Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Haute Route by Bike (but Higher, Faster, Harder!)

Last year, I managed to convince a friend Tom, to ride from Chamonix to Zermatt off-road, on a route put together by long hours staring at maps, and snippets of information found on websites of companies who guide the route. 
The classic Walker’s Alpine Haute Route obviously travels from and to the same places, but on a much higher route that is assumed to be unrideable by bike. We carried all of our stuff for the week long trip, bivvying on route. The trip was great, a real adventure through truly spectacular scenery, but although we found some real gems of descents, we also rode a lot of boring fire-roads, and felt unable to thoroughly enjoy the good descents due to the weight of stuff on our backs. 
I hadn’t thought it was something I would repeat for a while, until Tom sent a link from a website, to a video put together by 2 German riders, who had ridden the Haute Route, along some of the best trails we had found, but also following much more closely the Walker’s route, crossing several high Alpine cols, and ultimately being rewarded with more incredible, long, technical descents. I think Tom had forwarded it out of interest, but was maybe not expecting my response of “Let’s ride their route!” He didn’t take too much convincing though, and a plan was soon hatched to meet up this summer and once again ride the mythical Haute route…but a bigger, higher, more awesome version ;)
Riding high on the Haute Route (Big thanks to Tom for all the fantastic photos he took on the trip! Most of these are his!)
We both agreed that we wanted to be able to enjoy, and properly ride the descents, unencumbered by a heavy bag. So for this year, bivvying was out, staying in huts and hotels was in J. Despite this, it’s hard to get a bag of everything you need for a week’s trip down to a weight that feels like that of a day bag. Once you have a change of clothes, 3 litres of water, food for the day, tools and spares, a waterproof, first aid kit…it all adds up. Still, it was way lighter than last year’s bag, and didn’t take too much getting used to.
Coming straight from a stint of 4 weeks non-stop guiding, I have to say I felt tired, and a little apprehensive that Tom was coming from a desk job, rested and full of energy for the trip!
We met up in Chamonix the day before starting, where Tom was already looking worried about the size of some of the days he had planned. Last year, it was me with the time available to do all the planning, whereas this year, Tom had taken on that job, and I had the benefit of being blissfully unaware of what the days would entail, other than some big climbs, and some amazing descents…how hard could it be?
Tom riding high above Chamonix
The first day took us from Chamonix to Verbier, on the same route we had taken last year, closely following the route of the Tour of Mont Blanc. We had the advantage of remembering the route and not needing to get the map out to navigate, meaning we seemed to fly through the day. A year of riding and guiding on technical trails has definitely improved my riding, and I felt faster and more confident on all the descents, especially having a lighter bag than last year too. Tom seemed surprised, and momentarily a little bit disappointed, that rather than having to stop and wait for me, I was right on his back wheel! We finished the day early and it had felt a whole lot easier than the same ride last year, not a bad thing when the following few days looked as long and tough as they did…
Chamonix to Verbier trails
The second day was almost completely on trails new to us, and we had no idea what they would be like. Looking at the maps showed we would be going high, very high, almost 3000m high, from the bottom of the valley…it was going to be a long day. In fact the two german guys who had ridden the route had split our second day into two days (gulp). Fortunately, a chair lift eased the pain of part of the first climb, and we were soon descending on some of the great sections of woodland singletrack off the back of the hill above Verbier. Rooty, pine-needle blanketed tracks that are fast, flowy and swoopy are always a good start to any day! Rather than climb for hours out of that valley as we had done last year, we then began to follow a trail which followed the course of an old saxon water irrigation channel, contouring all the way around the hillside. It was a fantastic trail, not too technical (apart from the odd section that was too narrow to ride due to our handlebars not fitting between the fence on one side and the rocks on the other!), and went on for about 15km. 


Saxon water-channel north shore!
Every so often we were treated to glimpses of the valley below and the scenery beyond, before having to turn thoughts back to the trail to avoid crashing on the exposed narrow sections where the hillside dropped away below us, and a watery tumble awaited if we fell the other way into the canal! Unfortunately, we came across some conservation volunteers part way along the trail, who informed us that we really weren’t allowed to be there on bikes…thankfully they were happy to let us continue this time….a good job, as I really couldn’t have faced descending to the valley to climb back out again, given how much climbing we already had ahead of us!

The first part of the day was definitely the easiest, and from lunchtime onwards, the serious business of climbing up and over the Col de Riedmatten began. A long switchback road climb in the heat of the midday sun took us up the first 700m of elevation gain, before we arrived at the impressive Barrage and Lac des Dix, a massive reservoir and dam, complete with hotel and chairlift up from the bottom to the top of the dam. 

Lac des Dix
Depressingly, bikes are not allowed on the lift, so the 300m of climbing I had thought we would save, we didn’t. More worryingly, a shop attendant informed us bikes weren’t allowed on the side of the dam at all. Our route took us all the way along the side of the reservoir and climbed up the Col and over into the Arolla valley beyond. If we couldn’t use these trails, we had no idea how far round we would have to go by road to reach our hotel in Arolla, but it could easily have been 50km or more. We decided we would have to go for it and hope no-one stopped us, and quietly began pushing up the track to the top of the dam. 

