Stilfserjoch
aka Passo Stelvio

For road cyclists Passo Stelvio is the most famous, or infamous pass road in the alps. It has the highest "cult status". When it comes to the very highest, completely paved roads, this road comes third after the Cime de la Bonette, which is not a pass in the classical water divide sense, and also after Col de l'Iseran by only a few meters. Some sources disagree. But then life really has not that much to do with numbers, at least the interesting aspects of life. The scenery is what is magnificent, and the way the road interacts with it, in tunnels and galleries, and switchbacks, all of which are result of a turbulent history.

01.(290m,00.0km) START-END NORTH ALT: Meran
02.(520m,15.2km) Naturns
03.(640m,27.8km) Latsch
04.(740m,35.6km) Schlanders
05.(860m,41.2km) Laas
06.(930m,51.2km) START-END NORTH: Prad am Stilfserjoch
07.(1520m,62.5km) Trafo
08.(1580m,63.5km) turnoff to Neuwies
09.(2757m,76.8km) TOP: Stilfserjoch
10.(2470m,80.3km) jct with Umbrail Pass
11.(1260m,98.6km) START-END SOUTH: Bormio
12.(860m,117.9km) Sondalo
13.(660m,123.3km) Grosio
14.(520m,132.4km) Lovero
15.(370m,147.2km) START-END SOUTH ALT: Tresenda

Approaches


From North.
(described upwards) The first part of the elevation profile is a representative route from Meran to Prad, to show that there is some elevation gain involved here. The map does not necessarily follow the bike path all the way. But there is one, a wonderful and famous route following the river Etsch.

Most people agree, the real climb up Stilfserjoch starts in Prad. Exiting Prad, the elite start their time measurements. I enjoy the view and the peace. Here it's still just a quiet road through deep forest. It was early afternoon and the majority of motorcyclists were still sitting around consuming food and drink, and when they do that their motors are turned off, and they don't make nearly as much noise.

Between the carpet of green leaves, a sliver of a white wall ahead gives hints of what is to come. Past the turnoff to Sulden, it becomes clear that the road is climbing a ridge across from the main wall in the Ortler Group. Two hotels, solid rectangular rock boxes, not the stapled together cardboard housing I am used to, takes advantage of this green perch across from the white wall. The switchbacks are numbered, and I wish I had paid more attention so that I could report their impressive, staggering number out of own experience, but in a way it was too many to be meaningful while trying to get enough energy to ride up them. Besides, you can look these things up. There are 48 of them on this side. The first one stands at 1541 meters near Trafoi, after exiting some newly built gallery tunnels.

Hours pass and the switchbacks work themselves to way above treeline. Another large old hotel marks the first complete view of the final section of zig zag heaven, the historic stone complex at Franzenshoehe. The place is switchback 22. 550 meters of climbing over 6.6km distance remain. The route has now managed to include an overall direction change into its zig zag squiggles. With every switchback closer to the summit the scheme becomes clearer, zig: climb north east, zag: climb south west but just a little further ... repeat. Still when the sign next to the stone wall separating the road from the drop says 5km to the summit, it just looks like a stone's throw away - but only a stone thrown form above, which reaches much further. But then when the sign reads Kehre 1 (switchback 1) it comes as a complete surprise. Some of the summit buildings visible are actually quite a ways above the road. The view back down from switchback 1 is one of the great mountain road photographs that I have seen in books repeatedly, or it may have been switchback 2. At this point I really was tired enough, not to notice the difference any more.


Slideshow of Northern Approach

From South. (also described upwards) Again the profile starts much lower, than where cyclists start their day to climb this pass: all the way down in the town Tresenda. Leaving Bormio, there is very little time to warm up. The road start climbing right away. Several valleys radiate out from Bormio, which sits at the hub of several mountain passes. Opting for Stilfserjoch, you don't see much of Bagni di Borno, the bath where the nice lady at the visitor center told me I could have a room for several hundred euros. Thanks, maybe another time ... in another life.

