Helen Mort explores the Alps in the company of some St Bernards – and delves into the history of these mighty dogs.
Syrah lifts her huge, jowly face towards me. I ruffle her fur, pressing down on her strong skull. We’ve been told not to stroke the dogs too much, not to irritate them by fussing their ears and solemn heads. They are not pets. As we take the stony track that climbs east from the Great St Bernard Pass, Syrah’s gait is measured, each step exact. There’s something leonine in the way she walks, loping and prowling, surprisingly easy to handle on her thick lead. Behind us, summer storm clouds are moving in from the Alps and the other dogs are restless in their kennel. Syrah moves slowly up the steepening gradient, only quickening when we reach a flat patch of grass where she sniffs excitedly. ‘Marmots,’ our guide announces. ‘When she finds one, it doesn’t last long.’ We climb higher towards a pewter-coloured lake and the rough-cast shapes of mountains. I have almost forgotten the Pass, the church in the hospice with its black Madonna and abundant, decaying sunflowers, the museum with its stuffed, life-size dog – a tribute to a St Bernard who slipped into a ravine in 1910, guiding a friar towards a traveller.
We came by efficient train and slick bus from the Swiss town of Martigny, climbing through a series of small settlements, each seeming less prosperous than the last. The Great St Bernard Pass was once the major route for travellers to reach Italy, across to Aosta, but the hairpin bends and lofty drops have been superseded by other routes. Yet arriving at the top of the Pass, there’s still the sense of a frontier – I could almost imagine Napoleon settling his troops, turning the Hospice into a barracks, building a base from which to stage his assault on Southern Europe. Innocuous in summer, the Pass must be a different proposition in snow. It was here in 926 AD that Augustan monk St. Bernard de Menthon founded a hospice and monastery to shelter travellers on the treacherous route through the Alps and it was here that the monks began to breed these loyal, loping mastiff dogs which bore his name.
St. Bernards are giants. If Syrah put her paws on my shoulders, she could easily floor me. I think of the puppy in that saccharine American film ‘Beethoven’ who quickly grows into an adult capable of wrecking each room in the house. In one scene, Beethoven’s eager new family are shown carrying enormous sacks of dog food. The average weight of the breed is between 65 and 120 kg – though some weigh more – and the approximate height at the withers is 70 to 90 cm. ‘Withers’ is a word which always makes me think of dimunition, of shivering, almost, and its strange to hear it in relation to gentle giants like Syrah. Their coats can be either smooth or rough; those with rough coats have profuse around their necks and legs. The colour is typically a red shade with white, or a mahogany brindle with white. Black shading is usually found on the face and ears. Syrah is the colour of my Grandma Mort’s hair and a desk Grandad Mort used to own in Oldham, overly-polished. Their fur looks weighty, lustrous. Even their tails are heavy and low-hanging. When you look into a St Bernard’s face, you get the sense that everything is being pulled earthward – it can give their eyes a bloodshot appearance.
The earliest written records of the dogs here at the Pass are from 1707, though some paintings depict them earlier. Back down in Martigny at the museum dedicated to the dogs, a series of images show St. Bernards dragging travellers from the snow while blizzards rage around them, carrying children on their backs. Their faces are always drawn in an unusually expressive way, as if the dogs seem animated by the anguish of their task. In the town, we’re staying on the Rue des Maronnieres. ‘Maron’ brings to mind the chestnut colour of the dogs. Maronnieres were mountain people who acted as early guides to pilgrims and merchants, forming rescue teams in case of danger. In 1129 Rodolphe, Abbot of St Trond in Belgium described them in high boots with iron nails, holding long sticks to help them feel a path through the snow. They were often accompanied by the dogs. The image of St Bernards as rescuers is enduring. In fact, they were originally intended to protect the monks from bands of brigands who roamed the area, preying on pilgrims in the pass. Rodolphe described the tribulations facing those who wished to cross the Alps in his account of a caravan leaving Saint-Rhemy:
It was high morning and the pilgrims full of fear and trembling were preparing themselves to face menacing death by holy prayers. They were fighting each other to be the first to be confessed by the only priest, and as he was fully occupied they were confessing to each other their sins. As they were busy accomplishing this duty in the church a terrible news has arrived: ten of the guides who had left the village earlier have been swallowed by an enormous mass of snow and have been carried away into the abysses…
A morgue was built in the pass in 1476 and kept the remains of some two hundred cadavers, mostly mummified by the cold.
St Bernards became renowned for being able to sense impending avalanches, as well as for their utility as rescue dogs and excellent sense of direction in snow and fog (aided, presumably, by a keen ability to scent). By the mid-eighteenth century the breed was regularly accompanying Monastery guides through the St.Bernard Pass, leading guides and mountain travellers to the safety of the Hospice. It is thought the Saint Bernards kept at the Hospice were responsible for locating no less than 2000 lost, stranded and avalanche-trapped travellers during the three centuries for which the Hospice has kept records. During the harsh winters of 1816 -1818 in Switzerland, there were increased numbers of avalanches and as a consequence, many of the dogs themselves were killed. Around 1830, this is said to have led to a brief period of importing Newfoundland dogs from the Colony of Newfoundland, which were crossed with the short-haired St Bernards, and so the long-haired or ‘rough coat’ St Bernard was born. This was a short-lived experiment: the longer-coated offspring were prone to catching snow in their curls where it would harden in the cold and form into ice. The cross-bred puppies were either sold, given away to farmers in the lower villages, or exported out of Switzerland.
