When you look at a map of Innsbruck (something I seem to spend a lot of time doing) you notice immediately the huge chain of mountains running along the northern edge of the valley. The Nordkette (literally “north chain”) is a run of peaks reaching to 2500m, almost 2000 metres (6600 feet) from the valley below. They dominate the skyline, and also the contours on the maps. I immediately noticed a valley running parallel to the Inn, but on the back side of these peaks, and have for the last 6 months pondered what is back there. I’d drawn a pretty dotted line across the map, and planned a fantastic 50 mile ride taking in a couple of smaller climbs, then the full run of the Scharnitzer valley, before cresting a saddle to bridge back to Innsbruck. What could go wrong?
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After such a miserable spring of constant rain, the snowpack hadn’t been shifting as quickly as I’d liked, and I postponed this adventure time and again. Seven days of hot weather and some warm thunderstorms had aided the snow melt, I felt it was finally time to attempt it. In terms of mileage, I wasn’t concerned, but the 10,000 feet (3300 m) vertical would be the biggest challenge. I don’t normally bother programming a route into the GPS, as I’m pretty confident that my hours of staring at maps will have ingrained every turn into my mind, but this time I did, just to be safe.
Spinning out of Innsbruck past the airport was a relaxed way to start the day, and the miles ticked by as I navigated children and parents making the most of the river-side bike path. The grass is long at the moment, and there are bugs and bees everywhere – I daren’t unzip my jersey in case the inevitable happened. I rarely ride any distance on the road on my mountain bike, as I can find trails from the city edge, but this time I had to make do with an hour of pavement before the first climb began, up to Seefeld. The incessant spring showers had left some lasting damage; my route up an innocuous looking dirt road turned out to be a skills-tester from the get-go.
The first slog of the day done, I pedalled slowly through Seefeld – an upmarket resort town that I haven’t visited since a ski trip way back in 2008. As befitting its tourist destination, the first few people I issued a friendly “Griaß di” to responded with an equally friendly, but very English “Morning’”. The town is surrounded on all sides by golf courses; manicured grass a contrast to the pine clad trees rising away from the town on all sides. The sky had lost its deep blue morning colour, and was replaced by a humid haze – a concern for me considering how much I wanted to avoid thunderstorms whilst up high. Past the train station, past the ornate and immaculate chalets lining the street, and back into the forest, I finally felt like I was getting away from humans and into the mountains. The first little pass took me into the Karwendel range – the protected forest that encompasses the Nordkette mountains. I descended some hardly touched singletrack through old growth forests – just on the line between alpine and mixed woodland, and my freewheel was the only thing to disturb the deer on this otherwise peaceful morning.
Second climb of the day looked like nothing on the map, but I knew it would be more on the ground. Now the sun was high in the sky, I could really feel the humidity; pedalling under the low hanging pine branches was like a mini steam room; Moisture trapped under the branches clinging to me as I rode past. The top came soon enough – not a big pass, but more a gap in the rock opening up into a sparsely wooded meadow.
I found the next piece of singletrack quickly, and navigated lazy cows who weren’t concerned with moving out my way. Like the uphill, I had thought the descent into the valley was going to be quick, but it meandered on for 30 minutes or more of smooth and rarely ridden turns. At the bottom, a rickety bridge crossing led me into the valley proper, and I had 10 miles of barely uphill dirt road – the perfect gradient for me to smash all the way up. I had to navigate around a couple of rain-induced detours, but eventually I got to the end of the valley, and saw the road clinging to the steep south facing edge of the valley. Who needs switchbacks when you can just make the road steeper?!
Most of the traffic I encountered was moving in the opposite direction; older couples and the occasional group of walkers; not many cyclists. I received warm hellos from everyone, and a few words of encouragement as the road surface turned from packed gravel to loose shale rock. The JCB digger at the bottom, and the heaps of snow moved to the side of the road suggested that perhaps I was on the early side of gaining access to the top. The back-up option of stopping in at the Alm (Mountain hut) at the top of the saddle allayed my concern about the thunderclouds which had started to shadow my every move.
The shade of the valley was a gradient of colour; deep green pine trees tapering into milky grey limestone cliffs, darker scree slopes, and mucky white snow clinging to the upper faces. In places, the snowy slopes were almost indistinguishable from the clouds above. A huge landscape, and as it approached lunchtime the early walkers were disappearing. I felt ever more alone in the beauty. Adding to the feeling was the knowledge that only a mile or two away on the other face of the mountains is the huge city of Innsbruck: 100,000 people all bustling around entirely unaware I was enjoying my solitude so close to them. Three hours riding done, I came to realise the top of the saddle wasn’t where to road ended, but just a little higher, only another ridge. Another snowy ridge.
I held the mistaken belief that because I was climbing up the northern edge of the mountains, I would crest the saddle and the snow would disappear. I thought the sunny side of the mountains wouldn’t be knee-deep in wet heavy half melted snow, but instead I would enjoy the 4000 foot descent back to the city below. I was wrong. Well, part wrong – the snow had mostly disappeared, but it had taken most of the path with it too.
As I sat there peering over the edge, I could clearly see the switchbacks marked out on the hillside below; zigzagging cleanly through the scrub pine on dry and firm ground. The problem for me was that between my current position and where I wanted to be lay a huge slide of snow. Unlike the snow I’d just crossed, this stuff wasn’t sitting in a nice bowl, but running all the way down the hillside at an angle of 45 degrees. My insanity brought me almost to the point where I’d decided the sinuous singletrack was worth risking my life for, but closer inspection revealed that the trail on the other side of the snow couldn’t be seen. A change of aspect returned the final, and probably for the best, decision: No Go.
Almost four hours in, what to do? Between me and getting back home was now more than just one descent, but instead a four hour ride back the way I came. The thunderclouds that had been following me for the last hour had decided that they wanted to come take a closer look, and the sun had fled in the opposite direction. I was alone in the afternoon on a high exposed ridge, a couple of hundred metres above the nearest tree. And all I was wearing was Lycra. The progression of these thoughts in my mind was more than enough to decide map reading and further planning could be done lower down the hillside. I turned tail and cruised my bike over the snowy patches I’d post-holed through on the way back up. Once in the safety of the valley below, my map confirmed what I already knew – the reason I had made such a long loop out of it in the first place is that my entrance and exit points were the only accesses along the whole valley. No shortcuts today. I saddled up, ate the last of my overly sweet granola bars, and set off home.
Three hours, two thunderstorms, one wrong turn, a bottle of coke and two vanilla pastries later, I crawled up the stares, having almost completed the challenge I set myself. A good reminder that success almost always takes less work than failure!