The Stelvio is in many ways the queen of Alpine passes. It
has the most switchbacks (46 on the Bormio (Italian) side, 48 on the
Prato (Swiss side). At 2758 m (just over 9000'), only the Col du
Bonnette is higher. It has only recently been paved. Eddy Merckx
raced its gravel ramps in the Giro. So as we left Bormio to ride
both sides of it on a beautiful day, we were excited and perhaps a little
intimidated. Bormio lies at 1217m, and Prato, our destination 48 km
away on the far side, sits at an oxygen - rich 913 m. You do the math.
OK, I'll to it: that's 1541 m of climbing on the Italian side and 1845
on the Prato side, for a total of 3386 m of ascending (a bit more than 11000').
The Italian side has a long series of tunnels that link sections of
switchbacks and a long haul up a glacial valley. The tunnels are long,
narrow, wet, and dark. I think that the purpose of the tunnels is to
protect the road from rock fall more than to provide a route through or along
In the past, it was an important transportation link between the Trento-Adige
region of northern Italy and Switzerland and other land to the north. Today
there are 4 lane motorways to the west that are the main transportation corridor
and the Stelvio is motored primarily for its scenery and challenge. The
mountains that it passes through are the Italian Alps, and they consist of
folded and faulted metamorphics. These rocks were buried, deformed
and metamorphosed when the flat-lying limestones of the Dolomites were emplaced
The view down the valley towards Bormio before the section of tunnels.
The series of switchbacks above the tunnels, midway up the Bormio
The series of tunnels on the Bormio side. In spots they are
too narrow for two cars. On the descent we had to back up with some
cars when an impasses was reached. You can see in this photo how
the tunnels are constructed to protect the road and its travellers from rock
A bit closer view of the same switchbacks as in the photo above.
The waterfall alongside them is spectacular.
Looking back down the tornante; the highest tunnel can just be glimpsed
in the upper right corner of the photo. Above these switchbacks,
the road climbs somewhat more gently along an open, alpine, glacial valley
until it reaches a cirque below the pass. It makes a few switchbacks
to climb up the headwall of the cirque to the pass (but the headwall on the
Bormio side is far less dramatic than the one on the other side).
The tightly folded strata above the road are typical of the Alps
and rare in the Dolomites.
A glimpse down the far side from the pass. Many switchbacks
are blocked from view on the left.
The boys lunch on bratwurst and sauerkraut sandwiches. They
were made by a pair of Swiss vendors who drive the pass every day. The
Swiss bratwurst vendors asked, 'vat do you call "sauerkraut" een America?'
From the far side of the pass you can see this very nice set of hanging
glaciers on the north-facing mountain faces.
Looking back up the valley from Trofoi, which lies just below the
lowest switchbacks. The pass lies to the right; the road climbs for
a few kilometers in the direction this photo was taken then bends to the
right. This picture was taken during the descent to Prato.
This amazing set of switchbacks lies a bit above Trofoi; this photo
was taken during the climb from Prato.
The climb from Prato is very long. It begins with some 7-8%
sections along a beautiful river raging with glacial water, continues past
Trofoi then climbs steeply through the set of switchbacks visible in the
photo above this one. It was there that we met a very tall Italian
who had just been dropped off by his rather attractive girlfriend. Unfortunately
she drove off, so we talked to him instead. After the steep switchbacks
through the woods, the road pops into the open and offers this sight. At
this point we were all beginning to suffer; the air is noticable thinner,
yet 20 tornante, and about 8 or 9 hundred meters of ascending lie ahead.
The road makes a series of asymmetric switchbacks so that it works
its way up the valley towards the headwall in the photo while climbing up
the side of the valley at the same time.
A couple of the assymmetric switchbacks that bring the road up the
valley and up its side can be seen in this view back down the valley. If
you look carefully, you can make out our tall Italian friend on the uppermost
section of road, next to a wall; he is about to make a gentle left bend
as he continues to climb. I took this over my shoulder as I rode
and evidently didn't hold the camera horizontally!
The headwall viewed from further up the ridge (Fred took this photograph
during a hike a few days after our ride).
Fred gains the summit! This was one of Fred's best days. About
150 m of dirt remains on the Stelvio, and Fred is on it. Those
booties look warm!
Edwin and his grimace conquer the Stelvio.
Sterl, after stopping to take some photos, reaches the top. Is
that a smile?
The scene at the pass. The Stelvio is very popular with motorcycle
tourists. The descent off the Prato side was actually surprisingly
non-technical, in a sense. It was pretty much just BRAKE, turn,
SPRINT, BRAKE, turn, .... The pavement on the upper switchbacks
contained smooth - even polished - 1 to 2 cm diameter pebbles - a very
slippery suface. The traffic is a bit difficult also. The descent
to Bormio is very nice - the pavement is mostly good and there are varied
The view down towards Bormio from a relatively low point on the climb.
What on Earth does a messy hotel room have to do with the Passo di
Stelvio? My and Sterling's entertainment the evening after the
ride was a bat that flew into our room, right across in front of my face,
and onto my nightstand. Eventually it flopped onto the floor, where
I threw the towel on it and took a picture. All ended well.
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