On the way to Great St. Bernard Pass

Day 8 of our pilgrimage took us from Bourg St. Pierre to the Great St. Bernard Pass. Distance: 7 miles. Weather: clear, upper 80s. Elevation change from 5324 to 8100 feet.

Fittingly, our climb to the St. Bernard Pass fell on Labor Day.

I’m not certain how well anyone sleeps the night before the climb. The St. Bernard Pass is so steep that trains don’t run there; the only public form of transportation available is via bus. Also known as the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, it’s the third highest road pass in Switzerland, and the highest point on the Via Francigena.

The fact that the distance is only 7 miles belies the fact that a couple of these miles seem more vertical than horizontal.

Outside the church lodging, the Frenchman was with one of the English ladies enjoying a morning cigarette break. Like the Romanian, his lungs seem unimpacted by the habit. He gave a cheerful farewell to everyone and took off like a jackrabbit.

The first two miles were so mild we briefly had hope that the route’s difficulty had been overstated. There was a moderate altitude gain that morning, sure. There was also still snow on surrounding mountains. However, the weather was perfect and everything seemed manageable.

Mom even discovered bush after bush of luscious, perfectly ripened raspberries. It makes sense that raspberries have replaced blackberries as our primary forest berry as we gain in altitude. The delicious berries are especially thick during the hike along the Barrage des Toules, a surprisingly long artificial lake and dam.

Just after the Barrage des Toules we had a nice snack stop and ran into several familiar faces; 4 Americans and our French friend, who excitedly showed us a video of a marmot.

The Going Gets Tough

Almost immediately after clearing the artificial lake, the route began a sharp ascent. From there, it only got more physical. The temperature seemed to climb along with the gain in altitude.

We also entered prime cow pasture territory. There, fabric-covered wires deliver mild shocks upon contact. YES, I can say from personal experience that they are functioning perfectly!

I quickly became adept at using my walking sticks to temporarily lower the line so that we could step over them. The fences also carry warnings to avoid getting too close to the cows during calving season. Mom and I have made a point to be VERY respectful.

About these cows…

With the legendary St. Bernard dogs no longer providing rescue services, I’m convinced it’s the Swiss cow that is destined to become the next national hero.

Not only do they provide exquisite dairy, the bells they wear around their necks provide a genius tracking device in case there’s another freak blizzard like the one last week. In case of emergency, we are going to follow the sound of those bells and snuggle up for warmth. In terms of rescue animal potential, I’m calling it now – it will be the Swiss cow.

Push to the St. Bernard Pass

The route actually takes you OVER the Grand St. Bernard Tunnel built in 1964 for vehicular traffic. By noon, temps were in the upper 80s and we were pouring sweat. Had we not seen video from the priests’ phones showing snow flying at 30+ mph the week before, we never would have believed it. I dunked our hats repeatedly in the many cool clear streams pouring off of the mountain. After the water in my bottles ran out, I took a few gulps directly from the streams.

That final hour was absolutely brutal. Our mouths were parched, and we had to stop every few minutes to catch our breath. The only comfort we got was when we could peer down at the asphalt roads, where ultra fit cyclists were also moving like slugs.

As we arrived at the top, we saw the two ladies from New Mexico grinning, shouting encouragement, and waving at us. It’s amazing how good it felt to get that kind of welcome.

I felt like Rocky Balboa.

History of the St. Bernard Pass

So many great historical figures have crossed the Swiss Alps using this pass. The Celtic tribes…Julius Caesar…Napoleon and his 40,000 troops. It’s impossible not to be blown away by the beauty of the landscape, the richness of the Pass’s history, or appreciation for the sheer logistics involved with getting a large army up and over.

The infrastructure footprint at the Pass is very small. It consists primarily of the hospice, a working monastery, chapel, a few restaurants, a hotel, and the St. Bernard dog museum.

Helicopters and the construction of the massive tunnel have impacted some of the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard’s original functions. The St. Bernard dog that had been bred by Augustinian monks is no longer the go-to rescuer. However, as they have for over 1000 years, the Canons Regular of the Hospitaller Congregation of Great Saint Bernard continue to provide shelter, assistance, and hospitality to weary travelers.

Since there were very few hikers on the trail today, I was surprised by the high volume of people at the top of the Pass. As there were also fairly few cyclists on the road, we think many have been transported via bus.

The Tradition of Hospitality Continues

The hospice is a popular destination. As such, there are no private rooms at the hospice. Mom and I were lucky to each get a bed in a three-person room. In keeping with their well-established tradition for hospitality, after checking in we were offered tea. The cost of a dormitory bed and communal breakfast was, as expected, the highest of this trip: 55 CHF. 

I was alarmed when Mom literally poured 3 seconds worth of sugar into her large tea cup first – in Switzerland, these cups are the size of soup bowls – THEN poured in some tea, and then TOPPED OFF the tea cup again with more sugar!

We were not only dehydrated, we were low on electrolytes. We weren’t the only ones.

Our French friend had also run out of water during the final ascent. When he had checked in, the priests had regretfully told him that coffee and tea were not available. Instead, they poured him two glasses of wine.

Suffice it to say, he looked very happy!

Celebration and Contemplation

It’s amazing how quickly a hiker’s mood can change. After the utter giddiness and triumph of reaching the Pass came a certain dejection.

I really love Switzerland. I’m grateful for all the warmth and kindness that has been extended. Even though I know Italy is gorgeous, and that many happy memories will be made there, I can’t help but feel a certain sadness at leaving this area.

I’m also certain I smell like old socks and cow poop.

I offered Mom two sips of the miniature bottle of Liqueur du Grand St. Bernard I’d purchased in Martigny just for the occasion. Its purpose was now two-fold. It was a celebratory drink, but now I hoped the alcohol was strong enough to kill any cow bacteria I might have ingested from the streams.

Mass was held in the crypt just after 6 p.m. A very helpful Swiss woman passed me a book of hymns. When I stared blankly at it, she flipped it open to the correct page and pointed meaningfully at the title. I bowed, I smiled, I did everything I could to let her know how much I appreciated her effort.

But I still can’t sing in French.

After Mass, Mom informed me that we have a male roommate tonight. Apparently, he’s not too pleased about sharing the room with us. Maybe it’s because he got the middle bed. Maybe he hadn’t heard the rooms are shared. He might be a “day pilgrim” – someone who takes a bus to the St. Bernard Pass for the novelty and bragging rights. Someone who still has clean shoes and smells good.

No matter.

Tomorrow, it’s on to Italy!

Pilgrim encounters: 4 Americans, 1 French, 2 UK (only including those we know for sure walked!)


Breakfast: Leftovers from supermarket

Lunch: Leftovers

Dinner at local restaurant 1 person: 27 CHF ($30.24)

Lodging (per person): 55 CHF ($61.60)

By Katie Cerezo

Thank you so much for visiting. 😊 I have always loved traveling, and my legs are my primary means of transportation. It's a beautiful world, and I'm eager to explore it…one step at a time.

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