In a museum devoted to the dogs, we wander idly through the gift shop. There are stuffed St. Bernards of every shape and size, some glove puppets, some enormous, realistic models. My partner Jess holds one up and stares at its glassy face. We are looking for the perfect gift for our child-to-be, a toy that will be his guardian. On holiday in Greece earlier in the summer, I cried with joy at the sight of a small boy with a soft toy beagle which he took everywhere with him, perched it on the edge of the breakfast table while the solicitous waiters pretended to serve it food. I clutched Jess’ arm and wept. I want our baby to have a toy like that. What I really want is for something to guard him in the womb, bring him into the world unscathed. I don’t think I am enough for him. I’m afraid that I’ve already done things wrong. By one of the display cabinets Jess is gesturing excitedly.
“Look! This is perfect!”
He’s holding a large, slim book with a moonlit, snowy cover, a child in a red bobble hat clinging to the back of a giant, benign dog who lifts his nose up to sniff the air. We open the pages and start to read together:
It was on a cold, dark night that three small St. Bernard puppies came into the world, in a solitary monastery high up in the Alps. One of them was Barry. The puppies’ mother lay in freshly laid straw and lovingly licked her newborn young. Next to her knelt the young monk Benno. He stroked her fur gently. “What beautiful, healthy puppies,” he said softly. “This one here is the last to be born. But he is the biggest and the strongest. He looks almost like a little bear, with his large head and his broad muzzle. “ Benno cradled the little puppy in his arm. “I will call you Barry, little bear. That name suits you well.” The little puppy raised its head, as if he had already recognised his name and snuggled up to his new friend.
The name Barry comes directly from ‘bari’ which means ‘little bear’ in the dialect of Berne. For me, ‘Barry’ had always reminded me of one half of the comedy TV duo The Chuckle Brothers, their slapstick, ineptitude and wordplay. Two brothers from Rotherham, Barry and Paul. The bear-like origins of ‘bari’ sound rather noble. The children’s book we are rapt by is based on the life of a notable St. Bernard from the monastery who really was given that name. Barry lived from 1800 to 1814 and rescued more than forty people from the mountains around the St. Bernard Pass. He served humans in the harsh conditions of the Pass for twelve years before being retired in Berne, far from his original mountain home. Because of his reputed courage and supernatural sense of danger, Barry has become a legend and his body was kept for posterity after his death, embalmed in the Natural History Museum in Berne. It is settled. We buy the book and a stuffed dog with a thimble-sized barrel around its neck. Our son can be watched over by Barry the stuffed St. Bernard, and as soon as he’s old enough, he can read his story too. We leave the museum and realise we are hungry. We begin scanning the cafes for somewhere we can eat fondue, huge gloopy trails of cheese you have to wind around your fork.
The iconic barrel so often shown in pictures of St Bernards, hanging from the dogs’ necks and reputed to contain brandy is, of course, likely to be a myth. As the story goes, the stuffed version of famous Barry languished for a while in the museum basement where workers would go to eat their lunch. One museum worker left his portable wine barrel hanging from Barry’s neck and when his image was resurrected, the curators decided to leave it there. I once saw a St Bernard resting in Grindelwald with a huge barrel hanging from it. The dog looked perplexed, weighed-down by its cargo.
It has begun to rain. Huge droplets, the size of paws. If it can rain cats and dogs, I wonder what it would be like if it rained St. Bernards. When we returned Syrah to her kennel, her fur had begun to release a keen, musky scent. The other dogs were barely attentive when she came back, lifting their jowly heads briefly from the floor and then going back to their repose. I think of the huskies I saw in Kulusuk, Greenland in 2016 and how these huge mountain dogs contrast with them. I’d gone to East Greenland to camp by the calving face at the end of a fjord for several weeks and explore the peaks beyond the Knud Rasmussen glacier. Kulusuk is a small settlement of 250 people, battered mercilessly by the elements, and when I approached on foot from the miniature airport, the first thing I noticed was the town tip, rusted agricultural equipment, tyres and rubble strewn beside the colourful houses. Boys were playing football down by the harbour. Then I noticed the dogs, wolf-like and alert, all chained up at intervals apart from one another. My guide warned me never to walk too close to them lest they attack. That night, I lay on my bunk bed and listened to their howls as they ricocheted across the night. One would start it off with a mournful bay and then it would be picked up by the others, tossed backwards and forwards in the air. It was impossible to sleep.
