MOUNTAINS – Furka Pass

MOUNTAINS – Furka Pass

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With 2020 close to an end, it’s time to look forward to next year and the real possibility of European travel again. Like many people, all the trips I had planned to the Mountains this year were dashed but the outlook for 2021 is looking more positive so maybe it’s time to start planning those destinations again!

To whet your appetite, I will be showcasing some of my favourite climbs over the coming weeks. The criteria for selection will be a combination of factors such as how spectacular the Mountain is to ride including the scenery and views along the way, the history of the climb plus its notoriety within the sport of cycling and even other interesting features such as the architecture of the road, tunnels, dams etc…. elements photographers look for when shooting landscapes.

To kick off the series we take a journey over the mighty Furka Pass in Switzerland.

Furka Pass, Switzerland

In a nutshell, it’s one of the biggest climbs in the heart of the Swiss Alps nestled alongside the Nufenen, Gotthard, Susten and Grimsel passes. With spectacular views along its entire length, including glimpses of the Rhône Glacier, it’s no wonder it was used as a location in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger.

I’ve visited this climb on many occasions both as a cyclist and also to photograph it for the Mountains Project. It never disappoints on both scores!

Furka Pass

The small town of Gretsch indicates the start of the Furka Pass to the left and the Grimsel Pass to the right. In the foreground the beginnings of the Rhone river which feeds the whole Rhône Valley and wine industry further west.

Location

Located in the heart of the Swiss Alps and at over 58km long, Furka Strasse connects the towns of Andermatt in the north east with Brig to the south east but the hardest and steepest section of the climb stretches for 36km between Oberwald and Andermatt and at 2429m is the 4th highest paved pass in Switzerland.

View from the summit towards Gretsch and the start of the Grimsel Pass which rises to the lake on the right.

History

Built in 1867 for strategic military reasons, the pass connected the Rhône Valley with the Schollenen Gorge and was constructed using a mosaic of cobbled granite setts. Very few of these are visible now as the road has since been asphalted over unlike its neighbour, the Gotthard Pass.

Throughout the 20th Century, visitors to the region increased steadily thanks to the opening of two new railways and the rise in personal automobiles after the war. They were attracted to the stunning scenery and opportunity to explore the mountains and Rhône Glacier on foot. Before long, hotels started to spring up along its route. Most spectacular of which was the Belvédère Hotel built inside the apex of one of the hairpins a few km’s from the summit.

Belvédère

A young entrepreneur hotelier, named Josef Seiler realised the potential of the location only a few hundred meters from the Rhône Glacier. Nowhere else in the Alps could guests spend the night at over 2000m and in the morning open the curtains to be greeted by the spectacular view of the ice flow a few hundred meters from your balcony. Walking over the glacier, or through the ice tunnel which was cut deep into the glacier every spring, drew visitors to the hotel in their droves.

But after the 1960’s the demand for an overnight stay at the hotel started to fall away as it became easier to make the round trip in a day. Sure, visitors stopped for lunch or tea, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the upkeep of the hotel which slowly slipped into decline before finally closing its doors in 2015.

Furka Pass

The derelict Belvédère Hotel built inside the hairpin, once the jewel of the Alps where visitors would spend the weekend exploring the Rhône Glacier and enjoy the fresh mountain air.

Furka Pass Postcard

The Rhône Glacier passing metres away from guests at the Hotel Belvédère.

James Bond – Goldfinger

Such was the beauty of the Furka Pass, it caught the attention of Bond director, Guy Hamilton in 1964 who was scouting for dramatic locations to shoot the next Bond movie – Goldfinger. The switchback ascents and views looking towards the Schollenen Gorge provided the perfect backdrop for the car chase with Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and Tilly Masterson’s Ford Mustang. Most of these scenes were shot on the descent towards Andermatt and it’s also where Goldfinger and Oddjob parked their yellow and black Rolls Royce to buy apples from kids at the roadside. Sean Connery was obviously impressed with the area and frequently visited in later years.

James Bond Furka Pass

Sean Connery as James Bond with the iconic Aston Martin DB5 on the Furka Pass, 1964

Furka Pass

Furka Pass Landscape

A clear day looking North East towards Andermatt

Rhône Glacier

Like the Belvédère Hotel, the Rhône Glacier has also witnessed a sharp decline. Where it once used to flow passed the Hotel down to the valley floor near Gretsch, the effects of global warming have seen the ice front slowly retreat some 1.3km further back up the valley, leaving a smooth granite shelf in its trail. Attempts have been made to revert the decline and reduce the rate of melting by using white UV protective sheet to cover some 5 acres of the glacier. These are said to be 70% efficient but the evidence of global warming is still very apparent.

Furka Pass Glacier 1907

An image of the Rhône Glacier taken in 1870. The glacier front has now retreated some 1.3km further up the valley, demonstrating the effects of global warming.

Furka Pass

The smooth granite ridge where the Rhône Glacier used to flow over. The Belvédère Hotel can be seen to the right.

Furka Glass Rhone Glacier

Further up the mountain the glacier is protected by white sheets which help to reflect back the sun’s rays and slow the rate of melting.

Furka Pass

Cycling

It’s clear the Furka Pass has all the ingredients for some great cycling. On a good day the vistas are second to none but given its location deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps it’s only open during the summer months as winter snow makes the route impassable. However, its proximity to some of Switzerland’s biggest climbs makes it a perfect destination. Two of the toughest one-day mountain circuits take in three of these local climbs including the Furka Pass.

Nufenen Pass – Gotthard Pass – Furka Pass
Furka Pass – Susten Pass – Grimsel Pass

Furka Pass Tour of Switzerland 2018

The peloton cresting the summit of the Furka Pass during the Tour of Switzerland, 2018.

Photography

My motivation and fascination for visiting the mountains has primarily been led by my love of cycling and the history that links the two but since I’ve spent more and more time exploring these landscapes, I have grown a profound appreciation for them that goes beyond the sport. Certainly, the photography and long hikes to capture shots has given me another perspective and is now the driving force for my trips. When I first started photographing the climbs, I never envisaged a 6-year project, let alone a book. In fact, I didn’t even consider myself a landscape photographer which, in part, is still true as it’s the human imprint left on these environments that really interests me.

I hope you enjoy this series and feel motivated to visit some of the climbs featured. Prints and books are available for purchase here.

Furka Pass Print

Furka Pass climb

16.5km of climb to reach the summit from Gri

Furka Pass Road Climb

Turn right for the Furka Pass, left for the Grimsell Pass

Furka Pass

Furka Pass

Autumn and the first dusting of snow on high ground

Furka Pass

Furka Pass

Furka Pass

Furka Pass Snow

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