A little while back Cooler friend Dan Milner, bored of hectic resorts and scrapping over powder, headed to the Grand St Bernard pass with top shredders Jenny Jones and Jess Venables. They told the whole story of their stay in the mountain top monastery and fresh pow in our October/November issue 2009 and in case you missed that, here’s it all online and available for the rest of time (or at least the rest of the interwebs)
Words and photography by Dan Milner
Way ahead I can just make out the two silhouettes of Jenny and Jess scurrying tirelessly on their snowshoes. They’re racing the darkness towards the 2500 metre pass and our night’s accommodation. Pausing to catch my breath I scout our surroundings, towering peaks lend a feeling of mortality to our presence, and I ponder the thousands of weary travellers that have trodden this path before us over the centuries. The cold nips at my ears reminding me that I’d best be catching the others before I’m stuck out here alone in the dark.
Towering peaks lend a feeling of mortality to our presence, and I ponder the thousands of weary travellers that have trodden this path before us over the centuries
Our quest is for powder, and we’re on a mission. Sure there are ski resorts with fancy hotels to lounge in and lifts to ride, but that’s cheating. Enlightenment in any language or religion takes devotion and effort and has to be earned, so why should our own quest for the soulfood, that’s dished out with every deep arcing powder turn, be any different? This time to earn our nourishment we have to hike for it, and our overnight pilgrimage is to the Grand St Bernard pass, a lofty Alpine crossing point on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Here we’ll stay in the monastery that’s located there and ride powder right out of its ancient wooden doors. If that’s not keeping it real, I don’t know what is.
The hospitality of the Grand St Bernard-based monks is nothing new. The place that accommodates us for the night was built in the 11th century to offer safe haven for travellers that would otherwise be at risk from bandits and extreme weather alike. In 1817 alone the monks handed out over 34,000 meals to weary travellers. This same order of monks is responsible for the St Bernard dog, bred to help rescue stranded, snow-bound pilgrims. While we’re not snowbound, nor are bandits apparent on our radar, a deep helping of fresh snow makes sure our own hike up to the pass is challenging enough. We stumble in through the monastery’s entrance straight into a warm welcome and within minutes of shedding our snowboard boots at the door, we’re cupping bowls of soup in our hands.
I’m accompanying the freerider Jess Venables and X-games champ Jenny Jones on this powder quest, but our dinner table is also shared by a group of old-school French ski-tourists also looking for powder to plunder. While in summer you can actually drive to the pass, in winter it can only be reached on foot, and outside the door of our dining room the snow lies several meters deep. No snowplough passes here.
Of course it’s this deep snow that’s our reason for staying at the pass, for putting in the effort to haul ourselves there. We eat our own body weights in breakfast next morning, stoking our energy reserves for another day of hiking. Jess sets off climbing above the monastery to ride a steep chute back to the pass while Jenny and I shovel snow into a kicker that has a landing running out onto a frozen lake. It will be months before this lake is free of ice, and even then in the middle of summer at this remote Alpine spot, winter will be waiting just around the corner once more.
The tranquility of no ski lifts and no cars makes this a popular ski-tour for many locals and the pass is the natural place to rest after the hike up.
As Jess rejoins us at the kicker the first of the day’s ski tourers arrive at the pass. The tranquility of no ski lifts and no cars makes this a popular ski-tour for many locals and the pass is the natural place to rest after the hike up. Jenny’s frontside 3s off the kicker add a little extra sparkle to the gathered spectators’ picnics. As I watch Jenny stomp another landing, it occurs to me that her kicker might well be the same spot on which Hannibal’s elephants once stood, or worse. Even at 2500 metres the pass represents the lowest crossing point in the western Alps on the journey from Switzerland towards the seaport of Genoa on the Italian Mediterranean coast, and so has always been heavily used. Napoleon even marched his army of 40,000 troops over this pass in 1800 on his way to reap empirical havoc on southern Europe. France has only just settled its tab.
We delve back inside the monastery’s dining room for a hefty bread and cheese lunch before saying goodbye to our habit-wearing hosts and heading back into the backcountry to see what other powder delights wait on the 600-metre descent back to our car parked at the Super St Bernard ski station. The descent flows through a steep-sided valley at first but by initially hiking up from the monastery, we can drop into an open north facing powder field that is dotted with windlips to slash. Both Jenny and Jess attack the face with equal gusto, leaving powder hanging in the air minutes after each turn. We follow the snaking valley down for six kilometers, finding along the way small cliffs and more windlips that had escaped our notice on the dusk-shrouded hike up the night before. With powder chilling our cheeks we lay out turn after turn, finding peace and tranquility in each weightless slice through the deep snow. Whatever religion, whatever language, whatever discipline of snowboarding you’re from, powder is it seems is the great leveler.
The Grand St Bernard pass is a 600 metre climb, 90-minute snowshoe/skin up from the Super St Bernard ski station parking. The hospice costs approximately £25/29 euros per person per night half board. Visit gsbernard.ch for more information and booking.
The St Bernard dog
The Grand St Bernard pass is the original home of the St Bernard dog and there’s still a kennel behind the monastery in summer. These dogs were used historically to lead the way when the paths lay under snow. And their ability to find travellers lost in blizzards or avalanches became their most appreciated skill. More than 2000 human lives have been saved due to the help of the St Bernard dog. One, geniusly called Barry, served for 12 years at the St Bernard pass before dying in 1914. You can still see him though, stuffed and preserved at the Bern Natural History Museum!