Saturday, September 15, 2012

Day 17 - Martigny to the Grand Col St Bernard (Wednesday 12th September)

(43.3 kms)
Distance from Canterbury: 1059  Distance to Rome: 1015
Garmin Record:

I had planned it as a short day in terms of kilometres because I knew it would be a hard day's climbing. I could never have imagined what was in store for me.....  read on....

Stage 1: Martigny to Orsieres 20.2 kilometres
Stage ascent: 687 metres
Starting altitude: 475 metres
Sounds innocuous.

I left in pouring rain and a cold wind but the trusty bright yellow\green fluorescent cape is keeping me warm and dryish and I have packed my luggage as well as possible to keep the contents dry. Thank goodness I learnt on the Camino to pack everything in plastic bags inside the pannier bags. This simple action keeps stuff a lot drier than if it were just in the panniers alone.

Having studied the guide book carefully on the topic of today's ride I decide that as a safety precaution I need to follow the tar road all the way. The alternative in this weather seems more dangerous and complicated than the busy road. Good decision!

Notwithstanding the rain and wind, I make good time to Orsieres, averaging 15 kilometres an hour and I'm happy with my progress.  It's uphill all the way but a similar gradient to the last few days so all is well in Elred-land. The rain and wind is a nuisance but no more than that.

Stage 2: Orsieres to Grand Col St Bernard.
25.2 kilometres
Stage ascent: 1787metres. About one and three-quarters the height of Table Mountain.

I pass the halfway mark of my ride just three kilometres outside of Orsieres. 1037  kilometres from Canterbury and 1037  kilometres to go to Rome.

It's getting distinctly colder, the wind speed is increasing and the gradient is significantly steeper than before. The ride becomes a challenge. It takes me almost as long to do the next five kilometres as it did the first twenty. Now I'm getting colder, my fingers and toes are numb. If I stop for water I can hardly squeeze the bottle my fingers are so cold. I am so grateful for the cape, it's keeping the worst of the wet and cold from my torso and legs and certainly helping me to maintain a reasonable body temperature. After six or so kilometres I ride through a village called Liddes where I stop in a hotel, stumble in, dripping with water and ask for a hot drink. They provide me with tea, I have two cups, hot and black and I can feel myself beginning to thaw out. Best R48.00 I ever spent on tea! The owners and customers think I'm crazy when I tell them I'm on my way to the Col. Someone says he heard it is snowing on the high peaks. Undaunted, I set off, much warmer. I can even feel my toes again.

The gradient gets steeper and steeper, I get slower and slower, the weather gets worse and worse and I seriously battle my way through the next ten kilometres. It seems to take forever and I am stopping frequently for water or a moments rest. Then there is about a five kilometre section that is a semi tunnel, a roof but open on the side. I make better progress as I am sheltered from the wind and rain but the road remains stubbornly upward. At no point in the entire 43km day is there ever a downhill. In fact, perversely, I was glad of that 'cos a downhill simply means a steeper uphill. If I had the strength I would have stopped to take a picture of a huge dam high in the mountains. In SA we're used to dams that spread out. This one was very, very deep with the dam wall going far down into the valley. Hours and kilometres pass and at last I reach the tunnel that goes directly through the mountain to Aosta in Italy, but that is not my route. I now have to turn from the shelter and do the final six kilometres to the Col. I stop for water, chocolate and a few Haribo jelly bears. As I leave the shelter it looks not bad. Rain seems to have stopped. Gradient is again significantly steeper though  and it's very tiring. Then I ride into the clouds, it's no longer just rain but thick fog and I see sleet as tiny icicle particles alight on my cape. From now on it's just difficult. Stopping every 60 or 70 metres for a rest. The wind is blowing a gale, fortunately at my back, but it is freezing cold and the sleet is serious, fairly large flakes of ice. Then the sleet becomes bigger and flakier, suddenly I'm in a snowstorm. As I ride I see the ice is collecting on the grass covering it in white.  Stop, breathe, tell myself that 5 kilometres is from Muizenberg to the BP in Tokai. It's not far. I can no longer feel my hands on the handlebars nor my feet in my shoes. Now I'm stopping every 30 metres. The gradient is getting steeper, the wind and ice are taking their toll as, I realised, so would  the altitude as I am now over 2200 metres. Stop go stop go stop go, endlessly up, up, up. The fog thickens, for a while I cycle directly into the ice and wind. I can hardly breathe. Stop, go stop, go. Look at the road ahead, upward upward upward. After ages I see a sign that says four kilometres to go. Ok, that's Muizenberg to home. You can do this. Stop go stop go. Cars and trucks pass revving their engines to cope with the hill. Stop go stop go. You can do this. Two kilometres to go. Ok that's not far but it is steeper and steeper and colder and colder and I get slower and slower. Now I'm watching the distance on my Garmin, every 100 metres is celebrated. I'm trying to sing but my lips are so cold they won't form the words. And so it goes on, just when I think the road must surely flatten I hear a car approaching from above me.

