Powered by Outside

The Search for the Holy Trail

Nov 7, 2011
by Dan Milner  


I peer down into the trail that disappears off the edge of the earth in front of me, repeating the mantra “I can do this, I have done this before” over and over in my mind before setting off with a push on my left hand pedal. I’m diving headfirst into the just reward of today’s hard labour, a 2500 foot descent that squiggles its way across the map, leaping contour lines by the dozen and signifying a good half an hour of fun ahead. It all looks good on the map - trails always do - but in real life, in a world where pain really hurts, the trail is a little more unnerving. The trail is loose and the switchbacks tight, making the ride a test of both conviction and confidence. A fall here would mean a long, athletic tumble down a slope full of pointy scree and I find myself hoping that there may be an almighty guiding hand looking after us. For once in my life I am cursing the fact that I’m an atheist.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
We’re on the search for the ultimate singletrack… again. It’s a quest that never seems to end and one that this time has taken us to the Grand St Bernard Pass, tucked high up in the Alps on the border of Switzerland and Italy. The idea that somewhere out there lies a trail that flows effortlessly like spilled mercury from start to end, a trail that is littered with rolling pump bumps; that rhythmically swerves between trees yet is technical enough to leave you in that curiously confused state of simultaneous exhaustion and fidgety adrenaline buzz. When you find a trail like this, it immediately puts life in context: everyday woes and worries ebb away and you’re left with a grin bubble for days afterwards. Better than sex? You betcha. It is this quest to find the ultimate singletrack that drives many riders to continuously look beyond their backyards, to load up cars and drive to unknown destinations often on a whim or prompted by a mere rumour or the chance glimpse of a squiggly line on a map.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
Although living in Chamonix, we’re no different. We have great trails on our doorsteps, but The Quest is our quest too. We paw over a map of the Grand St Bernard Pass, tracing lines with our fingers. Any of these lines, these ancient footpaths etched into the rugged mountainsides by centuries of passing herdsmen and pilgrims, could be one of ‘THOSE’ trails. The fact that the Pass itself offers accommodation in a monastery - a hospice that has been a stop over for religious pilgrims for centuries - surely can only add to the chance of finding singletrack enlightenment. After all, weren’t we on our own pilgrimage, of sorts, the search for the Holy Trail?

Of course enlightenment in any language or religion takes devotion and effort and has to be earned. It’s a fact that I feel is being driven firmly home as I edge my Meta 4 around the 180 degree bend in the foot wide trail. Right now I’ve developed a carbon-crushing death grip relationship with my bars, am puckered up like the new boy in a prison shower and am loving it. It’s the love/hate rapport any rider feels with a tricky section of trail and is more akin to Purgatory than Heaven or Hell. We have two days at the Grand St Bernard Pass; only time will tell where the trails deliver us.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
On our arrival at the pass we check into the hotel annex of the monastery, order some tea and take a moment to decide on a ride for the afternoon. Our map, already smudged with grimy finger marks, shows a couple of promising-looking lines that start a mere stone’s throw from the Monastery’s ancient steps. The first stays in Switzerland and climbs, hugging the side of the mountain, until it reaches the Col des Chevaux. We have a French riding mate with us, Guillaume, but we don’t need him to translate. Putting the word ‘horse’ into the name of a col has got to be a sign that the climb to the col will be rideable. We’ve made that mistake before - lugging bikes along ancient mule tracks in Corsica - but the descent from the col suggests that however we get there the effort will be worth it. The second trail option drops straight into Italy and directly into a seven hundred-metre descent. Happy for an easy start to our exploring we opt for a slice of Italy. It would be rude not to.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
Sitting at 8500 ft altitude on the Swiss-Italian border, the St Bernard Pass has seen more than it’s fair share of bother over the years, from avalanches to invasions by Gauls, Romans, Saracens and more or less every other warring nation that has ever surged across Europe. Napoleon even marched 46,000 troops, complete with canons across the Pass in the winter of 1801 and it is rumoured that Hannibal led his elephants through here in his anti-Roman campaign of 217 B.C. Despite the Pass’ apparent popularity with almost every army in Europe and it’s rich history as a merchants’ crossing point, it is a now a peaceful retreat for monks and tourists alike. It’s altitude means it’s often a fairly inhospitable place that is battered by winds and buried under snow for up to nine months of the year. It was this irksome, life-threatening climate (and the fact that merchants and pilgrims were regularly relieved of their possessions by anti-social types) that encouraged the powers that be to offer shelter there. A hospice was built at the pass in the 11th century.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
While any evidence of Hannibal’s elephants has (thankfully) long disappeared, the ancient footpath over the Pass still exists and it’s along this that we clatter down into Italy to begin our descent. A viscous, biting Northerly wind snaps at our heels and we’re thankful that the Italian South-West side is sheltered from the chill. The trail swings through rough pasture s, presenting a roller coaster of grassy drop-offs set against a backdrop of towering rock monoliths and sheer slate walls. At the first split in the trail, Jez pulls the map from the pack and we take a look at it more out of habit than necessity, having already decided which fork to take. Ahead of us a wide trail traverses the mountain but to our right it drops into an inviting rocky singletrack. It’s a no-brainer.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
Out of the wind the September sun is hot, despite the fact that we’re still over 6500 ft up. The trail is parched and dusty from three weeks of sunny weather, and gives us the confidence to blast down it as fast as we dare and the ride turns into the usual game of cat-and-mouse, with each of us trying to hang onto the back wheel of the one in front. Guillaume has the edge on us with his six-inch travel Enduro but Jez on his Trek Fuel is giving him a run for his Euro-dollar. Inevitably we each are caught out by rocky sections that test both suspension travel and rider’s resolve, and emerging from each section amazed to still be in one piece, we ride away laughing in excitement and relief. At St Rhemy - a village that appears to consist of two houses and a water pumping station - we verbally high five each other as no doubt countless travellers have done on realising they had survived the treacherous path over the Pass. ‘It doesn’t get a lot better than this’ we think, or does it?

