July 5, 2013
We promised you a preview of one of our favourite features from the upcoming issue 83 of Singletrack, and here it is…
If you’ve not already booked your summer holiday then the latest tale from our travelling Polish contributors, Daniel Klawczyński & Dominika Skonieczna, should get you pining for Alpine adventures – so make sure your credit card/piggy bank is in a safe place before you start reading.
This feature, and many more, will be in issue 83 of Singletrack which will be hitting newstands on 18th July or thereabouts, but subscribers get their copy delivered straight to their doormat a couple of days earlier, so…
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International Travel: Berg Therapie.
Summer, summer, summer! Summer time is the best time to visit those places that you’ve always dreamed about; places where you and your bike can immerse yourself in the riding, the views, the mountains… The Tyrolean Alps always remind me of grand classical music pieces; the soaring peaks, the rolling meadows and the deep dark valleys are a symphony in themselves. You can feel the rhythm of the land in the beat of tyre on rock as you’re gently rocked into a deep love of this mountain paradise.
The trails here are so beautiful that they’re the ones you dream about at night.
And for 99% of the world, they will only ever be dreams. Not everyone was born in the mountains, but some of us make our way to worship in them. The lazy road into the woods that leads to our regular trails no longer appeals; suspension and muscles atrophy from lack of a challenge; life goes on day by day and two-day weekends don’t allow you to travel far. The real mountains might as well be as far away as Andromeda. But to ignore their call is to damn yourself to a dull life. You have to be able to look your old self in the face and say ‘I made the most of my time here’ and so, every mountain biker should look to book at least a week a year for some grand adventure, in the big mountains.
Schuss, schnitzel and ski passes.
So we did. Our friend and travelling partner started the preparations early, booking a nice cheap guesthouse near Ischgl in Tyrol. Many people associate this place with skis, but in summer it’s ruled by bicycles. To get there, we drove more than 1,000km. I slept almost the whole journey, but what a surprise it was for me when I woke up in the Paznauntal, among the 3,000m Alpine peaks – a completely different world.
We were walking through the village when the Orchestra of the Fire Brigade came marching towards us, welcoming us in grand style. I’d heard that the Tyrol people are hospitable, but to this extent?! Eventually we realised that there was a street party under way. In my mind’s eyes I had dreamed of these mugs of beer with a golden ring and crowns of foam, delicious Viennese schnitzel, the firm and shapely lady in a low-cut blouse serving them to me… And the lilac Milka cow in the background, of course.
Oh yes, the air smelled different here to the smoky air back home in Krakow.
Close by was a rapid mountain river, the forest rustling above. The crowns of spruce trees reached heights on the very steep slopes that the human eye could not see. I felt dazed by it all. And guess what? Our guesthouse was located in just such a marvellous place! To hear the river’s soothing rush reminded me that nature was very close, and there was no need to close the windows or the balcony. Our hosts were very nice, and although communication was difficult because we didn’t know German, there was laughter sometimes instead.
Excited by the potential of the next day we called a meeting among ourselves. We came to the conclusion that we should leave the cable car tickets for our last days and make use of the sunny weather while we had it, as the Austrian Alps tend to be capricious. Climbing the 2,750m Silvretta crest meant 1,500m elevation, which we had to force out of our own muscles…
The first happy ending.
These are the two faces of Ischgl. Blood, sweat and tears during the murderous uphills, versus fast and comfy transport on one of the multiple ski lifts. Those on the Silvretta Arena are joined with the ones on the Switzerland side, so mountain bikers don’t have to worry about pedalling up the hills at all if they don’t want to. There are almost 40 lifts in all, but we wanted to forget about those for a while in a gesture of masochism.
In 30 degree heat we climbed for four full hours, with glazed gondolas gliding here and there under our heads.
The torture culminated in a peak gracefully named ‘Filmspitze’ – which would admittedly have made a rather scary movie. But we survived it and that’s all that mattered. Our happy ending was the knockout views that brought us to our knees. We stretched our spines and took a moment to breathe deeply before the snow crossing began. There was no wind in our hair and our feet were soaked. We saw the path for a second, then it disappeared under the thick snow layer. Later we discovered that it had been the snowiest winter here for many years. The snow, which normally would have melted by now, lingered on.
After the ice and heat, we were hugely happy to finally have rocks under our wheels. The singletrack escaping deep into the valley was our reward for our efforts during the ride up. Hope, just as in the movies, appeared in the last possible moment when we already had vultures circling above our heads. Morale in the team rose in proportion to the speed of the ride, but this complacency was not good for one of us who paid for his pace with a crash that sent his disc rotor into his calf and him looking for the doctor’s office. What an irony – the crash took place on the last few easy metres of the path. This was the Tyrol showing its teeth.
More power to your goulash.
The next day of our vacation welcomed us in a different way. Our morning’s preparations weren’t reminiscent of getting ready to go for a bike ride – more like Jacques Cousteau’s crew readying themselves for some underwater research. From heavy dark clouds, hectolitres of water were flowing down. After a long while of wondering, we went to a shop and bought titbits and beer; marking the day down for recovery and spending our time sleeping, relaxing and planning the days to come.
The following day we ventured outside the four walls of our guesthouse.
It was still raining, but not too hard, so armed to the teeth with waterproof clothes we set out for a conquest of the ominous Verwall, which reminded us of Mordor in the wet and gloomy atmosphere. However, climbing to the Friedrichshafener Hütte hostel at 2,138m was pleasant and refreshing. A serpentine road full of rubble and U-turns led us through the forest into a magic world of nature. There were no tourists here, no ski lifts, only the divine stillness of the mountains. After 750 vertical metres of climbing, we reached the hostel, where we treated ourselves to hot gulaschsuppe [goulash] with bread and a cup of sweet tea. It always pulls you through.
