Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Weeble, Wobble and Crash Alpine Mountain Bike Tour, by the Helmet Heads

Hello everyone! Hope you all had a great summer!

As you can see by the title of this blog, this story is about my biking adventure through the German, Austrian, Swiss and French Alps.

Before I get started, there are a few preliminary things I need to explain.

While I may enjoy many different types of sports, biking is absolutely not my forte. Due to some childhood traumas brought about by my inability to ride a bike between 2 obstacles successfully, I guess I gravitated to other sports. Biking, however, is a major passion of Alvi's. He rode single track trails in Canada, he rode long distances at our old cottage, and now here, he has developed a series of mountain biking trails and competitions for himself, and our guests. All of this has resulted in our Killer Mountain Challenge, which I helped to organize last year. And I have to say, those riders inspired me. And so, Alvi and my buddy Diego agreed to train me for this year's Killer Mountain Challenge. Despite my propensity for crashing into things, all in all, I think I did ok. What's a few cacti scratches, bruises and flat tires......Having said that, I am an absolute newcomer to this sport.

As I was a little swamped with work, Alvi planned this trip for us (car rentals, hotels, Via Michelin route guides etc), and coordinated when and where we would meet up with friends. My only input in the planning was off-handedly suggesting that perhaps we could bike in Chamonix, France. Emailing with Markus Hammer, it was decided that we would ride a few days in Riederalp, Switzerland, a mountain that is the home of the Aletschi glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And, working with Superman, Al planned several biking days in Morzine, which is one valley over from Chamonix. We already knew that Thomas and Karin would guide us through the German and Austrian Alps. Before booking everything, Alvi quickly showed me some photos like this.....

....and this....

...and when I looked at him quizzically he said, 'Don't worry about it. You'll be fine'. Well, if I knew anything at all about biking, I would have recognized right away what I was getting myself into.....But, since I was blissfully wrapped in a cozy blanket of ignorance, I said, 'Ok, let's book it.'

And so, being a newcomer to this sport, I did not know that there are many many many different types of bikes and biking.

There is regular biking as a mode of transportation, where the bike looks like this:

I don't know if there is any specific type of training for this type of biking, other than repetition, but as a newcomer to this sport, I could be wrong.

Then, there is mountain biking, and the bike looks like this:

....and mountain bikers ride a variety of terrain including something like this:

Of course, there is road biking, with the bike looking like this....

Among others, this type of bike is ridden by the athletes at the top of their sport in a little competition called the Tour de France.

Interestingly, there is also something called a downhill bike, which looks like this....

...with the crazy practitioners of this sport riding terrain like this.....

....and this.....

For the antique collector, there are bikes like this.....

For the minimalist, check out this bike!

For the person who has it all, this Swarovsky crystal encrusted bike may just be perfect.

And of course, the dream bike of every little girl in my neighbourhood - some 40 years ago.... :0)

Just to be clear, we are mountain bikers, who ride a variety of terrain. However, the type of training for what we ride here differs wildly from the training required for the terrain we were facing in the Alps. As I newcomer to this sport, I didn't know that before this trip......but I do know this now.

Let me explain. My training here on the island, consisted of full out power on the flats, top speed on the desert trails (this is very dangerous for me...), and full power, with all muscles fully engaged, going up the 35% or so degree incline, for about 400 meters or so. Then a teeth clenching, knuckle whitening downhill on loose rocks, dodging boulders and rain gutters. Then a full speed ride on the highway, into the wind back home.

While we were training, we were in touch by email with John and Anne from Norway, who were posting their training regime. After reading some of their posts, I asked Alvi - 'Hey dude? Are we training properly for riding in the Alps? Alvi's answer, 'Don't worry about it. You'll be fine'. Hhhhmmmm

Ok - so, now you know that I am an average rider at best, I have issues with crashing into obstacles in my path and in all likelihood my training was all wrong for the Alps. However, I am tough, and I am very competitive, and I bought some kick-ass awesome biking outfits!!!!!!

Oh-one more thing. I prefer to receive exact and precise information about any sporting endeavour that I am about to undertake. For example, I appreciate knowing how long this endeavour will be, how many kilometers I am to run/hike/bike etc. With this info, I am able to manage my energy, my food and water consumption etc. Some people are very good at giving this type of precise info, and others......not so much.

