Day Trip to the Great Saint Bernard Pass
Although the actual Grand Saint-Bernard Pass is a stop-over magnet for travelers between Italy and Switzerland to grab some fresh mountain air and have a peek around the amazing setting or get a cuddle from the gentle giant St. Bernard rescue dogs, the walks that start at the pass are not the most practical. You end up standing in front of towering cliffs rather soon and you better have a rope and other mountaineering gear to take those on. Also, the traffic from the pass road is never too far away … it is decidedly annoying to walk through towering heights while the noise of civilization just does not want to go away.
Hence, for a great, classic mountain walk that requires no more than sturdy shoes and medium fitness, chose the lovely route to the Fenêtre de Ferret instead. You will be rewarded by breathtaking sights of the Mont Blanc ranges – peaking at an (in Europe) unsurpassed 4810 meters – and a playground of three small lakes which make a great place for a picnic or just strolling around.
Starting point for the hike is the Freres Diemoz cheese maker a kilometer or so on the Italian side. To find it, type coordinates N45.869327, E7.153920 into your navigator. There are about ten, fifteen parking spots available and thankfully there are nearly always a few free spaces. Around the “Almhütte” there are a few isolated small but steep peaks which are popular with climbers for training and practice. You will not meet them on the way to the “Fenêtre”. By the way, are you noticing the melange of French, Italian and German in this article? No wonder. Mont Dolent, the point where Italy, France and Switzerland meet is only a few kilometers away.
Although we are after a 100% pure nature experience, do have a look at the cheeses sold by Freres Diemoz. They slice toma and formaggio valdostano to size and you can grab some for your rustic mountain picnic.
Now for the work!
The first few hundred meters lead over gravel and slabs of bare rock and are a bit strenuous and confusing because the path is interspersed with dry creek beds. Use your instinct to find the right way and do not be disheartened. You will reach a rocky plateau within twenty or thirty minutes and from there on the path turns more benign. This is also the point where noise from the pass road dies down, unless you are unlucky and the wind carries the sounds specifically your way.
All through, however, you have to put up with Italian sign-posting i.e. few and far between signs, often rather degraded. Cannot help it and it mostly does not matter. The way forward is clear enough. It more or less follows upstream along an unnamed creek which you end up crossing twice.
A few minutes past the rock outcrop there is a bifurcation. Follow “103A” (in a circle) and cross the creek. From then on there is really only one route leading to the Fenêtre de Ferret pass.
A definite advantage of the Fenêtre de Ferret tour is the absence of cows – and their droppings. Maybe that is also the reason why the area is a good location for spotting marmots and alpine ibex. It is in any way the safest place I know in the European alps to ‘reliably’ come across ibex as a number of herds seem to roam the area. Despite their imposing horns the animals – just a type of goat – are harmless and shy. However, respect them and their habitat by staying out of their way. Remember that alpine animals lead a precarious existence and need to fatten up as much as they can to survive the harsh winters. Every time they are disturbed and stressed the balance is tipped a little against them.
For flora it is best to visit in late June to July. Summer is extremely short in high alpine areas and by late August most flowers will have wilted or been mowed down by squadrons of hungry ibex and marmots.
After another hour or so we finally reach the summit – of sorts – as Fenêtre de Ferret is a saddle, not a peak. Still, at 2790 meters in height reaching is and feels like an achievement. The pass marks the exact location of the Italian – Swiss border and offers wonderful views in return for the effort. Firstly, you will see two of the three Lacs de Fenêtre (one is hidden behind a ridge) sparkling in a greenish blue, against the backdrop of the Monts Telliers and the Col de l’Arpalle. Towards the left the majestic, glacier covered ranges leading up to Mont Blanc draw your attention.
Having reached the pass you will find that all the rock and stones make it a little too inhospitable for taking a break and having food. It is better to descend on the other, Swiss side of the pass towards the lakes which are surrounded by inviting, luscious meadows. You may find that some of the few people who walk to the lakes put up a tent for the night. This is generally legal in Switzerland between sunset and sunrise and above the treeline, unless there are explicit signs not allowing it. In Italy and much of the rest of Europe, on the other hand, “free camping” is prohibited which is a bit comical in times when whole slum cities are being built illegally by illegals elsewhere – but let’s stay away from politics.
Take your time exploring around the lakes, taking in the views and maybe a few snaps. The return walk to the car park from the Fenetre de Ferret pass is easy and takes an hour at most. Overall, planning six hours for the entire walk will be plenty, making the excursion to Fenêtre de Ferret a perfect day trip.
Good to know:
- Fitness: average
- Difficulty: medium
- Timing: 2 hours up, 1 hour down
- Highlights: views of the Mont Blanc range, the three Lacs de Fenêtre lakes, ibex, marmot
- Best time: mid June to late September – always check the weather report and the time of sunset
- Recommended equipment: sturdy, high hiking boots, walking sticks, backpack, headlights (if you plan a late return), light umbrella
- Food & drink: too variable for recommendations, but take at least 1 liter of drink per person (more on hot days)
- After the walk: Restaurant du Lac at the Italian side of the border crossing is a cosy place for a meal after the walk; the entree-platter and stew are good, but skip their pastas
Remember that high alpine areas are potentially dangerous due to rough terrain and highly volatile weather. We are happy to share our experiences, but of course do not take responsibility for whatever you are up to.