Adam writes a couple of stories and the lessons learned from our bike tour to the Dolomites in Spring 2015.
LESSONS LEARNED/WHEN NOTHING GOES RIGHT
Being my first bike tour it was always going to be full of lessons.
We’d chosen a route from the French Alps, roughly crossing the Swiss and Italian Alps and then arriving in the Dolomites in North Western Italy. I knew it would be a touch hilly, crossing many alpine cols that are apparently famous in the road cycling world, albeit this time with all our gear and not a centimetre of lycra in sight. Perhaps foolishly I wasn’t concerned about the cycling, more the cars on the road. I figured I was fit and always keen for adventure – enthusiasm is what I normally rely on to see these things through. I also knew at the end we’d climb in the Dolomites, somewhere I’d been wanting to go for a while. Despite being limestone (a rock I say I don’t like because I’m not very good at climbing it) it’s an area famous in the climbing world for huge walls, some of the biggest in Europe.
The first lesson came quickly. 5km quickly. We’d been following googlemaps with an experimental ‘bike mode’ which seemingly took us on a route avoiding a major road. We’d just completed the first climb of the day, of my life, with full paniers. It was much slower than I’d imagined but less painful, tiring nonetheless. We arrived at a dead end. “Straight on here” I shouted confidently to inform Noémie of what the oracle (googlemaps) was telling us to do. I looked up. A wall of nettles blocked the way. We dismounted. Skirting around the undergrowth we found that the paved road on googlemaps was, indeed, a freshly ploughed field. Return to go. Googlemaps went in the bag and out came the map. Lesson learned.
Later on that first day we were cycling slowly but surely up a steep gradient. Persistently winding and narrow we were concerned with the traffic. You certainly feel less stable with a 40kg bike when you’re only going 5-6km/h up a hill and cars, buses and trucks are passing too close for comfort. We spied an offshoot further up, we stopped for a rethink. We found a single track lane that from the map was clearly the old road. Narrower and steeper, perhaps, but with fewer large vehicles and arriving at our destination – easy decision. An hour of steep cycling later we came across police tape barring the road, the bridge was closed.
Looking across it seemed impassable for motor vehicles, but with bikes it looked fine. We had the option of crossing or returning the way we came and dealing with the main road. After crossing the bridge we cycled on a suspiciously thin road with a lot of debris around before arriving at an obvious landslide. Unloading all of our gear and passing the landslide by foot, we took the bags one by one, once again remounting them on the other side of the pile of rock, mud and broken wood. 100m further on we found yet another slide, we pressed on, this time crossing a shallow stream that had formed making the traverse even more time consuming. On the other side of the debris we re-found the tarmac and made comparatively quick progress towards the local church which would be our campsite for the night. With a little adventurous spirit, will and patience you can go nearly anywhere on a bike, lesson learned.
Soon after, we’d just finished Simplon Pass, a stunning col that took us all day to climb – not helped by roadworks and an efficient Swiss traffic light system that gave us nowhere near enough time to pass between the check points, resulting in a game of chicken with huge trucks and coaches of tourists. You certainly notice when you cross the border from Switzerland to Italy. The potholes suddenly appear and the traffic lights are replaced by a smoking Italian with a red/green sign. After spending the day climbing the col we descended quickly, the speed dizzying after the days exertions. We found a river and searched out an appropriate campsite to wash, eat and sleep. The cold water was refreshing and well needed, we hadn’t seen a shower in a time and we felt renewed. It hadn’t rained for days and it certainly didn’t look like it was going to. We’d been in the mountains and the hot sticky atmosphere of the wide, low valley convinced us to put up the tent without the rainfly. We left our clothes out to dry, deciding we were tired and would tidy them in the morning.
0330 we awake to the sound of rain on our inner tent. The drops are bullying their way through the mesh. It’s raining. Hard. With a start we sit up at the same time, remember we have left everything outside. We jump clear of the sleeping bags and find the head torches. Naked, we run backwards and forwards collecting our equipment and working together to put the rain fly on the tent. It’s not long before we realise that the perfect campsite we found is, in fact, the overflow for the river. We find sandals 10m away, trapped in rocks, taken by the new torrent. We move the tent to a seemingly safe island between the two rivers and spend a restless night hoping the overflow and river don’t become a whole. Be careful around rivers, lesson learned.
SKI PISTE DESCENT
Busy roads quickly gave into narrow mountain switchbacks as we climbed slowly through the Beaufort valley early on the trip. The air felt heavy, the bags heavier as we passed the bewildered stare of a farmer working his fields.
We’d planned to cross col du Joly and descend to St Gervais, from here we could access the Chamonix valley and cross into Switzerland. Most told us there was no way through to St Gervais without retracing our steps and taking another col, but we were already half way up this one. One man told us there were some ski pistes that led down to the other side after the col du Joly but certainly no roads. A fire was lit in our minds.
We arrived at the top of the col seeing a mountain we normally see daily, this time from a perspective we’ve never seen. We rest and drink water. There are other people here, motorcyclists group around in their clique, a family jump out of an SUV quickly to take photos, it feels like a dead end. Time to leave. Helmets on, we start down a gravel path in the vague direction of Mont Blanc. So far so good. The path descends gently and lulls us into thinking this is going to be straightforward. We start to see St Gervais far below in the valley. Fifteen minutes later we’re bouncing around the woods on a red piste, dodging rocks and skidding in the mud, we have to stop to let our rims cool down we’re braking so much. We pass a couple of groups of startled hikers but other than that we see few people until we reach the main road to St Gervais.
We’d been camped under the Vajolet Towers for 4 days, eaten all our food and so needed to descend to the valley that night. We came to climb the three towers that make up this formation that rises in typical dolomitic fashion – these limestone towers, an impressive sight, were made famous by the documentary film “Cliffhanger”. Over the past three days we’d had persistent trouble with the weather, never more than half a day of stable conditions. We’d spent our time doing a few shorter climbing routes in the vicinity and a via ferrata covered in snow and blanketed in fog.
This day seemed different. When the sun rose over the surrounding circle of peaks it revealed clear skies and shone done onto our camp with baking heat.
All hands on deck to complete our daily ritual. Break down the tent, roll the mats, stuff the sleeping bags, pack up the paniers, coffee, breakfast, ready to leave. Lock the bikes together and hide them in a sizeable bush away from any prying eyes. We take our climbing gear and set off to gain the approach path for the towers. Before long we’re sweating, drinking water and losing layers. We start the steep final approach to the towers, it couldn’t be hotter and it’s a relief that we’re going to have a full day in the mountains at last. Following a series of iron ladders and steel cables through scrambling terrain we pick our way up the loose rock to the base of the route.
Looking up at these eruptions of limestone with striking aretes overlooking an alpine lake I get excited, at the foot of the first tower I quickly rack the gear onto my harness and tie in. The air is thick with excitement and tension, as always before starting a climb. The air was thick for a reason. Above us a cloud rolls over the top of the peak and signals it’s presence with a thunder clap. It’s black, menacing and looks all too familiar from the storms of the last week. Flowing over from the blind side of the mountain we didn’t see it coming and we are soon engulfed in a tidal wave of hail, thunder, lightning and thick fog. Needless to say we turned tail and ran, quite literally to get off the exposed plateau and back to the bikes. That night we began our cycle to Trento, leaving the range, drowning our weather woes with a pizza the size of a bike wheel.