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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Mountain climbing – Cycling paradise
Every time when we spend our holidays in Europe, I bring my bike with me and we do lot’s of bike riding. Two years ago we climbed Passo dello Stelvio and Passo Gavia in Italy. This time I brought my friends with me, to climb the highest pass in Slovenia – Vršič pass. Few weeks later Vera and I drove with the car up the Passo St. Gothard in the Swiss Alps. This climb is used very often in the “Tour of Switzerland” bike race. In addition, we also climbed mountain called “The top of Europe” in the Swiss Alps – Jungfraujoch – this time boarding the green mountain train. Three mountains, three different ways of climbing to the top. Here is the story.
The Vršič pass (1,611 m) – by bike
The 1611m high Vršič pass is the heighest pass of Slovenia. This climb is almost always used in the “Tour of Slovenia” bike race. We attacked the climb from the Bovec (south) side. There were only five of us: Ljiljana, Ivan, Kreso, another Ivan and me.
From Bovec, on the almost flat road we could enjoy the view to the rocky, narrowing valley. The road leads north over the Vršič Pass to Kranjska Gora. The first part of the route follows the Soča River to Trenta, where there is an information centre for Triglav National Park. We started slowly as everybody was aware of what was to come…
The road on this (south) side is much more difficult, than the road from the Kranjska Gora (north) side. It has been completely renovated and has no more cobbles. The hairpins are more sharp here. The traffic is not heavy; however there are numerous tourist buses that take hairpins really slow so be VERY careful descending. The altitude difference from the Trenta side is about 300 m greater and the climb is a few km longer.
Also note that the numbering of hairpins begins at the bottom of the Trenta side, goes over the summit and ends at the bottom at Kranjska Gora. Number 48 is at the beginning of the climb from this side, and the summit is at 26, if I remember it correctly.
Continuing north wards you will reach the monument to Julius Kugy, a climber who helped to draw attention to the beauty of this part of the alps. Near the statue a track heads northwest to the source of the Soča (Izvir Soče), where the stream emerges from a cave and immediately hurls itself over a waterfall. After the bridge over the stream of Trenta river, the serious climbing starts; 26 hairpin bends later we will arrive at the summit of the Vršič Pass (1611) where we can enjoy wonderful views. Or not, if you are too tired from climbing, like I was.
From this 794m high point in the next 9km we have had to climb 817m height difference, which means 9% average steepness. In this ascent the steepness is almost just the same from the feet to the top. There aren’t any 12-14% or 5% sections.
One of the Ivan’s was dictating a very tough pace which most of us could not follow. I was climbing at my own pace and was left alone on the rode by stronger riders. If it was not for the “kids” in the following cars who were taking pictures, I would not see anyone on the road as the traffic was scarce.
After the heightness of 1300m looking ahead we could see the pass, the tourist house and the whole valley (photo). It gives plus power to push the pedals. In the last kilometer we meet more and more parking cars and tourists along the road and we can see some path(e)s leaving to the peaks.
At the top there is the Tičarjev Dom mountain hut at the pass. We took a few pictures and put on some warm clothing for the long and fast downhill riding. One of the Ivan’s couldn’t wait, as he is really known for his descending abilities.
The road over the Vršič Pass in Slovenia was built by Russian prisoners-of-war during WWI. In 1916, an avalanche buried and killed hundreds of them (the exact number is still unknown) so a small chapel was built in their honor. Even though I included it here, it’s a chapel rather than a church — that’s why I called it “a place of worship” — but mass is held there at least once a year.
The St. Gotthard pass (2,108 m) – by car
If you like cobblestones then I have the road for you. The St Gotthard Pass (2,108m, 6915 feet) is in central Switzerland and an important link between the German and Italian parts of the country.
There is an highway through a tunnel and another paved road over the pass to handle all the considerable motor traffic. And for cyclists, the old/ancient cobblestone road has been perfectly preserved.
Coming from the Nufenen, you can choose for the tunnel or the old pass. Although I was driving a car, we turned to the cyclist road, which is truly a cobblestone heaven that I wanted to experience. The old pass immediately starts to climb.
The south side is cobbled for the most of the 14 kilometers. Almost traffic-free, well maintained, it is a hairpin heaven. I am very glad that this old pass is still maintained: there aren’t that many cobblestoned roads through the Alps! Somehow, you feel more *in* the landscape, that way.
The road climbs, with steep, narrow hairpins, and eventually you will arrive at the Gotthard Hospiz, where you will meet everybody who used the new road to come there. Of course, you could use the new road to go down and up again too: it’s the choice between riding a narrow, steep road with rough surface, with probably no other traffic, and a wide road, with circuit-like asphalt and very good curves, but most of the time with many cars.
St Gotthard pass (2,108 m/6,916ft), a bare flat depression with a number of small lakes. To the left is Monte Prosa (2,471 m/8,107ft; 2.5 hours), to the right La Fibbia (2,742 m/8,997ft; 2.5 hours, with guide), sloping down sharply into Val Tremola.
