Wooden poles protrude the scree at crazy angles like shattered bones, the crumbling remnants of a former path. Sweat trickles down my nose as I edge gradually upwards, the unfamiliar bulk of heavy bag and awkward bike nestled on tender shoulders. The col creeps into view, a crack of brilliant blue between imposing cliffs. Nervous anticipation long since dissipated, replaced by the trudge of unsteady progress. Average people doing extraordinary things. A true sense of adventure. Almost certainly a world’s first. The ground levels and I gratefully ditch the heavy load, glimpsing into the abyss on the far side, hoping for a ribbon of perfect singletrack but instead getting a stomach-lurching zig zag that tumbles into the distance. We carried the bikes up and we’ll carry them back down, welcome to the Alta Via 2.
They don’t get it. I try to explain how all my holidays become an existential crisis, how the pressure to enjoy impacts my mindset. How when holidays are the raison d’etre of your existence it becomes impossible not to question the point of life itself. How this invariably leads to thoughts of the inevitability of your own demise. How this ties in with the ageing process and diminishing physical prowess, and how for a former athlete this is the greatest fear. I think that they reckon I’m just saying that I’m having a shit time but nothing could be further from the truth.
The fork leg smacks hard into immovable rock a split second before my left knee does the same. A shot of agony followed by instant anger. Stupid… STUPID! I’d pulled up short of the feature, decided that in this context the risk wasn’t worth the reward, but pride had dragged me back, vanity and ego, what am I trying to prove? I bounce up quickly and take stock. Bike seems okay but the knee is already swelling fast, a grotesque sac of squidgy liquid. I laugh it off and ride on but am seething inside. This could’ve been game over on day one and what would the impact have been on the others? The wait for the helicopter, the mental scars, the acknowledgement of just how precarious our plans could be. One moment of amateur idiocy. I got away with it but probably didn’t deserve to.
Group dynamics are a constant concern. That subtle balance of cohesion that makes or breaks an endeavour like this. We’re a solid team, I know that. Talented and able in our own ways. But I can’t help but question my role. Am I still relevant? I bring fitness and experience but I also bring an excess of drive and ambition. Am I saying too much? Am I doing too little? I leave Tony and Andrew to the navigation despite it being my strong suit. Do they want my input? I’m well aware that I often vocalise how good I feel, how easy I’m finding things, despite knowing how self-absorbed it can seem, condescending even. I remember the accounts I absorbed in my youth of the greatest climbing expeditions of the age, and how teams crumbled under the pressures of ambition, fear and danger. Am I an unsettling influence? Would they be better without me?
The sunrise is breathtaking, matched only by the situation. We’re tiny specks amongst sedimentary giants. Vibrant colours on a distant skyline as the azure skies emerge from the dimmed light of dawn. I couldn’t imagine a place more spectacular, more wild, and yet when I stop and soak it in the quiet is all-encompassing. How can somewhere so immense be so silent? Cresting another ridge a chilly breeze cuts through sweat soaked merino so I tuck down behind an outcrop and throw on the thermal jacket. If I could just bottle this moment. This is living.
I can’t hide my disappointment, staring at my dry roll stuffed with semi-warm cured meat, avoiding eye contact. Words tumble into my mouth, frustrations and negativity. At least age has taught me when to swallow them, but I’m sure that body language is easily read. We’re stopping for the day well short of our intended destination, forced by exhaustion and mechanical failure. But neither of those are mine, I could carry on with ease, complete the ambitious schedule for the day and pocket the associated confidence for the undoubted challenges to come. I hate myself for feeling this way and know that it will dissipate eventually. Friendship is far more important than success, and pushing beyond the limit can be foolhardy in these environments, but years of training have taught me, you move the goalposts once and the resolve is forever weakened. What impact will this have further down the line?
