THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 2017 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE
It takes around five minutes to drive through the Great St Bernard Tunnel. Five minutes to drive three miles underneath the Alps and cross the Swiss-Italian border as you go – piazzas and pizzerias on one side, timber chalets and watch emporiums on the other. It is just about enough time for a motorist to hum along to Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, or attempt some light yodelling.
But there is an older route that runs directly over the heads of motorists in the tunnel: up above the sunroof, up above strata of metamorphic rocks and a crust of ice and snow, high among the summits where the air is thin and the passing airliners don’t seem so very far away. This route is the Great St Bernard Pass, a frozen highway counting as one of the most treacherous and storied trails in Europe.
‘Summer and winter are two different worlds up there,’ explains Eric Berclaz, leaning on his ski poles at the foot of the pass. ‘Summer isn’t a problem. In winter, you need to know what you are doing.’
Eric is my guide for the ascent, and it is also his job to help decide when the Great St Bernard Pass is able to open to motorists for the summer season. ‘Summer’ in the loosest sense of the word. For just two or three months of the year, the snow melts enough for tourists to drive to the top, admire the view and maybe buy a souvenir fridge magnet from a kiosk. From September to June, the Great St Bernard Pass is plunged into a near permanent state of Narnia: the road buried deep in snow, shivering in temperatures of down to -30°C while holidaymakers on the Mediterranean siesta on the beach not so far away. During this time, cars are of no use on the pass. The only way to cross is on skis or snowshoes.
I strap into my snowshoes for the three-hour hike to the top. It soon feels like an exercise in time travel. In the valley below, spring is arriving: wild flowers grow in the meadows and people are wearing shorts. The Great St Bernard Pass, meanwhile, is lagging a few months behind in bleak midwinter. The snowdrifts become deeper with every step. Everything is still, but for the croak of ravens and the hum of overhead power cables carrying Swiss electricity to Italian TVs and espresso machines. A few skiiers and snowboarders whoosh past.
Today, like much of the Alps, the Great St Bernard Pass is a place for recreation. But before the tunnel was built in the 1960s, travellers between the Italian plains and northern Europe had little choice but to come this way. Pilgrims on the Via Francigena crossed on their way from Canterbury to Rome. Napoleon led a 40,000-strong army over the mountains, the soldiers hauling their cannons up the mountainside (the man himself sliding down on his tiny backside). Everyone from Roman legions to counterfeit cigarette smugglers traversed the Great St Bernard Pass. And there were also wayfarers who climbed into the mountain mists, and who never came back down again.
Of the many travellers on the Great St Bernard Pass over the centuries, a few people shared a rather peculiar experience. First they would have heard the rumble of fracturing snow slabs on the slopes above, then quickly found themselves spinning in a tidal wave of white powder. Whiteness would have turned to blackness as they were buried alive. It takes about 15 minutes for someone to die of suffocation in an avalanche – during this time they would have experienced panic, coldness and a slow loss of consciousness.
Standing at the gates of the afterlife, they would have seen a strange beast about the size of a Shetland pony, with giant feet and a mouth slobbering like Niagara Falls. They would then have been borne aloft by men in flowing robes, carried to a castle-like building up in the heavens. Here they would be given a cup of tea. This was no dream.
Snow flakes glide through the air as Eric and I arrive at the top of the pass. Out of the wilderness there emerges a grand doorway hung with icicles, and windows half-submerged in the drifts. We have arrived at the Hospice St Bernard, a religious hostel that has stood at the highest point of the pass since the 11th century. Its robe-clad holy men and gigantic St Bernard dogs gained fame as a mountain rescue double act: fishing passers-by out of avalanches, guiding them through fog to the safety of the hospice. Still run by the Catholic Church, the institution exists for the same purpose today: to welcome and protect passers-by.
‘This is not a monastery – and I am not a monk,’ explains Father Raphael Duchoud, a permanent resident at the hospice who today sports a dusting of fresh snow on his shoulders. ‘Monks live in silent contemplation. It is our spiritual duty to talk to visitors and welcome them: to give them food, drink and a bed. Some people come here with a weight in their hearts and we try to help them. And some people arrive and simply want to know where the toilets are.’
A Swiss canon with a musical laugh, Raphael is part of a dynasty dating back to St Bernard himself – a medieval priest who had a successful sideline slaying demons, but who also built a little stone shelter for travellers in the Alps. In time, this shelter grew into a small community, with no members more famous than the giant St Bernard dogs, whose thick fur, large paws, strong limbs and sensitive smell made them ideal for rescue missions. The greatest of them all was Barry, a 19th-century superdog who made Lassie look like a slacker, rescuing as many as 40 souls and specialising in carrying hypothermic orphans on his back.
Today the St Bernard dogs live in an institute on the valley floor, but the two-legged community still thrives at the top of the pass. Three canons and several housekeeping volunteers supply about 50 visitors with clean beds and three generous meals a day in one of the most hostile wildernesses in Europe. The front door is open to everyone, regardless of religion. In 1,000 years it has never been locked.
‘Some people ask me why I live in the mountains, where it is winter nine months of the year,’ says Raphael. ‘But mountains are spiritual places. It is high in mountains that you can meet with the Lord.’
For all the effort of climbing up to the hospice, exploring the building itself is also a minor expedition. At 2,500m, there is 25 per cent less oxygen than at sea level, meaning climbing the stone stairways can leave you wheezing and in need of a short lie-down (unpacking your rucksack, you learn that atmospheric pressure causes bags of peanuts to explode). At the end of one corridor, I peek into a spectacular Baroque chapel, puffs of exhaled breath rising to a ceiling where angels and cherubs look down from the chilly heights. Behind another door is the communal dining hall, where newly arrived guests warm their noses in piping-hot bowls of tea.
