Great things are done when men and mountains meet.

No doubt Blake had a less literal interpretation in mind but mountains as a challenge for which to rise was foremost in mine as I departed Zurich on a rainy Wednesday pleased to be underway again and undeterred by the weather.  

Setting out in the late afternoon I headed directly to Luzerne where I was glad to have organised a stop over with another host, Marcus, who saved me from needing to camp in the rain and risk getting all my gear soaked before the climb over the mountains. We spent a pleasant night drinking beer on his balcony with his girlfriend and an anglo-american student couple who were couchsurfing.

Luzerne is picture postcard pretty

said postcard of Kappelbruke

Dating back to 1333 the delightful medieval covered bridge now contains beautiful 17th Century paintings and provided the perfect crossing point to stop and admire the breathtaking lake and mountain views. After a brief roll around the old town in the morning I set off south along the shoreline south keen to get as far up the mountain pass as possible that day.

The sun was out and the cycle paths clearly marked making for a stress free day of marveling at the lakeside mountain's glittering peaks reflected in the lake and excitedly anticipating the Alpine pass to come.

A ferry ride to Gossau later I was zeroing in on Altdorf at the far south end of Lake Luzerne by late afternoon and with the summer sun barely dipping I felt confident of putting a sizable dent into the ascent before making camp.

A steep section out of Altdorf towards Burglen let me know what was in store. Realising I was passing through the hometown of William Tell provided a welcome distraction as the Swiss heroes Robinhood-esque adventures inspired me during the crawl upwards. Stopping regularly as is my want I was nonetheless making good progress when I realised that I no longer had my helmet.


A depressing freewheel back down to retrieve it from the bench I had rested on meant I spent the next 30 minutes climbing just to regain my previous position. Pretty frustrating.

At this point I was using a 1-400,000 map of northern Italy to navigate (it covered as far north as Altdorf) which is a bit high a ratio to be ideal for cycle navigation but as last night's host had said," navigation is easy on mountain passes - keep going straight until you reach the top." Nevertheless I was beginning to grow frustrated that I was yet to reach the first town on my map after Altdorf despite the hours invested. I mean I was going slowly but this was ridiculous. 

A quick check on my phones GPS revealed my glaring error. I was climbing the klausenpass east rather than the Gotthard pass south.

Damn. Damn, Damn and other less acceptable curses.

After briefly turning the air blue

[It would appear the plural of mountain pass is bugger.]
I managed to see the funny side despite finding myself at 900 feet of useless altitude. Still the scenery had been beautiful and I consoled myself by reflecting tht the whole trip was one big detour anyway so one extra was hardly the end of the world. A brief flirtation with continuing over the mountain evaporated as I realised I would have to do two further passes in order to work myself south so instead, for the second time, I turned around and freewheeled back down into Altdorf. 

With the sun waning I began to climb up the Gotthard valley making it only as far as Erstfeld before I pulled over - lured by a quite spot out-of-sight at the bottom of a waterfall.

This is a waterfall in Erstfeld I found on google images. Not the same one but you get the idea.

What can I say about the following day in limp words now that I am bereft of pictures? Of course it was tough and in the heat, on occasionally busy roads, crawling up the big gradients was no picnic. But looking around at the majestic surrounds and at the seemingly unreasonably high mountains the reaction was not one of tiredness such as I've experienced at other times when looking down long straight road disappearing into the distance. 

Rather bubbles of giggles repeatedly rose. A combination of awe at the inhuman scale of the setting combined with the implacable knowledge that up and over I would be going. The ridiculousness and the certainty. Not unlike the little tingle you sometimes get when giving in to a fools hope: To risk the kiss, to make the ill advised but much desired purchase, to leap from the ledge, to stand and fight against the odds.

The decision was already made. I would be crossing these mountains and the joy in that knowledge and the contrast between that and the ever higher peaks winking back at me from the twisting valley's head was delicious. 

Delicious too was scrabbling down the steep bouldered sides of the river Reuss for an icy dip. Warning signs from the hydroelectric dam upriver saying not to were little deterrent as the frigid waters called out to me.

Mid-afternoon came and after many a false dawn I had mastered the climb and rolled into to Andermatt. Sitting on a plateau 500m below the pass I paused for a late lunch and reveled in the fresh air while watching yak like cattle being slowly walked along the main road as BMW drivers watched on in frustration.

Looking back down on Andermatt courtesy of wikipedia.

