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October 3, 2011 2:28 PM

Day One of Biking the Alps: Climbing A Vertical Mile

Posted by Chris Johnson

Alps The Alps are big. Really big. A blindingly obvious statement, perhaps, but it's hard to appreciate just how daunting they are until they're towering over you--particularly when you're sitting on a bike with the intention of riding over them. But that's exactly what faced us as we set out bright and early from Chur, Switzerland's oldest town, on an unseasonably sunny October morning.

Having spent around 20 hours confined to various forms of transport during the long trip from London, it felt great to stretch our legs and finally get started.

But any feeling of joy lasted for all of ten minutes.

Rather than easing us in, our route started with a steep and brutally technical climb up the Passugg-Araschgen. A narrow slither of single track with plenty of rocks and exposed tree roots to catch out the unwary, it didn't so much wind its way across the hillside as positively charge straight up it. The trail was made more challenging by its position on the extreme edge of the mountain side—a sheer and confidence-shaking drop less than a meter to our left went all the way down to the valley floor. Falling off didn't bear thinking about.

Several parts were simply impassable on bike, necessitating the first of several dismounts to continue on foot.

The seemingly endless climbing continued up past the quaint mountain village of Tschiertschen and the steep, exhausting scree slopes of Ochsenalp (the photo above was taken along that part of the ascent), parts of which required further hike-a-biking, before we finally stopped at a tavern sitting at 1,936 meters (6,350 feet) above sea level. It felt a particularly well-deserved rest: We'd climbed more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in just three hours.

Having filled up on Frisbee-sized potato rostis with bratwurst and some delicious fresh yogurt with mixed berries, all washed down with rivella—a fizzy, amber-colored drink made from milk extracts—we set out for yet more climbing.

The altitude was certainly beginning to have an effect. The air was noticeably thinner, with even moderate climbs quickly becoming draining. I tried distracting myself to take my mind off the burning in my legs and lungs and just kept turning the pedals over and over.

We peaked at just over 2,100 meters (6,700 feet), before heading down to Arosa—a spectacular town surrounded on all sides by vast mountains. Here, our party split into two groups: one taking a route with breathtaking vistas but a relatively shallow and unexciting descent, the other choosing an adrenaline-fuelled downhill that sacrificed views for thrills. I opted for the latter—having climbed for so long, I reasoned that I had earned some fun. It didn't disappoint. We flew down the side of the mountain—at times quite literally, with large rocks and wheel-catching depressions to jump over—before being spat out right in the center of town. We lost more than 200 meters (650 feet) in height in mere minutes. Fantastic fun.

We had intended to drop another 600 meters (2,000 feet) to the village of Langwies, but the hotel there was fully booked so we decided to stay in Arosa and call it a night. But not before riding the 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) to the hotel—all uphill, of course.

So, one day down—four to go. I feel relatively fresh, given that we climbed more than 1,600 meters (one mile) today in total, but I'm fully prepared for some stiff and aching limbs come the morning. I'll let you know how I get on.


I've undertaken this journey to raise money for Self Help Africa, which works to help rural Africa achieve economic independence through sustainable solutions to the causes of famine and poverty. Those readers who would like to sponsor me on this grueling test—whether as law firms or individual partners and attorneys—can do so via my page at JustGiving. For those of you that haven't used JustGiving before, it's really simple, fast, and secure. The money is passed directly to the charity, and the site will automatically claim Gift Aid for donations made by eligible U.K. taxpayers.

U.K. residents can even donate by phone: just text KWEI77 (that's an 'i', not a '1'), followed by the amount you would like to donate, to 70070. 'KWEI77 £20', for example. This SMS service is free to both you and the charity.

I've set an ambitious target of £5,000 (just under $8,000), so please dig deep and donate now. It's a great cause and your money really will make a difference.

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