On the French and Italian border, the ‘Nice Needle of Rock’ tempts courageous souls with the push of Europe’s loftiest rideable descent.
Phrases and pictures: James Vincent
Perhaps it was the bemused expression on the hiker’s face that sealed the deal, or perhaps it was the easy incontrovertible fact that we have been someplace round 3,000m above sea degree, I had a motorcycle on my again and was grinning like an fool. Both approach, there was no mistaking the which means behind her remark, even with my fundamental grasp of French; “You’re mad!”.
To be honest to her, she had a degree. The path, if you happen to may name it that, was past chunky. To a non-mountain biker it appeared not possible. Heck, I reckon most mountain bikers would assume twice earlier than making an attempt it. However our information, Deviate’s Ben Jones, claimed it was 99% rideable with such confidence that we have been inclined to imagine him.
Our problem for the day was summiting the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, actually translated because the Nice Needle of Rock. This huge mountain of rock sits in a commanding place overlooking Val-d’Isère and Tignes on the head of the Tarentaise Valley, within the Savoie area of France. We have been drawn to it for the easy incontrovertible fact that it’s thought-about the best rideable peak in Europe, with out having to tripod via snow or interact using ropes or different mountaineering gear.
The summit is a lofty 3,751m (12,306ft) above sea degree. That’s a number of hundred metres increased than the mixed heights of Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Skiddaw. Or extra exactly, 852.5 double decker buses stacked on high of one another. I’ve by no means been that prime exterior of an aeroplane, not to mention carried a motorcycle to the highest and tried to experience it again down.
Whereas it’s completely doable to start out the experience from decrease down the valley in Bourg Saint Maurice, we determined to make life (slightly) simpler and drive to the automotive park at Lac Du Saut (2,200m). I say simpler, but it surely nonetheless leaves us with a strong 1,500 vertical metres to make the summit. To be completely sincere, I‘m not massively daunted by the precise size of the trouble required as I simply inform myself we’re climbing Helvellyn twice.
The bit that does concern me nevertheless, is the altitude. Above 2,500m the air begins getting reasonably skinny and bodily exertion turns into more and more troublesome, with even the best efforts leaving even the fittest athletes gasping for breath. Whereas we weren’t climbing wherever close to what’s often known as the loss of life zone (over 8,000m), we have been nonetheless aiming for what’s known as “Very Excessive Altitude”. The temper isn’t helped when Ben regales us with tales of the handful of instances he’s climbed the height previously, and the way not everybody, together with riders who I think about to be far fitter than myself, make it to the summit. An additional diploma of uncertainty comes from the easy reality that everybody’s our bodies react in another way to altitude and there’s nothing left that I can do to arrange. Our group is made up of youthful, globetrotting enduro racers (Matt, Antoine and Tansy), hardened mountain guides turned bike firm house owners (Ben Jones, Chris Deverson), and Youtuber Andrew McAvoy (McTrail Rider). We’re all snug in massive mountain environments to various levels, however how we’ll truly deal with the altitude is one thing we’ll solely discover out after we truly get there. Time to get shifting then…
The one approach is up
The solar is shining as we pedal throughout the automotive park, however that’s so far as we get. Whereas it’s tempting to be a hero and attempt to experience as a lot as doable, the dusty singletrack via the alpine meadow ramps up virtually instantly and we’re all off and pushing. At this time we’re tortoises, not hares. Nobody is in a rush, and all of us settle into our personal rhythm for the climb, taking within the intensive views and revelling in our success within the climate – the forecast had been changeable all week, and at one level it appeared just like the try must be known as off. This isn’t a spot to experience within the rain.
The climb via the meadow continues with out incident, and after an hour or so we regroup for the primary of the day’s a number of lunches someplace round 2,800m. From the plateau we discover ourselves on, we’re rewarded with essentially the most unimaginable view out over the mountains and glaciers of Savoie whereas a pair of vultures drift effortlessly overhead on thermal currents. The dual blue jewels of Lac du Chevril and Lac de Tignes shimmer approach off within the distance and I’m overcome with emotion. Earlier than I can do something about it, tears of real, unbridled pleasure, properly up and roll gently down my cheeks. Preventing the urge to carry it in, I embrace them – I’m very a lot in my Blissful Place, surrounded by massive mountains and good pals and really feel remarkably privileged to be right here. The resort of Tignes is however a tiny cluster of concrete approach down beneath us. The solar is shining and life is past distinctive proper now.
Leaving the security of the alpine meadow, the terrain shifts gears. Tough grass offers strategy to a desert moonscape of free shale, the gradient ramps up and we forged our eyes round on the lookout for the simplest route via. Partitions of rock and large steps name for scrambling on palms and ft, and on a couple of event somebody wants assist getting over a difficult part. One of many vital advantages of an out and again route, particularly on terrain as gnarly as this, is the chance afforded to scope strains and collect beta for the return journey. We mentally mark this part as unrideable.
Someway forward of me, I hear Matt, Tansy and Antoine chatting excitedly. In a remarkably cinematic second in a day stuffed with such epic moments, I climb the previous few steps to my companions, and the bottom falls away to disclose the Glacier de la Sassière. Sadly depleted in recent times, it nonetheless stays a formidable sight. Large fissures and crevices have shaped over its floor, and whereas it used to butt proper up towards the path, it has since retreated from the sting leaving a depraved wanting drop down.
