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.

Credit to wanderlands.ch for the great elevation profile. 

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.

Leaving Bourg St Pierre. 

We head up the mountain. 

The dam. 

My pilgrim friends, Tomaso and Ursula. 

The dammed river. 


Now above the trees. 


So green. 

Only the hardiest plants survive the brutally cold summers. And winters. 

Great way marks. 

Many laughing waters. 

The Pass is in sight — we see a building. 

My hotel is just over there, in Italy. 

St Bernard at the top. 

Suisse on one side. Italia on the other side of this international border marker. 

The squishy suction sound of saturated shoes

Day Six: Orsieres to Bourg St. Pierre 16.3 km (10.1 miles)

I couldn’t believe it was daylight already when I opened my eyes. Or that it was already after seven o’clock. So much for my plan of hitting the 6:10 train to Orsieres. My very optimistic goal had been to return on the earliest train to Orsieres, where I’d left off yesterday, and then walk the ten-ish miles up to Bourg St Pierre where I’d drop off my pack and continue on to the top of the pass, busing back later to Bourg St Pierre (BSP) for my overnight. With a late wake up that plan was out the window.

Actually, the plan was doomed before I slept through my sunrise/alarm clock. Without warning the weather gods had decided to open up the floodgates, so by the time I’d walked just halfway up to BSP I was already wanting to find a warm, dry place to stay the night.

I think it was actually the heavy rain that woke me this morning. The deluge, along with loud thunder, made me momentarily contemplate staying in my cozy room. Instead, after stopping at the bright and clean grocery at the Martigny station I hopped aboard the train and headed up, with one changeover at Sembrancher, to Orsieres. I secured a credential stamp at the Tourist Office, checked the GPS for the route, was thankful there was no rain here, briefly considered changing out of my stiflingly hot rain clothes, and headed up the hill.

From the Swiss VF site.

When I say hill, I mean mountain. As you can see in the above chart, the walk from Orsieres to BSP ascends from 888m to 1632m, an athletic climb of 744m (2,441 feet). I’d been worrying that my rain gear would be too hot on a steep and drizzly climb, but what I got instead was a freezing downpour that, once I was drenched, kept me shivering during everything but the steepest climbs.

I pulled off my wettest gear at Dranse and ate lunch undercover on the steps of the Gite d’Etape, a hikers’ chalet partway up the climb. I shivered my way the next 2km to Liddes where I found a cozy restaurant and had a cappuccino for energy and warmth. Ursula was there, dry and happy after walking up the hill in a hastily secured garbage sack. She said hi and before she headed to the bus stop for her final ascent to BSP she taught me the French word for “wet” — mouillé — a word I look forward to forgetting.

From Liddes it was on tarmac and pasture pathways uphill, walking to the accompaniment of squishy, wet boots. One 200m stretch of path was atop a highway snowshed and the final climb snaked up a ski hill. After coming out of the ski area, shivering and drenched, I was greeted by the welcome sight of Bourg St Pierre and its Hotel Bivouac de Napoleon which celebrates that here, over 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte camped on his way to Italy with 46,292 soldiers.

Hiking notes: through the day there were two sets of optional routes. I always opted for the lower choice given that the clouds and rain would negate the vistas on the higher paths. Before Dranse there was a very vertical climb up a steep hillside, but otherwise the track was mostly farm roads and grassy pathways.

Train station at Orsieres. From here you can bus to the top of the pass.

The first signposts show BSP to be 4:20 away.

If they could speak, the cattle might warn you not to touch the white wires. Or not.

Gorge with a warning. Don’t enter the riverbed due to upstream dams unexpectedly flooding the channel.

Church at Liddes.

Alpine pastures.

Just another vista.

And the welcome sight of Bourg Saint Pierre.