A roller coaster of a pass road which is one of the most memorable (and painful) rides in Switzerland.
Weissenstein is the Hausberg (home/local mountain) for Solothurn, towering 800m over the city. It does actually serve as a pass road from Solothurn to Gänsbrunnen, but most people are unlikely to think of it as a pass rather than just a mountain which has a cable-car for easy year round access.
It also comes with its own song that you can get stuck in your head to help the ride just fly by.
Like the nearby Balmberg pass this doesn’t stand out compared to the big name passes in Switzerland. At 1279m it isn’t exactly alpine in height and doesn’t even climb above the treeline, but it makes up for that with some horrific gradients. The south side of the pass especially is a wall: hitting gradients of up to 22% putting it among the steepest Swiss pass roads.
- The road is open to traffic but generally it is quiet and any vehicles are going very slowly and carefully. Both sides of the pass are closed to motorised public traffic on Sundays and Holidays from 9:00-16:00.
- Height profiles can be found on websites like Cyclingcols.com
- The north side is closed during the winter, whilst the south side can often be ridden year round depending on conditions (I have been up and down it in January and February) that said extreme care should be taken with possible ice on the slopes. Though one advantage of a steep south facing road is that most of the snow and ice melts off quickly – the only part that remains in the shade and stays icy for the longest is the flat section just before Nesselboden.
South side from Oberdorf station (5km +626m)
Riding up the southern side of the pass is an “experience”.
Other than a few short comments on cycling pass websites there isn’t much written about it. There is just one video of a cyclist suffering their way up and saying it was worse than the iconic Alpe d’Huez in his experience (which a bigger climb, but a damn sight less steep). I have covered many of the Alpine passes (for example the mighty Furka) and would agree this is shorter but is much more brutal.
Even coming down it is memorable. My disk brakes are usually screaming in protest at the bottom and one experienced alpine pass rider I know has described their descent as being in constant fear of going over the bars.
In winter the road is turned into a sledging run (if it actually snows). Which frankly is utterly insane. Nobody can accuse the Swiss of being boring when that is a suggested family activity.
From the Aare in Solothurn to the start of the pass climb proper where the first sign by the train tunnel announces the pass at the station/cable car at Oberdorf is a gentle warm up; climbing 226m over 5km with the road slowly ramping up from 2% to 6%. If you count all of this into the pass route then the average gradient for whole thing drops to a very deceptive 8-9%. Like the much more famous Mont Ventoux the top is visible from the start with the Kurhaus hotel towering over the city.
This is a very dynamic road. The climb is constantly shifting in gradient and scenery which can make it hard to find a good rhythm, but it is easy to keep the mind distracted from the pain at least. Thanks to the landscape and forest you can never actually see any of the road except the next few hundred meters (which makes it rather hard to show off the route in photos compared to most Alpine passes).
There are actually a number of respites and even a long fairly flat section which lets you catch your breath, but the cruel flip side of that is knowing that you are going to be paying for it later.
I have taken to breaking it down into a series of landmarks:
- The Instant Regret. Right off the bat from the cable car station at Oberdorf the road is already noticeably steep. You pass under the cable car (which can carry bikes up) and get to enjoy the sight of people with more sanity staring down and wondering what is wrong with you. You are likely to be sweating and in your lowest gear before hitting the first proper corner where it has already hit 15%.
- Entering the forest. A mixture of steeper and shallower gradients through some gentle turns leads to two hairpins followed by the worst part of the climb. The 2nd hairpin is horribly steep, but then comes a section of 18% or so gradient.
- The Brief Respite. After suffering for a bit the gradient shallows out and passes under the cable car. This is still a good 10% but feels like nothing after the last km.
- The Ramp. From the Brief Respite you can see the next hairpin up ahead. At first it doesn’t look so bad, but then it seems to get steeper and steeper the closer you get to the bend (it ramps up, geddit). This is the worst part to me, if you are still alive(ish) at the hairpin after this section then you can suffer up the rest.
- The Ridge. After surviving the ramp there is a (mostly) gentle section which traverses under and then along a ridge. The feels flat but is apparently 11%. The hairpin where the road starts to double back along the ridge is the half-way point for height gain from Oberdorf station.
- Actual Respite 0.5 km of basically flat road as you enjoy the most open views and nearby meadows around the middle cable car station at Nesselboden.
- Karma After enjoying a few minutes of easy riding comes another 17% section to remind you of the climb. A wooden carving of a little old man pointing and laughing at the hairpin bend seems to be intended for cyclists.
- Last push When the cable car crosses the road again the goal is only a few minutes away around the corner.
North side from Gänsbrunnen (5km, +527m)
Compared to the south side the north is rather uneventful. It is a much easier climb with less height gain and a far gentler and consistent gradient (which isn’t surprising when the mountain isn’t a sheer cliff).
From the point where it leaves the main road by Gänsbrunnen the pass road climbs at a fairly steady average gradient of around 10%.
The first 700m are across an open meadow with lovely views over the valley, then the road enters the forest and stays in the forest for the rest of the climb. This is a bit boring if anything with just trees and a steady road ahead to look at, the only thing that mixes it up are the two hairpins in the last third.
The worst part comes near the top: turning the second hairpin knowing that the end is very close you are greeted with the road cruelly rising up and hitting you with a 15% gradient for the final 800m to the pass.
I have only ridden this in dry conditions but have heard it can be a bit hazardous when wet (a condition that will last longer given it is in the shade).
What to do at the top
The actual top of the pass is rather boring. The road passes over the ridge via a heavily forested switchback with just a view of trees and a few hundred metres of road visible in either direction.
It is worth it to make one last little climb up to the terrace of the Hotel Weissenstein Kurhaus and admire the view over the Mittelland and towards the Alps (with or without a beer).
Roadies are very limited. It is either back the same way, or down the other side to Gänsbrunnen where you can either loop back around through the valleys (or a few passes) or just take the train back under the mountain.
Having a mountain bike or something reasonably durable opens up many more options:
- An easy option is following the ridge along to the restaurant at Hinterweissenstein. This path offers an easy flat(ish) ride to enjoy the views for a bit though, though it is usually thick with families at weekends.
- Climbing up to Röti means some more steep sections but it is worth it for some of the best views in the area. You can also descend down via a trail to Nesselboden.
- East towards Balmberg down an easy (but rocky) path. From Balmberg you can drop down on the gentle pass road, or carry on along the ridge (including over the new suspension bridge).
- West along the ridge follows the ridge on Stage 2 of MTB route 44. This is a beautiful way to go but does mean carrying/pushing up a steep footpath shortly before Grenchenberg.
Coming back down
Many of the descents down are steep. Watch out for stones (even on the paved road) and be very careful on the limestone which is very slippery when wet.
A proper downhill MTB flow trail back down to Oberdorf is being built and was meant to open in 2022 but has been pushed back multiple times and is still not finished as of Autumn 2023.
Turning off the pass road at Nesselboden and taking the old road down the Bündtenweg is an experience. This is even steeper and unsurfaced.