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A Tale of Two Journeys - Kid Calver: Climbing to Chiasso

all seasons in one day
View Calais to Chiasso on Tom.Calver's travel map.

John decided this morning he wouldn't be able to make the Saint Gotthard Pass, so I opted to go on alone while he caught the train to the eventual endpoint at Airolo. I don't mind he couldn't make the journey, but felt one of us should complete this section on our bikes. As it is potentially placed on the penultimate day as well I saw it as a fitting finale to our trip; it marks the border between German and Italian Switzerland, it would be my toughest challenge by far and from then on it was mostly downhill to Northern Italy. It had to be done.

The day's Map and Stats for my gruelling climb

Kid Calver: Climbing to Chiasso

People are so quick to forget misery. I mean physical misery. If whatever it is that causes the pain goes away and no longer poses an immediate problem it's gone from the mind in moments. I'm not sure why, but I've found it's often true.

There was a time today when I sat in a poorly maintained café that I felt my spirits drop completely. I looked out at the distant, narrow crack in the mountain ahead, where points of sunlight marked where the traffic passed through, and came the closest I ever have on this trip to saying "I can't do it," even though really I had no alternative but to try. The ground all around was cold, bare grass covered in mountain scree, and I could see from the Swiss flag fluttering in front of me the wind was blowing fiercely from the direction I intended to travel. Not only that, but it kept going up. I had done over five and a half thousand feet already, and knew the end had to be near, but I just couldn't bring myself to continue. I called John to stall time (who picked up the despair in my voice), I ate whatever the lady at the bar gave me and paid what she wanted. I was spent, yet now I can't remember how that feels, and find it hard to describe. I can describe what my mind chose to focus on at the time; the Swiss flag, the waitress, the ascending road ahead, but to remember that state is impossible.

Still, I made it. And it was one hell of journey, something that may be impossible to explain completely, but I can try by using the same waypoints as above. It's the best I can do.

I left the highly characterful "Stern und Post" hotel from the night before and set off by myself immediately. I knew where the track was from yesterday and was straight into the ascent. I passed the two nerdy men from the previous night, who I noticed were trying the pass with all the equipment (John had taken mine with him on the train to give me a better shot at it), and felt a little sorry for them. They clearly hadn't been doing this for very long, and if they made it at all with all their equipment they were in for an awful day. I had some cat-and-mouse with some of the professional cyclists I met en route for the first thousand or so feet of ascent. The terrain was perfect for any cyclist looking to improve their fitness so it was hardly surprising most I ran in to were lycra clad, toned & tanned leg types with road gears and stern resolve. Eventually however my pace started to lag, and the rise became less fun as the road became busier and I found myself passing through tunnels which meant I had to focus not only on making it up the hill, but also keeping tightly to the curb, making sure I was visible and not stopping. It was an exhausting amount to take on board. Shortly after I was in the low cloud of the valley, meaning poor visibility was added to my worries, before I broke free of forest all together and rose above the cloud into the rugged grassland on the plateau of Andermatt.

I stopped for a mineral water and a handful of nuts before again continuing to the top. Several other tourers had taken the train here to try their luck on the pass and if there were some way I could have grafted their legs onto mine I'd have been there, using my teeth if necessary to amputate them; I couldn't seem to get rested. Before long I was counting my ascent by the hundred feet, by the tens of feet and finally from stop-to-stop. At one moment I rested on an electric fence and didn't even realise, until I identified a spasm in my waist and then noticed I was in a lot of pain. Whenever I rested it only took a few pedal revolutions to make them ache again. It was roughly here I found the aforementioned café.

I'd followed the rivers from rapids to waterfalls to tiny rivulets and streams which cascaded from all around. John told me there was rain in Airolo, and at around the same moment I could see a fog the colour of a rain cloud drift between the cracks in the mountain ahead. I was in his rain cloud.

The ascent to this split in the rocks was very slow, and on the other side I found a sign to Gotthardpass along a cobbled road which I took in lieu of the newer road as it continued on the same gradient as before and went through another tunnel. Even if I had to go up more eventually I couldn't handle any more at that incline, I needed something flat if only for a while. The rain cloud was so thick around me I could barely see the edges of the road, and parts of lake or meadow would drift from the sides eerily. Everything was quiet except the occasional car which had found its way onto the track. Most importantly, and to my complete disbelief, the road kept going up. By my calculations it was 3feet to a metre, so roughly 2100m was 6300feet. By the time I'd finished I was well over 7000. I only guessed I was near the top when I heard laughter and found an Italian couple having their photo taken by a simple post with "St.Gotthardpass, 2108m" tacked on it. After making this trip everyone was best friends; we took photos for each other and then continued on separate ways while the town ahead drifted into view a metre at a time. Bratwurst vans, fluffy cow souvenirs, other cyclists in complete elation.

I noticed when I stopped pedalling it was really very cold up here, and that I had moisture all over me. I dressed for the descent which consisted of hairpin turn after turn over rough cobbled ground and numbed my hands instantly. The shifting vapour around me made the cliffs look as if they were moving; very odd. The moment I passed under the cloud was almost immediate, like I could reach up and touch it like a ceiling, then I continued on my way down, stopping occassionally to take photos of the awe-inspiring views of the valley below. It was such a hard day, I'm not even sure if I'd say it was worth it, but now I'm glad it happened.

Posted by Tom.Calver 11:16 Archived in Switzerland Tagged bicycle

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