To the tip
Whereas the view does its finest to distract us, we’re in a position to spin our pedals for the briefest of respites alongside the glacier for a few hundred metres. That’s, till we glance up from the path and see a wall of countless switchbacks rising in entrance of us. That is the purpose Ben tells us, barely 300 vertical metres from the summit, the place others have discovered themselves unable to proceed. Not as a consequence of lack of health, however because of the unpredictable and debilitating results of altitude. To have travelled to this point and gotten so shut, but not make it, is unthinkable. Sensibly, Tansy decides she’s going to wrestle to experience the switchbacks on the best way down, so leaves her bike to 1 aspect and pushes on to the summit with out it. The remainder of us shoulder our bikes as soon as extra, and start the ultimate effort.
The free fragments of damp rock are ridiculously slippery, harking back to Lakeland graphite and shift about as we climb. With each clink of my cleats, I look longingly at my companions’ flat pedal sneakers, and marvel how the free floor will deal with our tyres. Or ought to that be the opposite approach spherical? I don’t know. My ideas are getting slightly blurry now. My physique, though drained, doesn’t really feel too dangerous, however I’m respiratory closely and the trouble required to get my bike again on my shoulders after taking some pictures is exhausting. I really feel mild headed and a dizzy spell washes over me. I take a second to regular myself and shuffle on in silence, the chatter from earlier having pale away.
Having spent many of the climb lagging in the back of the group, Ben instantly pops up, approach out entrance, his voice breaking the silence. He eggs us on from the summit; “Only a few metres additional Antoine! Almost there Matt”. Spurred on by this encouragement, the previous few metres vanish and what appeared not possible earlier on is now our actuality.
Sitting on high of the world
Prior to now, I’ve by no means had a lot of a want to climb Everest (there’s no level taking a motorcycle is there?), however topping out at 3,751m I get an inkling of the way it should really feel. We will simply make out Mont Blanc approach off within the distance, and the remainder of the western alps are unfold throughout us in an enormous 360° view. It’s taken us 5 lengthy hours to get right here, however the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is out of this world and I wouldn’t change a factor. Now that we’ve stopped shifting, there’s a noticeable chill within the air. The wind has picked up and celebrations are remarkably subdued as everybody rushes to placed on jackets.
The summit itself is low on ceremony. A easy flag and cairn marks the highest, and there’s nothing to mark the border into Italy. Not that you just’d get far – there’s one route off, and that’s again the best way we’ve come.
Simply as we’re about to bid farewell to the summit, our consideration is drawn to a different customer to our mountain high occasion. A lone glider echoes the vultures from earlier and soars between the peaks and above the glacier. Ben permits us this momentary distraction, earlier than dragging us again to actuality. We’ve received an extended, technical descent forward, he reminds us, and it’s practically 3pm. Though the solar continues to be fairly excessive within the sky, we’ve solely received 4 and a bit hours of daylight left and we don’t wish to get caught up right here at nighttime.
Publicity is a humorous one. Some folks cope okay, others not a lot. Ben and Chris are of their ingredient. It’s apparent that they’ve spent years guiding out right here and are supremely snug. Andrew is equally at residence, having performed most of his driving within the wilds of Scotland. He has a video of his personal to shoot, so makes his excuses and exits with Chris, leaving Ben, Antoine and Matt to carry out for my digicam.
The primary half of the present is a masterclass in rolling endo corners from Ben and Antoine. Oddly, Matt is freaked out by the publicity and walks down from the very summit.. All week he’s been displaying some ridiculous bike dealing with abilities, honed over a season racing the EWS, at this altitude there’s such a tiny margin for error, that if you happen to’re not feeling it, then there’s an actual hazard in over-reaching. Apart from, the sensation of camaraderie between us all is one thing particular. We’ve all made it to the highest, and all of us need us to get down in a single piece.
It isn’t lengthy nevertheless, earlier than Matthew has discovered his ft again on his pedals, and he quickly catches up with Ben and Antoine, endo-ing spherical corners with aplomb. We make brief work of the switchbacks and get caught into the remainder of the descent. There are sections we earlier deemed unrideable, that by some means we breeze via, whereas different simpler wanting sections go away us stumped and gingerly carrying down. Greater than as soon as, Ben and I take it in turns to reign Matthew’s youthful enthusiasm in “No Matt, you possibly can’t ship that. You’ll die!”, and “You’ll be able to experience it, however I’m not pointing my digicam at you when you do”. His frustration is palpable – however in a motorcycle park or at a decrease elevation, there could be no drawback. Up right here, with a sky-high penalty for failure and rescue a number of hours away ought to issues go improper, it’s simply not well worth the threat.
Dimming of the day
The day fades rapidly, with some late afternoon/early night clouds doing wondrous issues to the sunshine and I’m in turmoil. The path is elegant. The sunshine is equally elegant. I wish to experience non cease again to the van, but I wish to keep on the hill and take pictures till my reminiscence playing cards are full. For this reason I drag my bike to the highest of a mountain with a weighty digicam bag strapped to my again. Huge panorama. Wonderful mild. Nice riders. I hold capturing.
Finally, the sunshine takes the choice away from us and drops beneath the horizon. The alpine meadow from earlier within the day is in shadow and it’s time to hightail it down the dusty singletrack earlier than we want greater than an emergency head torch. We get again to the van to find Andrew, Tansy and Chris have given up ready for us and gone to experience one thing else, however we don’t thoughts one bit. We’re elated, drained and comfortable. Grande Sassière? Accomplished it mate.