Gimme shelter: in praise of mountain huts

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We are huddled close to the radiator while the wind howls outside, driving flurries of snow and scraps of cloud past the window at an alarming speed. One of the meteorologists stationed at this outpost in Slovenia’s Julian Alps tells us that the outside temperature is -5C, “but with wind chill, more like -15C.”

In summer this mountain hut is crowded with families having lunch before hiking the final 350 metres of Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak at 2,864 metres. Every table in the large, timber-clad main room, with its bar and food counter, would be occupied. Behind the bar are dozens of small bunk rooms, and they would all be full – despite the name “hut”, this place can sleep 500 people. But now, in winter, an older more traditional role emerges: offering shelter. The front door remains unlocked and anyone can take refuge from the elements in the company of like-minded wayfarers.

An emergency hut on Mont Blanc in France.
An emergency hut on Mont Blanc in France. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

There are thousands of such places across Europe, and I’ve seen many types – from homespun shacks in Croatia’s Velebit mountains to Mont Blanc’s Refuge du Goûter, a €6m palace. Some of the larger, busier places have given up pretending to be log cabins in the wilderness, but most still do it. There will be wooden tables and panelled walls, perhaps a collection of antlers, a relic from when the place was a hunting cabin. Next to a large logburner, you maight find a black-and-white photograph of the founder, often a hearty chap with walrus moustache and comical trousers. His descendants might still serve food from a simple counter across the room. If you get talking, it often transpires that the original founder climbed to this lonely spot in the hope of healing himself physically and spiritually, frequently after a devastating war.

Richard von Meerheimb, for example, was wounded in the Austro-Prussian war and helped found the superb Rifugio Nuvolau in the Dolomites in 1883. In nearby Cortina d’Ampezzo, a climbing club called Gli Scoiattoli (the squirrels) threw themselves into exploring and building after fighting in the second world war. What they wanted were places of peace and good humour surrounded by awesome peaks. And by and large that is what they achieved.

Every European country with mountains has a dazzling array of huts, often run by Alpine associations (joining the British Mountaineering Council can be a helpful way to access them). And they are always a joy to visit – not least because of the physical effort required to get there. Open the door, take off your boots, share a table and make friends. Warm up with food, drink and laughter. There are no first-class cabins or VIP lounges. Equality and fraternity rule the interior.

Dinnertime in the Trient hut in Switzerland.
Dinnertime in the Trient hut in Switzerland. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

In Planika Triglav, Dino and I sit and eat large bowls of jota, Istrian-style bean and sauerkraut soup topped with an enormous sausage. Jota is typical of the food you find in mountain huts: nourishing, sloppy and simple. Bacon and cheese are deployed in force. Puddings are sugar-laden. It’s the kind of food you can eat contentedly when you’ve earned it. To get here, we climbed 1,600 metres, the last few hundred in deep snow with ice axes and crampons, the sweat pooling in my lower back while icicles formed on my beard and eyelashes. Our plan is to sleep in one of the unheated bunk rooms and head for the summit in the morning.

Outside the light is fading and the wind seems ever stronger. It is then that the door swings open and a man comes in. He grunts a greeting and heads for the darkened end of the room, where he begins to remove his outer layers of clothing. I look at Dino and make a questioning face.

He shrugs. The man takes a thicker jacket and ice axe from his rucksack, then shoves it under a bench. He walks past us with nothing more than a nod. The door slams.

“Is he going to the summit?”

“Sure.”

I go to the window. It is almost dark now. For a second, I catch sight of a headtorch beam heading towards the menacing face of Triglav. In summer this is a fun scramble, assisted by via Ferrata cable and well-worn steps. But not now, not in winter, and in the dark.

To the uninitiated, the mountain huts can be intimidating. Climbers and skiers, in particular, can seem dauntingly proficient. Scandinavian huts in winter are filled with people who have been cross-country skiing since before birth. No joke: heavily pregnant women ski, and parents drag their swaddled newborns on sleds behind them. But once inside the hut, inclusivity usually prevails. Conversation begins, experiences and information are shared.

Kevin Siorpaes at the bar in Rifugio Nuvolau, which his family ran for 47 years until 2020.
Kevin Siorpaes at the bar in Rifugio Nuvolau, in the Dolomites. His family ran the bar for 47 years until 2020. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

In Mont Blanc’s Refuge de Tête Rousse, I remember two South Korean lads shaking with cold and fatigue – they had never been on a mountain before – chatting with a group of French alpine experts, veterans of Himalayan expeditions. At Rifugio Lagazuoi in the Dolomites, I talked to hut owner Guido Pompanin, whose father had started the place after retreating to the mountains in the 1960s. Now the hut is connected by cable car to the valley and serves fabulous food in a beautiful canteen where tourists with unsuitable footwear can taste, for a short time, the conviviality of the hills. And some of them return, with proper boots. Despite advances in comfort, connectivity and cuisine, despite the vastly increased number of visitors, Guido has kept the faith, the mountain hut is for everyone, as long as they accept the mountain ethos of its founders.

Back on Triglav, it is now totally dark outside and the wind is screaming. Our mystery climber has not returned. I try to imagine him on the narrow ridge to the summit, a thousand metre drop on either side. Then the door swings open and two women enter. They recognise Dino and give him a hug. “You see, we are like family up here,” he tells me, between trading news in Slovenian. “And the huts are family houses on mountain tops.”

Kevin Rushby and Simone on the summit of Triglav.
Kevin Rushby and Simone on the summit of Triglav. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

One of the women, Simone, has come straight from work. “Tomorrow will be the 86th time I’ve climbed Triglav.”

The two meteorologists come in and embrace Simone. A minute later the mystery man enters, having come down from the summit in total darkness, zero visibility and a howling gale. He embraces the meteorologists.

“How was it?” asks Dino.

“Very good,” he says. “A little breezy on top.”

He sits down with us. We share mountain stories. He is clearly a hugely experienced and proficient mountaineer. He eats a bowl of jota, then fetches his bag, reattaches his head torch and, with a quick goodbye, leaves.

I’m stunned. “He’s going out again?”

Dino shrugs. “Of course. He has another mountain to climb.”