A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Day 42: Bourg Saint-Pierre To The Col Du Grand Saint-Bernard

From Bourg Saint-Pierre it's supposed to be a four-hour walk (climb really) to the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard, one of the high alpine passes which link Switzerland and Italy. It took me five hours with breaks. It was a strenuous trek in parts — constantly up, up and up.

Yellow lozenges point the way.

The Barrage de Toules at 1730 m. 

The reservoir beyond the dam. You can see the route I've taken just above the water's edge.

Receding alpine ridges. Halfway down the pine-clad cliff on the right the road has been roofed to protect it from rockfalls and avalanches.

It's sad, I know, but this is the last cow picture. These beasts look formidable!

The path climbed relentlessly upwards, and the scenery grew starker and rockier as the day progressed. The valley gradually narrowed, still shadowing the road — but the path was quicker and more direct than the road, which took a switchback route.

There were pockets of snow on the mountainside — for many months of the year this area lies deep in snow, the road is closed and the path unwalkable.

This stream has eroded steps down into the gorge  . . .

The top of the gorge . . .

Note the ventilation shaft for the road tunnel below . . . 

The stony path crossed this footbridge and wound in and out the rocks, climbing ever higher . . .

Adenostyles Alliariae, a member of the Asteraceae family. I saw several of what were for me unusual plants, including some kind of mountain lily and a yellow flower with opposite lanceolate leaves I thought might have been a type of goldenrod.   

This is definitely Cirsium Spinosissimum, the Spiniest Thistle. There was quite a lot of it growing near the path as it approached the col. As far as other wildlife was concerned, I saw ravens and wheatears, and a small, black and white 'chacking' bird which could have been a black redstart. But the most exciting animals were the alpine marmots, and I saw a few of these. A Swiss walker pointed them out to me first, and I looked at them 'sunbathing' on a rock through his binoculars. Usually you hear them calling before you can see them — like meerkats, they post sentries which whistle a warning at any sign of danger. Once I disturbed one quite close to me and watched it run off — it had red and grey fur, and was larger than I'd expected. 

Not far now — St Bernard and a crooked arrow give the direction . . .

'St Bernard guides our steps' . . .

The end is in sight at the top of the cliff . . .

But first there is a dogleg bend to negotiate high above a rocky ravine . . .

 Can you spot the two hikers coming up on the track behind me? They were a friendly American couple — from Bellingham in Washington State. When I told them I had a blog friend who lived there, they remarked that it was a small world.  

Proof that I made it! I scrambled over the top — and was met with a car park. I had a big feeling of anticlimax. For some reason Dylan's line 'There’s a marching band still playing in that vacant lot' (Señor:Tales of Yankee Power) came spontaneously to mind. But there was no celebratory marching band, just a few tourists, bikers, cafés and gift shops. 

Looking across to Italy, which begins at the customs post on the right.

The building in the centre of the photo is the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard. I'd intended stopping there the night with the Augustinian canons (community priests), but the place was undergoing renovation, and was noisy, and busy with visitors. I booked in — then booked out again pretty quickly when I realised I would have to share a room with a stranger who wasn't even a proper pilgrim. I didn't even feel like visiting the St Bernard Dog Museum. Instead I crossed the border into Italy, crossed back again and sat in a bar nursing a beer, surrounded by plastic St Bernard dogs and other tawdry gift items. I'd just walked 1000 km and was thirsty. So I had another beer. Then another. And at 4 pm I took the daily bus back down to Orsières, then a train to Martigny, then another train to Geneva, where I slept in the youth hostel. It was a strange experience in the bus and the train as far as Lausanne, for I relived the latter part of my journey backwards, and at great speed — even glimpsing from my fast-moving cocoon people I'd seen or met briefly en route.

Well, that's it. Including detours, I'd walked 1000 km in 42 days from Guînes just south of Calais to the Italian border. I'd crossed two countries and edged my toes into a third. The next morning I managed to buy a reasonably-priced train ticket from Geneva to London via Lyon and Marne-la-Vallée. The journey was good, but at Marne-la-Vallée the cramped Eurostar train filled up with excitable kids who were returning home from Disneyland Paris. I could have done without that. To escape the din, I closed my eyes and relived the trip in my mind. It had been a memorable pilgrimage in so many ways: such an incredible variety of landscape, of weather, of people. Yes, it was the people who made it special — above all, the people.

I've really enjoyed putting my thoughts and photographs together into some sort of order, and I hope you've had as much pleasure reading about this trek as I have writing about it. Que Dieu vous bénisse, and thank you for your company along the Way.

Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.
ANTONIO MACHADO

*************** THE END ***************   

18 comments:

Jessica said...

Reading your posts in the morning has been the greatest joy of my life for the past few weeks. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing journey.

