Dancing uphill from Switzerland to Italy

Day Seven: Bourg St. Pierre to Col St Bernard – 12.4 km (7.7 miles)

Ursula, my new pilgrim friend, and I arranged at dinner last night to have breakfast together. As we ate in halting French conversation, a man began to speak to us in French about pilgrimage. Once he said he was from Milan we switched to Italian and learned his name is Tomaso and he's a pilgrim, too. Soon we agreed in Italofrenchlish we would walk together – a great relief to each of us since no one wanted to walk alone – and we agreed we would meet up at 8:00 and head up to the Pass.

If you look only at the distance — 12.4 km — you might think the stage would be pretty easy. The only problem is its beginning at 1632m and its culmination at 2457m. That's a vertical climb of 825m (2,700 ft). In under 8 miles. As my FitBit would say, that's 341 floors while burning 2,400 calories in 32,000 steps. Or as my lungs would say, that's into the thin air and beyond.

So we three pilgrims set out for what I can only describe as a magical, Alpine walk. After Bourg St Pierre we climbed to a dam above the tree line and then kept going. We saw falcons, a marmot and what we believe was an otter. Moss, heather and lichen replaced the trees and above the pastureland it was just the sound of our footfalls and the occasional screeching of a falcon.

The path was often steeper than a stairway, and usually it was also home to a tiny rivulet. A few times we crossed the old St Bernard Pass Highway (now a tranquil lane thanks to the modern tunnel hundreds of feet below), but mostly we were above or below the highway, carefully choosing where we would plant our feet each step of the way up, up and up the mountain. With nary a drop of rain and temps in the 12c (54f) range we were never too hot.

Finally we arrived at the Hospice atop the Pass. Yes, this is where the St Bernard dogs would rescue stranded travelers with a small keg of brandy. They still keep dogs here, but the St Bernards are for show and the German Shepherds do the work.

Ursula very kindly bought the men lunch and the hard climb, lack of sea level oxygen and my own lack of practice made it impossible for me to hold up my end of the conversation. Tomaso continues on down the hill, while Ursula is staying as the Monastery's Hospice. I have a room in the pricey but charming Hotel Italia, across the little lake from the Hospice.

Hiking Notes: The way is very well marked and there's not really a need for directions. Bring a snack since there's no food between start and finish. The scenery is stunning and though my pics turned out fine there's no way to capture the extraordinary beauty of this day. Definitely one of the best and most memorable days of hiking in my life, made even better by two happy and fun companions.