Tuesday, August 26
"You only get one chance to do something for the first time," was my theme in writing about my first tour. The more I ride, the fewer chances there are for really unique "firsts," but I had suspected riding in Switzerland would provide a fresh assortment of such experiences. Today, a named Swiss mountain pass. But only one.
On Monday evening, Bill suggested that we take the train to Wassen so we could ride over Susten Pass then return to Ulrichen via Grimsel Pass. For the record, Laurenz wasn't so sure this was a good idea. And he was looking at me when he suggested we might want to consider something a little less ambitious. Bob tried to talk us out of this plan, too, but he was just worried about the dog in Wassen. He knows about a DOG in a small town in south-central Switzerland!? Well he does keep a bike in Switzerland just for his European rides.
At breakfast Bill admits he was "up all night" thinking about the plan and opines that maybe a simple ride over Grimsel Pass might be sufficient. Having never done any Swiss mountain passes, I say that this sounds good to me. OK, so Laurenz's hesitation to endorse the double-pass trek might have had me just a little concerned. So Grimsel it is...
It is a simply beautiful morning as we ride out of Ulrichen. We follow the main road, which has very little traffic at this time of day. We ride through two small towns and around one tunnel before we start the climb toward Gletsch. When I reach the first of several switchbacks, I look down and see an elderly farmer in a field just below the road, his long white beard swaying as he swings his wooden-handled scythe through the grass. The Swiss, it would seem, do not like tall grass and will send out entire families to manually mow it down ~ if they aren't otherwise occupied tunneling under the Alps.
Swiss National Pastime
The road goes up through forested hills and eventually winds around to hug a steep slope. The road is narrow and without guardrails, the example I now realize, followed by the Colorado highway department for constructing mountain roads. Coming around one of the curves, I get the chance to glance up towards the end of valley to what looks like a sheer rock wall with a road winding back and forth. This was, I realized, the final climb up to Grimsel Pass. I think that doing just this one pass is going to work out to be a really good idea.
First Glimpse of Grimsel
After negotiating a triple switchback climb after the tunnel, I pull into Gletsch and meet up with Bill. There isn't much of a navigation issue here...one way goes north, right up the aforementioned road and the other leads out of town to the east and on to Furka Pass. Up we go. It is a pleasant surprise to see that the road is wider and lined with guardrails almost all the way up. It is an enjoyable ride with each switchback representing a significant altitude gain and each providing another spectacular view. Near the top, the road approaches a glacier that is the source of the Rhone River. From this vantage point, you can also see across the valley to the next mountain on which is hung the road climbing up to Furka. This image would affect my riding plan for tomorrow.
Road to Furka Seen from Grimsel
Once more, I catch up with Bill and we sit outside an enjoy a coffee on this clear and still comfortably cool morning. After the short respite, we ride on, pausing to take photos of the lake reflecting the snow covered mountains and a herd of sheep with which we share the road.
At the Top of Grimsel
Soon enough, we start down the other side of the pass. The plan is to go to level of the lake backed up behind a large dam where we'll find the hospice (a hostel type hotel) perched on a rock. Bill and the other riders scouting routes with Laurenz last year had spent the night here.
North Side of Grimsel Pass
We turn around and head back to the top for the REAL reason we decided to ride over Grimsel: to have a bowl of goulash soup and a big plate of pommes-frits at the Grimselblick restaurant. And a fine lunch it was.
Lunch at the Grimselblick
After this pleasant interlude, it is time to go down. It was actually an interesting ride, the many switchbacks providing the chance to slow down and actually enjoy the views out over the valley. At the first of these, I see Pat and Art, their Bike Fridays leaning against a low stone wall as they sit on top, enjoying the view towards the glacier and, further on, the road to Furka Pass. I am quite impressed at their ride up this challenging road on these small bikes. As it seemed throughout the two weeks that I was with the tour, they were just plain enjoying themselves. After a short exchange of pleasantries, including a report on the state of the goulash at Grimselblick, I'm off again.
Soon enough, it is through Gletsch, then the cobble-stoned tunnel and finally back to Ulrichen. It is only a bit past noon. There is the post-ride beer, of course, then Bill and I are off to a nearby store to look for bicycle cleaning supplies. My language skills are good enough to sort out the options, in a general sense, and we are quickly back at the hotel getting the bikes scrubbed for tomorrow's riding. We have decided to replace the brake pads, too. For me, this is will be the first replacement since I purchased the bike three years ago. The pads are worn down to near the "wear" line, so it is time. By this time, Bob has come back from his trip up Nufen Pass and he lends a welcome helping hand.
While we are working on the bikes, we see a large group of all-dressed-the-same riders from Italy, who we surmise have come across at Nufen. They re-form their group at the store and are then off in the direction of Gletsch; perhaps another pass or two today? I have no regrets about the choice to tackle Grimsel. Or maybe I do. In hindsight, perhaps a little more time on the bike would have been OK. Not a second pass, but some exploration of the other roads in the area? Maybe next time...