First Encounter with the Rhone Glacier – Cycling the Furkapass to Belvedere

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Sunday 7 September 2014

First Encounter with the Rhone Glacier – Cycling the Furkapass to Belvedere

It was with some trepidation that we departed Camping Augestern in the Goms Valley last Sunday, aiming to drive to the top Grimselpass where we planned to spend the night. We'd done some amazing hikes and cycle rides during our stay and although it was only a 20 mile drive, by reaching the top of the pass we would be setting a new altitude record (2165m) for our little van. Having cycled part of the route a few days earlier, reaching Gletsch on our bikes, we knew the way would be steep and winding and would once again push the limits of our 2.0l engine towing our 3.5 tonne home.

Reasoning that the engine (and me driving) might benefit from a break before tackling the final steep and dragging switchbacks from Gletsch (1750m), we decided to break the journey into 2 stages and parked behind Gletsch tourist office (about half way up) for a breather. By reaching Gletsch our motorhome had just tackled part of the famous “Four Passes Tour”, one of Switzerlands most scenic routes. Normally starting in Meiringen, this enormous loop of the St Gotthard Massif heads south over the Grimselpass to Oberwald, east over the Nufenen Pass to Airolo, north over the Gotthard pass to Andermatt and finally west over the Sustenpass back to Meiringen, climbing more than 8000m in total!

There is also a direct route from Gletsch straight to Andermatt over the equally awesome Furkpass which tops out at an altitude of 2436m affording awesome views of the massive Rhone Glacier en route. From the comfort of our driving seats we sat looking at the twisting, steep hairpins of the Furkpass and decided that the van would get an ideal rest if we took a quick cycle up and down the Furkapass to get a look at the glacier ourselves.

10 minutes later we had donned our lycra and were on our way uphill battling against a stiff wind. 

Three challenging switchbacks were followed by a long dragging straight that took us along past the tumbling rockfall that marked the former flow path of the Rhone glacier, which had now retreated back over the hanging valley and out of sight. Pedalling steadily on together we soon began the second and final stretch of 5, ever steepening, switchbacks that would climb the remaining 250m to our destination at Belvedere (2250m) from where we would be able to take a short stroll and enjoy a view right along the glacier. About half way along this section the gradient went up another notch and Esther feeling strong rode away from me, leaving me to enjoy the awesome view down into the Goms valley on my own for the final stretch, with even Mont Blanc visible in the distance all the way in France.

Reaching Belvedere after just 45 minutes of intense exercise we locked up our trusty bikes to a handy railing and practically jogged along the short track which climbed another 100m or so from the road (You can choose to pay for the privilege of taking a flat path from the snack bar, but we much preferred avoiding the crowds and saving the 8CHF each to reach our higher vantage point). After just 10 minutes we crested a ridge and the glacier was revealed in all its glory. Back in the last ice age the Rhone Glacier formed the head of the largest ice sheet in Switzerland, which was almost entirely covered in ice at the time. 

Although the ice sheets have now retreated almost entirely and the Rhone Glacier is only the second largest remaining, at 9km long and several km wide, from up this close it is truly breathtaking. It was also staggering to think that from this one massif, the St Gotthard Massif, 4 of the great rivers of Europe all originated (Rhone, Rhine, Reuss, Ticino). Perching ourselves upon a rock in the afternoon sunshine we did our best to absorb the view, lingering for 2 hours as other visitors came, snapped a few pictures and went. We just couldn't get enough of the majestic ice surface that extended for thousands of metres ahead of us before curving up towards the peaks beyond.

Eventually dragging ourselves way we returned to our bikes and cruised our way back to the motorhome, barely having to pedal a stroke, before swiftly reattaching the bikes to tackle the final stage of the Grimselpass. As it turned out we needn't have worried as our motorhome ably managed the 7 dragging switchbacks to reach the top of the pass just 20 minutes later where we found the car park of the Hotel Alpenrosli that would be our base for the night.

Looking out over the surrounding mountains and valleys from our lofty vantage point as we enjoyed our dinner, the day visitors disappeared one by one until only ourselves and handful of other motorhomes remained. It was almost totally silent. As the sun set and the moon rose over the mountains, set against a beautiful orange and red sky, we felt a deep sense of peace and tranquility and went to bed wondering if we might stay a few more nights as well.

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