Did you know that until just a few years ago, much of Switzerland’s major infrastructure – bridges, tunnels, roads, etc. – was lined with explosives, ready to be detonated when invasion was threatened? The practice was a hangover from the Cold War, a time when irascible superpowers threatened each other with total annihilation. How times change.
There’s a tortured analogy here somewhere about the hidden dangers of a road, or maybe something about blowing up when it all gets too much on a difficult climb, but like every major tourist route in Switzerland, the Susten Pass is surprisingly perfect and largely risk-free – legions of cars and motorbikes notwithstanding.
Supposedly the TNT has now been removed, but in any case, the Swiss are the only nationality I would trust to drop bombs anywhere safely. No matter how extreme the landscape, riding here always makes you feel like you’re in good hands. You’ll be fighting the over-sized landscape, not the infrastructure, which is relentlessly perfect at all times.
The western front
The heir to a 17th century mule track, the modern Susten Pass road was built from 1938 to 1945 and opened in 1946. It connects the towns of Innertkirchen in the Bernese Oberland on the west side with Wassen in the canton of Uri on the east side. This is the western approach, which ends at 2,224 meters above sea level.
Susten isn’t really a meaningful transport link for anyone because there are more practical routes if you really need to get somewhere. Most of the traffic here comes from tourism, so it is one of the last passes to open for the high season as the snow recedes. It is usually driveable from some point in June, closing in October or even early November.
Susten offers and does not offer variety. Visually it’s uniformly pleasing, but it takes time to really get going before it goes from merely pretty to truly, mind-blowingly amazing. Almost the entire first half is a menacing alpine meander, a series of cute but orderly villages dotted along a valley, with picturesque meadows and thickly wooded slopes for company.
Switzerland does rustic especially well, but it’s never shabby. The odd patch of weathered wood in a chalet looks more like the patina on an antique piece of furniture than an actual sign of rot. One gets the sense that this is a country that lives comfortably among its heritage rather than treating it as something to be preserved in glass cases. This isn’t a theme park, it’s just a place that chose not to change because the way things are done here is just right for the landscape and the seasons.
This is evident when you look at the first photos of the road itself. Hardly a pillar has been moved in over 70 years and the aesthetics have not been cheapened with plastic street furniture, or Armco for that matter. Many of the drops higher up the climb remain spectacularly dangerous and there are no second chances when it comes to backtracking.
While no part of the pass is extremely steep, some of the more challenging sections arrive early, but even those barely flirt with double digits. It’s fair to say that things get more interesting in the second half of the climb. The view opens up quite a bit and the road begins a frenzied series of swings that offer an endless variety of exciting scenes and plenty of opportunities to get out of the saddle as you circle a hairpin. What is so addictive about a 180° turn on a road? It’s probably the brief illusion of rapid progress after a long, steady grind, and there’s plenty of that in Susten.
There are also short tunnels at intervals along the pass, which on a bright day will plunge you into the deepest darkness. It’s worth having a good rear light for these, because drivers can be thrown off guard by sudden transitions.
Tunnels are a signature of Susten, located where it was found easier to bore through massive rock outcrops than to attempt to circumnavigate them. A waterfall tumbles lazily over one of the most impressive of them, brave climbers hanging in its spray.
The top of the climb overlooks the Stein Glacier, a magnificent blanket of ice draped over the mountain. His refuge has created a large lake that, while beautiful, is an ominous sign of the times. It is hard to ignore the obvious evidence of how much larger the glacier must have been, even within living memory.
The last pair of hairpins gives you a finish that is almost anti-climactic after such miracles along the way. There is the obligatory mountain restaurant to serve you all roast demands, the usual talk of tourists and cyclists high in the mountain air.
A small lake (or large pond) offers pleasant reflections of the surrounding peaks, while the road disappears into another tunnel to begin the descent of the east side to Wassen.
While Susten is, by any reasonable measure, a huge climb, it’s actually not that difficult. The inclines are steady and rarely really testing, so it offers a huge return on your investment of effort.
With the proper gearing – a standard compact road setup will do – and the understanding that you’re in it for the long haul, it’s a climb within reach of most.
If there’s one downside to Susten it’s that it’s a victim of its popularity. Countless car and motorcycle publications praise it as one of the best Alpine passes for driving and riding. Coupled with the limited opening, it can be busy when the weather is good. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the views are second to none and, with well-intentioned corners and flawless surfaces, negotiating traffic is rarely stressful.
Disliking things because they’re popular is self-defeating, and Susten deserves its place in the Alpine Pass Hall of Fame. It is also very unlikely to explode.
• This article was originally published in issue 142 of Cyclist magazine. Click here to register
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