Oct 17, 2014

Alpine Update

I'd actually begun composing my last update Wednesday from Liddes, but the hospitality (and great conversation) provided by Therese and her friend Anne proved to be too great a distraction for me. Therese had lived in Quebec for 13 years until the albergue she owned was destroyed in a fire. Anne is an enthusiastic walker and has travelled quite extensively in Europe, and so she was particularly interested in the details of my trip.

I had to turn down their offer to join them for dinner, since I was hoping to be out the door and on the road by 7:00. I was successful in that, and my day of walking to the Great St Bernard Pass was relatively uneventful. When I arrived in Bourg Saint-Pierre, I stopped off for a coffee and then went into the church. As you may have guessed from the name of the town, the church has St Peter as its patron. I lit a candle and used my prayer rope for a bit, and then after filling my water bottle (checking for signs first!), I headed off again.

By this time it had started to rain lightly, so I pulled my rain poncho on and put my Tilley hat over top. I stayed warm and dry, although I was glad I'd switched back to my merino t-shirt as my inner layer. 

As I'd hoped, I made better time with the lighter pack and an early night. ‎I stopped for lunch above the tree line on the shore of Lac des Toules, created by an enormous dam. It was quite windy and it continued to rain intermittently but I found a spot on the doorstep of a Swisscom hut that provided me shelter from both. I ate leisurely, making sandwiches with the bread Therese had given me the evening before and some meat and cheese I had bought in a small shop in Liddes. Dessert was some Swiss chocolate I'd bought when I stopped for coffee in Bourg Saint-Pierre.

At some point in the afternoon, I realised the last time I'd seen an eagle (flying below my own elevation) had been several hours previously when I was still walking through the forest.‎ You know you're in the Alps when...

The rain never really stopped for long until I was within a few kilometres of the Great St Bernard Pass, so I kept it draped over my pack as a rain cover that I could easily pull back down without stopping to take my pack off. I kept climbing, and realised again just how out of shape I'd become since I walked the Camino. Eventually I ran out of water, and because I'd been sweating a fair bit I was getting a little worried about dehydration. 

As I came to the last marker before the final push up the rapidly narrowing valley, I saw a vehicle pull off the road and stop in a small parking area. I quickened my pace a little, and as I approached I saw three people get out and start pulling on hiking gear.‎ I approached them and explained my situation. Without hesitation, the husband began rummaging through their camping gear and handed me a 1.5 litre bottle of water. 

I thanked them profusely, and even had to decline an offer of food. I took shelter under a massive concrete structure which houses part of the ventilation system for the tunnel running beneath the mountain. After guzzling half a litre, I poured the rest into my 1 litre pop bottle and decided a bit of chocolate was in order. I also packed away my rain poncho, but replaced it with my brand new windbreaker.

I set out again in high spirits, which only improved when a car coming down from the pass slowed at a point where the trail was quite close to the road. I waved, and when they pointed their camera in my direction I struck a manly sort of pose. Feelin' like a champ! Looking back down the way I'd come, I was amazed to watch a bank of clouds rolling in to fill the valley -- below me! At around the same time I finally caught my first glimpse of the hospice several hundred meters above me. The next time I looked, it was gone, enveloped in a bank of cloud. Speaking to one of the Augustinian fathers who live there, he told me they have fog 200 days a year.

I arrived while it was still light, although the community had just begun Vespers. One of the lay volunteers at the hospice showed me to a waiting room and asked if I'd like some tea. On my affirmative, he went and brought a teapot, sugar, a small stirring spoon, and a cereal bowl. Now THAT's how to serve tea to cold tired pilgrims at 2473 m above sea level! Dinner followed soon after, and then I was assigned a room. After a luxuriously long and hot shower, I decided to step outside again. 

So it was that I was the first person to greet Percy and Anna as they came trudging up the slope in the rain with their headlamps on in the dark. Since I'd already been through the routine myself, I was able to show them to the kitchen where the staff were still cleaning up after dinner. 

