National Geographic : 1957 Jan
The Great St. Bernard Hospice Today 49 High in the Swiss Alps, Devoted Monks Carry On Labors of Mercy amid Snow and Silence, Still Helped by Lifesaving Dogs BY GEORGE PICKOW A the mail bus wound up the slippery mountain road, taking me closer to the Great St. Bernard Pass, I mar veled at the terrible whiteness of the glacial slopes and the dazzle of the canyons and ice walls ranging as far as the eye could see. I also wondered whether I wouldn't soon find a beloved myth exploded. Since childhood I had been fascinated by tales of the heroic St. Bernard dogs. I had heard that some of these huge animals would lie down in the snow next to an exhausted traveler and keep him warm, while others raced for help; that a dog named Lion had saved thirty-five people; and that another named Barry saved forty, including an un conscious child he pulled from an icy ledge which no human could reach. Now I was invited to visit and photograph the dogs at the famous hospice nestling 8,113 feet up in the strategic pass, one of the highest spots in Europe to be inhabited all year round. How would the present compare with the storied past? Once there had been a real need for this refuge on the main road from Italy to north ern Europe. Since the Middle Ages thou sands of wandering tradesmen, artisans, and laborers, couriers, beggars, emperors, popes, and pilgrims bound for Rome had found shel ter there, especially during the wintry months of the year when all traces of a road are oblit erated by snow falling on snow. Dogs Saved Hundreds from Icy Death Over the years, I knew, the monks and their brave dogs had plucked hundreds from death's brink. But now people use highways that hug the valleys or burrow through near by mountains in long tunnels; much Alpine rescue work, too, is done with aircraft.* Did the monks still defy blizzards to search for lost travelers? And had their dogs ever really carried little casks of brandy around their necks? I got off the bus in the square of Bourg St. Pierre, a quiet French-Swiss village that is snowbound a good part of the year, and carried my bags along the main street to a food store. While I bought oranges and chocolate bars for my uphill journey on foot, the storekeeper warned me not to go alone. Although this was a bright January day, the weather could change abruptly, he said. Precipices and deep fissures threatened on the very edges of ski paths, endangering even ex perienced climbers. But fortunately a hospice employee named Anselme was expected soon, to fetch food for the monks. If I cared to wait, I could go up with him. Anselme, a short, wiry Italian, turned up just before noon. The storekeeper kindly lent me skis fitted with skins for uphill walking. He sewed Anselme's purchases into a burlap sack, making a bundle about five by two by two feet, and Anselme casually hoisted it to his shoulder. Grueling Eight-hour Climb on Skis I had consolidated my camera equipment and clothing into a knapsack weighing about fifty pounds. This seemed quite heavy to me, but I didn't complain as we set out. My companion's unwieldy pack looked at least twice as heavy. Six or eight houses from the village square the road disappeared under the snow. From then on only a few ski tracks indicated the way to the pass, which was to take me eight increasingly painful hours. I was fresh at first, the crisp air was ex hilarating, and the slopes rose gently. Even so, our progress on the clumsy skis slowed as it became more difficult to find a footing in ever-hardening snow. My breath came shorter as the air thinned. My load felt heavier all the time. I barely managed to keep putting one ski above the other until we reached a small stone shed marking the climb's halfway point. When I stumbled into the next shelter, two-thirds of the way up, I fell exhausted, desperately yearning for sleep. But Anselme kept shaking me, and dragged me out into the fading light within a few thousand feet of the hospice. I gasped for breath. I thought I could not possibly go on. Then, mercifully, an enormous St. Bernard dog bounded up to me. * See "Surprising Switzerland," by Jean and Franc Shor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1956.