Mountain Huts and the European Mountain Culture
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the European mountains is the huts. Anyone that follows this site, or our Twitter feed, has seen a trend; the use of huts and all the amazing experiences that they allow.
I am still not so sure Americans understand the concept. From people seeking info on the Dolomites, I am continually asked via email, “Do we need to bring sleeping bags, tents, food?”
The answer is an emphatic, “NO!”
The European huts are basically hotels in the mountains. Depending on just where they are located, they only vary from comfortable to extremely comfortable. In the higher alpine zones of Switzerland and France they are more basic, and food and water a bit more pricey thanks to having to be delivered via helicopter. But still, they are staffed to provide a four course dinner, beer & wine, breakfast and a bed complete with blankets. You need not carry anything unless you prefer your own silk sleeping sack. In other words, your backpack will be tiny and very light. You can purchase day food at the huts as well, typically chocolates, cookies, and occasionally a sandwich. You are very much in the “backcountry” but you are staying in staffed huts.
In the lower elevation mountains, like the Dolomites, most huts are literally hotels complete with power, espresso machines, full bars, restaurants, private rooms with baths, and so on. You should do a little research to see what the huts offer on your itinerary as not all are so complete, but most are. The private rooms being the one missing element of some huts.
More than being refuges for mountain excursions (backcountry skiing, hiking, climbing, etc…), they are a social element of the European mountain culture. It is entirely normal to hear of a party at a hut, or friends simply planning an overnight so as to enjoy a massive meal, or a dance party, or a fullmoon outing, or just a dinner out that requires an approach.
In the Alta Badia there is a hut that has Wednesday night dance parties all winter. A one hour ski tour gets you there, then change the clothes, eat a pizza and get on the dance floor in your F1’s. Ski out at 3 a.m. Fun. Or, in the summer, mountain bike all day in the Dolomites, watch the sun set from a hut deck while drinking a wheat beer, enjoy five courses of Italian goodness, then descend on out under headlamps on trails. For the winter version, replace mountain bike with skis.
Huts may not be for everybody, and of course they can be avoided altogether. Occasionally I do miss sleeping beneath the stars, but that option is always available.
Being an American I am still in awe of this system, it simply works, it brings people together, and it bonds the mountain culture that runs deep in the society. Perhaps the huts are what allow for such a rich culture of mountain people in Europe, such a vast base of people who visit the mountains. The huts make it easy to go to the mountains, and they allow for an entirely unique experience of socializing.
Would the mountain huts work in the US?
Or first, we Americans must ask ourselves if the huts would ever be allowed to exist in the US? Do you want huts in the mountains of America? Sound off with our Comments. Thanks.
Great pics, reminds me of so many nights in such places. Just the smell is not one of my good memories.
Most impressive backcountry food!!
Keep on climbing!
My top 3 nominees for the Dolomites are all in the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Natural Park:
– Rifugio Sennes (http://www.sennes.com/)
– Rifugio Fanes (http://www.rifugiofanes.com/)
– Rifugio La Varella (http://www.lavarella.it/)
Rifugio Pizzini – Ortler Group : Best food, nicest hut keeper – Claudio!
Rifugio Lavarella – Dolomites : So nice, so friendly , great food, close to home
Wiesbadner Hut – Silvretta Group : Location location location, and good beer
Konkordia Hut – Berner Oberland, Switzerland : Amazing location and approach, life list kind of place
Capanna Cognora – Ticino, Switzerland : Unmanned, cozy, romantic…
The huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains come close, but the food isn’t as good, it’s BYOB, there are only a handful of them, and they are all lined up along the AT and don’t lend themselves to hut hopping in the same way. That said, I’ll be blogging about a three-day hut-to-hut shortly.
Best, European hut memory, leaving my 72-year old dad at Capanna Camp Tencia in the Ticino after a 6 hour hike in, going to visit a tarn and returning to find him drinking a cold beer on the patio. Now that’s living!
Dan I always enjoy your postings. I can only wish i had found out earlier about your blog.
Having experienced several of the European huts for the first time this summer in the Dolomites, all I can say is “wow”. As an American I had never seen anything like this and didn’t know what to expect. I can understand wondering why you’d want all that civilization out in the wilderness, but keep in mind: it’s Europe. They tend to do things like this properly over there.
They’re not glitzy, trashy, garish or overdone the way we Americans tend to do things. These are places that seem very much to belong in the mountains: quaint, cozy, cabin-like places, many of them centuries old.
Until you’ve come in out of the cold for a hot cappuccino and a strudel before continuing on your way, or experienced the freedom of carrying next to nothing on your back on a 5 day trek, or fallen into a comfy bed full of great food after a 30k day on the trail, you really have no idea what you’re missing!
