The Stelvio

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 cliffs.  

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 against Europe.  

wrecked building

The view down the valley towards Bormio before the section of tunnels.

middle switchbacks

The series of switchbacks above the tunnels, midway up the Bormio side.


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 fall.


A bit closer view of the same switchbacks as in the photo above.  The waterfall alongside them is spectacular.

bormio switchbacks

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.

far side

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.

trofio church

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.

upper switchbacks

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 summit scene

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 corners.


The view down towards Bormio from a relatively low point on the climb.  
bat towel

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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