Passing the Great St Bernard

December 10, 2011

As Christmas is approaching, I thought I’d share with you this spiritual experience…

Back in the days when I was fit, one of my aims was to do the Haute Route. Chamonix to Zermatt.

A six-day ski tour, climbing and skiing untracked mountains by day and sheltering in high alpine refuges by night. I got to know the Alps intimately that winter, and these days I’m a real bore on an airplane. On a clear day, I can point out almost every glacier and peak between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. With the Haute Route conquered, I started to explore slightly easier day tours. Soon enough, I discovered a real gem.

If you ever cross the alps from the Aosta Valley down towards Switzerland via the Grand Saint Bernard pass, where the last scene of The Italian Job took place, you will arrive at a ski area called Super St Bernard .

And by the way whilst I am on that subject, the opening sequence of the Italian Job was filmed on the Petit St Bernard Pass which links the ski resort La Thuile to La Rosiere in France.

Sorry, I got side tracked there. If you ever cross the alps from the Aosta Valley towards Switzerland, the first place you come out of the Grand St Bernard tunnel is a ski area called Super St Bernard, part of the Verbier Four Valleys ski pass.

This is a glorified car park with just one lift that climbs almost 1000m of vertical, with some incredible off-piste terrain below it. You could spend the entire day going up and down that lift and never get bored. But that wasn’t the plan on my first visit. We were there for ski touring.

After a couple of long runs to whet the appetite, we took the lift up a third time to begin a lengthy traverse and climb to the Grand St Bernard Monastery and Hospice, where we would spend the night.

It wasn’t a hard climb and when we arrived in this desolate place, where, rumour has it, Hannibal crossed the Alps, I knocked on this old wooden door to be greeted by a friendly monk who invited us in. Father Bernard Gabioud spoke in a velvet monotone that suggested great spirituality. He offered us rooms for the night. We went to Vespers, had a lovely super with copious volumes of red wine, sadly didn’t see the legendary St Bernard dogs with Cognac under their chins and each tucked under a comfortable duvet, lights out for a good night’s sleep.

What a great experience in such an incredibly remote setting. In the morning on the Italian side we found drifts, windblown slabs and cornices presenting difficult skiing and an obvious avalanche risk.

After skirting the most dangerous part, we then had fun skiing on a section of the tunnel flat roof and enjoyed some great powder before shooting down to passport control at the Italian entrance to the road tunnel.

If you want to know more about this – or Italy ski holidays in general – give me a shout as since writing this blog I found out that the Super St Bernard lift is no longer working. To reach the Monastery from the car park is still a short tour. The altitude of the tunnel entrance car park is 1,900m and the Hospice and pass are at 2,469m, about 2 hours for the fit ones and 4 hours for me.

The hospice at Grand St Bernard remains open to travellers, and although you won’t see any St Bernards in the winter these days, the monks still keep a few in the summer if you decide to brave the pass in summer and the Croce Bianca restaurant in Etroubles on the Italian side is a must!

Happy Christmas!

Amin Momen

Amin Momen