“I hope you are not going to curse me when we get to the top of today’s pass”. With those words Sebastian greeted me at the deserted train station of Rio de Pusteria in Italy last August. I had caught the first train out of Munich that morning in order to join him in this small town of South tyrol, where our three-day crossing of the Eastern Alps would start.
Here is a short photographic account of how I eventually found out what he meant, the hard way…
We left Rio de Pusteria after a quick lunch on the center square and followed a good tarmac road up the Valler Valley towards the Brixen Hut, until we arrived in Fane Alm. Past this alpine village, which came into being in the Middle Ages as a military hospital for plague and cholera patients, the road turned into a smooth but in some places extremely steep gravel path. I had to get off my bike on more than one occasion and push it up the slope, to the amusement of many hikers coming in the opposite direction. Some of them would lean over while passing us and whisper with a grin “wer sein fahrrad liebt, der schiebt” (he who holds his bike dear will push it with no fear!).
By the time we arrived at the Brixen Hütte, which sits at 2307m above sea-level, we had gained 1400m in altitude since leaving Rio de Pusteria. I didn’t want to admit it to Sebastian, but I was pretty exhausted at that point. I had had some stomach issues the night before and hadn’t slept well at all. Yet the hardest part was still to come. After a quick drink and piece of cake at the hut, we were on our way again, pushing or carrying our bikes up a narrow and steep hiking trail for a whole hour until we reached the top of the Sandjoch saddle at 2640m. It was bloody hard work and the many “photo” breaks I took were merely an excuse for me to catch my breath. Well, that’s not completely true. The beautiful views back towards the Brixen Hut definitely deserved to be captured on camera!
We took a short break at the top of the Sandjoch saddle and then proceeded to push and/or carry our bikes over large boulders and down very steep and rocky slopes on the other side of the mountain, until an hour later our trail finally joined a flatter and ridable track in the deepest part of the valley. By this point the daylight was fading rapidly, but after an easy and fast downhill ride we reached the end of the valley in Fußendraß and settled for the night in one of the many inns lining the road. All in all a hard but wonderfully scenic first day.
After a hearty breakfast our ride on the second day started under low and menacing-looking grey clouds. We followed the tarmac road north-east past Sankt Jakob until we reached the end of the Pfitscher valley and then started climbing the side of the Jochplatte mountain towards the Pfitscher Saddle. The slope was much more manageable for my legs compared to the previous day and we cycled all the way to the top without me whining once. The Pfitscher Saddle, located at an altitude of 2246m, is home to the Pfitscher-Joch-Haus and marks the border between Italy and Austria. For some reason the low clouds had decided to hang around on the Italian side of the border, leaving the Austrian side of the saddle bright and sunny.
After another quick “Kaffee und Kuchen” break at the hut we put on some warmer clothes and descended into the Austrian Zamser Grund Valley, for what turned out to be the most technical and exciting downhill riding of the whole 3 days. I am generally amazed by the kind of terrain one can ride on with a mountain bike while gunning it downhill… Whenever it looked like the sensible thing to do would be to get off the bike and push, I managed to convince myself to keep my fingers off the brakes and ride on. Probably because I didn’t want Sebastian to think that I was a wimp… In the end even though I almost flew over the handlebar once or twice, I got through the whole downhill unscathed. By the time the trail ended at the Schlegeis Reservoir I even felt elated and almost blissfully high.
After a short break admiring the impressing dam and the Zemmtal Glacier in the background we entered the Zemmtal Valley and continued northwards on a tarmac road towards the village of Dornau, where we took a sharp left into the Tuxtal valley. This is the point where my digestive problems decided all of the sudden to reappear. Upon leaving Dornau I started feeling some stomach pains and got a 30s warning to find a bush and avoid a major catastrophe… Unfortunately the nearest bush I could find was slightly too far away for me to reach so I ended up pulling my shorts and underwear down in the middle of a field in plain sight of a group of people having coffee on a nearby balcony. I didn’t dare look up when we cycled past that house a couple of minutes later. Definitely not my proudest moment… Feeling ill, dirty and shameful, I convinced Sebastian to call it a day 15km further up the valley in Vorderlanersbach. It took an extra-long shower and the burning of my underwear and my bike saddle for me to feel human again.
We left the guesthouse early on the morning of the third day and continued our progress northwards across the Tux Alps, aiming for the Geiseljoch saddle. A winding and secluded track offered extended views of the surrounding bare but grassy mountains. The gradient remained gentle throughout the climb and soon we were enjoying a chilly break on top of the windy saddle, accompanied by a group of very curious and outgoing cows. As much as we enjoyed our company, it was alas soon time to undo all the efforts of the ride up and head back down, this time along a very enjoyable single trail into the Unterinntal (Lower Inn Valley). Being densely populated and much industrialised, this part of the Alps felt loud and almost oppressing after the lonesome 2 days we had just experienced riding from Rio de Pusteria.
We reached the bottom of the valley in Pill and followed the Inn downstream for 15km until Jenbach. There we left the river behind and turned north in the direction of Achensee, the biggest lake in Tyrol. It lies 400m above the Inn River, something that I had failed to check before the trip, and the grueling climb (at least for me) required every last bit of energy that my legs had left in them. Sebastian then agreed, probably out of pity for me, to take a break and cross the length of the lake on one of the tourist boats that sail around in the summer months. Definitely worth the overpriced ticket we paid.
After a 15km ride in the Achen Valley, with the mighty Karwendel Mountain Range to our left, we finally crossed into Germany late in the afternoon. Our route took us past the Sylvensteinsee, a beautiful artificial lake built in the late fifties to prevent the Isar River from flooding. Our little mountain bike adventure was unfortunately coming to an end. Lenggries, where we planned to catch a train back to Munich, was indeed just down the road from the lake along the Isar River. Couldn’t let that happen though without a quick dive in one of the many freezing pools of the Walchen Gorge!
More photos here.