Sabine said...

This has been so wonderful and spectacular for me to follow. Huge thanks!

The summer just before I was diagnosed with that icky disease and had to slow down rapidly, we were getting just ready to cycle from Andermatt uphill to the Rhone glacier/spring and then down along the river to Geneva and - weather, money and time permitting - as far as we could get towards the Rhone delta at the Mediterranean coast. Alas, things didn't quite work out that way but I am still planning to do bits of it, maybe in combination with railway/boats.

Anyway, for now, I had the pleasure of "walking" with you.

The Weaver of Grass said...

And I have walked with you in my mind every step of the way Robert. It has been a journey for me too - wonderful. Bit of an anti climax at the end when 'civilisation' caught up with you again. It makes you wish for the days before mechanisation when your return journey would have been just as arduous but much more peaceful. Glad you made it though.

Richard Hughes said...

I joined you near the end, but what I saw and read was worthwhile. Thanks.

Timecheck said...

I've enjoyed your journey, Robert. Looking forward to wherever is next. Perhaps Chemin de Vézelay?

ScrapsofMe said...

Bravo! I have loved following along with you. Thank you so much for the adventure.
Pam

am said...

What a gift that your long-distance walking, photography, and writing can be shared in this way that is so immediate and renewing.

Bellingham is a small town. I imagine that I will run into that couple out walking one of these days.

It is mysterious the way words from songs by Dylan come to us spontaneously.

Thank you for bringing us with you on this splendid walk!

Nick said...

A fascinating journey - thank you.

Ingrid said...

Robert, I have been following you all along, with a cup of tea, my morning began by reading your blog posting. Thank you for taking me along on a most interesting and wonderful pilgrimage. Blessings Ingrid

Amanda Summer said...

I've loved sharing your journey, even if only for part of the way. And the Dylan quote to accompany your quiet arrival is apt. Perhaps the best celebrations of victory are those that play quietly in one's mind. The din of Disneyfied teens on the train seem a jarring foil to your journey, but yet, this moving back into 'reality' recalls Joseph Campbell's words about the hero's journey. Not only must s/he go into the dark woods but he must bring back the jewel s/he has found and find a way to assimilate that gift into the world at large. Blessings be as you ease back home. xoxo

George said...

I think my earlier comment on your final VF posting got lost in cyberspace. In any event, I want to join the chorus of gratitude for the well documented postings that allowed your readers to enjoy the journey themselves, if only vicariously. Well done, my friend.

Ruth said...

Yes, bravo! for the journey, the reflection, and for telling the tale so openly and captivatingly. I've enjoyed every step, especially the people stories.

That was an abrupt end to a challenging and glorious climb. I like Amanda's comment about that. I guess you had to meet an "uncharming" reality sooner than expected. Who knows, maybe one of those teens quietly observed you and thought maybe they might get off the bus one day and hike a thousand kilometers.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, all, for taking the time to comment — I'm overwhelmed by your appreciative remarks.

Sorry I'm not replying individually as I normally do, but I value each and every comment very much. To think that I held your attention for such a long period during this blog series is quite amazing!

I'm very struck by what Amanda writes, and by Joseph Campbell's thoughts on the returning traveller: 'Not only must s/he go into the dark woods but s/he must bring back the jewel s/he has found and find a way to assimilate that gift into the world at large.' I hope I may have done a little of this by sharing my account. However, the biggest jewel, and how to recognise and assimilate it, I'm probably not yet aware of.

Am — I can't remember the names of those Bellingham walkers; indeed, I don't know if I ever knew them (which is most untypical of me, as usually I make a point of asking names and remembering them). I'm convinced, though, that one day you will see them around your town.

Thanks again, everyone, and may we continue to accompany each other from time to time on our respective journeys.

Rachel Fox said...

What a lovely trip to have had. Don't you just want to keep on going sometimes..?
We went to Bellingham on our big North American journey a few years back. It was a lovely friendly place. Lots of second hand bookshops (in the Fairhaven area anyway).

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, to just keep on going... very appealing... to be honest, if I were able, I'd go back tomorrow and walk the second half to Rome...

Thanks for reading, Rachel!

Rachel Fox said...

We are itching for another adventure ourselves... just got the home/family duties keeping us still... oh, and the financial considerations! So it was enjoyable to read about/see someone else's stories/pics.

dritanje said...

What an amazing experience, and thanks so much for sharing it all with us. I know it's taken me a bit of time to catch up with your journey. The San Bernadino pass I haven't seen for decades, after hitch hiking through Switzerland, heading east. The pass was barely open, it was winter, the road covered in ice... I thought - I must come back here some day, well, there's still time and your pictorial journal encourages...

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, thanks so much for your comment, Dritanje!