The whole operation is even more remarkable when you consider that the hospice is one of the most remote outposts of any size in Europe. In winter you are a minimum seven-hour round trip from a replacement lightbulb, dentist or pint of milk. Keeping the community supplied is a logistical challenge on a biblical scale: 75,000 litres of fuel are delivered by lorry in September to heat the hospice through the bitter winter; helicopters airdrop loaves of bread in February when supplies run low; Eric Berclaz works as a postman and refuse collector – delivering letters and packages (he doesn’t like carrying heavy books) and taking down bin bags. There are also times when Raphael and his colleagues are completely cut off from civilisation. For two weeks in February 2016, residents were unable to step outside the front door because of blizzards. They were stuck in their own private ice age – marooned in the mountains at the heart of Europe.
Days at the Hospice St Bernard follow an established timetable. At about seven o’clock, everyone is woken via piped music in the corridors (Orinoco Flow by Enya). The morning service is held. Plans for the day’s adventures are discussed over bread and jam, and soon guests step out of the great front door, which groans mournfully on its hinges. Daytimes are mostly quiet apart from the sound of drills and hammers carrying out repairs in unseen corners of the building.
Packing a sandwich and an apple, I set out on a day trip to Mont Fourchon, the shark-fin-shaped peak visible from the kitchen window of the hospice. The trail leads over the Italian border, past sentry posts locked for the winter, and little road signs peeking above the snowline: STOP and PASSPORTS. Hours pass. A northerly wind gathers strength. Distant walkers shrink to tiny dots. Drawing closer to Fourchon, the A-listers of the Alps assemble on the horizon.
To the south is the ridge of Gran Paradiso – the tallest peak entirely within Italy, where a little statue of the Virgin Mary stands on the summit praying to the sky. To the east the mass of Grand Combin and the perfect pyramid of the Matterhorn. Back to the north is the beginning of the pass; once the site of a temple to Jupiter, where Romans came to worship the god of lightning. And beside it is a vast statue of St Bernard himself, his back turned to the mountains and his outstretched bronze hand pointing travellers home to the hospice.
Guests return one by one as the sun sinks over the Mont Blanc massif, colouring the snow rosy pink on its way. The day’s adventures are compared over stews and casseroles. Everyone clears their plates. Some people head for the lounge, where there are a few jigsaws (map of the world, pasta varieties, puppies) half completed by long-departed guests. Hanging on a wall is a picture of the Dome of the Rock sparkling in the Jerusalem sunshine.
By 10pm most guests are lying in their beds, listening to the whumpf of tiny-avalanches on the roof, the whistle of the wind from the gaps in the skylight and the sound of the building shuddering in a gale, like a ship far out at sea. When conditions allow, a few guests strap on boots and pop out for a short walk before bedtime.
Stepping outside, the moonglow turns the landscape shades of blue and lilac. The shadows of the mountains shift with the moon’s slow orbit, and the silence is total, but for the whirr of the generator. At this time, the hospice feels very far away from the world below: as remote as satellites and space stations, which can sometimes be seen travelling across the starry sky.
Among those resident at the Hospice St Bernard tonight are a few dozen souls in a little outbuilding. Visitors used to check up on them – to look at their ragged clothes and gaze into their pale faces – but this is no longer possible since their outbuilding has no doors. These are the travellers of the Great St Bernard Pass whom the canons could not save. The ground is too frozen for a burial so they are walled up in a small mortuary: some sitting upright, preserved by the same cold which took their life.
Even in the 21st century, it seems, death stalks the pass. Today, helicopters and mountain guides have of officially replaced the canons. Alsatians have replaced St Bernards as rescue dogs because they can fit inside a helicopter. But sometimes the residents of the Hospice St Bernard are still called on for help in emergencies.
On a Saturday afternoon in February 2015, when the fog was too thick for a helicopter to land, the canons and volunteers rushed to the scene as five Italian hikers were buried in an avalanche just beneath the hospice. They managed to save one person. And then there was the case of a guest lost in thick fog a few years ago – trying to retrace their footprints in the snow, travelling in endless circles as night fell. When the fog cleared in the morning, a body was found just 30 metres from the warmth of the Hospice St Bernard.
‘We are the same as people who live by the sea,’ explains François Bruchez – a guide I meet at the foot of the pass. ‘People in the mountains are used to lives being lost.’
François told me that he lost his father, also a guide, in a skiing accident in a crevasse on Petit Combin in 2001, but it has not stopped him from climbing in the Alps.
‘When I walk in the mountains, I think of my father. And whenever I am high up and the clouds open and the sun shines, I believe he is up there looking down at me.’
Morning comes on the last day of my stay. Enya plays in the corridors again. Guests greet each other over breakfast with a hearty ‘Bonjour’ or a ‘Buongiorno’ or a ‘Guten Tag’ – at this altitude it is easy to forget whether you are in France or Italy or Switzerland.
Since the building of a tunnel, the hospice is no longer a necessary staging post, and yet thousands of visitors still make the journey every winter. Some people come to conquer a mountain, a few to look for Jesus Christ walking barefoot in the snowdrifts of Switzerland. Many come to be above the confusion of the world below, here where the air is crisp and the views stretch forever.
It takes five minutes to drive the Great St Bernard Tunnel, and at least double that to go through the clumsy routine of strapping on boots and snowshoes, and plodding outside into the cold. Raphael stands by the door, waving goodbye.
‘When you climb up the pass, you have to find faith,’ he says. ‘You have to count on the strength in your legs and the will in your heart. And when you find your faith, you can take it back down with you!’
PHOTOGRAPHY: Justin Foulkes