Sunday, 14 August 2011

Refuges around Chamonix … a brief comparison.

Around Chamonix, there are a series of mountain huts for alpinists and climbers to use. Most of these are owned by CAF – Club Alpin Francais – and run by franchisees, who make a business of the restaurant whilst the accommodation fees go back to CAF.

Like any business, there are up-sides and down-sides – the hut wardens have a captive market on the mountainsides and can charge quite high prices for food and drinks that have been flown in by helicopter. But frequently the hut wardens find that people do not honour their bookings, meaning they prepare meals and people do not show up to pay for them. Or people show up late with no reservation, after the kitchen is closed, and expect a 3-course meal and warm bed.

Hanging around at Requin - a hut we would definitely recommend!
 Often, we take the tent – it means a quieter night's sleep, rather than being in a room with a mix of people, some going to bed at midnight after celebrating a good day and others waking up at 2am to start climbing. It's also cheaper (but means much heavier bags)! But if we're near a hut, we'll buy a drink or two or some food - but use their toilets and maybe their picnic room.

Recently, we have had two extremely different hut experiences.

The first – negative! - experience was at Refuge d'Argentiere. Although we were prepared to camp, when we arrived at dusk in the rain and found out the hut was quite empty, we thought we'd enquire about staying a night there there instead. But the hut warden was far from welcoming – yelling at us that we were too late, and we should have booked, and the kitchen was closed, and he couldn't (wouldn't!) help us – so we “must go down!” And lecturing us on climbing schedules, telling us we'd wasted a day.

All this before we could explain that we were planning on camping, had our own food and were not planning on climbing the next day – we had just come up earlier to have a day to recce our route and get an extra night of acclimatisation. We were less than impressed. Although they condescended to let us pay to sleep in one of their many empty beds, we had to be gone by 7am - something other huts have not demanded, as far as we know.

So, we put up the tent in the rain and slept far more comfortably in that instead. We didn't spend a cent in their hut – not a single drink or meal – and the next morning, moved the tent further up the ridge onto the snow.

The second – positive! - experience was at Refuge du Requin. We called and booked, but just for accommodation (yes, we're cheap … we have to be!). We asked about cooking our own food on the telephone, and the response was “No problem!”. When we arrived, although we were the only guests, the candles were lit in the colourful and tidy dormitory, there was a separate room for us to cook in (with crockery!) and we were welcome to eat in the heated common room downstairs. Delphine and Vincent, the hut wardens, gave us loads of information about our intended routes and all-round the warmest welcome we could imagine. Despite not being their best customers, just buying some wine and a breakfast for one early morning, we were really looked after … we will have to come back when we're employed again, to eat everything we could smell over the 5 nights we stayed there!

Requin: the hut and it's tooth
So, mountain huts are not equal. So far Requin and Envers are our pick... but we'll have to pass though some more to be sure...

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