You shall not Pass? - The Hills are Alive (with the sound of wheezing) - CycleBlaze

August 31, 2020

You shall not Pass?

From one Zell to Another

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We had a little more rain during the night, but the tent stood up well to it and I slept peacefully throughout. I was up at 6.30am which is yawningly early for me, keen to get the best of both the weather and to tackle the pass before the traffic built up. A very simple breakfast of coffee and chocolate - I hadn't yet picked up any groceries on the trip, something I was going to need to remedy today - and I was packed up and wheeling out the campsite at 8am. I waved goodbye to the enthusiastic guy from yesterday, and turned out the gate in the direction away from the river and towards what did look like a solid wall of mountains. 

Ready to tackle the pass
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Tirol, and Austria, at this point narrows to an almost comically narrow strip through the mountains between Germany and Italy. While the Inn valley continues west all the way to Lichtenstein and Switzerland, there is no such natural route to the east that doesn't peel back off into Germany (and eventually join the Danube).  Since my - perhaps Quixotic - aim was to try to traverse Austria west-east while staying in the country and taking in the mountains, the next best thing was the Pinzgau valley, a high alpine route that could take me without fuss over 100km to the east into the vicinity of Salzburg - indeed, much of it follows the Salzach river. 

This was all to the good, but the catch was that I first had to cross over the gigantic watershed of the High Tauerns, that forms the border separating Tirol and Salzburgerland. The only real way up here was the Gerloss pass, the road to which climbs rather steeply above the Ziller at Zell to over 1,500m. On the plus side, once I'd conquered the pass - which I was quite ready to spend a whole morning (or day) doing if necessary - it was all downhill for almost 100km. 

It would be around 1,000 metres of climbing, all in the first 25km of the day. The grades looks reasonably sane, with it rarely being steeper than 10% on the main road. While it's a "B" class road, it's also the only one crossing to the East in all south Tirol, and there's no cycleway, so I was a bit concerned about mixing it with traffic that would also likely be struggling with the climb. While the dimensions weren't far off Shauinsland, which really did do me in, I was carrying less weight and the the cool, hazy morning seemed like perfect climbing conditions. Two minutes outside the campsite I came to the junction and sign to the pass - and seeing the road was quiet, started to climb.

No mistaking the one road going up the pass. The road was damp and the air misty, but no rain and it was pleasingly cool
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Despite my legs not really being warmed up, I was pleased how quickly I settled into a climbing rhythm. The road looped in long hairpins as it climbed away from the Zillertal. At a couple of points near the town very steep residential streets cut between the hairpins - when investigating this, both RideWithGPS and Komoot was very keen to get me off the main road and use these cut-offs, but after sampling one and its 15% gradient I decided to stick to the main road. About one car a minute passed me, wide and slow as I was getting used to, as I pootled up the 8% slope in single-digit kph.

Climbing through verdant meadows above Zell. That sign leads to a very steep residential street that in theory you can use to short-circuit the hairpins. Unless you want to push, don't do this.
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Great views down over the hairpinned road back to Zell and the valley. I found I was gaining height without it feeling too unsustainable.
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The ancient gold mines around Zell are now a tourist attraction. In the 16th century, Tirol was one of the biggest sources of gold in all of Europe, which is fairly poor in gold. The influx of precious metals from the New World rendered it almost insignificant.
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I passed through Berggruben, where there was a collection of hotels and guesthouses, with a few tourists boarding coaches. I got some good looks of surprise as I slowly pulled the loaded bike uphill past them.

I climbed higher, and soon was coming through the ribbons of cloud and mist that I'd seen clinging to the mountains higher up. The visibility dropped, and I turned on my lights, and continued to climb slowly but with good, consistent rhythm. At around 1000m, I emerged into the high valley of the Gerlosbach, something of a respite from the climbing. 400 metres climbed, and I was feeling pretty good.

Starting to climb through the low clouds hanging in the pass
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Passing ski-lifts is always an ominous sign when it comes to gradients
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Alpine meadows, wreathed in mist
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Mist clinging romantically to the peaks, and some blue sky peeking through behind
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There were some wonderful old cow sheds
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Even more of a warning sign: non-tourist cablecars. This one seems to be part of the forestry maintenance infrastructure.
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Out into the high, but relatively flat, valley of the Gerlosbach
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Soon I was spinning at decent speed towards the ski resort village of Gerlos itself. As is often the case with modern ski resorts, the architecture was far from inspired, and out of season they can look rather out of place. Gerlos was a strip of big hotels of sometimes dubious taste, and a surprising number of tourists getting into or out of tour buses, most of whom seemed to be preparing to go hiking. I took this as a good sign for the weather.

