A day later, over a few more passes and beyond two more lakes, I turned east into the Sondrio Valley. Mountains closed in again on either side. Much tighter, much narrower now. The mountain wall was steep and close and the valley was packed with warehouses and industry. Grim and smoky.
The highway was lined with factories and retail parks and the streets felt poorer, the buildings less attractive. It was a shame to leave the lakelands behind, worse to enter such a cold region. The hillsides were wild, but the valley floor felt like one giant city, littered with tracks and wires and lines, strung out for miles. It became impossible to find a place to camp. There were no sites, only hotels. I found myself trying to ride clear of the city of Sondrio; a fifty km suburbia squashed into the narrow, cold valley, which I’d entered during sunset without realising it’s length. Around midnight I found myself, finally, in the city centre, pushing my bike through a cobbled courtyard. Grand Italian buildings formed a square around me and I watched an old man in a suit play the violin dramatically. Some people strolled out of a bar and dropped him some money without even listening to him play. I never made it out of that city. I came to a halt near some rail tracks on the outskirts and camped beside a lorry park, beneath an unlit hedgerow. I was maybe fifty metres from the road, the train-line and the sound of laughter in a nearby pub.
The following morning I was riding through basic farmland. This was the first time I felt a sort of Eastern European-ness. The houses were grey, featureless, simple. Dog’s seemed to be barking in all directions. The land was muddier and the fields badly cultivated. For a while I felt like I may have seen the last of the Italian style or Swiss architectural beauty. Luckily though, for me, it was simply just a poorer valley, a valley with average mountain ranges, no real tourism. A valley just for local farmers.
Few times on this trip have I misread the map or taken a wrong turn. But on the twenty seventh day I somehow managed to miss an entire valley and veered north into a completely different mountain range. I realised my mistake in the town of Tirano. I bought a more detiled map from a bookstore and asked the shop owner about the route to Bolzano a couple of mountains away. He looked at the map. He said ‘your on the road to Bormio right now, if you’d turned east back there you could have crossed into Bolzano from the south and it would have taken a day. If you continue north this way its much higher, much steeper, and might take two nights, but both are possible by bike.’ I looked at him and, disregrding safety completely, said ‘Which one is the most beautiful? The most exciting?’
And with that, I continued on to the town of Bormio, up the valley I had not meant to take. Turning back, retracing tracks didn’t interest me. I road happy for the rest of the afternoon through, finally, an empty, secluded canyon, forested and green and sunlit. Unaware of the storm I was riding into.
The valley rose steadily upwards. Tall peaks stacked one upon another seemed to form a triangle in the distance, a single point in the clouds where the pass must have sat. The Pass Dello Stelvio. I remember thinking, after descending the first mountain, ‘wow, I want to climb another, where’s the next one?!’ This wrong turn felt like the greatest fluke ever. It was a beautiful place. A handful of romantic villages were all that I passed. Italian chalets, wooden and natural and cosy. There was a wildness to this place, a real rawness to it. I had stumbled into a a place that resembled every preconceived idea of what I had imagined the Alps to be and look like. There was a greater sense of height than with the Simplon Pass, the slope had been more gradual then.
For two days I struggled upwards towards the three thousand metre summit. On the evening of the first I turned onto an abandoned road, the old highway, now derelict, cracked by sprouting weeds, covered in browning leaves and overgrown bushes. It was a strange place. A peaceful one. The road had too many harsh turns and sudden drops for cars to continue to use it. I reached the top of a cliff and and the entrance to a large, dark tunnel in the mountainside. Empty. Lightless. The abandoned road ran into the dark of it. On a ledge metres away from the tunnel entrance was a grassy picnic area with tables, benches, a campfire and running tap water filling up a log trough. The grass was long and uncut. The only sound were the trees across the mountainside, swaying. I was seriously alone. There for the taking, the most perfect camping location in the world. I looked around expecting to see a group of hikers, a car, another cyclist. There was nothing. I walked around for a bit confused by the randomness of the place. There was even a box of dry fire wood ready to be used beneath one of the tables. For a while I didn’t sleep, the stars were out, the night was still, but something was worrying me. I had almost felt safer back next to roads and rail-lines, in the knowledge that you were not far from humanity. Through the night the wind howled out of the dark tunnel entrance in low, pulsing growls.
The Pass Dello Stelvio
It was strange spending the night wandering what was on the other side of that tunnel. Stranger still, first thing in the morning, to stand in front of the pitch black hole, get on your bike and just cycle into it. I felt like Beowulf. On the otherside a basin formed. A mini plateua full of bright green fields. Multiple routes ran of from the basin north west to north east and in the centre was Bormio; surrounded by green forests, fields and streams running in off the mountainsides. It was the final stopping point before heading up over the pass. I dropped into a supermarket and charged my batteries in a cafe. Two hours passed by. Thats all it took for the weather to shift, for everything to change. When I stepped out of the cafe, clouds were appearing from the south behind me. A wind was running up the mountain. I noticed it only because a week of pure sunshine and calm air had been all that I’d seen for a week.
I began the final fourteen kilomtres up into the mountains. The road was narrow. The drops steep and all the while the the clouds closed in, chasing me as I climbed. It’s hard to describe how exhausting it is pedalling up sbends for six hours. Each time you think you’ve reached the last of them you’re faced only with a long up hill road until more hairpins and slopes appear at the end of it. At one point I thought the sun had set. The world grew dark in a matter of minutes. But actually, it had just dropped below the mountains to the west and I realised the clouds were no longer chasing me. They were all around. The landscape was browning, becoming damper. It reminded me of Britain and the Scottish Highlands.
I must have been high because the ground and grass were different, as if they were always damp, always in cloud, all year round. There was bright, white ice upon the hillsides not far from the road and I knew then that I was on the peaks. The banks to either side were the tips of mountains. The kinds of mountains I had looked up at the night before. I thought it wasn’t going to get much higher, much more difficult. Then fog descended upon the land. It was like a fire going out, everything cooling down into smoky embers. Minutes later the sun dropped and was gone and still I had another set of hairpins to climb to the summit. I could see lights in the distance there. Hotels. Ski lifts. My legs were like lead, unmovable. I was so desperate to make the last two hundred metres, but I had to find a place to camp before I found myself in complete darkness. The wall hit and it got to the point where I could cycle perhaps three or four metres at a time and each time I stopped I had to cycle twice as many metres downhill to gain momentum again. I was going nowhere.
And then, there by the roadside, I saw the shapes of tables and benches. It was a viewing point. Another picnic area. I locked my bike to a post, stuck up my tent, crawled in side and collapsed. The cloud was so thick that no stars shone, no mountains could be seen from where I slept. I had asked the bookkeeper for the most scenic route, the most photographic, and all I could see was cloud and all I could do was sleep. I lay there and let the storm roll in. I just couldn’t make it the top. I couldn’t have gone any further. But the mountain wasn’t finished with me yet. In the night rain began to fall. The patter grew faster, louder, before turning to hail. Icy stones hammered the roof of my tent. Echoing and constant until finally, the stones grew softer and dense and all that was left was a heavy, thudding noise. I knew that sound. It was the sound of snow.