Mind Over Matterhorn | We Went Mountain Biking Down an 11,500ft Glacier in Cervinia, Italy
We take on four seasons in one day in the paradisiacal surroundings of Cervinia...
“I’ve never ridden a mountain bike down a glacier before."
I hear myself say the words as we roll our rides into a gondola in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, the third gondola of the past 25 minutes and the final en route to Plateau Rosa, or the Theodul Glacier, 11,417ft above sea level on the Italian side of the Matterhorn.
It sounds ridiculous coming from my lips. And our travelling companions in the gondola don’t do anything to relieve the surreal nature of the circumstances either. We’re the only two in the cable car wearing anything other than ski salopettes, despite the fact it’s July and 30 degrees.
We’re greeted with a blast of mountain air when we step out of the gondola at 3,480m. Having started our journey in Italy, we’re actually now standing on Swiss soil – or snow, as it happens – on the edge of the border between the Aosta Valley and the Swiss side of the Pennine Alps.
Snow-speckled mountain tops as far as the eye can see lead round to the stunning mass that is the Matterhorn, or Monte Cervino as it’s known in Italy. The sun gleams brightly on our backs.
The peak of Cervino spikes through the sky, sharp enough to pierce the clouds and cut open the heavens above it. Romance rushes over the mountain range like a breeze from the Mediterranean; the seas of grassy greens and beautiful blues flowing down the descent and contrasting with the imposing greys of the mountains which dominate the skyline.
It’s not the first remarkable view we’d seen since we flew into Milan Malpensa, either. The road through the Aosta Valley is not to be slept through – especially when your cab driver is the beaming Marco Pellissier, son of the man who opened the first ever ski school in Cervinia way back in the 1930s, and taught the Italian King at the time how to ride.
Marco points out Roman roads and ancient fortresses on our route as hills rise up from the ground and turn into mountains, towering over the rivers and roads like giant rock guardians as we slowly, then suddenly rise thousands of feet towards the resort of Cervinia.
The town of Cervinia itself is like a utopian landing strip amongst paradisiacal surroundings. It’s not big by any means, but if you’re not looking at Cervino or the beautiful damns and lakes spotted around, you’re staring down the barrel of the beautiful Aosta Valley; gazing over the golf course to the pine trees descending down thousands of metres, winding roads and jagged rocks sketching out a fjord between the slanting hills.
"Picking the smoothest line through the rock field is like trying to pick the most Shakespearean sentence in a Little Mix track..."
A certified skiing haven, Cervinia rarely has a spare bed come winter, and given how small the town is in comparison to neighbours like Zermatt on the other side of the mountain, the pistes are rarely jam-packed either. The numbers for mountain biking are even more enticing.
As we get ourselves geared out at the top of the mountain, at the start of the ominously named “Dark Trail", there’s not another bike in sight. Though the Maxiavalanche contest will take place at the weekend, bringing over 300 riders to the region to race down the glacier we’re about to take on, pitch up on any other sunny day and you’ll have a stunning network of trails practically to yourself, minus a few keen locals.
A sharp blast of wind ripples my riding jersey as we stop at the start of the piste. Gaping down the glacier I’m struck with a bizarre sense of the sublime; the odd feeling that comes with watching endless mountains shrouded in clouds and layered in snow, a view so often seen wearing ski boots now being viewed in shorts. The thinning oxygen so high above town only furthers the sentiment.
I stick on my Giro Cypher helmet and Dainese knee pads and we prepare to set off. I’m glad for the protection, transforming my outline into something between a gladiator and a colour-bombed stormtrooper; a slightly comforting reassurance against the uncertainty of the trail ahead, which drops a full 4527ft before rejoining the centre of the town far below.
“Off-piste skiing has become so common recently," Max says, as we sit on our saddles at the top of the run. “This whole valley is completely covered with snow come ski season." He points to a gaping circular hole in the valley above. “You can see crevasses like that one now; they’re all around, but in winter when it’s snowed over people go right over them not thinking, and some of them can be 30ft deep."
So that’s the possibility of a slow death in an icy cavern to worry about as well as the already pressing issue of trying to stay on the narrow trail ahead without toppling over the edge, and falling head first into a pile of rocks which looks less welcoming than Donald Trump’s America.
Max continued: “Just remember not to brake too hard on your front wheel, and don’t brake when your bike isn’t in a straight line. If you need to slow down you can always put your foot down."
Great. Who needs brakes anyway? As it turns out, I do. And I quickly realise it as my tyres go slipping and sliding down the ski run with all the stability of Bambi on a bobsleigh track.
The thrill of the ride doesn’t escape me, though it does feel like the bike is going to on several occasions. Staring into the heavens ahead it dawns on me that I may be the least angelic object to ever descend through such a spectacular setting. A real self-esteem booster.
Every time I look up I become distracted by the stunning skyline; made up of millions of snowflakes sown into a blank white sheet, draped over the adventure paradise dripping with peril. It’s at this point that my back wheel starts trying to force its independence from my bike frame and I’m left skidding from side to side, struggling to regain my composure – though I somehow manage to stay on the bike.
My first lesson on the mountain in Cervinia; one must stay focused while riding a bicycle down a glacier.
We pass our first fellow mountain bikers as we trudge over the last of the snow. We’ve had to walk over certain small segments where it simply wasn’t possible to ride a bike, and it’s from here that we spot two silhouettes scaling the rocks to reach the start of the trail, carrying their two wheels and frame on their shoulders. I appreciate the romance of their efforts, but having just scrambled down from the opening section on two wheels, I’m rather glad that we opted for the cable car going up.
