Using Alpine Huts for Climbing
Alpine huts or ‘Refuges’ are uniquely positioned in the high mountains, often in spectacular and improbable situations – worth the journey for the views alone! They are usually located in strategic positions, as a base for climbing nearby peaks, or as a stopover connecting glacier basins or alpine valleys. They offer food, shelter, a bed for the night and allow climbers to move fast and light through the mountains, without the need to carry heavy bivouac equipment.
Huts vary in size from simple bivouac shelters big enough for just a few people, to state of the art, self sufficient eco structures sleeping 150+ people. At their best (ie most huts in Austria) they offer very comfortable hotel like accommodation, with hot showers, full restaurant service, private rooms and a very well stocked bar! Most however, are much simpler – but as a minimum, all guarded huts will offer: simple shared dormitory type rooms, breakfast and a 3 course evening meal, pillows and blankets/duvets, basic washroom facilities, equipment storage and hut slippers for use inside the building.
Most mountain huts are owned by the countries national Alpine Club e.g CAF – Club Alpine Francais, in France. Usually they are operated on a kind of franchise system: the Guardian (manager) and staff run the hut on a daily basis, making their income from the food and drink sales. The other part of the fee is for the bed night (the ‘nuitee’) – this goes to the club, for maintenance of the building and club funds. A few huts are privately owned e.g. by the local guides association, or a local family run business.
Food and drink
For breakfast, there is usually a hot drink, cereal and bread with butter and jam. More luxurious huts will offer orange juice and cheese/cold meats as well, although it can be tricky to face a huge breakfast at 4-5am, so most places keep it simple. Evening meals tend to be simple and wholesome, with a fixed daily menu: generally there are 3 courses, with soup and bread (or pasta, in Italy!) to start, a main meal with meat, vegetables and plenty of carbs (often rice, pasta or polenta) and to finish, a simple desert e.g. fruit cocktail, chocolate mouse etc.
Vegetarians will usually get an egg/cheese based alternative and other special diets can usually be catered for too – gluten free can be challenging however, so we advise people to bring an emergency meal or two just case. NB Please let us know about any special diets at the time you book, as we have to inform the guardian when we make the booking – this is usually done many months before the trip. If you have a special diet, it’s a very good idea to remind the staff about it again when you sign in on arrival.
We recommend taking picnic lunch supplies from the valley to last the majority of your trip if possible, as it gives us the most flexibility. However, lunches can also be purchased if you arrive at the hut in the middle of the day eg. pasta, soup, rosti, sandwiches and they also sell chocolate bars etc. if you need to stock up.
Most huts have a decent bar with tea/coffee, beer, wine and spirits available (genepi!), as well as bottled mineral water. In summer time most mid altitude huts have a natural water source for filling drinks bottles, but at higher altitudes (above ~3000m) you’ll often have to purchase bottled water (or you can often buy a litre of boiled water, if you take your own brew kit). Please bear in mind that all prices are linked to the cost of transporting supplies in (usually via helicopter), so in remote locations, bottled water can be the same price as beer!
Cash and Payments
Most huts only accept cash, so you need to make sure you bring enough for the trip. A few of the busiest huts do accept cards, but don’t bank on it, unless you have confirmed that they do – it usually depends on a reliable phone signal. It’s normal to pay your bill after the evening meal, at ~8-9pm on the night before you leave – this saves time the following morning, when everyone is trying to get on their way as quickly as possible and the staff are busy dealing with breakfast.
Lunches/drinks – average cost in huts
These are very approximate costs, but should help you to budget and decide how much beer and wine you are prepared to buy!
Bottled water (1.5L) – 12 CHF
Beer (can) – 8 CHF
Wine (bottle) – 20+ CHF
Tea/coffee – 5CHF
Sandwich – 10CHF
Bowl of pasta/rosti – 18 CHF
Chocolate bar – 4 CHF
Bottled water (1.5L) – 8 Euros
Beer (can) – 6 Euros
Wine (bottle) – 20 Euros
Tea/coffee – 4 Euros
Sandwich – 8 Euros
Bowl of pasta – 15 Euros
Chocolate bar – 4 Euros
Bottled water (1.5L) – 5 Euros
Beer (can) – 5 Euros
Wine (bottle) – 15 Euros
Tea/coffee – 4 Euros
Sandwich – 8 Euros
Bowl of pasta – 12 Euros
Chocolate bar – 3 Euros
Most huts have simple dormitories with an ‘alpine bunk’: a large shared sleeping platform that may sleep 20 people in a large room. As huts are upgraded and refurbished, they are moving toward separate bunk beds in large shared rooms and some of the best huts have smaller rooms for 2-4 people. They all provide blankets/duvets and pillows, but you must bring your own sheet sleeping bag liner with you. Shared rooms can also be a bit noisy, so it’s wise to bring a pair of decent earplugs too!