This is it! Bike attached to bag, harness on, hands free to operate clips and grab sturdy cables and rungs. 450 vertical metres of actual via ferrata, or bici-ferrata as we’ve long since christened it. I move smoothly and without pause, feeling extremely stable on my feet, loving the sensations, the muscle memory and the rewards of decades of training. We scoped this section on foot the evening before, virtually jogging up the face in just fifty minutes. Familiarity brings comfort and the top appears surprisingly fast. Pissed it! I relax in the heat, taking in the surroundings before dropping down to assist Brian with his bike as he negotiates the upper-sections. A rare ride down to the refuge and caffeine and sugary treats fired in before the scree slope slog up to the plateau. Spirits are high. Despite the obvious efforts and difficulties progress has been smooth. The day culminates in an 80km/h smash down the road for beers and a sauna, does it get any better?
The moment is sheer perfection. Stepping on to the terrace beneath the glory of a star-stuffed night. The beers may be weak but the Grappa definitely isn’t, and combined with the altitude and the utter joy of the moment it brings a warming giddiness. I want to thank the lads for creating and sharing this experience but an aversion to emotional outburst means that I just point out how annoying they were whenever I first met them many years ago. I hope they pick up on the underlying connotations, how far we’ve come over the years, how much it means to be blessed with these glimpses of paradise, how good it is to have like-minded mates to share it with. They head inside and I’m left to my own thoughts. Staring at distant universes can all to easily invite dangerous pondering, but tonight I’m at one and at peace, we are all made of stars.
The awful smell is undeniably me. I’d picked up on it before, a tangy sour odour that bites at the back of the throat, but I’d passed it off as something else. Maybe a hidden pile of faeces, half-buried beneath nearby stones? Now there was no doubt as I stood alone on the exposed ridgeline. Days of stale sweat and dust seeping into bag straps and outer shorts, deep within the material. No amount of showering would remove this reek as it emanates from every item of clothing. This stuff will need a boil wash at the end, or maybe a bonfire would be more suitable?
Brian’s shoe is broken again. Rowan has had a nasty over-the-bars and his thumb is mangled. We dithered over breakfast, fooled into false security by the apparent ease of today’s stats, but 1400 metres of descent is no picnic when it’s loose, technical and balanced on the edge of a precipice, way above the meandering river below. Time is passing by dangerously fast and we’re losing control of the day. We split lower down, Brian left to seek out the road whilst I chuck the Stanton on my back and run 200 vertical metres of steep forest trail to place a food order. The least I can do after being so uninvolved in team purchases so far. I beat myself up for my lack of empathy, annoyance at Bri for his shitty shoe choice instead of admiration for the gutsiness it took to descend that behemoth with no grip or cushioning beneath his sole. Why be like that? I could be better, I should be better. Maybe my sixth sense is aware of the troubles to come? Maybe I’m just a dickhead?
It’s a shit choice. Pick carefully between fridge-sized boulders loosely balanced on a carpet of marbles or seek the better ground directly below the overhanging cliffs from where the fridges fell. I combine the two lines, moving as quickly as the ice-like gravel allows, whilst painfully aware that any slide could be terminal, there are big drops everywhere. Gaining the ridge something feels wrong, my altimeter says 2200m and I know the top should’ve been lower. Above me the knife-edge continues, curving around a corner, endlessly ascending. The pressure mounts and I can take no more. Ditching bike and kit I descend back to the lads, hoping above all that they’ve safely negotiated the most treacherous ground. I fear the worst when I see Andrew’s bike lying alone but shortly below I find him helping Rowan. I shoulder Rowan’s bike and creep my way back up to my own. For the first time ever I feel genuine fear on a bike trip, a combination and accumulation of errors has led us here and the fun has given way to survival instincts. Finally we crest the col and begin to pick our way tentatively down. Two hours later and twelve hours of carrying is rewarded by the best trail of the trip, a serpentine ribbon of loam, power sliding without care in the half light of evening. Brian has played a blinder in our absence, securing a room in the refuge that had refused us that morning. Relief, elation and an overwhelming weariness. That was epic, but deep down I know it’s what I was seeking.
