The heavens open, but for some reason I go for the off-road pass anyway - The Hills are Alive (with the sound of wheezing) - CycleBlaze

August 29, 2020

The heavens open, but for some reason I go for the off-road pass anyway

Bayrischzell (DE) — Kramsach (AT)

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I was blissfully unaware, but it seemed to hammer down outside most of the night, and I awoke to a fairly soggy scene with atmospheric mist curling around the mountains. The weather app had suggested the previous evening that I might, if I was lucky, have a dry window in the middle of the day. So I wasn't in an enormous hurry to leave, but on the other hand I was extremely determined to make the most of the free breakfast, so got myself downstairs fairly early.

During breakfast I broke out the phone and actually did what I never do, which is to book in advance for a campsite near Brixlegg. They had an automated system that immediately confirmed, and as I was still somewhat in the dark about whether Austrian campsites would be operating and accepting random drop-ins, verifying that at least somewhere would take me at the end of the day was reassuring. I was also very keen to use the tent (and save the cost of guesthouse rooms) given I would be carrying it up the pass today.

After a several courses of breakfast and leisurely collecting my gear, it was nearing 10am and I figured I could wait no longer. Going around the back to retrieve the Shift I found the shed locked; a chap quickly appeared from the kitchen and let me in, and we had a half German/English conversation about exactly how mad I was to be riding around in such weather. He seemed less concerned about my ultimate destination ("Vienna - ah, not too far") and target for the day, near Worgl. 

What he didn't know was instead of following the broad, flat Inn valley via Kufstein - in many ways the natural route, and what I had probably unfairly imagined to be the boring one - I had hit upon a route which looked on paper really interesting, and would allow me if not quite to enter Austria off-road, at least to make my way over the important pass and into the Inn valley all on forestry tracks. This would follow the course of the Marchbach (uphill) and Brandenberger Ache (downhill) through the Brandenberg Alps, an ancient route for transporting wood (via river) into Austria.

View from my room in the Bayrischzell Gasthof. Probably a good job they just finished tiling the roof opposite the previous night.
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This would certainly involve some climbing - mainly a 600m+ haul away from the Inn valley, apparently on paved roads - which I thought would be a good alpine introduction. But after checking out, as I sheltered under the eaves of guesthouse from the again intense rain, I definitely was having second thoughts. 

I dithered around for a good half an hour while the rain splashed unceasingly into the various puddles. Often I'd imagine it would let up ... and then would return with greater vigour. My patience for waiting out rain, when I'm likely to get wet at some point anyway, is always fairly limited, and after 10.30am had passed I figured I should just zip up my waterproof and go for it.

Well, I got wet almost immediately. I have no waterproof trousers (I just rely upon them to quickly air-dry whenever the rain stops), so the legs were pretty saturated within five minutes. But the riding was ... fine. I could follow a great cycleway along the valley across alpine meadows towards Bayrischzell, and had enough visibility to appreciate at least some of the cloud-wreathed scenery. And, unsurprisingly, I had the place to myself.

Alpine meadows on the cycleway to Bayrischzell. It may not be bright, but it was atmospheric
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A whole paddock of black sheep, sheltering from the weather under the tree
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Lively waterfall, and I'm not entirely sure what this is supposed to be (aside from dogs not being allowed): but when I passed it was a small pool
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I quickly passed over the flat stretch to Bayrischzell, and was pleased to see the cycleway branched to follow the main road, and was signed to Kufstein in Austria. There is only one road through the pass here, and I was concerned that traffic and the wet conditions might not make a good combination - so was very happy to keep following the cycleway through good gravel surfaces and woodland, that at least somewhat sheltered me from the rain.

The empty cycleway leading south to the pass. Unfortunately I started to get quite a lot of water in my camera - while it continued to function well, for the rest of the day there were often slightly bleary margins around each shot
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A rather more impressive, and swollen, waterfall
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After about 5km and few kilometres short of the pass and border, the cycleway came to an end and I was deposited by a rather lonely closed up roadhouse on the main road. There was nothing else for it: I stopped and turned on my lights for maximum visibility and prepare myself, but since I was passed by only a couple a vehicles in those five minutes figured it wouldn't be too bad.

The main road climbing up to the Ursprung pass separating Germany and Austria. At 836m, it's not particularly low, but my cunning strategy of slowly climbing all the previous day had already taken me to 800m, so I was over it very quickly. The big climb would come later...
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I guess this is a sort-of welcome to Bavaria...
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Before I knew it I was over the pass and cruising, rather quickly, down the other side. It was tempting to pick up real speed, but the road was very wet and I needed to be careful not to overshoot and descent down into the Inn valey. A blue sign flashed by, and I realised that I was already crossing into Austria. Whatever trepidation I had about the borders and restrictions, I had made it and was all set for some alpine riding!