Ok - we are off. Day One find us in the German Alps with our pals Thomas and Karin. Thomas grew up in these Alps, and can guide us with his eyes closed. The day starts off like this:

...riding on a single track in the forest. Nice.

To traverse this waterfall, we had to carry our bikes. The scenery was breathtaking...

...with the river snaking between steep rocky canyon walls

After emerging from the forest, we started our first 2 hour climb.

And I attack this $#@!&^ mountain like a wild animal - full power, all muscles engaged, full speed. And within 10 minutes, I've blown out my muscles, and my heart-rate is so high I feel like I might stroke out.

Thomas, my self-appointed trainer, rides back down the hill, circles around me, puts his hand on the small of my back and says, 'Nora, you are riding wrong. Go slower, disengage your quad muscles. You need to rest.' And he starts pushing me up the mountain, telling me to stop pedalling. After my 10 minute rest, he points up and says, 'Go. This is 15 minutes with a 20% incline. Easy. Now go.' And he pushes me. And so.... I go. And I blow it all out again. But, I pushed myself to the top. Not surprisingly, Thomas, being German and all, gave me very precise info of this climb.

After riding some flats, we encounter another climb. Thomas reminds me to go slow, to disengage my quads (what?!?!?!) and to breathe. I blow it all out again, and Thomas circles back, and pushes me again. As we pass various hikers on the mountain, they stare at me/us, and I say nodding toward Thomas, 'Taxi', to another I call Thomas 'my sherpa', and to the third I say 'elevator'... I am trying for humour here, as the Germans find it shameful that you cannot climb uphill. If you cannot, then you have no business riding in their Alps.

Mercifully, we arrive at the top for some sustenance.

While our German friends order big steins of beer and Sprite, Alvi starts his lovely tradition of ordering strudel.

After a high-speed downhill on a gravel road, we pack up the car, head home for a quick shower, and catch the sunset on Chiemsee, at our favourite bar.

Here's Al and Karin, and Thomas and I.

From there we headed to a Bavarian beer garden for dinner, where I had schnitzel.....yummy!

Team Thomas! Total time spent in the saddle: 6 hours.

And awoke early the next morning to drive to another town, to ride across the German Alps into Austria. Here we are at the summit, preparing for our loooonnngggg and fast downhill.

Not alot of photos of this day, as I was (with Thomas' guidance) still trying to master the art of the uphill climb. Result: same as Day One. Blew out my muscles, heart rate dangerously high, a little lift by Thomas every now and then, and then the cycle would start again...pardon the pun. During the last climb, Thomas told me 20 minutes, 18 degree incline - Now go!

Like the idiot I am, I go. For a few minutes there it felt like I was doing it right, but the incline may have levelled off - hard to say.

The photo below clearly depicts why we are the Helmet Heads. All of our equipment was borrowed from Karin and Thomas. The bikes etc were great, but we seemed to have a small issue with the helmets. Alvi has an enormous head, and even though he borrowed his helmet from Thomas (who is a 6' 6" tall giant and while one would think that he would have a large head, in fact, his head is a normal size), it appears as though the helmet is way too small, and is in fact, precariously perched on the crown of his head. To me it looks as though the helmet is pinching the point on the top of his head. Either way - NG - Not Good.

Conversely, I have a small head. And Karin's helmet was too big for me. And so, as if I didn't have other issues to occupy me, my helmet was sliding all over the place, sometimes even tipping down over my eyes. And so, while Alvi looks like the helmet is pinching his very cranium, I look like some kind of a bubble-headed, over-sized-cranium extra terrestrial creature. Also NG.

Anyway, that's where 'Helmet Heads' came from.... :0)

After packing up the bikes, home for a quick shower, and off to Salzburg for dinner and drinks. Total amount of time in the saddle: 6.5 hours

Salzburg at night.

Alvi .... at night..... :0)

Day 3: We climbed into our car, and began our journey through Germany, Austria, a bit of Lichtenstein, and into Switzerland. As Alvi organized this trip, he'd rented us a Hyundai Tuscon, sparkling white, with a GPS navigation system. Sadly, neither one of us could figure out how to program the darn thing. It seemed to want to simply show us where we were, as opposed to telling us where we needed to go.

