A Father-Son Transalpine Journey

My 13-year-old son Mio has only one thing on his mind – mountain biking. In times like these, when it is impossible to make any sort of plans, his dream became reality – a transalpine bike journey from Lake Constance to Lago Maggiore.

Two bikes, two backpacks

Sometimes it takes a detour in order to find the most obvious solution. The Corona pandemic has played chaos with our everyday lives and thereby thrown all our travel plans into disarray. We can no longer make plans. Things have collapsed in on themselves. And everything that could be moved has been shifted. In a similar way, this is how I imagine the emergence of the Alps. Something powerful comes along – in this case, the African continental shelf – and completely disrupts the state of affairs, resulting in the formation of something new. This is also what happened with our summer travel plans. Just before the start of our vacation, my son Mio and I both decided on a transalpine trip – and nothing else!

The “nothing else” also meant not taking our car, no piles of luggage, no predetermined route, no time plan, and no booked accommodations. Nothing – except two bikes, two backpacks, and a destination. My father had to take care of something in southern Germany and promptly agreed to serve as our taxi to Lake Constance. Over 30 years ago, I climbed my first peaks together with my father. These moments made an impact on my whole life. Yes, life is a circle, and if you give it a chance, it runs smoothly. Usually.

Father and son on mountainbikes

We start off in the afternoon in Lindau. After a quick “Good luck, and take care of yourself!” we have already peddled across the border to Austria. Besides the almost continuous rain, I am also plagued by the question of whether we really didn’t take along too much baggage for an alpine crossing. We – really? More like I! Mio is only carrying a small four-kilogram backpack and is wearing a helmet that is all the larger. I have a 14-kilogram backpack, the camera, and bikepacking bags – one in the front with the tent, while the two thermal mats and sleeping bags are packed behind the seat. We decide to forego any overnight stays in huts to avoid Corona and enjoy closer contact with nature. And, yes, to economize. We’ll only be spending money on food while in Switzerland, not on accommodations.

Absolute tranquility and the Milky Way

The first two days, which were supposed to be a warm-up for what’s ahead, are cold and wet. We take the Rhine Cycle Route, a particularly well-developed route, riding along the Rhine and passing Liechtenstein while penetrating deeper into the Alps. Things are still rather unspectacular. At least the cement bunkers from past border conflicts provide Mio with the opportunity to put his biking skills to the test.

On the third day, we reach the Rhine Gorge (Ruinaulta) and treat ourselves to a day off. Our friends, a Swiss family, just happen to be in the area for some white water rafting, and they offer to take us along in their “guest boat.” And we couldn’t turn down their invitation to accompany them to the bike park in Flims, especially after seeing the sparkle in Mio’s eyes. “This is the PERFECT training for the long and demanding trail descents that we will face on our way to Lago Maggiore,” he said convincingly with a grin.

Boy rafting on a river in the Alps

The next day, he lost his grin about as fast as his descents at the bike Eldorado. Now, we have to pedal uphill along the picturesque Valser Rhine to Lumbrein, where we will set up our night camp at an altitude of 2100 meters under Piz Sezner Mountain. Here, we finally get to quench our longings for absolute tranquility and an unhindered view of the Milky Way. While Mio gets to enjoy a reasonably good sleep (we rode the previous evening till 10 PM), I am up with the sun and climb Piz Sezner to revel in the 360° panoramic view.

The idyllic landscape is so overpowering that we would love to slow down our pace, but the weather forecast drives us forward. A heavy rainstorm is predicted for noon the following day, and this means that we urgently have to cross the main ridge of the Alps, namely the Passo del Lucomagno. Of course, I could refer to it as the Lukmanier Pass, but as it marks the border to the region of Italian culture and language, and Italian sounds far more charming.

Boy with bike meets a cow

After our ascent the previous day, we now literally fly down into the valley over the fields and forest trails in no time at all. Mio, in particular, seems to spend more time in the air than on the ground, and this isn’t just because of his light weight. I am just happy if I can even recognize his silhouette ahead in the distance. I can’t suppress my fatherly concern and call out, “Ride carefully!”

As punctual as the Swiss weather service

It now seems like we made the right decision not to take the overcrowded Albrecht route from Garmisch to Lake Garda and instead travel along this comparatively lesser-known route. We have the whole trail to ourselves, apart from the marmots, deer, foxes, cows, eagles, and all the other animals we encounter along the way.

Back in the Vorderrhein Valley, the heat is becoming increasingly oppressive. And despite a hardly mentionable upward slope, we are only making slow progress towards Disentis/Mustér, where our route branches off to Ticino. We end up getting splashed for hours with ice-cold water from various springs and streams, which later merge to form the Rhine, Germany’s longest river. When the sun disappears behind the imposing mountain ridges in the early evening, we finally tackle the Passo del Lucomagno. Only with the onset of darkness do we manage to set up our tent on a field behind one of the many notice boards warning how to behave if one encounters wolves. Tonight, our provisions remain in the airtight compartments of one of my bikepacking bags, far away from the tent. Just in time for sunrise, we are back on our bikes. Our goal is to complete the remaining 600-meter ascent over the main European watershed before having to face the imposing forces of nature in the form of a thunderstorm forecast for noon.

Trans Alpine Camping and bikepacking in the mountains

We are quick. The billowing clouds become dark. We pedal even faster, and the clouds get even darker. With a remarkable lead over the clouds, we arrive at the top of the pass shortly before 10 AM. At precisely ten o’clock, we have three pieces of cake with whipped cream for breakfast. And as it begins to rain on the Wiesen Trail on the south side of the Alps, we know that you can set your watch to the Swiss weather service. It is exactly 12 pm! We have made it. We have pedaled OVER the Alps! As if to celebrate the day, we get a thunderstorm spectacle, the likes of which Mio and I have hardly experienced before. The mountains are literally trembling. But we are once again sitting in front of a delicious Italian meal. Food and lodgings – on this trip, everything flows into the cost of the fare, and the storm can rage as much as it wants.

The only infuriating thing about a storm is that the rooted trails and natural stone stairs are so tricky to traverse after a downpour that we often have to push our bikes, cursing the whole time. And what an already sweaty 13-year-old downhill aficionado thinks of this, one can eloquently imagine. Yet, we are equally placated by the colorful southern alpine culture, the small picturesque mountain villages, the blossoming chestnut forests, the zest for life of the Dolce Vita, and the countless best pizzas in the world as we are by the fact that from now on it’s only downhill towards Lago Maggiore.

Jens Steingässer and son Mio with their bikes and Jack Wolfskin equipment

On the evening of the 10th day, we sit together with friends around a campfire looking out onto the lake. Mio and I are in absolute agreement about one thing: This was certainly not our last trans-alpine crossing together, but it is undoubtedly the last in which I am fitter than Mio. Life is a circle, and if you give it a chance, it runs smoothly. Usually.