The Alp-Packer – an alpine ITT?

It’s funny how an idea can grow. Every adventure starts somewhere, perhaps just a crazy suggestion that’s thrown out there as a joke, but takes on a life of its own. Or an idea that fills a need you didn’t know was there.

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Buffer than a male model’s six pack.

Me and Annie’s current ‘project’ if you want to call it that, seems in retrospect like it was inevitable – once suggested it seemed amazing that the idea hadn’t come up before, it must have been floating around for ages waiting for the time to be right. It might have come to your attention that the European Alps aren’t too shabby a spot for some mountain biking. In fact, they’re a cartophile’s playground (unless you’re in Italy where the maps are crap) – a single valley can contain too many wiggly-lined promises of fun to count, and take years to fully explore. The bikeparks and braking bumps of Morzine, Les Gets and the other alpine resorts might be world famous, but if you enjoy chasing vertical metres armed with a map and a sense of curiosity then the Alps are inexhaustible. The people who have lived, worked and travelled in the Alps’ huge arc have left a legacy of overgrown balcony trails, stacked switchbacks and stone-pitched alpine passes that form the ultimate trail network.

Sounds like there might be some pretty incredible journeys to be had in a place like that, right? Well, just so long as you’re happy with plenty of climbing and descending. The idea, when it announced itself, was that Europe could do with a tough, alpine-style bikepacking route to show off the best of the riding through its greatest mountain range. Between us we’ve both spent a fair bit of time in the far western Alps, mostly in France, guiding in the Tarentaise Valley for Sam at BikeVillage, and exploring farther afield. Sticking with what we know best, we thought an initial ‘TransAlp’ route might shadow one of the classic alpine journeys in the form of the GR5, the long distance hiking path that traces a route through the most mountainous terrain between Geneva and Nice. It’s an aesthetic line, linking a great city of the northern Alps with the Mediterranean coast. It’s so full of history that the different layers of past humanity are often jumbled on top of one another, and passes through iconic places like Chamonix beneath the Mont Blanc massif.

For a few reasons though, it wouldn’t be enough to simply follow the line of the GR5 in the way that the Colorado Trail Race follows the Colorado Trail. Firstly, the GR5 passes through the Vanoise and Mercantour national parks, where mountain biking isn’t allowed. It would be possible to just circumvent these sections via some slightly convoluted detours. but the directness and high setting of the GR5 would would be lost to an extent. The other reason, and the one that pushed me away from the GR5 more definitely, is that the Alps are a fairly spiky range of mountains in the grand scheme of things, and have many east-west running valley systems. You may have noticed that a Geneva-Nice route would run north-south, but the GR5 brushes that small hindrance aside and happily marches up and down across the great valleys with barely a rideable climb from the start to the the sea. It is, of course, definitely possible to take your bike all along the GR5 (or the legal bits, anyway) and the various other GR’s – plenty of folk have done it. If a one-upmanship contest of who can haul their bike and kit over the most alpine cols the fastest is what you want, then the GR5 can provide. But from when we first started mulling over the idea we realised that it would be worth the extra time and effort to try and hash together an ‘aesthetic’, mostly rideable line across the Alps, that strikes the best possible compromise between staying true to the mountains and allowing the bike to remain a help rather than a hindrance. I have hauled loaded bikes up enough steep mountainsides to know that doing it repeatedly for a couple of weeks on not enough sleep might cross into uncharted waters of anti-fun. Not that this was going to restrict our route choices too much – if anything, over-availability of choice is always going to be the problem in the Western Alps, and once a map comes out it’s all too easy to get distracted by that line over there, or that one with all the switchbacks over there…

It’s very easy for big ideas to stay as just that: an idea, brought out of the cupboard to be discussed and gnawed at in the pub from time to time, more like a chew-toy than a plan. In anticipation of future, lazy me, I made sure to mention this idea to a few folks early on, so that it might be harder to let it fall by the wayside. When I passed the French guiding test in late May and began to book in some work for Sam at BikeVillage through the summer, it seemed like as good a time as any to put some money where our mouths were, and I used a few days off to start sniffing out the route that must be out there. I took the 5am train, leaving Landry before the summer sun had hit even the highest tops, and joined the first of the morning’s commuters heading to Chambéry and onwards to Switzerland; just a simple Sweet Roll strapped to my bars and a rucksack containing some camera kit, as light as I dared for the 5 days; partly to stay true to Alpine tradition and partly to make any long pushes a little bit more bearable.