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
The descent was good - very good - and we pause for a couple of minutes to reflect on the almost heavenly experience we just shared. Just before the moment degenerates into a group hug we set off again, spinning along the road in search of a trail that turns off to the left. What comes down has to go up and the trail launches us straight into a tough climb that zigzags back up the mountainside in an unrelenting series of grunty switchbacks. We’re thankful of the shade provided by the trees, shade that fortunately doesn’t peter out until the trail levels out and starts its traverse back toward the Pass. With four hundred metres of climbing behind us we’re glad of the chance to relax and spin cranks as the trail cuts across the hillside. But if we thought it was going to be an easy home leg we were wrong. Instead the trail evolves into a fun, technical rollercoaster of a ride. One particularly chunky section throws Guillaume off his bike sideways, and despite having the longest legs of anyone I know the hillside drops away too much even for him to find a footing. He rolls down a few metres before coming to a stop and scrambles back up with a look of humiliation that only the French can master. A hundred metres on we ride an exposed section that would have made for a messy end if he’d had the same fall here.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
The sun is low as we near the Pass, it’s late rays just scraping over the tops of nearby peaks. The wind is still howling and cold but there is a golden glow to our surroundings that only accompanies late finishes to rides. Our legs are feeling the seven hundred metres of climbing that are now behind us and we limp back past the flaking paint of the border police’s concrete bunker. We’re still pondering what almighty sin a border guard has to commit to find themselves posted to such an inhospitable place, when we find ourselves outside our accommodation. Nice, warm, comfy accommodation.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
The Monastery is located on the Swiss side of the border, meaning that supper is the usual cheese-fest. With the road being closed for much of the year due to snow (the pass gets 80 ft of snow per year), we wonder how the monks pass the time. We then discover the Grand St Bernard liquor and our question is answered. Mid September is not tourist season and we’re almost the only guests. Despite having driven up to the pass we get a very real feeling of being somewhere very remote, somewhere very off the beaten track.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner
After downing my third hot chocolate for breakfast I feel I’m about ready to take on the climb that faces us the next morning. We’ve awoken to a layer of fog that’s blowing up over the Pass and giving it a distinct ‘England’ feel. By the time we pack our camelbak’s the mist has blown through, the UK has become the Alps again and low, slanted rays of sunshine are picking out detail in the trail ahead of us as it winds its way up from the Pass. We begin by shouldering bikes up a staircase hewn out of the rock before getting back on to ride some baby-head rock sections. The pattern of on-off-on again continues for much of the thousand foot climb and we turn our attention to the magnificent scenery to numb the frustration of not getting a good run at it. An hour later sees us remounting bikes for the final shove to the top of the col de Chevaux. Where we lay the bikes down and take some well-earned rest. The trail was tougher than we expected, but the views from the col are worth the sweat. If enlightenment has to be earned, then we were well on our way to a higher level of consciousness. The autumn light is beautiful and gives the landscape a golden glow as we pick out other trails that could be worth a return trip. Walking to the edge of the ridge we look down into the next valley and eye up our trail as it works its magic down the boulder-strewn mountainside. We have seven hundred metres of descent ahead of us; seven hundred metres of twisting serpent-like singletrack that will spit us out at the foot of the climb back to the Monastery, the same climb that Napoleon’s army and countless pilgrims laboured up before us. We’ll labour too but before we do, we have a new trail to try, one that may be prove to be heavenly or hellish, the ultimate singletrack descent or a sheer test of patience, skill and mental stamina. In the end the trail it turns out to be a little of both, letting us flow through some sections while kicking our arses with others. It’s a game of effort and reward, but isn’t that what real trails are about? The Quest continues.

