Plaine Morte: Swiss glacier mince

Pete JenningsWhen Paul, Mark, Gill and Iain went to Switzerland this year they were determined to get off the beaten track for their MTBing – and their ride from the top of the Plaine Morte glacier to the valley floor at Sion featured a descent of 2,600m that went from snow and slush to baking-hot vineyards.

Here’s guest blogger Paul Jennings to tell you how it went down anyway – and I’m sure they weren’t mincing but I couldn’t resist that headline, sorry guys…

The radio crackled. “Broad-Sword calling Danny-Boy… man down, man down!” All Danny-Boy (Mark) heard though was the pain and panic in my voice.

To be fair I thought I’d punctured myself just above my left testicle – hence the tone of voice I was using. Turns out it was just a GoPro sized bruise which had turned my boy bits a lovely hue of purple. In fact, it was the same shade of purple that covered the top of the mountain.

Actually, I’m presuming there was purple heather on top of the mountain, but as the whole thing was covered in snow (not to mention the glacier), I couldn’t be too sure.

Plaine Morte panorama
Whoa, that looks pretty high.

Two-hour uplift

We’d set off from our chalet in St Luc several hours earlier, and, leaving behind our balcony view of the Matterhorn, driven down to Sierre to catch a funicular, chair lift and cable car to 2,927m above sea level. It had taken almost two hours just to get up, so it was anyone’s guess how long it’d take to get back down again.

The last few metres of ascent, to the Dr Evil-esque observatory at the summit of Plaine Morte necessitated a very slow hike-a-bike. All four of us felt like we were on a movie set, acting out the last few steps to the summit of Everest. You know the bit… several deep breaths… take a couple of laboured steps forwards… stop… breath… two more steps… stop… breath… you get the picture.

At the top we were joined by some hikers who were jumping around all over the place, so maybe the air wasn’t as thin as we thought. Then again, judging by their tanned skin, youthful good looks and ‘on message’ mountain clothing, they were probably used to this sort of thing and probably hadn’t been supping gin and single malts until the early hours. How does the saying go: prepare to fail?

With the usual photos and panorama shots secured we bid our continental cousins adieu and off we went, into the snow. Bugger me it’s slippery stuff, especially when its sitting on top of loose shale that’s balancing on some seriously steep slopes with some frightening exposure down to the left hand side.

plaine morte trail
There’s snow all year round when you get up this high.

Abyss. That’s the word that sprang to mind.

After a few slips and slides we were pushing upwards again. Not for long, but it takes it out of you when you’re man-handling your bike over rocks the size of cars and up slopes as steep as – well, a Swiss Alp I suppose.

An hour or two later, and the snow was behind (or rather above) us and we were in an entirely different landscape. As we looked back, we couldn’t actually see how it was possible to get to where we were from where we’d been, but we’d made it unscathed so far. Through muddy patches of melt-water and onward to the next challenge… rocks.

On the rocks

We’d already mastered the steep alpine switchbacks and the snow and ice-strewn marmot trails that someone had the audacity to describe as singletrack, so the dry but rocky sections below should have been a doddle.

Actually they were, of sorts. Unfortunately for me the epic views (I had to throw the ‘e’ word in at some point I suppose) and thin(ish) air had all taken their toll and I took my eye of the ball, slamming my front wheel into a rocky rut and shooting out the front door. That’s when my boy bits dislodged the GoPro from the handlebars.

So there I was, a crumpled mess, screaming into my walkie-talkie for someone to help extricate me from the jumble of limbs and bike parts.

Iain found the GoPro a few minutes later while I was repairing my punctured front tyre. Gill supplied the sugar rush (Haribo if you were wondering) and Mark took the piss. And the Alpine cows that I’d fallen off in front off… they looked like they’d seen it all before. Bastards!

Despite the initial shock, it was all systems go and we were soon on our way again – we still had more than half of the 2,600m of descent left to go!

Mark riding after snow
An easy bit after the snow.

We wound our way down to the dam that was holding back what seemed to be an unfathomable quantity of azure blue glacial melt water and crossed the wall into nirvana: that’s dusty trails to me and you.

This section started with yet more hairpins and switchbacks before opening slightly into a playground of natural berms, rooty drops and only the occasional rock to send the front wheel pinging off at a ridiculous angle. The soundtrack was something like the monkey enclosure at any decent-sized zoo, as four idiots threw themselves ever downwards. Then Iain’s crank arm fell off, and not for the last time.

Square pegs

Without the necessary tools to make a permanent fix, Iain spent the rest of the riding can-canning his cranks back into place with his heels as he rolled along. He didn’t have to worry too much when we came to the tunnel though – there was no way you could ride through even if you wanted to.

In fact, the opening was so narrow that it was front wheels off and ‘manage as best you can’ to get the bike and your body through. Like square pegs into a round hole.

Into the tunnel
Are you sure this is the right way mate?
In the tunnel
OK right you are, but where did I put that Maxle?

Once through, we were once again treated to another new set of surroundings. This time it was the maze-like vineyards above our final destination, Sion, which provided the laughs. And free, all you can eat grapes – as long as no-one was looking of course!

By now dusk was fast-approaching and the Sunday evening dog walkers, joggers and in-love sweethearts were sharing the trail. And it was a perfect evening for it. The sun that had ripened the grapes all around us was working its magic by keeping our tired bodies going and before we knew it we were in the final landscape for the day, the suburbs.

I love riding through urbania, especially when there’s still a decent slope to hurry your progress. Maybe it’s because it reminds me so much of my college days, riding to lectures or more likely the next pub.

Plaine Morte ride panorama
The weather was a bit different down in the valley.

Or maybe it’s because I’m a through-and-through country boy and the urban environment is all still a bit of a novelty. Either way, every last metre of the ride kept me smiling like the Cheshire Cat and then, as expected, the train turned up – on the dot – to take us back to the cars. I’d had the best five-and-a-half hours ever.

Well, maybe not the bit involving the camera.

“Clod-Hopper over and out…”

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