According to Fabian Cancellara, the Nufenenpass is the hardest climb in Switzerland. Without any doubt, it's one of the most beautiful climbs in the Alps. It's a fact that this climb is the highest climb that's entirely on Swiss soil. Those who have done the Alpenbrevet know: the contenders suffer here like there's no tomorrow. The Nufenenpass is hors category, a beast. If it's not on your palmares yet, you're simply not done yet.
Picture 1: The start of the west side, early in the morning
The Nufenenpass connects the German part of Valais with the Italian-spoken Ticino. For that reason it's also known as Passo della Novena. In this article we'll use the German name.
Ticino is the largest Italian spoken area in Switzerland. The large lakes Lago Maggrioe and Lago di Lugano make this area popular amongst tourists. Next to the Nufenenpass, the Gotthardpass with its unique Val Tremola, is the most famous pass in the region. The region also houses the Lukmanierpass, made famous by the Alpenbrevet.
Wallis is bi-lingual. French is spoken in the west, while the east speaks German. The French name is Valais. The larger part of the canton is occupied by the Rhone valley and mountain ranges. The highest mountains in Switzerland (including the Dufourspitze, Dom, Matterhorn and Weisshorn) can be found here. And so is the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps. Next to the Nufenen, Wallis has many more well-known climbs such as Grimselpass, Furkapass, Simplonpass and the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard. In 2020, Martigny hosts the cycling world championships.
The west side
The small town of Ulrichen marks the start of the west side climb. You'll have to conquer 14 km to reach the summit. Many Swiss pass are long but not steep, but on the Nufenen, it's a different story. From start to finish your legs will be challenged to the max. From the village, the first part of the road runs peacefully through the valley, but as soon as you cross the railroad, the fun is over. The road goes up brutually and won't let you go.
The first, switch-backed part of the climb runs through a forest. After about 3 kilometres, there's a short section of relief. You better enjoy it, because it's your only chance to take a breath. After this flat section, the surroundings open up. From here, you'll enjoy a never ending, outstanding view on the surrounding mountains.
Around 200 meters, the apotheosis starts. Switchbacks. Without a single interruption, the road goes up steeply, around 10%. You will have to push yourself, but the view on the valley will make you forget the pain. In front of you, you see corners that don't seem to come any closer. Chugging and struggling, you'll reach the top. Time for some a well-deserved stop at the local restaurant.
The east side
The location of the start of east side climb is a matter of definition. When you take the lowest point, it's Biasca, some 60 km from the top, which makes this one of the longest, if not the longest climb in Europe. In the Alpenbrevet, this is one long descent.
Airolo could also be seen as the starting point - we would agree. The Gotthardpass departs here as well. From Airolo, it's 23 km to the summit. The first 10 km are gradual, from there it picks up. It's another 13 km at 7,8% average. Don't be mistaken, there are a couple of segments over 10%. The road consists of concrete slabs, luckily they are nicely aligned so cycling here is not a problem.
Descent enthusiasts can enjoy themselves - 90 kph is possible. Always be careful and never take unnecessary risks. In general, this side is hard. However, a few short, somewhat easier sections make it a little easier than the other side. The views on this side are not as good as the other side. It's still a great experience though.
We can be short about this. The grand tours never passed by. The Tour de Suisse however, is a regular visitor. In 2008, I personally witnessed the pro's riding over the top. The relative quietness of the race was remarkable. Just 2 hours before the race, me and a cycling buddy rode the climb without noticing anything.
In 2019, the Nufenenpass was part of the three pass sprint of Hugh Carthy at the Ulrichen - Ulrichen stage. He finished the tour of the Nufenen, Gotthard and Furka in an astonishing time of little over 3 hrs. Watch the video.
In this area, fabulous loops and routes over different passes are possible, such as the famous Furka-Nufenen-Gotthard loop. Little over 100 km, with more than 3000 meters of elevation. A unique experience. Watch the beautiful video made by The Col Collective.
For real dare devils, there's Susten-Grimsel-Nufenen-Gotthard - the former Gold tour of the Alpenbrevet. It's hard to find a route that's more beautiful, but don't forget this one is harder than La Marmotte.
There's nothing wrong with simply going back and forth over the col. For enthusiasts, we've added the 60 km long climb from Biasca as well.
Click on the images to download the routes.
Passo della Novena
|16||Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard /
Colle del Gran San Bernardo
|18||Roque de los Muchachos||Spain||2426|
|20||Col du Granon||France||2413|
Picture 2: west side, the long straight section
Picture 3: west side the, first switchbacks
Picture 4: west side, loverlooking the switchbacks
Picture 5: Passing by of the Tour de Suisse (2008)
Picture 6: East side
Picture 7: East side
Picture 8: the summit
Pictures: Herman Nekkers.