Guide to crossing the Great St Bernard Pass
We are often asked when it is possible to cross the Great St Bernard Pass. This always varies from year to year according to the weather and snow conditions, which must be taken seriously. CPR member Tim Redmond has written this guide to crossing the Great St Bernard Pass.
I have crossed the pass twice, and did not find a single site or book which gathered together all the information I wanted, so I thought I would put something on record myself. I was somewhat confused, not knowing quite where the road and the tunnel began and ended, nor what the different options were. Many people did help me with information at that time, and I renew my thanks to them. I hope others will be able to add to what I have written, and update it.
The Great St Bernard Pass, or the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard, or the Colle del Gran San Bernardo (henceforth GSB) is at 2473m (8114 ft) and it is the commonest place for pilgrims walking to Rome to cross from Switzerland into Italy. You can of course walk in the opposite direction.
The highest point of the pass is in Switzerland, but at that point you are just about 200m from the Italian border. There are no border formalities, just a sign at the edge of the road and an unmanned customs post. If you are walking from Canterbury to Rome, the GSB is more or less the halfway point of your journey, depending on your route. It is about 1000km from Canterbury.
The pass has been used for a very long time with evidence it was of usage during the Bronze Age. It was very important during the duration of the Roman Empire. Hannibal probably didn’t cross the Alps at that point (though alternative myths, legends and facts are available). Napoleon certainly did.
There are essentially for the walker three ways to cross the pass:
- On foot on the waymarked footpath
- On the old tarmac road
- Through the road tunnel. You cannot walk through the tunnel; you need to go in a vehicle. You cannot cycle through the tunnel. This blogpost will probably be useful to cyclists: https://tourdetravoy.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/a-grand-day-for-climbing-the-grand-saint-bernard-mountain-pass-from-switzerland-to-italy/
When is the pass ‘open”? The pass is ALWAYS open – but it is not always passable. This is the opposite to the Route Napoleon for crossing the Pyrenees from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles on the Camino Francés. That route is officially closed during the winter months for safety reasons and if you use it and require to be rescued you will be fined.
The famous hospice of the Canons Regular of St Bernard of Menton is situated at the pass in Switzerland, and has been there for over 1000 years, during which time it has “never closed”. Canons by the way are priests who live in community, but who are not technically monks. These priests staff the Hospice and a number of parishes in the mountains around about.
So, if the pass is ‘always open’, what is the big issue? The big issue is snow. In 2017-2018 the snowfall during the winter was 18m. It is very, very cold by night and by day, it snows often and it can also be very windy and very foggy. Note that the big issue is not the altitude per se. The rate of ascent on footpath or road is not a problem for a fit walker and your ascent is over several days.
What is usually meant, I think, when people ask ‘is the pass open?’ is: ‘is the tarmac road open?’ And this is the key. There is an old tarmac road which runs through the pass from Switzerland into Italy. It is a perfectly normal tarred road, with one lane in either direction, which winds gently up through the pass and down the other side. It is clearly well maintained in what must be very punishing conditions.
I am considering the default way to the pass to be by foot. The footpath is well waymarked with yellow-and-black painted lozenges and frequent signposts. It is very narrow in parts and clings to the side of the mountains but never in a dangerous way or in a way which would disturb people who do not like heights (I am uncomfortable with heights myself.) In terms of difficulty I would say that the stretch from Martigny to Orsières, and in particular from Martigny to Sembrancher was much more physically challenging than any part of the road over the pass during the summer.
When there is no snow, I think the footpath would be the obvious way of choice and it is shorter than the road (because it is steeper in parts and doesn’t meander as much). If you start in Bourg St Pierre, a village with hotels and bars, you cross the valley and walk up on a path on the far side of a large reservoir, with the road clearly visible at all times back across the valley on the “village side”. You are committed to staying on that side of the reservoir until you come to Bourg St Bernard, the last-named habitation in Switzerland before the pass. If you change your mind and want to walk on the road, you will have to walk back to Bourg St Pierre first. There is nothing in Bourg St Bernard except the tunnel offices, and an old and dilapidated and very definitely (in 2018) abandoned road café.
So at Bourg St Pierre you finally make your choice. If the weather is good, continue on the clearly marked and very lovely footpath, which will bring you all the way to the hospice at the pass, crossing the tarmac road once or twice and bringing you past an emergency refuge which is open and which you can visit.