Eventually I'm convinced I have gone the distance. I stop and confirm on the Garmin that I must be close. The fog is thick and all I can see is the road going uphill.

I set off and within 30 metres I see the Hospice of St Bernard. The fog was so thick I could not see huge buildings just 50 metres away. I'm there. But no rejoicing, I am so cold. I see a hotel with an open restaurant on the right and I park my bike and head inside. I'm panting. I can hardly speak and gasp out please I need a hot drink. My fingers are so numb I cannot use them at all, not to take off the cape or gloves. When the waitress brings me tea I have to ask her to tear the teabag packet open and put the teabag into the water. Then the pain strikes. I've read about it and it is excruciating, the pain as the blood starts to flow into frozen fingers and toes. For 10 mins I just sit there unable even to sip my tea until at last the worst is over. As I drink my tea, my body's survival mechanism kicks in and I find I'm shivering uncontrollably. It's all I can do to ask for a room and drag my bike inside, unpack it and head for a shower. I did manage a picture of the ice encrusting my luggage. Hope it comes out. (I have just checked those pics, my hands were shaking so much that the images were completely blurred). After 15 minutes in a hot shower I put two spare blankets on the bed, climbed in, curled into a foetal position and did not move for an hour until I felt warm again.
Then the chores start, wash clothes, hang last nights damp stuff out to dry, look at and make a plan with things that did get wet, put the Garmin onto charge. Generally do housework.

Some pics taken after I warmed up last night and some taken today:

So that was an experience, time will tell just how I categorise it. 43.3 kms non stop uphill with steep gradients and reaching  2478 metres in altitude. Five and a half hours riding. Seven and a half hours on the road. And... I am proud to say I may have stopped a lot but I cycled all the way... Not once did I walk!!
Oh, it was not really heartening when, on the last kilometre I started seeing faded painted names on the road from a Tour de France long gone.. Lance and Sastre and others I recognise but don't remember right now. That means this was a tough finish for them...  what about me?

Until the end I did not realise just how cold I was while riding in those freezing conditions. The point being, though, there is really no return, the best option on the last six kilometres was simply to keep going.
It's amazing how well my body coped though. By supper time I was ready for a beer and a glass of wine. The supper, after a day like that, was hot and just right.. Vegetable soup, lamb with veg and lots of roast potatoes, crepe with the most delicious apricot sorbet and a large cup of coffee.

That was a day, that was! I do understand why the Hospice became such a refuge for travellers of old and why it became so necessary to have the St Bernard dogs to identify and rescue lost travellers in the freezing weather.

A big, big thank you to @PnPFreshFm - they are offering the chance to win a R1 000 Pick n Pay gift voucher AND 50,000 Smart Shopper Points worth R500! Awesome! Support Elred's trip for FTH:K by depositing R20 or more into FTH:K's account, reference Elred and your name and contact number and stand the chance to win! See bank details here:


  1. Amazing Elred, what an achievement. This is a day you will look back on and draw so much inspiration from in years to come!

  2. Oh my goodness - serious stuff - very serious stuff. I am truly happy you came through it OK.

  3. Wow, thrilling! That last picture is breath taking to say the least.