But after that it gets interesting right away. The road enters the sheer sided canyon of the torrente Braulio at half height. Rather than clinging to the side on a shelf, the road uses a whole series of galleries and tunnels. During a morning in June, water is dripping around the portals like a curtain. On the return, during the late afternoon of this now hot summer day the curtains become waterfalls. There are a total of six of these antique appearing gallery tunnels. The longest is 250 meters long. All now have lighting. The lower galleries have a smaller tunnel diameter, and seem like something appropriate for a small 1950s Triumph car, for example.

After this exciting gallery traverse you find yourself at the bottom of endless zigzags. With a slope of 12 percent, these 14 switchbacks are the steepest section on this side and gain 300 meters. And above that, who knows ? Above the last switchback only sky is visible. Again an albergo/ristorante fronts a stream, that becomes a waterfall during the return. Looking down, while turning from a zig to a zag, and catching my breath, the vertical sides along the Torrente Braulio seem to disappear into the bottomless.

The road now enters a treeless high alpine tundra valley, the Bocca del Braulio. For now, no more switchbacks are necessary to climb the grassy waves. The road passes an old Canton House, a sign explaining the WW1 situation at this location.

At the junction with Umbrail Pass sits another old Canton Building, now closed down, the window shudders painted a vibrant blue. Its picturesqness derives not only form the decaying walls, but also that no motorcycles are parked in front of it. The top of Stelvio and a few of its old albergos are now plainly visible. One can gauge the work, that is left to reach them, surrounded by all that snow. It still seems to take considerable effort to reach Stilfserjoch from here. So now is a great time to observe, that Umbrail Pass, the highest Swiss road pass, is really only 2km distant, as the crow flies, from the highest road pass in the alps. Don't think I have to name it again. - But from down here you have no idea of the street fair atmosphere waiting up there.

Past the jct with Umbrial Pass, the road executes sweeping turns between peaks and power poles. I want to call it an industrial wilderness. Focusing between the powerlines, you can find a world of mountain vistas in two directions, down beyond Umbrail Pass and back to where I came from. But - just the facts please: this last section is 3.5km long and climbs the last 6 of the total 36 switchbacks on this side, climbing a mere 200 meters. - Not a fact: it feels like more.

Finally reaching the top, a small distance before having a chance to be diverted by the stunning vista of switchbacks on the other side: Is there something you would like to buy ? Well maybe not a stuffed animal, that would be too hard to carry back down on the bike. But maybe a Stelvio Jersey. There are probably several hundred to choose from. - or anything else you can wear, eat, drink, send in the mail, look at, or put on a shelf. Apparently there are also a bank, so that access to money should not be a deterrant for commerce on Stelvio Pass. And what else would you possibly want to do in all that grand nature, but visit a musum of it, the Stelvio Museum on top. To be fair, if I could or ride up here every week, this would probably be a wise way to spend my time. But this time around I didn't see it between all the other sale items, and sausage sale booths. And to put things in perspecitve regarding the commerce: Of course, nobody approaches you and presses you to make a purchase, like in an Asian street bazar. This is still civilized Europe. The goods are there if you want them. Some do, some don't.


Slideshow of Southern Approach

A final note, as a reminder to myself, since I forget things so easily ... about timing: As is often the case, cyclists and motorcyclists often have the same geographic goals, even if their goals in life in other aspect don't intersect that much. I had the absolute perfect weather on my ride, and so did the thousands of motorcyclists. Even if I picked the right weather (actually it picked me), I picked a bad time, or date: the Pentecostal holliday in northern Europe, when thousands of motorcyclists (but certainly not all, that would be hundreds of thousands) celebrate the resurrection of Christ by seeing how close they can come to death, or at least make enough noise with their engines, to scare away life any with funtioning ears. It was an internationally occupied road. But I noticed a few differences. Their were motorcycles from Belgium, the most from Germany, lots from Austria. The ones with the girls on the back, their butts hanging over the back of the bike like a gothic Christmas tree ornament, were at least 90 percent on Italian bikes. I guess those were the local day trippers. There was also a very small contingent of motor cyclists with an american look to it. The bikes with the handlebars so high, the riders look like they are trying to do pullups, but can't because ... of a number of factors.

