Bunk wars. Inadvertant boot theft. Ill-fitting thermals at dinner. Broken sleep. Arguments over ventilation. A night in a mountain hut can make you want to use your ice axe as a weapon… unless, that is, you follow Martin Chester’s top tips for a relaxing, fight-free hut stay
Ski touring season we try to cram at least 100 people of various nationalities – all of them tired, hungry, too hot, too cold, frightened or excited – into an isolated bunkhouse for the night, and hope they all get along swimmingly.
It’s a wonder it works at all. But we all have a few basic things in common: our love of ski touring and shared experiences in the mountains; the fact we all really want some peace and solitude; and oh yeah – we all want first dibs on the freshies.
So here are more than a few tips to help you manage the things you can control; relax about those you can’t; and make sure you go with flow and fit right in – rather than standing out with the Muppets – on your next hut-based adventure.
BEFORE YOU GO
There are some things you can get sorted before you even set off, such as choosing the right huts at the right time. Jostling with the crowds on the Haute Route, for a first taste of hut life, can be an exhilarating baptism of fire, but it can also be a sure-fire way to put some people off.
If you prefer to take your time then go somewhere less frequented, or go later in the week than the rest of the crowds. This March I will be setting off on the Haute Route on a Tuesday – and you’d be amazed what a difference a day makes.
The first day of a tour can be hectic enough – so chill out and go ski some nice snow to begin with. It is worth having a shake-down day in the resort to sort your kit, find your ski legs and get to the shops after a day’s skiing. This way you can make sure all your kit works, swap those rotten transceiver batteries for some that work and have a chance to fix and/or buy anything before you are miles from anywhere.
Even when you are ready and sorted, setting off can still be hassle enough – so don’t add any self-imposed time pressure to the deal. Get packed in plenty of time; get up and get going in plenty of time. If you are rubbish at all that, then make your first hut night an easy-access affair: a hut like the Lagazuoi, in the Dolomites, can be reached from the last lift of the day; and many Austrian huts (like the Heidelberger) will arrange a hut-taxi pick up in a snowmobile of some kind. When else do you get to buy back a day of your life for less than €20?
Now before we go any further there are a couple of things to get straight.
Huts are not hotels, so leave behind all thoughts of demanding customer service. You are about to be a guest in a wild and inhospitable place.
The hut guardian/guardienne is the boss. They are the ones who can fix your every problem or make your life a misery. They are the only people who know how the hell it is possible to feed so many people from a kitchen smaller than the average French apartment, without running water, and they are welcoming you into their home.
You will have booked in advance, as you wouldn’t dream of turning up uninvited and unannounced at the house of your new best friends – would you? More and more huts allow you to book online, although if you have to book by telephone you can be sure your hosts will speak enough of your lingo.
Let them know if you have a vegetarian or similar in the team in plenty of time, as they can hardly pop down to the Spar for veggie sausages at the last minute. Don’t worry if you have to change your plans after booking – your hosts are pragmatic about weather and conditions, and will understand (as long as you let them know).
The first thing to navigate is the entrance and boot room. Think of this as the hallway of a new friend’s house. You know how you try to suss out if they wear shoes indoors? This is the same situation – on steroids.
First off, remove your boots just in case, and go and find out what the system is. Better than piling in there en masse is to send your politest envoy (with the winning smile and a few key phrases in the right language) to go and create the right impression with the boss.
They will need to find out where the boots go; where to find some Gucci hut slippers; where to stash skis; where your beds are; where to sit for dinner and what time that will be. The rest can wait for later, and the hut keeper will sort you out with everything they need you to know.
Now your envoy has told everyone the lay of the land, you can come on in with confidence. See that massive rack of skins hanging out to dry in the boot room? Getting involved in that is a Sunday League error. You haven’t met Carl Chaos yet, but he will be arriving shortly. Come morning, he will be confidently wrapping up someone else’s skins before he skis off into the distance. The boot room may look empty – but it will fill up by the moment, so we need a system.
I put my boots on the highest rack I can, and rack them upside down to dry. This prevents Carl from arriving later, and having his snowy boots pour water into mine all night. It is hotter and drier the higher you go as well.
Write your name (or initials) on your shells, then use the Velcro band to lash them together (and even better, to the rack). When everyone leaves in the morning, they will be stressed, bleary-eyed, and unable to distinguish your boots from the ones they got from the hire shop.
Anything you can do to force them to stop and question if these really are theirs will save embarrassing blunders. These are no rumours – punters depart from huts in the wrong boots every week of the winter. It can be disastrous!
The same blunders can be made with ice axes and ski poles. I try to find a place where I can get all the pointy bits for the team together in a pile. I lash them in a bundle with a sling and clip them to the rack – well out of the way. If nothing else, you can always grab the whole bundle and bail outside to avoid the chaos in the morning. Carl, on the other hand, will be rummaging through the ice axe rack looking for one that resembles the thing they gave him in the hire shop. They mostly look the same…
A couple more bits of crucial hut etiquette: spiky things stay stashed away or downstairs in the boot room (as above). Leave the crampons buried deep in the pack where they belong. Do not leave your skins on your skis, even if you are skinning first thing. They will be welded in place forever by the morning. Leave as little as possible in the common spaces and go looking for a basket (and your bed for the night).
