Tag Archives: Winter

Crossing the St. Bernard Pass in Winter (By Ian Brodrick)


[Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard]

The Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

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

[St. Bernard Pass]

The second day of the trek over the St. Bernard Pass, descending to Aosta.
Photo courtesy Ian Brodrick.

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

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.


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Interview With a Winter Pilgrim: Johanna Qualmann


[Johanna Qualmann on the Camino]

Johanna Qualmann on the Camino.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Johanna Qualmann was seventeen and just out of high school when she and Ariel, one of her best friends, flew out of a summery New South Wales, Australia for a winter walk across Spain. The two walked out of Roncesvalles on November 27, 2009, and reached Santiago just before New Year’s.

Although they skipped two segments (one because of a blizzard), they walked almost every step of the approximately 760-kilometre route, at times through serious snow. Johanna documented her wintry walk on her blog, which gives an idea of what the Camino is like in winter, and also shows Johanna’s internal journey.

She started her walk lonely and in pain, with aching feet and blisters. On her seventh day, after detailing her injuries, she wrote, “It’s been a week now and nothing is getting easier, just harder every day.”

But the journey did get easier. By the next day, writing from Santo Domingo, she opened her blog post with: “I am in such I good mood I should be ashamed of myself.”

I recently interviewed Johanna, who is back home in Australia after her extended stay in Europe, through e-mail. She told me about her experience, and gave some advice for winter pilgrims and young people who are interested in doing the trail. I hope you enjoy reading about her experiences as much as I have.

Anna-Marie Krahn: You say on your blog you thought the writers you learned about the Camino from were crazy, but three months later you were hooked on the idea of going. What made you change your mind?

Johanna Qualmann: I still don’t know. For some reason the topic was so fascinating (and crazy) that I started researching, and the more I read, the more I wanted to go myself. It was one of those things that just felt right once I found out about it.

In your first few blog entries, you talk about being lonely, but it sounds like eventually you enjoyed the relatively small number of pilgrims on the route in winter. What was it like having so few others to share the experience with? Do you think it would have been different (worse) if you’d hadn’t had at least one constant companion?

At the beginning, everything was still really new, painful, and exhausting. The first two days I didn’t socialise much because I just didn’t have the energy or the language to. We only met a few other pilgrims, and all of them were grown men. For someone who never even had male friends at school, it was a bit daunting. (Funnily enough though, I never felt unsafe.)

It took a while for me to figure out how to talk to people in a social way in that situation, but after the first week we made some really close friends, like a big family of uncles almost!

Ariel and I met another girl from Australia, Rachel, who was our age, and we walked together for the first two weeks. She had to leave in León. After that we walked with an Australian man, Charlie, and his German friend Thomas, until Santiago. I really enjoyed walking together, and separately, talking while walking. The few people we met were enough for me.

I’d imagine in the winter you talked with locals more, since there were so few pilgrims. What was that like, considering you spoke very little Spanish?

We didn’t really talk to locals at all, seeing as our Spanish was non-existent. Sometimes we would be stopped by little old Spanish men who would talk to us really quickly and confusingly and somehow not seem to grasp that we didn’t speak the language. We managed a couple of words here and there, though. Mainly we stuck to ourselves and our little groups.

[Mountains]

The mountain route between Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was your best experience on the Camino?

Probably my best experience was walking the hard route over the mountains from Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce. The temperatures were below zero, the mountains were covered in snow, the sun was shining like mad. It was the most beautiful day on the whole walk. After that, I’d have to say the first day, when everything was beautiful and foresty and new and exciting. (Actually, every day was like that!)

Your worst experience?

My worst experience physically was the seventh day of walking, which was simply the culmination of every ache and pain I had. You can read about it in my blog—I was just dying. However, the people around me were all really lovely and the hospitalero took amazing care of my feet after exclaiming in horror!