Historical Notes

In some books it is written, that this pass was used in the bronze to get goods from Tyrol to Italy. But it seems obvious that Umbrail Pass was a much easier, therefore and more often used crossing.

In the early 19th century Italy did not exist as a country. Instead a small group of European imperialist types parceled out the continent between themselves. Historically this is known as the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The northern end of today's Italy, Lombardia with Milano as its capital, was given to the Hapsburg family, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In order to connect this part of Lombardia with the rest of their empire, they wanted (or needed) this road, which does not stray into Switzerland, as Umbrail Pass does. After years of unsuccessful attempts, they finished a road across the pass in 1825. This gave them a clear line of transport from Austria into the dolomites up into the Val Venosta and Valtellina areas.

In the 1860s Italy managed to unite and gain independence. The top of the pass was now the border between Austria and Italy. During WW1 Italian soldiers confronted Austrian soldiers over a distance of 50km, stretching along the ridge line between Passo Gavia and Stilfserjoch. Signs along the road on the Bocca di Braulio point out the strategically most important peak in the Stelvio area: Monte Scarluzzo (3091m). It was taken by Austrians and stayed under their control until the end of the war. Today the trenches, paths and tunnels make hiking destinations.

But then, before WW2, Hitler gave German speaking South Tirol to Italy, as part of the allegiance between the two allies. Suddenly both sides of the pass were now Italian. (Are there any other European passes that have such a turbulent national history ?) This eliminated the original purpose, for which the pass was constructed, and its importance diminished. Prior to this event, there was a period when the pass was kept open year round. This period ended once and for all.

The road was paved in 1938, and for a time was regarded as the highest paved pass in the alps. Many people believe that this is still true. Nowadays there are several passes in this range, where the difference in elevation falls within the margin of error: Col d'L'Iseran (2770m) in 14m higher, Col de Agnel (2744m) 13m lower. Col de Restefond with 2715m is actually 42 meters lower. But you can argue, that starting at sea level on the Mediterranean it has by far the biggest elevation gain. There is also an additional loop on top of Col de Restefond, called Cime de la Bonnette, that makes it up to 2802m, that is 45m higher. But this is not a recognized pass, but instead a scenic loop road. Expanding the view beyond the alps to all of Europe, there is also a higher paved out and back road to the Pico Veleta area in the Spanish Sierra Nevada which reaches a much higher elevation.

Cycling: Fausto Coppi was the first to get to the top of the pass as part of the Giro d"italia in 1953. In 1961 the race went over the top and finished in Bormio, won by Charly Gaul. More often than not, the race finish has been held on top of the mountain.

In 1956 and 1972 and 2012, the Giro went up the Bormio side of the pass, and through all its tunnels and galleries. Surprisingly, this is one of the few slopes where the descent has often been more instrumental in deciding who gets across the finish line first.

You might expect that cancellation of a stage like this is a major risk, and you would be right, 1988 because of snow

Dayride

PAVED/ VERY SHORT SECTION UNPAVED

Stilfserjoch, Umbrail Pass: Bormio > Bagni di Bormio > Umbrail Pass > Sta Maria > Taufers > Prad > Stilfserjoch > back to Bormio: 67.7miles with 10442ft of climbing in 6:56hrs (Garmin etrex30 m4:14.6.8)
Notes: this measured 64.0 miles with 10008ft of climbing in 6:40hrs using the VDO MC1.0 with wheelsize set to 79.8i

The last day with different start and end points on this tour was: Passo Gavia







top left: some of the the switchbacks from below look a bit like the buttresses to a gothic church
top right: a common scene: exiting a tunnel
bottom: the view from inside one of the old and narrow gallery tunnels



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