Geneva’s a weird place. I already knew this, but I’d forgotten. Crossing the border from French countryside, I joined the hubbub of designer-labelled humanity leaving the station, pedalleing out among the luxury cars and classy boutiques of Geneva’s centre towards Lac Léman. I enjoyed the feeling of incongruity among crowds of people off to a day’s work or beginning a day’s sightseeing. Heavy camera aside, it felt liberating to have so little equipment and so few certainties for the days ahead. Unfortunately, one of those uncertainties was my route out of Geneva and into the mountains. Paper maps weigh more than you think, so in an effort to reduce superfluous paper ballast the best map I had been able to bring was a crappy 1:200,000 with 100m contour intervals and a laissez-faire attitude to which roads merited inclusion. After eating some second breakfast with a view of the famous fountain, I took some rough guesstimates and tried to avoid the busier roads as I wove an unsteady course eastwards, having rejected the idea of sticking to the lakeshore in favour of a more direct route Annemasse and off-road freedom (this was a bad choice).

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Geneva’s fountain in Lac Léman, the storm clouds already building.

Large scale maps have a terrible tendency to oversimplify the terrain, and I know this, but I got suckered right in anyway. The journey to Annemasse and French soil took a little longer than planned, via several small villages, plenty of roads that didn’t show on my map, and a lively section of dual carriageway that came as an unpleasant surprise. The 20km became more like 30 by the time I did make it to the base of my first climb in the massif des Voirons. My masterplan was to follow the GR du balcon de Léman along the forested ridge of the Voirons towards Thonon Les Bains, following what was, at least, an aesthetic line on the map. The weather recently had been fairly damp, and as I began to winch up the steep forest roads with a pain au chcocolat from the local bakery in my mouth, the clouds behind me were already darkening to an ominous inky grey.

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A fleetingly fun bit of singletrack in the Voirons

I spent the rest of the day wondering when it was going to get good. Having gained the ridge at 1,400m, a series of heavy showers began to soak everything at hourly intervals while throwing the odd bolt of lightning around the place. The trail, such as it was, alternated between vague forest-floor with occasional flashes of paint on three trunks, and deeply rutted forest access tracks that were mostly underwater. Not an inch of it was flat – it either went straight up a steep knoll, or straight down the other side. That probably makes it sound terrible, which is fairly accurate, although I can see how, in friendlier weather and without so much dampness underwheel, bits of it might have been more memorable. As it was, after several hours of veeery slow progress I wasn’t much closer to the Swiss border and that day’s ultimate goal of the GR5, so I happily abandoned any hopes of including the GR du balcon de Léman in our hypothetical route, and knocked out a rainy 40km to the small town of Abondance on minor roads. The temperature had plumetted all afternoon, far more than forecast, so I dragged my wet, chilly self into the first restaurant I found in Abondance, where the owner’s entire extended family served me a giant pizza while I tried not to get mud everywhere.

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This was not what I had in mind.

It was Bastille day, and Abondance’s entire population was cramming itself into a small marquee in the main square, where a brass band and dancers were limbering up. I watched for a while, trying to feel as though I belonged among all these smiling, chatting people who hadn’t trudged alone through slop all day, but a mixture of cold and awkwardness pushed me out of the village and towards a spot to sleep. I struggled to get warm on the steep road climb out of town, and with only bivvy gear I didn’t fancy a night fully exposed to the skies. With no obvious forest forthcoming, I made the most of the many empty holiday chalets that dotted the meadows on the slopes above the village, and settled down for the night on a verandah with a nice, overhanging balcony to keep the rain off. I was glad I did – the rain turned heavier and more persistent as I drank a mug of tea in my sleeping bag, and the red bursts of fireworks stained the damp sky above Abondance until well after I was asleep.

