Practicalities of staying in a mountain hut
It is important, when planning a mountain trip – especially out of season – to do your homework first. Will the huts be open and manned? Will there be room? What facilities can be expected? Are meals provided? Here, Kev Reynolds, explains some of the main practicalities of staying in a mountain hut.
A mountain hut is a purpose-built refuge situated at some strategically high place in the mountains so that one or more peaks are readily accessible from it. It may vary from a simple bivouac shelter to something resembling a small hotel in size and facilities.
Most are staffed during the main summer season, which usually extends from late June until the end of September – opening dates depend on location, altitude and, in some cases, the depth of the previous winter’s snow – while some are also open for a few weeks in the late winter/spring ski-touring season. When manned, meals and drinks will be on offer; but off-season, when there’s no warden in residence, there will often be a ‘winter room’ available, containing little more than a few basic necessities like bunks, blankets and perhaps a wood-burning stove and a supply of fuel.
There are also those simple unguarded refuges, usually located in a remote district, where facilities are minimal and you need to carry practically everything with you, including stove, fuel and food.
Wherever possible, reserve your accommodation in advance. Once booked, if your plans change for any reason, it is essential to phone the hut to cancel.
Advance booking is essential if you wish to stay in a popular region during the high season, and it is becoming increasingly common for some huts to be fully booked several weeks or even months ahead – those in national parks and the Mont Blanc range, for example. While few huts outside the honeypot districts will be fully booked in advance, it is a matter of courtesy to call a day or two before your planned arrival as it gives the staff an idea of how many to cater for. Make sure you arrive in good time wherever possible, and it goes without saying that, if your plans change, you should phone the hut at the earliest opportunity to cancel a prior booking, otherwise walkers or climbers may be turned away unnecessarily – and the hut keeper loses income. In extreme cases, it may lead to the mountain rescue being called out to search for you.
Advance booking should make overcrowding a rare occurrence – in theory, at least. But practice is sometimes different from theory.
When a hut is completely full, the warden may allocate emergency sleeping places if, say, there’s no time for a new arrival to reach alternative shelter. In such cases, a dormitory floor, a passageway or even the space beneath a table in the dining room may be used as a bed.
The busiest times, of course, are in the high season and at weekends during fine weather, when pressure on bed space is to be expected. Some wardens deal with the prospect of overcrowding by providing overflow accommodation in an annexe which may, or may not, consist of a conventional building with four walls and a roof. So I was not surprised when the guardian at the Refuge de la Leisse (www.refugedelaleisse- vanoise.com) in the Vanoise Alps told me on the phone that he was fully booked, but would find space for me and my two friends in his tented annexe.
At least, that’s what I thought he said – but my French is notoriously poor, so when we arrived and saw only the same three buildings that I remembered from my previous visit, and no marquee-like tent nearby, I began to wonder. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the guardian, ‘I will show you to your sleeping places in a little while.’ Half an hour later he was seen pushing a wheelbarrow up a steep slope and over a bluff, where I discovered him unloading a two-man tent and a couple of mattresses onto a patch of grass. ‘Voilà!’ he said. ‘It’s all yours. Three men, two mattresses. You will be good friends, I think.’
On arrival, leave boots, trekking poles and wet outer clothing in the boot room or porch. Select a pair of ‘hut shoes’ to wear indoors.
Having selected a hut for the night, made your booking and arrived in good time, the first thing to do before you enter the main building is remove your outdoor boots and place them along with your trekking poles on one of the racks you’ll find in the boot room or entrance porch. There will often be a supply of ‘hut shoes’ to change into. They could be plastic Croc-style shoes, floppy old mules or even old-fashioned clogs, all of which will be available in various sizes. If you don’t fancy these, pack your own lightweight slippers to wear inside the building. But don’t risk upsetting the warden by clomping through the hut in your walking boots, and if outer clothing is wet, hang waterproofs from racks in the boot room or, if there’s a drying room, leave them there.
Locate the hut keeper to announce your arrival.
Show your Alpine Club membership card or reciprocal rights card, if you have one, to claim a discount on overnight fees.
Book meals and any packed lunches required for the next day. If you have dietary requirements, make these known as early as possible.
The warden will probably outline any house rules, and may ask you to sign a visitors’ book (the Hut Book), which keeps a log of where you came from and where you’re going next day.
Most huts have mixed-sex dormitories but, for an additional fee, some do have private bedrooms with two, four or six bunks. Even dormitories vary, not only in size, but in the type of sleeping arrangement on offer. The traditional Matratzenlager – or ‘mattress room’ – is a large communal space with a row of anything from 8 to 30 mattresses laid side by side, while other more conventional dorms have two-tiered bunk beds.
Pillows and duvets or blankets are provided, but for purposes of hygiene you must either use your own sheet sleeping bag or rent one on arrival.
