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Big Mountains in Bad Weather
By Oliver Smith
When we heard our friends at Telegraph Travel were venturing up the Gavia Pass with its infamous unpredictable weather, we supplied them with the right equipment for the job. Here’s a recap of their adventure.
The sky had darkened on the approach to the fearsome Gavia Pass, and as my two friends and I tackled the lower slopes the rain began falling in biblical quantities. My companions quickly sought shelter in a nearby village. I heroically ploughed on.
Stopping would be folly, I thought. Riding uphill keeps the body warm—what fool would rather cower by the roadside?
Then came the warnings.
The first driver, gingerly guiding his vehicle down the mountain, caught my eye, soberly shook his head and wagged his finger from side to side. Who does he think I am? Doesn’t he know I’ve faced English winters without leg warmers?
The second descending driver, wide-eyed and insistent, defiantly displayed the palm of her right hand, like Neo from “The Matrix” stopping a hail of bullets—thou shalt not pass. My resolve weakened a little, but I kept on going.
Then came the clincher. A middle-aged man, grizzled, grey, and clearly from these parts, flashed his headlights to get my attention before slowly sliding his index finger across his throat. Oh bugger.
What had these people seen further up the climb? Walls of water? A landslide? Surely not snow. ...
It’s August for heaven’s sake—how bad can the weather be atop an Italian mountain pass?
Serendipitously, a café appeared: Pietra Rossa, meaning “Red Rock,” a name that would make more sense on an Arizona highway than a sodden alpine pasture. I entered, bought a coffee and took stock of the situation.
Having departed Bormio in glorious sunshine, we’d vanquished the hellish gradients of the Passo del Mortirolo before dropping into the Camonica Valley. A chain of giant mountains now stood between me and my hotel (and a warm bath); What could I do but continue?
It is a fearful situation all regular cyclists will be familiar with. A very long way from home and faced with ungodly conditions. … fog, sleet, hail, thunder. One of my worst such moments was on a trip to Gran Canaria. Admittedly it was January, but the island is 100 miles from the Sahara—how cold could it possibly get? In the pouring rain atop the 1,949-metre Pico de las Nieves: very. On that descent, wearing a flimsy rain cape, my body went into convulsions, rejecting the punishment it was being forced to suffer. I could barely grip the handlebars, let alone work the brakes. Had I not found a restaurant I genuinely wonder whether I’d have made it down on one piece. I spent 30 minutes in the loo, warming my extremities on a hand dryer, before I felt capable of getting back on my bike.
As I recalled that awful afternoon in Gran Canaria, and with the knowledge that the Gavia is nearly 700 metres higher, I was genuinely afraid. The events of June 5, 1988, when the Giro d’Italia visited the 20km climb, were also on my mind. On that day the cold rain turned to snow halfway up, and the race convoy was halted at the summit by a blizzard. Breakaway survivor Johan van der Velde led over the top. Paul Maunder, writing for Rouleur, described the scene: “Stricken with fear, possibly crazed with hypothermia, Van der Velde stopped not long after starting the descent and began walking down the steepest stretches. Behind... the Giro was disintegrating. Many riders climbed into team cars at the top of the Gavia, terrified at the prospect of undertaking such a difficult descent in a blizzard. [Some] were seen crying and urinating on their hands to warm them.”
I glanced outside the restaurant window to see the rain still hammering down. What am I doing? I don’t have the luxury of a team car—and I really don’t want to urinate on my fingers. But what are the other options? Call a taxi?!
I sought the advice of a local, who was propping up the bar. “You go up or down?” he asked.
I enquired after the weather forecast.
“Not good. But worse tomorrow. Where is your hotel?”
“You must get over the mountain then.” Quite. He stroked his chin and glanced at his watch. The afternoon was wearing on. “If I were you, I’d go now.”
I returned to the saddle with 12km still on the menu. Thankfully, after a couple of them had been ticked off, the rain eased, then stopped, and my body warmed up. I even started enjoying myself. After all, the Gavia’s a glorious climb. Winding and narrow, with unguarded edges, it’s an old school pass, hugging the green mountainside and affording big views across the valley toward snow-capped peaks. The higher you go the more the road surface breaks up, adding extra character to the ascent.
It grew colder, but the rain stayed away, and at three km to go, I knew I would make it. This is why we suffer through the bad weather. For moments of sheer elation, a staggering view, and the satisfaction of a giant mountain conquered. There was, I soon discovered, just one more barrier to overcome: the tunnel.
A couple of miles from the top of the Gavia there’s a 300-metre tunnel. No problem, you might think. But for some reason it isn’t lit.
Cycling in total darkness, unable to see the walls on either side, nor light at the end, is a disorientating and utterly terrifying experience. Weaving wildly, I deemed it safer to stop and walk (had my exhausted mind been working properly I might have thought to use the torch on my mobile).
I regained contact with my friends at the summit—they were just a minute or two behind me and had similar tales of roadside soul-searching. And then the rain returned. Fortunately, I’d come better prepared for this descent than I was in Gran Canaria. You only pack a shoddy jacket once and my new Equipe RS was a major upgrade. Sure it was unpleasant, and somewhat treacherous thanks to the potholed tarmac and standing water, but I made it down in relative comfort.
Back in Bormio, showered and changed, we proudly exaggerated our exploits over a beer and I realised there’s another reason why we put ourselves so willingly at the mercy of the elements. It’s to test our mettle not only on the same roads as the professionals but faced with the same daunting weather. And then brag about it. Because an epic climb is much more epic when the heavens have opened.