Finding Peace in Utter Failure on a Ride Across the Alps
This is a story of failure, of sorts. During the last week of September, I managed to convince myself it was a good idea to ride my mountain bike solo across the Alps from Innsbruck, Austria to Meran, Italy in four days. To European mountain bikers, this sort of trip is seen as a sort of rite of passage, and forces the rider to not just display amazing endurance and riding skills, but be able to apply alpine skills. One is, after all, deep in the heart of the mountains, entirely at their mercy.
I started in Innsbruck on a Wednesday, planning to roughly follow a transalp detailed by Andreas Albrecht on his website transalp.info. The original plan was to cram do his Trail Tirol route into the four days I had. 165km, 11,500 vertical meters. Seemed doable.
Here are my notes from the trail.
28.9.16 Day 1:
I left Innsbruck this morning around 8:30. It was still dark at 7, when I originally intended to leave, so I had another cup of coffee with Thomas and Amelia, two friends who graciously inflated their air mattress for my comfort the night before. Tom is a crazy trail runner who just moved to Innsbruck to start his Master’s in atmospherics. Yesterday, I spent 14 hours on trains trying to get myself from Koblenz to here. A great way to start the trip.
My intended route for the day was up the valley from Axams to the Kemater Alm, over the Seejochl to the Starkenburger Hütte, down to Neustift, take the 4:30 lift up to the Elferspitze, and finally ride up the Pinnistal to the Innsbrucker Hütte. These were the first two stages outlined on Albrecht’s page, but I naively figured that since it was mostly uphill on fire roads, it would be easy. I have never been so wrong in my life.
The first vertical kilometer up to the Kemater Alm was a painful reality check. My pack was really heavy and not comfortable, even after stopping three times to repack it in an effort to more evenly spread the weight between hips and shoulders. Two older guys passed me on the road up, riding carbon fiber hardtails, laughing and chatting together while keeping a ridiculous pace. My legs promptly denied any attempts to keep up.
I made it to the Kemater Alm in 3 hours, after fighting up the road in granny gear. Time for a break and some food. Two large Apfelschorles and a Hauswurst later, I felt motivated to keep going. I still have over 1000m up to go. And it was getting late. I rode, pushed, and carried my bike up to the Seejöchl, where I promptly let out a couple of woops, and collapsed.
In the distance, I heard the distinctive sound of a rear hub, and looked up to see a fellow mountain biker coming down from a nearby summit, the only one that was not guarded by hundreds of feet of sheer rock walls.
Servus! We greeted one another in the traditional alpine way. He pointed to the ridge and told me he had ridden from the Stubai Valley along it as far as the eye could see. Impressive, considering he was riding a long travel enduro machine, and wearing a ton of body armor. We chatted about the mountains for a minute until he reached into his pack, I thought perhaps looking for a map or a snack bar. Instead, the guy pulled out a bible and stack of pamphlets.
Behold! Look at all of God’s beautiful creation; don’t you wonder what will become of it? He handed me one of the pamphlets, telling me how he had found God in the mountains, and as a Jehovah’s Witness, it was now his duty to spread God’s word. With that, he rode off.
Wow, I managed to avoid an encounter like this my entire life, even growing up New York City, home of the soapbox preachers! What were the odds of this happening in one of the most remote places I had ever been on my bike? Weird stuff happens up there sometimes.
At that point, I knew I would never make the lift in time, let alone have the energy to climb another 3000 feet to the Innsbrucker Hut. I put on my kneepads and helmet and ripped down the thousand-foot high alpine singletrack descent to the Starkenburger Hut.
Riding in steep, loose gravel with a 40 lb pack and tired legs was the hardest thing I had ever done on a bike. As expected, the bike’s handling is vastly different with so much weight. I had to plan my line far in advance, and exaggerate every movement to keep control of the bike. I managed to keep it together and crash only once. In the middle of a series of switchbacks, I thought I had finally perfected the art of the euro stoppie turn. Nope! I went straight over the bars, and started stumbling down the scree field I had been traversing, still clipped in by my right foot. About 50 feet and two switchbacks down I finally came to a stop. Somehow, everything was totally fine. No damage to bike or person, save for a torn glove and a nice little gash on my left palm.