Reaching the top and starting to ride along the reservoir, it was hard to understand the reasoning behind not allowing bikes up here….we were riding on a huge hard-packed gravel surfaced track, that obviously had frequent landrover and 4 by 4 use! Anyway, no-one stopped us, and as usual, all the walkers we met were friendly and cheerful as we passed. At the end of the reservoir, the real climb started….
Almost immediately we were shouldering the bikes, and slowly picking our way up the rocky steep narrow track. A few puzzled walkers looked at us in disbelief, not the last time that would happen during the week! 
Crossing the glacial moraine on the way to the Col de Riedmatten
Slowly carrying up to the Col
The climb seemed to go on forever, getting increasingly steeper and more awkward. We were walking across glacial moraine, big loose boulders, steep scree, and deep soft snow in several places, and the Col never seemed to be getting closer. Towards the end, I adopted my approach of counting 10 steps repeatedly in my head, until I’d done 40 or 50, then I’d treat myself to a small stop and a breather…I only ever do this when I’m really tired and trying to just keep going! 
Almost at the top!
My shoulders, back, legs and lungs were exhausted, and I was seriously starting to question what had possessed me to want to do this trip. It was the longest, toughest hike-a-bike I’d ever done, and I have to say, I wasn’t even sure it qualified as type 2 fun…

The Top....finally!
Reaching the top, with a view of the ribbon of trail that was to be our 1200m descent to Arolla opening up before us, it all suddenly didn’t seem that bad J Despite having to get off and walk the ridiculously steep, loose, first couple of switchbacks (never a good thing on descents, especially having had to put in that much effort to get there in the first place), it was a great trail….if you like steep, seriously technical, rocky, exposed singletrack. I do, a lot, but at the end of an epic day, I was struggling to feel like I was riding at my best, something which this trail required to get the best out of it. Concentrating enough to react at speed to the technicality of the trail and ride it safely was difficult too, but despite all of this, it was brilliant. 

Two thirds of the way down, with arms pumped from the amount of braking required and from moving the bike around on the rocky trail, I was tempted to take the fire road we were crossing, down to the bottom. It felt like a crash was inevitable if I tried to ride the next section of singletrack. Tom made me at least ride over the crest we were on so I could see the trail before making a decision. Reluctantly I agreed, actually thinking in my head that I would still be taking the fire-road. 

Alpine singletrack snaking down through pretty meadows
My eyes were met with a view of a pretty much perfect trail. The kind of one you see pictures of in bike magazines and spend days dreaming about riding, endlessly snaking its way down through alpine meadows and into the woods. Tom shrugged his shoulders, grinning from ear to ear, not needing to say anything. I groaned, knowing I couldn’t resist riding it, but also knowing how bad an idea it was given how tired we were! Telling myself I would ride slowly and sensibly, I set off. That didn’t last long…the trail didn’t disappoint, and it was impossible not to pedal and pump harder, pick up speed and fly around hairpins, whooping with delight. It was a great end to the day’s riding, and that night’s dinner of pizza (only the 3rd night in a row, but ok as not many people know, but pizza is actually one of your essential food groups…..or so I heard…) tasted particularly good.

The following day took us from Arolla to the town of St Luc. Once again we would be climbing over a 2900m col, the Col du Torrent, from the valley below, but it looked like a good portion of it would be rideable on road and fireroad. Making an early start before the temperature rose too much, we seemed to cover the distance quickly, and even once we were pushing, the trail was so much easier to negotiate than the previous day’s climb, that it was almost enjoyable! 

The view of big mountains through the clouds from the Col
Tom looking down from the Col de Torrent
The descent from the top, down to the startlingly blue Lac du Moiry, was incredible. Less technical than the previous day, with more flowy sections and less tight corners, it was almost as if it had been created for bikes and not just as a walker’s path. The climb over the col had certainly been worth it this time J From there we joined a descent down to the pretty town of Grimentz that we had ridden last year. 
The fun descent from the Col de Torrent
Sweet trails down to the Lac du Moiry
And once again, without the weight of heavy bags, and a year’s more riding on technical trails, it was even better than I’d remembered. Another wonderful contouring piece of woodland singletrack took us round the side of the valley without losing too much height, and then a short push up next to a pretty waterfall led us to our hostel for the night.

The next day, storms were forecast, and we were going to have to climb over two high cols to reach our destination of St Niklaus. I woke with a sore throat, headache, and total lack of energy. It seemed the non-stop previous couple of months of work had caught up with me L Knowing you have at least 3000m of climbing ahead of you, most of it pushing or carrying, is not a motivating thought in these circumstances, especially when it then starts to rain.

