Singletrack Magazine Issue 115: 100 Years Later

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Words Steffi Marth 

Photography Nathan Hughes

Riding in the footsteps of the Austrian, Italian and Swiss mountain heroes of the First World War.

1915, The Stelvio Pass, Italy.

The First World War saw two armies, the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Kaiserjäger and the Italian Alpini, pitched into combat with the mission to protect their land whatever the costs. After the declaration of war on 23rd May 1915, both armies made their way up to the war lines of the highest pass in the European Alps, ready to face each other on the mountain. ‘Conquer the peaks and you conquer the valleys below,’ the commanders of both sides were convinced. Even this stunning and serene high-alpine landscape in excess of a staggering 3,000m would not be so lucky as to escape the cruelty of those times. 

From one day to the next, former friends of hiking, hunting and climbing would be forced to square up to each other and take aim. Friendships of leisure, trade and tourism, the good life in the mountains, were put in sudden mortal danger. At least there was good news: the confrontation would be short as the enemy would be quickly defeated. This was, unfortunately, a message welcomed by both sides. The reality was, of course, quite different and the two dogged sets of troops became stuck in a brutal stalemate in a steep and treacherous icy hell for three long years. One thousand soldiers would lose their lives by bullet, sickness, avalanche and freezing temperatures in the high alpine. 

The Stelvio Pass, Italy. Early morning.

The harsh buzz of my phone alarm at 5am sharp stirs me from an uneasy sleep. A tough climb, half on the pedals, half hikeabike in the freezing dark awaits, albeit after a life-saving shuttle through some 48 giddying hairpin bends. Stilfserjoch, aka the Stelvio Pass, is the second highest in the entire Alps and it spirals up the rock-strewn slopes like Europe’s answer to the Great Wall of China. With the arrival of sunrise I need to be 3,000m metres up on the Dreisprachenspitze (Three Language Peak) with our local area expert Siegi Weisenhorn, photographer Nathan Hughes, and fellow riders Oscar Harnstrom of Sweden and Italian Lorenzo Suding. 

Without breakfast, we load up as quietly as possible outside our hotel and begin an arduous commute of what feels like a thousand turns. Siegi is a well-known bike pioneer here in South Tyrol, and he uses the time to explain the cruel, but fascinating history of the mountains we are about to experience by bike, one full century after the outbreak of war. The fight to control my churning stomach soon merges with the horrifying thought of stepping outside into -7°C blackness and having to hike my Trek up the remaining 200 vertical metres to the trailhead of the famous Goldsee Trail. I swallow hard and tell myself I’ve got it good, at least the only person shooting me today will be a photographer.

Finally at the top, blacks turned to blues and blues became purples and pinks above the heavily snow-capped peaks, before the sun finally cracked above the towering mountaintops and it was time to ride. With meltwater spitting up at our faces and the golden rays of first light, looking far warmer than they felt, we snaked across winding ledges and axle-width tracks above hundreds of metres of scree. 

Considering the amount of exposed rock, the trail was surprisingly smooth, forming a ribbon of hardpack dirt. And this early in the morning we could push to find the flow without having to slow down for anyone on foot. The glacial scenery was breathtaking, ‘epic-redefining’ you could say. Today the supply routes and trenches of this South Tyrolean battleground still scar the terrain and we now had the chance to explore on two wheels and to wonder how it was to survive in those war-torn times. Even after decades of erosion and exposure we were passing tangles of rusty barbed wire, trenches and incredibly preserved walls and relics of the war. It’s still so easy to imagine the soldiers waiting in position in the stabbing cold here on the side of the Kaiserjäger army – what we today call the South Tyrol. 

Getting warmer. 

For the afternoon, Siegi plans a relocation with a visit to the former Italian Alpini soldiers’ position. It’s not easy to access and even after an extended Italian lunch break in Bormio with a Spanish twist (aka a short siesta on the padded benches of the restaurant) we are struggling to catch our breath as the terrain steepens and roughens once again. Grinding out the last metres of discernible trail, we surrender and resort to hiking with bikes on our shoulders and suck in as much of the surrounding oxygen as possible. 

