Overlanding the French Alps

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The border area between northern Italy and France was hard-fought from the 18th century until World War II – in this time a lot of fortifications were built on and into the mountains to control the valleys. While there are still a lot of unpaved roads left over and unmaintained, this area has seen a growing number of ski resorts and has subsequently become a haven for off-highway enthusiasts on two or four wheels.

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In the last few years I have visited the area between Lac Leman and the Mediterranean Sea numerous times, and I have also climbed the Col de Sommeiller (10.007 ft. above sea level) with my Jeep Cherokee. The pass near the town of Bardonecchia used to be the highest point in the Alps reachable by a four-wheeler. But in 2007 I heard about the Bontadini ski lift above the Italian town of Breuil / Cervinia near the south face of the famous Matterhorn mountain. It should be possible to reach 10933 ft. – so I immediately started to collect all bits of information I could get, from satellite images to topographical maps and reports from climbers who have visited the area.

In June 2008, I made the first attempt to reach the Bontadini lift station together with my wife – but it wasn’t possible to drive any higher than 8038 ft. due to the large amounts of snow.  With two friends from our local Jeep club, we made another attempt in September 2008. I met Timo and Martin near Martigny in southern Switzerland – there we left the highway and started our journey through the Alps on narrow roads. Near the Grand St. Bernhard pass we found our first geocache – another passion we share besides Jeeping, sitting at the campfire with a cold one and bolting stuff to our Jeeps.

In the Valtournenche Valley we pitched our tents and my TenTrax trailer on a local camp ground, lit the camp fire, and had a delicious meal from different Italian starters and some really great steaks. We got up early in the next morning, filled up our three Jeeps, and went to town – Cervinia that is. After a short chat with local police officers we started our ascent to the Bontadini area. First, there was something like a gravel road but as we were getting higher the road disappeared and we had to search our way along the funiculars which are used only in the skiing season.

After about two hours of crawling over the stones we reached the Theodul pass at 10.800 ft which is located at the border between Italy and Switzerland, and where a mountain hut can be found that offers regional food and drink and a place to stay for the alpinists.

From there it’s only a few meters to our target, the Bontadini lift station. At 11:45am we were there. We shut down the engines and started to take photos – the view to the surrounding mountains and glaciers was spectacular! We were more than happy to have reached the main goal of our trip which took me so much time to plan and prepare.

We then had coffee in the Theodul hut and in that moment, it was the best cappuccino we’d ever had. It didn’t take a long time until two mountain bikers arrived at the hut, and it didn’t take them much longer than us to reach this point pushing their bikes.

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