Working as a snowshoe guide here in Switzerland means I get to go to some amazing places and share those places with lots of interesting people. But out of so many great trips there’s one that is very special. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard is a high alpine pass where history, legend and the high alpine environment meet. In the summer coach groups stop, take photo’s and buy souvenirs but in winter it’s cut off by snow from October to June. Then it’s only accessible to people who are prepared to climb up on skis or snowshoes picking a careful route through the steep, avalanche prone slopes and valleys.
The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, or Great St Bernard Pass, reaches 2469m (8100ft). For thousands of years it’s linked the Canton of Valais with the Aosta region in Italy. There’s evidence of bronze age travellers using the route and some traces of the old Roman road.
Although it’s the third highest road in Switzerland it’s actually the lowest route over the alpine ridge running between Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa.
History – The Romans
In 57 BC Julius Caesar sent his top commander, Servius Galba, to take control of the pass and secure a route from Rome to Gaul but the Romans met stiff opposition from the Veragri tribe who occupied the area around Martigny on the Swiss side of the pass. They found three other hostile Gallic tribes and, even though they won one battle, decided to withdraw.
Augustus later took the pass for the Roman Empire and the area at the Italian side takes a shortened version of his name, Aosta. By 43 AD the process was complete and there was a good Roman road running over the pass.
Megan, a Canadian living and working in Zurich, had some friends from home visiting and contacted us to talk about making a snowshoe trip with the chance to stay somewhere overnight. We had a couple of suggestions but I was really sure the best trip would be to climb the Great St Bernard pass on snowshoes and spend the night in the hospice with the monks.
There’s an old ski station lower down on the pass that marks the point where the summer road is closed for winter and the road traffic enters the tunnel. It’s the trailhead in winter so on a sunny, early spring day at the end of February I drove over from our base in Leysin with Megan and her friends.
First of all we have to do some gear checks, before leaving I’ve given the group some avalanche transceivers, snow shovels and avalanches probes. Our route to the hospice is frequently traveled and over good ground but the route passes through steep valleys and under big slopes. On these warming spring days there’s a real danger of avalanches. In years past the monks might have made a rescue with their dogs but our modern equipment means we can react quicker. We spend a little time near the trailhead using the transceivers to locate one I’ve buried and getting some basic familiarity with the gear. And then we’re ready to go!
History – Saint Bernard, the monks, the Hospice and the Via Francigena
Around 1050 the archdeacon of Aosta established a hospice at the high point of the pass to help travelers who were being terrorised by bandits and struggling with harsh weather. The archdeacon, Bernard of Menthon, later Saint Bernard, gives his name to the pass now and is patron saint of the alps.
By 1125 the hospice was passed to the control of the bishop of Sion in the Swiss Valais which is why the pass lies in Swiss territory today.
The monks acted as hosts for travelers on the Via Francigena which is an ancient pilgrim route between Canterbury in England and Rome. There’s an account of a journey over the Via Francigena by Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made the journey at the end of the 10th century to be consecrated but this was already a well traveled route in Sigeric’s time.
The Via Francigena is now designated a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe.
Our route starts on the summer road which is buried in snow of course. It’s also the line of the Roman road and the line that travelers have taken since the Bronze age. It’s a beautiful day and a popular journey so we see a few more travelers ascending or descending on skis or snowshoes.
The route’s never really steep but it climbs relentlessly and it’s a warm day so we’re glad of some chances to stop, take a drink from our bottles, take photo’s or just admire the view. We stop at a small stone hut below the frighteningly named “Combe des Morts”, the hut dates back to the 1920’s when an emergency telephone was installed linked to the hospice. Avalanches would frequently sweep down the “Combe des Morts” and the telephone allowed other travelers to summon help from the monks and their teams of Saint Bernard dogs. But avalanche survival is all about timing and often the help would come too late leaving the monks to recover those who’d perished to their sealed morgue high up on the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
Leaving the rescue post the route takes a couple of turns in the Combe des Morts before our view opens up and we get the first glimpse of the hospice above us. The route steepens here following an old line of wooden poles placed to mark the way on days less clement than today.
History – Napoleon
In modern times the road pass is normally closed from October to June due to the snow so when a 30 year old Napoleon Bonaparte took 40,000 men over the pass in May 1800 it was a remarkable landmark in military history. Napoleon was trying to break the siege of the city of Genoa which was surrounded by 140,000 Austrian troops. Although Genoa is currently part of Italy, at that time it was in the hands of the French.
Napoleon devised a plan to to send small groups of men in secret over the snow-covered pass to build supply depots and by the middle of May was ready to send a small force over the pass to take the Aosta. The remaining troops broke their artillery and equipment into packs of 30kg (70 lbs) and placed the cannons in hollowed out pine logs dragged by mules, or when the mules couldn’t continue, by groups of a hundred men.
By the end of May Napoleon was moving 6000 men each day over the pass and the descent had become packed snow allowing the men to slide down the mountain. Legend says that Napoleon himself was the last man to cross the pass before sliding down the other side.
The French forces surprised the Austrians who never mounted a coordinated defence and the Austrians were defeated at battles in Montebello and Marengo.
