Saturday, July 6, 2013

Historic Alpine Mountain Huts - Still in Use Every Summer

The Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany are dotted with hundreds (or thousands) of mountain huts.  Some are owned and operated by hiking associations, like the Austrian Alpine Club (Oesterreichischer Alpenverein (OeAV)), while others are privately-owned hotels, which just happen to be situated on spectacular ridges or viewpoints.  European alpinists and trekkers have a long history of staying in these mountain huts during their climbing vacations.  Unlike the tradition in the United State, most European hikers do not camp out unless they are bivouacking at high altitude or hiking in remotes areas of northern Scandinavia.  Some of these historic hotels are over 100 years old and are an interesting study of architectural preservation under difficult conditions (altitude, rugged terrain, and, often, lack of roads).

Until the late 1800s, very few people vacationed in the Alps.  The mountains were a harsh, dangerous environment, clothing and equipment were crude and heavy, and roads were rough and unpaved.  The mountains were inhabited by hardy villagers and ethnic groups like the Walsers (German descent), but they worked the hard land out of necessity, not vacation.  Traders,  pilgrims, and soldiers had crossed the Alps for thousands of years using mountain passes, but they did not linger.

But in the mid-1800s, mountain tourism became popular, and towns like Zermatt and Chamonix became fashionable ski and climbing centers.  Alpine associations built huts in high altitude for their members to use while ascending peaks.  The first huts were basic stone sheds with bunks.  The highest bivouac huts are still like this, but most in lower altitude or on popular trekking routes have grown into comfortable mountain hotels.  Now they have excellent kitchens, semi-private bunk rooms, warm stoves, selection of wines, wifi or telephone, drying rooms for wet clothing, and many have showers!!  No more stinky nights in an over-crowded bunk-room.  Often the shower works with a token you insert in a box next to the valve.  You get about two minutes of hot water, so lather and rinse quickly.  The cold water is, literally, ice-cold because sometimes it comes from the local glacier.  If you hike, stay in a hut.  Not only is the food and companionship welcome, but it is nice to be in a sturdy stone building with professionally-installed lightning protection when it rains and thunders outside.

Let's take a tour of mountain huts in Switzerland, France, and Italy.
This the historic Hotel du Thrift (Berhgasthaus Thrift - mountain guest house Thrift) at 2337 m elevation, about two hours walk above Zermatt, Switzerland.  It was built in 1900 and is in a valley without road or cable car, so all supplies are brought in with helicopter.
What could be better than to sit and watch the mountains.
Walk about two hours south, and here is a magnificent view of the Matterhorn (4478 m, first climbed by Edward Wymper and a party in 1865). Several members of the party died in that expedition, and it is still one of the most dangerous peaks in the Alps.This is the view from the Grand Balcons, a trail.with constantly inspiring views.
For a fantastic day trek out of Zermatt: take the gondola up to the Trockener Steg, walk to Gandegghütte, and sit down on the sunny terrace. Have lunch at 3030 m altitude whilst you watch the spectacular view.  This is better salad and bread than I can get in restaurants in most US cities!
Walk west an hour past some alpine lakes, and here is the Matterhorn dominating the skyline.
Back down in the valley, Zermatt is touristy, crowded, and expensive, but it is a decent place to visit.  All vehicles are electric or animal-powered - no internal combustion cars allowed.
Let's start the Tour of Monte Rosa.  Take the gondola to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise station (3796 m), walk across the Theodul glacier to the Italian border (guide recommended), and stop at Theodule Hut (Italian: Rifugio del Teodulo, 3,317 m) for the night.  It is modern and not very cozy, but is situated on a spectacular ridge overlooking the glacier.

