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Pass lives

Take a snowshoeing trip in the Swiss Alps to traverse one of the most storied mountain passes in Europe, and to meet the brave souls who watch over travellers on the road

@OliSmithTravel

@justinfoulkes

PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES

IT TAKES AROUND FIVE minutes to drive through the Great St Bernard Tunnel.

Five minutes to drive three miles underneath the Alps and cross the Swiss-Italian border as you go – piazzas and pizzerias on one side, timber chalets and watch emporiums on the other. It is just about enough time for a motorist to hum along to Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, or attempt some light yodelling.

But there is an older route that runs directly over the heads of motorists in the tunnel: up above the sunroof, up above strata of metamorphic rocks and a crust of ice and snow, high among the summits where the air is thin and the passing airliners don’t seem so very far away. This route is the Great St Bernard Pass, a frozen highway counting as one of the most treacherous and storied trails in Europe.

‘Summer and winter are two different worlds up there,’ explains Eric Berclaz, leaning on his ski poles at the foot of the pass. ‘Summer isn’t a problem. In winter, you need to know what you are doing.’

Eric is my guide for the ascent, and it is also his job to help decide when the Great St Bernard Pass is able to open to motorists for the summer season. ‘Summer’ in the loosest sense of the word. For just two or three months of the year, the snow melts enough for tourists to drive to the top, admire the view and maybe buy a souvenir fridge magnet from a kiosk. From September to June, the Great St Bernard Pass is plunged into a near-permanent state of Narnia: the road buried deep in snow, shivering in temperatures of down to -30°C while holidaymakers on the Mediterranean siesta on the beach not so far away. During this time, cars are of no use on the pass. The only way to cross is on skis or snowshoes.

A deeply buried sign gives walkers an estimate of how long until they can find a hot cup of tea.
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