Emotionally, my worst moment was when we decided to skip a section between Astorga and Ponferrada because of heavy snow. Ariel was really sick that day, and when we found the albergue in Ponferrada it was only 11 a.m. or so. We went up to some person and I tried
to explain that Ariel needed a bed to sleep in now because she was really sick, and he just shooed us away. I think we just sat down outside the door and cried. But then the volunteer hospitalero came out (and spoke English, thank heavens!) and let us inside and everything. He was our camino angel that day. Funnily enough, Angel was his actual name as well. And he spoke nine languages because he was a professor of linguistics in Granada.

What was the best thing about walking in winter? The worst?

The winter walking overall was amazing. Some of the landscapes were pretty bleak, but some were spectacular, especially when it started to snow. The best part was the small number of pilgrims, no rush to get beds at all. The worst would have been that I did walk through some very deep snow all day, and it did get very cold and wet after a few hours!

[After Vega de Valcarce]

After Vega de Valcarce.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

What was it like walking in the cold and snow?

While I was walking, I rarely got cold. For the first half of the camino the temperatures were in the plus range, probably with a maximum of 6 degrees [Celsius] or so. Often I’d start with my beanie, gloves and fleece buff on, and then take them off after an hour or so. My hands got very warm while walking, strangely. The rest of me only ever got hot when walking uphill, so it was very comfortable going! In León it started to get very cold, down to zero and below that. That was when it got cold when we stopped for food breaks, we had to keep moving.

When it started to snow I put my second fleece jumper on under my jacket. My jacket was quite waterproof to start with, but with a lot of snow it got soaked too, so I took to plastic ponchos and rain jackets over the top. As the snow got deeper it was quite hard going, slippery at times due to slush on roads and ice. My hardest walk was up to O’Cebreiro, where I trudged the 8km uphill from Vega in 30cm snow and a blizzard. I walked in Thomas and Charlie’s footsteps, step by step. Those 8km took us all 4 and a half hours!

Did you ever have trouble finding accommodations in the winter, or figuring out what was open? When I was walking in November, none of the information on open or closed refugios seemed to be totally accurate.

This is the only issue with walking in the winter season. A lot of albergues were closed, and we were forced to keep walking to the next one, like my first day when I wanted to stay in Zubiri but had to keep going to Larrasoana. Some albergues also had the issue that they were very cold, especially the dorms. One example would be the albergue Ave
Fenix in Villafranca—while it was very hippy-like and friendly, it was cold! The dorm didn’t have heating, and the showers, while gloriously hot, were basically open air. Which is an experience when it’s -5 degrees [Celsius] out…. The pilgrim forum helped a lot with open albergues though, a group of people walking before us had made a list of everything open and shut!

Would you recommend walking in the winter to others?

Definitely. It’s an amazing experience.

How much clothing did you bring, and was it enough to keep you warm?

OK, so here’s what I wore most of the time, varying a little due to actual temperatures:

  • Top: Long sleeved thermal shirt, long-sleeved wicking poly or wool/poly blend shirt, quite thick fleece jacket, rain/wind jacket.
  • Bottom: Thermal pants/long johns, hiking pants, liner socks, wool socks, boots, waterproof pants if necessary.
  • When it snowed, I sometimes also wore my second (large!) fleece jumper over my fleece jacket. I was toasty warm.

Is there any extra gear winter pilgrims should bring? Is there anything they might think necessary that they should really leave behind?

I would definitely recommend getting good gaiters for snow, which I didn’t have, and an ALTUS poncho, which Ariel bought in Leon for herself. It was amazing, kept all the rain off and the snow as well, though we did have to brush snow off it every now and then! I had two pairs of all my clothes items, and it was good to have the second jumper for the evenings, to change into. I would also really love to bring a little spiral immersion heater for tea and soup. Charlie had a little gas stove with him—while I wouldn’t take one myself, those hot cups of tea in the snow were amazing.

[Gaudi's palace]

Gaudi's palace in Astorga.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

Is there any other advice you’d give winter pilgrims?

