Saturday, September 15, 2012

Day 3 - Over Grimselpass, whatever it takes

We've had our share of unexpected moments already, but nothing that was unpleasantly unexpected. When we came up over the first stretch of climbing toward Brunig pass and encountered a lake at eye level, that was unexpected. That some of the path was loose gravel at a steep grade was unexpected, but it didn't last too long.

Our lack of preparation for Grimselpass should have made us less surprised by the actual experience, but then again - how would we know if we didn't really prepare? There's a bike route. suggests a bus for part of it (Post Auto!), because there's some traffic and the bike route is on the road, not on a separated path. The pass is at 2164 meters (8000ft).

But it was a beautiful morning and we only had to go 33kms before we were at the top. We knew there was one steep climb to get over to Innertkirchen and that we'd be climbing for 33kms - but that's not too bad, even at 5kms/hr. Go slow, we said to each other, and we'll take lots of breaks.

The unexpected information from the night before was that there would be mo-peds - not just driving through town starting at 10am - but they'd be accompanying us up over Grimsel. Mo-peds smell incredibly bad. They use a combination of oils that is just disgusting when burned, creating thick blue-ish smoke. Plus they are very loud. We decided to get out of there earlier, but knew they'd catch us eventually, even though they are much slower than anything else on the road. Besides us. We also knew that they would come in waves. And that there were almost 800 of them.

Our first few kms were not confidence inspiring. There was already a lot of traffic on the road, probably cars trying to get through before the mo-peds got on the road. Between the cars, though, it was gorgeous. When it was quiet and we could appreciate the scenery, we were quite happy. We made it up over the first hill without trouble and had a beautiful little descent on the other side down to Innertkirchen. The road was lined with people who were waiting for the mo-peds, and they gaped at us a bit. At one hairpin turn, a large group cheered and did the wave as we went around in front of them - that was grin-inspiring.

Once the mo-peds came, we started taking breaks. Just past Innertkirchen.

Going up there


After the first 6kms or so, I (Ramona) started having trouble. The fact is, I was not strong enough. Day three of a tour, day two was a 1k pass, and we're climbing, fully-loaded, up, up, up. I had to stop every few turns because I was working so hard. I have a mountain bike cassette, but my chain rings are not small enough - especially not on the third day of the tour.

We stopped at a pull-out and let the roar-buzz of mo-peds go past for a while. Joshua was making his best disgusted face and spit often, finding the flavor of mo-ped fumes not to his liking. We were both somewhat stunned into decision-lessness by the noise. We watched mo-peds go by.

It was pretty fun, in some ways. There was a couple, two men in suits, one that was bright pink, and they had signs that said "Just Married" on their backs. Many people were wearing costumes, including full-body bunny suits as well as outfits with capes and decorated helmets. It was so loud that we couldn't really talk to each other. I kind of wanted to wait for them to be gone. Joshua didn't want to sit still there, breathing fumes, a minute longer.

Somehow, we decided to cruise back down to Innertkirchen and take the Post Auto up and over the pass. The bus comes once an hour, but we knew it might not be on schedule, due to mo-peds. But within about 5 minutes of getting to the bus stop, a bus showed up. The driver helped us get the bikes onto the back of the bus and we put all the bags underneath. He was very nice and everyone was patient. Then we got on and realized that we did not have enough cash to pay for both ourselves and the bikes. Over 80CHF. The driver allowed us to pay for ourselves and gave us a break for the bikes and we were on our way. I thought we'd try to get cash at a stop, but he waved it away and wished us luck.

And as we climbed, we realized that we really had no idea what we were getting into. This was no Passwang. This was no Brunigpass. This was the real deal. And it was terrifying. At first there were some mellow climbs and then small valleys where we really could have ridden. Might have made it a few more bus stops without too much trouble, perhaps on a different, non-mo-ped-rally day.

But then the switchbacks started in ernest. The entire way was slow, there were constant mo-peds, and the only cyclists we saw were pure roadies. Killing it.

Looking back

Still going up

Lakes and snow


Looking back at the road below

Once on the other side, we got a view of the road up to Furkapass.

Dropped at Gletsch

Maybe we could have done it. We certainly would have had a better chance if we'd been touring for longer than two days. After one week of touring, we are in much, much better shape. After two weeks we might have been strong enough to power through 33kms of climbing, even if we had to crawl. If there was a separate bike path, at least I would have been comfortable walking the steepest bits where I had to labor against the pedals instead of spin it out. Walk a little, bike a little. But not on a road without a shoulder. We had the cold-weather gear.

Maybe if we could have enjoyed the fresh mountain air, the quiet, and the views, we would have been more interested in pushing through.

And as if to prove that fully loaded touring cyclists certainly can conquer Grimselpass, a couple carrying way more gear than us rolled up as we were loading our bikes again where the bus dropped us. They had started in Norway. Many months on the road. They were not that thrilled about the mo-peds, but they were thrilled to know they were heading over Furka and not down into the Wallis - which is what they (and we) were going to do. Yay! It's possible! People do it! Maybe... one day...

Cruising down from Gletsch to Oberwald was incredibly beautiful, too. A long descent is not satisfying in the same was if you haven't made the climb yourself, but I certainly didn't feel bad. Oh no. Quite the opposite.

Looking back up at the road we came down on with the bus

little Joshua in red

little Rhone River beginnings

we dressed for the descent - it smelled like sun-warmed pine trees

At the bottom we were in the Wallis or Valais (depending on your language preference), the long Rhone Valley that cuts east-west across south-west Switzerland, Alps on either side. And it looked to be as advertised: flat, beautiful, warm. The bus ride had been unexpected, the mo-peds - unexpected. The heat in the Wallis was also a bit unexpected. We dried out all the gear while we had a lovely lunch by the beginnings of the Rhone River.

there are more mountains in our future

Galenstock behind us. We knew it was a big mountain because it kept getting bigger the farther away we got.

Not all flat

But all beautiful

Swiss Alpine Village, couple of cows

Crossing an airport

Some hills, some pushing

We were expecting flat from a route that followed the Rhone - river paths are typically mellow and easy. But of course this is Switzerland and we had some unexpected climbs, some single-track riding, and some really lovely gorges. It was an up-and-down afternoon with plenty to appreciate and plenty to tire us out.

At Ernen, the bike route had warning signs. 1.8kms of 12%+ that had to be walked. There were 6kms that did some serious climbing. Despite the bus ride, we'd already done a lot of climbing over the course of the day. We'd also managed to cover around 60kms total. The signs recommended the train. Not even for Grimselpass were there signs recommending an alternative - although there were signs about the steepness and distance.

So we took the train - and we decided we'd take the train all the way to Visp (said "fishp") so we could take the next day off and go up to Zermatt and the Matterhorn by train. When in the Alps, see some Alps. It took us a long time to find the campsite, which was hidden, and we did some riding back and forth - perhaps just to make sure we did a good 70-75kms for the day. Hilarious, really.

But throughout we managed to stay content with each surprise or change of plans. We really are turning into experienced touring cyclists - not a case of the grumpies all day, no matter how many unexpected things happened.

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