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Home for the night – just a shame the hot tub was switched off.

Day one, it turned out, had been good practise for day two’s exciting mix of cold, wet and type 2 fun. I woke up early, but stayed in my bag for a few cups of tea and debated whether I really wanted to leave it. The temperature had dropped further overnight, and couldn’t be too far off freezing. My route along the GR5 would take me to over 2,000m for a large chunk of the day towards Samoëns, and right now it was very foreboding, the rain having continued for much of the night and into the day. Whether it’s because I’m a purist or just plain antisocial, I am drawn towards solo adventures, where there can be no bickering and griping when a route turns nasty, and decision-making around safety and success is on your own shoulders and yours alone. Riding alone is the opposite of what I do on an average workday, and perhaps the appeal is just the opportunity to be purely selfish, leaving behind the weight of extra tools, extra spares and extra responsibility.

I was fairly confident that I had enough food and kit to see me through anything but apocalyptic conditions, but it was still with some trepidation that I eventually made the decision to climb further into the schmungy weather. Winching, and eventually pushing up another steep hillside, I eventually rejoined the GR5 and enjoyed some flowing but saturated singletrack alone in my little bubble of visibility. I saw the occasional hiker, decked out in cagoules and ponchos and trying to make the most of the weather, but otherwise I was alone in cotton wool-world. As I climbed above 1,800m the rain turned to snow and everything took on that ‘really? Are we really doing this?’ level of absurdity that made it all suddenly seem like a really good adventure. I was skirting around the back of the Morzine-Avoriaz resort area, on excellent traversing singletrack through snow-crusted meadows and with all the world seemingly to myself – it was brilliant. Just before crossing the col back in to Switzerland I stopped off at a small réfuge which was, unsurprisingly, quiet that day. Inside, a log fire was roaring away and I was shooed into a corner with some newspaper to sit on by the woman who ran the place, who continued looking at me like I couldn’t be trusted not to make a mess. Once I’d  bought an extortionate hot chocoloate and some homemade dried sausage, a quick hike up and over the col took me into Châtel and Switzerland.

The rest of the day went by in much the same way: I trundled along in my foggy cloud of schmung and tried to keep warm, eating the delicious dried sausage from time to time and trying to decide if this was a good ride or not so far. Either way, at least the choices were my own, and I figure it’s good to have your assumptions about your competences tested from time to time. Some hiking, some pedalling and some fun descending took me south of the Morzine area, and into the hills above Samöens, where one last push over the Col de la Golèse had lower altitudes, warmer temperatures and more importantly food shops within range. After warp-speed tractor track, the descent into Samëns brought some sloppy, slithery, smile-widening singletrack through the dense layers of cloud and dripping forest back into tourist-land, where I landed with a squelch of mud-plastered clothes. While parents told their children not to get too close, I trailed filth around the floor of the supermarket and bought a lot of chocolate and cheese – the end of day calorie binge is the best feeling on earth – before spinning out of town. The rain was beginning to fizzle out, and dazzlingly golden rays of light from the low evening sun punched holes through the weakening mist. The jaws of the Dents Blanches, the massif I had been passing beneath all afternoon, began to jut out of the clouds before fading back out again. It was freezing, and I was tired of being wet and exposed to the weather. I almost missed it, but a close look at the map revealed a tiny -free campsite’ symbol trying to hide just off the GR5 route and only a little way up the next day’s climb, the Col d’Anterne. I pitched up as darkness fell beside the rain-gorged river, and to maintain glamour levels bivvied on the porch of a small toilet block in anticipation of any more rain overnight.

