Day 14: St Christophe to Martigny/Hospental (94km, 1935m)

We woke up to an ominous looking sky , packed our bags quickly, and then went downstairs looking for breakfast. No one was in sight, so we mounted our saddlebags and handlebar bags, and then walked around. There was someone in the kitchen, and when we mentioned breakfast to him, he went up to the front desk, gave us bread and a cup of cappuchino. Mike paid for our stay, and he gave us directions to Grand St Bernard.

I had done this approach two years ago, but still did not remember how to properly negotiate the area around Aosta. We rode along the main highway until the first turn off, and then got lost a few times on city streets, asking for directions every so often until we found ourselves on the highway to the tunnel, which was shared with cars and big trucks. The lower part of the climb is an easy grade, but that day, a strong headwind developed and I was forced to draft Mike. There was one point at which even Mike was wobbled by the strength of the sidewind, which made me glad that I had him to draft. I would not have enjoyed doing this climb by myself.

At this point, there was still blue sky, so I hoped that the blustery conditions did not portend something worse. We stopped after about 10km to pick up sports drinks, and another 3km after that to buy bananas, which I stuck in my pocket. We would use Gu most of the day today, but having solid food is always a morale booster that I enjoy. The sports drinks were probably superflous, since the day was unusually cool, but it never hurts to replace electrolytes.

We rode rapidly past the town of Etrouble (1270m), which was followed by a retrograde over to St. Oyen, past which we started to see signs for the fork off between the main tunnel bypass and the secondary road which would take us to the top. Past the fork at St Rhemy en Bosses (1619m), we started feeling quite cold, so stopped to put on arm and leg warmers. The climb wound around a little bit before starting the steep section up a wooded section that was beautiful. At this point, Mike said, "This is my last climb, so I'm going to climb it at maximum effort." There was no way I could keep up with him if he did that, so we parted ways. I was sad to lose my wind-shield, but it also meant that I was more likely to take pictures.

I slowly worked my way up the wooded area along the tunnel highway, and then stopped at the last cafe before the top to eat a banana and take pictures. Lisa & I had stopped 2 years ago here for water, but there would be no need for that today since it was so cool. As we climbed further, the clouds appeared to hang lower and lower while I got colder and colder. Eventually I gave in and stopped again to eat Gu and put on everything I had. A headwind rose up in the North and I started having to fight to make progress. Finally, after a long construction area where traffic was one-way every few minutes, I approached what I remembered to be the summit. The wind at this point was around 30kph. The summit (2473m)? It was foggy, and I could see perhaps 1 meter of the summit lake. There was no sign of Mike.

I rode past the Italian customs post and was stopped at the Swiss customs post. The Swiss asked to see my passport, and I took the opportunity to ask them if they had seen another cyclist ride by. They hadn't. After getting my clearance, I turned around and went to look for Mike. There was a cyclist who passed us about 30 minutes before the summit, and I saw him there putting his bike into a car driven by his wife. I asked them if they had seen my friend, and his wife said yes, 5 minutes ago. I concluded that Mike must have descended so I rode over to the Swiss side, and there behind a building swapped my cap for a helmet next to a motorcyclist who although dressed in heavy leathers complained about the cold while smoking a cigarette.

The descent was cold! My hands were cold, and had to hang on to the brake levers, which being metal conducted heat away from my fingers and made them colder still. Every 5 minutes my fingers would go numb and I would have to stop and put my hands inside my jersey against my body in order to warm them up. I repeated this 3 or 4 times before the grade became gentle enough that I could ride without holding the brakes. Even then I was shivering with cold on the descent as it passed through tunnels and galleries. It is a tribute to Swiss drivers that all through the descent none of them buzzed me, made obscene gestures or yelled at me.

The descent went on and on past Orsieres (879m), a town that Lisa & I had stopped for breakfast before riding up Champex. I stopped when I saw a restaurant called Le Catogne. Determined that I needed sustenance, I stopped, placed my bike somewhere prominent, and walked in. It was such a relief to see a black man with impeccable English ask me what I would like to drink, to which I replied "Hot water, please." He looked puzzled walked away, and then came back and asked if I really meant just hot water. I replied to the affirmative, and he came back with it. I placed my hands around the cup and enjoyed the feeling of warmth in my hands and the pleasant sensation.

My waiter came back and kindly went over the menu with me and I ordered lunch. I then realized that I could SMS Mike from my cell phone which I proceeded to do. I tried calling him as well, but it was useless. Lunch arrived, as did the motorcyclist I had encountered earlier. When he saw me he came up and commented to me how cold it was. I agreed and shuddered. I ate lunch with gusto and Mike SMS'd me right before I completed lunch. I asked Mike where he was and he said 10 minutes from the top. I asked the restaurant how to spell their name and SMS'd the name of the restaurant to him along with directions.