'Not to worry', says Alvi, as he is handing me a sheaf of 20 papers. 'Look', he says proudly, 'I've printed off the Via Michelin directions'. 'Cool', I say, 'but where's the map?' "We don't need a map', says Al, 'we have the GPS and the Via Michelin directions.'

Needless to say, we barely made it out of Germany, flew through Austria, got severely lost in Lichtenstein (that is hard to do as this place is tiny....!), and didn't even know we were in Switzerland until we saw a pharmacy flying a Swiss flag. Trying to follow those Via Michelin directions is maddening.....! But most importantly of all, we were losing time. We had a long and treacherous drive ahead of us through the Swiss Alps, most importantly through the Furka Pass, and we really wanted to drive through there during daylight hours.

However, we were seriously lost in Switzerland. Finally, I persuaded Alvi to pull over at a gas station, where unbeknownst to him, I was going to buy a map. I ask the girl behind the counter for a map, but she doesn't speak any English. I try some rudimentary German - no go. A little French - nada. Hhhhmmm. In walks an elderly fellow, and the girl behind the counter explains in Swiss German, that this Canadian girl over here wants to buy a map, but since she doesn't speak any English, she can't help me....... (not kidding...!) So, this fellow turns to me with a big smile, grabs a map out of the rack, spreads it all over the ice-cream freezer and asks me, "Where would you like to go?" in perfect English.

As I explain to him where we need to go, he's muttering to himself while peering at the map, and then pulls out a pen, and starts circling the town where we have erroneously found ourselves, drawing a line to the highway, and then with a big flourish, he draws a huge line to Riederalp.

Right! One Swiss map sold to the Canadian girl......!

I go to pay for the map in Euros. The girl shakes her head, and elderly Swiss fellow translates that she can't make change in Euros. Oooookkkkk. No problem - we need Swiss Francs, I say. The girl says that she can`t figure out the exchange rate, and therefore can`t make the change..... the Swiss fellow, the next 17 customers in line, Alvi and I look at her....... Suddenly, in a flurry of activity, elderly Swiss guy wips open his wallet, pays the girl for our map in Swiss francs (with exact change), bids us a safe journey, and leaves the store.

God bless the kindhearted souls that help weary and lost travellers!!!!!!

Now, we are in business. Armed with my map and the static GPS system, I toss the Via Michelin directions in the back seat, and we make great time into the Swiss Alps. The drive looked something like this...... (pardon me for my spectacularly bad photos....but I hope you get the idea..)

This drive has everything from tunnels blasted through the Alpine mountains..... several dozen bridges crossing the valley chasm below..... switch-back roads that seem to turn back on eachother.....

...all at dizzying elevations, as we near the Furka Pass.

Check out how the GPS shows this stretch of road.......!

All was going well, until we hit a trafffic jam. Turns out, a local goat/cow herder was the cause of the problem. It was impossible for him to herd his flock up the steep mountain side. His only option was to herd them on the road....thus blocking traffic. And so, we were delayed by an additional two hours.....and it was already twilight.

Finally, the shepherd steers his flock off the road, up to his farm, at the top of the mountain and the traffic jam eases. And yet, up, up and up we go!

And finally we reach the entrance to the Furka Pass! Yes, that is snow...... We pass a sign that advises us that we are now entering the Furka Pass, and it is covered in stickers left by previous travellers. Stickers that read, `I survived the Furka Pass`. What?

Alvi, who frankly seems to be immensely enjoying himself, asks me, `So now what? What`s the deal with this Furka Pass?` Well, I say, `it seems to one lane....but only for a short time.....`

Our conversation stopped until we exited the Furka Pass.

We drove another 50 kms in the same conditions - steep steep steep, but downhill - until we hit the valley floor and made it to our village at the foothills of the Rierderalp.

We pull in to our hotel, and while we are checking in, the concierge says, `There is a Mr. Hammer waiting for you in the restaurant.` Right. We dropped our bags in the room, and ran to the restaurant to meet with Markus Hammer - our pal - for dinner.
Markus rode his Ducati from Zurich to ride the Riederalp with us.

Look at these two! It is always great to be reunited with good friends! After a delicious dinner, the two boys enjoyed great conversation, aged cognac, and fine cigars well into the night. I went to bed.....feeling that tomorrow could be a great day for me - biking the mighty Reideralp. Total time in the car: 10.5 hours.