However, we were dismayed to discover that our target was still under two metres of snow – unusual at that time of year, but then that winter wasn’t usual. Well. What to do? There was an alternative on offer – a narrow singletrack twisting convulsively down the steep slope. We couldn’t resist, though we knew how steep the trail would be from the numerous anti-avalanche barriers on the hillside. Manoeuvring dangerously between them and trying not to make a single mistake which could end up with a tragic flight down, we luckily reached the foot of the mountain intact.
“That was intense…!” I commented, wiping sweat from my forehead, though we all had a favourable impression of these curvy ‘safety-pin’ trails. They’d saved us a bit of time, so although it was pouring we made a circuit around Kops Lake. We were astonished by the delightful path along its shore, flowing along it with no effort and savouring the views. At the end we had 16km to ride back to our base – far enough that I almost managed to get dry… We had dinner on the balcony while watching a couple of deer in the glade on the opposite side of the valley, having something to eat too. Total chill-out!
The fourth morning filled us with hope that the weather might improve. Again we could think about riding in the higher parts of the massif. Maybe we could tackle the former route of the Swiss smugglers, to get some vodka and cigarettes, of course!
This time we wanted to finally use our cable car tickets. Climbing the 2,750m massif by the gondola method seemed to be much more effective than our previous efforts, although we had to ride the last short uphill on the Greitspitze to reach our high point of 2,871m, where we were delighted to find a phenomenal ridge route. Riding at almost 3,000m makes a huge feast for the eye, but the climbs are not easy. It is said that human efficiency drops to 25% at this altitude, and that day we felt it, too. Pedalling became hard, but we compensated by making stops more often and watching the views for longer.
As always, we had this dilemma – ride or take photos?
We ‘wasted’ much time on the latter, so when finally we had to decide about visiting the Swiss side we realised that we had run out of time and we could not risk missing the last ski lift to take us back over the border. We were forced to change our plan to be more sensible and decided to descend into the Paznauntal on the paths. This option occurred to be extremely smooth and peaceful: just flow.
Finally we reached the alpine meadows, when we spent the rest of this sunny day riding a little, then lazing on the fresh grass, watching the world from the heights. We felt exalted by the calm and silence. We returned to Ischgl with no rush, by bike and foot paths on routes that sometimes seemed to be completely forgotten. The day was so slow that when we returned to the Berggasthof Bodenalpe guesthouse we decided to make a break for… Gulaschsuppe mit Brot und ein großes Bier, of course!
Duty free birthday.
But we didn’t give up our smuggling plans. Next morning we climbed again by the lift to have a long descent from 3,000m to the Swiss village of Samnaun, lying down in the valley. But before we began our descent, just on the crest of the ridge, I got a nice surprise. My team sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and presented me with a hat with a feather. But how did they know it was my birthday? I didn’t say anything… It seemed that the guilty party was Facebook.
Crossing to Switzerland should have been easy – as said one of my riding companions.
And in fact, the first part of the ride was gentle, even relaxing, broken only with a few streams. Only after the ride quickened its pace did the surrounding topography start to raise the bar – suddenly the riding was getting really steep and hard (‘so that’s why they spread these lines all over the map…’), but even then some of us were still able to ride. Without doubt, this part of riding is an emotional fetish for mountain lovers: we are crazy for the adrenaline rush. Having reached Samnaun with no casualties, we caught the gondola back to Austria, entertaining ourselves on the long trip by telling stories about gondola accidents.
In Switzerland, as you know, ordnung muss sein! [German proverb which translates as ‘there must be order’ – Ed.]. While switching from gondola to chair lift at 2,400m we were ordered to wash our bikes; to avoid making the chairs of the lift dirty, we were given pinnies. After a moment of consternation, my friend covered himself with it instead of sitting on it – the meaningful gesture of the old Swiss man clapping his forehead said everything…
That evening we had a nice boozy birthday party with the local shop’s stock of Austrian Zipfer Josefi Bock. This is a noble drink, but as we were drinking at the same time as a Euro 2012 soccer match, you can imagine the results… The last day of vacation proved a little too hard for some of us!
With head and heartaches…
That last day, although very ‘heavy’, gave us a totally different aesthetic impression to that we’d previously experienced in the Silvretta Arena region. True, there was a lift at the beginning too, but then we were on our own – just us and the bikes.
Starting at the upper railway station, we had to make the climb from Alpengasthof Dias at 1,863m, to the Seßgratjochli guesthouse at 2,360m, under our own power. Only the beauty of the trail and surrounding area saved me from giving up on the climb. That day was mercilessly hot and we were not in good shape after the previous night. Some of us gave up at the very beginning, deciding to ride down the beautiful forest singletrack as soon as we disembarked the chairlift. We’d be returning the same way too but a very demanding traverse awaited us first.
That trail turned out to be so awesome, we rode it once and then again, returning to Alpengasthof Dias by the lift for a reprise. As we were resting before the second assault, two young Austrian men arrived. They prepared to ride the same route as us, but before releasing their brakes they made the sign of the cross. That moment told us everything, not only about their traditions and religion but also the character of the path.
The headaches were gone, but we were left suffering from heartaches in their place.
We had to leave this land – a true paradise rich in routes and attractions, about which we could only dream in the valleys back home. The hosts gave us a traditional schnapps to drink as we said goodbye, inviting us to visit them again. I’m sure we will be taking them up on their invitation in future.
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