Nathan wants to shoot us on a brief descent charging across scree and patches of snow with the emerging moon behind us. As the snow and gravel explodes from under our bikes we’re quickly reminded how lucky we are to be here running wild and free in the mountains. 

The tracks are no longer well defined and we’re galloping across the stones choosing our own path… true freeriding. Soon after, following a significant hike of the ridgeline, we come to the ruin of a circular fortress built from dark slate and Siegi tells us about the war tunnels that the Italians built through the deep ice of the enormous glacier on the other side of the valley. This is such a rugged and mostly impassable place to explore on a sunny autumn afternoon, let alone survive for three years like those soldiers did. Our heads are filled with amazement and a deeper than usual feeling of freedom with all this history in mind. We enjoy the views and soak up the warming afternoon light as the sun begins its dive towards the horizon. The trail stretches before us – already partly covered in snow, it won’t be long before it’s all buried metres under. This was to be the final week before the closing of the pass, making the ski resort behind us one of the only ones I’ve heard of that has to shut for winter due to snow… This place is extreme. 

Gettin’ loose and jagged.

We get back to our bikes and continue to traverse the loose and jagged terrain as Oscar spots a herd of Ibex, their horns the only part of them illuminated as they emerge below us from a glacial ravine. They seem to enjoy our attention before we come to steeper territory and we must focus on our descent into a narrow and exposed trail bordered by snow and ice. With faster and wider rocky faces to follow, we ride together towards the setting sun in thick orange light, drifting turns and pumping little rises as we thunder into the valley below, tennis ball-size rocks clunking against the armour of our downtubes; the sights and sounds of happiness. 

Unbelievable really that we can ride so close, even on these relics of war and at one point even discovering a deep stone-walled trench that you could easily lose a wheel to… and this is no place for an ugly crash. Still, Nathan wants to shoot it from underneath, and we each take a turn jumping over the top with a well-timed bunnyhop, the sun bursting into frame below our wheels. With the last few rays beaming over the distant mountains we take a group shot on the ridgeline below and then it’s all over, but the descent is far from finished. Time to put the camera away and focus on getting down this mountain to our shuttle home before we lose the light completely. The trail down is wet with snowmelt and the black mud sprays up at our grinning faces as we fly down through the rocks and on into the meadows below as greens become fuzzy greys under the darkening sky.

Reschen Lake.

After a much-needed ten-hour binge on sleep at our cosy Italian hotel, we’d recharged nicely, but the weather wasn’t going to be playing ball for our day two plans. Luckily enough, the dense fog that was cloaking the valley ended up only adding to the atmosphere of the amazing Reschen Pass and a freshly crafted enduro mecca. The Drei Länder (Three Land) trails overlap the Italian, Swiss and Austrian borders in the amazing landscape surrounding Lake Reschen, most famous for its eerie 14th century church tower engulfed by water – the only remnants of a valley town flooded in the 1940s. Four lifts take riders up to the descent-oriented network of 21 trails that form a loop around a particularly lush green valley. After catching a fleeting glimpse of the lake way below us through a brief hole in the mist, we explored between bunkers and pillboxes by bike before discovering the most impressive war relic so far – the enormous iron ‘dragon’s teeth’ of an old tank trap running across the moorland. More trouble than they were worth to dismantle at this kind of altitude these aggressive fortifications will scar the landscape for decades, probably even centuries. Riding alongside them, a small herd of wild horses joined us inquisitively before disappearing once again into the cold fog; a surreal journey to the trailhead and a memorable one at that. 

We soon find more evidence of the potential of Vinschgau as our descent of the official trail brings an enviable mix of rock and loam, with some great flow sections; sweeping berms and manageable drops all very much crafted in the name of bikes…bon appetito! Or should that be guten appetit? I guess we lost track of the country we were in some time ago. Whichever it was, this is an enchanting and historical part of Europe in which you’ll want to find a fast and flowing peacetime adventure of your own.

 

Thanks to Siegi Weisenhorn for guiding. 

Check out his book Biking in Vinschgau; 

his bike school, Suedtirolbike; and his website

www.bikeshuttle.it

Info on this tour and others can be found at:

www.suedtirolbike.info

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