Grauspitz – 8,527ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: August 12, 2010
Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in Europe – a tiny little sliver just 5 miles wide by 15 miles tall stuck between Switzerland and Austria. It’s basically just half of a river valley on the Swiss side next to gnarly, uninhabitable mountains on the Austrian side, and I have no idea how it even has an economy (maybe banking?). But what it lacks in size it makes up for by an awesome highpoint – Grauspitz.
We started our Liechtenstein journey just over the border in Feldkirch, Austria. We had just climbed Zugspitz in Germany the previous day and were pumped to squeeze in one last country highpoint before the end of the summer. We got off the train in the early afternoon and started following signs for Vaduz (the capital of Liechtenstein). We found some pretty nice marked bike trails and followed them out of town and then down a big river valley. Now country borders in the EU aren’t quite as secure as the US-Mexican border, as we had already found out from the Norway-Sweden crossing where customs agents didn’t work on weekends (though the road was still open). But the Austria/Liechtenstein border was about as well-defined as a county border in the US. No fence, no river crossing, not even a pavement quality change, not even a Welcome-to-Liechtenstein sign, just a sign with an Austrian flag pointing the other direction. We took a picture anyways and kept biking.
Now if we had really been pushing it we could have traversed the country north-to-south in under an hour, but we took our time to enjoy the scenic castles and buy a few souvenirs. So it probably took all of 2 hours to get to the southern end of the country. The whole time we were looking up at the ominous mountains to our left and wondering – which one was Grauspitz? They all looked pretty technical from this side. Luckily we had done our homework beforehand and knew the least-technical route up Grauspitz was actually from the Swiss side (the summit was on the Swiss border). We crossed over the Swiss border at Balzers, climbed up over a little pass, and then plunged down into the quaint town of Maienfeld.
Usually when we need water we just ask to fill up at a gas station or grocery store, but when we tried this time at a grocery store the cashier pointed outside to one of the fountains. It turns out the water is so clean in Switzerland that you can actually just drink straight from these fountains! (like the fancy fountains in the middle of cities with statues spurting out water.) With heavily laden bikes we set off for the first challenge of Grauspitz – biking to the base of the climb. Unlike Germany, switchback technology has actually been adopted on the roads in Switzerland, though they only put about half as many switchbacks in as you would see in the US. The result is roads with around 12-15% grade – almost at the limit where you would walk a bike. We had about a 4000ft vertical bike climb ahead of us to the end of the road, so with only a few hours of daylight left we started off.
We biked through the little town of Jenin and then the road went up,up,up through the forest. Whenever the terrain was level enough where one could maybe comfortably walk without using hands for balance, the trees were cleared and it was used for cattle grazing. Swiss people definitely use every square inch possible for farming. The road was steep enough that we had to make our own mini-switchbacks to keep from having to walk the bikes up. It was safe, though, since it was a one-lane gravel road with only a few houses at the end so there would be very little traffic.
By nightfall we had made it almost to the edge of treeline where it would start leveling out, so we figured we’d better find a stealth campsite quick while there were still trees to hide in. Man that was a tough spot to find, but eventually we carried our bikes over a fence and camped on the remnants of an old logging-road grade on the side of the mountain. We went to bed with the sounds of hundreds of cow bells ringing in the distance from all the dairy farms above the treeline.
In the morning we decided to stash our gear at this campsite and bike up with just our daypacks, so as to give the appearance that we had not, in fact, just stealth camped in the woods. Also we then already had a tried and true place to camp the next night with no searching required. After about an hour we finally made it to the top of a pass and looked around to try to figure out where we were. We hadn’t exactly followed the road recommended by Summitpost, and had been going by a picture we had taken of sign down in town with an artist’s rendering of where the mountains were. Grausptiz was labeled, but I think the artist didn’t quite get all the details right because we couldn’t find where we were on that picture.
Just then three senior citizens popped up from over the hill, apparently having hiked up that morning (swiss people are pretty tough). They even spoke a little English. Unfortunately none of them had heard of Grauspitz (no surprise – there’s no trail to it, the easiest route is sketchy class 3/4, and it’s almost never climbed). Luckily we knew Grauspitz was right next to a mountain called Shwarzhorn, and one of the ladies said she thought a farm that sounded like “yes” was near Shwarzhorn. Then I remembered my route description printout and the route started at a town called “Ijes”. That was it!
We followed her directions to Ijes then, biking down the other side of the pass, through some sketchy 1-lane tunnel that looked about 300 years old, and finally to the farm. Now the terrain was starting to look like the pictures I had seen online. We hid the bikes behind a boulder and started hiking.
The route took us past a bunch of cows with cow bells the size of watermelons, then up a super-steep grassy slope to the top of a ridge. Until then the weather had been holding out, but now some clouds started rolling in from the Liechtenstein side and the visibility started deteriorating. We had heard you could see the whole country from Grauspitz, but not today.
Now at this point we had to make our first decision:
Option A: climb up the Shwarzhorn first, then down climb the sketchy 4th class ridge and traverse the ridge over to Grauspitz (this is the route summitpost recommended) or
Option B: traverse the steep scree-field on the side of Shwarzhorn (which is directly above some cliffs), before gaining the ridge just below the 4th class section.