The night was mostly dry, and cold; a thin layer of frost coated the bivvy bag in the morning. What mattered most though was the deep, clear blue of a cloud-free sky, yet to be lit by the sun. Hoping that I’d paid my dues as far as bad weather was concerned, I packed up quickly after a very strong cup of coffee on the toilet porch (got to stay classy), and started the long, long climb over the Col d’Anterne. I hoped to make Chamonix by mid-afternoon, but quickly realised that that wasn’t going to happen, as thin tarmac gave way to rough stone-pitched track, which in turn gave way to muddy, rutted and stepped hiking path. Pushing through the undeveloped pine forests, where the smell of mountain rain still lingered in the fresh morning air, was reminder enough that beauty and suffering aren’t mutually exclusive. I was well aware that a bike wasn’t necessarily the most appropriate choice of vehicle for the terrain, but just in case I hadn’t realised this I was reminded frequently by the steady stream of GR5 hikers making their way north from the refuge another 1,000m above me. A bike is always a good conversation point in places like that, so the climb was broken with some nice chats and a chance to practice my French. I was warned about the fresh snow from the previous days, which had only added to the deep patches still present from the long winter on the shaded north side of the col, but otherwise the conversation kept my mood high as I climbed steadily towards the sun, each metre earned leaving its mark as a slight increase in the burning feeling in my thighs.

Above the trees, I paused and sat in the sun for the first time since leaving Geneva, and felt glad that I hadn’t listened to the small voice that had suggested turning back and abandoning during the coldest, wettest moments. The mountains had been washed clean by the rain, a freshly laundered landscape laid out to dry in the crystal clear air and full of promise, which can’t help but infect anyone who passes through. As the trail pitched up and became more stepped, I tried counting steps, one hundred at a time, to zone out of the hard work and concentrate on enjoying where I was. one hundred steps, then a ten second rest, then repeat. It worked for a while, although there’s no getting round the pain of lugging a bike up for 2,00om. The scrubby alpine juniper and blaeberries gave way to grass, then mosses, and finally nothing but scree and finally deep snow drifts. It was some comfort to see the GR5 hikers wallowing and struggling with the soft snow just as much as me, and at least the gradient had eased now that the dreaded steps had receded into welcome memory.

There was an awkward moment as I did, finally, crest the col and found the view that had entertained me until that point replaced with another, entirely new one. The problem was that everyone else had thought to stop at this point too, to have their lunch and soak in the scenery. That in itself was fine, but my first thought on peering over the top was that the first section of trail leading down from the col was very, very technical, and that all these hikers were now looking at the silly muppet with the bike, down at the trail in front of him, and then back at the muppet, clearly wondering what he was going to do now that he’d lugged his silly bike all the way up here. I was wondering too. Engaging delay tactics, I enjoyed a buffet lunch of oatcakes, peanut butter and additional oatcakes, while an increasing number of people began to look as if they were anticipating someone getting hurt.

Eventually this had gone on long enough. I was cold, and looking forward to getting down to les Houches and some sort of pastry. Buckled up, manned up and feeling a little bit set up, I announced myself with a squeal of wet brakes and began to pick a line down the loose scree, wondering a little if I had just been silently coerced into doing something silly. After a few fairly committing steps and hoppy corners, I did have to admit defeat in order to live another day, but felt far enough along from the col that I could salvage at least a little pride, if not common sense. The rest of the trail down from the col was magic, though: gripping, technical but rideable and rewarding, I was soon down at the réfuge below and planning my descent into the Chamonix Valley. This involved an awkward, technical traverse that went on just a little too long, but followed by a sustained, technical and apparently very rarely ridden trail that unceremoniously dumped 1,000 vertical metres in a series of tight switchbacks, rocky gulleys and silent carpets of dry pine needles. It was worth everything that came before it, and that is exactly the problem with going exploring – it takes just one descent to forgive hours of merciless slogging, heaving and cursing. Whatever the cost had been, a quick hop up and over was needed to avoid a narrowing in the valley floor before I dropped into Les Houches and hunted for the promised pastries. When it comes to ‘recovery’ food for the calorie-deprived and sweaty cyclist, France is a class-leader for sure.

