Tuesday 14 October.
This was a really glorious day's walking. The weather was perfect initially with a blue sky, it was cold but not uncomfortable. Later a wind picked up which was bitter and we had to get more clothes on, a beany for our heads and socks to act as gloves. At least it was dry, though the paths in places were like small running streams; we were glad we hadn't been walking this section yesterday in the rain.
From the start it was up and there was very little relief, just a few places where it ran level. For the most part it was on wide gravel, though at times mud, tracks until after Hospitaliet where the final push to the col was on a narrow wet rocky path. Today we were above the tree line and in mainly open ground, the only vegetation was course grasses and heather. The views were outstanding, all the mountains that surrounded us were topped in a thick covering of snow. When the sun got above the tops its reflected rays glistened and sparkled from the white surfaces.
After an hour there was a very steep section which brought us up to the dammed waters of the Dranse at the Barrage de Toules. It was a big dam and the waters had a green tinge typical of melted glacial snow. The track took us round the dam on one of the few flat sections and it was now that the wind was blowing straight into our faces and it was freezing. We stopped in the shelter of a stone shed to put rain jackets on top of our fleeces and get out the beanies and socks for our hands. It was at this point that we missed a turning when we started off again. The route we took was heading for the main road and the wide track disappeared ending in a scramble up a narrow steep path to reach a bridge over the river. There was a big building on the other side but it was for road maintenance equipment and they were also busy building a new section of road, it was thick mud until we reached the tar. We had arrived at Bourg St. Bernard which consisted of a restaurant and a ski lift. Moira suggested that we have a coffee in the restaurant but we discovered that the stairs and yard were overgrown in grass and the some of the windows smashed, obviously out of business. I tried the doors to see if we could get in to at least shelter from the wind but they were all locked. We found a place at the side with a picnic table and some chairs, it was out of the wind and I set up the cooker. I put benches, chairs and our rucksacks round it to keep out the wind but it took an age for the water to boil. This heated us up a bit and put some life back into our bodies.
We weren't very keen to return and search for the route on the other side of the river. The other option was to take the road, the traffic was very light as the tunnel, through the mountain to avoid the pass started just before Bourg St Bernard, took the majority of the cars etc. It was a steady climb and the road twisted and turned all the way, we had to be careful at bends as there were still some cars about. On the other side of the river we could see the VF route running parallel with us along the hillside. As we got further up I spotted two people on the trail and they were just ahead of us when the official route met the road at L'Hospitalet. The road there sign said 4km to the col from there but I remembered that Cicerone made it 2km off road. We decided to follow the couple in front as they took the path on the other side of the road. I don't think there was any difference in the distances, our way also seemed like 4 km. It was hard going, very steep and rocky with lots of running water. The good point was that the wind had disappeared or we were sheltered but it was pleasant again.
We could see the road winding its way up the mountain but ours went straight up. There was a relief at a SOS rescue hut where we met another couple out for a day hike who were having a smoke. The sign said 30 minutes to the top; it took all of it and we were now exhausted. On the road at the Col de St. Bernard there was a sign with the name and height, 2473m. We waited there for the 'smokers' and asked the woman to take our photographs, they look all right !
It was just a short distance to the Hospice and Carlos who left this morning before us shouted to us from a window above with instructions how to get in. We had to take off our shoes and wet socks off before entering and left them in the basement where there were slippers supplied to wear. Then we went looking for our room but first a priest invited us into a dining area for some tea. The couple who took our photo were there enjoying tea and another couple who spoke good English were having their lunch. We got weak tea in a breakfast bowl but it was refreshing. None of the other couples were staying here, the smokers were carrying on walking, the other pair were heading for Italy by car. We told them about our pilgrimage and handed out cards. After we finished our tea we searched for the priest about our room only to be told he would return at 2pm, it was only another 15 minutes but annoying. It was nearly half an hour when he did arrive and we were allocated a room. It was worth the wait, it was a lovely room with two single beds and panelled in wood. There was a radiator that was working so we immediately washed our dirty wet socks and hung them over it to dry. We had lunch, bread and cheese and a cup of coffee then relaxed for an hour before having a shower. The room wasn't en suite and the showers and toilet were down the hall. There has been a monastery here since 1049 and chiseled into the lintels above some of the doorways are different dates through the centuries when presumably that part of the construction had been done. Construction work and maintenance was still in progress with scaffolding and workmen busy in the main stairwell. The hold-up in getting our room was due to the priest having to give instructions to the workers. The corridors were long and paved in flagstones, the walls must have been a metre thick to give some sort of insulation from the Arctic winters they must experience up here, though now they do have central heating.
It had begun to rain in the afternoon so we stayed in our room and read. At 6:15 pm we went down to the mass. We found the church but we we had been told earlier it didn't take place there but we eventually found it in a room that was supposed to be dedicated to silence and prayer. It had started, there were about a dozen others already there, we slipped in at the back. It was performed by two priests one in red robes the other in white with a red sash. It was just a small simple hall with wicker chairs and an altar, with elaborate no decoration. There was a singing and chanting by the two priests then periods of silence for prayer and meditation followed by a short sermon before the mass. We didn't understand much of what was going on but enjoyed the experience.
Dinner was shortly after the mass and all the people who attended the mass in the chapel were also dining. Another pilgrim was at our table, Gabriel also from Spain, so Carlos had somebody to talk to in his own language. He had walked from Orsieres today, all 26 km uphill. He had started from Canterbury on September 11 so he was walking quite fast and also heading for Rome. He said another two women had left Orsieres this morning intending to reach the col but hadn't arrived. He was a bit concerned about them but no doubt they stopped at Bourg St. Pierre. There seems to be more people on the pilgrimage now. The dinner was very nice, soup to start then king prawns with rice and potatoes and a delicious creamy sauce. There was cheese and cake to finish. We didn't bother with wine, the cheapest was 22 francs a bottle again and the mountain water is special anyway.
We went to our room after dinner and lay in bed reading for an hour or so before getting to sleep. It had been a hard two days climbing, now we enter Italy and it is downhill to Aosta. This is the end of our 7th week or 49 days so we are 1 day ahead of schedule at the halfway point.