Wilkommen auf Osterreich!
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It was a good job I stopped to photo the border sign, because much quicker than I'd imagined I spun past a curious toll booth and barrier and a rather steep road heading to the west. It was going the right direction, but I was still surprised to check the GPS and verify that it was the Ackernalm road, one of several private Austrian roads for access to high alpine areas and resorts. Rather expensive for cars, but free for bikes of course, and I squeezed past the barrier and prepared to climb.

It was a hard, but not intolerable gradient, pretty consistently between 10 and 12%. I generally don't obsess about metres climbed or distances or gradients, but after the self-inflicted destruction which was my climb of Shauinsland in the Black Forest, I have a ready yardstick of what I consider to be "too much" on the loaded bike and can use it to reassure myself that I'm not going to break myself. 

Shauinsland was about 700m of real climbing, but the killer was the gradient, which was >15% for several kilometres. This wouldn't be far off in terms of height gain, but the better grade made it so much more tolerable. I settled into a slow rhythm, and didn't even need to use my (super-low) granny - just methodically racked up the metres. I don't know if my loading was a bit lighter, the conditions were better or if I really was fitter, but I was very pleased how sustainable it felt. The first time I looked at the elevation meter I'd was somehow over 1000m without worrying about it - and knew the climb would be all right.

Actually, the weather and road conditions helped. It was cool (and rather damp) underneath the trees during the climb, and there was basically no traffic so I could weave all over the road and lessen the gradient a bit. Actually, there were one or two cars driving up, for what purpose I had no idea, since it's a dead-end and I certainly seemed to be the only visitor. 

As I got near the top the rain let up, and the clouds started to clear and give me great views back down into the valley. I emerged from the treeline to a high alpine pasture, complete with the gasthof that the road serves and the melancholy sound of cowbells.

The private road leading up from the main road route down into the valley with toll barriers for those wanting to cheat by driving up
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Unusually, this *does* actually capture something of the gradient. Maybe it's the water in the camera.
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Keep on climbing
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Near the top, to my delight the weather started to clear, I began to dry off and, moreover, could start to see some of the surrounding mountains I was climbing up. That's the road I've been climbing below.
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Looking back to the cloud-wreathed Wilder Kaiser mountains on the border. Google translate kept rendering this as "good views of the Emperor".
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If I didn't feel alpine yet, this certainly helped
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The gasthof near the top was rather closed up and dark, but did give me a good elevation marker
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I pulled over the top fairly happy with how this first challenge had gone. At 1,350m - I wasn't to reach this elevation again until the Glossner pass, some days later - I'd taken the loaded bike up 600m. The gradient may have been smooth, but 6km of 10% climb was pretty reasonable performance. If the rain held off, prospects were looking good.

One nice thing about this route was all the climb was on (narrow) tarmac, while the descent is offroad or on forestry roads following the river and gorge through a rather wild region. I was now heading west behind the mountains that I had observed yesterday evening, which form a high wall at this point separating Germany and Austria.

I squeezed through a little turnstyle and then was off, descending almost all the time on what were actually fairly decent gravel tracks. The going was fast and exhilarating, though I didn't get much speed up with the loose surface (and the knowledge of the deserted track and lack of phone signal). 

At times the descent was very steep indeed - 16% the GPS tells me - and I think anyone would struggle to do it in reverse with a loaded ride, even with pushing. But downhill was a pleasure and I saw nobody.

The turnstyle to leave the road and enter the forest tracks. The general rule seems to be that the Austrians will post a sign *whenever* cycling isn't allowed - the positive side of which means that it *is* allowed almost everywhere!
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Some steep gravel descents. It's pretty wild country this: the nearest town is the same distance, as the crow flies, as back to the Tegernsee in Germany
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I was fortunate to have some nice clear patches in the descent
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Another highly amateur signpost. Kramsach is ultimately where I am headed!
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I'm not sure what sort of lunatic would try to ride down here, but as I say, there'll be a sign whenever there's any ambiguity
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A freshly washed Shift
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All those signs to the Erzherzog Johann Klause taunted me - this is the name of a rather remote guesthouse, up by an old installation on the Brandenberger Ache used for timber transport. I would have loved to break the journey there for lunch, but everything I had read online told me it had been shut for years, and surely on a wet and deserted afternoon in the year of the virus I had no chance. 

Still, it was a landmark to aim for and the old dam promised to be impressive. It wasn't long before I arrived at the signed turn - I almost continued on, but was very glad I didn't. After crossing the dam and pushing up a steep little section, I emerged at a surprising prim big house, with an open door, and a woman and her young son emerging from a barn outside. I greeted them and then rather sheepishly asked ... "Bitte - cafe und kuche?", which was advertised outside. To my surprise they beckoned me in, sat me down in a charming little parlous, brought me coffee and carrot cake, and lit the wood-burning stove behind me - while I lightly steamed and tried not to leave water marks on their wooden furniture. The shy little boy collected my plates when I was gone. Amazing place!

