Top 5 mountain refuge huts (with a touch of luxury)

I’ll confess right off the bat that the above is a pretty misleading headline. I’ve not stayed in too many refuges and none at all outside of the Alps. Maybe the the title should be ‘5 places I’ve been very grateful for when I’ve been walking all day and in need of some sustenance and comfort in an inhospitable but stunning environment’. As a headline it’s a bit of a clunker but it’s more accurate. Refuges are quite literally life savers and without them it’s fair to say many more hikers and climbers would get into serious difficulties. I raise a glass to all the hardy souls who risked life and limb to construct these life savers. Arguably the most up to date and state of the art refuge must surely be the Refuge du Gouter in France. If others are to follow suit, I can see Alpine hiking becoming even more popular.

Refuge du Gouter, France

Tackling Mont Blanc is a two day affair and an overnight stay on the mountain, before the push to the summit is unavoidable. In the early days, a hut of sorts was cobbled together by keen climbers but it was very small, with no facilities, an icy floor, and open to the elements, with freezing blasts of wind whistling through the cracks in the structure, most climbers staying there overnight will have miserable memories of the old Refuge du Gouter; it was no five star hotel. The sanitary condition were pretty dire too, with 50 years worth of human waste tipped down the side of the mountain and an ever growing pile of rubbish and broken equipment left by the ever increasing numbers of adventurers.

Mountain hut with a luxury view

It was obvious this state of affairs wasn’t sustainable. The new Refuge du Gouter is the answer, for now. With 17,000 people attempting the climb every year and numbers increasing it wont be long before the new Refuge du Gouter starts to feel the pinch. The four storey egg-shaped structure built on the Arete du Gouter is a marvel of engineering. Part of the Refuge overhangs a 1,500m drop. The new lodge is self-sufficient in water and energy. Built entirely from wood and clad in stainless steel, the Refuge looks more like a futuristic hotel.

Commissioned by the French Alpine Club and designed by the Swiss architect Herve Dessimoz, the Refuge is the last word in environmental terms. The Refuge took five years to design and three more to build. The construction of the Refuge above 3,800m was a technical and human challenge. It was only possible to build from spring to autumn, and over the three summers, work was often interrupted by adverse weather conditions. Working conditions were very tough, with constant danger, says Thomas Buchi, who was site supervisor.

To anchor the building to the mountain side and to absorb the vertical load and the twisting effect of the wind, piles were sunk 14m into the rock. One of the designs biggest challenges was to provide the hut with a self-sufficient water supply. Its egg shape is part of the answer. The building faces into the prevailing wind, causing turbulence, which makes the snow slide across the outer skin and accumulate on a 60 sq metre grid. Heat from solar panels melts the snow, which collects in huge tanks. There are solar panels, generating heat and electricity on the front of the building and on the cliff face. If there is no sunlight, a backup generator, running on rapeseed oil, produces electricity.

Refuge du Roc de la Pêche, Pralognan la Vanoise, France

This refuge is up market to say the least, its officially a four-star refuge. This private retreat features a bar, a jacuzzi, a hammam, a sauna, a restaurant and a meeting room for seminars. All mod cons, just when you might be expecting an itchy blankets and smelly toilets. Dorms and multi-person rooms are compensated for by the fact that you get a shower and a proper made-up bed. To get to the shelter in summer, you have to go to Pralognan and then to the hamlet of Les Prioux and continue until the end of the road where you will find the large parking lot of Pont de la Pêche.

Mountain hut in sunny spring

From the car park, it takes less than an hour’s walk to reach the refuge either by a wide steep path or by the Montaimont mountain pasture. In winter, you have to take the pedestrian path that adjoins the cross-country ski trail to the Gerlon bridge. Once past the bridge, you enter the unsafe high mountain area. It then takes about two hours to reach the refuge. Equipment for avalanche research is recommended. This refuge was built in 1996 and has been a sight for sore eyes for many a weary hiker.

Refuge Napoleon, Vars, France

The Napoleon refuges, six in number, are mountain refuges located on or near passes in the French department of Hautes-Alpes. Their construction was ordered by the Emperor Napolean I, in thanks to the Gapenaise people on his return from the island of Elba. Which gives me the opportunity to trot out the only palindrome that sticks in my memory. Bemoaning his bad luck and his injuries Napolean coined the following; Able was I ere I saw Elba.

Refuge Napoleon in a remote location

The six refuges were built under Napolean in the mid-19th century. Solid, stone-built and very, er, Napoleonic – there’s really no other word for it – this refuge on the pass above Vars makes a great base for one of the southern French Alps’ most extensive domains, Vars-Risoul, which consists of about 180km of pistes that are mostly people free and a bit of a hidden secret.

Cabane du Mont-Fort, Verbier, Switzerland

This cabin is located on the Haute route which leads walkers or skiers from Chamonix through to Zermatt. Situated within easy access of the lift system in Verbier resort this is a great spot for hikers and mountain bikers in summer and skiers and ski tourers in the winter months.

An iconic swiss mountain hut near verbier

Well known to skiers for its terrace lunches, this refuge also has good accommodation, whether as a stop on a ski tour or as a great way to steal a march on the crowds and get into Verbier’s legendary free ride terrain before any other skier, early in the morning. There’s nothing to beat the great feeling as everyone else heads down at the day’s end while you remain above the clouds.

Refuge Vignettes, Valais, Switzerland

Another refuge that youll be extremely happy to see if you’re doing the classic Haute Route, Chamonix to Zermatt. You might not be so happy with a visit to the toilets though. Who’d have though that a visit to the powder room would be an extreme sport? This is one toilet visit you’ll never forget, reached by an icy path chipped into the rock face, with an extraordinary “long drop”, an unforgettable experience.

Head for heights - hut on the edge of a cliff face

All accesses to the hut involve glacier crossing. The Vignettes will be one of several memorable overnights should you be attempting the Haute Route. A bivouac was built at the site in 1924 on the initiative of the English Alpinist Stuart Jenkins, and the current building was built at the same location in 1946. Located south of Arollain the Swiss canton of Valais, It lies at a height of 3,160 metres above sea level.

Rebecca Taylor is Director at SkiBoutique.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Jack says:

    WOW!! That’s so COOOOL!! I love the first one. It just like a alien craft! Just imagine that every morning, you wake up,walk outside and breath the fresh air… Everything is amazing!

  2. Christophe says:

    Having a good refuge when climbing can turn a good trip into a great one. I have not done much climbing and hiking in the Alps, but clearly I need to start. Refuge du Gouter looks impressive and is definitely an incentive for me to tackle this climb. I’m impressed with the self-sufficiency and how it generates its energy, but most importantly it looks like a safe, secure and comfortable place to recoup and gather my own energy for the continued climb.

  3. Jess says:

    I’ve never been in need of a refuge as I’m not an avid hiker, but these look so nice from the photos. I guess when you’re tired and just want some food, drink and rest, issues like rubbish and bad smells aren’t TOO awful. The Refuge Napoleon looks amazing, I’d want to stay there forever! I can’t believe some of these beautiful locations

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