Nick Maher has travelled the world in search of mountains and the ever-elusive 'perfect' trail. Now a full-time Alpine resident, he spends his summers scouting out some of the biggest, toughest bike rides that often see him take in the most remote, and sometimes dangerous, of mountainsides and hidden valleys.
This time Nick recounts a bike ride of almighty proportions in the Swiss mountains:
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS?
Words and photos: Nick Maher
A year or so ago I was working with a local guide who runs trips over some pretty epic routes in the Alps, his specialty being the ‘haute route’ from Chamonix to Zermatt, and it was on one of these trips that I was employed as support driver, wingman, bike bodger and bag carrier.
The trip that said friend organizes is a week long and essentially each day in the saddle for the clients involves climbing over a huge mountain pass before descending the other side to that night’s lodging before collapsing into their dinner.
On the trip that I attended, my duties were a little more sedate; I transported the bags from one hotel to the next, helped people fix their bikes of an evening and made polite dinner conversation while sympathizing with peoples’ various aches and pains. For me though, the whole point of the exercise was to make the most of getting to some new places with my bike.
...I was employed as support driver, wingman, bike bodger and bag carrier.
Most mornings I'd leave with the group and start the inevitable massive climb. As time ticked on I'd have to choose a moment to turn back and with Jamie’s (the guide) advice try to find a rewarding way back to the van before setting off to drive to the next hotel. Some days I'd drive ahead then ride back to meet up with the gang or I'd just explore the area around that night’s accommodation.
Everywhere we went the riding was truly spectacular and for someone who spends too much time on chairlifts I was even getting into the climbing! The evenings were spent hanging out with likeminded folk (for a an hour or two before they passed out at least), which was as equally great fun as we traded war stories over stodgy alpine food.
Towards the end of the trip I decided to drive ahead and dump the van at that evening’s hotel and then ride back to the mouth of the Zermatt valley to hopefully hook up with the group for lunch, we'd then ride back along the same route to the hotel and the following day make the final assault on Zermatt itself.
Strangely, all went to plan and I met everyone at the arranged spot bang on time. However, the thought of riding back along the same trail wasn't filling me with enthusiasm, I mean it was okay just nothing special. It was one of those trails that just got you somewhere but wasn't particularly fun, something you wouldn't ride twice, yet that was what I was about to do.
On my way through the previous village I'd noticed one of the little gondolas that litter any Swiss valley and wondered if this might be my savior from this tedious trail, so while eating my lunch in the sun I began to plot my escape. With the map out I figured that I could take this little lift up and then traverse down to another lift, which accessed an amazing trail (I was told), that went virtually to the hotel door... This sounded perfect so I made my excuses to everybody else and set off to find the first lift.
I got out of the puny little cabin at its top station and rolled through the village it served, taking in the view of the valley from this new heightened perspective, confident that the trail I was headed for would be singletrack gold.
On the other side of the village I saw more cables above me, stretching up the cliffs over a rocky peak and up out of sight. Interesting… Following the wires I found the bottom station of the, well, I don't know what it was to be honest... The contraption attached to the wires looked like a metal sledge with a sloping roof and two tiny seats inside, with an open rearward space that was obviously for goods or luggage. Nobody was around, just a timetable attached to a post and a cctv camera.
The contraption attached to the wires looked like a metal sledge with a sloping roof and two tiny seats inside...
A little sign made it clear that you bought your ticket from another gondola station on the far side of the village but what happened next was a mystery. This was too good an opportunity to pass up so I got the map out and worked out where this device would take me, assuming I‘d be allowed up it. After a bit of puzzling I figured that with a bit of a climb I'd actually arrive at the top of my originally planned final descent, decision made! I sprinted back across town and handed over the money for a ride in the deathtrap lift.
I had to take both wheels off the bike to get it into the sledge-thing before hopping in myself. At an appointed time a warning beeper sounded and off I went...
After a very serene and quite enjoyable journey up the wires I found myself standing in a high alpine meadow with a bike in pieces and no sign of civilization. It was hard to fathom why someone had put the lift here in the first place, unless it was purely to help inquisitive mountain bikers get to what must surely be biking nirvana?
