Friday, November 30, 2012

Crossing the St Bernard Pass Swiss Alps

By Ernst Von Hesse-Wartegg
Pictures by Andre Castaigne

Band of gypsies crossing the St. Bernard
In a popular guide-book to Switzerland, it is stated that of all Alpine passes the Great St. Bernard is the least interesting. With this view the traveling public does not seem to agree, for the St. Bernard is crossed every year by more people than any other pass. On an average, twenty thousand annually arrive at the hospice on the summit, and nine tenths of them during the short summer season, from the beginning of July to the end of August, which means over three hundred daily.

Now, the whole district of the St. Ber­nard for many miles around possesses not one of the vast caravansaries character­istic of the picturesque mountain-tops in Switzerland, indeed, not even a modest inn,—where tourists may find shelter for a few days. Why, then, should these armies of tourists invade the pass every summer, if it really offers little of inter­est?

To me, who have seen almost all the passes from one end of the Alps to the other, the trip over the Great St. Bernard was most enjoyable. Though the scenery may not be so beautiful as that of the St. Gotthard, for instance, it surpasses by far even that and most of the others in wild grandeur; for nowhere else in the Alps can be found mountains of bolder aspect and greater height. On the west near the French boundary, I need only mention Mont Blanc and Mont Dolent; on the east, the glacier-covered peaks of Mont Velan, and the towering masses of the Grand Combin.

The valley of the river Dranse, which is followed by the traveler from Martigny, in the Rhone valley, to very near the summit, more than eight thousand feet above the sea, is full of romantic beauty and wildness, closed in by snow-covered mountains of fantastic shapes, their steep slopes partly covered with dark pine for­ests. Nestling on the rocks or sleeping in the valleys there are a few straggling set­tlements, with heavy-visaged natives, apparently of a different race from the Swiss, and entirely untouched by modern life. They live in tottering, wooden houses of the quaintest shapes, dark brown with age, and with wooden barns on stilts attached to them. Only a few villages, as Orsieres, Liddes, and Bourg St. Pierre on the Swiss side, and St. Remy on the Italian side, have stone houses along their narrow main thoroughfares.

During the summer months these roads are daily traversed by a motley crowd of tourists from all parts of the world, trav­eling on foot, or in private carriages or postal diligences, for the road is kept in capital order. Many wayfarers stop at the modest inns to rest and take a glass of kirsch, or even to seek shelter in the old houses when storms spring up suddenly, blowing furiously down the valleys; or they may repose on the rotten thresholds of the houses side by side with old ma­trons working at their spinning-wheels or with young girls knitting stockings, and converse with them in their French pa­tois. The men are frequently employed as guides, and all are in constant inter­course with modern people from the great capitals of both continents, yet they do not depart from their ancient manners and ways.

The uncommon tenacity of these moun­taineers is surprising, as the St. Bernard traffic is by no means new. True, the new carriage-road connecting central Europe, by way of Switzerland, with Italy was opened only in the first days of August, 1905, when the King of Italy himself was present, together with the authorities of the neighboring countries. But the St. Bernard has been a highway for thou­sands of years; it has seen many armies in war-time and many caravans with mer­chandise in times of peace. More than two hundred years before Christ, the great Hannibal passed over it with his Cartha­ginian legions; over the winding road which Hannibal had constructed Julius Caesar led his Roman army down the val­ley of the Dranse for the conquest of Gallia and Germania. Emperor Augustus II improved and rebuilt the road, por­tions of which are still seen by the side of the new carriage-road wherever the lat­ter has not been built on the foundation of the Roman highway.

At the beginning of the Christian era, the summit of the pass was crowned with a temple in honor of Jupiter, with rest-houses for travelers. Vestiges of this tem­ple still exist, and in the large and well-stocked library of the present Hospice of St. Bernard the prior of the religious or­ der in charge showed me a number of gold and silver coins, ex-voto figures, tab­lets, vessels, statuettes, and other objects found by the priests on the temple site. Indeed, owing to its situation on the di­rect geographical line between Italy and the North, the St. Bernard has been crossed in the course of time by more peo­ple than has any other pass.

A St. Bernard dog
The traveler of today, arriving at the hospice in a comfortable carriage within ten hours from the nearest railway sta­tion, and provided with all the luxuries of modern life, can hardly picture to himself the terrible privations of the traveler in ancient times, when settlements were scarce. Provisions had to be carried along for many miles to these icy regions, most of the time covered with deep snow which obliterated every trace of roads.