Walk a long, hard day south to Rifugio G.B. Ferraro at 2066 m.  In the guidebook, I wrote, "Ferraro very nice!  Hot showers, espresso.  Amazing library of Tibet, Nepal, and Apache books."
En route, you will meet some of the local bovine residents.  They are pretty tame and curious around here.
Walk another long day east, ascend the Col d'Olen at 2881 m, round the cliff and the Rifugio Guglielmina welcomes you.  It maintains its proud traditions and cuisine, dating from when it was the highest hotel in Europe.  The building dates from 1878.  The inside is cozy and warm, and the cuisine excellent.  My friends occasionally remind me that I had the donkey entree that was featured on the menu.  And no, it did not taste like chicken, it tasted like donkey.

Several hard days walk further along the tour, and a long grind up to the Monte Moro Pass at 2984 m, and you reach the Rifugio Oberto Gaspare.  I am not sure of its age, but it was renovated in 2007.  In 2009, the gondola was out of commission, and the hut master was glad to see my friends and me as his only overnight guests.  The view of the Monte Rosa massif is inspiring.
Jump forward a few days to the town of Grächen, on a sunny terrace on the east side of the Matter Valley (German: Mattertal).  The town is only at 1600 m altitude and has road access. The country inns are comfortable and welcoming, with plenty of hot water (and, nowadays, mains electricity to recharge mobile phones and other equipment).  The inn where I stayed even had a shoe polish kit to clean up your boots (Do any of you readers remember how, in European hotels, you put out your shoes at night and a porter polished them?).
Grächen is the starting point for the Europaweg, a rugged high-altitude balcon route along the east side of the Mattertal, perched high above the noise of the highway and railroad. The Europaweg opened in 1997 as a showpiece high trail, but has been beset with rockfalls and washouts.  Notice that the signs are usually denominated in time (hh:mm) to the destination rather then kilometers.
Most hikers stay at the  Europa Hut (German: Europahütte) at 2220 m altitude.
In summer, Europahütte is crowded, but the view from the terrace is sublime.
As I recall, the toilets were a bit rough, but at least they were indoors.
Let's take a big jump west to the Chamonix valley in France.Take the gondola up to the east from Le Tour, walk up the dusty path along the Galcier du Tour, and eventually you reach the Refuge Albert Premier at 2706 m.  This is for a heavy-duty climbing crowd, with many of the patrons preparing for glacier traverses or ice climbing.
Late in the day, a lady became seriously ill, possibly from altitude sickness.  The helicopter came and took her away.  The emergency services in the valley are incredibly efficient.  On a previous day, my climbing companion fell and badly sliced his hand on another glacier.  The helicopter landed on the ice, loaded him onboard, and he was in the Chamonix hospital within about 20 minutes.
Climb up the Glacier du Tour, cross the border into Switzerland, cross the Plateau du Trient (glaciated) and you reach the Cabane du Trient at 3280 m.  This has an astonishing view across the massive ice field.  But at this altitude, it is cold even in the sun.
If you want to do some more casual hiking in the Chamonix valley rather than mountaineering or glacier travel, there are plenty of spectacular hiking trails.  For example, take the Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi to the mid-way station at the Plan de l'Aiguille at 2,317 m.  Then walk downhill a short distance to the Refuge de Plan de L'Aiguille, at 2207 m.  Look, another fantastic salad.  Then proceed north a few hours along the Balcon Nord to the Montevers train station and take the train back down the valley.  Easy and fun.
Another great day hike:  ascend the northwest side of the valley to the Refuge at Lac Blanc, 2352 m, approximately above the town of Argentière.  It seems remote, but a clear summer day will see several hundred day-hikers.  Here is another one of those awesome salads..
Finally, let's take a big jump south to the Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso in northern Italy. This modern hut is the Rigugio Vittorio Emanuele II, at 2732 m. It is high and very business-like, patronized by heavy-duty climbers and mountaineers. The time I visited in 2009, a group of Italian mountaineering troops were in residence, training on the nearby cliffs and ice fields.
But the food is good (after all, it is Italy), and the beer flows freely.
The summit of Gran Paradiso, with an elevation of 4,061 m.  It is a long way up across several kilometers of glacier and some exposed rock near the summit.  The view is incredible, and a sunny day like this makes it all worthwhile.

Photographs taken with a Fuji F31fd digital camera.

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