Some days in the mountains are special, and I don’t want to share them with anyone else. Other experiences are for sharing, and the story is worth telling to encourage them to go out and explore this region themselves. I blame my interest in snowshoeing to Mont Fourchon on my dog Maximus. He’s a Bernese Mountain Dog with a large appetite for long walks and an even larger appetite for stealing my sandwiches when we stop for lunch on the mountain. I’ve had him since a pup, and he goes everywhere with me in the mountains when I’m guiding snowshoeing groups.
Over the past 7 years, together we’ve crossed the Alps on many occasions, and Col du Mont-Joux at 2473m is the lowest pass over the mountains all the way between Mont Blanc and the Monte Rosa. Nestled on the pass is the Grand Saint Bernard monastery built nearly one thousand years ago in 1047, and it provides a great base for ascending one of the many summits beyond. Mont Fourchon is always my first choice of peaks in the region, as the slope angles are perfect for snowshoeing, and the summit views over the Grand Combin and other Swiss Valais peaks are stupendous.
The Grand Saint Bernard always will be synonymous with the Saint Bernard mountain dogs, despite them being housed in the valley by the Barry Foundation charity in the winter months these days, no longer kept at the monastery to help the monks rescue lost travellers in storms. My dog is a Bernese, the second largest of the Swiss mountain dog breeds, and the Saint Bernard is the largest and heaviest. I wanted to take my dog to visit the home of the largest breed that first attracted me to the region, and I’ve never been disappointed since.
Despite the pass being called the Col du Mont-Joux on old maps, recent maps always refer to it as the Col du Grand Saint Bernard, and it straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. The name change was due to the Bernard of Menthon, who was born around 1020 in the Annecy region of France. He renounced the advantages of his family’s social class and moved to Aosta in Italy, where he entered into service for the bishop. Later he became archdeacon of the cathedral, and he would have met many travellers and pilgrims walking the Via Francigena, which runs in a straight line from Canterbury to Rome. Many people Bernard tended to were injured in storms and falls, as they had journeyed over the mountains via the Col du Mont-Joux.
The pass is covered by snow for over seven months a year, and Bernard identified a need to provide a shelter on it for pilgrims to escape the ravages of storms and avalanches. The building was entrusted to Augustinian friars, whose remit was to pray for, rescue, accompany and welcome the travellers. These aims are still held to this day, and it won’t escape anyone’s notice that the door to the monastery under the passerelle, is never locked shut, whatever the weather. Bernard also founded a second hospice, on the pass between Savoy and Val d’Aosta, which has since become known as the Little Saint Bernard Pass.
Bernard died in 1081, then he was canonized in 1123, and his saint’s day is 15th June. In 1923 Pope Pius XI proclaimed Saint Bernard the patron of those who lived in the Alps, and of mountain climbers. The photo above is a statue of Bernard on the pass, with a devil shackled with a heavy chain at his feet, which symbolizes the mastered perils of the mountains. It is perhaps the history of Bernard that attracts mountaineers, to make their own pilgrimage here, to at least give a nod to Bernard in the hope that he’s been keeping a watchful eye over their antics in the mountains. As both a mountaineer, and mountain dog owner, the area has always been a magnet for me, and since my first visit I knew I’d found somewhere special.
More on the monastery later, but for me the mountains always draw my eyes upwards. If you cross the border from Switzerland into Italy, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a small summer road buried meters under the snow. Mont Fourchon is tucked behind the spectacular shape of the Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf) Mountain, and the route turns steeply right up a bowl-shaped couloir. Eventually the gradient slackens off, and you turn west towards the upper slopes of the mountain. Here Mont Fourchon comes better into view with every step, and you can marvel at how well this gem is hidden from view from all those who don’t ascend into the most remote mountains.
As you near the summit you see many other peaks slipping below your field of view, and as an extra treat new peaks reveal themselves over intermediary mountain ridges. None is finer than the huge bulk of the Grand Combin. At this higher altitude, the snow transforms and you experience all consistencies from wind crust to deep fresh powder. There are a couple of steeper steps on the route, and the crampon points under the snowshoes are perfect for providing enough grip for each step. When you’ve got enough breath, enjoy the view, as it now extends for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. Far behind and below you, is the monastery, and from up here it looks so small as if it’s a child’s toy, not the large solid building we left behind in the early morning.
The summit of the mountain is triangular in shape, and sometimes in soft snow conditions you can reach the very top, whilst on other occasions it is best to stop just a few meters below the top, and to savor the views from there. Mont Fourchon stands at 2902m high, and is only possible in the winter months on snowshoe or on skis. That is unless you are a mountain dog, as my Bernese has too reached the summit with no more than his huge paws for flotation and strong claws for traction. After taking the summit photos, the way down the mountain is a dream, running through soft snow with powder flying up around you.