On the evening of my arrival, I went to the plateau where once Jupiter was worshiped. The small lake beyond which it is situated had still some ice-cakes float­ing on its placid surface. Resting there on a stone, my fancy enlivened this scene of solitude and desolation with the sav­age soldiers of heathen times. I imag­ined that I heard the cracking and screak­ing of heavy cart-wheels, the clattering of armor, the clanking of spears, as the legions toiled wearisomely upward to the beating of drums and blowing of trum­pets. My eyes pictured strange, stalwart warriors, exhausted from the arduous pull up those steep valleys, shivering with in­tense cold, fainting, sinking into the deep snow. And then an avalanche, breaking l00% from the towering mountains above, came thundering down, dispersing this glittering array, and burying many under the soft, white, yet deadly, mass.

It was with the object of offering shel­ter to the weary and of rescuing those who succumbed to the in clemencies of these forbidding heights that in the year 962 a pious monk, Bernard, Count of Menthon, whose home was in Savoy, near Annecy, resolved to devote his life and fortune to the founding of a hospice on the summit of the pass. He succeeded in persuading other monks to share with him the dreary life, and thus founded a holy order, named to-day "Les Chanoines regu­liers de St. Augustin." Bernard of Menthon himself, afterward canonized by the pope, was elected first prior, and lived forty years at the hospice. His tomb is still standing in the Italian town of No­vara. According to the keeper of the royal archives at Turin, whom I con­sulted on the history of the hospice, it is first mentioned in a document in the year 1108.

In the Middle Ages the hospice, being of great importance in the intercourse be­tween the north and south of Europe, enjoyed the powerful support and protec­tion of the great rulers of that period, notably the German emperors. In return for valuable services, the order was richly endowed, and became in time exceedingly wealthy and prosperous. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it possessed no fewer than ninety-eight livings. The Reformation, however, ended this pros­perity, and since then various misfortunes have carried away most of its once very large revenues. Its total income is now about eight thousand dollars, and without the aid received from the Italian and Swiss governments it would be impossible to offer hospitality to the large number of tourists that come every year. As many as five hundred have received free board and lodging in a single day.

It is to be regretted that so few visitors take notice of the collection-box in the pretty little church. Many well able to pay for the hospitality they receive do not give even so much as they would pay for their entertainment in a third-rate inn. The total amount given by tourists is only a small fraction of the actual expense in­curred in entertaining them. The present King of England, who visited the hospice when Prince of Wales, sent a piano, and I could not help wondering how this bulky instrument was brought up the steep mountains. Emperor Frederick of Ger­many, with his consort, came in 1883, and the prior showed me one of their valuable gifts—a volume of Thomas a Kempis, bearing their signatures.

One must bear in mind that provisions, wood, and all other necessities of life have to be brought up eight thousand feet from the valleys below. For miles about the hospice there is not a tree, not a bush or a single blade of grass, and the view from my window offered nothing but barren rocks, bleak mountains, glaciers, and snow-fields. The mean annual temperature is below the freezing-point, being about the same as Spitzbergen, within the Arctic Ocean! One cannot help admiring the little group of monks, about twelve in number, who, with an equal number of lay brothers and servants, live here, in this highest human habitation of Europe, summer and winter, year after year, till they die. They do not wear the monk's capouch, but the ordinary black sacerdotal robe, with a white cord falling from the neck as a special distinction.

Their sufferings are sometimes intense. The climate is so severe, and their duties are so arduous, that their constitutions would soon be broken down if they were not allowed to recuperate temporarily at their house in Martigny, their places be­ing taken by other members of this brave and devoted brotherhood.

On the St. Bernard summit the seasons are unknown. Winter is, so to speak, perpetual, without spring or autumn or summer, the only indication of our warm seasons being the melting of the snow, which sometimes drifts about the three tall stone buildings to a height of forty feet. The cold is often twenty degrees below zero Fahrenheit and has been in one instance twenty-nine degrees. When I stayed at the hospice early in August, the lake behind it was frozen over during the night, and the monks told me that there have been years when the ice on its surface did not melt.   

