Rock ‘n’ Road

Two German alpinists CARO NORTH (29) and INES PAPERT (46) travel by mountain bike from east to west of Switzerland to climb some of the country’s great walls, on routes that are new to both of them.

The approach is clear: travel exclusively by the strength of their legs.

Words By: Ines Papert

Photos By: Jochen Schmoll

As professional climbers, we are always on the lookout for great adventures in the most remote regions of this planet. Antarctica, Himalayas, Baffin Island, Patagonia to name just a few. But we also have a huge responsibility to protect our wild spaces and to encourage others to do the same.

The very same air travel that allows us to explore far off destinations is also one of the main contributors to our planet’s degradation.

This year’s travel restrictions suddenly offered plenty of time to reflect and adapt our lifestyles to the current situation, and to take a stand for the climate.

April 2020

A long awaited Alaska expedition with my husband Luka Lindič is no longer happening.  All appointments and lectures have been canceled or postponed. Suddenly there is nothing but time.

After a bike ride in the local mountains in Berchtesgaden, I am sitting on the sunny terrace and suddenly feel the desire to go on a longer journey on my mountain bike. Not just to travel, but also to climb. Who could I get excited about this idea? The name Caro North immediately comes to mind. She is a personable, young and an extremely ambitious alpinist whom I got to know in Patagonia. She’ll probably be at home, too, like all of us. Caro immediately agrees, we would decide on the specific destination later and adapt it to the current travel options. Caro and I would pull our equipment in a trailer and eat local foods. Without the support of an escort vehicle, of course.

After a few phone calls, our destination is set: Caro’s home country of Switzerland, with its numerous legendary rock faces. Without any goals of setting records, but with the goal of climbing as many climbing meters as possible and having lots of fun along the way.

August 2020

I get off the train in Feldkirch (Austria) and reach the train station in Sargans shortly before the thunderstorm to wait for Caro.

I spot her from afar thanks to her dreadlocks. We hug each other and I can quickly feel the enthusiastic energy Caro brings. It is early evening. We immediately get on our bikes, only to experience our first mishap along the next bend. Caro’s trailer tips out of the axle and falls into the ditch.

There were things that you have to thread in order to tie up. The problem is quickly resolved and it becomes comically clear — we both have no idea how to travel with a trailer.

Our first climbing destination is the Rätikon. An arduous and steep approach, curve after curve meanders up the mountain road. The rhythm of pedaling is slow but steady. The heat is making it even more challenging, and we have to constantly remind each other to bike slowly in order to have enough strength for climbing later.

We arrived the next day, and buy cheese and milk on the Grüscher Alpli, an idyllic farmers place that is our starting point for the climb.

Our bike trailer, carrying all our equipment, weighs about 35-40kg, so we’re happy to have the opportunity to purchase food from local farmers instead of lugging it around from the start.

Rätikon / Intifada 7a +

In the morning we start climbing Intifada at the Schweizereck, which has actually remained dry.  A unique slab pitch right at the beginning demands everything from us, precise footwork after the exertion on the bike is difficult. We fight our way up pitch after pitch. We still lack the fast rhythm of a well-rehearsed team. The sun comes into the wall and the last few pitches become a battle against the heat.

The journey continues after a long descent via Chur to Disentis, mostly on the Rhine cycle path towards the source of the river at the Oberalp Pass. A lot of altitude and distance are behind us when we start our next climbing route on the Teufelstalwand above Andermatt.

Teufelstalschlucht / Peruvian Dust 7a +

It’s granite and clean.  Caro is in her element and proves her skills in crack climbing. On the onward journey, a mishap happens to us, our gas for the stove is running out. At first, every attempt to find an open store on a long weekend fails. On Facebook we find a climber who helps us out and leaves two gas cans on the way over the Susten Pass.

The climbing community is simply great, helpful and supportive wherever possible. As much as we like to sleep in a tent, thanks to Caro’s organizational talent and her networking, we often find a bed and a table with friends.

The climb to the Susten Pass is tough, it’s raining and there are no bike paths in sight. The traffic becomes unbearable and the motorcycles and sports cars rushing past with their tight overtaking maneuvers show no understanding for cyclists.

Once on the top of the pass (2224m), we quickly change our wet sweaty jerseys for a proper jacket. The descent is fun until it starts to rain again, and my rear brake no longer pulls. A slight panic sets in.

