Kaunertaler Glacier Loop

Austrian Alps – Day Three, 2019

The day began with an hour drive to the small town of Prutz, where the road to the Kaunertal Glacier starts. The logistics for the day couldn’t have been any simpler – 25 miles each way, following one road up to the summit. This tells you nothing about what the day would be like however, as the Kaunertaler Gletscherpanoramastraße tops out at 2,750 metres & is the 6th highest paved road in the Alps.

I first read about this epic day in the saddle from a cycling blogger called Will Davies (no relation), he has an awesome website www.cycling-challenge.com & over the years I’ve used it as valuable research for my cycling adventures around Europe. When Will says he loved the climb, then you know it needs to be conquered!

The purpose built road was built in 1980 & exists solely to enable people to reach the ski station at the summit, as a result, it’s open all year round – from there it’s possible to take a cable car up another 1,000 feet. The road itself is wide to ensure that coaches & large trucks can make the trip to the summit.

Our ride started under slate grey, cloudy skies & we used the first few miles as a gentle warm up, but then the bike route detoured around 3 road tunnels – they were all gravel, so the effort to pedal is that bit harder, plus the gradient increased to 9%. The climb is unusual in that from the very start the gradient jumps up & down, so it’s hard to get into a comfortable climbing rhythm.

The early slopes were cut through a pine forest, but as we rounded a sharp corner, the forest gave way to alpine meadows, with sheep & cattle grazing on the lush grass. Every now & then we passed through small villages, until after 7 miles we passed through a toll booth (for cars only) – from this point on, the road became significantly quieter. We were now following the route of a babbling brook as it meandered down the valley from a lake above.

We could just make out the dam wall of the artificial lake in the distance & as we got closer, the road kicked up for 2 miles, with the gradient varying between 7% & 12% – we also passed the first of 29 numbered hairpin bends. The views from the dam made the effort well worthwhile, as by now the sun had got its hat on & there were the beginnings of a blue sky overhead. We rode along the edge of the lake for about 3 miles, before starting the really challenging & fun part of the ride.

The views of the surrounding valley & lake below became more spectacular the higher we climbed. There were some wickedly steep sections by now, as the hairpins came thick & fast – at one point the hairpins were less than 100 yards apart & the gradient kicked up to 12% as the road followed the natural contours.

With 5 miles to go, we got our first glimpse of the glacier & we foolishly thought that we’d broken the back of the ride. We couldn’t have been further from the truth – the next 5 miles took me 1 hour 7 minutes to ride (at an average of 4.5 mph), with over 2,200 feet of ascent. This was quite simply the toughest 5 miles I’ve ever ridden, as the gradient regularly exceeded 13% for in excess of ½ mile at a time. We were also treated to some stunning scenery that helped to take my mind off the pain of the climb.

The summit was very busy, as workmen were undertaking all the repairs that need doing between ski seasons, plus there were several hundred tourists. We headed for the restaurant to replenish our energy supplies (you may have noticed I didn’t make any mention of a coffee stop on the ride) which were now depleted. After a spaghetti bolognese & gateau, we ventured outside to get our photo taken next to the tourist trap sign – 2,750 metres above sea level!

Having taken 3 hours 45 minutes to complete the climb, we could now relax & enjoy the plummet back to the start point, some 2,000 metres below.

We stopped a couple of times to check out the views again & also to admire some of the brilliant wood sculptures that were in every lay-by  most of the trail heads.

Less than an hour & 10 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back at the car – it had been an incredibly tough climb to the summit, but was also a truly epic day in the saddle! A few hours later, we’d recovered enough to raise a glass to another amazing Austria Alpine adventure.

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