Sustenpass & Steingletscher In A Motorhome - Hiking & Cycling

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Monday 23 July 2018

Sustenpass & Steingletscher In A Motorhome - Hiking & Cycling

The 2204 metre high Susten Pass, which seperates Innertkirchen from Wassen, completes a trio of passes (along with Grimsel and Furka) which form a very popular and high altitude cycling or driving route through the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. Not that the ‘scenic’ passes are limited to these three I hasten to add. The longer we spend in Switzerland the more and more high altitude passes we seem to be finding. Switzerland is, after all, a very lumpy country.

In terms of the Susten Pass, since we had only recently visited both the nearby Grimsel Pass and Furka Pass, it seemed only natural to complete the ‘loop’ and head up the Susten Pass next. Our overnight base during our time on the Susten Pass was the permitted parking area at Steingletscher. Around 6 kilometres from the summit on the west side of the pass is the Hotel Steingletscher and from here it is possible to take a small road which winds it’s way a little higher into the hills towards the foot of the Steingletscher itself, from which the hotel obviously takes it’s name. At a cost of just 6 CHF for the first night (+1 CHF for each extra night), we couldn’t believe our luck when we pulled up and stepped out of the motorhome.

All around us were bare rock walls with overhanging glacier tongues spilling over them, their bluish ice surfaces towering over us. Even in mid-July, snow was still abundant on the ground around us and, since we were the only motorhome up here, the only sound we could here was the gently running streams of water making their way down the mountain. It was like a hidden, mountain idyll which, just for the night, felt like it belonged only to us. There was a very peaceful, almost soothing energy about the place.

We ended up staying there for 5 nights, taking advantage of the peaceful location and the abundant outdoor things to do nearby. One our first day Esther headed out on her own to cycle up the west side of the Susten Pass. The complete climb from Innertkirchen involves 27 kilometres of ascent at 6% average gradient (a climb of 1600 metres). Since we were parked quite close to the top, however, and because getting back to the motorhome from the Hotel Steingletscher involved an extra 2 kilometre detour with some sections at over 20% gradient, she ‘only’ cycled the top 16 kilometres from Gadmen which average 7%.

The next day just so happened to be my birthday (I know, 21 again), so after a wonderfully festive and colourful start to the day beneath clear blue skies and a hot sun, we went out and did exactly the same ride all over again, except this time together. The only change we made was starting a little further down the valley at Fuhren, making it 18 kilometres at 7% average to the top.

The climb of the west side Susten Pass is amazing. There’s really no other word for it. With a vertical bare rock face to one side and rolling crags to the other, it is like riding into a postcard scene. Higher up, as the road nears the top, the view open out even more to provide incredible panoramas of the various remaining patches of glacier on the surrounding mountains, with waterfalls and streams running down into mountain lakes which look like puddles from so high up. Sometimes, riding up long hills, I start to think about the top and how much my legs hurt, but this time it was so exhilarating I just didn’t want it to end.

We took a day off the following day in order to be well rested for our next adventure, a hike up to the Tieberglihutte at 2797 metres. This hike, which starts from the permitted parking area we were staying in, is marked out as a blue/white ‘Alpine route’. A friendly gentleman in the car park explained to us that in Switzerland there are 6 levels of hiking trail of increasing difficulty. Levels 1 - 3 are marked with red and white signs, 4 - 6 with blue and white. Level 6, he said, is practically climbing. In this case the trail was certainly challenging with the top half of the climb including mostly bare rock and some long snow patches to cross. It was also very physically demanding and, despite taking ‘only’ 2 hours we were both flagging by the top.

The view was worth it though. A massive glacial plateau extending up onto the higher peaks we hadn’t been able to see from below, with enormous crevasses and ice ridges spiking up as the glacier ‘flowed’ over the edge. It was magnificent. We could have sat there all day and I think the pictures explain why.

The following day it was raining so we took a longish fell run up to the Susten Pass, via several damp and soggy trails. It was hard to get going but after a few minutes the crisp, cold air had woken us up and our legs sprang to life. It had been a little busier the previous few days, with the good weather, but now the rain had come the area had practically emptied so we only saw a few faces all day. It was like having the valley head almost to ourselves.

Which brings us to our final day, a drive over the Susten Pass and down the east side into Wassen from where we got the bikes off again to cycle back to the top. The east side ascent is shorter than the west, at only 18 km, but it is steeper with a 7.5% average that hardly lets up. As I’ve often commented on this blog, most average gradients hide lumps and bumps but in this case it was tough going most of the way. Also, the terrain means that the road is largely a long, straightish line of tarmac which is visible for most of the route which I find mentally tough. Switchbacks are easier because they create short term goals, but not today. Still, even though low cloud was hiding most of the view from sight, riding up into a cloud is exhilarating in itself. It feels so wild, riding into a forbidding mass of grey, that it creates a completely different type of excitement.

Next stop…another pass. We’re just not sure which one yet because there are so many to choose from.

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