Huskies are a sled-type of dog bred in northern regions to pull loads fast. They are related to the Alaskan Malamute, a larger, older breed of dog used to carry heavier loads at a slower pace. My friends in Chesterfield own a Malamute, a stately, bulky dog called Gerrard who moults on the carpet and who – as a puppy – liked to play by gently biting my arm and tugging at it. I can’t shake the idea that huskies and malamutes with their piercing eyes and power to break free and run, aren’t really pets. There’s something of the wolf about them. The word ‘husky’ comes from a word used to refer to Arctic people – the word ‘Eskimos’ pronounced ‘Huskimos’ by English sailors on trading vessels. The kinds of huskies found in Greenland share an ancestry with the Taimyr wolf of North Asia, a breed now extinct. There is also a specific breed of husky-type called the Greenland dog, specialised in hunting polar bears and seals.
Dogs first appeared in Greenland around 4,000 years ago. The huskies who kept me awake at night in Kulusuk seemed to sing their ancientness, proud above the sturdy roofs of the houses. As I packed my things before dawn, nervously checking and re-checking my rucksack, I felt like an interloper in the vastness of ice. I thought of them often when I was out on the fjord, crossing huge glaciers with their bottomless, blue crevasses. All night at camp, it was the crash of calving ice that kept sleep locked away from me, not the bay of the dogs. When we rose early and put on crampons, struck out towards the mountains, I thought of their steadfastness. One day, we spent 8 hours crossing the crevasses, roped together, judging each step and leap. When the day was over. I took off my rucksack and cried. I was overwhelmed by a sense of my own smallness, how insignificant we all were in this library of ice. I was taken over by the impostor syndrome I’ve sensed my whole life, only this time it was warranted: we were all imposters against the flanks of cold, the shifting, restless glaciers whose movement we had helped to generate. We were guilty, we were cause and effect. As Seamus Heaney might have said, we found ourselves ‘lost, unhappy and at home’ in this most un-human, human-shaped environment.
Writing in The Huffington Post in 2017, Mike Arkus tried to describe an outing with sled dogs in Greenland:
You don’t try and pet the Greenland sled dog with a cheery Mickey Mouse-like “Come here Pluto,” a pat on the head and a treat in your hand, because the treat will be your hand…So you stand back and admire them from a distance as they howl and yelp and rear up and charge around their myriad enclosures, as they are now doing on the outskirts of Ilulissat here on the west coast. In fast there are almost as many dogs here as the 4,500 inhabitants.
Returning to Kulusuk after weeks of isolation on the glacier, our conversations mostly about altitude and the movement of ice, I felt dizzy and drunk as I stepped off the boat. We’d been speeding for hours back towards the eastern settlement, whales in the water behind us, a clutch of white gulls who turned as one so that they were suddenly black. Walking through the town, I strayed slightly from the path and a husky lunged at me, a snarl of yellow teeth and white fur. On our last day, we packed our climbing shoes and went bouldering at a small crag behind the furthest houses. Three husky puppies followed us, skittering along the path and yipping excitedly. As I climbed, one of them delved into my rucksack and retrieved a sock. I chased him through the grasses for hours as he gambolled and rolled, smelled the musk of his fur close up.
St. Bernards may look calm and placid but – despite their history of aiding climbers – they are not tame dogs. At the St. Bernard Pass, children are warned not to stray too close to the pens, feeding is strictly forbidden and pet dogs (or ‘personal dogs’ as the guidelines amusingly call them) are not allowed on the walks for fear of them being attacked. W. A Coolidge’s mountain dog Tschingel was often attacked by St. Bernards in the stopping-places they found in the mountains, mauled viciously by some. Nowadays, St. Bernards are mostly bred for the museum or exported to other countries as pets (though they may be temperamentally unsuited for many of the climates people want to keep them in). A few are still trained to work as avalanche dogs. But mostly, they have been supplanted by smaller, lighter, lither breeds like the German Shepherd who can also help dig people out of snow burials but who have the advantage of being easily transported in helicopters. The St. Bernard lives on as an emblem of the mountains and of our companionship with dogs in the harshest environments, but they are no longer working dogs.
I can’t help feeling a stillness and sadness around the former monastery in the pass. Jess has read about a Salvatore Rosa painting which depicts one of the St. Bernards and is still kept in the Hospice building. We google it – regal lines and warm colours, a departure from Rosa’s other work. It is cast in the yellow hues of something strange and ancient. When we show the image eagerly to staff in the Hospice and ask them where we can see it, nobody knows where it can be found. Some of the museum workers believe it it there, you just have to ask the right person. Others shrug, or look at us with suspicion. We start to doubt our judgement. A man directs us to a room where there are religious paintings, relics but no dog. We walk gingerly up to the doors of private rooms but daren’t try them. The Hospice is emptying now, perhaps there are secret chambers to open, corridors to linger in. Instead, we step back into summer. We run for the bus in the rain and set off down into the valley with the dogs watching us through half-open eyes.
Helen Mort is an award-winning poet, creative non-fiction writer, editor and lecturer. You can follow her on Twitter here.