At the campsite in Gadmen we treat ourselves to the first “day-off“ after 10 days, we want to rest and wait for the walls to dry off a bit. Washing clothes, doing yoga, eating pizza and spending time with friends is on the agenda today. It’s a lovely place with a scenic view of the steep rock walls.

A last ascent takes us to the Wendenalp by bike, then finally we continue on foot. It is a hot summer day, the walls are exposed to the south. There is no wind, and our ambitious plans shrink due to the heat.

Wendenstöcke/ Excalibur 6b

The Excalibur pillar is appearing imposingly in front of us. But during a traverse to get to the route, the joy quickly turns into total paralysis. We get caught in a massive rockfall that suddenly falls out of the sky. Stones and blocks crash next to us and all we can do is try to find protection under our backpacks. What remains is a strong smell of sulfur and weak knees. We were lucky, but we won’t find our way back to our usual enthusiasm that quickly.

We have arrived at the home of the ibex, which likely triggered the rockfall. The Excalibur route offers the optimal difficulty for both of us after these moments of fear and yet today it doesn’t feel easy. The protection is poor and the friction below our shoes feel insecure.

It’s so incredible to think that Ueli Steck climbed the route free solo back in 2004. I am very impressed. Somehow today it feels like the Escape to the top. None of us want to think about the upcoming descent through the exposed gully.

In Innertkirchen we get the brakes fixed and accept another 500 verticals in order not to have to stay on the busy road. At night it starts to rain again, so we move into my friend Mary´s place near Interlaken.

Eiger north face / Deep blue Sea 7b +

We have a long climb ahead of us past the Eiger north face to the Eiger Glacier. We also want to manage this ascent over the Kleine Scheidegg on our own, but we need a full day break. Here we meet the climbers Roger Schäli and Nina Caprez. They have reached their goal of free climbing a new route on the Geneva pillar and were already on their way back. Before they jump on the train, we can take over all the other food supplies. Great.

We have a small solar panel with us, it turns out to be very practical. Every day we can charge our cameras and cell phones, the batteries of which are required by constant use (navigation via google maps). This app sends us, if possible, on bike paths, but this often results in additional vertical meters that we have long since stopped counting.

On the Eiger we find a place with a view for our small tent. I’m looking forward to the next day. But the wind picks up strongly and temperatures drop through the night, so we decide to start late. At the start of the route we first have to warm our toes, then Caro starts into the first pitch. With no feeling in the fingers or toes, it goes slowly. And suddenly the moment when your head has different plans than your body.

She tries again and again to climb from the last bolt to the anchor. In tears she hands me the sharp end of the rope. I remind her that everyone has bad days, that’s why doing this as a team. You just have to have the courage to stand up for your weakness. In the end, that only makes you strong.

But my fingers have also become numb from the cold. I have to fight hard the first few pitches. In the middle of the steep wall we look at the clock and realize we don’t have enough time to make it to the top. Fortunately, there is the emergency exit to the right. We leave our gear behind to continue the ascent the next day, which we manage. Caro is happy again and I am exhausted.

Gastlosen south face

There are still a few days ahead of us on the bikes before we reach our destination. On the way we take another route on the south face of the Gastlosen. Ever since we left Interlaken, we have been driving into the night. The advantage is that there is less traffic on the roads. Our schedule has also been a bit behind since the forced break. The weather is the major factor dictating when climb, but you always can cycle in bad weather.

In the Rhone Valley, the wind pushes us towards Martigny before the road on the Col Great St. Bernhard goes steeply uphill. With a stopover at friends, where we balance out all the material for an alpine route in winter conditions, the next day we continue by bike and later on foot to the Cabane du Trient, a hut at over 3000m on the Swiss side of Mt. Blanc area. The golden granite peaks of the Aiguilles Dorées high above the Val Ferret greet us in the evening light. The fresh snow has temporarily shown to be usable climbing snow. 

Aig. Dorées Traverse East-West

Our last day of climbing belongs to more than dreams. The light, the clear view, the climbing, the conditions; everything is perfect, even if it is challenging for our tired legs. We climb over the ridge to our last summit, the Aig. de la Varappe 3513m. Caro and I hug each other tightly and every discrepancy, no matter how small, is already forgotten. I can’t imagine a nicer end to our route through Switzerland. A big thank you goes to Caro, who with her endless power was often taking the lead on the biking. We also say thanks to our friend and cameraman Jochen Schmoll for joining us several days on our trip.

Click here for another look at Ines & Caro’s journey.