Grand Saint Bernard – A grand day for climbing the Grand Saint Bernard mountain pass from Switzerland to Italy

(#04 – Top 10 Highlights from 2016 Tour de Travoy) This was a day I was both looking forward to and dreading all year. The road from Martigny to the top of the Grand Saint Bernard goes uphill almost the whole way for about 50 km. The longest climb I had tackled last year with Travoy was about 5 km long and about 300 m of climbing. The Grand St Bernard from Martigny involves over 2,000m of climbing, the same as going up Alpe d’Huez twice. Not only that but I had studied the route on Google Streetview and noticed very little forest or trees en route so I was hoping for a cloudy day. But the forecast today was for bright sunshine and temperatures of over 30 degrees. A tough climb just became even tougher and I made sure to load extra water onto Travoy.


Col de la Forclaz up to the ski resort of Finhaut. The Tour de France was due to visit Martigny on Wednesday July 20th and then turn right towards France and tackle this stunning climb called the Col de la Forclaz on the way to Finhaut. Forclaz means ‘narrow path’ in French and there are quite a few Col de la Forclaz in the Alps but the Forclaz de Martigny is the most famous. Most Alpine climbs are hidden from view by the landscape but not so the Col de la Forclaz. A bit like Alpe d’Huez, the Col de la Forclaz is clearly visible from the valley below as it zig-zags it’s way up the Mont d’Arpile to the west of Martigny. The climb averages 8% and passes hundreds of vineyards as it winds it’s way up the mountain. It is quite an impressive sight but the top of the Forclaz is only at 1,527m. In this photo, the transmission tower on the right hand side is at an altitude of roughly 1,200m and the road continues to climb for another 300m. The climb I was going to tackle to the Grand Saint Bernard is not as visible from Martigny but it goes up to 2,500m or over twice as high as the transmission tower on the Forclaz.


Hitachi digger dredging a mountain stream. The start of my trip today more or less followed the route of the river Rhone and I went past numerous streams flowing into it. Near Bovernier, I passed by this machine clearing debris from one such stream. Maintenance crews spend the summer all over Switzerland dredging the bottom of rivers and streams to prevent flooding the following spring when the snow melts. This section of road, up the Rhone valley, wasn’t too bad as the gradient only averaged about 3%.


Sign for Verbier near Sembrancher. The ski resort of Verbier is one of the most famous ski resorts in the world and is located not far from the Grand St. Bernard. The resort once featured in one of the best episodes of Top Gear ever in which Jeremy Clarkson drove all the way from Guildford in England to the ski resort in a Ferrari. At the same time, James May and Richard Hammond got a flight from Gatwick to Geneva then a train to Le Hable before getting a bus to Verbier. Clarkson took over 15 hours to drive from Guildford to Verbier but still beat May and Hammond to Verbier, eventhough a flight from Gatwick to Geneva only takes 2 hours. At Sembrancher, you can go straight on for Verbier or turn right to climb into Italy via the Grand St. Bernard pass. I turned right and almost immediately the gradient increased to about 6%.


Sign for Hotel le Catogne in La Douay. At La Garde, there is a cycle path for about 2 km with lots of shade. The cycle path rejoins the main road at La Douay, where this hotel was advertising rooms in 4 languages. Rooms in French are Chambres and in German Zimmer. As for Kamers, this may be the Swiss Romansch translation which is similar to the Italian word for rooms, Camere. Interestingly, Google Translate does not include an option for Swiss Romansch though it does include Esperanto which no-one speaks.


Hairpin on the Grand St. Bernard climb. The first hairpin on the climb to Grand St Bernard is located near the town of Orsieres, which is the furthest you can travel up the Grand St. Bernard Pass by train. The gradient was now averaging about 7% and as the temperature was over 30 degrees and because there was no shade, I was starting to struggle. But as I was still 20 km from the top, I had no option but to push on.


Chapelle Saint Laurent. Near Liddes, I passed by the Chapelle Saint Laurent, which is one of 3 churches in Liddes. A church was first built here in 1502 and recently renovated in 2003. The fresco above the main entrance door is original and dates from the 16th Century.


Swiss town of Liddes. The town of Liddes was the only part of the climb when the gradient eased slightly. It was only 5 km from here to the next town of Bourg Saint Pierre but the gradient on this section of the climb averaged about 8% and it took me over an hour to cycle as I had to stop about a dozen times.