I lay there for a few minutes questioning my sanity, and promised myself to not try anything stupid like that for the rest of the trip. I had a ways to go after all. I gathered myself together and rode the rest of the trail to the hut like a grandpa.
The sun was starting to dip behind the horizon as I arrived at around 5pm. The hut lies high above the stunningly beautiful Stubai Valley. All around me stood 3000+ meter peaks, the highest of which were capped by massive glaciers. At the upper end of the valley lies the Mutterbergalm, home to the Stubai Zoo, a summer ski area. Below us was Neustift and across the valley lay the Habicht, an absolutely massive 3200m mountain that was blanketed by fresh snow.
Two men sat on the porch, chatting over a beer when I arrived. I overheard one saying how he had hiked along the ridge I had just descended from, and was on day 20 of a hike through western Austria. They invited me over and we started chatting about the area and how beautiful it was. Long story short, two beers later, I was convinced to spend the night at the hut and keep the party going.
Rainer, the long distance hiker, was an automotive sound engineer who had just finished a contract for Audi. He was a father of two who was fed up with work he deemed “not beneficial to humanity,” and wanted to disappear for a few weeks to think about his life.
A few hours later, we were joined by a group of medical students from Berlin who were enjoying their last few weeks of Semesterferien (summer break) in the mountains. Later that evening, while we all bitched and moaned about how much every part of our body hurt, the future doctors began diagnosing each other’s ailments, constantly correcting one another. Good thing they were still just students…
Dinner was delicious that night, consisting of few more beers and huge plate of Leberkäse with egg and potato salad. We chatted until the stars came out and then went to sleep.
29.9.16 Day 2:
Breakfast was at 7. What an ungodly hour, it wasn’t even light out yet. Together, the six of us trudged up to the main hut from our bunks in the winter room. I could barely walk, let alone sit down. There was absolutely no way I was making it to Meran by Sunday. Over breakfast together, we pored over the map of the Stubai region. I noticed loads of singletrack and a network of fire roads designated specifically as MTB routes. I asked Martin, the hutkeeper, if he knew much about the riding in the region. Well, he knew that everything was getting more and more popular due to the massive influx of E-bikes. Additionally, there were now two bikeparks in the valley serving up all the lift access Innsbruck could handle.
Martin recommended descending the singletrack that cut between the switchbacks of the fire road leading up the hut. Looking out the window as the first rays of sun hit the trail, the run looked amazing.
Rainer was heading back to Innsbruck that morning; the medical students were undecided about their day. We bid one another farewell and, heeding Martin’s advice, I headed down the singletrack to Neustift. The trail descends about 3000 feet in two miles, following the line of a water drainage before switchbacking through the forest and finally spitting you out on the meadows directly above Neustift. From here, I rode a footpath down some steep stairsets directly onto the town’s central square.
This is where the story takes a turn. A day and half in, I was now only halfway through to where I should have been the day before. Whoops. I rode over to the bike shop on the central square and bought a map with even greater detail than the one I had looked over earlier that morning.
Sure enough, there was a web of trails in the valley that were just begging to be explored. I weighed my options, quite literally, since my heavy pack was what was holding me back the most, and decided to say screw the original plan. I would rather spend some time to get to know this valley better.
Besides, this was the first time in a long time where I felt I had complete freedom to do whatever the hell I wanted. I had until Sunday to go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted before I had to be back at work.
It was a funny feeling, that freedom; something I hadn't felt in a long time. It really didn’t matter what I did next, there was absolutely no outside pressure to get something done. I had taken it upon myself to make it across the Alps under my own power in a silly amount of time. Now that I knew how unreasonable my original idea was, I simply let it go. Weeks of planning were simply forgotten. Who cared anymore? Not me!
I decided I would ride up to the Innsbrucker Hut via my original route anyway, and figure out a way to link some trails I saw on the map to get there. The lift station was already crowded with German tourists when I rode up to it around 930 and bought a single ride for 10 euros.
