Thursday, May 31, 2012

Like Napoleon .... I crossed the Alps!

I am now in Italy, having walked, bused, trained, and travelled by boat!  I am stiff and sore from the steep mountains that I have ascended and descended, and unlike Napoleon I did the last part on foot - I think he had access to a horse for some of his adventures! 

Leaving Martigny Bourg was the the start of the assault!  Following the guidebooks advice I caught the train from the next village for the 10 kms of dodgy path.  Dodgy, because it was advised that one needed to be agile, and by no stretch of the imagination can I be said to be that, especially at present!  I arrived in Sanbrancher to a race of some sort.  I say of some sort, because people were obviously running, though many had walking poles with them.

 This village, and most of the villages to come, were examples of very old Swiss villages.  Here again I got lost.  Again not because of the guide, but because there was a barrier across the path.  My translation of what the sign said was something along the lines of "do not enter here, on pain of torture!" Obviously I didn't want that, and so I retraced my steps and went up the mountain to another village. Only to find that I was further away from Orsieres than I was originally!  The road was exceedingly quiet, and so when a car came along I put the thumb out and got a lift down the mountain.  My driver was very keen to tell me that there was bus to Liddes if I wanted to catch it.  More fool me - I should have taken the advice!


The narrow path which changed from this ...... this!

 The first part of the path was steep, but pleasant enough.  The last part though nearly broke me.  It should have been a narrow path through a shady forest.  Yes, it was narrow, yes it was through forest, but no the forest wasn't always upright.  I think that there had been many tress cut down through forestry, but there were also trees that had fallen down.  It was a real obstacle path, and part way through I became rather fearful, as I slid on my backside around tree stumps, hoping that I would not slide further down the slope to the raging torrent far below me!  No one knew I was on that path, and I had seen no-one on it either, and so I was especially careful as I negotiated each obstacle.  I was absolutely bushed by the time I got to Liddes and decided that I wasn't going to hunt for a cheap room, but would take the first one I got. Fortunately it wasn't too expensive, only 56 francs, and it included breakfast. 

I crossed Alpine pasture .....

...... and raging mountain streams!

The next day was the final assault!  I left reasonably early, debating about taking the bus to the first village 6 kms futher on, however I really wanted to walk it and so I did. I walked through lovely mountain pasture lands, with trees on the steep hillsides around the valley, and lovely alpine flowers in the meadows.  The temperatures were pleasant for walking - warm but not too hot. After Bourg St Pierre the ascent really began in ernest, first passing a big dam, and then the tunnel entrance that goes through the mountain into Italy.  I climbed to, and walked through a  high alpine pature land passing a fascinating old farm house.  It was just after this that I found my first snow, though I had been surrounded by snow on the mountains above me.  This was snow that I had to walk around or through.  Fortunately I was able to walk around it fairly easy which brough me out onto the road which I then had to follow all the way to the pass.  The path was mostly under snow, and so instead of having only 2 kms to go I had the hardest 4 kms I have ever walked. Hard, because of the steady climbing (the road was a real zig zag), but also hard because by that time I was very sore - with a painful knee and painful feet.  

On the last 4 kms climb!

I have arrived!

I walked those last 4 kms through walls of snow.  I had to keep stopping not only to draw breath, but to admire the extraordinary views before me, and of course to take photos!  The road was closed to vehicles, and so I did not have to worry about traffic, but that also put the option of hitching to the top out of reach! There was obvious signs of avalanches near the top, and in fact I had to walk through a small gap that had been cut in what must have been one.  At times I was walking through walls of snow several feet taller than me.  The road was in the process of being cleared and except for the avalanche it was clear all the way to the hospice. 

What can I say about the Hopsice at Gran St Bernard Pass?  Anything I say would be an understament. The care and attention I received when I got there were wonderful.  I was told to sit down and had a jug of tea put in front of me and told to relax.  Then dinner was served (there were about a dozen guests that night), and following that I was wisked off to the infirmary where a Anne-Maire gave me Arnica pills and gel for my aches and pains, and she dressed the bad blister on my right foot.  After that the priest carried my pack up to the 4th floor where I had a room to myself, and after a hot shower I collapsed into bed with a luxurious feather doona and a lovely feather pillow.  I stayed there 2 nights in order to recover, before descending.  The motto of the hospice and the monks / priests who run it is "Here Christ is fed and loved"  - they live up to that.  

Looking at the Hospice from the Italian border.

Most of the guests had walked from the start of the tunnel, though Matilde, Michael and their little 2 year old Charlotte, had driven as far as the second air chimney for the tunnel and parked there.   During the rest day I had at the hospice there were people coming and going all day.  Some passing through on their way down the other side, and some who had just walked from the tunnel to come up to the Hopsice, have lunch or a cuppa and go back down.  It was in the aftenoon that I saw another (Texan) pilgrim - Steve Cooper.  We chatted for a while sharing our experiences, and when he gave me his card I realised why I recognized his name.  He is the authour of "Six Months Walking the Wilds (of Western Europe)".  He was quite surprised that not only had I read it, but owned a copy which was loaned out regularly!

I only went outside to take a few photos, but the beauty of the place is extraordinary.  The surrounding mountins were covered in snow, and in fact the main entrance to the hopsice is on the first story, because in the winter the ground floor is covered in snow.  There is a lake in front of the hopsice, most of it still frozen, and the road form the hospice to the Italian border was still blocked by snow.  There was a hive of activity about the place though as this weekend (June 2nd) the road is open for cars, and so the workers were out in force clearing the road, and replacing windows in the restaurant and hotel etc - all of which close for the winter period.  The people who live in the hospice live there all through the winter, just on the off chance that they are visited by cross country skiers etc.  The only way in and out is by ski or, I guess these days in an emergency, helicopter. 

Napoleon ordered that a tombstone be built for his friend General Desaix, who was killed in one of the battles, and he chose to desginate "as its guardians the friars of St Bernard".  This tombstone was carted to the pass by mule carts "each cart being trained by 30 mules"!  The manager of this event said that the road was "only 2, 3, 4 or 5 feet large, and it had slopes of 45 degrees, coasting frightful precipes".   This tombstone resides in the foyer of the hospice, along with a massive granite plaque - and a lovely grandfather clock! 
About to begin the descent.  The beanie an jacket soon came off and the sun hat on!  I had to walk/ stumble through the snow on my Left side (that's where the road is) for about 500 metres, sometime sinking into it up to my knees and once faling over - quite tricky getting up as there is nothing hard to push against!

Just because I was over the border the snow didn't vanish!

Eventually though the grass started to appearand the mountains grew more distant. 

That descent has left me with aches and pains in muscles I didn't know I had!  It took less than half the time to get down the same distance that it had to get up, though I had just as many stops to admire the view - of where I had been, and where I was going!  It was when I got half way down the mountain and found that my knee was too sore, that I decided to hitch to Aosta where I have been for the last 2 days. I have to give my knee and foot time to heal properly and so I am going to have to bus it for a few days, otherwise I will not be able to keep up with Carol and Elizabeth when they arrive! 

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