road closure to have low traffic. But like the high pass in Andorra 2 months earlier, it would take us into the thin air at almost the 8,000' level.
We planned to head out into the rain around 8:30 to confront the
additional miles and elevation tacked on to our day, having missed our goal for
the day before. We were more apprehensive than usual as it would take more
effort than originally planned; this would be our first-ever high-pass crossing in
all day rain; we didn't feel we could trust the information on the cyclo-maps; and then
there was the challenging interval between 7,000' and 8,000' where breathing is
especially difficult. The forecast for continuous rain was worrisome because our
Burley waterproof rain jackets had proved not to be waterproof. My second
application of a waterproofing glue along the venting sleeve zippers
had failed to keep the water out as a previous showery day had netted me wet
sleeves on my clothing. At the high elevation and in the colder
temperatures, wet sleeves would rapidly chill us on the 10 mile descent, if not
I had previously pinned strips of viscose fabric along the inside of the zippers to soak up the water leaking in my sleeves but feared that wouldn't be enough protection in the downpour. I nervously watched the dark market across the street as we packed up in the morning, hoping it would open before we hit the road. If it opened in time, I could search its shelves for disposable-grade rain ponchos for us to wear over our jackets. They would be hot and clumsy but should reduce the amount of water penetrating our sleeve zippers. Hating the thought of being chilled with wet sleeves, I fashioned a make-shift system of sleeve covers out of plastic bags as I repeatedly looked over at the still-closed little mountain village market.
Our luck was turning: the market opened and they had
ponchos made of plastic about the weight of food wrap. The opening for the arms
didn't give us all the coverage we needed over the zippers, but it would reduce
the flow of water down our arms available for leaking in the porous fabric strip. My confidence for the day surged as we headed out into the
downpour learning how to ride with these ponchos. In the first minutes I
how easily the filmy plastic would catch and tear in our various zippers but I
was still glad for the rain shedding help. We stopped extra times early in the
climb as we experimented with opening the front zippers and pit-zips on our
jackets, and the upper
leg zippers on our pants. Predictably the ponchos trapped a lot of unwelcome
heat and moisture from the effort of climbing, but these mobile tents also created
new opportunities for opening up our rain gear to the air for venting. The
ponchos were an imperfect solution to our leakage problem but were key to
staying warm later in the day.
Riding in the rain presents several challenges and on a big climbing day like this, rest stops are a especially difficult. We'd been in Switzerland long enough to know that rain-sheltering overhangs on buildings were inadequate and quasi-public places with shelter were rare. But luckily a closed hotel that was about a third of the way into our climb had an atypical bit of covered sidwalk. We stopped there around 10:30 for a light lunch and an "airing." The unused pins for window shutters made great hooks for our clothes and we temporarily decorated the side of the building with sweat soaked shirts and gloves and rain-wetted jackets and ponchos. We opened up the vents in our rain pants and mopped up the sweat from our torsos and necks with a viscose rag. The ponchos escalated the moisture management challenges of wearing raingear while heavily exerting but were definitely worth the trouble.
The rain was heaviest in the morning and shifted to
sprinkles and drizzle shortly after we resumed riding. Bill didn't wear his
poncho much more of the day, though I often stopped to put it on or take it off
as the precipitation varied. I am more prone to chilling than he so I was much frettier about my sleeves becoming rain soaked. But the slackening rain did
allow us both to vent our rain gear more and more and when we finally reached
the summit our base-layer garments were close enough to being dry for comfort.
We were lucky in that the temperature never dropped below the 40's and as we had been promised, it was rain and not snow than came down throughout the day. Aside from the hassles of riding in the rain, the other disappointment was the loss of the great high-peak panoramas that we might have seen. The cloud cover slowly rose as the day progressed but never lifted beyond the 8,000' level and smaller clouds often hung in the side valleys. But at least we got improving views of the glacier-carved valley in which we were climbing in the afternoon.
As we climbed and watched several tour buses go to the top of
the pass and then creep back down the switchbacks, we realized that this valley
itself was a tourist destination. Shortly after our first food stop, the foot of
a receding glacier came into view. It was an almost grotesque sight with an
nearly vertical face of exposed, gnarled bedrock with the glacier perched at the
top--like a monster poised over a recent kill. Being above timberline on an
intensely switched-backed road gave us successive views of this gray glacier and
the extensive excavation work it and others had done to the landscape.
We had a long stopover just short of the pass at a tourist trap at the edge of the glacier. The drizzle let up and we were able to dry out a bit and snack in the parking lot. Even after a long break there, frequent stops were essential for completing the remaining short distance to the top. Early in the climb we'd take a couple minute rest every third of a mile so as to conserve our strength. By the time we were to the 6500' level, we were stopping at the pivot point of each switchback and somewhere over 7,000' we were stopping every few hundred yards. The over 12% grades above the 7,000' level that our map had indicated when we climbed the pass in Andorra didn't materialize, but steady 12-14% grades at that level were on the Furka Pass road at that altitude. Of course, our expensive Swiss bike maps didn't indicate any such steep grades near the top.
Once again Map Man got it right and we had biked up the
better side of the mountain. The road near the top of our descent was
frightfully narrow and without barricades and we were glad to be going down
instead of up it. Descending put us on the exposed edge but we have more control over
our bikes when going faster than our usual climbing speeds. Fortunately the
traffic continued to be light and we didn't have to share the road often.
More of our time in Switzerland will soon be on our webpage in Switzerland-Part 2.
Where We Are Now 8/28/05
We are in Thessaloniki, Greece. We chickened-out and took a train from Niš, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria and then hopped a bus to Thessaloniki. Neither the road conditions or lodging situation were looking good for cyclotouring. On Wednesday, August 8/31 we'll take a ferry to the Greek island of Lesvos and a few days later we'll catch another ferry to Turkey. We are planning on being in Istanbul no later than September 18 to meet friends vacationing there. And on some unknown date, we'll fly to Australia.