With evening drawing in, I heaved a very full tummy back into the saddle and began to spin up the Chamonix Valley towards Argentière and the Col. I haven’t spent a great deal of time in the Chamonix Valley, but it’s a cathedral of outdoor sport, if there can be such a thing, and the numbers of bronzed, healthy-looking people sat around slacklining, running and suchlike in the late evening sun was a surprise. I felt a little lonely, excluded from the wholesome, smiling population of the valley and confined to the endurance cyclist’s transient view from outside the window. I rolled past families enjoying al fresco dinner beneath the canopies of leafy boulevards; a gaggle of climbers egged on a friend on a riverside boulder problem; at the Agrentière campsite weary adventurers cooked hearty meals in the cooling air and turned in for the night. Each snapshot reminded me that I was alone, I was tired and hungry, and it was all self-imposed. I didn’t have to be here, this was meant to be my time off.

The familiar tunes of warmth, food and company pulled on my heartstrings as I pulled away from the happy outdoorsfolk and climbed to the low Col des Montets, which would lead me over to Vallorcine. I settled down to sleep among scrubby juniper and alpine shrubs, shrouded and isolated by a chilly fog which settled over the upper slopes of the col as darkness fell. With cheese, bread and a cup of black tea filling my belly and adding a little welcome warmth, I drifted off and tried to recover some enthusiasm for the journey around the ‘wild’ Italian side of Mont Blanc.

If my little busman’s holiday had thrown weather, hardship and loneliness at me so far, waking to a frosty coat on the outside of my bivvy bag, curling mist and a bright, clear dawn was a chilly but welcome way to begin a day that would take me on a tour through Switzerland and Italy beneath some of Europe’s most iconic mountain scenery. As I whizzed down towards Vallorcine on the historic road track, an early morning road race was zooming along parallel to me on the smoother, modern road surface. Stopping to shake some warm blood into my hands, I watched the peloton whizz away into the fog before peeling off onto some exquisite balcon singletrack hugging the steep side of the valley, with only the click of the freehub and the dull thus of rubber on roots breaking the muffled silence.

A series of punchy climbs began the inevitable process of regaining altitude, which in the Alps is bound to happen sooner or later. Once the sun rose high enough over the horizon to start imparting a little warmth to my hungry frame, I stopped for a little breakfast before getting back to the grind, pedalling and eventually hiking my way up to the first col of the day, which placed me far above the small Swiss village of Trient. As if it knew what was expected, this first taste of Swiss singletrack lived up to expectations, offering a combination of silky smooth dirt, wildflowers bejewelled by dew bordering the trail, and utter silence in the early morning air. This was why I ride a bike, this was why I had carried on through the rain and the snow and sleeping on the porch of a public toilet. The trail took me towards the sun, there was really no possibility of doing anything other than follow its demands and try to keep up with its curves and falls. Dropping through the forest the rhythm slowed, became more jagged. A ladder of switchbacks to descend, demanding concentration and commanding me to place the front wheel with care: into the apex, easy on the brakes. A small hop, eyes up to the exit, and breathe out…

I was in Trient before I knew it, having pissed away a vertical kilometre of gravity credits without a blink. The Santa Cruz Hightower I was riding might not be the most obvious choice of bikepacking steeds, but only lightly loaded with a minimalist summer load it was shining bright on the steep, technical alpine trails. The extra weight over the bars and frame kept the tyres planted and well stuck to the trail, and I found that i could ride as freely as I might on any other ride, the extra kit not bringing any restrictions with it. After a thankfully short offroad climb to the Col de la Forclaz, I joined the passing motor tourists and hikers there to reward my efforts so far with a mid-morning ice cream. The thing about the well-developed European Alps is that after riding high and alone over a col, dropping into the valley means a brief return to civilisation with all its delicious trimmings.

The rest of the day passed much the same way: as the temperature crept up and the day progressed, I settled into the steady plod of someone who doesn’t want the journey to end too soon. After a few hours of climbing I would be rewarded with a pulse-quickening descent, threading the bike down ever more technical descents while trying not to alarm the hikers enjoying the Tour du Mont Blanc route. At villages I would treat myself to a cold drink and some unhealthy food, before hitching up the wagon and repeating. As the afternoon shadows lengthened and became evening, I found myself in the high meadows of the Val Ferret, conversely enjoying the ability to gain some easy height on the narrow road that inched its way up the steady incline of the valley floor in a series of open switchbacks.

