The mist hangs dense and low , beading water on our visors. The air is cold and damp and we’re lost. Quarry walls rise all around us. The trail we’re hunting is nowhere to be seen.
My lovingly crafted GPX route brought us here but here leads nowhere. I’d hoped paper maps and vantage points would get us through but our visibility is restricted to the equivalent of 40-year old cataracts. We scramble around, employing empirical trail finding but every path leads in the wrong direction. We’d failed our mission. Another day, another attempt.
“The occasional patch of loose marbles on the hairpins as we climbed toward the mountain tops kept the mind concentrated”
A new dawn. We sit on top of the Cottian Alps. Once more the weather has closed in. The visibility has fallen short of useful. Trails litter the mountain tops. U-Turn after u-turn finally leads us to our path. Our route south has been washed into the valley floor. Forward progress is no longer possible. It marks the end of our first attempt at tracing the Via Del Sale.
Remember, properly prepared navigation prevents getting stuck in a quarry engulfed by a cloud…
Planning a trip is a difficult process. Every part of planning an expedition takes time and decisions. Even when we concluded upon a direction, drawing a route from the comfort of my basement, surrounded by maps and endless pages of Google translated Italian websites was pretty damn hard. After months of deliberation, we’d chosen to attempt to trace an ancient Italian salt trading route, running through the Alps to the south coast.
Our trip begins in St Gervais, nestled in the French Alps. Local knowledge gave the trip a comforting departure, riding familiar dirt roads. After all, remembering how to ride with panniers takes time.
The first target was Susa, upon which we would pickup the Italian trails and climb to serious altitude. Even though it was October, we weren’t expecting snow. Our previous jaunt into the region had been almost entirely sunny and comfortably warm. As we scrambled upward from Susa, the heated grips switched on and gently warmed the palms of my gloves. Our first sighting of snow suggested we may be underdressed and underprepared.
For the most part the snow was kept to small patches in shaded areas, with the trail dry and sun baked. Maintenance work had been in play since we last rode here and made for an easy ride on the compacted gravel. The occasional patch of loose marbles on the hairpins as we climbed toward the mountain tops kept the mind concentrated, but for the most part we started with an easy ride.
The further we climbed, the more snow we found but the patches were short lived and easily navigable. As we crossed onto the south facing slopes the sun bathed the hillside trails. We wound on, the straight forward dirt roads eventually bringing rest in town of Pinerolo .
“The serenity was broken by Brian and Greg shouting at each other because they still had earplugs in.”
The conversation over dinner focused on planning the next day. Inclement weather was due to spoil our long planned party. In times like these plans should change and so the decision was taken to ride the best trails and make the most of the sun before Autumn began to take hold. Tired after a long day, not helped by the two hour search for a hotel, we pre-organised our next night at a hotel in Limone. At least we knew our next sleep was sorted.
We dried the morning dew from our seats and headed for the next trail south. With a limited weather window, we skipped the quarry we failed to escape previously and stuck to the trails we were confident would help us make progress. The sun burst through the cloud as we sped on far below the fear inducing snow line. The dirt was smooth and friendly, just about good enough to allow us to relax and enjoy the view without veering off the drop to the valley floor. The incredible scenery constantly blew us away, forcing compulsory drink breaks. We were in an special place. When our engines stopped shattering the wall of silence, there was nothing. Not a wisp of the wind nor the chime of a bird. The serenity was broken by Brian and Greg shouting at each other because they still had earplugs in.
“The jagged mountain valley’s rolled out across the canvas in front.”
After 50km of winding mountain side dirt, the trail ended at a car park. The dirt gave way to a small, winding tarmac road, laced with some of the most incredible scenic views I’ve ever witnessed. The jagged mountain valleys rolled out across the canvas in front. The autumnal tree-show lined the brutal hillside with stunning colour. The pot holed, narrow and gravel strewn tarmac was broken up by short, deeply dark tunnels, steep downhill turns and edged with horrendous drops. Despite never edging past 40km/h it was one of the greatest roads we’d ever seen.
Post lunch the trail climbed again. Everything was even more dramatic than before. The ground eventually returned to dirt as we continued toward the skyline. We met a team of 4x4s headed in the opposite direction. Despite the language barrier we discerned the pass above was blocked by snow. These guys had all the gear; their Suzuki’s were small and heavily modified, with ropes and jacks everywhere. The logical conclusion was that they were to be believed. We climbed as far as we could to ride the trail and see for ourselves. As we reached the summit and the vista’s unfolded before us, we knew the decision had been a good one. The trail was impassable for us but the view was worth the effort.
Riding in places like this feels amazing. It was without question one of the best days riding any of us had and we live in the Alps. As our mood and enthusiasm reached an all-time high, our trip got better and better. The snow might have halted our progress but even having to skip around on the tarmac wasn’t going to kill the buzz a moment like that creates.