The bike (and my legs) had fared admirably during the climb, especially after the two days of soaking it had received. The only annoyance was that - inexplicably since I certainly wasn't using it - the back brake was starting rhythmically rub and squeak. Just annoying, but before I entered Gerlos I resolved to fix it. Strangely it was quite out of alignment - dialing back both sides of the caliper to their maximum still lead to a squeak. I was worried that the disc had been bent, but I fished out all my tools and did a quick re-setting of the caliper position. Bizarrely, after this I could dramatically tighten the brakes up, leading to much better performance and still no rubbing. Shrugging my shoulders - I don't think I'll ever understand what makes brakes behave well or poorly seemingly at whim - I accepted this free win - alongside the discovery of my spare brake pads, which had been hiding in the pannier for three years. They definitely might be needed by the end of the tour. 

I gathered up my tools under the eyes of the obviously curious tourists (who were too shy, or too much in a group, to say hello however) and continued through the resort. In its favour, it had both a great nature trail alongside the Gerlosbach stream (which I'm 99% sure I was ok cycling through - it was very popular with walkers), and a decent grocery shop where I stopped and bought some lunch supplies (including multiple bars of Ritter Sport, a bargain at 1€ a go).

Spinning along the relatively flat valley towards Gerlos, I actually got my speed above 15kph
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Gerlos is clearly a modern resort village, but I was glad it was operating and had some decent amenities
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Even the Gerlosbach was quite full today
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The nature trail alongside the river in Gerlos is pretty small scale, but attractive none-the-less, and has quite a lot of quirky sculptures along its route
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I don't think these have arisen randomly - but it does look like they've been built up by visitors over time. When I see them as markers on walking routes I call them "Steinmen" - not a real German word, but a very niche reference in the novel Pale Fire. I'm sure they have a proper name but it's just so fitting I stick to that.
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I think local artists were involved in creating the works along this route
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A weird theme for an alpine hotel. I'm not sure who this is meant to appeal to (aside from lovers of kitsch, of course).
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Passing out of Gerlos, I realised I had somehow gained 200m height by stealth, and so had only 400 metres or so of climbing left. The next one would be the big one though, up to the pass itself, the border of Salzburgerland, and the large lake that sits in the bowl just under the watershed.

There was more traffic now, including the occasional (apparently empty) tour bus, but the climbing was still steady and I was pleased that I kept cranking it out. The day continued to cool me - I ha taken off all my layers, and would immediately get chilled when I stopped, but during climbing I was the perfect temperature. I hardly needed to touch my water - a great contrast from the climbs of previous years, where dehydration was always the bogeyman. In fact, I started to resent that I'd lugged it all the way up here, and considered pouring some out (but didn't go that far!).

With remarkably little strain I pulled above the level of the lake, which slowly became visible peeking through the trees. A bit further, the gradient started to slacken, and I knew I was getting close to the top of the pass and the edge of Tirol. The visibility opened out and I got some spectacular views over the lake and the high bowl in the mountains it fills.

The steep, but not-too-steep and steady climb out of Gerlos to the lake
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A sign indicating boating did look a bit strange at this altitude. You'd never guess there is a big lake cradled in the hills above us.
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Chilled out cow in the middle of a hairpin. I'm ashamed to say I did moo at her as I passed
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Pulling up into the pass itself, the lake starts to peek through the trees
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The views down the length of the lake - the Speicher Durlassboden - took me by surprise, and I let out an audible "wow"
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Still a bit more climbing left - the lake drains to the west back into the Zillertal, and we need to climb the watershed to near where the Salzach has its source and flows east to Salzburg.
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Suddenly I was over a saddle, descending on a wider and better established road, passing signs welcoming me to Salzburgerland and realised I was over the pass. No pass sign unfortunately, but it's roughly 1,530m and just under a thousand metres gained from Zell, 25km earlier. 

At this point I had a choice which I'd left completely open, preferring to see how (and if) I'd make it over the climb. The new Gerlospass road had been completely rebuilt as a broad and well-graded trunk road, and descended with many hairpins down through the village of Krimml - incidentally home to the highest waterfall in Europe. This had replaced what was an intriguingly crossed-out road on my map, the original old road, which took a more direct route, clinging to the north side of the valley and descending (through lots of double chevrons indicating 16% gradients plus) into the Pinzgau valley. 

If I was exhausted, or it had taken me the whole day to climb the pass, my plan was to stop at Krimml (and check out the waterfall), which is a bit of a tourist centre and promised several campsites. The old road sounded really cool though (and promised to be low traffic) - and unfortunately (without climbing back up the pass, which was not going to happen) I couldn't do both. If I passed Krimml I would then have easy riding, on a radweg no less, following the Salzach, but would need to make considerable distance to get past Mittersill, which seemed strangely devoid of places to stay with the tent.

