The Grande Sassiere, 3747m, is one of the highest (if not THE highest) rideable-down-from summits in the entirety of the Alps. Not many people have attempted to ride it but, since about 2009 with the total disappearance of the glacier from the West ridge, there is normally a 6-week-per-year window when it’s possible to ride down from the top, free of snow and ice. It’s located in the Tarentaise Valley of the French Alps, which runs very close to Mont Blanc between Albertville and Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The area is perhaps more famous for its winter skiing resorts, such as, Tigne, Les Arcs and La Plagne, however, the summer mountain biking trails – mostly served by the same ski uplifts – are mind blowing in their extent. It really is a highly recommended area to visit and from Geneva or Chamonix the area can be approached in about 2 hours by car.
The bike guiding company in the area is Trail Addiction, owned and run by Ash Smith. He had been following my mountain photography and video for some time and thought that the Grande Sassiere would be a great location for us to visit and to cut a short movie. It was with his invitation that I took Max Schumann, Fabian Gleitsmann and Johannes Pistrol over from Germany to stay with them for a few days so that we could ride the project. Ben Jones, Ash’s most trusted bike guide, joined us for the trip up the mountain and generally pointed us in the right direction in order to save time.
The fact that the starting point for the ascent is quite high ( 2200m ) and it is relatively easy to ascend (a slog, but low technicality) lends itself very well as a venue for the hiking-biking style of mountain biking that is now becoming more popular in Europe. The climb, taking about 4 hours, is roughly in three stages. Firstly, a carry up from the car park over smooth single trail to the beginning of the ridge line, secondly, riding and pushing along a flatter middle section beside a glacier and, lastly, a steep carry up the final summit peak. It’s this last section, especially when carrying a bike and heading up into the thinner air at that altitude, which makes for a final sting in the tail in terms of getting to the summit. Once on top, the view is mind-boggling (you can see pretty much all of the Western Alps and more) but more exciting, you just get a feeling of being extremely high up on a true mountaineering peak.
The ride down involves a 1500m descent over about 10km of trail which is all rideable except for 3 or 4 steeper shelves. The roll off the top feels committing due to the exposure. A fall to the right would send you crashing down a steep snow field to the glacier; a fall to the left and you’d be in base-jumping territory.
Although this is the steepest part of the whole descent it’s not that technical, just committing on a loose gravely surface.
Once off this the angle eases to more of a rolling ridge line with some faster sections of rocky trail. But you can’t let it rip completely because there are some nasty steps that surprise you from nowhere.
We descended in the evening because it was the best time to catch the light and, with the mountain being so dry, the riders left an amazing dust trail behind them that seemed to glow in the light.
Photographically, this amazing light kept us high on the mountain for too long shooting and filming. When darkness fell, quicker than we expected, we had only reached the end of the middle section of the ridge at a small subsidiary summit dome. Here we paused for a few minutes to put our lights on and to take some last twilight pics.
Even though we rode this last section in the dark, supported by our superb Lupine lights, we all found this to be one of the most classic descent sections on the whole mountain. There were long sections of mixed flowy and technical single trail in a breathtaking situation above the valley and the resort of Tignes. At 9:30pm we arrived back at the cars, all feeling a little dehydrated and whacked from the altitude, but glad to have ridden another classic of the Alps.