We arrived in Limone to find a huge party in the town square. It’s an Italian custom to celebrate certain years of birth on this day in October. This year was all the people whose age was a multiple of 5 (we think) so there were groups of people all celebrating their birth year, 20th, 25th etc. Each birth year group wore matching clothing. People draped themselves in ceremonial flags as they danced in the streets, bursting from the bars in full song.
“Progressively the situation worsened; the snow creeping ever further across the track until we were left with only the verge to ride on.”
That next morning we found the whole party moved to one of the biggest hotels in town for a gala dinner. Judging by the fine state of our 50 year old hotelier, the party had finished just before we got up. We helped him make breakfast that morning. It seemed the right thing to do.
From Limone there is a route heading south. The trail wound upward on the left hand side of the hill. Horrendous canyons fell away to our left side. As we gained altitude more speckles of snow began to appear on the trail edge. The shadow cast on the track kept the snow packed in the 4×4 tracks from melting and forced us closer to the drop. Progressively the situation worsened; the snow creeping ever further across the track until we were left with only the verge to ride on. Eventually it brought us to a stop. We deliberated the danger of the drop and verge situation. Nerves wracked my body. Brian is the most skilled among us and was keen to ride on.
His bike bucked and weaved as he bounced across the drainage channels cut into the verge. He lived to tell the tale. Jon attacked next, with far less grace and style. A touch of pushing helped him scramble through the biggest drainage channels.
I was aware of my heart beating faster than normal. Adrenaline pumped through my veins, fully aware of that almighty drop. The terrain wasn’t the challenge, but that chasm to my left was hard to ignore.
I made it to the crux of the section and let the bike drop into the drainage channel. The ice lacing the ditch removed any control I thought I had. As I slipped in the bike pointed uphill away from the drop. With a heavy right hand, a lot of wheel spin and pushing, we scrambled the Ténére through.
As we pushed on, the trail stayed rideable. Patches of snow scattered the ground wherever they avoided the warmth of the midday sun. We rode until the tracks ran out. Everything stopped as the snow grew across the trail. At the point of breaking trail, we decided to venture no further than an obstacle that would stop us turning around. After all, this may be our adventure but we’re not stupid.
“Riding across the mountains in a white out isn’t generally the greatest idea.”
The snow continued to cover the trail. We battled on, cutting tracks through the shaded mountain side; paddling, pushing and sweating in the crisp mountain air. The sound of engines broke the gentle panting of our recovery and the still mountain atmosphere. The distinct rumble of three boxer engines rolled along the hillside. Bikes coming this way was a positive thing. At least the trail was passable. The BMW’s Dutch, English speaking pilots gave information on one more patch of snow that could present a problem. One lunch, a puncture issue and whole load more trail later we once more began the search for a bed.
We wound our way into the hills tracing signs to a hotel. They gave way to a derelict mushroom farm. The sun was setting and cold creeping in, we continued our hunt through villages with little luck. The clear sky was swallowed by rain when we were finally directed to a golf resort hotel. Hot water, secure undercover parking for the bikes, a restaurant, and Wi-Fi seemed like a good deal. A lack of beer wasn’t.
With snow impending in the coming days the decision to return North was made. Riding across the mountains in a white out isn’t generally the greatest idea.
For the most part, our return leg was far less eventful. Great tarmac, a stony dirt shortcut pointed out by a chance meeting with our Dutch friends and another fantastic meal mark the highlights.
“The tunnel is just 500 meters but the stress of the impending wild ice rides stretched the string of time.”
The main challenge of our last day was to clamber the Col de Parpaillon. Laced with ice, the Col tops out at 2783 meters. The crossing between valleys is made through an old, unlit tunnel. Puddles littered the age-old road, topped by ice and hidden in the dark. With no depth perception, each breaking of the surface came with a requirement of luck. Shallow puddles created a wild ride, with the ice regularly failing to break under our wheels. The tunnel is just 500 meters but the stress of the impending wild ice rides stretched the string of time.
The Parpaillon was once the highest road in Europe. The view it offers is truly incredible. Like most of the trails we rode, the drops to the side are horrendous. The Parpaillon trail marked the last of our planned dirt. We set a course for home via the famous Col de Galibier. The road from Briancon to Bourg D’Oisans typically bustles with traffic but with the closing of one of the passes the roads were deserted and gave way to an endless ribbon of empty, thrashable mountain tarmac. Our grins spread wide and bikes pinged hot by bottom of the mountain.
A little snow, some frozen rain and a jaunt around a closed road barrier or two saw the end of our mini adventures along a path once used to move salt around Europe. Since the days of joining dots on Google earth we’ve have had two incredible trips.
It’s been an expanding experience that’s given us the belief that we could take a trip anywhere, even if the available maps lack information. Maybe next time we’ll head away from the snow….
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