The best climbs you’ve never heard of: Col du Sanetsch
On paper, the Col du Sanetsch has nothing special to offer. It sits in just another side valley of the beautiful Swiss canton of Valais. And unlike the more famous Grimsel, Furka, Nufenen and Grand Saint-Bernard passes, it is a dead end. And still, the Col du Sanetsch may be former racer and exceptional blogger Alain Rumpf's favourite climb in the world.
Words: Alain Rumpf
“Sanetsch!” That’s what I pretty much yelled halfway through a lunch with Tristan Cousin and Simon Martinet from the Haute Route team. I might have spat some food in the process. They had just told me they were planning a new Haute Route event in Crans-Montana and were wondering which climbs should be part of it.
Why this cry from the heart ? On paper, the Col du Sanetsch has nothing special to offer. It sits in just another side valley of the beautiful Swiss canton of Valais. And unlike the more famous Grimsel, Furka, Nufenen and Grand Saint-Bernard passes, it is a dead end. Every cyclist will agree: an out and back ride doesn’t look good on Strava. And for that same reason, the pass has never featured in any of the pro races that visit the region: the Tour de Suisse, the Tour de Romandie and, from time to time, the Tour de France. No numbered switchbacks. No Dutch corner. No monument to Fausto Coppi.
"I rode in many places around the globe as a racer, photographer and bike guide. And I always marvel at the Sanetsch."
Still, the Col du Sanetsch may be my favourite climb in the world. OK, I live close by and might be biased. But I rode in many places around the globe as a racer, photographer and bike guide. I conquered Mount Evans in Colorado, I toured the Alps, I rode past the Great Wall of China, I crossed Europe on the Transcontinental Race. And I always marvel at the Sanetsch.
It must be because the climb is a concentrate of Switzerland. It starts near Sion in the Rhone valley and meanders through the vineyards of Valais, the country’s largest wine-producing region. After a short flat section, you enter a narrow valley with some steep sections in the woods. You have climbed more than 1,000m by now (the equivalent of many big Alpine climbs) but it’s far from over. In fact, the best is yet to come.
A few switchbacks later, you reach the high pastures populated by the black vaches d’Hérens, the local breed of cows. Surrounded by the tall peaks of the Sanetschhorn and the Arpelistock, you are now above tree line and you are about to enter a dark and humid 800-metre tunnel. Most of the time, it is lit. One day, it was not and I will always remember my slow, blind walk in the dark, bumping into the tunnel walls. Lesson learnt: be prepared and take a set of lights when climbing the Sanetsch.
"It's the Swiss version of the famous Passo Stelvio, without the endless flow of camper vans, cars and motorbikes around you."
The last kilometres after the tunnel are endless but you finally reach the summit at 2,252m, near the fast receding Glacier de Transfleuron. With more than 1,700m of climbing in 25km, it's the Swiss version of the famous Passo Stelvio, without the endless flow of camper vans, cars and motorbikes around you. How's that?
Haute Route Crans-Montana will enjoy the 25-km descent back to the valley, but if you come back to the Rhone Valley you can try the other way down. Sanetsch Lake, a few kilometres beyond the summit is the end of the road. Does that mean you have to turn back? No: you can hook your bike onto a tiny gondola and go down 1,000m to Gsteig near Gstaad, in the German speaking part of Switzerland. A unique experience… You then ride up the Col du Pillon (1,546m) on your way to Les Diablerets. One more climb over the Col de la Croix (1,778m) and you get to my hometown of Gryon before arriving back on the Rhone valley floor at Bex. After that, you have two ways of returning to Sion: take the train or ride back for 45km on the wonderful flat cycle path along the river.
If you need more convincing, here is what Mike Cotty from the Col Collective said as we were shooting one of his legendary videos: "I’m having these flashbacks. The length of something like the Madeleine... the Grandes Alpes. You’ve got crazy steep pitches like [Monte] Grappa, narrow roads like the Gavia, the wilderness and openness of the Bonette. The list goes on, and when I put them all together that’s really the uniqueness that makes the Sanetsch so special."
In a less lyrical tone, a guest I took on the Sanetsch just said, after catching his breath at the top: “this is my best bike ride ever ”. You’ve been warned.
Alain Rumpf's tips to climb the Sanetsch
- Bring warm clothes, even if the forecast promises fine weather in the Rhone valley: temperatures can drop more than 15 degrees during the ascent and the wind blows hard at the top.
- Also, you are likely to climb for 2 to 3 hours, so make sure you take enough food to keep you going.
About Alain Rumpf:
In previous chapters of his life, Alain was a mediocre elite racer and worked 20 years for the UCI, the world’s cycling governing body. He lost his job in 2014 and became a professional bike bum. An ambitious career change that sees him work as a bike guide, photographer, writer and cycling tourism consultant. Follow him on his blog, A Swiss With A Pulse.