Some Experiences of the
Chief Alpine Passes
IREMEMBER in an elementary textbook of mechanics an illustration of a lovely horse hauling up a weight by means of a rope and pulley, which of course illustrated pictorially the meaning of one horse power ; and I have always thought that it must be this direct connection between lift and power that makes hill-climbing in a car so enormously attractive. A machine climbing hard on just the right gear, with plenty of power in hand, is so much more pleasant than when allout on the flat, going fast but not accelerating. Everyone, too, can remember the initial thrill, when in the early stages of of learning to drive, one took the car to the local pitch of steep hill, duly instructed previously in the art of changing down, and assayed the gradient with one’s heart in one’s mouth lest one should ” let the engine out.” (” Stalling” and all that sort of flying parlance had not reached us yet.)
But although I am attacking the subject of hill climbing from the point of view of motor sport, I am not really intending to write about these little snatches of road racing which we used to seize in England, when the local constabulary used to turn out to assist in the organisation of sprint races up some out-of-theway hill. My subject concerns the attacking of the long mountain ascents of the great highways of Europe, where they fling themselves over the mass of the Alps, the Pyrrennees or some lesser range. For here I can claim some more extensive experience. I have climbed en auto in the Alps of France, Italy and Austria, scoured the Pyrenees from Bayonne to Perpignan, and sampled the mountain roads of the Vosges, the Jura, the Apenn
ines and the Auvergne. I have also taken a car over the Carpathians, but on that occasion I was driving a big six-cylinder, whose chauffeur sat beside me and groaned every time I used an indirect gear, explaining in a multitude of languages that thus did cars burst : so the journey was rather tiresome. Of course, of all the mountains of Europe the Alps remain supreme. And here I must at once admit that although I have covered a good many miles of road in the Alps. I have never driven a car in Switzerland. To me, half the pleasure of motoring on the Continent is that one gets away from the attitude all too prevalent in England that to drive a car fast is evidence of a tendency towards homocidal mania, and must be discouraged accordingly. But if the Continent as a
whole can boast superiority in this respect, it must be admitted that Swirzerland is several times worse than our own country ; and personally I should advise every motorist who is of the type that reads MOTOR SPORT and who wants to enjoy himself in the Alps to give Switzerland a miss.
Incidentally, also, all the best features of the Alps from the motorist’s point of view are outside Switzerland. First of all of course comes the famous Stelvio. Rising to a height of over 9,000 feet, this pass in the Italian Alps is the highest road in Europe, and crossing it is one of the best motoring experiences I know. Mile after mile one climbs towards the summit, swinging the car round hairpin after hairpin. The gradient is not stiff—averaging about 1 in 10, and one just hums up on third, dropping down to second to get just that extra grip on the bends. But the corners are innumerable, and if one decides to cross in a large car with a bad lock, one gets pretty sick of the Stelvio by the time one has reversed at hairpins whose number is legion. However, when at last the summit is reached, one looks with a new pride at one’s car, which has dragged itself to the roof of Europe. Nearly as high as the Stelvio, and much more difficult from the point of view of gradient, is the Galibier in France. The South side is really steep, though it is not very long, as the road begins nearly at the summit of the Lautaret pass ; but the corners are sharp and the gradient quite unrelenting. The ascent is one for first gear with the throttle fairly wide open, and many a car has failed on this pass. The North approach, on the other hand, is nearly as steep in places and is much longer, but the gradient frequently eases off, the road even falling now and then, and the engine gets a chance to cool off. I have crossed the Galibier from both
sides, and I am not quite sure which is the most difficult, but I think that from the sporting point of view it is best to climb from the South side, and take the North as a long descent.
More difficult in gradient than the Oalibier is the Katschberg Pass in Austria. The difficult side of this pass is not long, being only just over three miles, but the average gradient is in the nature of 1 in 4. The surface is also bad, and, having done both, I think coming down is more exciting than going up. At all events, every motorist with a sporting turn of mind should try and tackle this pass, as it is really good. I remember that it so excited my companion when I was there that he bought a loaf of black bread off a peasant, but when we tried to eat it we found it was as hard as wood and tasted of a mixture of treacle and nicotine.
I always wish that I had taken a car over another Austrian pass—the Tiirracherholte, which I have heard is more difficult than even the Katschberg. But it is somewhat off the road from anywhere to anywhere, and is the sort of place that one can only make a special journey to if one has unlimited time, which unfortunately has never been my lot while motoring in the Alps. In fact the average motorist is much more likely to cross the Alps while On a journey from place to place, than to find himself free to scour them at will. The most usual thing is that he is crossing from France into Italy, and on this journey I should advise anyone who is anxious to get a little amusement out of crossing the mountains to climb to the top of the Lautaret pass, and thence cross time Galibier to St. Jean de Malinenne, finally getting into Italy by the Mont Cenis. This is quite the most amusing way I know, but if a more direct way is a necessity, I think the Petit St. Bernard is the best single pass connecting thetwocountries.