It’s worth carrying just a small wash kit, as most places only have wash basins with cold water. If you are up in huts for consecutive nights, taking a small packet of wet wipes with you is a good idea. WC’s are usually inside and flushing these days, but at some huts they are still outside and the composting or ‘long drop’ (a chute down the mountainside) variety.
All huts have a ‘boot room’ by the entrance, where you should leave your climbing boots and change into a pair of hut slippers for use inside the building – these are supplied by the hut. All technical equipment such as ropes, crampons and ice axes should also be left in the boot room, in one of the supplied baskets or racked on the wall – it’s best to put everyones’ kit in the same spot (eg tie ice axes together), to avoid the risk of your stuff getting mixed up with another group. It’s worth marking your equipment in some way – labelling boots and ice axes especially, as there can often be dozens of the same model lying around.
Wifi, recharging and mobile reception
‘Welcome to the High Mountains – here we have No Wifi. If you like to stay connected, then look out the window, or talk to your friends!’ Nowadays this is a common sign in huts used by novice alpinists… Wifi is almost non existent in alpine huts, so treat it as a luxury if you find a hut that has. Phone reception is very variable, but you can often get a signal outside or nearby – text is most reliable. Recharging points are starting to appear in huts, but are far from universal – so take a power pack if you may need to recharge. Alpine climbing is a great way to de digitize your life for a few days!
Some of our more remote trips use bivouac huts, or the ‘winter room’ of a larger hut, which has closed for the season. These always have bunks and blankets so you can still travel relatively light, but have no guardian, so you must take food and sometimes a camping stove with you to self cater. Some have wood stoves and can be extremely cozy and comfortable and they always add an extra element of adventure to any trip!
A typical hut trip
Most hut approaches involve walking up from the valley, or taking a train/cable car part of the way and then walking. Take your time on the approach and try not to get too tired/dehydrated, as arriving at the hut in good shape will make a big difference to how you feel the following morning. Some hut approaches are long and/or significant climbs in their own right (eg reaching the Gouter Hut on Mt Blanc), so may require as much care and planning as the summit itself.
When you arrive at the hut, you should change into hut slippers and leave all your equipment in the boot room, then send one person to say hi to the guardian and check the team in. Alpine Club cards/BMC cards can be used at check-in to get a discount on your bed fees (around 10%). The Guardian will ask what route you are planning to climb what time you want breakfast – if you are unsure, then ask what’s the usual breakfast for your climb! Most huts will have two or three set breakfast times for different routes/destinations. The longest or highest mountaineering routes may have a really early breakfast (e.g. 1am for Mont Blanc), with the late breakfast usually being at 7-8am. Based on this, you’ll then be assigned a room/bed number, so you can organize your equipment (leave most things in the boot room/storage area) and move your overnight kit up to your room.
Now is a good time to lay any damp kit out in the sun to dry – eg. boots, crampons, ropes etc. Hopefully this can be done out on the terrace, but if the weather isn’t so good, then boots and damp clothing etc. can usually be placed in a drying area.
After a brew or a few beers, the evening meal is usually served around 6-7pm in a communal dining area. The bill is usually paid after dinner, before settling in early (some people turn in straight after dinner) ready for the next day’s fun.
You should organize your equipment and pack as much as possible before bed, then get up just before breakfast to avoid disturbing others in the morning. Breakfast is often a self-service affair, or the guardian may set out a tray of food with your teams’ name on for quick service, then after a final gear sort it’s time to get on the road for the days adventure!
A few unwritten rules that make everyones’ hut life a little easier! Lights out is at 10pm, but most people are in bed before this – especially if the have an early start – so be considerate and avoid talking in dorms/making noise whilst others are trying to get some sleep – ie don’t be the person who’s put everything in separate carrier bags in their rucsac, so they can rustle around endlessly in the dark keeping everyone else awake… In the morning, you are expected to fold your duvet/blankets neatly before you leave the room.
It can be a tough job running a hut – the staff often stay for a long season, with only a few breaks in the valley and it can be busy and quite hectic in high season. Please be considerate in everything that you do and you’ll enjoy your stay to the full.