In full flow at Jochpass

2 May 2018

With crystal-clear mountain lakes, bubbling brooks and majestic peaks, the scenery on the bike trails between Engelberg and Melchsee-Frutt is hard to beat. But there is more: the Four Lakes Tour and new Joch Pass Trail offer incredible flow reminiscent of downhill skiing or snowboarding. 

This guy is sensational! Sticking as close to Pirmin’s back wheel as I can, I puff and blow my way up the last bend on the 800 metres of ascent between Stöckalp and Melchsee-Frutt. I can’t believe how fit he is – my heart rate has been climbing as steadily as the uphill trail. But all the exertion is forgotten when I clap my eyes on the incredible panoramic view: glittering Melchsee lake nestledamidst a wide, undulating landscape, and behind that the Titlis Glacier and the towering buttes of the Wendenstöcke. “Mountain biking can be a bit of a slog,” grins Pirmin, “but with rewards like this, your aching thigh muscles don’t seem half as bad.” Of course, he’s absolutely right!

The native thoroughbred biker and trail builder
Pirmin Kündig (28) has lived in Engelberg for eight years. In winter he works for the ski patrol. I last met him in February when we spent a few hours carving some lines in deep snow on the Jochstock. “You can get a feeling almost as good as this in summer, too,” he told me as we rode up on the chairlift. “What?” I expostulated. “Come back in a few months and I’ll show you,” he said. So here I am, a little sceptical but ready to experience the sort of flow you get from skiing on powder snow – but this time on two wheels and in sunny 20-degree weather. 

“Okay, so that part was a bit like a ski tour – you have to earn your turns,” says Pirmin, after our arduous climb. “But the next few kilo­metres will be easy riding.” I’m happy to put my faith in him – he knows the trails between Engelberg valley and Melch valley like the back of his hand. He even helped shape some of them. “We’ve invested blood, sweat and tears in these trails over the past few years,” he tells me as we pedal up the small incline to the Tannensee lake. The winter descents around Engelberg – Laub, Titlisrunde, Galtiberg, etc. – are the stuff of freeriding legend. Compared to that long skiing tradition, mountain biking is in its infancy here. But detailed study of the terrain and infrastructure shows that the area around Melchsee, Joch Pass and Trübsee has great poten­tial – par ticularly for enduro cyclists, who l ike to make use of chairlifts.

It is planned to extend the flow trail to Engelberg
Last summer, Swiss firm Trailworks came to Engelberg. Trailworks’ impressive trail-building projects to date include Lenzerheide Bike Park, which hosted cross-country and downhill races in the UCI world championships. Here in Engelberg, Trailworks was commissioned to build a new Flow Trail from the Jochpass to Trübsee. Pirmin was there to offer onsite support – he has been a “ trailshaper” here in Engelberg for four years. Construction work took place from July to mid-October. “After the course had been roughly formed by an all terrain excavator, we went to work with pickaxes and rakes to remove the larger stones,” says Pirmin. “Next, we laid a layer of fine gravel and compressed it with a plate compactor. After all, we want the trail to last and not be washed away by summer rainstorms.” Pirmin is proud of the result, and adds: “It ’s a really fun trail – you and I will test it out later.”

I’m still drooling in anticipation of doing just that when we reach the next highlight on the tour – the glittering Tannensee lake. Just above is the Tannalp Alpine dairy, which Pirmin is keen to show me. The dairy makes cheese the way it has been done for centuries. Inside, the cheesemaker has stoked a fire in the wood-burning stove. Over it hangs a mighty vat where milk and rennet are slowly coagulating. Later, this viscous mass will be transferred to the cool cellar, where it will mature into wheels of tasty cheese. 

After that, we head to Engstlensee lake. As the sun has been blazing down, this is a great opportunity for some welcome relief. We count to three and plunge in… My God, that ’s cold! I shouldn’t be surprised – the Engstlensee is fed by streams that trickle down from the Joch Glacier. “Often, the ice in the lake doesn’t completely melt until June,” says Pirmin. Trout and char clearly cope with these temperatures better than overheated cyclists. Anglers come here to fish even in the winter. If you’re in the mood for more cheese instead of fish, you should also pop into the Engstlenalp show dairy. Each summer it makes 100 wheels of Bernese Alpine cheese – each one weighing eight to ten kilograms. The dairy also produces 1,000 kilos of butter, 4 ,000 kilos of Mutschli cheese, and 500 kilos of Ziger (a kind of whey cheese).

Behind the lake the terrain ascends steeply again. But we rise above it – literally: we take the chairlift. When we get to the Joch Pass at the top, Pirmin proposes a “snack” to get our strength up. At Bärghuis Jochpass, host Erwin Gabriel (58) serves us Urner Häfelichabis, a traditional stew made from mutton, white cabbage, root vegetables, onions and potatoes. Bärghuis Jochpass is certified bike friendly, and the boss himself is a keen cyclist. Erwin and a fellow downhill biking enthusiast, his Slovenian friend Janez Grasic, built the first trail here on their own initiative – and paid for it too! They turned an old hiking path into the Trudy Trail – named after Erwin’s wife, who is also enjoys whizzing about on two wheels. “It ’s a more challenging way to get back down into the valley,” grins Erwin. 

From summer 2018 - full flow on the Jochpass Trail

After we leave the restaurant, Pirmin is keen to show me his “new playground” and before I know it we’re taking the first curve on the new Joch Pass Flow Trail. It turns out he wasn’t exaggerating. Like snowboarding in the winter, when cornices and kickers invite you and your snowboard to play with gravity, riding this flow trail on a bike truly does almost feel like surfing. Over 4.5 km of trail and 400 metres of descent is a rapid succession of berms, rollers and jumps. And yet the course has been designed so that children and beginners can ride it too. “That doesn’t mean the pros can’ t have fun here,” says Pirmin when we pause briefly halfway down. “Like with skiing, it gets more challenging the 

faster you go.” I’m so loaded with endorphins after that exhilarating ride that I want to do it all over again. And so we jump on the chairlift and quickly arrive back at the start. Pirmin tells me that there are plans afoot to extend the trail down into Engelberg – another 700 metres of descent: “We want to multiply the flow!” But there is an alternative route we can take right now: the Hells Bells Trail from the Joch Pass down to Engstlensee. “Don’t worry,” says Pirmin. “It isn’t as scar y as it sounds.” And so I get to try out another bike trail that offers plenty of f low – and it’s devilish good fun!

Written by: Christian Penning
Photos: Oskar Enander