Charming sign near Bourg Saint Pierre. Bourg Saint Pierre is famous as the place that Napoleon rested for the night when he climbed the Grand St Bernard pass in 1800 with his army. The climb took place in 1800 after Napoleon returned to France from his military campaign in Egypt to find out that the Austrians had reconquered Italy. Napoleon’s plan was to cross to Italy with his army of over forty thousand men to launch a surprise assault on the Austrian army. The journey through the Great St Bernard Pass, which, at the time was reckoned to be impassible due to heavy snow, commenced on the 15 May 1800 and took five days.


Napoleon climbing the Grand St. Bernard Pass. Napoleon was transported up the Pass on the back of a mule with the help of a local guide called Pierre Nicholas Dorsaz, who was from Bourg Saint Pierre. Apparently, Dorsaz was not told and did not know that it was Napoleon he was guiding up the Pass. On one precipice, the mule lost it’s footing but Dorsaz held tightly onto the reins and stopped Napoleon and the mule from tumbling over the edge. As a reward for saving his life, Napoleon asked Dorsaz what he would like in return. Dorsaz told Napoleon that the normal fee for the guides was three francs but that as a reward, he would like to have the French army mule that Napoleon was sitting on. Earlier, he had told Napoleon that his dream was to have a small farm, a field and cow. Napoleon had asked him how much that would cost and Dorsaz replied it would be around 60 francs. However, in October 1800, French army records noted that 1200 francs was paid to Dorsaz for the guide’s “zeal and devotion to his task” during the crossing of the Alps. 1200 francs would be the equivalent of quarter of a million euros nowadays but Napoleon could well afford such a fee as he was reputed to be worth 250 million francs at that time or the equivalent of 50 billion euro today.


Napoleon Crossing the Alps as depicted by Jean Louis David. Without a doubt, this is the most famous painting of Napoleon but it is totally fictional. The French artist, Jean Louis David ignores the fact that Napoleon crossed the pass riding a donkey wearing a simple grey coat and instead depicts him aboard a white horse wearing a flamboyant cloak pointing the way to the top of the pass. A propaganda masterpiece, the work puts Napoleon on a par with  Hannibal and Charlemagne, who also crossed the Alps with their armies and  whose names appear graven in the foreground rocks.


Sign for Hotel Bivouac, which was built where Napoleon stopped for the night. In this photo, you can just make out a garage in the distance behind the sign. As I was near to collapse, I stopped at this garage to get an ice-cream. The ice-cream was so nice I bought another one as well as a 2L bottle of Coke. I never normally drink Coca Cola but I was sick of drinking lukewarm water and needed the energy boost. The 2 almond Magnum ice-creams and the 2L bottle of Coke cost 10 SFr but they were a life saver. Had I not stopped at that garage, I never would have made it to the top of the climb.


Start of 6 km long tunnel section. About 1 km north of Borg Saint Pierre, the road enters a tunnel for about 6 km. I knew about the tunnel as I had studied the route on Google Streetview and had fitted a set of lights to my bike in anticipation of the tunnel, so I now turned them on. I normally hate cycling through tunnels as they are so claustrophobic but once inside this one , it was so much cooler that I actually started to go faster.


Lac des Toules dam and reservoir. The first part of the tunnel is open on one side so it was not too dark. In places, you can exit from the tunnel and admire this huge dam and reservoir, which runs alongside the tunnel for about half it’s length.



View looking back down the tunnel at the tunnel exit. The last 2 km section through the tunnel is totally enclosed and it was a wee bit scary as there was a lot of traffic going past. Fortunately, most cars were not going that fast and would wait behind you until it was safe to pass.


Tunnel exit for Col du Grand St. Bernard. At Bourg Saint Bernard, all cyclists have to exit from the tunnel and take the old road to the summit. I was glad to leave the tunnel and get out into the fresh air. I was now only 6 km from the top but knew that the steepest part was still to come.


View of the Lac des Toules reservoir after exiting the tunnel. On the right hand side of this photo, you can just about make out the track of the tunnel as it winds it’s way up the side of the mountain. This reservoir is almost 2 km long but because I am stood so far above it, it looks much smaller in the photo.


Super St. Bernard cafe at Bourg St. Bernard. This cafe is called the Super Saint Bernard and the name made me chuckle as I felt far from super cycling past it. If I ever come back to the Grand St. Bernard, I will call in but as it was now about 5.30, I needed to push on and didn’t have time to stop.


Bus stop and sign at L’Hospitalet. This sign made my heart sink as I thought I only was 2 km from the finish but the sign said 4 km to the top. Worse again, I knew the top was at around 2500m so I still had about 400m of climbing to do in 4 km or an average of about 10%.