Bathroom facilities vary greatly. The best will have hot showers (mostly coin- or token-operated) and plentiful running water. Although seldom sufficient to serve the number of visitors, toilets in these ‘valley huts’ will be as good as those found in modest hotels, but the higher the hut, the more basic or primitive the toilets are likely to be, and more limited the opportunities for washing. There are exceptions, of course, and standards are improving year by year.
Keep a head torch handy, as the hut’s generator will usually be turned off after lights-out.
Be considerate of others and avoid unnecessary noise in the dormitories.
Guardians will often enforce a silent period (known as Hüttenruhe in German-speaking Alps) between 10pm and 6am to limit disturbance by the early risers – especially in high mountain huts inhabited by climbers, where the most ambitious are likely to be up and away long before 6am or, at the very least, an hour or more before dawn.
Expect the unexpected
A friend and I once arrived at a very basic bivvy hut lodged high in the mountains, to find the door blocked by avalanche debris. It took an hour to dig a way in, only to find it contained nothing more than a few candle stubs and a box of damp matches. It was late spring, and the floor was covered in ice. A mass of snow had come down the chimney and frozen into a dome in front of the fireplace, and we found it warmer to sit outside on the roof to cook and eat. After we’d gone to bed on mattress-free boards, an avalanche targeted the hut and in the morning we had to dig our way out through the window.
Fortunately, we’d planned to be self-sufficient for a couple of weeks of climbing and were able to make the most of the experience.
Do you have to be a member of a club to stay in a hut?
You don’t have to be a member of an Alpine Club to stay in a mountain hut, for the vast majority are open to all-comers, whether privately owned or belonging to one of the national mountaineering organisations.
What sort of meals might you expect?
Well, perhaps not haute cuisine, except in its most literal sense, for the last thing you need after a long day in the hills is a large plate with minuscule portions of decorated artwork masquerading as a culinary treat. Mountain activities burn a lot of calories, so hut meals are usually planned with this in mind, with plenty of carbohydrate such as pasta being served.
Meals are usually served at large communal tables, with individual places allocated by the guardian. These mealtimes tend to be enjoyable and sometimes noisy occasions with an opportunity for visitors to get to know one another; when extra busy, two separate sittings may be needed. Jugs of drinking water are provided, and beer and wine are usually available.
Given advance warning, vegetarians can be catered for, although expectations should not be raised too high as the simplest option will often be taken by the hut staff, who, as Gillian Price points out in her guidebook Through the Italian Alps: The Grande Traversata delle Alpi, ‘have to be capable of dealing with everything from a blocked toilet, frozen pipes, refilling a diesel-powered generator, lugging firewood and provisions up steep stairs, repairing pumps and solar panels, organising rescue operations…and are expected to be gourmet chefs as well!’
With supplies being delivered by costly helicopter – in some cases perhaps just once or twice in a three-month season – or on the back of a mule or by a basic goods lift, where one exists, the variety and freshness of ingredients may be somewhat limited. This Jack of all trades must conjure up three-course meals for ravenous mountaineers from whatever is available, so his (or her) repertoire may not be an extensive one – although it could prove to be rather imaginative when supplies are running low. I know of several huts on popular trekking routes where the main meal served to visitors is exactly the same every night of the season. But since the majority of guests stay only one night at a time, this hardly matters, and for anyone spending a second or third consecutive night, simple alternative options are usually rustled up.
While snacks and drinks are usually available during the day, meals are served at set times, and places at table are sometimes allocated by the hut keeper.
The serving of breakfast is often scheduled according to the needs and chosen routes of the users, so one breakfast sitting may be at 4am, while another will be served two or three hours later. Packed lunches can usually be arranged if ordered the night before they’re needed.
Some of the more modern huts have Wi-Fi access, but don’t automatically assume that this is the case. It is also worth noting that not all huts have power sockets in which to charge mobile phones or other portable electronic devices, so you should plan your needs accordingly.
And to drink?
Canned or bottled drinks are on sale in virtually every staffed hut, although prices are invariably higher than you’d pay in the valleys. In Austria and Slovenia it’s not unusual for visitors to bring a supply of tea bags or coffee sachets with them, and buy a litre of hot water (Teewasser/vroča voda) from the warden to make their own drinks. In a number of Austrian and Swiss huts the warden will provide a supply of Marschtee (usually sweetened fruit tea) with which to fill your flask before leaving, at no extra cost.
It is customary to pay for all services the night before leaving.
It’s a good idea to keep a tally of food and drinks bought during your stay. In most huts, you will be asked to settle your bill the night before you leave, and as credit and debit cards are not accepted in all huts, you’d be advised to take plenty of ready cash with you.
Finally, before departure, leave your room tidy by folding blankets or duvets, and take all litter away with you.
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