The Hut Experience
By Kev Reynolds
Mountaineering really took off in the 19th century, when our Victorian forefathers had a wonderland to explore, with thousands of virgin peaks, untried passes and countless valleys known to just a few local farmers and chamois hunters.
One of their greatest problems was finding overnight accommodation, for hotels as we know them today were virtually non-existent. So on occasion they would take refuge in the home of the local priest or, failing that, in a simple alp chalet. But as Karl Baedeker suggested: “Whatever poetry there may be theoretically in a bed of hay, the traveller will find that the cold night-air piercing abundant apertures, the jangling of the cow-bells, and the grunting of the pigs are little conducive to refreshing slumber.”
Recognising this lack of suitable lodgings, the Swiss Alpine Club built the first hut for mountaineers on the Tödi in 1863. A few years later another was provided on the Matterhorn, and by the time the SAC celebrated its 25th anniversary, it had built nearly 40 such huts, practically all in spectacular locations. Meanwhile the German and Austrian Alpine Clubs were also busy erecting shelters for the growing numbers of visitors to their mountains, so that by 1888, Baedeker was able to give the following advice in his guide to the Eastern Alps:
“The numerous Club Huts erected within the last few years … have done much to increase the pleasures and decrease the discomforts of the higher ascents. These huts are generally well fitted up, and contain mattresses or hay-beds, woollen coverlets, a small cooking-stove, cooking utensils, plates, and glasses.”
(Photo by Kev Reynolds)
In general they were small and fairly spartan, and since very few had a warden in residence, it was essential for hut users to take with them a good supply of provisions. But during the century and more since they were first built, the quality and quantity of mountain huts in the Alps and, to a degree, in the Pyrenees, has vastly improved, so that today many resemble mountain inns rather than the simple sheds the name implies, and are capable of sleeping 100 or more visitors each night. While most will have mixed-sex dormitories, it’s not unusual to find smaller two- or four-bedded rooms available, and hot showers and drying rooms are common. The majority are staffed in summer, and meals and drinks are provided, with fresh provisions often helicoptered in several times during the season.
Mountain huts are not just for climbers, of course, and with sufficient time, energy and money, it would be possible to trek from one end of the Alpine chain to the other staying in a different hut each night without the need to carry anything more than basic essentials. With their dramatic outlook and unique atmosphere, it’s not surprising that there are those for whom ‘hutting’ provides the ultimate mountain experience.
Not all huts are built by the various Alpine Clubs, for a large number belong to other organisations or are privately owned, yet are open to allcomers. Where huts are the property of Alpine Clubs, a reduction of up to 50% of overnight fees may be claimed by members of affiliated clubs (the UK branch of the Austrian Alpine Club is the cheapest to join www.aacuk.org.uk
) or by those who have purchased a reciprocal rights card from the BMC (www.thebmc.co.uk
When using huts in a popular area during the peak season it is advisable to book a day in advance by telephone. In some busy regions advance booking is compulsory to avoid severe overcrowding, for this devalues everyone’s experience, but when moving from hut to hut, the warden or guardian will often phone ahead for you.
On arrival leave boots and trekking poles in the boot room or porch, and select a pair of hut shoes for indoor wear. Locate the guardian, book bed space and order any meals required, then make your bed using a sheet sleeping bag (pillows and blankets are provided) and keep a torch handy, for a number of hut-keepers shut down the power generator overnight. It is usual to pay for accommodation and meals the night before you leave.
As I write images appear before me of ibex grazing just outside the dormitory window, of avalanches pouring from a neighbouring peak, of one heart-stopping sunset after another tipping coloured dye over nearby snowfield and glacier. I recall evenings marooned above the clouds, and daybreak shimmering through fading mist; sunrise arrows flashing and dazzling in a tarn just beyond the hut doorway.
Yes, there have been a few sleepless nights, airless dormitories and enough snoring by strangers to last a lifetime. But these, after all, are part of the price one pays for the privilege of having food and shelter in view of some of the world’s most spectacular mountains. If life is the richness of experience, I’m greedy for more.