Fabian Gleitsmann aims for the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, the highest ridable peak in the Alps but gets more than he bargained for. On the way, they take in some of the most exceptional riding in the area and eventually get to the top.
3747 meters above sea level. In words, that's ''three thousand seven hundred forty-seven metres'' and makes it seem even bigger. What we're referring to here is the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, the highest rideable mountain of the Alps. For us, however, it's only part of our acclimatization process. But more on that later...
First, let's start at the beginning, and as we all know, every beginning is hard. In our case, it's especially hard because of the endless drive to reach the Western Alps, the area around Chamonix and Zermatt. But it couldn't be more worth the hassle! Firstly for once, the trails there take you really high into the alpine and into one of the most impressive bike destinations of the planet. Secondly, because it is also very close to the little town of Aosta, you can find the best ice cream on earth. Where exactly? Just walk towards the western end of the historical city centre, turn right and on the corner, you'll find a long queue – that's the one! It is precisely for that reason that we make a stopover before hitting the first trails.
This ice cream diversion is made very briefly because we're on a mission: we're aiming high. Spending most of the year in the flatlands on the northside of the Alps, this means acclimatization is vital. Our accommodation rests at almost two thousand metres, and every single ride will take us even higher. For example the ride from La Thuile towards the Col de la Croix: a five hundred meter uphill ride on tarmac. Followed by another 500 meters on a trail through an airy larch forest, that offers the most amazing views, once you've climbed above the treeline.
Courmayeur, the Mont Blanc mountain range, the views here are as good as they get, and while the climb is always technical, always challenging, it remains completely rideable. Another epic is the Pointe de Metz, the local mountain above Aosta which rises to more than 2600m take into account that Aosta sits at less than six hundred metres above sea level and this equals two thousand metres of uphill – but inevitably also two thousand metres of downhill on nothing but the best of trails. Pure flow, of the flowiest kind – riding just doesn't get any better than this!
Crossing the border to France gets you to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, which sits at the base of the Les Arcs mountain area. A vast network of trails covers all key areas on the mountain, suitable for all skill levels. We spend most of our time on the trails on the south side of the mountain, but also make our way towards Bozel, a tiny village situated close to Courchevel and the nearby bike park. However, we're more attracted by the traditional hiking trails and get lucky on the flanks of the Aiguille d'Aout, where absolutely surreal singletrack takes us back to the valley.
After some acclimatization, it is time for the first venture into thin air: the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière. Thanks to Facebook's reminder, I know that I had been on that summit precisely five years ago, and I've been thinking about a repetition ever since. Fifteen hundred vertical meters nestle between the parking lot at the bottom, and the summit, fifty of which are rideable. For the remaining, the bike sits on your shoulders. We meet dozens of hikers that are all impressed and stoked about our project. One mountain guide explains that this tour has become somewhat of a classic ride among local bikers, and to our surprise, we can even spot some tracks in the soft soil. At three thousand metres, we make the first stop for breakfast. Croissants, baguette, and panorama – in moments like this, France is hard to beat. A short steep section soon after turns out to be no big challenge, and soon we find ourselves next to the Glacier de la Sassière, that will be on our side all the way to the summit.
We climb on, but step-by-step we start to wonder if we're actually going to make it to the summit. Why? Every single climber that is coming back down from the peak carries crampons and an ice axe. For good reason: during the last days, thunderstorms have soaked the upper parts of the mountain with rain. No problem usually, but overnight the steep summit slope turns into pure ice that takes some days to melt – before it's hit by yet another storm.
We're a bit disappointed, but we still decide to call it a day around at 3500 m. Some risks just aren't worth taking – one small mistake during the climb or the ride down, and you'll find yourself (or your bike) either thirty metres below in a crevasse or thousand metres below in the valley. But even though some short sections of the trail are unrideable, the ride along the glacier remains one of the best high alpine trails across the entirety of the Alps!
And in our itinerary, it's only a means to an end. Because you can always get higher. In this case, up to 4554 meters: Punta Gnifetti. One of the highest mountains in the Alps. In 1893, a hut was built, right on the summit, and the pizza is said to be pretty good. Up to 3200 m, a network of gondolas makes the climb easy, from there on the trail crosses a glacier and rocky terrain, leading up to the Rifugio Mantova, at 3498 m.
Eating and drinking make up the rest of our day, at 10 pm all lights are off. But they're on again at 3:30, and a crazy hustle begins: more than 100 climbers try to get up, eat their breakfast, pack their things – all at the same time. Dozens of light beams are already visible on the rock-hard glacier as we begin our climb. Slowly, step by step. Even though it's only -5°, and we're wearing warm winter gear, my fingers are quickly frozen, and I start to curse the winter – even though it's actually summer!
Step by step, we make our way towards the summit, and despite our acclimatization, I can feel a headache coming on. A steep flank just below the peak asks for our full attention for one last time, before we take the final steps to the top. An incredible feeling, and an astonishing view across dozens of 4000m peaks, down into the Italian lowlands. We'd reached the top, and with the views overwhelming us, it was time to enter the hut at the top and find out about the famous pizza. It turned out there was a little more on offer too, hot chocolate and pizza. Bon appetit!
This area of the Alps is so rich in trails it should be on the bucket list of every rider, with so many amazing places to base yourself, Chamonix, Bourg St Maurice and Aosta it's a real trifecta of MTB heaven, the mountains are big, the scenery is stunning and the trails are sublime.
By Fabian Gleitsmann