Welcome to Steve & Judy Pardoe's Alpine Refuge Page

Revision of 13. July 2009    (links updated)


Judy outside the Tête Rousse Refuge (CAF) on our ascent of Mont Blanc Judy at the Orny Refuge (SAC) near the Trient Glacier

What are Alpine Refuges?

Alpine refuges are mountain huts, often located strategically at the start of a popular route, and are generally open to all. Most are owned and operated by the major Alpine clubs, such as the CAF, CAI, SAC and so on. Membership of either the host club, or an affiliated one with reciprocal rights, will earn a discount on the night fees, but is not essential. Fees are usually quite reasonable anyway, so unless you are planning many hut-nights in a season it may not be worth joining just for the discount.

The huts offer basic overnight accommodation, and often a meal service, but facilities vary enormously. The most primitive are just shelters without any cooking facilities; at the other extreme, a full service restaurant and sanitary facilities may be available. As a rule, the more remote the hut, the less well equipped it will be, but there are notable exceptions.

You might want to have a look at our Altitude & Acclimatization page if you are going high for the first time.

Almost all high-altitude huts (I believe absolutely all in Switzerland) have a so-called winter room, which is open all the time as an emergency shelter, but the majority are only open fully in the short summer season. There will then be a Guardian (or Gardienne) who will look after your needs, and whose rule within his or her domain is absolute!

A well as providing the cooking and accommodation, many Guardians are experts on the locality and will have a good idea of weather conditions, availability of routes, and so on. It is well worth seeking their advice before setting out. Most huts have some form of radio-telephone and can contact valley bases for the latest forecasts. Bookings are also made this way, but the telephone is not normally available to the visitor.

High altitude huts rarely have running water, for obvious reasons, so you will have to bring your own, or buy bottled water which can cost a fortune. In Switzerland, you are not allowed to cook your own food in the hut (nominally for safety reasons), but the Guardian may cook it if you bring your own ingredients (handy for vegetarians!). In most other countries, a special area will be set aside, and you should use only this for cooking. Bivouacking nearby, but using the hut's facilities, is generally frowned on.

Hut Etiquette

The Alpine refuge system only works because the vast majority of visitors observe simple rules of etiquette. The guiding principle is one of unselfishness. You should make a reservation if possible, and arrive in good time. Ask the Guardian for accommodation, and (provided he or she is not too busy) ask to be shown to your sleeping place as soon as possible after arrival. Only then should you lay out your bedding to claim your space.

Boots and wet gear should be removed in the lobby (there is always somewhere for this) and left there with your crampons and other tools. Never take anything like that into the dormitory area: if people stand on your crampons in bare feet, it can spoil their whole day. There will often be a stock of slippers for you to borrow while you are in the hut (they are never large enough for me).

Refuges can get very crowded. You should always try to cooperate with others when moving about the hut, and little things like clearing away your own eating things to make way for someone else will be appreciated. Above all, respect other people's need for sleep: don't talk or crash about after lights out, and if you must get up for a pee, do so slowly and silently, and without shining your torch about the place. Some climbers will be making a very early start, and a good night's sleep could literally be a matter of life and death. If you are making an early start yourself, you will have to make some noise, but that is more acceptable.

A Word About Language

The first language of the Guardian/enne and many of the guests will naturally be that of the country. However, many are multi-lingual, and almost all we have met have had some English. That is no reason not to attempt to address them in their own language, and it is a constant embarrassment that while most other Europeans make some effort, English-speaking people are generally very reluctant. If Japanese and Koreans can learn enough French, German or Italian to get by, there is no excuse for Brits and Yanks! just a few words such as "hello, goodbye, please, thank you" and especially "sorry" make a big difference.

Eating and Drinking

Most refuges offer a reasonable meals service: there will rarely be a choice, and the diet is frequently heavy on pasta, which is excellent mountain nourishment but can become monotonous. If you are vegetarian, the meal will simply be served without the meat : don't expect anything as a substitute. It's probably a good idea to bring some supplementary cheese, dried fruit or nuts. When the Guardian is not too busy, he or she will often cook you something special, such as a cheese omelette, perhaps using your own ingredients. Obviously the more remote refuges will have a limited range of fresh ingredients, so don't expect cordon bleu cooking. Nowadays the food tends to be helicoptered in, which makes it more varied but also rather expensive. A nice gesture, if are visiting a more remote and less visited refuge, might be to take some fresh fruit or the local newspaper with you as a small present for the Guardian [1].

Evening meals will be served in one or two sittings, and you are expected to be in your place in good time. You can help the Guardian and his or her assistant staff by clearing plates away and keeping the table clean. Hygiene is a problem without running water, so take extra care not to spill things.

Don't worry too much about getting a balanced diet : your real need is for lots of calories, in a slow-release form such as pasta or rice. You can get all the protein you need in the valley. Take lots of salt : it will counter the dehydrating effect of the thin, dry air and help you retain fluid and also maintain the vital electrolyte balance. Drink as much water or juice as you can manage (even if it means a disturbed night).