I didn’t like the idea of down-climbing 4th class stuff with a cliff on both sides when it was about to rain, so we decided to carefully traverse the scree. We made it over to the ridge no problem and now it was supposedly “class 2 or 3” all the way to the summit. Well, it was certainly fun but had quite a lot of exposure. There was one scrambly knife-edge exposed move I vowed to find a different way around on the way back. The visibility was now about 20 ft with the clouds rolling through but we pushed on, past a small snow pile and then found ourselves on the roof of Liechtenstein! There was a huge cairn and even a summit register put there in 1992. From the looks of it only a few people had climbed that mountain every year. The summit was the highpoint on a ridge that was about 3ft wide, with wet grass leading to cliffs on each side. Not safe enough to do our customary jumping pictures, but very scenic when the clouds broke once in a while below us.
With the weather still deteriorating we snapped our pictures, signed the register, and started heading down. This time we dropped below the sketchy ridge section and did a huge scree traverse back to the base of the Shwarzhorn. Right about there the sky let loose and it started hailing. Wow, if we had stayed on the summit 20 more minutes it would have been pretty miserable. But we were in a safe location now and the hike back was not all that steep. As we descended lower the hail turned to plain rain and seemed to intensify. It was cold too – probably upper 40s or so. The last thing we wanted to do then was hop on our bikes for a long descent – that would have just added windchill to the cold rain and we wouldn’t even be pedaling to burn energy. Fortunately there was a little wind so that when we got to the bikes we could stand on one side of the Ijes barn and stay out of the rain.
We stood there for about 2 hours, just eating and shivering and hoping the rain would let up. At one point a farmer came out with his dog and rounded up all the cows in the valley. That’s not a sight every tourist gets to see I bet. I guess it was time for milking.
Eventually the wind died down and the barn no longer provided any shelter. We decided to make a dash for the 300-year-old tunnel and find some legitimate shelter there. It was close enough that we didn’t get too soaked in the process. We then waited there for another hour before the rain finally let up (or so we thought). So we made another dash for it out of the tunnel and back toward our campsite. Unfortunately this was not one of those mountains you can just cruise all the way down once you’re done, because we still had to bike back up to the pass where we had met the senior citizens. At least this gave our bodies a chance to burn some energy and warm up.
At the top of the pass, just when we were excited to finally get some fun down-hill riding in I noticed my front breaks were worn down to the metal, and the back ones weren’t clamping down properly. And then it started raining again. Great.
A little bit of cursing and a few objects getting thrown finally resulted in my back brakes getting adjusted, but the front ones would have to wait since we didn’t actually have any spares. We rode back down to camp at an excruciatingly slow speed, since I could only use my back brakes. That doesn’t sound like it would be a problem, but the road was such steep gravel that I would skid if I started going too fast before applying the back brake.
We made it though, close to dark again. Now we were glad we’d stashed the gear and didn’t have to look for another campsite in the cold, dark rain. We still had the tarp we’d bought up in Norway and this was indispensable. We set up the tarp first, then set the tent up under the tarp so nothing go too wet. The campsite wasn’t completely flat so we piled up some dead sticks on the one end and made it flat enough.
The rain ended up continuing most of the night and we considered ourselves very lucky to have found that tiny little weather window to tag the summit and get down safely. Liechtenstein definitely did not let us climb its roof without a fight.
The next morning we crawled back over the fence out of camp and cruised down into the valley. We now had to get to Zurich to meet some friends and eventually fly home. It was tempting to make it all the way to a hotel in Zurich that day because a) we hadn’t officially showered in 2 weeks, b) it was only 50 miles away, c) all our gear was soaked, and d)we could perhaps eat something fancier than a one-pot meal for a change, but unfortunately we were a day earlier than our hotel reservation. So we decided to enjoy one more stealth night in the woods.
Most of Switzerland may be mountains, but the 50-mile stretch between Maienfeld and Zurich is almost 100% flat. That’s just what we needed after the previous days of 15%-grade climbing. We cruised down the road quite fast, passing by Salgans and Walansee Lake and even going through some bike-only tunnels. One part of the road was seriously a 25% grade descent (that’s what the sign said), but everything else was flat. By the time we hit Brugg on the East end of Lake Zurich it was only mid afternoon, but we started getting skeptical that the camping opportunities would remain good much longer. So we snuck off in the woods and camped out one last night.
The next morning we hit Zurich in the early morning and spent the whole rest of the day on logistics. We planned to go on a trip with our friends around Switzerland for a week and needed to store all our gear and put our bikes in boxes to prepare for the flight. The gear storage was pretty easy – we just found the hostel we planned to stay at the next week and they stored everything for a small fee. The bike boxes, though, were considerably harder. We probably visited 10 bike stores all over Zurich before we finally found one with some spare boxes. And then we had to bike 5 miles back to the hostel carrying those huge boxes! Well it all worked out in the end. We deemed the summer very successful looking back – 13 new countries, 10 new country highpoints, and 3300 more miles on the bikes.