Lance Armstrong & the Tour de France of Ski: Stage 16, Great St. Bernard Pass

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on July 20, 2009 2:33 pm

After the second (and last) off-day of the 2009 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong and tour leader Alberto Contador hop back on the saddle for Stage 16.  Tuesday’s ride includes two major mountain passes, Grand-Saint-Bernard and Petit-Saint-Bernard.  It’s at the former, Great St. Bernard Pass, where we uncover superb backcountry skiing, a bit of Napoleon Bonaparte history, a monastary, and those big dogs with the barrels of the good stuff around their necks.

Tour de France of Ski: Stage 16, Great St. Bernard Pass

In May of 1800 Napolean Bonaparte crossed this pass with 40,000 men on his way to Italy to lay seige to the Austrian Army.  Napolean’s crossing of St. Bernard Pass was depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s famous oil painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

The pass takes its name from Bernard of Menthon, an 11th century monk who established a hospice over the pass.  Those big, slobbering dogs with small barrels of whisky hanging from their necks soon became instrumental in aiding and saving travelers making the dangerous cross over the pass.  Dogs equipped with whisky named after a monk.  Father Flotsky says dogs don’t go to heaven anyway.

Today, St. Bernard Pass is mostly devoid of St. Bernards.  In 2004, the four remaining monks of the hospice negotiated for the sale of the remaining dogs.  Monks don’t drink whisky.  Now the dogs only show up in the summer, to make sure the local tourism can still sell the St. Bernard coffee mugs, St. Bernard fountain pens, and St. Bernard throw pillows.

The dogs may be gone during the winter, but the big backcountry lines are not.  Mont Mort, Mont Fourchon, 35-degree faces every which way you look.  It’s an amphitheatre of perfect peaks.  The hospice today has expanded into a mishmash of archways and chambers with 140 beds.  And from December to mid-May, they’re all filled with avid backcountry skiers and boarders.


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