St. Bernard of Montjoux is the patron saint of alpinists, climbers, backpackers, and skiers. His memorial day is May 28. A French monk who founded hospices in the Alpine passes, St. Bernard is variously called St. Bernard of Menthon, St. Bernard of Montjoux (“Jove Mountain”), or St. Bernard of Aosta. He lived from 923 to 1008.
It appears that the history and legend of his family heritage have merged over time. It is written that he was descended from a rich, noble family and received a thorough education. He refused a marriage proposed by his father and decided to devote himself to the service of the Church.
Whether or not Bernard of Montjoux descended from a noble family, he did study for the priesthood and was ordained for the diocese of Aosta in north-western Italy at the foot of the Alps. For 42 years he continued to preach the Gospel to the people of the Alps, effecting numerous conversions and working many miracles.
Trail Angel of the Alps
The accounts of Bernard’s charity, hospitality, and courage on behalf of travelers in the Pennine Alps between Switzerland and Italy are renowned. There he built two hospices and saved the lives of mountain travelers who had fallen victims of avalanche, exposure, and other mountain hazards.
He built one hospice on Jove Mountain at 8,000 feet, the highest point of the pass, and he later built another one at the more southern pass, a mountain saddle in the Graian Alps, 7,076 feet above sea-level. After his death the two passes were renamed after him: Grand St. Bernard and Petit St. Bernard. The Great St. Bernard Pass is a 49-mile route in the Western Alps that is only snow free for a couple of months during the summer.
In order to staff these hospices, Bernard founded a small religious order of Augustinian canons, today known as the Canons Regular of SS. Nicholas and Bernard of Montjoux. From the hospices, the monks went out in search of victims who might have succumbed to the severity of the weather. They offered food, clothing, and shelter to the unfortunate travelers and took care of the dead. Bernard also started a patrol that cleared robbers from the mountains.
Even today, these canons continue to devote their attention to the needs of Alpine travelers and to the spiritual welfare of those who live in the nearby mountains.
St. Bernard was canonized in 1681 by Pope Innocent XI. Later, he was further honored in the late 1800’s when European dog breeders renamed the Alpine Mastiff, the St. Bernard.
My Vote for a Modern Patron Saint of Backpackers is Colin Fletcher (1922–2007), a pioneering backpacker and writer. His writing gave a generation a thirst for adventure and the wild outdoors. He was the first to walk the length of Grand Canyon entirely within the rim of the canyon “in one go” — only second to complete the entire journey — as chronicled in his bestselling 1968 memoir The Man Who Walked Through Time. Through his influential hiker’s guide, The Complete Walker, published the same year, he became a kind of “spiritual godfather” of the wilderness backpacking movement.