Search for the Holy Trail. Photo by Dan Milner

Getting there and finding the trails:
The Grand St Bernard pass is accessible by road between June and October. It is a 90-minute drive from Geneva (Switzerland) airport. Being a high mountain pass means that it can receive snow at any time of the year and the weather can change quickly so be prepared! If you drive up to the pass you can stay in the Hotel annex of the Monastery, if you arrive by bike (or on foot) then you earn the chance to stay in the monastery’s dorm. The hotel costs approximately $45 per person per night B&B, with an a la carte menu for evening meals. Check www.gsbernard.ch for more information and booking.
To find trails in the area you will need the Swisstopo series map number 1365 Gd St Bernard. This is 1:25000 scale and show every trail around. Happy hunting!

The Monastery:
The Monastery at the Grand St Bernard Pass has offered shelter to travellers since the 11th century. Most needed in wintertime, the feeding and sheltering of travellers was free for over 900 years. In 1817 alone the monks handed out 34,863 meals to travellers. The Monastery itself contains a small church built at the end of the 17th century. Today, there are seventy monks in the St Bernard congregation.

The St Bernard dog:
The Grand St Bernard pass is also the home of the St Bernard dog and there is still a kennel behind the monastery. These dogs were used historically to lead the way when the paths lay under snow. And their ability to find travellers lost in blizzards or avalanches became their most appreciated skill. In all more than 2000 human lives have been saved due to the help of the St Bernard dog. One, called Barry served for 12 years at the St Bernard pass until dying in 1914. You can still see him though; as to preserve the memory of him he was stuffed and is preserved at the Bern natural history Museum!


All photography by Dan Milner. You can see more of Dan's incredible work on his website.

Did you enjoy reading about Dan's Holy Trail adventure? Want to try a similar trip yourself? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments section below.

Editor's note: We'll be bringing you adventures from Dan Milner each month, so stay tuned!


Author Info:
DanMilner avatar

Member since Feb 11, 2011
55 articles

56 Comments
  • 24 0
 somebody get the guy in the first two pictures a gravity dropper... yikes
  • 4 0
 each to their own i guess? I don't enjoy getting kicked in the arse though! And as for the "holy trail", I've found mine, I'm not telling you lot though, not a fan of braking bumps where there shouldn't be any!
  • 4 0
 dcm6861- men are not men if they haven't got a direct saddle shot into testicles and kept focus on the steep gnarr. doug13 - just kill everyone with GPS tracker that you meet on trails, you'll do good to all keepers of secret trails...
  • 1 0
 ha ha! Might be a bit extreme but this trail is no secret, just a fair bit of a drive so not many people make the effort thankfully. The best trail I've ever ridden by far though, can't wait to go back after the winter. Smile
  • 1 0
 in his defense... he did just come from an uphill. I'm assuming he probably had more after that little section.
  • 3 0
 Which is exactly the kind of trail a dropper post shines.
  • 1 0
 and if i can assume again: I definitely wouldnt waste my time even lowering a gravity dropper if there was still more uphill right in front of it. Idk though. Seat's high as f*ck right then.
  • 1 0
 Well to put the record straight form the horses mouth, the rider in the pic is as technically masterful as any you'll encounter anywhere. He can ride this kind of thing with his seat up, without problems, there are those out there who can (and those of us who used to without a problem). And he can do it faster and more stylishly than me with my seat down. And yes that little exposed roll down was half way up a long gradual climb up the valley side. On the flipside, he does now ride with a (Specialized) dropper post (as do 99.9% of riders who have tried them for AM use) and he loves it and uses it and yes he would have dropped the post if he'd had a dropper on then, and yes with a remote it takes no effort to do so and return it back to pedaling height of course afterwards....
  • 4 0
 Hi from Spain, I like to read this kind of stories in PB. I had some similars in my blog, are in spanish but I had a translator in the sidebar blog's. I send to you one of the last post of october, hiking to reach the border between Spain and France in the middle of Spanish Pyrenees, looking to ride a trail used by trekkers, this time by bike. I hope you like this.

josefelixmartinez.blogspot.com/2011/10/bici-de-montana-con-mayusculas.html
  • 2 0
 si no ha utilizado un traductor hace un momento, que es realmente impresionante
  • 3 0
 Awesome write up. Definitely liking the more literary approach taken. Also makes me really want to snag a train to Italy next summer Smile .