The liftie hung my bike precariously on the outside of the gondola cabin I shared with a bunch of retirees from Saxony, who looked as if they had never seen a mountain bike before.
“Look at how much suspension it has! And those brakes! No fenders?! Where’s the dynamo to power his lights?” It was a funny to be exposed to “normal” people again, especially after living in a sort of outdoor-freak bubble for the past 6 years. I quickly reassured them, and myself, that I would be very careful on the way down and do my best not to hurt myself.
At the top of the Elferlift, my pack somehow felt light. Even though physically nothing had changed about it, in fact it was actually heavier due to the water I had filled up in the valley, it seemed much lighter. Perhaps the pressure I had been putting on myself the day before to get my ride, my thing, done carried some sort of symbolic weight that I physically had felt. Now that it was gone, that weight had disappeared.
Well, whatever, I had a mountain to descend and I was stoked to ride. I pedaled a short way up a fire road to get to the trail I wanted to ride and dropped in. Perfect conditions. The upper section traversed the backside of the Elferspitze, staying in the woods the whole time, and then fed into a super fast and flowy section through the meadows all the way down into the Pinnistal.
The Habicht towered high above me at the end of the valley. No wonder it was thought for a long time to be the highest mountain in Tyrol. The thing was massive. It commanded a presence over the area like few other mountains I have seen. Besides, the name translates to hawk. The Hawk. Fucking sick. I started riding towards it.
I stopped for a quick Apfelstrudel break at the Karalm to refuel. There were three other bikes parked outside the hut, and after a quick look I noticed their sinister secret: E-bikes! Nice ones, too. I immediately felt a sense of loathing towards them and their riders, but then remembered my days as a wrench and seeing the joy it gave people who normally would never ride to get out and ride big days thanks to the help of electric motor. Whatever, I thought; at least they aren’t putting gases in the air.
The trail up to the Innsbrucker Hut lay directly ahead of me. Well, what was another 2000 feet? Just add them to the list.
I passed a few more retirees on the final stretch of trail near the hut, where I was reduced to pushing and carrying my bike. I don't remember the conversation we had, but they served as a nice distraction to the painful task at hand, and got me through to the hut.
As I sat on the deck of the Innsbrucker hut, I felt an unfamiliar buzzing in my pocket. My phone was ringing, something I hadn't felt in a few days. It was from work.
Servus Max, how’s the trip? We need you for the weekend, it’s going to be crazy busy. In “real life,” I worked as a cook at the Karl Ludwig Haus in the mountains above Vienna. The past few weekends had been absolute madness in terms of business, and any help possible did a great deal.
A plate of sausages (yes, this was Austria, remember?) and a beer later, it was time to head back. Secretly, I think I was relieved. Looking over to ridge I would have had to cross the following day, I knew my legs would not have made it. The mountains were simply just too big.
I had a day and a half to be back in Vienna, including another few hours of riding to get back up to the Karl Ludwig Haus. The outskirts Innsbruck were barely visible at the other end of the valley. I called Tom to tell him my change of plans and that I needed a place to crash for the night; he graciously offered his air mattress for a second night.
The way back down to Innsbruck led me down the entire length of the Pinnistal, through the lower section of the Stubaital, and finally along the Stubaitalbahn train tracks to downtown Innsbruck. I coasted most of the way, letting gravity do the work, instead of my tired legs.
Somehow I made it to the Hauptbahnhof in three hours from the hut, frequent snack and water breaks included. I even got the chance to hang my tired and by now overheated legs into an ice-cold river, fed by glaciers far up valley. Needless to say, it felt amazing.
Turned out that Thomas and Amelia ran up the Habicht that day. I made it to their place shortly before they arrived themselves, sweaty and tired from a long day in the mountains.
Kebab? Kebab. After an hour-long Google search for local Kebab places, we had Kebabs for dinner and fell asleep watching terrible Austrian reality TV shows.
The Alps humbled me.