Your hut keeper will have allocated some beds for your team – so go and find them. If they have specific numbers, then stick to them. World War Three went largely unnoticed by the world’s media – but in fact Switzerland took on the USA in the Silvretta hut a couple of years ago, when team USA invaded Swiss bunks with more soldiers than they had booked for.
Switzerland fought them back into the winter room, but not before every other country in the building had been drawn into the conflict. The crack was off over dinner, and the guardian will not be holidaying in Colorado next year.
If you are selecting a bed space in a larger dorm, then choose carefully. By the window is good if you want to sleep and like some fresh air; by the door is good if you have a teeny bladder (especially likely at altitude) but lousy for sleep; the top deck will be way warmer than the bottom.
Etiquette dictates that you can ‘bagsy’ a bunk by spreading out the sheets or duvet; spreading out your silk liner; and placing a couple of items of clothing on the pillow. Respect the choice of others if they have beaten you to it.
I have another simple system for the dorm – strip your outer layers onto one peg and unpack into one basket. That way your kit will stay where you put it, will escape the nocturnal explorations of Russell Tardy (more on him shortly), and you can simply reverse the process in the morning. The air will be dry and arid high up so your kit will easily dry by the morning.
Important! Put your torch in your pocket now, as it will probably be dark by the time you come back.
Time to head down to the dining room and kick back with a well-earned beer and some banter before dinner. Better still if you can hang out on the balcony, enjoy the sun and check out the route ahead for the next day.
Make sure you go large on the rehydration sooner rather than later to avoid spending the night traipsing to and from the loos (sometimes through the snow). Bring tea bags if you can’t afford the bottled water (home delivery comes by helicopter here, at a premium!).
Be respectful of the fact that many huts have to melt snow for water in the winter. Use your bottle for brushing your teeth, and bring some handy wet-wipes for personal hygiene.
No harnesses at dinner. I tried to think of a witty way to put it – but you look like a knob and it will wreck the wooden furniture. Those buckle-shaped imprints and ice screw etchings are not a welcome addition to the decor.
Dinner calls for a dress code and ‘what not to wear’ generally includes powerstretch fleece and Lycra. Meet Michelle Manic. Fresh from her windowsill yoga in her ‘look at me’ thong, she has dressed for dinner and is the only one in the building who can get away with Lycra. Gents: the only meat and two veg on display should be the dinner. It’s hard enough to have a decent appetite at altitude! Capisce?
Finally, it is time to sup a cheeky snifter, watch the last rays of alpenglow and retire to bed. It’s gonna be a long night…
BACK IN THE DORM
Tiptoeing into your room, you can confidently evict the clobber that Carl Chaos left on your bed. If people are already sleeping, then you will be glad of your torch in your pocket, as you can sneak in and drop the last few items into your basket.
Keep your water bottle handy for the odd drink through the night, and load your ear plugs (or MP3 player) as the snoring will, inevitably, begin shortly. Oh, and here comes Russell Tardy.
Russell is an extraordinary name for a German, but he is invariably German. He is the one who clatters in just after everyone has gone to sleep. Unlike yours, his torch is at the bottom of his pack. Unfortunately Carl Chaos has placed his pack on top of Russell’s, so he empties that first. Then he turns on the light.
Not for the last time tonight you snigger with Zen-like karma, because you saw all this coming. Now that Russell has found his pack, he insists on emptying everything out all over the floor, then repacking his possessions one by one into the world’s most crinkly carrier bags. Russell by name…
Meanwhile Michelle Manic is having a fight with a Frenchman for control of the window. The Brits want the window open, the Continentals want it closed. The argument is hotting up, so you take this chance to sneak out from your cool and accessible bottom bunk to have the first wee of the night (banging Carl on the head with the door as you go). And so it continues…
PHEW! IT’S DAYBREAK
Thankfully, dawn is as certain as the fact that a nation of apparent food lovers and coffee drinkers think that dry bread, cheese and diesel-like Nescafe resembles breakfast. Scoff up and head out – its gonna be a belter. Take your fill of the ‘Marschtee’ (walking tea) as this sweet fruit tea is the elixir of life. Carl Chaos spilt two litres trying to fill a drinking bladder with this scalding concoction earlier, and his dry kit is dry no more. Michelle Manic has rushed out the door to beat the chaos of the boot room – in completely the wrong direction.
Now is the time to master our final skill: the tactical faff. The aim of this exercise is to get sorted, so you are able to leave at a moment’s notice. Then discreetly dawdle until the perfect moment. You don’t want to get stuck behind Russell Tardy, but if Michelle Manic is going your way and about to break trail, then now is a good time for a last peek at the map.
About 150 metres should do it as a minimum. Any closer and there is a chance she might reciprocate with a crafty layer change, and put you in line for the work. You can always drop a glove or stop for a drink at any time you feel you are getting too close.
Meanwhile Carl Chaos has skied off in someone else’s boots, with a brand new ice axe and some skins that don’t match…
My closing Tao of touring is to let you know that skinning behind a guide and then nipping out of the track to steal the freshies will bring a lifetime of bad karma and breakable crust. Similarly, gratuitously skiing all over the skinning track without a care for the following teams will guarantee that bad things happen to you in your next life. Honestly! Play it right and yours will be a harmonious hut experience, a wonderful wilderness adventure, with your fair share of the fresh tracks, and knowing you have earned every turn – in style. FL