The St Gotthard group of mountains, forming a link between the Valais and the Grisons Alps, lies in the center of Switzerland – the core around which the Confederation grew up. Here the valleys carved out by the Reuss and the Ticino have prepared the way for this magnificent route over the central ridge of the Alps. 100 m/328ft beyond the pass is a fork at which the old road continues straight ahead and the new road bears right.
For the road down (to the north) you can follow the old road again. This time, it will take you about halfway: then you join the new road, for the rest of the descent.
At the pass make sure you stay on the cobbles and take the old road down to Airolo. This south side is truly special. The Swiss understand how to preserve their heritage and the cobbles are painstakingly maintained. The hairpins, views, waterfalls, etc. are just fantastic. Lots of cyclists and virtually no cars. As good as it gets.
The Joungfraujoch mountain (3,454 m) – by train
During our stay in Basel Switzerland last summer, we spent one day visiting Switzerland’s most popular (and expensive) mountain railway excursion to the top of the Europe.
Our friends, who live in Basel, offered to drive us all the way to Interlaken, town deep in the Swiss Alps. We left our car on the parking lot in Grindelwald and boarded a green mountain train.
Trains trundle through lush countryside south from Interlaken before coiling spectacularly up across either Wengen or Grindlewald’s mountain pastures, breaking the treeline at Kleine Scheidegg and tunnelling clean through the Eiger to emerge at the JUNGFRAUJOCH, an icy, windswept col at 3454m, just beneath the Jungfrau summit.
It’s the site of the highest train station in Europe, and offers an unforgettable experience of the mountains. You’d be missing out if you decided against shelling out the exorbitant sums necessary to reach the place.
However, good weather is essential – if there’s a hint of cloud you’d be wasting your time heading up. Check the pictures from the summit, broadcast live on cable TV throughout the region, for an idea of the weather conditions, call the Jungfraujoch weather line (033/828 79 31) or ask your hotel or nearest tourist office for the latest forecasts. Remember, too, that it takes two and a half hours to reach the summit from Interlaken, and weather conditions can change rapidly. Coy though it sounds, even if you plan nothing more adventurous than looking out of the summit station window you should still bring sunglasses with you: the snows never melt up here, and if the sky is blue, the sun’s glare and glitter can be painful.
There are two routes to the top. Trains head southwest from Interlaken Ost along the valley floor to Lauterbrunnen, from where you pick up the mountain line which climbs through Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg; different trains head southeast from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald, where you change for the climb, arriving at Kleine Scheidegg from the other direction. All trains terminate at Kleine Scheidegg, where you must change for the final pull to Jungfraujoch – the popular practice is to go up one way and down the other.
Walking some sections of the journey, up or down, is perfectly feasible in summer, and can also save plenty, with fares from intermediate points along the route considerably lower. The undiscounted Good Morning ticket from Grindelwald is Fr.103, from Lauterbrunnen Fr.102, from Wengen Fr.91, and from Kleine Scheidegg Fr.58. Excellent transport networks and vista-rich footpaths linking all stations mean that with judicious use of a hiking map and timetable you can see and do a great deal in a day and still get back to Interlaken, or even Bern or Zürich, by bedtime.
The summit station, inevitably, is a tourist circus of ice sculptures, huskie sleigh rides, glacier walks, a short ski run, dismal restaurants and a post office, all invariably overflowing with tour groups. Nonetheless, panoramic views from the open-air 3571m Sphinx Terrace to Germany’s Black Forest in one direction and across a gleaming wasteland to the Italian Alps in the other are heart-thumping. Yawning away below the silver-domed weather station on top is the mighty Jungfraufirn glacier, which joins up with several others (including the Aletschgletscher, largest in the Alps) at the resonantly named Konkordiaplatz ice plain 3km southeast.
The best way to avoid being smothered by snap-happy crowds is to travel up on the first train of the day, and on arrival follow the signs quickly straight to the Sphinx Terrace – that way, you can snatch five or ten minutes of crisp, undisturbed silence at the loftiest point of all, and be the first of the day to sweep the snow off the railings. At other times, you may have to queue for an hour or more just to get your nose into the fresh air. Once you’ve finished at the terrace, it’s easy to leave the bustling summit station behind and head out across the snows into solitude and silence, although you must stick to the marked trails (crevasses give no warning).
If you’ve had experience of snow hiking in the mountains, and you have good boots, a map, sunglasses and proper clothing, let the tourist office in Interlaken know that you want to head out on the simple one-hour trail from the Jungfraujoch around the base of the Mönch to the Mönchsjochhütte at 3629m (033/971 34 72; April–May & July–Sept; dorms Fr.26) – the isolation of the hut offers a night to remember. You should walk at half pace, or you’ll find yourself dizzy and labouring to catch your breath in the thin atmosphere. A handful of other glacier-bound huts are dotted around the area, but you need a mountain guide and all the professional gear to reach them.
Have a good and healthy season.
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Tags: Summer 2009