You Shall Pass!
Hitting Switzerland`s Susten, Grimsel & Furka passes on an autumn day, or, take three of these and call me in the morning.
It was a Wednesday in mid-October, 2018, and the forecast was outstanding. Nothing but sunshine and 18-20°C for central Switzerland, so I threw a Nikon and a couple of lenses in the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and cut a track to the Susten Pass at 11:30am. A rather leisurely departure time I will admit but as I was interested in taking a few photos, I`d prefer to have a decent breakfast and a couple of flat whites behind me, and then be shooting with late afternoon/sunset light rather than heading morosely out the door in early morning darkness to get a sunrise of unknown quality.
I had already extended my original Susten-only plan, as I figured I might as well loop in the Grimsel and Furka passes while I was in the neighborhood. Rude not to really. Google Maps had factored 329km and 5 hours 42 minutes for this jaunt. I ended up with 345km and 7 hours 40 minutes.
I headed south from home past Luzern, turning off on A8 in direction Interlaken to take the Brünig Pass across to Meiringen, the Vantage chomping through the miles like the undercover GT it is. Just before the Brünig gets interesting you can veer off to Lungern (rather than take another wonderfully engineered and extremely boring Swiss tunnel) which has a self-serve Shell station if you need to top up on V-Power at about a 5% premium. The Brünig is a nice drive in itself if you strike it without traffic, which is seldom the case these days unfortunately, but at the top there is a wonderful second hand shop (Brockenhaus Brünig Passhöhe) filled with much Swiss paraphernalia of a bygone era, and a light sprinkling of dodgy crap, that is well worth a stop and wander, particularly if you need a cow bell or pewter wine jug for home.
After this it`s down a couple of km and left towards both the Grimsel and the Susten, and then depending on your fickle mood or GPS you can choose what ever you want… it`s like a bacchanal smorgasbord of driving pleasure.
I started with the Susten as I had already planned to turn around in Wassen at the other end and come back for the Grimsel/Furka. Susten was the first pass to be purpose built for vehicles, opened in 1945, and it is a very pretty drive this time of year. The trees are multiple shades of yellow, red and orange as autumn takes hold, the ice melt still creates small waterfalls that look like bridal veils in the sunshine, squirrels frolic on roadside rocks, unicorns can be glimpsed cantering through the trees and writers take leave of their senses and start scribbling fantastical nonsense, but it really is quite beautiful, and in all truth the roads are happily lacking the hoards of vehicles that traverse these passes through the summertime. There was a decent number of motorbikes but they were not a hindrance and very little four wheeled traffic. There was one Volvo S70 wagon with a BE number plate, which already speaks volumes if you live here, driven by a stereotypical bearded Swiss gent of advanced age that looked like he`d come straight from filming a cheese commercial, that due to my occasional stops I passed on four different occasions, but nothing horrendous to report traffic wise for the entire day!
The Susten is a glorious ribbon of tarmac that suits the Vantage wonderfully, through the valleys leading out of Meiringen to Innertkirchen where it splits left to Gadmen then wends up through the trees while sheer rock escarpments lean in from the north, it already teases at what is to come, and after that onto a series of long switchbacks and subsequently flowing through a series of short tunnels built under rocky outcrops, seemingly created more for the visual drama than practicality. Once past the small alpine lake at the top and over the summit the views widen out, and pushing on down to Wassen the road mostly bends rather than anything too tight and so the forward motion does not require as much leaning on the brakes compared to going down in the opposite direction. Spinning around in Wassen and back through the rocky tunnels and over the vaulted bridges crossing the bolder strewn melt water runoffs, it is more of the same in reverse. I think you could just run back and forwards all day. I wound the car out to around 6000rpm in third a few times, but mostly it is a second through to mid-third experience if applying yourself, but sometimes it`s nice to take it a bit more casually and soak it all in. There are more than a couple of restaurants along the way so if the need for “Sustenance” arises you have options.