Also.. being a lit nerd with way to much time. I find it kinda funny that for an article written by an atheist, the majority of the metaphors are religious (highly Judeo-christian with a mix of what I'd take to be Buddhism ). Definitely not making a judgement on anything here. Just an observation that stuck out. Wonder if anyone else saw this as well.
  • 1 0
 also... given the hot bed of emotions involving religious views, and the tendency of the people commenting on website comment lists to get really angry I'd personally appreciate it if people didn't let this become a place to discuss religion. My comment was more a passing observation than anything. At the end of the day, I just wanna ride my bike, and hear about other people riding theirs.
  • 8 0
 instead of atheist i prefer to call it "the brotherhood of latter-day recreationalists". the bike's your church and any trail is enlightenment.
  • 2 0
 Well put Smile
  • 1 0
 just out of curiosity though... why "latter-day"? Wouldn't we be the brotherhood of recreationalists of the order of mountain bikes? Or is there an ancient order of recreationalists from a previous day I don't know about? Titles aside.. who's up for finding some remote mountain range and building a monastery dedicated to the ways of the bike? We'd be like Shaolin Monks, except orange robes and staffs, we'd have shin guards and bikes.
  • 1 0
 i guess latter for props to the original or the first mtb epic adventurers who rode & cut trails out there. dig your idea of a mtb monastery on certain mtn tops. no scriptures, writings or religious artifacts just good beer and shovels!
  • 1 0
 of course.. what self loving monastery, or abbey doesn't pride itself on having some sort of finely brewed product.
  • 1 0
 i think we might be onto something here. an alternative to the bike park experience. europe to asia ..endless epic terrain. sounds like a mtb travel company waiting to happen. all you need now is Gracia,Tippie,and Warner for guides!
  • 1 0
 I'd like to think of it as a place for people to come and escape the world. A place where those who come can be truly lost for a time, and through the endless paths to follow eventually find what they've lost. (insert views of fog covered vistas, mystic music, and a few shots of aged mountain bike masters staring off into the great beyond). And then bonfires, freshly tapped kegs, and sweet ninja mechanics that flip out of the rocks to repair flats and bent rims to top it all off.
  • 1 0
 I have to agree with Gwin on this one, "If your bike is your entire life, then you have nothing".
  • 1 0
 Ha thats funny. Yes I am an atheist, but none of that matters here. The references are all about making something invitingly and entertainingly readable to an audience. After all if we go and stay in a monastery to do a story called the Holy Trail what am I to litter the feature with; references to home baking or car mechanics? Even atheists can be aware of religions even if we dont practice them. Hopefully it all added up to a jolly pace to the story!
  • 2 0
 Nice article - thank you! Sure beats the tone of those other canadian "missionaries" (you all know who I mean, LOL).
The big issue with trails in the Alps is that erosion and lack of maintenance can mean that you eventually encounter some dead end - i.e. you are forced to hike it back up from where you descended.
It may be worth noting that tracks and trails and mountain roads can be found on:

map.geo.admin.ch

BUT (big BUT)

as I said above, some of them just don't lead anywhere (anymore) and not all trails should be considered rideable and/or safe!!

Cheerz from The South of the Swiss Cheeze

Paul
  • 1 0
 Thanks for sharing, amazing map! I just hope it's going to be there for some years

P.S. I guess some Canadian guy stepped really hard on a Swiss toe Big Grin well good anyways, pride is a good thing to have, I'm having a strange feeling that commercialism tries to strip it off every person in the world under the cloak of "tolerance" - no virtues, no rules = no brakes for doing what they tell you to do. Keep it up!

Cheers!
  • 1 0
 @WAKIdesign - the maps are from the Swiss Gov't survey, so they're pretty much the "official" stuff which is at the base of many other maps, etc.