Under these conditions, I was not sur­prised to find among the occupants of the hospice mostly young men, only one of them being over fifty, and he had spent twenty consecutive years on the St. Ber­nard. The hardest labors of these pious men are during the winter months, nota­bly in November and February, when numerous poor laborers from Italy ven­ture to cross in search of work. Unfa­miliar with the hardships and dangers they have to face, they ascend from Aosta over St. Remy, plodding wearily through the deep snow, which obliterates all traces of the road, sometimes covering even the telegraph-poles. At last their strength gives out, or they are buried under an ava­lanche, or they lose their way and cannot proceed from sheer exhaustion. Those who do not perish owe their lives to the zeal of the monks and the alertness of the famous dogs of St. Bernard.

Day after day all the monks are out on their beat through the "Valley of Death" on the north side opening immediately below the hospice, and the steep snow-fields to the south, each accompanied by a servant and a dog. They search the surroundings, where every dell, every rock is familiar to them, with powerful field-glasses. Breaks or dark spots are de­tected at once on the white surface, but the surest and never-failing discoverers of unfortunate victims are the dogs. Their extraordinary fine scent in­dicates to them the exact direc­tion in which it is necessary to search, and the men fol­low on snow­shoes. Arrived at the supposed spot, the dogs begin to bark and to scratch in the snow, the men take to their shovels, and soon the poor wayfarer is discovered. If life has fled from him, the body is carried up to the hos­pice and placed in the little low, desolate stone but standing at a short distance from the buildings, the abode of the dead. In this "morgue" rest the victims of the Alps till their bodies crumble to ashes. There is no other way of disposing of the dead, since for miles about the hospice not enough soil can be found to furnish a grave.

At the time of my visit, only one body of the preceding winter was lying among the remains of the victims of former years. The others who had been found had been restored to life.

Interior of the Chapel in the Hospice
Many thousands have been rescued from certain death, principally owing to the cleverness of the dogs, carefully trained to their work. According to the register kept at the hospice, these dogs, originally a cross between Newfoundland and Pyre­nean, were employed first in the fifteenth century, and the present breed is undoubt­edly descended from them. To preserve it pure, several dogs are also kept at the two other set­tlements of the brother­hood, the Sim­plon hospice and Martigny. The ex­pediency of this is shown by the acci­dent of 1825, when nearly all the dogs at the St. Bernard hospice, together with three lay broth­ers, perished in a terrible avalanche on the Swiss slope near the pres­ent "Cantine de Proz," the highest inn on the way to the hospice, kept by the Swiss Government as a postal station. Only two or three dogs survived, and they perpetu­ated the race.

Now there are about fifteen dogs at the hospice. They are objects of much pet­ting on the part of travelers, especially ladies, to which they indulgently submit. In appearance they differ considerably from what we picture them to be. They are much smaller than the St. Bernard dog of other countries, but heavier-set and stronger. The hair is white, coarse, and tight to the skin, with large yellow or reddish-brown spots, the chest and the lower part of the body being always white. The long tail is heavy and shaggy, the neck short-set and uncommonly strong, carrying a large head, with the muzzle short and broad. The front teeth are mostly visible, and the dogs would look rather ferocious without the intelligent and withal docile expression of their large, bright eyes. Many of them have been reproduced on postal cards, for sale in the large reception-room, one of the few rooms furnished with a stove. The prior, who is also Swiss postmaster, told me that on the average one thousand postal cards, mostly with pictures of the dogs, are daily sent "with hearty greet­ings" to all parts of the world. But in the "season," as many as fifteen hundred have been mailed in a single afternoon, especially when snow-storms or rain keep the tourists indoors with nothing to do.

The best type of a St. Bernard dog was famous Bary, who, after saving thirty-nine lives, was unfortunately shot by an Eng­lish traveler he was trying to rescue, who mistook him for a wolf. His stuffed skin is now in the museum at Bern. Since then there has always been a "Bary" among the dogs. The present dog of that name has already saved three lives, while Pallas and Diana have saved two each.

St. Bernard dogs, imported mostly from England in recent years, have become de­cidedly popular in America. They are chiefly of the long-haired kind, much larger and with rather flatter heads and longer muzzles than the dogs at the St. Bernard hospice. Nevertheless, they are genuine St. Bernards, and are descended from those originally brought to England from Switzerland for Lord Dashwood, about one hundred years ago.