Pushing up to the Meiden pass
As we started the slow, slog upwards at the start of the day, I knew my pace had slowed, but I couldn’t will my legs to move any faster, there was nothing there. I felt tired, weak, and pretty low. I was lost in my own little world, concentrating on just placing one foot in front of the other and not looking up at the mammoth hills in front of us. I started to try and motivate myself, as I often do nowadays, by thinking what Gareth would have said to me to cheer me up and motivate me…on this occasion it didn’t help….It simply made me think of his lovely smile and gentle voice, and reminded me how much I still miss him, especially on big shared adventures such as this. Tom realised I was struggling, and we stopped for a while to chat about memories of Gareth and his crazy antics on his bike, and trips shared in the past. It helped, and with refreshed enthusiasm I started plodding once again. 

View from the Meidenpass
Technical descending from the Meidenpass...
...after some awkward off-camber snow pushing!
The first pass, the Meidenpass, after a bit of pushing over some deep snow patches, had an amazing descent down (notice the theme for the descents on this trip yet?!), that once again made you forget about the uphill slog you’d completed to get there. A brief stop in the valley at the bottom followed, while we drank coffee and assessed the fact that we couldn’t see the next hill through the heavy clouds and rain, and whether it was sensible to go over the next pass when thunderstorms were forecast and we had been told it was snowing at 3000m! We decided that we could always start the climb, then whizz back down if it got really bad…we hadn’t come all this way to be stopped from completing the trip by a bit of rain!

Tom helpfully pointing out the way to the top of the Augstbordpass
The climb was nowhere near as bad as we’d imagined, in fact, after the Col de Riedmatten on the second day, none of the passes had seemed that hard. 

Start of the descent
The super fun descent through Embd
We descended from Augstbordpass across snow to start with, then down along pristine singletrack skirting the side of the valley, and onto some awesome steep switchbacks, before getting into Embd and following the brilliant trail we had found the year before, down to the valley. It was for me, the best descent of the trip, a 2000m plus glorious piece of riding varied and totally awesome trails…I immediately wanted to do it again once we reached the bottom! It felt pretty special to know very few people have probably made the effort to take bikes up there, we were part of a privileged few to have ridden those trails.

We ate at the best pizza restauarant in the world (according to Tom) that night, and I maintained my record of pizza every night for a week!

The a mountain should look!
The next day, unlike last year, we woke to blue skies, and a view of the Matterhorn above Zermatt. Joining the tourists, we jumped on the Gornergraat train after handing over an extortionate amount of money, and headed up to ride the trail we had been waiting 2 years to ride. 

Not a bad view from the top of the Gornergrat train
The view was staggering, and riding a trail to the backdrop of one of the most distinguishable mountains in the world is undoubtedly pretty special, but it was a bit of an anticlimax. The trail was a bit too sanitized compared to the natural rockfests we’d been riding all week, and the hundreds of walkers meant we couldn’t ride at a speed that made it fun. 

Tom trying to keep his eyes on the trail and not the nice pointy mountain!
It also seemed a bit out of keeping with the rest of the trip, not to have “earned” the descent. Instead of spending hours pushing up a hill to get to the top, we’d jumped on a train…the trail felt like less of a reward than usual. Lower down it headed into the woods and steeply switchbacked its way down on rooty, techy trails with buckets of exposure. That bit was good :)

From there we quickly bought lunch before hopping on the train back to Chamonix. Well, we were sold a ticket to Chamonix. Unfortunately, during one of the changes, at Martigny, I noticed a sign saying no trains were running past the Swiss/French border, and instead a replacement bus was running from there to Chamonix. However, the same thing had happened last year, and the replacement bus doesn’t carry bikes. Feeling tired and argumentative at the prospect of having to now pedal over the Col des Montets and down to Chamonix, an extra 18km we hadn’t planned, I went and argued with the man in the ticket office (in French no less….very proud of myself J ) how it was outrageous that a train replacement service didn’t offer the same service as the train would have done, and demanded my money back after being sold a ticket which was unusable, by someone who knew full-well that we wouldn’t be able to use it with our bikes. After a long-winded process we ended up better off…(only 2 euros 50, but that wasn’t the point!).

I swore under my breath at the replacement bus as it passed us slowly pedalling up the Col des Montets later, and gave the most evil glare I could in case the driver was looking in his mirror…probably not, the French don’t seem to use them much. Anyway, it made me feel better! It actually wasn’t bad, and we were soon sprinting down through Chamonix, trying to get to my friends Jim and Alison’s in Les Houches before the storm that was rapidly moving up the valley hit us. We didn’t quite make it, but were greeted by cups of tea, warm showers, and a visit to the local curry house for dinner to celebrate the end of a successful and awesomely fun trip :) 

Once again, it felt a bit weird to be finished, but it was nice to have a lie-in the following morning, slowly wander around the market in Chamonix, and look at the photos we’d taken, remembering all the best bits of the trip.
I think an ideal Haute route on bike would be a bit of a mix of the 2 routes we’ve now ridden, but I’m not sure that’ll be next year’s adventure….I think I’ve spotted a new even bigger, higher challenge, there’s just the small problem of working out how to cross glaciers with a bike….

No comments:

Post a Comment