The Barrhorn – Getting High With My Friends

For the last couple of years we had been hunting for something big to do in the Alps with our bikes, either in the form of a huge descent, high peak or a combination of both. Most regular riding here tops out at about 3000m, which is pretty high but given that there are many peaks over 4000m in Switzerland, we figured there must be something bigger we could “ride”…

The Barrhorn stands at 3610m and is situated in the Valais Canton of Switzerland, quite near to Zermatt. According to the Wikipedia page, it is one of the highest summits in the Alps to be accessible to experienced hikers. Funnily enough, the same Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about accessible by bikers, but, from the limited information we could find, we figured it must be mostly rideable. Conveniently there was also a hut situated at the top of the valley before the final push to the summit and if all went well, we could potentially enjoy a 3000m+ descent back to the valley bottom. Sounds perfect doesn’t it?

For almost all of our alpine adventures in Switzerland, we are able to make use of the vast public transport system to get us quickly into the high alpine so we can enjoy as much quality downhill singletrack as possible in the time available. For this trip however, our chosen destination was stuck up one of the only valleys I have come across in Switzerland that does not really have any public transport, save for a small cabin right at the start which helped us with the first 500m of vertical. This meant accepting that we would be putting in a fair amount of effort to get to the summit with a lot of taking-a-bike-along-for-a-nice-hike kind of riding.

For the first day however, as if climbing the required vertical was not already enough, we thought we’d make things a little more interesting by taking a singletrack traverse up into the valley, rather than simply grinding up the road. 8 hours and one sketchy crash (resulting in a pringled wheel “fixed” by bashing it as hard as I could against a tree stump) later, we made it to the hut at about 2500m.

It was a busy weekend so the only beds available for us meant that we were packed in like sardines up in the eaves of the roof, accessed by a ladder and a trap door. Head to roof interfaces and sleep deprivation ensued, as always seems to be the case with me in mountain huts, but despite this we all woke up the next morning excited about a day full of beautiful flowing alpine singletrack…

The next few hours consisted of some of the most strenuous and technical hike-a-bike I think have ever done. It started off as a push, which turned into a difficult push, which turned into an impossible push. We were forced to put bikes on shoulders as we picked our way up a loose rocky couloir trying not to slide back down to where we had expended so much energy coming from 10 minutes before.

This was followed by a near vertical cliff section complete with steel cable (true Swiss style) at which point Josh, a friend visiting from the UK for his annual alpine excursion/loaner bike destroying holiday, declared that Alice (his lovely wife) had told him not to “do anything dangerous”. Don’t worry Alice, Josh did more damage to my brand new bike than he did to himself.

Beyond the cliff section, we spent much of the time carrying our bikes and even strapping them to our bags to give us two free hands for scrambling. We met a few bemused hikers along the way, including one French chap who, unknown to us at the time, filmed our generally uninteresting struggle up this bloody mountain. The fruits of his labour can be seen here and it will be right up your street if you are into slightly strange 80s heavy guitar music, but if not, just skip to 1 minute and 10 seconds for the good stuff – “VTT (extrem)istes anglais” being very non-extreme.

So, after 4 arduous hours of plodding along, one step at a time, wishing it was over, checking every 2 minutes to see how much closer to the top we were, we eventually reached the summit and were rewarded with one of the finest 360 degree, unobstructed views I have so far experienced in the Alps. After signing the book at the top, taking a bunch of photos, enjoying a well earned sandwich and breeeeaaathing in the thin mountain air, we set off back down almost the same route we came up (there is only one path to the top with a slight variation in the middle).

The trail back to the hut was perhaps 70% rideable, with some fun, steep, don’t mess up or you will be in trouble technical sections, but there was still a fair amount of pushing and carrying on the way down. Once we reached the hut again, we were lacking the time to do our planned singletrack route back down to our start point the day before, so painfully we had to descend a long way on the road. Despite this, the experience was well worth the effort for the challenge, scenery and spending time in the mountains with three good friends. If you are thinking about doing this route however, just be comfortable with the fact that its not exactly a walk in the park and it is not a perfect 3000m rideable descent back to the valley bottom. I’m still searching for that one…