Considering my progress had been so good, and it was still long before midday, I decided the old, rough road would make for more of an adventure and a fun descent down its badly graded slopes. 

Farewell Tirol!
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This sort of thing always catches my eye
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This is it, the turn off to the old road. Cars (but nothing bigger) are allowed down it, but are highly discouraged. While there were a few people driving it - mostly German tourists - it's a nice, quiet and scenic route. Just don't try to do it in the other direction.
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As close to a pass photo as I could get. We're just about to enter the High Tauern national park, as well.
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The descent on the old Gerlospass road is enormous fun - I can highly recommend it. Immediately I was away from the heavier traffic that had joined from Gerlos, and spinning at first through dense forest, and then along a crumbling and narrow tarmac strip that clings to the northern side of the Salzach valley. I was passed by the occasional nervous German tourist, but otherwise had the road to myself. 

The descents started to become fast - with the (sometimes unprotected) precipice off the right, I was very glad I had tuned up the brakes, and kept the speed well down. There was quite a bit of whooping as the descent seemed to go on and on, periodically revealing great views down into the valley.

The fahrbahn was definitely pretty schaden. What would be great is if they would put a barrier to stop cars using this as a throughway - not that it was busy, but some of the drivers seemed *very* nervous on the broken up surface. Maybe they'd been mislead by their GPS systems down this way?
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I was completely unprepared to see the Salzach this far up. I think we're pretty near its source here.
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The road was pretty broken up and uneven at times. Not too much of a challenge on reasonably thick tyres, though
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Spectacular and seemingly unless descents along the north face of the valley
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Spectacular and seemingly unless descents along the north face of the valley
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Giving the brakes a rest from the descent, a good photo opportunity
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Don't look down!
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Across the valley, I could make out the huge waterfall at Krimml. It's a shame to miss it, but Iceland has spoiled me for waterfalls, and I was happy to take have taken this more unusual route
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The end of the descent, as we start to approach the populated valley, was the steepest. I didn't let the bike pick up any speed at all in these sections, and the brakes started to squeal - I'm not sure if this is a sign of overheating, but since there was no fading I wasn't too worried.
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Great views down the Pinzgau valley to the east as we descend
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A few hundred metres from the valley floor, I saw a bench with a good view, and figured now would be a good time to stop for the lunch I'd picked up in Gerlos (and to give my braking fingers a rest). A simple meal of bread, cheese and olives, then I happily took the last few kilometres to emerge in Wald im Pinzgau, a big smile on my face. This had been the most exhilarating and scenic stretch of the tour so far, and was much closer to what I imagined Austrian conditions would be like (away from the incessant rain).

In Wald it was easy to pick up the Tauern Radweg, which would take me (in rather more prosaic fashion) straightforwardly to the east, following the river, the railway and the now significantly more trafficked and major road heading to Mittersill. The railway is another narrow-gauge job that actually runs all the way from the other Zell, but there's no way it can get over the pass. I had a gentle descent the whole way now, and started to seriously make some time.

A good place to stop for a wholesome lunch
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With the slight anticlimax of arriving in Wald at the bottom, I was glad not to have followed the road and cycleway all the way down.
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The Pinzgau train also takes bikes, and I gather it's a popular local option to take the train to the foot of the pass and then cycle back along the valley.
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I had a very easy ride to Mittersill, the kilometres flying by. The valley was at first impressively walled by dramatic peaks, and then broadened out - and this, in combination with it becoming overcast, meant this stretch passed pretty quickly.

Soon I reached the main square in Mittersill, which was rather lively. Mittersill is something of a junction in the middle of the otherwise unpopulated high Tauerns - the Thurn pass to the north breaks back through into Tirol, crosses the Salzach valley, and continues on to southern Austria. A tourist information display set up in the corner, and I tried to use it to verify that there weren't any campsites in the area, but unfortunately it wasn't operating. The Tauern radweg easily continued to the east, and it was still early afternoon, so I figured I had another 30km of this easy descending in me to make it all the way to a second Zell - Zell am Ziller. 

This seemed something of a resort town, by a big lake with lots of campsites marked on my map - and apart from getting a kick out of travelling between both Zells in a single ride, would mean really good progress for the day - I'd originally planned to spend a couple of days on this section.

Very typical view of the Tauern Radweg alongside the small railway
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Some impressively pointy peaks surround the Radweg, which runs mostly quite distant from the busy road
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The tiniest horse I've ever seen
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It clouded in again, and the radweg itself was rather prosaic compared to what had come before, but I still got some dramatic views down the valley
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The valley was dotted with small villages, most of which seemed to be rater prosperous and classy. I like the art on this old building.
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Why do these things follow me everywhere?
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Main square in Mittersill - a strange town, quite un-touristy, but in a very out-the-way place
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Mittersill
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The radweg became less interesting - straighter, flatter, and the valley broader - following Mittersill; and to make matters worse, I started to get spots of rain again. Sighing - at least I'd had the best of the day crossing the pass - I got the waterproof jacket on again.

