On a high mountain pass between Switzerland and Italy, the Grand St. Bernard Hospice sits alone — isolated and quiet. In the summer, anyone can drive up, but from October to June, it’s only accessible on ski or snowshoe. Visiting the hospice is a fantastic adventure, so we often stay overnight on our Swiss Alps Winter Adventure Tour.
A brief history of the Grand St. Bernard Hospice
The Grand St. Bernard Hospice dates back to 1050, when St. Bernard of Menthon founded it to protect travelers from mountain thieves. Then in 1125, the bishop of Sion (who was also count of the Valais) acquired it. Valais has maintained jurisdiction of the hospice and its surroundings ever since, explaining why the pass lies entirely in Switzerland.
The hospice’s most famous contribution is the eponymous St. Bernard dog. Hoping to raise guard dogs, the hospice crossbred the pets of people living in the Valais; however the St. Bernards’ strength and sense of smell meant they soon became rescue dogs instead.
Today, a few welcoming resident monks maintain the hospice, which operates as a mountain refuge for hikers. Visitors can either stay overnight or just stop by for the day. If you do want to stay overnight, then it’s important to book ahead.
How to get to the snowshoe walk
To begin the trek, follow signs from Switzerland to the Grand St. Bernard Pass. Once you are in the tunnel to Italy, look out for an exit on the right directing you toward the col. If you find yourself at a toll station, then you have gone too far, and you will need to turn around.
Exiting the tunnel, you’ll soon come to the car park of an old ski resort. That’s where the trek begins…
The snowshoe route
The last time we did this snowshoe outing, it was bitterly cold outside. The sun hadn’t even reached the valley floor yet, but our own movements and the rising soon soon warmed us up. We were lucky to have calm conditions, but it can get very windy up there, so I recommend dressing in layers.
With steep valley sides, the walk leading up to the hospice is prone to avalanches. It’s important to only snowshoe on low-risk days and to make sure that your group members have avalanche rescue equipment that they know how to use. If you do not have the skills and experience to walk in avalanche terrain, then it’s a good idea to snowshoe with a guide.
Read about avalanche safety when snowshoeing.
The walk leads up the valley at a gentle gradient for the first hour, and there are a few ski poles placed to mark the “trail.” It’s important to stick near the ski poles — if you wander too far right, you risk falling into the snow-covered river.
After an hour and a half, we reached a hut where we stopped to get a drink and admire the views. Although the trail is popular with snowshoers and skiers, we had the majestic views all to ourselves.
The final half-hour to the Grand St. Bernard Hospice is a little steeper, but not at all technical or exposed. As we reached the col, the sun broke through the clouds and rewarded us with stunning views down the valley and across to Italy. But the clouds enveloped us again before long, so we hurried into the hospice to warm up and eat lunch.
The hospice is unbelievably clean and warm with modern toilets, bedrooms, a cozy living room, and a spacious dining room. The resident monks maintain everything impeccably. In fact, when you are inside, it’s hard to believe that you’re in such a remote location!
The real delight is the spectacular church in which the monks hold three daily services — visitors are welcome to attend.
After a hearty soup and some warm drinks, we decided it was time to begin our descent and make our way back. The clouds really closed in halfway down, leaving us in a complete white-out! We were certainly glad we had a map, compass, and snow tracks to lead the way.