Thursday, March 4, 2010

Road Trip: Grimsel Pass

About The Route:

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Places to Stop: Any number of impressively tall dams, several pullouts along the route offer amazing vista's. The crest of Grimsel offers hotels, restaurants, souvenir kiosks, the usual mountain top lakes as well as a truly magnificent view.

Total Distance: 32 km

Altitude: 2,165 meters

Starting Point: Coordinates 46°42′19″N – 8°13′36″E. We began in the town of Innertkirchen, Switzerland. Heading south on Highway-6, the road steadily climbs to the crest, than falls into the Rhone Glacier Valley and the village of Gletsch, Coordinates 46°33′43″N – 8°21′41″E.

Road Type: The Grimsel has good smooth tarmac and is relatively wide for a European pass. .

Warnings: Road is full of cyclists, bikers, and several travelers, but more importantly, tons of tour busses, be ready to back out of the way.

Review:

The Grimsel Pass was not scheduled on my list of great roads to travel upon arriving in Europe. Before my trip I had chatted with Jochen Frey, the Communications Director at BMW Canada about his suggestions for ideal routes through the Alps. As a native German with much experience traveling the Alps, his suggestion was to tackle the Furka pass in Switzerland, a majestic ladder of roadway that literally climbs a rock cliff, which I will go into more detail in the next issue.


However, to get to the Furka pass, we stumbled upon a pass with even more magnificent features than we would soon experience on the Furka. After a relaxing night with friends near the village of Gsteig, Switzerland, sampling Swiss cuisine, and getting a good nights rest high in the quiet Alps, we would make our push for Grimsel. Making our way to Innertkirchen, we began our trek up Highway-6 heading south into the Alps in our BMW Z4 sDrive35i. Like so many Alpine passes before, the start of the climb is a scenic tour through the wooded low lands, an almost relaxing prelude to the challenges to come.


Even with our early morning start into the Grimsel, it was clear to see we would not have this road all to ourselves, like the freedom we experienced on the Grand-Saint-Bernard. With a train of motorcyclists screaming by us while we took in views from a pullout, there was a scense we would meet many others on the pass with the same ambitions as we – to experience the thrill of driving a great Alpine pass. While many great passes here in Europe have motorway tunnels bored through the mountains for travelers that need an A to B short route, making the old overland routes idealistic for those who want to challenge their driving skill. The Grimsel however, does not have a tunnel-bypass and so traffic would play a major part.


After meandering through the woods we popped out of the tree line to the sight of a stone and cement wall that seemed to reach high into the heavens. We had arrived at the end of the valley which was walled on all three sides, stone cliffs on either side, and the immense Rätrichsboden-Dam, a 100 m high concrete structure that is one of several hydro-electric dams in the area. It was here that the twists and turns of the high alpine came into play, and the Z4's engine began to shout it's fury.


After a series of hairpins climbing up the left side of the valley wall the road settles down following along the manmade lake side. The scene was truly impressive, and I had to make use of a pull out just after the first dam, climbing the hillside to get photos of the milky green waters. But it was here, high up on the hill side where mechanical music stole my

 attention from natural beauty. The ever so unique sounds of high-revving V-8's, V-10's and Flat-6's began to interrupt the silence of the alpine valley. As these sounds became louder and louder, the source of all the noise revealed itself as a Ferrari F-430 Scuderia came charging from behind the hill, with a Lamborghini Gallardo in quick pursuit. The exotics rocketed down the road beneath me, followed by a succession of yet another F-430, a 911 GT3 RS, a 911 Turbo, a Maserati Coupe and finally another F-430 Scuderia. All cars flew past with their exotic engines screaming; I could not scramble down the hill fast enough to get to the Z4, the thrill of driving now firmly engrained in my mind.


With both turbo's lit, we charged into the mountains from which the exotics had just came. A quick rip along the lake side, and we had come upon yet another dam, and a hairpin riddled cliff to climb. With my adrenaline flowing and the red mist setting in, the intensity of more natural

 scenery calmed me down to the point where I had to stop again. A good thing, because while the road is a magnificent stretch of road to drive, the scenery is just as seductive, and to rifle through the whole thing without stopping would almost be a crime. Rocky Alpine peaks top majestic manmade lakes being held back by marvels of engineering. Here there is no such thing as a bad picture and hiking trails around the region must be taken advantage of.


Soon after the second set of dams we come to the peak, 27 km into the 32 km route. Here you will find the usual hospices, inns, tourist kiosks, high alpine lake and some great hiking. Its a great place to stop and have some lunch and explore the area, but what stops you in your tracks is the view only a few short meters past the peak.


At an altitude of 2,160 meters, the view south is one that will be burned into my mind for many years to come. At the top of the col, you can gaze down at a 45-degree angle at the routes end point, the village of Gletsch, Switzerland. Between the lookout and the village, the route zigzags itself down the steep incline, seemingly folding over itself in several locations. Following the route by eye, I could follow it down into Gletsch, then back up an equally steep south valley wall and on to the Furka pass, well in view from the peak of the Grimsel. The wall of rock the Furka climbs looks almost mythic from this vantage point, a road that almost looked frightening to tackle. From the col of the Grimsel, my driving ambitions faded and all I could do was take in the view. The Grimsel proved to be a great surprise, and unexpectedly rewarding drive to get to yet another challenging route.



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