I covered the distance towards Zell as fast as I could, now getting seriously wet again. In Piesendorf the cycleway lead me up to the main road, which was now unpleasantly traffic choked and busy. After riding alongside it in the now driving rain, originally aiming for a campsite to the north by the Zeller see lake, I spotted a sign for a certainly-existing campsite in the village of Kaprun to the south. It also appeared on my GPS, so after some dithering I decided I'd rather be out the rain and escape the main road.

I can't identify this tower, but it must be pretty old - irregular stones and arrow slits are a give away
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A golf course was crammed into the only flat section of any size
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The Salzach was dead straight and almost canal-ized here
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Good turrets!
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Some of the most workaday buildings have great art-deco style murals on them
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Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that!
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I scooted down the road to Kaprun, the heavens really opening as I neared the (really quite substantial and tourism-orientated) centre. I could see I needed to get south of the centre, but to my frustration the road signs started directing me towards a large tunnel, which I definitely wanted to avoid cycling through. So I peeled off into the centre itself, and seeing a tourist information centre, dived in.

TICs, like libraries, are one of those amazing public goods which it's somewhat amazing still operate. This one was completely empty of any other visitors, but the friendly girl inside immediately let me know there was a campsite, and only a kilometre away. Thanking her, I leapt on the bike, and got thoroughly soaked on the short ride out of town.

Camping Zur Muhle was squeezed between a very lively tributary of the Salzach, the Kapruner Ache and a reasonably quiet road heading into the mountains to the south. Turning up, I searched around a bit before finding the note that I should check in at the gasthof across the road. I went over there (and after causing some confusion by wandering into the bar by mistake and trying to register with the barman) found a jolly and very laid-back lady on reception. Just €12 this time, with no fixed plots or hard gravel suited for motorhomes - much more my speed.

By the time I got out, the rain had cleared, and I picked a nice sheltered spot down by the river. The campsite was mostly empty, and had a semi-abandoned feel which I quite like. Attached was a big shower block, including washing machines and a large basement which seemed to be used to store and dry ski gear. I freshened up and hung up my wet stuff, hoping to dry it all out again.

I picked a spot backing right onto the river. It was noisy, but in a soothing way
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Well, to my frustration, and against the forecast, when I emerged it was lashing down with rain again. I decided to screw getting the tent up and just head into town to get something to eat in the dry. I got very wet searching in vain for the Greek restaurant I'd seen cycling in - when I eventually found it I was well and truly sick of being rained upon. I'd had some good days but the evenings were getting ridiculous. When an Englishman is tired of rain, you know it's bad.

The actual place I ate in was a bit eerie - nicely done up, and with a very attentive and pleasant waiter, but totally deserted. It was snug and I dried off (and the rain continued to lash down outside), but I couldn't hang around there all night. I had another not-quite-great pizza, and considered my options. Frankly, I was tempted to go back and sleep in the ski storage room, so saving my sleeping stuff (and myself) from a potential soaking.

The pretty nice, but totally deserted, restaurant in Kaprun
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Since the rain had slackened (a bit) when I walked home, I decided - and wheat beer-induced optimism may have been behind this - that I was in a campsite, and dammit I was going to camp. I got the tent up in the dark, and it was pretty dry inside, despite having been put away damp the previous day. 

I tucked into the sleeping bag, and slept pretty well until about 2 in the morning. Then the drumming of the rain woke me up, and it looked like the tent was getting a real hammering. Reaching out, to my relief the groundsheet and footprint were doing a great job, keeping out all the water despite the fact I could feel the ground getting squishy underneath. But my problem was a persistent drip through the mesh over my face. Obviously you cannot sleep like that, so naturally I was turning away, and now the hood of my down sleeping bag was getting a bit damp. 

I took the executive decision to bale and made a dash for the ski room. The sanitary block was completely deserted, and I could turn off all the lights and set myself up with sleeping mat on some big benches down there. I was certain nobody would mind (or indeed know I was down there). I worried for a few minutes about my tent, and then actually slept pretty well.

Today's ride: 93 km (58 miles)
Total: 282 km (175 miles)

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Kathleen JonesWhat a day! Highlight of the trip? waiting with bated breath.
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4 months ago
Jon AylingTo Kathleen JonesIt was a big day with lots of variety! I'll just say that things continued to be ... interesting. Mostly in a good way!
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4 months ago
Rachael AndersonGreat job! Sorry about all the rain.
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3 months ago