Ciao

Paul
  • 1 0
 Thanks for the article. Cool history. I can just imagine one of those monastery dogs saving some MTB'er in a snowstorm after the rider leaves for the day in a pair of shorts and 1 small water bottle. Ya we know who I'm talking about.
  • 1 0
 "Right now I’ve developed a carbon-crushing death grip relationship with my bars, am puckered up like the new boy in a prison shower and am loving it. It’s the love/hate rapport any rider feels with a tricky section of trail and is more akin to Purgatory than Heaven or Hell." So true. So many people have no idea what this feels like or why we like it so much. It's a regular part of biking though. Well said.
  • 3 0
 Kinda weird how they stuffed that dog... whatever floats your boat though I guess...
  • 3 0
 A t first I though it was a sequel to Kranked 4's "Search for the Holy Trail" with Brett Tippie! Still sweet.
  • 2 1
 Nice story and some great shots but christ alive most of them I had to bend my head in order to see them at their true angle. Eugh
  • 1 0
 True, it's pretty obvious with landscape pics. Pic 8 especially, those mountains are leaning lazy!
  • 1 0
 yeah I gotta admit to this one.. sorry about that.. sometimes that happens, something to do with only one of my eyes working properly and having one leg shorter than the other, or maybe too much of the local St Bernard liquor, though trust me none of it is on purpose. These should have been corrected before uploading. Funny enough pic 8 is actually about its proper angle.
  • 2 0
 There's something fundamentally wrong with riding bikes downhill with the seat up.
  • 1 0
 I agree. Its no fun. I have short legs.
  • 1 0
 I wonder how the story would have went if Mitchell Scott wrote it... (haha, sorry mitchman, just poking some fun).

nice article, nice pictures:-)
  • 2 0
 I read this title and instantly thought of Tippie!
  • 1 0
 Little fricker turned the pictures!
  • 1 0
 Nice story and nice trails too!!
  • 1 0
 No Pig...No Holy Trail...
  • 1 0
 Those Trails are only for the deserving, so theres your enlightenment
  • 1 0
 Awesome stuff!

Cheers
Scout @ Mountain Bike King
  • 1 0
 Great pictures...great story. Thanks for sharing!
  • 1 0
 Oh - great pics, BTW!!!! P.
  • 1 0
 Lovely trail
  • 1 0
 ALPS!!!!!!
  • 1 0
 Awesome trip!
  • 1 2
 UPHILL WITH DOWNHILL BIKE??
  • 6 2
 oh noes the world is gna end
  • 11 1
 its an 08ish specialized enduro. they made what is essentailly an xc bike with triple clamp forks for some reason, but its not a DH bike by any means.
  • 3 1
 Spec enduro is an XC bike my arse - Epic is a CX bike then Big Grin
  • 1 0
 It is an enduro but it's not an xc bike. It's an AM machine capable of anything from free ride to xc.
  • 1 0
 waki , i dont really know what you mean by CX bike.
in my mind AM is a type of XC beacuse you pedal up hills and go across the county thats infront of you. had the marketeers even invented the term am in 08? imo the 08 enduro was just a sensible xc bike on which you could actually have fun riding down the hills you just sweated up. why you needed a triple clamp fork for this is behond me.
  • 1 0
 CX refers to cyclo-cross... I mean in that manner you can call Untense Uzzi VPX or Santa Cruz Bullit XC bikes as well as they can be fitted with front mech and uphill things and go across the country. How do you call a bike like Specialized Epic then? or Trek Fuel?

I agree with you as you can take a XC racer and use it for hucking or trials. So to sum up because I truly hate calling stuff names I say let's stop it there. It's a mountain bike. Discipline distinction serve mostly noobs, pozers and marketing departments
  • 2 0
 then we agree distinctions are silly, to answer your question i would call specialised epic and trek fuel xc bikes. also i cant understand the appeal of cyclo cross.
  • 1 0
 The Enduro was (and still is) an AM ("All Mountain".. read: a slacker XC bike thats beefed up with more suspension travel to take the abuse of harder hitting trail riding) bike. This one, that my rider used for a couple of years, came of the peg with a triple clamp fork. Back when the industry was telling us that 32lb bikes were "all day rideable" because they made them that heavy. Of course AM bikes are a lot lighter now. And stiffer. And have more travel. And we like that don't we.
  • 1 0
 Enduro/AM bikes got lighter but... did things change that much really? We got lighter frames and forks with longer travel and that's most of the weight that went down. We just use products that were considered XCish on DH bikes these days. Every single one of them got lighter but the biggest revolution was suspension. I would say that XC got more popular among Dh riders and vice versa. People understood that there's no point in sitting in their extremistic nut (race) shells. Just as XC bikes picked up travel, FR/Dh bikes get more and more pushed out by lighter and more multi-purpose bikes that don't ride dwon much slower, especially under an amateur. It's just me that hasn't changed, I always believed in AM multipurpose stuff, I just didn't have money for it Big Grin







Copyright © 2000 - 2024. Pinkbike.com. All rights reserved.
dv65 0.056707
Mobile Version of Website