Trail of the glaciers
The Stoneman Glaciara trail leads along two glaciers, through historical villages and past 4,000-metre peaks, promising high adventure in a spectacular setting.
Sometimes in life you need to think fast and act quickly. It took just a few hours for Romeo Volken to sketch out a rough route in a bid to have his home region included in the Stoneman network of mountain bike trails. The keen rider had just attended a presentation on the Stoneman concept at a mountain bike conference, and was convinced Valais should be involved. After the conference, Volken and two other bikers, Robert and René Diezig, perfected the route and sent in their proposal to compete against bids from other Swiss regions. Just before Christmas 2016, they learned they had won; thanks to the support of participating regions (Binntal Landscape Park, Goms, Aletsch Arena and Bellwald), the 127-kilometre Stoneman Glaciara was inaugurated six months later.
The idea behind the Stoneman trails is simple and soon proved a success: the routes are designed not only to host competitions but also to welcome mountain bike enthusiasts all summer. Volken adds: “For me it was important that this should be a sustainable tourism project. Most riders will come for several days, they’ll stay in local accommodation and will have the chance to get to know the Valais in all its beauty.” Elsewhere, there are already Stoneman trails in the Dolomites and the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge); each leads through spectacular scenery, with just one itinerary in any country. “We are really proud that we represent Switzerland in this network,” says Volken, adding that the route is the only Stoneman to lead past two glaciers – hence its second name, Glaciara.
Romeo Volken himself is a talented mountain biker: the energetic 38-year-old from Bellwald was formerly a member of the Swiss National Team and has represented Switzerland at World Championships as well as European Championships. He is the founder not only of the Stoneman Glaciara, but also the Bellwald downhill race, which attracts up to 400 competitors. This year’s edition will be the 12th, held as always in the first week of October. Volken additionally runs the Rodeo Bike Co. in Bellwald with shop and guiding service; he is also a qualified Swiss Cycling Guide. “Valais has 8,000 kilometres of single-track trails,” he says. “There’s so much to discover.”
Naturally the Stoneman Glaciara holds a special place among his favourite rides. Formed of three well-balanced stages, the route initially climbs to the Great Aletsch Glacier before descending to Mörel. Next comes the ride’s showcase climb: nearly 1,600 vertical metres up a steep old military road to the Breithorn pass at 2,451 metres. From here, the trail plunges into the Binntal valley, famous for its mountain crystals and more than 200 other minerals. The route then leads up the Rhône valley into the Obergoms region – through ancient villages, past historical monuments and by welcoming cafés. The charming atmosphere of these typical Valais villages, with their wooden chalets bronzed by the sun, was also a reason this region won a place in the Stoneman network – alongside the spectacular mountain scenery.
Riders choose for themselves how they wish to tackle the circuit. “You can start wherever you want,” says Volken, “and ride at your own pace. The route is fully signposted the whole way.” Riders who want to win a Stoneman trophy can obtain a starter pack complete with stamp card to show they have completed the circuit – in a maximum of three days. “It can be done in one day, but you have to be an expert rider and extremely fit,” says Volken. All keen mountain bikers with trail experience can manage it in three days, however.
Highlights of the route, for Volken, include the section from Bellwald into the Fieschertal valley: “A real single-track trail with roots and stones,” he says. The ride from Märjelen back to Fiescheralp is also spectacular, he adds, and anyone who enjoys a fast and exciting downhill run will love the descent from Moosfluh to Mörel. To ensure that time spent resting and relaxing is just as pleasurable, the Stoneman Glaciara website lists the different accommodation options. Altogether, 18 accommodation and 12 service partners are located directly along the route.
The goal of the Stoneman circuits is to encourage mountain bikers to challenge their limits and also to get to know other regions. “The trophy is designed so that it can be crowned with a second or third,” says Volken. He is convinced that the individual regions will benefit from one another. “I also hope that riders who tackle the Stoneman Glaciara will discover just how much natural beauty there is here and how many possibilities Valais offers mountain bikers.” After all, Valais is the ultimate adventure destination, a boundless playground for riders. Throughout the region, well-marked trails wind through forests and across mountainsides, leading up to cascading mountain streams and alpine lakes. Thanks to the extensive network of railways, bus routes and cableways, riders have countless possibilities for planning tours of every level.
Easy routes include Courtavey Bike, a 12.4-kilometre circuit linking Crans-Montana and the alpine pastures above, and the leisurely ride from Schwarzsee down to Zermatt (12.7 km), which is ideal also for families. Tours of medium difficulty can be found throughout Valais. The “Route du Lait”, for example, is a scenic tour that leads from the summit station of the Croix-de-Culet cable car, above Champéry, via Lapisa and back to the resort. Along the way, it offers glorious views of the massif of Les Dents Blanches – and also the legendary “Swiss wall” (Chavanette), notorious in winter as a steep mogul run.
Riders in top shape seeking one of the most thrilling adventures the region has to offer will enjoy the Valais Alpine Bike route: 143 kilometres through breathtaking mountain scenery from Verbier to Chandolin, of which several sections follow the exact route of the legendary Grand Raid race from Verbier to Grimentz. This mountain bike marathon is not only the oldest and one of the most dramatic in the Alps, but also one of the most prestigious anywhere. The best time to tackle the alpine trails in general is from June onwards; the Stoneman Glaciara opens on 15 June.
Text: Monique Ryser
Photos: Pascal Gertschen