I then sat outside and waited. My motorcyclist acquaintances came by, and we chatted some more. "You're not too far from Martigny now, and the temperature was much better, right?" It was only a very light misty drizzle right now, so I agreed. An English man and his wife went into the restaurant. After they were seated he must have immediately come back outside to talk to me, because he appeared right away and talked to me about my cycle trip. He introduced himself as Barry Armstrong (no relation to that famous cyclist), and his wife was Susan. His brother apparently was quite a serious cyclist, hence his affinity for talking to strange cyclists. I told him I was waiting for my friend.

It took a really long time for Mike to show up, and he had to SMS me another time for directions. By the time he arrived, it was past two and the kitchen was closed. Barry, however, intervened, and got the restaurant to grant us a plate of cold meats and bread, and I handed Mike my last banana, so he ate well. All through lunch Ikept up a conversation with Barry and Susan. They told me that the weather was supposed to get better tomorrow and the day after, and offered me a place to stay if I wanted. My plans were still up in the air, but if the weather really was good, then I wanted to climb Sustens pass and visit Rosenlaui, while I was still thinking that visiting my friend in Lausanne might be possible if the weather was bad, so I declined the offer. I gave Barry my card, and told him to send me e-mail.

When Mike finished lunch, we said our farewells to the Armstrongs, and proceeded on our descent. We went 8km before Mike fell behind. I heard him cry out something, turned around, and rode back to him along the sidewalk to find htat he had had a snakebite. I had wondered to myself earlier whether his tire was low or whether it was just because he was a big guy, and I guess now I knew the answer. Torelli Master rims are great, except that they are just a bit too big, and hence a pain in the behind to get tires on and off. I helped Mike with it, and he got the tire pumped up pretty hard. I gave him one of his unpatched tubes in order to fix the flat, and took back a patched tube.

The descent into Martigny (477m) happened without incident, and we found the train station with no problem. I congratulated Mike on the successful completion of his first bicycle tour, and then called Jennie. Jennie declined to host me for a rest day, so my path was set. I would go to Hospental tonight. The train to Realp, however, didn't run this late, so I had to take an inter-city train for one stop, hop onto a regional train, get onto a postal bus, and then finally take the glacier express one stop to Realp. I would not get to Realp until 8:30pm. (It was now 5:00pm) The cost? 67 Francs, including the 15 Franc bike charge. It sounded like a deal.

I had a little bit of time, so I went back to a bike shop I saw earlier, borrowed their pump, and pumped up my tires. I then dropped by a supermarket and bought bananas, gatorade, and chocolate. Given the long time I would spend on the bus I figured that I would have plenty of time to eat chocolate on the bus.

The train ride along Sion valley was beautiful, sun shining through patches of cloud, granting lovely crepuscular beams over the valley. I thoroughly enjoyed the views granted by the train. The bus trip was fun as well (yes, those postal buses have a storage area under the bus which will happily take a touring bike, complete with saddlebag). But now the weather turned cloudy and dark. By the time I'd gotten to Oberwald, I was starting to wonder if it had been a good idea at all! There was definitely a slight drizzle, and the outlook did not look pretty. Well, I was set. The rail operator took my bike and put it into a special baggage van. I then went back to a passenger car.

The train ride from Oberwald to Realp wasn't very interesting, since it was one very long tunnel that lasted almost the entire trip. By the time I got to Realp is was 8:32pm, and I hopped out of the train. The baggage car rolled open and I was handed my bike. I looked around, and tried riding out of the gate I was on, but it didn't seem to go anywhere, so I took the tunnel under the tracks and emerged onto the road from Realp, which I had ridden from once before, two years ago, under more pleasant weather conditions.

The ride down from Realp (1538m) was cold and freezing. There was a gentle headwind which made the downgrade not as fast but just as cold as it would have been. After 4km I hit the railroad crossing where the glacier express was going, and had to stop, along with a couple of motorcycles that had passed me 2 minutes earlier. A little after that, there was a construction zone where traffic was one way every few minutes. After that, however, it was clear sailing and I rode down onto the main cobblestone street in Hospental and arrived at the Hotel Rossli where I had stayed 2 years ago. The man at the reception claimed there was no room, but the woman, who despite not recognizing me from two years ago told me yes, she'd give me this double room for 50 Francs including a big breakfast. I parked the bike at the usual place, downstairs and in the back, and brought my bags up to the room. I asked if dinner was possible and she said, "Yes, but hurry because we close the kitchen at 9:00pm." I didn't do much except to take a leak, wash my hands, and bring down my wallet and came down to dinner quickly.

Dinner for me was butternut squash soup, a hot broth to brace against the cold, and some fish along with Swiss standard size Eichoff beer. After that, there was not much to do except shower, laundry, and sleep.

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