At La Fouly I stopped for another ice cream, thinking why the hell not, this is my holiday. My little pile of Swiss francs was being rapidly eaten into by inflated tourist prices, but as I sat in the shadow of yet another beautiful old church slurping my treat I was struck again by the fact that even a mountainous through the Alps is never too far from resupply points – a race through this terrain would allow the gamble of lightweight packing to be taken to extremes. I waved goodbye to Switzerland as I inched up the Col grand Ferret, the late afternoon sugar boost being expressed as a sudden urge to pedal as much of the climb as possible. Passing above the treeline and into the snow-dotted realm of the marmots, an icy wind spoke up for the mountains and said that there is going light, and then there is going too light. I didn’t linger on the 2,537m summit of the col, and had all of my clothing on as I entered Italy by way of crazy wooden steps, stacked switchbacks and numb fingers. As quickly as I could, I settled down for the night beneath sighing larch trees and stars in the (Italian) Val Ferret, which if you’ve never been is absolutely, achingly bloody lovely.

When I woke early the next morning, I was on the opposite side of Mont Blanc to where I had been the previous morning on the Col des Montets.The ‘wild side’ was cold, with another layer of frost on my sleeping gear. The sun had yet to catch the flanks of the mountain but it was too chilly to pretend to sleep any more, so after a very quick mug of coffee I hotfooted it down the road, catching the village in the act of waking, and began my final climb through Val Veny towards the Col de la Seigne. The southern side of Europe’s highest peak is very different to a lot of the terrain that I had ridden through already: ski lifts and pistes are few and far between, and although humans have left their inevitable mark in forms like the cable car that crosses the heart of the massif the overall feel is of a place whose alpine character hasn’t been completely tamed. The tiny road twisted and turned around moraine banks and huge glacially deposited boulders, until the wizened larches and shrubs gave up their hold on the mountain and were replaced by tiny, jewel-like flowers in the dewy grass, whose names I didn’t know. Above me the stark rock was still dark; it rose and rose to the summit of the Aiguille Noir de Peuterey, nearly two vertical miles above me, where the morning sun formed a luminous crown. A few marmots chattered away in the warmth as the sun caught the boulders near their home, before they bolted at the sound of my approach.

Similarly, as I finally gained the col the early hikers who had started from the refuge on the other side fell quiet to have a stare. I had eaten all of my food at this point, and was looking forward to a shower and lots to eat. Without hanging about too long, I rolled down the far side to Les Chapieux, enjoying the cumulative effort of a lot of pushing and grunting over the few days. the temptation of food was too strong, so I rolled down the Cormet de Roselend road towards Bourg Saint Maurice, dragging the bars around the tarmac switchbacks on the way and feeling the weight of the gear sticking me to the road.

The journey from Geneva back to Bourg took four and a half days, some of which was unforgettable for the right reasons, and the rest of which was… unforgettable. Whichever way it turns out, following the map and your own optimistic planning into the great blue yonder has never disappointed so far. the ‘Alp-Packer’ (thank you Sam Morris and your name-inventing skills) will hopefully become a challenging but aesthetic route through some of Western Europe’s best mountain landscapes, and at this point it has a body, even if the arms and legs need some refining. While the northern section to the Tarentaise Valley will need to be revisited at a later date, the southern and middle sections already have a lot of exploration logged, and some outstanding lines to include. Shortly after I flew home to the UK, Annie went on her own solo odyssey and found some sections of trail in Switzerland that it would be lovely to work in… It would be very easy to plot the route of the GR5 on a GPX, but honestly, anyone riding it will be looking for someone to kill – I hope that with a bit of work a truly rideable and rewarding line will exist from that same fountain in Geneva, all the way to sun, sand and sleep exhaustion on a beach in Nice.

Right now the mountains are going to sleep for the winter, and we are preparing for a trip to Nepal. Come next summer though, the final parts of the route will need to be filled in, and we hope to have a route logged and ready to share by next autumn. If you’re interested/nosey or have suggestions then please get in touch and let’s talk elevation profiles. Watch this space for updates!

Huw.

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