Col du Grand Saint Bernard

One of the great Alpine passes now functions as a border crossing, between Switzerland and Italy, the Grand Saint Bernard is also the most ancient of all the routes through and over the western Alps. Archaeologists have unearthed strong evidence that humans first passed through and across the Val d'Entremont from the north, following the course of the modern road, as early as the Bronze Age. Over the next 2,000 years the likes of Roman troops in 57bc and Napoleon Bonaparte's army in 1800 have faced the task of crossing the pass between Grande Chenalette at 2,889 metres and Mont Mort at 2,867 metres.

The road that has since been constructed as the Col du Grand Saint Bernard is now known for the daunting task of climbing it by bike, and you can see why, from its height of 2,469 metres, making it the third highest pass in Switzerland, the pass is one of the most famous in the Alps.

Whether from Martigny in Switzerland or lovely, luminous Aosta in Italy, the Col du Grand Saint Bernard is long, relentless and epic. That’s at least how it feels, whether because the echoes of past glories and tragedies fill the valleys and senses, or because the cross-border passes have a certain grandiosity, a prestige that other, even much prettier mountain passes, can’t quite match.

The Climb in Detail

“The ride from Aosta begins against the sublime backdrop of the 4314m Grand Combin..." - Mountain High


The Ascents

The Col du Grand Saint Bernard can be climbed from Martigny in Switzerland from the north and from Aosta in Italy to the south. The Swiss side of the famed pass has few hairpins or even kinks but the challenge of a 30.6-kilometre, 5.7 per cent climb is nonetheless absorbing. The ride from Aosta begins against the sublime backdrop of the 4,314-metre Grand Combin to the north and generally offers more scenic variation than the Grand Saint Bernard’s Swiss side with zigzags across lush mountainside.


St. Bernard

The kennels opposite the traveller’s hospice today house no more than four dozen of the famed Swiss dogs, and are principally a tourist attraction, but from the 17th century until relatively recently the dogs formed a crack mountain rescue team. Known for their gentle disposition, patched coats and the brandy barrels they carried around their neck to supposedly revive stricken climbers, the Saint Bernards were, above all, perfectly suited to bounding through deep snow and scenting out missing persons. 

It’s place at the Tour & Giro

The Tour de France has taken on the Grand Saint Bernard just five times, most recently in 2009, and the pass last featured in the Giro d’Italia early on an uneventful mountain stage to Domodossola in 2006. It may never become one of the hauts lieux of professional cycling, but that won’t matter; to paraphrase Shakespeare, some mountain roads are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. And however, it got there, no one would argue that the Grand Saint Bernard road doesn’t live up, very high up, to its 1,000-year-old name.

"The Col du Grand Saint Bernard is where the Swiss dogs earned their reputation for saving travellers lost in winter snows" 

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