Beer and wine are available in some refuges. Don't expect supermarket prices; however, you may find that beer costs no more than bottled water. You should drink very little alcohol, anyway, as it doesn't sit well with the thin air and an early start.

Breakfast will be served at a time to suit departing climbers, but is unlikely to be more than coffee (usually in a bowl) and a bit of bread and jam. You can order a hot drink for your climb the night before, and if you leave a flask at the kitchen they will fill it for you. We have found that a litre of hot Isostar is a fantastic pick-me-up when the route gets tough. We carry a few "baggies" of powder, ready-measured to make up a litre, and a strong plastic juice bottle with an insulating sleeve.

If you are determined to carry and cook your own food, be very careful, cook only in designated areas, and make sure that the Guardian knows what you are doing. A fire in a timber hut would be a catastrophe, as there is rarely any running water to extinguish it, and even a temporary evacuation could leave the visitors dangerously exposed. I don't recommend self-catering, not least because the Guardian makes most of his money from meals, as the overnight fees mostly go to the Club which owns the hut.

Sleeping

Sleeping is never easy at high altitude, but can be vital to a good route the next day. Many people snore in the thin air, and the general crowding and discomfort can make for a restless night. You just have to get used to it : ear plugs may help. Sleeping tablets can be very dangerous, as the body's metabolism is already depressed by the lack of oxygen. Make sure you know what time you need to be up for your start, and set a discreet alarm: there will be quite a lot of noise if everyone is going at once, but you might just sleep through it!

The vast majority of sleeping quarters are communal bunks, with up to a dozen people in a row, men and women mixed, and with barely two feet (60 cm) of width each. Common sense and discretion take care of modesty problems. Occasionally you may get a smaller room for four persons. There will usually be at least two blankets each (of uncertain history) and a mattress, and possibly even a pillow. It goes without saying that you should fold everything away neatly before leaving. Never wear outdoor shoes in the dormitory, and try to use as little space as possible for your gear.

We take cotton sheet sleeping bags, and usually sleep in long-johns and thermal tops. A full sleeping bag may be too much, as it's rare for the dormitory to be really cold; in fact it can get very stuffy. Keep a head-torch handy, and make sure you keep your gear out of the way in case you or someone else needs that midnight pee.

Above all, you really must try to be quiet after lights-out. There are few things more irritating than being forced to overhear someone's "stage whispers" when you are desperate to get to sleep. Don't choose 2 am to hold a route planning meeting: get your chatting done beforehand. You can minimize the noise of your own departure by getting your clothes handy the night before, and having everything within reach. The prolonged rustling of a plastic bag as an early riser searches "quietly" for that elusive second sock can be infuriating [1].

What you need to bring

In most cases, your sleeping bag liner (or bag), a change of clothes to sleep in and some ablution equipment are all you really need. Unless you are self-catering, food drink and utensils are provided, so you can travel light. You'll obviously need your passport and Club membership card if you have one, and some means of payment (see below).

Ablutions

Ablution arrangements vary, but the general rule is "minimal". At some huts there are continental-style squat toilets, but without running water these become rather unpleasant. Other facilities are just a hole in a seat or in the floor, often with a spectacular drop. Sadly, high altitude and the change in food and drink can lead to alimentary problems, compounding the unpleasantness for everyone. You will probably need to provide your own toilet paper. Washing oneself and cleaning teeth are difficult without water, so many people (very obviously!) don't bother. We find that wet wipes (as for babies) are great, and snow makes a sort of toothpaste.

It can be difficult just to get to an outside toilet in the dark, when the snow is frozen, and you will need a head-torch, your boots on, and possibly even an ice-axe (no kidding!). It's never much fun, so despite the need to keep hydrated, you need to plan ahead. Bear in mind that the entire water supply for the refuge may be a patch of snow behind the hut. Keep it white!

Leaving

If you are making an early start, your hut fees and any meals on account should be settled the night before. Plastic is rarely accepted, and if you are a Club member, your discount will probably not apply to meals or drinks.

If you are planning to return to the refuge on your descent, it may be possible to leave a stash of gear. Ask the Guardian for advice: many huts have numbered baskets for this purpose. It's common sense not to leave valuables.

Finding information about the refuges
(These links will take you off our site)

The British Mountaineering Council has an informative page about Alpine Huts in its excellent website.

The principal Alpine clubs maintain web-sites which include details of their refuges, but page addresses tend to change, so we have provided the following links to their homepages:

Club Alpin Français    Club Alpino Italiano    Swiss Alpine Club

Austrian Alpine Club British Section (in English, with useful background info - link updated)

Links were last tested on 13/07/2009: please let us know if they get broken.

[1] Thanks to Peter L Judd/Simon Jenkins for pointing out this sound advice.

Enjoy your stay!


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