I didn't bother to stick around, since both of my new English friends speak French fluently, but I have to assume they were well-looked after. Inscribed in the wall in the foyer of the Hospice of St Bernard is the saying, "Ici  ‎le Christ est adoré et nourri" or "Here Christ is adored and fed." That has been the guiding principle of the hospice since it was founded by St Bernard in the year 1050. He had felt called to minister to Christ in the person of the poor, desperate, hungry travellers who ventured over the pass, and this ministry has been continued by his successors without interruption in the millenium since.

Retiring to my room, I finished typing up the YMMV post and then got to sleep early. Just as at Maison Saint-Bernard in Martigny, the community does Matins at 7:15, followed by breakfast. It was at breakfast that I spoke more with the English couple who had arrived out of the dark the night before.‎ It was only at this point that we introduced ourselves, but apparently when they checked in, they'd been told of the only other pilgrim staying there that night who was on his way to Jerusalem. 

Percy and Anna have been operating a holiday resort in the Martigny area for the past year (4vallees4saisons.com) and since this time of the year is the only slow time, they'd decided to take six days and see how far along the Via Francigena they could get.‎ I'm assuming that their line of work has kept them very fit, since they'd begun walking from Orsiéres at 1:00 pm Thursday afternoon and made the 26 km hike with a 1572 m rise in elevation in the posted 7.5 hours while carrying packs and doing the last few kilometres through the rain in the dark. Wow.

They had a hotel room booked for tonight in a twon 26 km further on. I doubt I'll bump into them again on this hike, since there's just no way I'm able to do that kind of distance in this kind of terrain. Some folks (Hi Zach!) think that going uphill is more difficult than going downhill. Here's the thing: yes, going uphill will get your heart pounding‎, but all you have to do is rest until you've caught your breath and then carry on. It feels hard, sure, but it's a short term thing. Going downhill, however, is very easy from a cardio perspective. What makes it truly challenging is the constant strain on your thighs, bracing against the weight of your pack and your own body so that you don't slip or lose balance and go tumbling down the incline. Let me tell you, at this altitude, there's a lot of incline to tumble down! Even taking frequent rest breaks‎ doesn't really help, at least not the way it does for the cardio exercise of going uphill. Nope, this is anaerobic exercise, meaning your muscles strain and burn and eventually start trembling from exhaustion. And then the next morning when it's time to start all over again, those same muscles are now sore and rigid.

So here I am, under my tarp  in an alpine meadow ‎campground in the town of Etroubles in Italy. I only walked about 14 km today, but I dropped from 2473 m above sea level at breakfast to 1280 m altitude at dinner. I'm cozy and warm in my merino wool long underwear inside my down sleeping bag listening to dogs barking in the distance and a cow bellowing much closer than that.

Along the way today I had a wonderful conversation with Martin, who is doing working at the hospice in lieu of serving in the Swiss military. He'll be returning to school at the end of the month to resume his studies in history. He'd also like to add Italian to his already impressive list of languages. Much later in the day, I stopped off at the Château Verdun in Saint Oyen. This had been endowed by the royal family of Savoy to provide hospitality to travellers headed across the pass. It also served to supply the Hospice at the pass itself. It's still run by the church, and there is a cloistered monatic community attached. When I arrived more or less on a whim, having already decided to proceed to Etrouble‎s, Josef was very warm and helpful. Unfortunately they didn't have any open rooms, but he stamped my pilgrim's passport, offered me coffee or tea, and most importantly to me, showed me to the toilet.

So. That had better be all for tonight‎. I paid €2 for an hour of internet access via the campground WiFi. (I may be able to upload some photos, but it's also getting late.) There is a free municipal WiFi zone, but in order to use it, you have to register and then receive a validation code by SMS. That's fine, but it's set up to reject non-Italian mobile numbers. The gentleman at the campground was surprised when I came back asking to buy some online time, but when I explained, he laughed and said, "Ahh, Italia!"


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! Ten minutes after I started my descent, my rain poncho was stowed, my sleeves were rolled up, and I had my sunglasses on for the first time in days! Ahhhh, Italia! :D