If the weather is poor, because of wind or rain, or particularly fog, or if there is snow on the path which is more than you are comfortable with, you can cross over very easily back to the tarmac road at this point. I am grateful to a clarification from Gaetan Tornay on this point. You CANNOT walk on the road from Bourg St Pierre to Bourg St Bernard because you CANNOT walk through the galleries. So if you don’t want to walk on the footpath across the valley, but want to take the road after the tunnel entrance you will have to get a lift or the bus from Bourg St Pierre to Bourg St Bernard.
The entrance to the tunnel is enclosed in a gallery. There are kiosks for paying the toll but no other facilities. Bourg St Bernard is also a bus stop and you can get on or off the bus there. The Swiss bus continues through the tunnel south to Aosta with perhaps half a dozen stops along the way in Italy. There is a useful app with timetables. Note that the bus does not operate every day of the week in the winter. You can also hitch a lift. I did this, and despite being old and benign-looking, I waited about two hours in sub-zero temperatures for someone to stop,
If the road is open, you can continue on the road, now much quieter in terms of traffic because much of the traffic will choose the tunnel. The road is dangerous in winter and is closed absolutely from about late September to early June, and you cannot then drive or walk on it. The exact dates vary from year to year.
The road is opened by being cleared of snow, by heavy machinery, initially leaving walls of snow to right and left. These are dangerous and likely to fall onto the road. Once the road is formally opened, there will still at first be a lot of snow around, but I think the key is that once the road is officially open it is cleared every day of any snow which later accumulates. It can snow all year around – I had a snow shower at the pass in July.
The photo in this article will give you a good idea of both cleared road and remaining snow.
So from June to September you are essentially guaranteed to be able to walk across easily because the road is available as a backup in case the footpath is difficult. Or you may simply prefer the road.
In what sense is the pass ‘always open’? You can get to it at any time of the year by cross-country skiing – and that is how the priests at the hospice travel up and down when necessary throughout the winter. I am not a skier, but I think you would need to have prior skill and experience to do this, and probably a guide.
There is an intermediate time, in the weeks before the road is opened and after the road is closed, when the footpath may still be passable on foot. You can borrow or rent snowshoes (racquettes) if you plan to walk in the snow. You can rent them from Cristal Sports which is in Orsières. It is a regular sports shop easy to find in the small town. I understand that you can make an arrangement by phone to be served “out of hours’ if necessary, although I have no experience of this.
Here is what I did. I was time-constrained and had to leave Canterbury on 1 April so I arrived in Bourg St Pierre on 6 May. I had never expected to be able to walk across the pass in May and was expecting to take the bus. However, I was in contact with a few people ahead of me on Facebook and I think two pairs and a threesome had reached the pass separately on snowshoes during the ten days ahead of me, which meant I was open to trying. But the road itself was absolutely closed.
I decided to stay in the very comfortable and not cheap, but hugely friendly, Bivouac Napoleon Hotel. It is at the site where Napoleon and his troops bivvied in 1800. They are very knowledgeable about the conditions and were encouraging about my chances. You need to check every day. I also phoned the priests at the hospice and was told it was feasible to attempt the trip on snowshoes next day. The Bivouac gives free loan of snowshoes to guests – you return them to a bar on the far side and they come back with the postman. There is a similar arrangement for Cristal Sports. I had not come upon any snow on any road or path up to Bourg St Pierre, though there was snow certainly on the mountains around. I woke early on the Monday morning to dazzling light through the curtains as it had snowed moderately heavily during the night. There is no bus on a Monday, and it was clearly impossible to walk, so I decided to stay for the day in the hotel. I would decide later in the day: if I couldn’t walk by Tuesday, I would need to get the bus through the tunnel then. There is a nice church and a friendly bar in the village where you could idle an hour or two. There is even a swimming pool. During the day, the temperature rose and the snow on the main road outside the hotel cleared. I discussed my options and was encouraged to try the next day, so I was loaned snowshoes and practised a little walking in them.
Next morning, I left at 08h00 and crossed the valley and walked on the waymarked footpath from Bourg St Pierre to Bourg St Bernard. It was not easy but was not too difficult. There was snow on the path, and I needed to use the snowshoes for many stretches, though I found them an encumbrance when the snow cleared occasionally. It was very cold, but not windy nor raining and I did not find the cold a problem while I was moving. For that 10km I could always see ahead of me the next waymark. It was difficult at times and on a few occasions, I had to take my own diversion because the footpath was blocked with a mini-avalanche – perhaps a height of 10 feet of snow. There was wispy fog, but visibility was over 50m. I am a fairly careful person, and I don’t take unnecessary risks, and can honestly say I did not feel in any danger for this stage of the walk. I took a 20-minute break at the southern end of the reservoir, where it is possible to cross over back to the tarmac road and where you are at the beginning of the tunnel and from where the tarmac road continues up to the pass.
