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There’s something about Switzerland that is intangible, that gets inside you and gives you a warm feeling. To me I think its the stark contrast between the snow and alpine environments of the Mountains and the European nature of the valleys and and lakes. The visual impact is certainly stunning.
I’ve now spent over two months in Switzerland on different trips and always look forward to going back. This however was the first time that I’ve taken the bike and been based at high altitude (Zermatt’s at 1620m). This adventure took place between the 4th and 12th July 2003.
Day One – Manchester – Zermatt
Twelve hours door to door traveling by foot train and plane and I made it. Bit unlucky with the Swiss trains as I missed the first train from the airport (pulled out as I went down the stairs to the platform) and then ended up waiting in Brig for almost an hour too. Chris met me at the station and an electric taxi (Zermatt is car free) zipped me and the two suitcases containing the bike up to his new home, a recently completed barn conversion. The suitcase ploy worked a treat, but the excess baggage charge proved to be a bit expensive. Traditional bike box next time. Once I’d put it altogether I had time for a quick zip up one of the pistes and a chance to begin getting acclimatised to the altitude.
Day Two – The Southern Face of the Zermatt Valley
Never one to start trips with easy bits the first day meant riding up out of Zermatt on fireroads (service tracks) up to the first lift station of Sunnegga. About two thirds of the way up a thread of singletrack weaves off along the contours making for easier climbing and a more interesting and challenging ride. The last section climbing up to the station through Findeln was pretty grinding.
The lift station at Sunnegga offers a series of lift bubbles that carry passengers up to the next stop at Blauherd. Not having a lift pass I decided to try riding the difficult way, which meant straight up the ski runs. What seems like pretty easy stuff in the winter on a board can be pretty intimidating on the way up especially with a bike weighing in over 30lb. I rode and pushed my way up to Blauherd (2571m). From there, the concept of continuing up to the top of Rothorn (3103m) seemed reasonable, but after slogging up hill for about 30 minutes and making slow progress it wasn’t as attractive as cashing in some of the altitude and getting some descending in. The descent down towards Fluhalp passed pretty quickly and by the time I reached Stellisee, it was time to start climbing up towards the mountain hut at Fluhalp.
Just below the restaurant, a rocky trail leads off to the right dropping down and then climbing up onto the top of the glacial moraine formed by the Findelgletscher. This proved to be a demanding and superb section of Singletrack. Whilst descending along the ridgetop of the moraine, the Matterhorn dominates the view, to the right is a reasonable drop onto grass rocky stuff and to the left a sheer drop of a couple hundred metres. It was time to commit and concentrate avoiding looking over the edge and picking lines and planning bailout routes for tricky technical sections that were swallowing the full five inches of travel and keeping the disc brakes toasty.
A few switchbacks off to the right and across the fire road and then it was down to some more gently graded singletrack contouring around descending back towards Sunnegga. Saturday was the first day of the summer skiing season and whilst Chris was off biking I was trying to get my lungs accustomed to the mountain air.
It was also the day of the Zermatt Mountain Marathon, an uphill slog from St. Niklaus further down in the valley up to Gornergrat at 3131m. It looked like a painful event. The winner, an English guy makes his living from riding between venues and competing in such craziness. He beat the next man by 20 minutes and claimed not to have even had to push himself to get there, the prize money of such antics makes it something not to be sneered at.
After watching for a bit and trying to avoid getting in the way of the runners I cleared the few bits of shared trail and skirted around Grindjsee and rode around to Gruensee. From there designated mountain bike trail contours around and down the valley to Riffelalp. By this time I was ready for lunch a requirement adequately fulfilled by a big plate of fine Swiss pasta.
After finishing a couple of beers it was back onto the bike and time to continue my journey west along the southern flanks o the valley. From Riffelalp a switchback laden trail climbed up and over a spur on the mountainside. From the top it lead to a partially unridable descent down into the Gletschergarden at the foot of the Gornergletscher. The ridable bits however were very much worth the wait and the fact that the only sounds were the crunch of gravel and dirt under tyre and the sounds of bird song made it all worth while.
This technical section eventually spat out into the bottom of the valley and the ended up next to the glacial melt water river. A fireroad trail followed the river down stream before a bridge crossing and a short bit of climbing led to another fantastic singletrack section complete with Swiss slickrock. This eventually led down to the lift station at Furi, from where a short bit of road riding led to a number of wanderweg trails, with names such as Moosweg, that made the 250m vertical descent down into Zermatt a fairly exciting, albeit quick blast.