Except this wasn’t. I followed my planned route, which traversed a little way and then as expected started climbing, but little outcrops of rock and overly tight switchbacks killed any rhythm and flow there might have been on that trail and soon I had dismounted and was walking. It carried on like this for at least another forty minutes; ride a bit, walk a bit, climb a bit, drag the bike up some rocks a bit (shout obscenities a bit...) until I reached the junction in the path that would start me on my way back to the valley floor.
Anyone with two loosely wired brain cells would, at this point, have headed for the pot of gold, the trail that you’ve been told is a gem. My brain doesn’t work like that, I had to find my own pot of gold. What’s the point of spending an afternoon tramping all over a Swiss mountaintop if you can’t come back and say, “I found this epic trail"?
Map time. My finger traced a few options. A short climb would take me onto a long traverse to that little gem of a trail but if I continued climbing from where I was I could get onto another trail higher up which would still connect with this promise of goodness lower down. Upwards it was…
After about 15 mins I realised that this was a mistake, another hour later I threw in the towel. The trail had broken up to just loose rocks and I was way above the tree line, the contour lines reckoned about 2700m which would not have been a fun place to be if a storm had come in.
I was still a fair way off meeting the path I needed to get to and the way ahead didn’t look any easier. As I ate my last squashed cereal bar I realized it was time to turn around or I’d be late helping the clients off their bikes and to their place at the hotel bar (for some reason this seemed of utmost importance at the time, not the fact that my life was essentially at risk).
After hastily retracing my steps back to the little junction I glanced at a sign which pointed to a place called ‘Lager’; this seemed a very tempting option and my mind wandered only momentarily before I started climbing again, with ever lessening enthusiasm, up another broken and ‘bitty’ trail. Another way marker had a very weather beaten sticker on it from some Italian bike website, so I wasn’t the first to pass this way with a push iron after all, I wondered if they were as gasping (for a cold one) as I was when they stuck that decal to the marker post.
After hastily retracing my steps back to the little junction I glanced at a sign which pointed to a place called ‘Lager’; this seemed a very tempting option and my mind wandered only momentarily before I started climbing again...
By now I wasn’t that bothered about that final descent after all, in fact I just wanted to get it over and done with. Dinner at the hotel was all that occupied my mind and, as I rounded a corner, it was through hallucinations of fondue and beer that I was left facing one of the most incredible mountain panoramas I’d ever seen.
Across the valley, glaciers tumbled from huge peaks and dozens of little hamlets clung to the meadows and forests below them. To my right was an enormous cliff band and running across it was a very thin sliver of singletrack, which wound around the buttresses and outcrops. I’d found my pot of gold.
Fondue and beer vanished from my mind and were replaced with the sharpness and motivation needed to really wring a trails neck. I fidgeted my feet on the pedals until the pins had the purchase I wanted, pulled my gloves on tight and tested the pressure in the brakes, I was determined to grab every ounce of fun this thin line of gravel had in it.
As I set off I tried not to peer over the edge of the trail, the exposure was ridiculous, a good 1500m vertical and crashing was not an option. The first time the front wheel broke traction and drifted towards the edge I realized that this was no place to be a hero, just wind it back a notch and enjoy the trail, Nick…
Some sections were roped (as in, a rope to hold onto at the side) and a brief vision of a handlebar hooked up in the rope flashed across my mind. I really didn’t want that to happen. Everything else was perfect, the trail widened when you wanted it to, you could pump every little rise and there was the most predicable surface you could want. I zipped along only turning the cranks to shift my weight in the bends, listening to the sand fly off my tyres and ping off the downtube.
After a few turns even the exposure began adding to the experience instead of taking away confidence. It forced me to take safer lines and ride a little within myself, that old racers adage of going slow to go fast.
This trail was my reward for all the hours of walking and wandering, toil and graft; a genuine piece of perfection with that elusive combination of contours and radiuses that make up flow and a view to die for.
Would it have been as good if I hadn’t spent the day disappointed by my decisions? The best adventures seem to always be the ones that only come good at the end.
Read part one of Nick's adventure tales here.