Once in Italy, there are many passes which simply must be crossed, apart, of course, from the Steliro. There is the chain of the Mendel, the Aprica and the Tonale, connecting up with the Dolomite passes, the Karer, the Pordoi and the Falzarego, which are among the best things in the Alps. This, perhaps, is the best route to take into Austria. The Pyrenees is really much like the Alps, only on rather a smaller scale. However, when I was there we made the thing more exciting by looking out for notices which occurred fairly often and which said, “Route impraticable pour autos.” On seeing one of these we promptly turned aside and went up the said ” route,which usually proved to be a grass or rock track which led over a lesser pass with a gradient of 1 in 3. On one of these occasions the car, which was a 1,500 c.c. machine carrying four passengers and their luggage, gave up half way up, and while I was engaged in alternately pushing behind and chocking the back wheels, my pocket-book fell out of my pocket. This unfortunately contained one half of My letter of credit, and when I discovered its loss that night at Cahors we found ourselves very nearly penniless, I wired my bank to telegraph us some more money, and while we ,waited at Cahors I have seldom felt so guilty, as I knew that we were quite incapable of paying the hotel bill which we were running up. In fact, this realisation so greatly affected one of the party that he went home by train, taking with him our last three pounds in cash. However, finally some Money arrived, we paid off the hotel, and drove straight from Cahors to le Havre. All night a man sat beside the driver with a map, and, the headlight not being very good, kept remarking, “You can put your foot down, the road
runs straight for the next 10 kilometres.”
I remember another all night run in France which followed an amazing series of motoring troubles in the mountains. On that occasion we were travelling in the Auvergne mountains, when we had a burst tyre—the first after covering some thousands of miles On the Continent on that expedition. We fitted the spare wheel, and stopped at the next village to get a new tube ; there, however, they had none of the right size, and we decided to push on to Clermont Ferran& certain that in the home of Michelin we could get any tyres we wanted. Of Course, however, as always happens, half way there we had another puncture, just as darkness was falling. My companion got a lift into the next village and returned with a new tube, but by the time we had fitted it and reached Clermont it was nearly midnight.
On arriving in the town we were informed that there was a fair on, and that not only was every hotel full, but there was nowhere where we could sleep in the town. ” Go on to Chatel Guyon,” said the friendly proprietor of a cafe where we drank brandy, “there you will find rooms.” Wearily we climbed into the car and set Off, and Made Chatel Guyon, a little town straggling up a long hill. At the first two hotels we found we could get no answer to our ringing ; at the second we were so annoyed that we fixed the electric bell push in and left it ringing madly, unanswered inside.
Towards the top of the hill we found a hotel, where the night porter opened the door. “Yes, he had rooms, and the garage was 100 metres up the street.” We heaved a weary sigh of relief—and at that moment ran out of petrol ! The hill wds so steep that the garage might have been 100 miles up the street for all the chance there was of getting the car there. However, on our way up I had noticed a public garage which was still open, and we decided to run backwards there in the car. On reaching it, however, we found it had just shut, and the proprietor had gone away. We deserted the car under some trees at the bottom of the hill, and crept wearily to bed. As we walked up the hill we received a measure of cheer : the bell in that hotel was still ringing ! The next morning was a Saturday, and we decided that we must get into Clerinont Ferrand before the banks closed in order to get some money. We purchased some petrol and filled the car’s tank, but nothing would make it start. All the morning we tried, until at last we discovered that the magneto was burnt out, although it had functioned quite normally until we ran out of petrol the night before ! By this time the banks had shut, and we had got to be in London on the Tuesday morning. The garage man, however, came to our rescue, and for re-winding the magneto, filling us up with petrol and giving us two spare ” bidons ” of oil, he took a cheque, though his father told him that it was most inadvisable. We dined in Chatel Guyon and then left for the North. After a few miles the dynamo passed out, and
an hour or two later the lights followed suit ; but there was a full moon and the road was white chalk, and all night we ran flat out without lights. We had a champagne luncheon on Sunday at Reims, and that night we were at Arras.
That was a terribly long digression, and I have now no space to speak of the Ardennes, the Vosges, the Jura and the rest. I will conclude with saying that it is always great fun in the mountains ; they have an attraction for the sporting motorist that makes anyone who has ever got to know them want to return again and again.