The best climbs you’ve never heard of: La Grande Dixence
There’s something about the mountains that speaks to us as cyclists, draws us in and humbles us. It could be the reminder of how small we are in this landscape. Or perhaps it’s the understanding of the mental and physical fortitude we gain from participating in nature, just as we were made to do. Leaving the broad plains of the Rhone Valley in Switzerland, the long, meandering climb to the Grande Dixence dam presents a special opportunity to reflect on our place on the road.
Words: Ashleigh Maxwell
The Val D’Hérens weaves its way from the Rhône river near Sion, all the way to the Italian border, passing a sparse number of traditional Swiss hamlets and on towards 4000m peaks like the Dent Blanche and Dent d’Herens, imposing summits towering over the end of the valley. Peeling off the Hérens valley, the Val des Dix snakes its way south, lined with old pine forests, largely wild and untamed.
These valleys were carved over millions of years by immense glaciers, rivers of ice two or three-kilometres thick. Since the ice retreated some 10,000 years ago, we have found many new ways to explore these special corners of the world, including on two wheels.
It’s a special gift to be able to explore these ancient landscapes from the bottom to the very top. And the steady climb from the valley floor, through the Hérens and Dix valleys to the Grand Dixence dam is a beauty.
"Then, with around 10 kilometres to go, the 285m wall of concrete rises up against the landscape, high in the distance"
Starting from the village Bramois, cyclists leave the plains of the Rhone behind with a climb through steep, terraced vineyards to the open pastures above. Traversing the east side of the Val D’Hérens, the road passes through the sunny villages of Mase and St-Martin before looping back around to Euseigne. This is where the route joins the remarkable road to the Grande Dixence dam.
Climbing through the Dix valley, civilisation gets left behind, and the landscape becomes increasingly wild and untouched. The road rises steadily, weaving through the valley floor.
Then, with around 10 kilometres to go, the 285m wall of concrete rises up against the landscape, high in the distance. Around 100km of secret tunnels throughout this region connect meltwater from 35 different glaciers to help the Grande Dixence dam generate enough hydroelectric energy to power the equivalent of 500,000 Swiss homes. It’s a marvel of human engineering and an imposing structure on the otherwise unmarked horizon.
"The rambling road transforms into superb, symmetrical switchback heaven for the final two kilometres to the foot of the massive wall."
The 13.7km ascent to the dam has an average gradient of 7.7%, but the final few kilometres pack a real punch with a gradient that refuses to budge from double figures.
As the meandering climb ramps up, the rambling road transforms into superb, symmetrical switchback heaven for the final two kilometres to the foot of the massive wall. The view of the surrounding Valais summits and the ancient pine forests spilling back down the valley are truly spectacular and an apt reward for the effort in the last kilometres. But we’re not done yet.
Heading back down into the Val D’Hérens and now following the west side of the valley, you’ll stumble upon the remarkable pyramids of Euseigne. This spectacular natural phenomenon was created when the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, leaving enormous piles of debris. Boulders high in the debris protected it from erosion in places, leaving other-worldly cones scattered through the valley. You can’t miss them - you can ride right through the middle of them, literally.
There may not be a better reminder of the history and scale of the mountains anywhere else in the Alps. While your legs will be tired after the climb to the Dix, as you descend directly through these ancient structures, take a moment to reflect on the balance of power and fragility that both left them standing in this place and helped us find our place amongst them on the road.
Bramois to Grande Dixence Dam Distance: 38.2 km Elevation Gain: 2077 m Max Gradient: 17.2%