Day Three – The western end of the Zermatt Valley and the foot of the Matterhorn
After several too many beers on Saturday night and catching up with some familiar faces, it was pretty late by the time the idea of getting up seemed feasible and after getting some hangover reducing food organised it was getting on for early afternoon by the time we organised the riding. The plan was to tackle the 1000m climb up to Schwarzee and then enjoy the downhill switchbacks back into town.
Biker and a few others have a bit of a competition on to set the fastest time up this climb, which starts on tarmac and finishes on fireroad service tracks. The climbing doesn’t exceed 1:5, but the loose surface makes choosing the right gear and maintaining rear and front wheel traction a bit of a challenge. Oh and being fit as a butcher’s dog helps too. It was definitely a case of sitting down and spinning, although I didn’t clear the whole climb I was pretty pleased to have cleared as much as I did. After a quick break at the restaurant at the top, it was time to start of the dusty descent down to town.
So dusty in fact that if you rode too close to the person in front, you couldn’t see the trail for the clouds of grit. The quick technical switchback descent was a lot of fun, but was made more interesting by the Swiss version of drainage channels, thin plates of rock sunk vertically into the path, often with six inches protruding, meaning you either had to bunny hop them or unweight the bike and roll over them.
The quick technical switchback descent was a lot of fun, but was made more interesting by the Swiss version of drainage channels, thin plates of rock sunk vertically into the path, often with six inches protruding, meaning you either had to bunny hop them or un-weight the bike and roll over them. As we entered the trees Chris was storming ahead and I misjudged the timing of one such channel, the rear wheel hitting it full on at about 30mph. The resulting bang and deflation of the rear wheel left a sickening feeling in my stomach, not because I’d just punctured the tubeless tyres for the first time, but because I knew the resultant damage was going to be messy.
The rim wall was folded in completely on one side of the rim, the wheel badly buckled and the tyre ripped in two places. The bottle opener and an allen key allowed me to bend the rim straight again so I could at least get a tyre to hook on with an inner tube. I stripped the Mavic tool attempting to straighten the rim and had to patch the tyre to get me back down the mountain. The fix worked and I probably descended the rest of the way faster than I should have done expecting to find Biker waiting around the next corner.
He wasn’t and I’d left my phone back in the house. Eventually I caught up with him in town, he’d thought I was racing ahead of him and had gone flat out downhill trying to catch me up. After assessing the damage a bit more closely it was decided that it was probably ridable for the rest of the trip but was in need of straightening properly and therefore was stripped down and taken into a bike shop in town for repair.
Day Four – Lake Maggiore, Italy
With no bike, a rest day was called and Chis and I took some of his guests over the Simplon Pass (2005m), southwest of Brig. This road was built by Napoleon as a military route between 1800 and 1808. Some 2400m beneath the Wasenhorn peak just to the east, the longest rail tunnel in the world carries passengers almost 20km under the Alps between Brig and Domodossola. It was a good chance to experience some Mediterranean heat and enjoy the more relaxed Italian lifstyle.
Day Five – Saas Fee and the Monte Morapass
The game was back on for Tuesday and with a fully functioning bike, albeit with a bit of a wobble in the back wheel. After breakfast we zipped down the valley from Zermatt to Tasch, picked up the minibus and some guests and headed down the Mattertal to Stalden and then up the Saas valley to Saas Fee. This was my third trip to the resort, but we weren’t planning on staying long. We geared up scanned a map and chose a route for the day. It was going to be an epic.
We traversed around the mountain to Saas Almagell and then started our ascent up the valley. The portion of the route up to the top of the impressive dam that holds back Lake Mattmark was all on the road, but the burning sunshine coupled with the gradient made it hard work. The sense of achievement looking back made it all worth it. Looking back and down over steep forested valleys, high meadows and up to the crowns of impressive snow-capped peaks, the concept of alpine magic was truly alive. We skirted around the right hand of the lake on our way up the valley and on reaching the end and picking up the singletrack climb were reminded of the reply given to us by the girl in the tourist information office to our query of whether the route was ridable, ‘Yes well maybe for downhill mentalists, but not for normal people’. Sounded like it was going to be fun.