Quickly continuing on, the trail takes on the first of what will be many drastic transformations in terrain, with the disappearance of the snow leaving us to navigate a landslide of rocks to reach the green singletrail in the distance below. Pick your line.
Luckily Max has done this before, and I stick close to his wheel and put my faith in the suspension pumping away frantically beneath me. The ride was designed for this sort of impetuous voyage, the human form, one would imagine, was not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hang along for the ride.
And that’s exactly what I do. Stay off the brakes whenever possible, hunt out what will hopefully be the smoothest line through the ferocious rock field – a task akin to trying to pick the most Shakespearean sentence in a Little Mix track – and hang on to the handlebars, my bones shaking as we hop and rattle through what actually proves to be a fiendishly fun few minutes.
Our reward is a quick stop for water and a dirt road that weaves in and out of flowy rock routes; a pleasant chance to take a deep breath in and out and really let loose, the crisp mountain air whizzing past as we speed past baffled hikers and grey and white turns abruptly to green and blue all around us; like a shift in seasons before our eyes.
It’s the next major change in what must be one of the most all-encapsulating mountain bike routes on the planet. Ten minutes ago we were standing on snow, and now we’re dropping into a summer sensation; making our way through the seasons of a C.S Lewis novel with a GoPro and a full-face helmet for good measure.
To the left of us lies Lago Goillet; the far side of which will provide the most picturesque view I’ve ever borne witness to. I’d say that no words could describe its splendour, but being a journalist I’d probably get fired. So I guess I’ll give it a shot.
Picture the reflection of the mighty Cervino bouncing off the crystal clear water as you stare across the valley; colossal cliffs lining the lake to the right, leading back up to the top of the mountain, and one hell of a mountain bike trail circling around the water to the left. Overgrown steps enclosed in rock defend the landscape; the greys and whites of which seem impenetrable while the blues and greens bring a humble fragility to the scene.
There, I tried.
Anyway, whoever thought it’d be a good idea to put such a wonder of nature; a mystic dreamland next to a technical rock section on a mountain bike trail was probably not thinking clearly. It’s the closest I came to being thrown over the handlebars as I battled to keep my eyes on the trail.
But that was the next day; a day that was filled with deliciously dirty forest trails on the other side of the Breuil-Cervinia trail map; which while limited sure has at least a little of everything. Day two was filled with some of the best berms in Europe and merciless trails through the woods that demanded your attention and respect and rattled your bones until the very end.
There was still quite a few hundred metres to navigate on the Dark Trail before I could secure my presence on the second day of our Italian adventure at this point, however. Having made it through the snow and rocks, the trail was more reminiscent of the United Kingdom at this point; though the view remained significantly more angelic than a lookout point over Hull. Sorry Hull.
The terrain was by no means as graceful as the view, that’s for sure. A devil’s smile through the handsome face of the valley; the trail featured segments as steep as you like leading on to drops, rivers and tight singletrail on the edge of huge drops before you arrive down at the drop off point for the first cable car. From there it’s time to test yourselves on those tight-turning, neatly sculpted berms and an array of technical descents and short climbs, with wooden features bridging gaps as needed.
Max kindly slows his pace and I follow his line down the conclusion of the course. He’d been a terrific guide – a local who’s lived in Cervinia all his life, working as a ski instructor through winter to fund a summer kitesurfing in Greece and riding the local downhill trails.
He tells stories of helicopter descents on the bike down nearby peaks, of priests on two wheels and of the time he literally saved a puppy from an infuriated Greek farmer. He could drop me in a second and ride the remainder of the course with ease, gliding through the berms, but thankfully he’s an accommodating host.
By this point my hands are trembling, my knees feel like they’ve trebled in weight and my lungs are still readjusting from the fluttering oxygen levels. And yet the final descent is one of the most enjoyable of the day; ripping down singletrail and jumping into the first of three final berms; flowing on through a drop to the next and whizzing out onto a fire road which leads back into the town.
Some glacial water from a local fountain and a short stroll up the small main street to an appropriately-sized burger proves the perfect ending to one of the most remarkable descents in Europe. I swap my full face helmet for a pair of Tens sunglasses and wrap my trembling fingertips around a pint of local beer.
My time in Italy comes to a close after two more days on the technical, testing trails of Cervinia. A few extra additions to the trail map certainly wouldn’t go amiss, but what is on offer is truly awe-inspiring. If the resort can add to the menu further; a few more freeride options to attract the jump-hunting downhill crowd, then its rise could see no end. It’s already a dream for the thriving enduro scene.
By the time I wake up on the final morning, I’m absolutely shot. My hands are trembling from three days of bone-shaking riding and my knees need at least a few days of reading and rest. My head is still trying to comprehend the surreal nature of the scenery I’ve been sliding through for the past few days.
A trip down Plateau Rosa from Breuil-Cervinia is one that no mountain biker would forget in a hurry. Spending a week or more in the town is something completely unforgettable altogether.
Do It Yourself:
Fly to Turin Caselle (118 km), Milan Malpensa (160 km), Milan Linate (180 km) or Geneva (188km).
Transfers to and from the airports can be arranged by coach, taxi or car rental. We got a ride with Taxi Cab Di Marco Pellissier – +39 339 481 0614
We Stayed in: Hotel Fosson
Bike hire from: UAINOT