I continued onward on the footpath and from here the path initially is a moderately steep climb. I continued for another one and a half or two kilometres in increasingly difficult conditions, and two things made me decide to turn back. I sank up to my knees two or three times in fresh snow and eventually I came to a point where I could not see the next waymark on any rock or tree. So I turned around and came down again which was not extremely easy! However after about 40 mins I was back at the point at which you can cross to the road.
I rested outside the crumbling café building and rang the hospice. Absolumment non! I was told when I asked if I could walk up on the road. “Under no circumstances.” So that was the end of that adventure. I waited inside the cavernous, cold and dark tunnel entrance for a lift for two hours, by now shivering vigorously. Two things would have made a slight difference. If I had rung the hospice at 08h00 that day, they would have told me not to attempt walking. And having a walking companion for that one day would have made things a bit easier.
The tunnel is passed in a matter of minutes, it is only about 5km. The road thereafter through galleries goes down quickly and soon I was in St Rhémy-en-Bosses on a beautiful late spring day. I alighted and stayed there the night.
Was it dangerous? Yes. Was it foolhardy or reckless? I don’t think so. If I made a mistake it was not ringing the hospice on the same morning I walked and instead depending on the advice I had received the previous day.
Epilogue. Another 1000km of walking saw me to Rome and I arrived on 28 June, the day before the important feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. I had a few days in hand before I had to get back home so I took an overnight bus from Rome to Aosta and then took a local bus back across the pass. During the summer, this is two buses. There is a local bus from Aosta to the pass which drops you at the door of the hospice. After half an hour a Swiss bus comes to bring you back over the road and on I think to Martigny. I got off at Bourg St Bernard, just at the tunnel entrance (though the bus obviously does not come through the tunnel in summer.) And so on 1 July I made my way to the very spot where I had abandoned my journey on 8 May. It was high summer, with only the last vestiges of snow in deep gullies. The footpath was like walking though the English Lake District in Summer. At the very place where I had stopped and turned back there was a man fishing in a stream and a young couple sunbathing.
I walked easily back up towards the hospice, passing many recreational walkers who had made the day trip to the pass. I visited the emergency refuge and then came back to the hospice where I had changed buses a few hours before. Coach loads of chattering tourists filled the place. There is a hotel across the road from the hospice linked by a ‘bridge’. There is a bar and souvenir shop. If you walk the few hundred meters around the lake you come to Italy (and a huge drop in prices of beer, coffee and snacks). There is another hotel on the Italian side. Both hotels are only open in the summer.
I stayed for two nights in the hospice and I have to say I benefited from the enormously generous 100% discount for priests. It is a hugely fascinating place, steeped in history, with a beautiful chapel and another prayer space in the crypt. The crowds at the pass on the Sunday were a little much for me but the Monday was quiet and gentle. Monday night there was a heavy snow and hail storm for about an hour which turned everything white, though it didn’t ‘stick’. And even in July it was very cold at night.
Finally next day I took the footpath back down to St Rhémy-en Bosses where I picked up the bus to Aosta. Along that final stretch of footpath is possibly the most haunting monument of the whole way – a simple white marble plaque dedicated to an unspecified number of zingari (‘gypsies’) ‘consumed in a whirlwind of snow.’ There is no date. Not everyone is walking for fun or recreation or pilgrimage…..for some it is a difficult way of life, up to the present day.
- Ring ahead to the hospice on the morning of your walk if it is winter. The situation changes all the time and you need the most up-to-date information.
- If possible, walk with another person if you are crossing the pass in winter .
- If your plan is to start your walk in GSB I would strongly advise, whether you are coming at it from the Italian or the Swiss side, to go to Bourg St Bernard, or even to Bourg St Pierre and walk to the hospice from there. It is a stunning and unique walk and during the summer is not physically difficult and it is only a few hours walk. It is quite possible in the summer to continue on downhill in Italy but if you can afford the time and the money I would recommend a night or two at the pass.
Tim Redmond can be contacted at email@example.com