The day dawned beautifully sunny and warm. After breakfast, we geared up and headed out. After a cable car ride up to the mid-station, we arrived at a little, picturesque village with views like this....

The Riederalp is just one of several mountain peaks that make up this area known as the Valais Alps. Other such peaks of note are the Matterhorn and the Dom. Rising some 4000 meters from the valley floor, the vistas and views at the mid-stations and summits are breathtaking. This area has been deemed a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site, and is home to the majestic 23 kilometer long Aletsch glacier, which is comprised of 27 billion metric tonnes of ice, and is reported to be melting/moving a 1/4 inch each year.

Today's goal is to ride/climb up to the glacier.

After taking some more photos....
... and packing water and snacks....

...the boys give me some final words of encouragement. And then I sent them on their way. If I was going to figure out the uphill, I was going to do it alone - no sense in holding up the group.

Markus told me that this climb is 600 meters, which should take me about an hour. And off I go...

With Thomas' training sounding in my head, I finally learn to disengage my leg muscles, apply pressure to the pedals, and moderate my breathing as I slowly start to climb.....and I am elated!!!!!!!!!

What a feeling! The sun is shining, the views are unbelievable, I am not cramping, and yet I am climbing up and up and up. To be fair, my pace is slow, more of a chugging kind of pace really.....but I am chugging uphill and all is well in my world :0)

Before I know it, I chug up to the boys. Alvi, looking a little surprised asks me how I'm doing. Great, I say. Did you figure it out, he asks? I surely did, I reply. How do you feel, he asks? Like I could do this for hours, I grin. Famous last words......

We consult the map to figure out our route. Hammer suggests that we take a small trail through the forest which will take us into the next valley. From there we have another climb up to the mid-station at Fiescheralp, where we'll break for lunch. And off we go.

And we run into issues right at the trailhead.

Cows are blocking our trail.

As Alvi negotiates the right of way with the cows, Hammer and I take a breather. The cows were cute and all, but the important thing to note in the photo below is the trail itself. I do believe, that this photo depicts the trail at its widest. Once we entered the forest, the trail narrowed to a solid 9 maybe 10 inches.

The mountain rising up was so steep, that my left shoulder often brushed the moss and lichens that covered the rocks. And the drop off to my right was so steep, that several times I froze, closed my eyes, took some deep breaths before carrying on. It was not possible to ride this trail with a least not for me given that I am a newcomer to this sport......and what with my crashing issues and all......

So, there I am, merrily walking along this 'trail', minding my own business, when a slight misstep sends me sliding down the gully in the photo below.....with the weight of my bike pulling me down. My slide was halted by one of those bushes, however my leg landed in a pile of cow poo.....

What the @#$%? I wasn't even riding.....I was walking......Thank goodness there was no one around to witness this. I pick myself up, and start climbing back up to the 'trail'. Al must have heard my cursing and muttering, as he doubled back to check on me. Are you ok, he asks? Yeah, I mutter. I just slipped. You what? he says. I @#$&^ bloody well slipped off this trail and landed in that bush down there with the cow poo, I say.

I hear Markus call back to Al - Hey! Where are you guys? Al calls back, "Nora just fell off the Riederalp. Don't worry, we're coming!" "What? Nora fell off the Riederalp???!?!?! And I hear Markus' laughter rebounding off of the mountain walls...... Lovely.


The 'trail' wound its way through the forest for a few more minutes, and in the distance I could see a clearing. But a large obstacle was sort of impeding my view of a spectacular waterfall. This large obstacle was in fact, a huge piece of rock jutting out from the mountain, and it was cantilevered over the trail. There was a piece of rope attached to said rock for holding onto. And what appeared to be a series of rotting logs, created a ledge that connected to the trail on the other side of the rock.

Oh oh, I think to myself, as my knees start to tremble. 'Um, Alvi? A little help here!', I call out. Alvi doubles back and looking a little pale himself, he thankfully takes my bike. After a few breaths, I grab hold of this old rope and start across the rotting logs. This time, there is no gully below, no bush with cow poo, just.....air.....

Here's Alvi after helping me.

After passing the rock, I can now see the waterfall....and it is spectacular!