Some history of the Erzherzog Johann Klause. It seemed to be a place to gather logs floated downriver for transport into Austria.
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The old dam over the Brandenberger Ache
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Looking over the river
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The gasthof itself, astonishingly open on this wet and deserted day. What a place to live!
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Charming little parlour where I sat and dried off
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A wood burning stove and carrot cake. Maybe they'd let me sleep in here?
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I dragged myself away from the EJK, and embarked on the next stretch, which continued the descent south on a much better surfaced gravel road, this time alongside the Brandenberger Ache and some increasingly impressive cliffs.

Monumental cliffs above the Brandenberger Ache
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Monumental cliffs above the Brandenberger Ache
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Some interesting pinnacles of rock considering the geology
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Starting to enter the ravine
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Comically overelaborate crest for what appears to be a small shed
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Half way down the descent, I passed signs for a footpath (strictly no bikes!) leading to a gorge, the Kaiserklamm. Since things had been going so well, I thought some further sight-seeing was in order, and set off on foot to check it out. Unfortunately the rain started to come down again now with a vengeance, but it in no way detracted from the splendour of the gorge (or put off the very young children that had apparently been walked all the way up to this rather remote place).

Coming into the gorge on foot
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The Kaiserklamm
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The river was pretty wild
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The footpath continues for some distance in this vein - unfortunately I had to get back to finish the ride!
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I reclaimed the bike and finished off the last bit of the descent to 700m, regaining the tarmac and meeting quite a few cars now of weekend visitors, despite the weather. Passing some really rather good places for a wild-camp by the river, I continued through now heavy rain until meeting a climb away from the river to Aschau.

This was a short 250m, but far more punishing than the way up. The rain really hammered me now, and the gradient was viscious - 25% the map reckons, which I'm sure is an exaggeration, but anyway it was not comfortable as on the way up. After a leg-shredding slog up to the sign indicating the start of Aschau, it was descending time again, thankfully all the way into the village of Kramsach which sits just above Brixlegg in the Inn valley.

Regaining the tarmac after almost 40 adventurous kilometres!
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This was a strange tradition I noticed in Austria - stork announcements for household births. The doll looks a bit macabre in its drenched state.
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This pretty much summed up my experience of the climb up to Aschau
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The valleys on the descent on the other side were really pretty, but sadly come out very badly in these shots
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Impressive sculpture, Kramsach
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This was going like billy-oh
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In Kramsach, I realised the campsite was one of several a few miles out of town up by a small lake. As I pulled back up the slope, thunder boomed out in the mountains around me - I wasn't done with the rain yet. 

I passed one site, ready to stop, but it seemed the one I booked was further on. I pushed through the last few kilometres and arrived at a huge, and very professional site by the lake. Unsure of the protocol for virus and new arrivals, I was immediately put at my ease by the nice young chap on reception, who amazingly had my booking all ready, even though the site hadn't taken any payment or confirmation from me. In was rather expensive as these things go at €20, but on the other hand had a great restaurant attached and a warm room where I could dry my clothes, so I wasn't complaining.

It was still raining hard when I arrived, so I freshened up and dried off in the impressive bathing facilities (with the added amusement of non-stop Austrian pop). In a break in the weather I nipped out and got the tent up, feeling very thankful for the footprint against the wet grass.

Then it was off to the restaurant. I had a really good filling meal of Kaseknoddels with onion, apparently a Tirolese specialty, and a couple more wheat beers, and generally enjoyed the warmth and dry to get some reading done. It had stopped raining when I emerged, so I got out my sleeping gear which the Ortlieb panniers had (of course!) kept perfectly dry, and collapsed in the tent.

As I drifted off to sleep I heard the rain coming down heavier and heaver. But the tent held up, and at this point it was more calming than concerning.

I've got to use the tent, so it wasn't a waste lugging it over the pass. A rather empty campsite - my fears of them being (i) shut or (ii) hopelessly oversubscribed clearly weren't going to be realised.
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An excellent and meal in the well appreciated warmth. I also loved being able to walk into a restaurant and immediately ask for a wheat beer to drink, knowing it's pretty much the default.
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Today's ride: 55 km (34 miles)
Total: 155 km (96 miles)

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Rachael AndersonWhat a tough day! Congratulations!
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4 months ago
steve bartleyThose little pools are for Kniepp water therapy. Stork announcements are in Germany as well
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2 weeks ago
Jon AylingTo steve bartleyAhh interesting. I think I had enough water therapy myself on this day!
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2 weeks ago