When we reach the top of the pass there’s a cold wind blowing reminding us it’s still February so our first thought is to get inside the hospice for a warm drink and let the monks know we’ve arrived. It’s also a good chance to look around the church while it’s quiet, the monks hold three services each day and guests are welcome to attend if they want. They also serve a warm, sweet tea for guests which recharges our batteries before we head out to explore the top of the pass.
The hospice is a couple of hundred metres from the Italian border, the border runs along ridges and valleys normally but up here it’s a straight line drawn on the map between two summits and crosses through a small lake which is frozen sold with snow banks crafted by the wind into strange shapes.
The border post is a frontier between Italy, who are members of the European Union, and Switzerland, who aren’t, so it’s normally manned and if you’re crossing with goods you’ve purchased you have to declare them. But, deep in winter it’s not manned and the post is shuttered against the harsh winter weather.
Just over that border is an imposing statue of Saint Bernard in his classic pose with the devil chained and defeated at his feet. He looks out over the alps protecting the alps and alpine travelers.
But by now the wind’s picking up and it’s getting cold so we turn back and return to the hospice and comfort of the lounge! There’s other groups of skiers and snowshoers, some staying the night and some staying several days making day trips with the hospice as a base, and it’s quite a large group sitting down for dinner that evening. The meals we get at refuges are always good but tonight the meal is particularly good, a soup followed by chicken with a potato gratin finished off with some apricots. It’s simple food but a nice end to our day.
History – The Dogs
The Saint Bernard dogs are known all over the world for their work as rescue dogs and there’s an iconic image of Saint Bernard dog finding the lost traveler and reviving them with a shot of brandy from a cask around their neck.
Sadly, it’s not true! The artist Edwin Landseer romanticised a painting of one of the dogs with a cask around the neck in 1820 and the image stuck.
At some time in the 1600’s the monks had started to use dogs to help them in assisting travelers. The original dogs probably came as gifts from wealthy local landowners and the monks began to breed them. Originally the dogs were used as guard dogs but they were bred large, strong and with the ability to sniff out lost travelers so they took on the famous rescue role which they carried on until the tunnel was built and modern rescue tools overtook them. By 2004 the dogs stopped spending their winters at the hospice and took up home at a charity run kennel in Martigny.
We’ve opted to stay in the communal dormitories for the night but hospice do offer smaller private rooms, they’re all pretty basic with shared washing facilities but it’s a good standard and it’s pretty comfortable. Even in winter at this altitude these dorm’s can get pretty warm so we’re glad to have carried up cotton sleeping bags instead of full down bags, if it ever gets cold there’s an ample supply of heavy blankets.
Next morning we breakfast on fresh bread and homemade jam with tea and coffee. And I can testify how good the jam is, I’m chief jam maker for our bed&breakfast in Leysin so I’m really happy to try some made by someone else for a change!
It’s another sunny day in the alps and there’s not a cloud in the sky as we set out back down the pass. As we’re walking down I feel the snow under my feet is still fairly soft and I realise it’s not frozen overnight. This, and the heat of the sun, gives me a warning that the snow will become really unstable during the day and I’m glad our plans mean we’ll reach the trailhead around midday. Later that day when we get back to Leysin I hear there’s been a huge avalanche at nearby Les Diablerets for the same reasons, the rescue teams are on the scene searching the debris but fortunately by the evening they’re confident no one is missing.
Even though we’re back at the car and we’ve taken our snowshoes off we’ve not quite finished our day. The monks don’t keep the Saint Bernard dogs up at the hospice any more and a charity, the Barry Foundation, take care of them now. But these are working dogs so there’s no free ride for them. There’s a museum dedicated to Saint Bernard dogs in nearby Martigny and the current generation of dogs spend time at the museum each day ‘working’ a shift entertaining and educating visitors. The work seems to be mostly rolling around being fussed but they get really involved! The museum has some interesting exhibits about the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, the hospice and the history of the area but the dogs are obviously the stars. There’s also a really great little cafe on the site for a refreshing drink or meal.
The Romans left a coliseum in Martigny and it’s right by the Saint Bernard museum. It’s quite a dramatic location, the snow covered alpine peaks and passes must have made the Romans realise how far they were from the hills of Rome.
It’s been another fantastic journey over the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, traveling on a route that’s been used for thousands of years, spending the night in the hospice that’s been offering shelter to travellers for a thousand years, meeting new people and enjoying the start of our spring touring season.
Want to go?
We, SwissMountainLeader.com, run scheduled trips and private tours for small groups like Megan and her friends. We’ve got great transport links in Switzerland, the trains run from all major cities and airports taking you to villages below the trailhead. We’re based in Leysin in the Swiss Alps where we operate a bed&breakfast which we use as a base for our trips.
British-Snowshoe-Tours.com can also take you on the same trip, this is a company based in Chamonix and run by Phil Jarratt. Phil has some scheduled groups and can also build a trip just for your group.
Both Phil and myself are International Mountain Leaders and hold carnets from the Union of International Mountain Leader Associations guaranteeing our clients that we’ve years of training and experience in the mountains and that we’re fully licensed, insured and regulated for the services we provide.