Climbing Walls — Passo Mortirolo & Passo Gavia

There are some things you do to prove to yourself you can do them.  The bragging rights are nice but the real reward is the self confidence you gain from the accomplishment.

Passo Mortirolo and Passo Gavia are two of the monuments of Italian cycling and two of the most incredible passes in the world.  Passo Mortirolo climbs over 4000 feet and is brutally steep.  The average grade is something like 10% for the entire climb and there are 3 consecutive km averaging 14% near the bottom.  Even worse, there are many shorter sections in the 16-20% range.  Passo Gavia has likewise over 4000 feet of climbing, is very steep, and has a very high summit.  Passo Gavia is special because it is an incredible high mountain experience and because it is important in the history of cycling.

Our crew (or should I call them the chain gang) rolled out of Bormio early in the morning and headed down the valley, successfully navigating the choices between auto tunnels (bad) and old roads (good) to get to Mazzo for the turn off to the Mortirolo.

Here is Sue riding up a steep meadow.  She looks fresh as a daisy despite the insane grade.

Ernesto was the wisest man in our group.  He brought a very low gear, 34×36, and this helped him handle the steepest parts with grace.

Rudy and Jessica rode together up the mountain.  You can see a view of the valley Valtellina behind them.

The grade relaxes quite a bit at the end.  It’s only 8%!  Here’s Ernesto enjoying the last kilometer before the top.

Jessica and Rudy celebrate their accomplishment here.

Carla was first to the top and is enjoying her foil-wrapped lunch.  No, I don’t know what it is, but she seems to like it.

Here are Rudy and Jessica at the top of the Mortirolo, posing by the sign.

The descent of the Mortirolo is fast, twisty, narrow, and fun.  It seems like it never ends!  Once down the pass, there is a long gradual climb up the valley to Ponte de Legno where the fun begins again!

If you’d like to see more details about climbing the Mortirolo, including a grade profile and navigation instructions to be sure you can find it, please click here for last year’s account of the same ride.

After the gentle warmup (ha!) of the Mortirolo, Passo Gavia wastes no time getting busy with steep grades.  Here are Sue and Craig on one of the first switchbacks.

Near the bottom is a turnout with a nice view, a few picnic benches, and a fountain.  The water comes from the nearby stream, Torrente Frigidolfo.  As the name suggests, it is ice cold, so we all stop to tank up before the main climb.  Dennis almost climbs into the fountain to get his water.  Can you take a bath here?  Hmm… maybe.

Very soon we reach the gate where the pass gets closed for winter.  In the old days, the road turned to dirt here.  It’s completely paved now, so no worries, but it does get narrow.

The sign says the road varies from 2.5 to 4.5 meters wide.  At 2.5 meters wide, I doubt two cars could pass.  Hmmm…. can our van even make it through a 2.5 meter gap?

Naturally, the road has switchbacks.  Ajax clearly made it through the narrow section as here is a view of the van from above.  Actually, most of the road is very narrow.

As the road gets higher and we get above treeline, we get some dramatic views.  The sense of exposure is much more intense when there are no trees below.  Here’s a photo of Sue and Craig in one of the switchbacks with a glacier behind them.

As we get higher, the switchbacks disappear and the route becomes a high mountain traverse.  Ernesto and Dennis are wearing matching jerseys.  They bought these jerseys on the Stelvio.  The jerseys commemorate the Stelvio, Gavia, and Mortirolo passes, all featured in this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Here are Sue and Craig again with a dramatic view behind them.  You’ll notice there is a guardrail in the photo.  Guardrails are rare on this pass.  You must rely on your own skill to stay on the road.  That’s easy going up and I’ve always had more confidence riding a bike than driving a car on roads like this.

High above the valley floor, Ajax pulls over to provide the riders a refueling stop.  Behind the van you can see the big peaks near the summit.  The summit is just to the right of the picture and not visible due to the closer peaks, but this is good view of the final ridgeline.

Very soon, we’ll be heading to the tunnel, so riders discuss the options.  You can either take the old road or the tunnel.  The old road defines the word “exposure” and has been closed to cars since the construction of the tunnel.  The tunnel was always dark, but lights were installed this year for the Giro d’Italia.  Given the rockfall on the old road, and the safety of the now lit tunnel, everyone chooses the tunnel.

Bummer!  The old road is such a cool experience.  The rockfall is pretty heavy, but it is rideable on an ordinary roadbike.  If you have to walk, it is only 1 km.  So, I walked it both ways and want to share a few photos.

Here is a view of the old road from above.  It is barely wide enough for a car, and the “guard rail” is made from wooden sticks.

A guard rail made from wooden sticks?  Yes, indeed, even wooden sticks can be helpful.  If you were driving, touching these toothpicks would give you a tactile warning that you are at the edge.  It turns out this is important.  Near the Italian flag in the photo above is a collection of memorials to 18 soldiers who perished when their truck plummeted off the road in 1954, including this painting on the rock wall.

This tragic event was recorded on the front page of the local newspaper, with a similar drawing.  A framed copy of that newspaper hangs at the Rifugio at the top of the pass.

Here is another view of the old road.  Notice the overhang.  Most of the road doesn’t have as much overhang and therefore suffers more rockfall.  See how clean the road is here!

If you are from the San Francisco bay area and frequent local bike shops, you might notice a striking similarity between this photo and one hanging in Palo Alto Bikes.  Palo Alto bikes has a famous photo of Jobst Brandt, one of the early pioneers of Alpine bicycle touring.  Amazingly, a postcard with Jobsts’s photo from this spot is for sale at the Rifugio at the top.  It was Jobst’s accounts of his trips to the Alps in the late 1980s that inspired and guided my own very first tour in 1991.  More of Jobst’s photos can be seen at the Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos.

Exiting the tunnel, there is a good view of the final switchbacks before the summit.

Here is Jessica, smiling as she climbs the very last part of this monstrous climb.  With over 10,000 feet in her legs, she is a true champion to be able to smile at this point.

Looking down from the final switchbacks, we see a view of Lago Nero below.

Here are Rudy, Carla, Jessica, and Ernesto posing by the summit sign next to the Rifugio.

Inside Rifugio Bonetta, Sue, Ajax, Dennis, and Craig are relaxing with a cup of coffee, some pastries, and a soft drink.

Rifugio Bonetta is an interesting place to visit.  I especially like their collection of posters from the Giro d’Italia.  Above the bar, they have collected one poster from each time the race has climbed this pass.

After a nice rest, we head down the pass.  This is one of the best descents in europe, between the scenic beauty and the exhiliration.  Here’s a photo of Rudy rounding one of the big turns.

We get back to our hotel in Bormio and celebrate a great accomplishment.

I also did this ride last year.  To see that account and more photos, please click here.  I included more description of the Mortirolo and different views of the Gavia.

About bikealps

avid cyclist and photographer
This entry was posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, Italy, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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