Don’t be scared to bring a little extra clothing, even if it seems excessive, snow makes things wet and dry things are wonderful at the end of a long day. A warm sleeping bag is a must, regardless of the weight!!!

As a 17-year-old woman, did you ever feel unsafe?

Never. I felt completely safe, all the time. It was just the energy around the camino, the pilgrim vibe. I knew nothing could happen to me. And it didn’t.

Was the Camino a good thing to do as part of a post-high school “gap year?” Would you recommend it to other young people?

I definitely would. It’s not easy, you do need guts to do it, but it’s a thousand times more rewarding than going to the coast and getting drunk for a week. Which is what most people from my area do!

Were your parents worried about you doing the Camino? What would you say to families who are worried about their children walking the Camino soon after high school?

I think my parents were worried, but they also knew that I was tough and sensible and that I would be fine. I think it must be hard for parents, but walking the camino is far more safe than any other travel or outing. Everyone watches out for you, and you’re never really alone.

Communication is pretty easy too, telephoning and emailing and blogging.

After you had to turn back to Astorga because of the snow, and take the bus to Ponferrada, you wrote that it was: “A test of the Camino and I had failed to overcome the obstacle for the first time,” and that you felt “like a cheat, a non-pilgrim.” But after that, you seemed to change your mind: “The snow is not a test of whether or not I can brave the cold and wet and slogging, but whether I can make the decision not to and still be a pilgrim. After all, this is my camino, and every decision I make will be the right one to make.” How do you feel about that experience now?

It was a tough day and decision to make. In the end, we chose to skip the mountains and the heavy snow there because a) Ariel was sick and b) we had no experience with snow and mountains. At the time, it did feel like failing, but after a while I realised that I had made the right decision, and that it didn’t make me any less of a pilgrim for bussing one section. After all, I think I definitely made up for it with some of the sections I did walk!

It all just came down to me—this was my journey and whatever way I decide to do it will be right. It was quite a cathartic moment while walking.

At the end of one of your posts (after the poem that’s written on that wall along the Camino), you say, “You know how people always say that it’s the intention that counts? It’s not. It’s just doing it.” What exactly did you mean by that?

What I realised at that point was that I was actually in Spain, I had walked over 600km, and I was walking the camino. And the feeling I got from doing that was comparable to nothing else. I thought of all the people out there who put things off, who think about issues but don’t act, who want to walk but don’t, who want to change, but never do.

That’s where that thought came from. I was doing it, not wanting to, not meaning to, not planning to and putting it off. I was just doing it. And that was the most important thing about the experience.

[Pilgrim statue]

Pilgrim statue at O'Cebreiro.
Photo courtesy Johanna Qualmann

You said in your blog, after finishing your Camino: “I can’t say I’ve gone through a massive, dramatic catharsis either. But yes, something has changed, and it’s getting more apparent the further I am away from my Camino. There is something. It’s not big, and it’s not dramatic, and I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is. But the experience itself was great enough to leave something a little bit different. Just a little bit.”

It’s interesting—that’s exactly how I felt, and still feel, about my own trip. Do you still feel the same way now, almost a year after you walked out of Roncesvalles?

For a while, immediately after the camino, I was both happy to be finished, and longing to keep walking. (My mind did the longing, my feet did the refusing!) While I was travelling after that, though, I distanced myself from the camino again, I stopped blogging, visiting the forum, reading other people’s experiences.

It’s only recently, since being home again, that I am starting to immerse myself in the post-camino experience again. And now I’m longing again, wishing that I was walking again, craving the mindset and the landscapes and the routine. The camino is so secure and routine. You wake up, walk, eat, walk, eat, talk, explore, nurse feet, sleep. It’s beautiful and simple. There’s a purpose and a meaning. You know that at the end of the day there will be a bed waiting for you and pilgrim friends to cook with and talk to. I miss that. A lot. I think I always will.

But of course, I’m planning my next walk already—Le Puy to Finisterre, after I finish my Bachelor of Arts at university! It’s only three years….


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 4:40 pm
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