Winter Lodgings In Alpine Huts - Our Night At Cabane du Grande Mountet (2886m)

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Tuesday 18 October 2016

Winter Lodgings In Alpine Huts - Our Night At Cabane du Grande Mountet (2886m)

The network of Alpine huts dotted throughout the French, Italian, Swiss and Austrian Alps are a fantastic resource. Throughout summer and for many during winter as well, they open up a whole world of possibilities to hikers who want to extend their routes, enjoy the stillness of an Alpine night without carrying a tent or simply visit remote places otherwise inaccessible/difficult for them to reach. All features we enjoyed on our 2 day expedition to the Cabane du Grande Mountet (2886m) from Zinal.

The route to Grande Mountet is a route we had hiked before in a mammoth day hike in 2014, in which we not only turned back shy of the hut but felt physically shattered afterwards as well. It's possible certainly, but by no means an insignificant hike. That is why, even though we are renting an apartment in Grimentz we chose to make use of the winter accommodation at the hut to turn the hike into a 2 day one and more fully appreciate the scenery and glacier filled valley at the end of the trail by the hut.

What does 'winter accommodation' mean? Well, essentially the hut is no longer manned by a Guardian and other staff. In summer these staff help guests, cook meals that are available to bug and generally look after the place at a time when the volume of visitors is high (often verging on full each night, hence the common advice to book in advance).

In 'winter' however, although many huts are still available to use they are unmanned, and many of the dormitory areas may be closed so a limited number of beds are available. At the same time facilities like running water may be switched off (since at the altitude of the huts it would freeze), as is heating etc. Essentially shelter and a bed is available, but no guarantee of more with exact faculties varying from hut to hut. Also, uplifting in an era of sometimes overwhelming cynicism and lack of respect, the huts operate on a trust system. Guests are expected to leave it in the condition they find it, deposit their money in an envelope and enter their name in a book. That's it. Frankly, they are brilliant and given their locations the cost of shelter for the night is really very reasonable.

At Cabane du Grande Mountet, for instance, we arrived after a stunning hike to the remote and stunning location to find no running water, but a small kitchen area where we could light a fire in the stove to cook, 30 dormitory style beds across 2 rooms left open, dry toilet facilities and enough firewood (plus an axe) to get a good fire going. Basically all we needed to get a good nights sleep and all for just 23CHF each (we get a slight reduction as members of the Austrian Alpine Club UK).

This wasn't our first night in an Alpine hut. We had used one once on our Tour du Mont Blanc in August 2016 at the Refugio Bonetti in Italy. That time, at a popular hut in high summer, we had slept side by side with over 100 other hikers also on the TMB and mostly also partaking in the food and drink available as well. It was a very different experience to our winter night in Cabane Grande Mountet in early October where we made up 2 of 3 guests, meaning we had a quiet and pleasant conversation over dinner followed by a dormitory room to ourselves! Luxury. I should probably add though that the number of guests was entirely by chance.  The next day we met over 10 hikers during our descent who were heading up to stay in the hut,l. Essentially it's a lottery which should be borne in mind for anyone put off by dormitory sleeping on narrow mattresses shoulder to shoulder with strangers.

Yet for any perks (or downsides) of the hut experience, the real magic came not from the mattress, stove or chopping of firewood (all fun of course) but it was being able to stay in the mountains after the sun began to set. On a day hike, for instance, it just isn't really possible to experience the magnificence of seeing the golden light of sunset creep across and fade into pink and vivid red on the nearby snowy summits and glaciated slopes. Or to let the wonder of a clear and unpolluted starry sky dotted with seemingly infinite stars really sink in. Or to know the feeling of waking up still surrounded by the high peaks.

Fortunately for us we have had tastes of these experiences while thru-hiking while carrying our tent, in summer at least. But even for us at almost 3000m altitude in October the prospect of sub zero temperatures was not as appealing as a warm stove and mattress this time around and we felt incredibly grateful that huts like this one exist. For others, who may not enjoy or feel able to camp at any time of year but still want to enjoy a route that necessitates an overnight stay (or many), the huts open up a whole world of experience like thus otherwise off limits to them.  For me that is their biggest advantage. To allow anyone to head into and enjoy the remote parts of the Alps with just enough clothes to keep warm and food to last a few days, without having to haul a tent and sleeping gear etc as well. A wonderful resource!

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