Late afternoon I pushed on in search of the summit and I could almost taste the satisfaction to come but as I slowly crawled ever upwards my legs began to protest and despite the rest and calories taken in Andermatt I was beginning to flag. With the summit seemingly around every hairpin I continued on; stopping now at every other passing point to catch my breath and rest my head against the ice sheets which clung to the mountain's sides. 

In my lowest gear I crested a hill and a plateau opened up in front of me. Consulting my phone I was within touching distance of the descent I had earned but in my tired haste I had continued along the busy main road rather than taking the bicycle route. Looking to my right across the plateau I could see two other cyclists happily poodleing along in peace while I was being plagued by noisy traffic.

Unwilling to conscience turning back and going the short 400m back to where the roads had diverged I decided to cut across country. Lifting my fully loaded bike over the crash barrier took almost everything I had and working my bike down the cliff side to the plateau floor was hairier than I'd anticipated. Eventually I made it onto the mostly dried up alpine marsh and began to push across heading for the road. Meeting the river which had looked little more than a trickle from the above I realised that at 10 feet wide, 4 feet deep and bitterly cold this was a rather more formidable barrier than hoped. 

Leaving the bike I walked around looking for a crossing point. After completing a perfect lap and realising I was to all intense and purpose on an island cut off by the cliff and the river from my route onwards I decided to down tools and camp. 

The sun was out it was 18:00 anyway, the scenery was beautiful. A dilapidated shepherds shack was looking inviting despite its dankness.

The only remaining Boughton original photo from the Alpine leg.

There's something very special about mountains. Earlier in the trip I had ridden along rivers and appreciated the sheer abundance of life that their broad flood plains endowed. Here, sat near the source of the river Reusse, it was different. No fish in the water, few insects and only the hardiest of plants. The water carried no sediment. Clear and clean and pure. It was these mountains that carved the very rain from the clouds with their height and collected the snow and ice on their shaded pistes that made all the vibrancy I'd followed possible. Potential abounded, kenetic and otherwise. It was difficult not to feel as if you were intruding on something. Perhaps it was creation.

Aldus Huxley claimed his father "considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing." I think his dad was on to something. Between the freshness, the scale, (both in terms of size and in the geological timescales they work on) and the sheer possibilities of those rarefied heights its difficult not to appreciate your insignificance. Who needs a cathedral to our superstitions when truth can be espied, if not understood, from natures shoulders.

But there's only so much contemplation a simple boy like me can endure and so I sunbathed and read my book as the sun dropped. After sunset I finally had a good reason to get my cold weather clothes out. Hat, gloves, thermals, buff and extra socks dealt satisfactorily with the precipitous chill that quickly descended.

The next morning began with fording the river  I'd shyed away from the previous evening. Four trips with panniers, bags and then finally the bike itself held clear of the water to prevent the rims, chain and breaks getting wet before the big descent to come. With feet numb from the icy water I slowly massaged some life back into them and then I was off to claim my reward.

Passing people with skis I made my way towards Airolo and enjoyed my first taste of freewheeling down the sharp hairpins smugly smirking at the raised eyebrows from racing cyclists struggling up the other side on their ultralight bikes.

 The new breakpads I'd fitted were certainly put through their paces.

didn't rush the descent, stopping often to enjoy the views, chatting to an interesting Swiss-Italian guy releasing trout into the upper reaches of the Ticino: A river I was set to follow all the way from source to its eventual release into the mighty Po.

Revealing in the potential my climb had granted me I swooped down the valley through Belizona enjoying the newly Italian road signs and architecture. The sun was hot and even the breeze from my quick descent couldn't prevent me overheating necessitating more than one dip in the ever broadening river.

As evening approached I had reached Lake Maggiore and with it the solitude of the Alps was replaced by the tourist frenzy of the northern Italian lakes. Cycling through Locarno and Ascona on a Saturday evening people were suddenly everywhere. The lakeside space narrowed as I made my way along its western edge. Concerned about finding a place to camp grew. I stopped at 20:00 to make a quick call home and as I stood looking out over the lake I noticed some steps going down to the shore where some arches provided shelter for locals boats. One of these arches, out of sight from the road was empty and so there I slept with an incomparable lakeside view.

The Alps conquered, the cool water lapping gently and the stars out I was in excellent spirits and looking forward to crossing the border into Italy proper early the next morning.

**Due to an unfortunate incident in Tuscany the photographs I had taken between Zurich and Pisa have mostly been lost. The result is a much less interesting wall of text which I have tried to enliven with some appropriate imagery found online.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Tom - even with no photos, your descriptions make it easy to picture. Can almost breathe that mountain air! xxx