There are no barriers or guardrails on the south side of the Col de I’Iseran, none at all, even where there are hundreds of feet to fall.
Climbing up here, and just as importantly, getting back down again, is a serious business. What you get in return is breathtakingly beautiful, awe-inspiring, and scary all at the same time.
This is the big daddy of the great cycling road climbs. Many climb the north side up through Val-d’Isere, but the southern ascent is where the wild natural grandeur lies. This is as close to raw nature as you will find anywhere in these mountains. Nothing surpasses the Col de I’lseran. Nothing comes even close.
The road from the south to the I’Iseran is something to behold.
Long, wide, straight, steady rising, with mountains on both sides, slowly converging with a sense of expectation. What is to come is nothing less than one of the best cycling road climbs in the world. You have been on this road for some time already when you reach this tree. It marks a point. It is the gatekeeper.
A couple of kilometres further along the flat valley floor and into the hamlet of Bonneval-sur-Arc. Every house, barn, bridge, you name it, is built from the rocks that have crashed down from the mountains. A sharp left turn and the climbing immediately begins. The quicker you find your rhythm, the better because it isn’t going to get any easier for quite some time.
The scale in this part of the mountains is simply off the scale. Climbing up off the valley floor looks easy enough, but of course, it isn’t. The long ramps stretch deceptively out across the mountainside in the sunshine requiring a sustained maximum effort. The climb starts at an altitude of 1800 metres, close to the treeline and affecting oxygen density. Your endurance will be severely tested on the climb, no matter who you are, so settle into a comfortable cadence and enjoy the views.
It’s a long way to the top.
At around 2000 metres, with the summer pastures spread out below, the road starts to funnel into the ravine the road shares with the torrent of water coming down from the melting snowline. Even during high summer, there’s still plenty of snow on the mountain tops. Localised storms form very quickly, with torrential rain falling as snow closer to the top, catching the unwary and forcing people down the mountain much quicker than they might like.
Between a rock and a hard place.
Climbing up through the ravine, navigating the tunnels and generally trying not to crash off the road are all helpful distractions. The atmospheric pressure levels are now significantly less than at the start of the climb and will affect your performance. The oxygen saturation of haemoglobin determines the content of oxygen in your blood. Which in turn affects your ability to turn the pedals. Once over 2,100 metres, the saturation of oxyhemoglobin begins to decrease rapidly. You will now be deep in the red.
Slowly emerging from the ravine, the road crosses a small bridge before opening out into a valley just below the summit. Intrepid cyclists are just dots on the road below, and the summit refuge can be seen against the sky on the top ridge in the centre of the picture. This could easily be the most brutal couple of kilometres you ever do on a bike, depending on how your body reacts to the lack of oxygen.
Time is elastic. Time may have just stopped. It may take the rest of your life to reach the top of this mountain. But reach it, you will.
Should the elements decide to cover the sky in thick black clouds reducing visibility to near zero. Drop the temperature ten degrees or more, drive a blizzard into your eyes and cover you in snow, then so be it. There is nothing you can do about it. You are not important up here.
If this is a problem, you have no business being here. On the other hand, if this is what you crave, what you need to feel genuinely alive and on top of the world, or just think it looks like fun. Welcome to the Col de I’Iseran.
Answer the call of the wild.
© davidt 2023