The funny part about you saying this is we have hundreds of huts in the USA and they are neither glitzy nor trashy. They tend to be simple and basic. No services but just beds, gas/ wood stoves, and the basics. Pearlake in Sequoia, Tuolomne in Yosemite, all of the 10th Mountain in Colorado.
WOW, you sealed the deal for me, I’m heading over that way from Canada within the next year for an extended adventure!!
Hey Dan and Janine,
Thanks for helping these Americans understand “the concept.” 🙂 It was really great meeting you guys and enjoying dinner at Averau!!
Sue and Chris
In the US, there is nothing quite like the huts in Europe, but there is a huge variety of things that are somewhat similar. For example, I think the “trail towns” along the Appalachian Trail are similar culturally, though not in form (except in the White Mountains). Elsewhere, there are huts maintained by alpine clubs, touring companies, etc. Amenities may range from a basic shelter, to full service hotel with spa, etc.. In general, the ones I have been to either have chores (collect firewood for the next person) or a fee (for firewood, or more for hauling out provisions, or much more for a visit from a cook). These may be similar in form, but not in culture — you usually don’t meet a whole lot of people this way.
I think you’d find the most similar mountain huts in the Canadian Rockies, though i haven’t been there yet myself… next year, next year..
Dan, you are spot on! America has the mountains! We have the tradition and the culture, albeit much younger than our European kin. Now we just need to put it all together.
Americans are craving hut systems! American Euro-hut-envy is exploding across the country. There is a groundswell, and I believe it’s going to happen. Enough Americans have been to the Euro hut systems, and now they’re bringing back ideas and they’re fired up! I’m encouraged by the success of the 10th Mountain system, the AMC huts, the numerous private yurts popping up in the West, and especially what we’re doing up here in Alaska.
Rifugio Fanes says it best,
An evening at the Fanes Hut.
All seats in the cosy lounge are taken: climbers, excursionists and vacationers from the surrounding valleys enjoy the last hours of the day. After a tasty dinner the wine begins to loosen the atmosphere in this cosmopolitan group.
Some tell true stories, memories come alive and a relaxed, cheerful atmosphere takes over. Nobody can resist, not even the grim-looking loner, who sits in a corner.
The rough tables seem to become small language islands, because the language snatches that whir across the hall are as international as the people are: here are some locals, who speak in their ancient and harmonic Ladin dialect, at the oven a group of Italians exchanges memories, beside them some older Bavarians are trying to start a conversation with their compatriots from Hamburg; beside the door are some French climbers, attracted by the slippery limestone ledges from the “Sass de les Nü” mountain; at the bar an English men trying to convince the local waiter that he needs milk with his tea.
Somebody starts a song, first somewhat shy, than the voice becomes more and more secure. Another one takes the guitar from the wall and the melody becomes clearer.
As soon as the first song comes to an end, a song is started in the opposite corner – a competition with international songs is almost started. The diversity of the people is mirrored by the various songs: easy-going songs from Italians, melancholic sailor songs form North Sea and Bavarian marches.
It is a peaceful competition which takes quite some time and finally everybody joins in with the songs, which are known all over the world. Meanwhile many have left their table with their glass in hand and have joint another language island to meet new people, and now, no dictionary is needed. And this is how the “Fanes Empire” developed into an enchanting United Europe without borders, political or economic problems.”
Kevin, Ha, I think I was there that night – well, so many nights are like this at the Italian Huts, great experiences.
Thanks for posting.
Let’s get to work on your project now.
I would so much like to understand why there is no such hut existing in the US: what is the issue, what is the restriction, why dont they just build these huts in the US? ? does anyone know? Who would have to initiate these buildings?
Hi Jeanette, Thanks for commenting. I am actually hoping to get a post up about this very subject soon. We’re doing a presentation in Alaska March 18 ( http://alaskahuts.org ) as the State of AK wants a hut system and the process is moving forward. Keep checking in here and I’ll have some thoughts up soon. –Dan
There are several hut systems in Colorado, the 10th mountain system is the largest, and you can link several of them for a longer trip. They are located in Wilderness areas,so motorized vehicles are not allowed, which is great for the solitude and ambience. But not so great for further development. To build new huts, there are wildlife studies, environmental impact studies and many other hoops to jump through. So that’s why you don’t see more of them. Having said that, they are still awesome! Beautiful, yet rustic, they are the ultimate get away from it all in Colorafo. Try googling 10th mntn huts, (originally built for soldiers in WWII to train at high altitude) and check it out.