On the way back I picked up a Serbian fellow in my rear vision mirror, Alex, in a yellow Cayman, that said he had heard my car from at half a kilometre away and was trying to catch up to listen to it better as it sounded fantastic. A motorbike rider made a video as I drove past with Alex behind me and I doubled back to ask if he could send it to me, which he did (thanks Pierre) and it`s so nice to finally hear the car from an outside perspective since getting a few modifications, including exhaust, earlier this year from UK Aston specialists, Bamford Rose. Having heard the video I know why the 488 driver looked at my car so belligerently when I pulled up near to him.
Here`s the link to it, quality is low but the volume works! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBbT1vNT9F4&feature=youtu.be
Alex and I both parked at the Susten summit and had a chin wag, and he was on his way to visit his sister in Paris via every driving road possible and he thought that he was in nirvana here in Switzerland. He was gob-smacked when I told him the age of my Vantage, (2007), he thought it was quite new, the ageless beauty of that original Vantage design language, it really is sex on toast.
Otherwise, aside from photo stops it was drive, drive, drive. The photo stops were odd because as a photographer and car lover I felt the need to take some images but didn`t start shooting until my second run on the Susten. I was enjoying the driving so much it was mostly spot a location, park at what seemed an appropriate angle, choose a lens, take a few quick shots, back in the car, keep moving. None of this back it up two metres, line up the background, turn the car 30 degrees left kinda stuff that I typically find myself doing. Sometimes I shot just with my phone too, as I couldn`t be bothered with getting the camera out. You`re crazy not to take a few snaps along the way, the idyllic scenery and backgrounds are terrific.
Back through to Innertkirchen and left to the Grimsel, some 50 years older than the Susten, and things get good pretty quickly. It starts off flowing beautifully and then quickly becomes something very different from the Susten visually. During the late afternoon when I was there, the light was behaving well and the sinuous veins of tone in the rock combined with the alpine lakes gave a very much otherworldly feel. It is an extremely nice drive and I had both windows cracked open so I could listen to the car`s gruff voice bouncing off the granite, but eventually I found myself a little overwhelmed by the scenery and photographic possibilities. It`s one of those places that must look so different hour to hour as the light and shadow play their theatre. Mental note: Have to go back next year.
With the thunderous exhaust note echoing off the rock walls I plied on, past what looked like a dark red Ferrari F12 parked well back off the road and the two men standing next to it seemed to be paying the Aston a fair amount of attention, as they no doubt heard it coming for a while. A surprise along the way at the top of the three dam walls of the Grimselsee was the Historisches Alpinhotel Grimsel Hospiz located across the top of a dam wall on what appears as an island, and it all had a very Bond location feel about it. I ventured across for a few snaps and would have liked to explore more but with the light ever diminishing I felt the need to press on. Another day maybe. I was surprised that I have never heard mention of this place.
The top of the Grimsel is similar to the Susten, a smidge under 2200M but feels somehow more alpine, and the eastern side is nowhere near as interesting as the west, but then when you run the switchbacks down to the derelict and deserted Gletsch, you get a glimpse of the Furka, in the late afternoon sun, beckoning you.
The Furka is a different beast. At nearly 2500M/8000ft it reaches higher than it`s colleagues, has been around longer, since 1867, and still struts its age with pride and a sniff of hostility. As you approach this road you feel the history and once on there, ricocheting up the switchbacks to the now abandoned Belvedere Hotel alongside the steadily retreating Rhone Galcier, you become a part of it. There is some expectation here. It`s a great road to feel the past and after leaving the Belvedere behind you find it is still a little raw in places and it narrows occasionally to where you or the other vehicle need to stop to allow passage, a waterfall cascades down right next to the road, and the with the last direct sunlight gone and virtually no traffic it feels special, lonely and somehow a little sad.
It`s a nostalgic drive, but unlike the Grimsel and Susten not as driver focused, and not one that I would choose to do repeatedly, but I certainly would do it again. Being on this road at the end of the day is probably a perfect closure to several hours of driving pleasure, as it gives time for some reflection, certainly about the amount of enjoyment a sports car provides on these unique stretches of black top, but also the nature of these roads, why and how they were built and the millions of people and vehicles that have traveled over them. The ghost of Goldfinger and the halcyon days of tourism still lurks here, but like Gletsch at the start of the Furka drive, you know it`s best days are well behind it.