I can feel it edging into my consciousness. The heavy clouds gathering on the outskirts of the brain, pressing down like physical weight. We roll down the road towards the finish, to glory. The culmination of days of effort and self-belief, and years of dreaming and planning, but I feel empty, emptied, wrung out. I ride away from Tony and Andrew despite soft pedalling, they’re letting me go and I can’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to be around me either. The sun beats down, legs spin, the Earth rotates and time passes. Brian and Rowan have gathered cold beers and snacks, meet us with smiles, but I feel like a fraud. I close my eyes and shut out the world…
The nagging doubts remain but the success is clear, we took some detours, including skipping one major pass, but essentially completed the first ever biking traverse of the Alta Via 2. 160km of crumbling moonscapes and majestic cliffs. We combined hike-a-bike with riding, via ferrata and scrambling, and through teamwork, drive and sheer effort achieved largely what we set out to do. No time for celebratory rest days, instead we seek the slightly handier challenge of via ferrata minus the dead weight on our backs. I skip up the initial steep sections, enjoying the weightless sense of space beneath my feet. Peering over the ridge to the endless expanse of distant peaks beyond. Yesterday’s disappointment is fading, hopefully just a mental blip, a cognitive reaction to the strain and pressure of the previous day. Maybe I’ve dodged a bullet this time…
I’m taking risks and the lads know it, they can see I’ve stopped using my clips and am just free-climbing the ridge. I know that they want to say something, to remind me that it only takes one slip or one loose rock and oblivion calls, but they hold back. I’ve been their mentor and teacher in the past and I think that an invisible barrier still exists, preventing them from reigning in the stupidity of my behaviour. If only I could tell them about the maelstrom that has just invaded my mind. The most feared of attacks, the micro-low. A mental draining so powerful that it drills instantly through my being, a process that usually takes days smashes into me in minutes. I’m not suicidal and I know what I’m doing but I have to get off this ridge, have to keep moving. The exhaustion is absolute and I dread meeting any other climbers. A cheery ‘Ciao’ is so far beyond my capacity that I could cry. I wish I could vocalise this struggle, tell the lads what’s happening, energy is needed for the legs though. I simply have to get down. Drag myself to the van, stumbling and sliding to the road and then powering silently along it. Desperate to reach that back seat where I can curl up and rest. The evening passes in a monosyllabic blur. I’m sure I’m not much company.
We got home yesterday and the creeping unease remains. I kid myself that I’m disappointed about skipping a small portion of the Alta Via but know deep down that it’s irrelevant. We did it and we did it well. I’ve used this line before but it’s worth re-iterating. Sometimes the greatest foes are the ones that lurk within your own grey matter, altering perception, killing feeling, creating imaginary conflict, stopping you from simply being you. The disappointment is the sense that I’ve just drifted through the back end of what was one of the greatest experiences of my life, my own brain denying the banking of the feelings, the sheer joy, the smells, the tastes and the camaraderie. Opportunities like that are fleeting and rare and to not experience them to the full feels criminal.
Tony’s reel pops up on my Insta. A selection of videos and pics crammed full of mind-blowing images. Immersed amidst a stampede of horses at the end of a delicious twenty minute descent. Unlocking the jigsaw puzzle of moves to force upward progress with handlebars jamming in narrow chimneys. Universes scattered in an inky sky. The smiles, the laughter, the privilege, the audacity. Perception shifts as I realise that I was there, I did all that, I lived all that, and as much as my own consciousness tried to hijack it with negativity and self-doubt I loved every minute. The Alta Via 2 was no bike trip. If we were lucky it was 15% rideable, and half of that distance was probably on the road. It was so much more, it was a pointless and crazy adventure in the best spirit of such things. We seek challenge to feel alive and my god we felt alive, with every weary step, every crazy tech line, clip of a wire, stupendous view, overwhelming silence, every moment of that daft endeavour elevated us beyond the everyday. What an experience. What an existence.
As ever, thanks to the lads for having the vision and organisation to make this trip happen, and the skills and balls to see the task through. Thanks to Stanton Bikes, POC and Burgtec who provided free and heavily discounted equipment which we tested to its limits. Apologies that we’re doers rather than content creators but at least we got some great photos. If anyone would like more info on biking the Alta Via 2 for their own attempt then you know where to get me, but seriously, don’t. Go hike it, go run it, climb it, but don’t bike it. It’s been done and some efforts shouldn’t ever be repeated. Find your own adventures.