The St. Bernard Hospice
In their home country this breed of dogs is by no means confined to the St. Bernard Mountain. Raised in most Alpine val­leys, they have become, so to speak, the national dog of Switzerland, and are fore­most in public favor. While the long­haired type prevails in the lower cantons, nothing but the short-haired variety are employed at the hospice, the former type being unfitted for the peculiar mountain work. Enormous snowfalls in spring and autumn force them sometimes to dig their way under the snow for two or three days; on occasions they remain in the icy fields for a week or two, returning to the hospice reduced to mere skeletons. The coat of the long-haired dogs dries much slower, and the dripping from the fur congeals, caus­ing rheumatism and other ailments and making them soon unfit for their work.

The general belief that the original St. Bernard race died out long ago is un­founded. There can be no doubt that the present dogs are descended from those kept at the hospice in the Middle Ages, crossed with Danish bulldogs and Pyre­nean dogs about five centuries ago, that they might inherit size and strength from the former and intelligence and keen scent from the latter. St. Bernard, the founder of the hospice, is represented in ancient pictures accompanied by a large white dog. The insecurity of the much fre­quented route between Italy and the North in early times caused the monks to keep dogs for their own protection, till their usefulness for life-saving purposes made them indispensable companions.

Unfortunately, most of the early docu­ments in regard to the dogs were destroyed by fire, but the existing traditions of the antiquity of the race are confirmed by the escutcheon of an ancient Swiss family which I discovered in the archives of the city of Zurich. Four families of the four­teenth century have dogs as ornaments of the escutcheon helmet. They are Stuben­weg, Aichelberg, Hailigberg, and the counts of Toggenburg, the latter famous in history and still flourishing in Austria. The escutcheons are most carefully painted, and show four distinct and clearly defined types of dogs. The type over the escutcheon of the family of Hailigberg shows a striking resemblance to the St. Bernard dog of today, with all the char­acteristic signs. Mountains crowned by hospices used to be called sacred moun­tains or Hailigberg (present style Heilig­berg) during the Middle Ages, and from this it may safely be deducted that the knights of Hailigberg took the picture of a hospice dog for their helmet orna­ment.

For ages the St. Bernard dogs have been trained for their service in a peculiar man­ner: one old and one young dog are sent together daily down the Valley of Death toward the nearest human habitation; two others on the south side toward St. Remy, their footprints in the snow indi­cating to lost travelers with unfailing cer­tainty the exact line of the road buried under the snow. The younger dogs are taught by the older ones to show to travelers the way to the hospice by barking and jumping and running, ahead of them toward the summit of the pass. If they happen to find a poor half-frozen victim, they try to restore animation by licking the hands and face. Then they hasten back to the hospice and announce their discovery by barking.

An avalanche on the St. Bernard
Great credit is due to the Kynological Society of Switzerland for the preserva­tion, improvement, and popularization of the hospice dogs in their pure type. In the latter part of the last century the Eng­lish type, as described above, threatened to become generally established as the cor­rect one. At an international Kynologi­cal Congress convened by that society in Zurich in 1887, the characteristic marks of the pure hospice type were laid down and acknowledged by the delegates of all countries, England included. In 1885 the first pure St. Bernard dogs were in­troduced into Germany by Prince Al­brecht of Solms-Braunfels, and as they became very popular in a short time, a St. Bernard Club was organized in Munich in 1891 for the express purpose of improv­ing the St. Bernard breed by organizing an exposition with competent judges, and publishing annually a book of genealogy.

The first Napoleon, who crossed the St. Bernard with his army, cavalry, artillery, and all, between the fifteenth and twenty-first of May, 1800, was very fond of these dogs and kept some in his room while resting at the hospice. Near the entrance of the largest building, erected in the sev­enteenth century, there is a big bell, rung by travelers to announce their arrival. Opposite the bell a large marble tablet commemorates the passage of Napoleon, dedicated by the government of the then republic, now the Swiss canton of Valais. His army was the last to cross the St. Bernard, and in the place of armies of soldiers, those of tourists invade the his­toric pass every year. They are most numerous in August, for the snow rarely melts before July and begins to fall again early in September, to stay till the follow­ing July. The poor priests are then left to themselves for about ten months, when the next summer's sun makes the carriage-road again practicable.

The founder of the hospice, with its brotherhood, has at last received a monu­ment, which he well deserved. His statue was unveiled during the summer of 1905, and stands on the spot which the many thousands have had to pass who, after being rescued by his successors, have re­sumed their journey to the valleys below and to renewed life.

From The Century Magazine – June 1913.

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