Much of the early sections of the trail were ridable, then bits were, then it was time to push and then carry our bikes on up the mountain. We chatted to a few groups of hikers, surprised to see us and our bikes. After some good advice, we left our bikes behind a huge boulder before completing the last section to the top of the pass winding our way through boulder and snow fields and imposing granite slabs on foot.
The route was build by the Romans long ago and is one of the oldest traverses over the Alps. On arrival at the top of the Monte Moro Pass (2868m) we were greeted by the awesome sight of Monte Rosa and its Marinelli couloir, a prize that Chris wanted to size up for next year’s skiing. Sitting on top of the world below a great golden statue having lunch isn’t something that many people do everyday and it felt good to join an elite group to have made it. Following a distraction on the way down, we ended up doing a bit of bouldering to get back to the bikes and then it was time to reap gravitational assistance on our descent back down the mountain. It was surprising how much of the descent through the technical rocky sections was ridable and all too soon we were back at Lake Mattmark.
We skirted around the opposite edge on the way back and took an unfortunate decision to take a trail down from the top of the dam that turned out to be mostly unridable switchbacks and overgrown with lush foliage. After that we resorted to the roads and managed to clock up over 60mph on the descent back to Saas Almagell, from where we had to make the short contouring climb back to Saas Fee.
Day Six – Edelweis and Trift on foot
The weather on Wednesday wasn’t so good, so our plans were rescheduled. In the end we hiked up past Edelweis to Trift and did a reconnoiter for the planned ride later in the week. We were both surprised not only by the low cost of eating and drinking in such a remote location, but also by the quality of the trails. This was switchback land on the way down and as we pounded our knees and stubbed our toes in the ends of our shoes we were checking out the riding lines for the way down the next day.
Day Seven – Northern side of the Zermatt valley
This was the big one Biker had been planning. From the ground it was spectacular looking up at the massive mountain we were going to ascend, traverse and descend. One of Chris’s friends Olly was going to join us and I had my doubt as to if he’d manage when he rocked up on a rigid Rockhopper with a flexstem and slick Specialized Nimbus 1.5″ tyres and old cantilever brakes. Not an ideal weapon of destruction for conquering what was ahead. Well that’s how it looked.
The fact that Olly had turned up without having breakfast, having brought nothing to drink or eat and with no lid, I was a bit worried what was in store. The fact that he was looking pretty cream crackered half way up the ascent to Zmutt and had to lie down and consume a donated Snickers bar didn’t help with the picture of impending doom in my mind.
Fair dues though after that bit of a wobble he put in a stirling performance and has done great things for my perceptions of what are possible with certain kit. I have to admit if I return to Switzerland I’ll be taking a Hardtail and a light one at that next time. He did struggle on those slicks though! The climb up from Stafel under the Ober Gabelhorn was a slow affair. The gradient was steep enough to make it necessary to carry a fair bit and the rest of the time it was hard work pushing up hill.
Once we crested the top the plateau like section on the top afforded good riding and soon lead to some of the best natural singletrack I have ever ridden.
The fact that it was at around 3000m with a huge exposed drop to one side in places added to the adrenaline rush and the focus given to the trail. The best thing about the singletrack was that not only was it long, but it also had that gentle downhill gradient that made the riding really enjoyable. We were cruising.
The descent down to Trift was probably the most technical descent I’ve ever ridden, steep, strewn with rock and with seemingly impossibly tight switchbacks. I later learned that one of the Zermatt locals, Big Al has cleared the lot. I am seriously impressed.
After a brief stop in Trift for some drinks and apple pie, it was time to ride up and out of the hanging valley and finish the ride by heading around and dropping down to Zermatt just above the Heliport. The switchback laden descent proved to be mostly ridable and contained some of the best descending of the whole trip.
Day Eight – Mattertal valley descent
The last day was marked with an offroad descent down the valley to Stalden where the Matter and Saas valleys merge into the Vispertal. The riding proved to be technical, especially in the early stages between Zermatt and Tasch where we were watched by Marmuts.
In sections it became downright iffy in some of the stages after St. Niklaus (I managed to clip my bars on fence posts twice each time nearly being spat off the trail and down the sheer drop to the left). By the time we reached Kalpertran, the trail had exerted it’s worst on us and we cruised down and into Stalden, before catching the train back up the valley.
Day Nine – Zermatt to Manchester
After packing the previous night catching the early train was a formality, except for the fact that alcohol had done it’s worst yet again and I guess neither of us were feeling too spritely. The trip home was uneventful and in less than seven hours I was back home on trains stinking of vomit.