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The Grand St. Bernard Pass, Switzerland

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The Great St. Bernard’s Pass (elevation 8100 feet) is the third highest road pass in Switzerland which connects the Swiss canton of Valais with Aosta, Italy. The pass is the oldest one in the Western Alps, dating back to the Bronze Age. There is evidence it was once a Roman road, and Napoleon crossed the pass with forty thousand soldiers when he invaded Italy. A small lake, or tarn, at the pass is unable to support fish life; the lake is frozen 265 days a year. Due to the extreme weather and high altitude the pass is open only in the summer, sometimes not opening until July.

A hospice was founded at the pass by Bernard of Menthon in 1049 for the purpose of making the pass safe for travelers (bandits abounded) and also to provide medical help to those in need. The hospice became famous for using Saint Bernard dogs in rescue operations on the pass. The large dogs were bred to travel over deep snow (as much as 33 feet in winter on the pass!) and to scent out lost persons. Whether or not the magnificent animals actually carried a small keg of brandy around their necks while out on rescue is unknown. It makes for a good story.

Today, the hospice has been turned into a privately-owned hotel and the great dogs sold to two foundations created to care for the famous breed. One condition of the sale was that every summer the dogs would be returned to the monastery on Grand St. Bernard’s pass, where they are often seen playing on the mountain slopes. The monastery is used as a spiritual retreat and is home to a small number of monks.

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