Hairpins galore on the climb of the Col du Grand St. Bernard. This photo was taken about 2 km from the top looking back down at the road I had cycled up. A few cars had passed me on the way up with some people inside shaking their heads and I couldn’t quite believe it myself I managed to make it up this far as I looked down at the road below.

Some deep snowdrifts still hadn’t melted along the side of the road. At this stage, I was really tired but the higher I climbed the cooler it got. In fact, there were quite a few snow drifts alongside the road and I managed to grab some snow which I put in my coolbag to see if it would melt.


This sign was a welcome sight at the top of the climb.  The last km is really steep and it is only when you come around the last bend that you catch sight of the world famous hospice of Saint Bernard. I stopped for a photo at the sign but was a bit dismayed to find that the sign is not at the highest point on the climb. The highest point is at the hospice which is located on both sides of the road. The road between both buildings is a bit narrow so I guess the authorities felt it was safer to locate the sign about 100m from the actual summit.


View from the summit looking south towards Italy. I had hoped to send a Tweet from the top of the mountain with a photo of Travoy at the sign for the Col St Bernard but there was no 3G signal. However, there was a GSM signal and when I checked my text messages, I had a new text from my brother Noel to tell me his wife Marjorie had gave birth a little boy that afternoon which they named Cormac. It was just incredible to think that here I was at a place twice as high as anywhere in Ireland but still able to get news from home.


The world famous Grand St. Bernard Hospice. A hospice was first built here in 1049 by Saint Bernard of Menthon to give shelter to pilgrims crossing the Alps on their way to Rome. The St. Bernard dog was first bred by monks here at this hospice in the 16th Century to help rescue travelers lost in the snow and dogs were still being bred here up until 2004, when the kennels were moved to Martigny. There is space for over 100 guests in the hospice and I was tempted to stop for the night as I was really tired having been climbing for 7 hours. However, staying here is not cheap and on, rooms were being charged at over €100 per night. No doubt a bed in a dormitory would have been much cheaper but as the hostel is on the Swiss side of the border, it would have cost anything up to €40.


Plaque commemorating Napoleon’s Crossing of the Alps. This plaque was erected to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon climbing the Grand St. Bernard in May 1800.  It took the French army 6 days to climb the pass as they went up in single-file, 6000 men per day.  All of the army’s artillery was pulled apart and split into small pieces to be carried up the pass. The  barrels of the army’s cannon were put into hollowed out logs and dragged up the pass by mules and in places, by squads of men.


Napoleon surveys his troops from the staircase of the Grand St. Bernard hospice. This painting shows only one Hospice building as the second Hospice on the right hand side was not built until 1898. At the top of the climb, monks handed each French soldier two glasses of wine and a slice of rye bread with cheese.  On the way down to Aosta,  the snow was so packed in places that some of the soldiers slid down the slope sitting down. The good weather held for the entire crossing, which could easily have turned into a disaster, if it had not. Napoleon’s army made their way down the valley and defeated the Austrian army near Alessandria in the Battle of Marengo about a month after climbing the Grand St. Bernard Pass. It was a bold move to cross the Alps and ambush the Austrians from the rear but this audacious campaign cemented Napoleon’s legacy as one of the greatest commanders ever.


Customs post on the Swiss side of the border. The border between Switzerland and Italy is located about 300m from the St. Bernard hospice. It was empty when I went past but as it was after 7, maybe the customs staff had finished for the day. Of course, today was the day that the Brexit result was declared in Britain after the referendum the day before. I had checked my Twitter in the morning and knew that ‘Leave’ was in the lead and tried to check it again now I had made it to the top but there was no 3G signal. Of course, I was not to know that by now, David Cameron had already resigned after losing the referendum. But I remember thinking as I took this photo, that there might be similar custom posts along the border between the North and the rest of Ireland in a few years time, as of course Switzerland is not in the EU either.


Ice floes on the lake at the Col du Grand St. Bernard. There is a lake at the summit of the Grand St. Bernard, which was full of ice flows. Apparently, there are very few days in the year that the ice melts fully as it is so cold up here for most of the year. It was 32 degrees when I had left Martigny this morning and was probably less than 5 degrees at the top of the climb and it certainly wasn’t warm enough to melt all the ice on the lake.


Hotel Albergo on the Italian side of the border. This hotel is owned by the same monastic order that owns the famous hospice but the building is leased and run by a hotel consortium. This hotel was built in 1899 and roughly occupies the same location where the Romans built their fort at the top of the Pass. On a hill, to the right of the hotel, is a bronze statue of Saint Bernard on top of a stone pedestal. The Romans called the Grand St. Bernard mountain Mons Jovis or Mount Jupiter and the stone pedestal is located where the Romans had a small temple dedicated to Jupiter.


Descent of the Col du Grand St. Bernard. I had hoped to stay longer at the summit and maybe go for a stroll around the lake but as it was already after 7, I decided to head to my campsite for the night in Etroubles. I put on an extra jacket for the descent and set off down the mountain. To start with, the landscape was very barren but the further I dropped, the greener the land got.


Marmotte guarding his lair in the hillside. I had only gone about 2 km downhill when I spotted a ghostly image scurrying across the road. I pulled my brakes as hard as I could and managed to stop in time to see a marmotte dash into a hole in the side of the road. I waited for a few seconds to see if he would re-appear. Sure enough, he popped his head out of his lair and I managed to get a grainy photo. The battery in my camera phone was dead so I had to use m Windows phone on which the zoom is not as good. But you can still make out the outline of the marmotte, which looks like a big rat.


Herd of sheep near Saint Rhemy. About 10 km below the summit, I came across a huge herd of sheep. I hadn’t seen a farm animal practically all day and it was a bit surreal to be confronted, all of a sudden, by hundreds of sheep grazing on the hillside.


Sign in French welcoming tourists to Etroubles. After descending for about 10 km, I arrived in the town of Etroubles and checked into the Camping Tunnel. I was sure we had stayed here in 1992 on our way to the a stage finish that year in Sestriere. However, the town and campsite didn’t look that familiar so it is possible that we stopped instead at Camping Pineta in the nearby village of Saint Oyen. Then again, it is 24 years since I was last here, so my memory may have been a bit fuzzy.


My climb of the Grand Saint Bernard on Strava. According to Strava, it took me over 6 hours to climb 25 km from Orsieres to the summit of the Grand Saint Bernard. The same climb without Travoy would have taken me roughly 2 hours but the load on the trailer really slows you down on a long climb. Of the 6 hours the climb took me, I was probably only moving for 4 hours and stopped for at least 2 hours due to exhaustion. My bike has a triple chainset but the lowest gear is only 30-28 and I was in this gear the whole way from Orsieres to the summit. This lowest gear would be perfectly fine for light touring but with at least 20 kg and maybe 25 kg on Travoy, it was totally insufficient. Some mountain bikes have gears as low as 26-45 and some tour bikes are fitted with 26-34. For future tours, I may have to invest in a bike with extra gears as they are definitely needed on long Alpine climbs.


Profile of the Col du Grand Saint Bernard. As well as the need for extra gears, the other lesson learned from this climb is if the forecast is for a hot day, to set off as early as possible even before dawn. Most Alpine climbs are barren and have very little shade so on a hot day, you are slowly cooked alive. I found the 6 km between Liddes and Bourg Saint Pierre much tougher than the last 6 kms before the summit eventhough the gradient averages only 6% halfway up the climb as opposed to 9% near the top. The reason the middle section was much tougher was because the temperature was over 30 degrees whereas it was down to about 10 degrees as I neared the summit. Had I set off at 6 o’clock instead of after 10, I would have made it to the summit before 12 and avoided the worst of the heat. Indeed, only for the ice cream I bought at Bourg Saint Pierre, I could have got another heat stroke as had happened to me at Agde on the 2015 Tour de Travoy. A temperature difference of a few degrees can make the difference between flying up a climb and struggling with every pedal revolution. 30 degree heat during a flat or slightly hilly day is perfectly fine but in the mountains, it can result in you collapsing from exhaustion. On previous tours, I found that the hottest part of a day was often not at mid-day but actually between 3 and 6 in the afternoon. For future tours and especially in the mountains, I will try and set off as early as possible to avoid cycling in the afternoon if the forecast is for a hot day.

The Col du Grand Saint Bernard features in “Mountain High”. Daniel Friebe included the climb as one of the top 50 climbs in Europe in his book “Mountain High” and it is easy to see why due to all the history associated with it. But having completed the climb of the Col du Grand Saint Bernard from Sembacher, I would recommend it best avoided due to the traffic and the long tunnel and especially if it is a hot day. But the last 6 kms from Bourg Saint Bernard to the summit is as good a climb as anywhere in the Alps and you also get to follow in the footsteps of Napoleon and his army. The Col du Grand Saint Bernard was the first climb in “Mountain High” which was completed by Travoy and myself and hopefully it will prove to be the first of many more in the future.


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