You’ve trekked for hours, one foot in front of the other for 18km and are long overdue for a cup of hot chocolate in front of a crackling fireplace. You’re immersed in the beauty of the Alps and forge ahead – that is, until you make the mistake of lifting your tired head upwards. Ladders, chains, rock scrambling, and sheer edges stand between you and one of Europe’s famed mountain huts, many of which function as luxurious, high-altitude inns. But beware of the obstacles that await you – you’ll have a surefire smile when you finally arrive, but sweat surely accompanies all success.
10. Solvay Hut
Forge ahead and forgo the not-so-hospitable environs of the Solvay Hut, precariously perched at 4,003m on a rocky ridge of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s iconic, triangular peak. Administered by the Swiss Alpine Club, the Solvay Hut provides emergency cover for up to ten daring climbers. In this case, take heart and continue your uphill climb; the terrain ahead is rocky and rugged, but the sooner you reach the summit, the sooner you can return to the ritzy luxury of the ski town of Zermatt.
9. Rifugio Nuvolau
You’ll be rewarded with stunning – and nauseating – views at the Rifugio Nuvolau, perched atop a craggy mountain peak at 2,575m in Italy’s dramatic Dolomite mountains. The uphill trudge is long and grueling, but you’ll be greeted with ample hospitality – a bed, warm food, and the friendly company of trekkers – in a building steeped in history. The hut was originally constructed in 1883, and served as a critical viewpoint during World War I. If history isn’t your thing, non ti preoccupare (don’t worry) – you can easily content yourself with a glass of local grappa, a searing Italian liquer that warms the body upon impact.
8. Hornli Hut
Prepare for your ascent of the Matterhorn – and gain assurance that you can skip the Solvay Hut – with a stay at the Hornli Hut, a bustling “launching pad” situated at 3,260m at the base of the Matterhorn. Indoor wonders rival outdoor splendor at Hornli, where climbers or trekkers can opt to sleep on a two-tiered bunkbed made for twenty. You’ll sleep soundly, even in the company of boisterous bedfellows, with a belly full of sumptuous Swiss rosti (potatoes and cheese) and homemade fruitcake.
7. Rifugio Gnifetti
The Rifugio Gnifetti clings onto a rocky (or snowy) outcropping at 3,647m in the northwest expanses of Italy, well within reach of both France and Switzerland. Trekkers have it all here – warm, hearty food, ample company, heated rooms and showers free-of-charge. Mountain hut or high-altitude haven? Brave the series of ladders required for entry and find out for yourself.
6. Refuge des Cosmiques
The upward-inclined in France will find that incline meets hospitality to the extreme at the Refuge des Cosmiques (3,613m), perched in a precarious position amongst the peaks of the charming ski village of Chamonix. Trekkers, skiers and climbers can enjoy modern accommodations and a full staff during their stay in the “cosmos”.
5. Refuge de Tete Rousse
Visitors to the Chamonix region will find that their standards for buildings-on-incline quickly change upon venturing into the nearby mountains. The Refuge de Tete Rousse (tete rousse for “red heads”, perhaps a suggestion of the exertion required to reach the hut by foot) is a case-in-point; situated at 3,167m, the refuge was completely reconstructed by the French Alpine Club in 2005 to provide enough space for 74 outdoorsmen/women craving a precarious perch au francais.
4. Cabane Bertol
Trekkers determined to complete the Haute Route, a long-distance walking trail connecting Chamonix and Zermatt, face the challenge of ascending to the Cabane Bertol (3,311 meters), accessible only by a series of fixed ladders and chain. But the rewards are plentiful, culinary pleasures: homemade cakes and tarts, home-cooked meat with wine accompaniments, and even high-altitude vegetarian options.
3. Rifugio Lagazuoi
The Rifugio Lagazuoi, located along Italy’s Alta Via 1, exceeds any and all expectations about a mountain “hut”. Alma and Guido, the welcoming hut-keepers, offer the ultimate in challenge-leading-to-luxury, with private accommodations, a lively bar, and a full restaurant scene. The ascent to the hut isn’t easy (trust me), but the determined foot traveler will be rewarded with hospitality of alta qualita, complete with the gastronomic pleasures of polenta, venison, and apple strudel – a local specialty.
2. Rifugio Coldai
The Rifugio Coldai, elevation 2,135m, seems to be a mirage as you round a rocky bend on the Alta Via 1, a grueling, north-to-south trek that spans over 175 miles of rugged Dolomite terrain. Continue confidently to Coldai, but don’t look down. Let your stomach guide you away from the dizzying drops and instead, to the hut’s sprawling dining room, where the seasoned chef will sense your growling stomach and whip up handmade gnocchi drizzled with olive oil, fresh minestrone soup, and a towering tiramisu, exploding with rich mascarpone cream.
1. Monte Rosa-Huette
The Monte Rosa hut, completely reconstructed in 2009, pays homage to the natural splendor of its surroundings – a beautiful perch at 2,883m at the base of Monte Rosa, the highest peak in Switzerland. Described as a “futuristic eco-hut” by a Swiss news outlet, the Monte Rosa hut serves as a model for eco-friendly construction in both the backcountry and frontcountry. The building, constructed primarily with stainless steel, aluminum, and wood, satisfies 90 percent of its energy needs through solar power, thus offering a high-altitude hide-out with a conscience.
So go ahead, hit the trail and leave your GORP (the standby trail mix of granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts) at home. After all, life on the edge isn’t so bad.