The Passo di Mortirolo. Brutal, gruelling, unmerciful, remorseless. What I like to call “The ascent of death”. It is not the most beautiful climb i’ve experienced, but it is certainly the toughest and probably the most memorable.
With an elevation of 1852m, the Passo di Mortirolo is nestled in the Italian Alps, about 30kms from Bormio. The mountain pass can be climbed by three roads, although the one from Mazzo di Valtellina is the most famous and the only one climbed in Giro d’Italia so far. The climb from Mazzo di Valtellina is 12.4kms long at at average of 10.5%, maxing out at 18%.
WINE MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER
We’d arrived in Bormio the day before we decided to climb this beast. We had 4 days of riding planned, and over a glass of wine on our first night we decided to do the Mortirolo first as it sounded the hardest. Surely everything else would be easy after we’d ticked this one off right? Note: nothing sounds too hard when you’ve had a glass of wine & a belly full of pasta.
We set off early the next day & the skies were gloomy…like my mood as I started to recognise how hard this day was going to be. However I was determined to think positively and not let the fear mongering get to me. How hard could it be right? It's just a bike ride.
SO MUCH PAIN
By the time we go to the base of the climb the sun had come out, and the countryside was quite beautiful. The climb starts gently, and I was lulled into a false sense of security. I’d made sure I had compact gearing on my bike for this trip and I was thankful for every single one of those gears. For the first 3 kms I was feeling like I might just survive.
Yep, not so much. For the next 6 kms the gradient kicks up to somewhere between 11% and 18%. I swear I saw 20% on my garmin at least once or twice. I entered a world of pain. You know a climb is tough when you can’t get back on your bike if you stop. My top tip – if you need to stop, wait for a hairpin bend as it is generally a flatter gradient and makes pushing off again a LOT easier.
I lost all my friends somewhere around kilometre 5, so the next 7kms I did a lot of staring at my front wheel hoping for some release. I was reluctant to stop for a couple of reasons. Firstly because it would take me longer to get to the top and end this hell, and secondly because i’d attracted a million flies that wanted to hang out with me on the climb and they got even friendlier when I stopped. So I pushed on for most of it, only stopping a few times when I thought my lungs may explode.
HOW TO KEEP GOING WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE CRYING
I must admit, there were a few moments when I felt like crying. Not even the flies could cheer me up. If you are ever in the situation where you are so tired you are not sure you can go on, here are a few things I suggest you do:
Listen to music. I had mine playing in my back pocket as I wanted to be able to hear for cars etc. The music kept me going as it gave me something other than my breathing to concentrate on. It was also a talking point for other riders around me who bopped along as they rode on by (damn them and their energy!)
Eat something (as it’s likely you are bonking…)
Chat to others around you. It might be the last thing you feel like doing when you are in a world of pain. But knowing others are also feeling the burn can give you motivation to keep going.
Think about how awesome it will be when you get to the top and can say you climbed the Mortirolo. No one wants to say…”Well, I got almost half way up…”. You want to say “Yep, I did it. It was bloody hard but I did it!”
It were these things that got me to the top of this beastly climb. Although painful, there is was a real camaraderie on the Mortirolo. Everyone there was suffering, so each rider you passed (or were passed by) was encouraging & we all managed to have a laugh together.
Funnily enough I almost think the descent was worse than the climb as it was so steep you had to be on your brakes the whole way (and it was freezing). But at least there were no flies!
This may have been the most gruelling day i’ve ever experienced on the bike, but it is one that I am most proud of, and one that I often talk about to my friends. However it might take a couple of years before I want to attempt it again!
Check out the route here: