I first heard of the St. Bernard Pass, in the Swiss Alps on the way to Italy, when I was quite young. Ever since, the name makes me imagine monks and their St. Bernard dogs wading through deep snow to rescue travellers.
I recently found out that pilgrims walking to Rome on the Via Francigena take the St. Bernard Pass, but I imagined them walking in warmer seasons.
It turns I was wrong—at least a little. Ian Brodrick recently braved winter conditions on the pass with Regula Burri, a Swiss friend he met on the Camino. He summarizes his findings below for other pilgrims who are interested in the same journey.
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At the end of January, I crossed the St. Bernard in two days from Orsieres to Aosta, following the route pilgrims on the Via Francigena usually take in summer, with an overnight stay at the Hospice-du-Grand-Saint-Bernard. I made the trip to assess the route’s viability in winter, and to enjoy an Alpine winter walk.
The road normally closes in October and the route is a very different proposition in winter. It should really be considered Alpine winter walking, both on the graded slopes of the road and on other tracks. In our case, Orsieres to the hospice took about nine hours. The main problem was that we had to spend a couple of hours high up on the pass in the dark, with falling temperatures. It was very cold, reaching -15 to -20 degrees Celsius very early in the evening.
I would not discourage anyone with the will and experience to make this journey. But keep in mind it needs a good deal of thought, preparation and perhaps experience.
I would suggest most winter walkers take the bus from Orsiere to Aosta—especially if you’re in any doubt about your abilities or the conditions. There are two buses a day in winter, and they are very quick indeed.
For most people, I think the walking season starts when the road is cleared and the paths defrost. But in late spring, with longer warmer days, snowshoeing might be a pleasure not a trial. It might be worth trying then, before the cars return to the road (which is closed all winter).
Obviously many of the local facilities are closed in winter, while winter sports shops and resorts are open. This includes Crystal Sports in Orsieres, where you can hire snowshoes of some sort. You will also need very warm outdoor clothes, a compass and a head torch. For us, water was freezing in the pack in half an hour or so. It’s always good to carry a decent steel thermos with sweet tea.
To stay at the hospice it is necessary to call in advance (the day before)—and you must stay there. All of the other facilities on the Col are closed with the road.
The Route to the Col
The first thing to say is that the trails marked out for the Via Francigena are for the most part unused in winter. For us, it was icy in the lower northern valleys in Switzerland, with melting and refreezing covering even the forest floor with sheet ice, and there was deep snow higher up toward Bourg St. Pierre and up to the Super St. Bernard ski location.
Routes marked out for snowshoeing were entirely unused, even the one next to Orsieres. Some parts were covered in sheet ice, and others in hard snow.
It is essential to have snowshoes or walking crampons on the trails, and then good snowshoes on the snow-covered Col de St. Bernard road to the hospice, and to leave ample time in the short days.
Without proper equipment, adequate experience and planning the route could be dangerous—I must stress that here.
In relation to distance, it would not be unreasonable to add a further fifty percent to the time you’d need under better conditions. I would say that for most it would be unwise to attempt to reach the hospice from anywhere further away that Bourg St. Pierre. Even then, I found all of the Via Francigena trails to have been completely unused for the winter period. Some few intrepid souls walked the road towards the tunnel to get to the hospice.
Most skiers and snowshoers are simply dropped off at the bottom of the road at the super St. Bernard ski station, and use cross country skis to ascend! This is not really what we are doing.
From the Super St. Bernard ski location, the climb on the snow-covered road begins. In January, I found that even moving well we could not get to the hospice in daylight from Orsieres.
Again, I must stress that for most walkers, being in Alpine winter temperatures and conditions in the dark is not safe and should not be contemplated. While the road is marked with snow poles, they may not be easy to follow in bad conditions. Previous tracks are easily covered by a slight wind.
A head torch is good for when it gets profoundly dark, but otherwise peripheral vision in the snowy conditions will work (but wear dark glasses in bright snow conditions). The hospice has exterior lights. They are only visible in good weather relatively close to the Col, and it is easy to see that navigational errors could lead to a serious incident.
Navigation is not difficult, even at night, if you are a little used to night walking in the hills and in extreme cold, but errors are possible in a number of places. The route is mostly in a valley, with only a couple of wrong turns possible—but they are possible. In tough conditions people normally make errors that would be inexplicable in other circumstances.
As mentioned, there are snow poles (less visible in bad weather), and often tracks I guess come from touring skiers. These can’t be relied on.
The temperatures after dark quickly went down to -15 or -20, and required good equipment. I strongly advise that anyone contemplating this route in winter ensures that they have daylight, along with the equipment and some skills to deal with the conditions. It is essential to research the weather.
Low visibility and high winds create complications—and indeed mean the majority should not consider this route. The other issue that must be mentioned is avalanches across the road—I’ll discuss that more later. The monks at the hospice keep records and can be relied on for day-by-day weather updates. You can find contact details on the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard website.
My view is that a mapping GPS would be very useful to someone crossing the pass—but you’d need to keep the batteries warm. Also note that using a GPS exposes the hands to frostbite, and that would be a real danger if it were, say, -20 and windy. It’s best to wear good fingerless gloves under a windproof thin pair, with a pair of mittens over the top.
In winter, always let people at the next place you’re staying know you are coming, and give them an estimate of arrival time. It may be your only chance of rescue. Having said that, this is Switzerland, and there is mobile phone signal throughout the pass!
The hospice is open in winter and excellent. In January there was no problem at all with space. It was a delight to find this wonderful institution in the freezing and profoundly dark night. We were chided for being late for dinner at 7:30pm!
The route south from the hospice toward Aosta also follows the snow-covered road. The trails are under deep snow in winter. Competent touring skiers can use their own judgment to shorten the route. Everyone else needs good snowshoes—perhaps rather better than the “walking the dog” ones hired out by Cristal in Orsieres. MSR Lighning or similar might work well. This is a basic matter of safety.
There is a real issue with avalanches on this route south. We could see many slab and powder avalanches, and in places they took out the road barriers. Few people had ventured up or down from the Aosta Valley this winter, although we found the conditions safe enough. It is necessary to ensure the conditions are safe before making any attempt—and to be able to deal with whatever conditions you find.
After two or three hours of descent down the original track, you come across the Italian end of the tunnel, and the going gets flatter and easier. The new road to the tunnel continues above in concrete conduit. Near to St. Remy the road is open, but some of the trails used by the Via Francigena are closed. The route can be found just above the village at the end of the cleared road. It is necessary to walk to Etroubles and on to Aosta on the roads.
St. Remy is now bedecked in Via Francigena signage, and emblems—and that includes the street lamps!
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Many thanks to Ian Brodrick for this informative article.