Among the imposing Swiss alps near Verbier, Helen Ochyra finds the easy and hard ways to scale these incredible mountains.
I am cycling up a mountain and it feels like the easiest thing in the world. I am making my way up to La Chaux, high above Verbier in Switzerland, a place most people reach by cable car and with skis – but not today. There’s no snow on the slopes at this time of year, so the mountains around this well-known ski resort belong to the hikers and cyclists – and today they belong to me.
I am not normally one to be so quick, but today I am on an electric bike. Inside its frame is an electric motor and at the touch of a button located on the handlebars I can power this up to add propulsion to my legwork. It is ridiculously easy; I peddle with barely a hint of muscle and as I travel, through the Alpine scenery at a pace I could never have mustered alone.
With so little effort to put in, there is time to relax and enjoy it. On one side, mountainous slopes reach up to jagged peaks capped with hints of white, and on the other, meadows of wildflowers and tufty grass run down to the town below.
The only trouble is how to stop. On reaching La Chaux I slow my pedalling, but the bike is keen to carry on. There is a clunk as I force a stop with my feet and I struggle to extricate myself from the frame; electric bikes weigh far more than their mountain or road counterparts and this one is some 20kg. My guide Peter tells me it sells for about 5000 Swiss francs and so I gingerly pull out its kickstand and set it on the path. It is not easy to manoeuvre when you are not on it and so I decide it is better to saddle up and carry on, heading back along the path towards Croix-de-Coeur – and lunch.
It is a couple of miles along the mountainside but I whizz along, barely noticing the climb we are making. It only registers as we reach a restaurant at more than 2000 metres and the view is spectacular. I feast on beef from the local Herens herd (a breed of cattle named after this region) but I can’t take my eyes off those mountains. Their bulk dominates the landscape, rendering us entirely obsolete and towering over Verbier like a group of disinterested nightclub bouncers looking down on frivolity with their arms folded.
I could never have made it up here on a traditional bike. Some may call this cheating; I call it making the most of things. The mountains feel more accessible than ever before and I am seeing so much more than I would have otherwise.
The following day, I cheat again, this time taking a chair lift up from the village of La Fouly into the mountains above. I have risen several hundred metres without expending any energy whatsoever, so I’m ready for a hike. Several paths run along the ridges here but we choose the so-called “shepherd’s trail” and follow the brown signs along towards Ferret, the next village located on the river far below.
The path rises ever higher, a gravel ribbon along the mountainside, narrowing at times to barely a foot wide and running suddenly up and over precipitous ridges. We reach gorge after gorge, carved into the slopes by water of which there is little evidence. At times it is a scramble and I find myself clinging to the grass as I seek my footing on the stony path. The hairiest parts of the trail have ropes to hang onto and my whole body is involved in the workout towards Ferret. I need three points of contact at all times and speed is most definitely not the priority. I may have felt in control the bike, but it is the mountain that is in control today and it seems to sneer at yesterday’s confidence. Up here it feels like it’s me against the Alps.
Yet it’s a friendly battle. As I find my footing with more and more certainty my confidence returns and I can once again enjoy the scenery that engulfs me. Up here I am utterly insignificant. I am tiny, a speck, and I find I do not miss the bike. Without it I am more connected to the mountain and without the aid of a motor the climb is all the more satisfying.
After a couple of hours hiking I reach the path down to Ferret, which gradually widens, the scenery flattening out around me. We pass grazing sheep in grassy fields and eventually return to the river. A hike becomes a stroll and everything is easy again.
Just outside La Fouly I turn to look back at where I have come from. From here the path is barely a scratch in the mountainside. It doesn’t look like a route I can possibly have managed and the sense of achievement is huge. I feel like I have conquered the mountains – and with only a little “cheating”.
Return flights with Swiss (www.swiss.com) from London Heathrow to Geneva start at £143. Verbier Bike Club (www.bikeclubverbier.ch) provides cycling guides and tours of the area. For more information about Verbier visit www.verbier.ch.
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