And in the next moment I realize that the trail intersects the waterfall, and the only way forward is by crossing the damn waterfall.....

Exiting the forest...

....and crossing the waterfall....

....and getting a soaker....

...while the waterfall cascades merrily 2000 meters down to the valley floor below.

After another 20 minutes or so of trekking, we exit the forest trail and prepare for another 500 meter climb to Fiescheralp.

I gotta say, I've never been so happy to see a road! No matter that it only went uphill! I've got that covered.... :0)

Over a spectacular lunch, we plotted our next route to the glacier, with Hammer calculating the elevation of the climb. "Why are you always figuring out the elevation that we climb?', I ask Hammer. 'Elevation climbed is all that matters', he says. 'No one cares how many kilometers you rode, or how many hours you rode In the Alps, the bragging rights go to the one who climbed the most height."

Hhhhhmmmm, Newbie Nora learns something new again.

Yipee! I get kisses for sorting out the climbing thing, for not falling off the rotting log ledge, or slipping down the waterfall...

...and we celebrated with some strudel....Swiss strudel....
And we set off on our last climb to the glacier...

...while enjoying views like this...

...we are happy riders!

And then we come upon this...

This 600 meter long, 2.5 meter wide tunnel means that we are very close to the glacier. Just through the tunnel, and a short 500 meter ride, and we've reached our goal.
As Markus and I go to check out the tunnel we realize a few things.

#1 It is freezing inside this tunnel - absolutely freezing - and so we all don our windjackets.

#2 Half of the tunnel floor is in fact a river. This river is a glacial stream that runs in our direction through the tunnel and down the mountainside. The stream is also freezing.

#3 This tunnel is very poorly lit.

#4 There are hikers walking along the left side of the tunnel, as the stream is on the right side.

#5 The walls of this tunnel are nothing more than roughly hewn rock.

#6 Actual rideable space which is calculated as total width of tunnel, less 50% for the stream, less 30% for the hikers = 20% rideable space.

So, what does this mean for me? This means that the likelihood that I will weeble, wobble or crash into something or someone has risen exponentially.

We start into the tunnel, which looks like this.....

....and get halfway, when the lights go out. Perfect! Now I won't see the wall coming...!
Alvi asks me if I am ok, after I weeble and wobble through the stream, getting another soaker. 'I'm ok, I'm just trying not to crash into those poor, unsuspecting people', I say. 'Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel', wisely says Al.

We emerge from the tunnel none the worse for wear, cleverly stash our bikes behind a boulder...

and hike over to the glacier...

And there it is....

...23 kilometers long....

...consisting of 27 billion metric tonnes of ice....

...all in all, very cool!

Off in the distance, behind the visible peaks , shrouded by the swirling mists stands the treacherous Eiger, with its famed North Face.
As Alvi ties his shoe..

... Hammer and I discuss the rapidly approaching inclement weather. With the temperature dropping by several degrees, and the storm clouds gathering, we decide to hurry back to the stashed bikes, and start our descent.

Look! There's a bubble-headed, extra terrestrial with an over-sized cranium, leaving the glacier....!

We hop on our bikes, traverse the 500 meters back to the tunnel, I weeble and wobble my way through the tunnel narrowly missing the wall several times, and get a soaker on my one remaining dry shoe, and start a very fast downhill on the road that we climbed. Woo hoo! Downhills are fun!
The rain lets up a bit, but the temps are still chilly. The cold is exacerbated by the fact that we are going down hill, and not really using any muscles. I can't seem to warm up, and I notice an odd twinge in the connecting tissues of both of my knees.....hhhmmmm...weird. We literally zip all the way down to the mid-station of Fiescheralp, where we encounter a sign, that simply says 'Downhill'. The sign has a picture of a bicyclist going down hill. As we stop for some water, a group of local hikers notice us looking at the trail. 'Good luck', they call out to us. Hhhhmmmm
We drop into the trail, and for the first two kilometers, I would say, it was a relatively normal trail, albeit with a steep downhill grade.
And then we hit the forest trail. Incredibly steep downhill trail, with obstacles littering the trail.
Was this an extreme downhiller trail?
Well, yes. Of course it was.
This trail was not rideable by any of us, and so we all started down, holding/carrying/pushing our bikes.
After I took three steps, disaster strikes!
Next blog: Part Two: The rest of the story.