It’s normal to follow a similar way down the mountain, as was used for the ascent, but even in the few hours that the ascent has taken, you’ll notice that the snow has changed. With the avalanche risk normally increasing throughout the day, as the temperature gradient rises, it is important to keep going until you reach the small hut near the buried road, and turn uphill for the short ascent to the pass. As you come around the corner, it’s the statue of Saint Bernard that is towering above you, with the monastery framed in the pass behind, on the far side of the snow-covered frozen lake. It can’t harm to say “thank you” to Bernard as you pass, for watching over you during your ascent of Mont Fourchon. By this stage it’s usually a happy but weary snowshoer who walks around the lake, to push open the welcoming doors of the monastery.
The previous day you’ll have ascended to the monastery from the Super Saint Bernard ski station car park at the entrance to the tunnel, which runs under the mountain. The ascent to the Grand Saint Bernard generally only takes a few hours, though this can be longer if there’s a lot of fresh snow. The route follows the valley of the Dranse stream, on it’s right bank, and on the way you’ll see a couple of small shelters that are equipped with stoves, and emergency phones. These were built for travellers stuck in storms to seek shelter if they couldn’t reach the monastery, and they have saved lives on many occasions.
In the upper section of the route, before the monastery is visible, you ascend into the ominous sounding Combe des Morts (Valley of the Dead). It’s a steeper-sided valley, which is more prone to avalanche, and it’s caught the unwary on several times over the years. Just remember that people have reached the pass for nearly 2000 years before you, and lived to tell the tale! Julius Caesar sent his general Servius Galba (later emperor) to secure the pass after the Battle of Octodurus against the Gallic army, in what is now called Martigny, to open the route over the Alps. That was back in the winter of 57-56 BC, which puts your snowshoeing efforts into perspective somewhat.
The monastery founded by Bernard gained further notoriety when Napoleon led the Reserve Army across the pass in 1800 to break the siege of Genoa by the Austrian forces using the element of surprise. The battles of Montebello and Marengo secured the victory for Napoleon, but his crossing of the pass didn’t go unmarked in the monastery. In the hallway is a huge marble carving dedicated to General Desaix, who was killed in the battle of 1800, which was manufactured in Paris and transported by eight hundred workers up the steep pass in the summer of 1806, on carts hauled by 30 mules apiece. As well as Napoleonic posturing, it didn’t go unnoticed by the monks that his troops drank over 22,000 bottles of wine that were in the monastery wine cellars. Napoleon never paid his bar bill and this enormous tab wasn’t paid off until 1984, when French President Francois Mitterand settled the bill that with inflation had risen to over forty thousand Swiss francs.
The monastery hasn’t changed much since Napoleonic times, and the echoing corridors and worn stone steps bear testament to the thousands of feet that have trodden here. Despite the history of passing armies, and pilgrims sheltering from violent storms, there is an unimaginable sense of calm when you enter the building. You are entering a ship that has weathered thousands of storms, and in which even if it’s the first time you visit, inexplicably you feel at home and as if somehow you have been there before.
I’m not religious in the slightest, and the main chapel in the monastery is huge and lavish, and reminds me why I am so cynical of the spending of the Catholic Church. Underground is the crypt, and each day the monks invite all the visitors to a simple service, whatever your beliefs or religion (or lack thereof). The crypt is a very simple room with a curved ceiling and a very little natural light filtering in through small stained glass windows that are buried under the snow. The service is an hour-long and very simple, and the acoustics of the monks’ melodic singing is perfect. The sound rises and falls, with every intonation crystal clear. A sermon in given in French, with the head monk explaining the focus of the hospice and how its goal is to provide solace and calm from the rigors of the mountain.
The goals of the monastery have remained unchanged since the time of Bernard himself and, whilst the modern world has evolved, little is different in the hospice or in the mountains. It’s this single fact that was my epiphany the first time I visited the place: thousands had visited before, and thousands would after me, but that despite being as non-unique as a grain of sand on a beach, I was welcomed here in this special place as a valued individual. I may well have been forgotten the next day, but that didn’t matter, as the good I’d gained from that experience will stay with me for a long time. This is why I want to share my experiences of this place with people, so they can see for themselves.
Every time I have visited the monastery I’ve discovered some new hidden aspect, be it the museum in the attic or the belfry with its dust-covered bells. Did Napoleon hear those same bells ring out as his troops finished their 20,000th bottle of wine, before glissading down the mountain slopes into Italy? I’ll never know, and that’s what makes this place so special. It was my love of the mountains that attracted me to Mont Fourchon, allied with my interest in mountain dogs. In doing so, I discovered an amazing mountain summit and a fascinating haven in which to stay. Many people write about their experiences and complain about the length of the beds, or the simplicity of the food, but I urge you to transcend all that and immerse yourself in the rich peace of the place, and it cannot fail to move you.
It was intentional that I put all the photos in this article in black and white, as it summarizes the experience of snowshoeing to Mont Fourchon and the Grand Saint Bernard monastery perfectly. I wanted the images to be simple to mirror the tranquility and peace of the monastery, but if I’ve managed to explain myself well you won’t have noticed they were monochrome, until now. To visit here teaches you to put yourself into perspective, and to appreciate the richness of the colors of the surroundings. What greater riches could anyone want?