I’m not sure if there will be a Switzerland part 2, but my first week in this wonderful county has been so action packed that I felt it deserved a blog post of its own.
Thanks to my hosts in Basel I was able to spend a day inside and avoid one of the wettest days of the trip so far (apart from a supermarket visit where I got well and truly soaked). This turned out to be a brilliant decision as the next day of cycling was by far the best yet.
The northern part of Switzerland is home to the Jura mountain range. Rather stunted in size compared to its southern cousins the Alps, but still exceptionally beautiful. My day was characterised by pedalling in and out of picture perfect valleys that would not look out of place on a lindt advert.
Of course crossing a mountain range comes with increased exertion on the bike. I was heading for the 946m high Passwang Pass. What I failed to realise was that I would have to cross two other unnamed passes of similar magnitude before reaching the Passwang. The first was a warmup, 3km in length at an approximate gradient of 6%, the next a little tougher at 7% gradient for 3.7km. I whistled my way down the glorious descents but at the back of my mind I knew that every revolution downhill would have to be paid for on the next uphill.
The Passwang Pass itself was only 3.3km in length but a whopping 9% gradient. It started with a few swooping switchbacks before a long slog up the side of the mountain. The last kilometre was down to one lane because of roadworks. Despite the long traffic light window allowed for cars to drive through I didn’t have a chance of making it on my bike! So I crawled along at 6km/h squeezing past the cars coming down the hill from the other side. No doubt thinking I was a little crazy. The climb ended with a 100m tunnel which spat you out on the other side of the mountain range to glorious views as a reward.
Then in 20 minutes of rubber burning descent I lost the elevation that had taken me five hours to gain that morning. Hills are so fickle.
The day ended on a high when I found a glorious wild camping spot nestled behind the trees just off the bike path. Situated next to the river Aare there was plenty of boating activity to watch as I ate my pasta. It was only when I set off the next morning I noticed the no camping sign with a threat of a 500 franc fine. Good job I left early!
The next day was pretty much flat, this was very unexpected given I was in Switzerland, and I cycled along two crystal clear lakes. As I crested the hill in the town between the two lakes I glimpsed above the rooftops the snowy white tips of the Alps like the icing on top of a Christmas cake. This was a breathtaking moment, the Alps were still over a 100km cycle away for me and I had not been expecting to see them this early on. I was so taken aback that I cycled back up the hill just to check I hadn’t imagined it. Repeating hills is not something I do lightly! As I sailed down the other side the monstorous peaks became clearer and over the next two days as I approached them they grew to an almighty size. This was a real milestone in my journey and seeing the landscape change like this is what one of the things that has made this journey so incredible.
The further south I go the warmer it gets. On this day I was lucky to find a deserted beach on the edge of the lake and went for a quick dip to cool off.
That evening I stopped and asked to camp on a farm in a small village south of the lake. The family gave me a great patch of grass to camp on and invited me to have dinner with them which included swish cheese and homegrown peaches. Funnily enough the mum was just off to an English lesson! The only drawback about this spot was it was right next to a field of cows who’s bells rang all night long!
The next day I was cycling to meet Stu, my hairy Scottish friend, the first I had seen in three weeks (friends and scotsmen). Despite an autocorrect communication error where I thought I was meeting him next to a greedy mercury statue and cycled around Montreux looking for a fat merman instead of Freddie Mercury we met up smoothly on the edge of Lake Geneva. Stu was introduced to the delights of peanut butter and apple sandwiches which are my staple in Switzerland a) because they are cheap and b) because they are so fricking delicious.
The temperature was really starting to hot up so we spent two hours swimming and generally avoiding moving on the beach before finally tempting ourselves to get going again with the world’s most expensive icecream, 7 francs!
Stu was staying with a friend Mark who had just started a job in Villars and was kind enough to let me crash on his floor. The plan was to do a few days climbing and Stu had a 500m, 14 pitch alpine route planned for the next day. Despite having never climbed more than 5 pitches in a row and finding a couple of 15m indoor routes in an evening pretty hard going, I was undeterred and thought this was a great idea!
The day started with over an hour of tramping uphill through the forest to reach the bottom of the crag. Even from this height the views were spectacular!
The first couple of pitches were the most challenging for climbing and navigation. At home I have a reputation for being terrible at route finding in the vertical direction and true to form I managed to wander off route a couple of times here too but was redirected by a yell from a nearby climbing team. It’s strange because on the ground my sense of direction is pretty good, having managed to navigate to Switzerland without too many difficulties, but going upwards I just can’t seem to get my bearings!
Stu managed to keep us going in the right direction and we cruised relatively easily over the slabby pitches above. Fortunately the crag was in the shade for the whole day otherwise we would have fried like eggs out on that slab. Instead we spent lunchtime shivering in a niche, well Stu did whilst I wore the only extra layer we bought!
On the last pitch we were held up by a team of three who managed to miss a belay station and ran out of rope, resulting in all three of them climbing together to reach the top. We still managed to finish around 18:30 after 7 hours of climbing.
What we didn’t factor in was the difficulties we would have getting down from the mountain, exacerbated by my lack of suitable footwear. We went up and down for a while trying with little success to find a clear path down. In the end we just committed to a dubious looking path down below but it was pretty clear we would be descending in the dark. In the end it took us around four hours to get down by the torch light from our phones. As we approached the car park we were greeted by Mark who had come out with a head torch to look for us wondering why we were taking so long!
It was quite an epic day out. And apart from feeling like I would never walk again a great adventure! However it was declared that the next day would be for resting, necessary as I could barely step up onto the kerb never mind climb anything.
That evening preparations were made to switch from bike to van for a few days as we headed off to Chamonix for a two day road trip. I was very excited to experience van life in a town famous for its outdoor activities. We arrived in Chamonix in the dark which meant that in the morning I had my first view of the snowy mountains and glacier that surround the town, an amazing way to wake up.
We kept the climbing a little easier on our next attempt, an easy five pitch route up an arete followed by a couple of short routes before it got too hot for us. This also meant that we could head back into town to watch the start of the ultra tour de mount blanc (UTMB), a 170km trail race around Mount Blanc. This is probably the most famous trail race in the whole of Europe, the London marathon of trail running, with athletes having to qualify and then fight for a space. The town was rammed and the atmosphere absolutely electric as we cheered the 2300 runners along the first stretch of the course. I was in awe of these incredible athletes, so impressed with anybody for even attempting such a feat. Most of these runners would be on the go for the best part of 48 hours, with 10000m of elevation gain through two nights and the blistering heat of the day.
In fact the next morning Stu, who is very adept at telling temperatures, declared at 10am that it was hotter than the sun. We felt very lucky that we could have a rest day and wander round the market eating free samples of meat and were not in the middle of a 170km run.
It also meant that we could cheer on the winner of the UTMB as they came back into Chamonix after completing the race in only 22 hours. This made us feel very bad about ourselves as we were busy eating burgers that were as big as our heads.
Finally we packed up the van and headed back to Villars. I had had a great holiday from my holiday but it was time to get back on the bike. Although it was only a short hop down lake Geneva to where I am now hanging out with my family. I will stay here for a couple of days, making the most of the lakeside location and all the toys on offer. It is also a great opportunity to do some washing and eat plenty of vegetables after the heavily bread and pasta diet I have been used to for the last few weeks!
Next stop the Italian lakes via the mighty might Alps. I just hope that my legs recover in time!