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Switzerland's St. Bernard Pass


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“Come,” says the Swiss clergyman, “follow me.”

I leave my tea steaming on a marble table and walk with Friar Frédéric into a damp hallway. Roman arches glow orange in the soft light. Swiss, French, and German skiers gather around, and Frédéric delivers an unusual edict.

“Ski low,” he says, a wood cross swaying across his frock. “Winds topped 100 miles per hour five days ago and have been strong for a week, loading slopes from southwest to southeast. We’ve had nine inches of new snow, too, so it’s all very unstable. Be extremely careful.”

When a friar tells you conditions are dicey, you listen, and not just because he gets his beta from the Big Man Himself. Clerics like Frédéric have been giving avy advice for these mountains in southwest Switzerland for nearly a millennium now—since 1050, in fact. That’s when Bernard de Menthon, better known as St. Bernard, built a hospice in this 8,100-foot notch between the Rhône and Pennine Alps. Here, on what would become the Grand St. Bernard Pass—a route used by Hannibal and his Carthaginian war elephants to wage ancient battles—Bernard and his righteous band would patrol the slopes for souls lost in storms. Storms like the one blowing outside right now.

Today it’s mostly backcountry skiers spending time on the pass in winter. Five friends and I have skinned here to slay the surrounding summits. As a base, we’re using Bernard’s modest hut, which has now grown into a multistory complex of stone archways and wood-trim chambers and holds 140 beds, a lively refectory, and a cellar stuffed with wine, cheese, and sausage. It’s a mellow 30-minute push up less than 500 vertical feet to get here. For so little effort, the spoils are immense.

“You can ski right off the summits,” says Michael Silitch, an American guide living in Chamonix who’s led us here. “That’s not the case on many European tours.”

Indeed, lines spill all around us. There are the 35-degree faces of Mont Mort, the sweeping ridgelines of 9,521-foot Mont Fourchon, the daylong tour along the 8,937-foot Fenêtre d’en Haut, and the 9,514-foot Pain de Sucre. We could pop into Italy, soak up views of Mont Blanc and the Grand Combin, and return before Frédéric rings the bell for dinner. That is, if we could just see beyond our tips.

I finish my tea and Silitch and I slip out into the storm anyway. We tour low around a lake into Italy, pausing to inspect a customs booth shuttered and buried. The only turns we’ll get will be tomorrow, down a treeless slope to the car through the Valley of Death. With the storm settling in we’re skunked. There’s no way around it, but I honestly don’t care. My wife is with me, a pot of soup is on back at Bernard’s, and we brought a bottle of booze. Given the conditions, I’m sure the Big Man approves.

Guides: Michael Silitch, an internationally certified IFMGA guide based in Chamonix, leads custom ski tours to the hospice throughout the winter.
Season: Peaks are skiable between December and mid-May.
Terrain: Skiers first ride the gondola up the Super Saint-Bernard ski area in Valais, Switzerland, ski through a tunnel, venture off-piste, and skin 30 easy minutes to reach the hospice. Nearby summits are about 1,400 vertical feet above the pass.
Weather: February and March are the snowiest months.
Book it: It costs $640 per person for three days, including transfers from Chamonix, lodging, beacons, breakfasts, and dinners.