Lessons 5-6: The Mountain Hut Experience on Tour du Mont Blanc
In case you missed it, Part 1 of this post covered some lessons we learned about fastpacking and Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) variant route choices. Similarly, a wide range of lodging options exist on the circuit: hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, Airbnb, and mountain huts (Refugés). Camping on TMB has strict guidelines and sites are often far removed from the route. We loved the Refugé concept of having hot showers and meals provided so we wouldn’t need to carry the weight of camping and cooking gear.
Dorm style lodging in Refugés is a huge part of the classic TMB experience. Most of our dorm mates were from France, Italy, and the United Kingdom making dinnertime a swirling buzz of different languages and accents. The atmosphere was cheerful as people recounted their day moving through beautiful mountain landscapes and shared stories of their travels all over the world.
Each Refugé has its own distinct charm and presented certain aspects, presented here in Part 2, that stretched the boundaries of my comfort zone. The Regugé cohabitation experience adds color to the TMB experience!
Lesson 5: Mountain Huts are Charming
“Welcome to Maison Vieille!” cried out the fit sparkle-eyed Italian mountain-dude from behind the bar, as we walked through the entrance. We were weary, coated with sweaty grime, and hungry. A nerve in my foot was ablaze, and I had an overwhelming desire to shower.
The warm Italian hospitality at Maison Vieille melted away my discomforts. Random pieces of mountain memorabilia cluttered the walls and ceiling of the dining hall – climbing helmets, old-fashioned skis, mountain posters, flags, and photos whom I assumed were famous Italian mountain climbers or skiers. A full-size punching bag also hung from the ceiling. There’s got to be a colorful story about that! The crew bantered with each other while preparing the dining room for dinner.
We followed the young handsome Italian through the facilities for orientation. “Dinner is at 7 p.m., breakfast is at 7 a.m. in this dining room.” We asked him if my meal could be gluten-free meal and stated that Brian’s vegetarian. “No problem,” he said, as he made a note for the kitchen.
We went out the front door, made a hairpin turn back into the building through a separate entrance into a mixed gender bathroom. We passed through a waft of minty toothpaste, as we went by the sinks. Up a few steps to another level within the bathroom were the toilets and showers. The fresh minty smell became a faint ingredient in a steamy aromatic mixture of shampoo, sweat and poop.
No big deal, I convinced myself as I consciously blocked air from going into my nose. Nothing’s getting in the way between me and those showers!
Our jovial host gestured toward two rows of three stall doors facing each other, “Showers on the left, toilets on the right.” Showers left, toilets right, showers left, toilets right – don’t want to step into a squat toilet with my shower things.
“We have free wi-fi everywhere – no password!” he said. “. . .dining room, picnic area, dorm, and the bathroom! You can have wi-fi in the toilet if that’s what you want!” He’s adorable AND has a sense of humor! Wait . . . was he serious?
We went straight out the wide-open back door into the fresh mountain air, and I resumed breathing through my nose. A man was washing his socks in a large campground sink that reminded me of the ones we cleaned our fresh caught trout when I was a kid.
“Please do your laundry here . . . clothes lines here and around the corner to hang your wet things,” he said. I quickly scanned the clothes lines, Hmmm . . . no room for my stuff. Wet socks and T-shirts were strewn across a low roof that covered a set of stairs leading to a basement door. Please don’t tell me we are sleeping in the basement!
We followed our charming guide down the stairs and into a dark room where at least eight bunk beds were positioned so close together you could reach over from your own bed and touch the one next to you.
Two young French men were positioning their sleeping bag liners on their bunks and organizing their things. They looked up at me with a nod and a smile. My daughter would love it here – these guys are so cute!
“Choose any bed, it makes no difference to me,” he said, and left us standing in the middle of the room. I wonder where he sleeps. Did I say that out loud?
I chose a top bunk and hoped I wouldn’t have to climb down during the night to go out and around the building to find the bathroom. Maybe just one glass of wine tonight!
Lesson 6: Refugés are a Killer Deal
Mountain huts on TMB are called Refugés in France, Rifugios in Italy, and Refugé, Hotel, or Chalet in Switzerland. We stayed in the dorms of Nant Borrant, Maison Vieille, Elena, and Hôtel du col de la Forclaz. Each place had its unique charms and challenges.
We made Refugé reservations through Autour du Mont-Blanc in March but closer to June followed up with direct email to each hut to confirm. No deposit is required. Credit cards are not accepted so carry Euros! Popular Rifugios, like Bonatti and Elisabetta, book solid in August. I was nervous about how much wiggle room there was if plans were disrupted due to weather or health. Fortunately, neither was a factor for our TMB. We saw a few empty bunks in Maison, but also saw a hiker turned away at Elena.
Brian and I signed up for half-board dorm style quarters on TMB:
- Half-board rates average 45 euros CASH per person and include a 3-4 course dinner, hot showers, a bunk in a dorm, and breakfast. Wine and beer cost extra. Everything costs more in Switzerland – half board was 60 Swiss Francs (espresso was 3.50 SFr) Full-board adds a sack lunch to take with you the next day.
- Dorm rooms sleep 4-20 people – men and women mixed. Lights are out by 10 p.m. Ear plugs help block out snoring, stirring, whispering and people getting up to go to the bathroom. Bring a headlamp with a low red light setting so you can move around at night without disturbing your dorm mates.
- Dinner is served at 7 p.m. Breakfast times vary in flexibility – three out of four times it was promptly at 7 a.m. The earliest risers tend to awaken the rest of the dorm by pulling zippers, rustling bags, and exiting to use the bathrooms.
- Showers are hot and sometimes you stand in line for your turn. Bring your own towel!
- Hiking shoes are usually not allowed inside. (Maison Vieille was an exception because guests went outside to access different parts of the Rifugio.) Guests walk around in socks or hut shoes they brought from home. Nant Borrant supplied crocs.
- Squat toilets are common – which can be challenging for tight, sore legs. Rifugio Elena expects you to use them without wearing shoes which seemed a bit gross to me, but the staff kept the toilet area remarkably clean. Squat toilet tips: stand facing the hole for all toilet business, squat as low as you can, women squeeze your knees together to shoot straight. Porcelain has a higher splatter factor than soil or sand in the woods!
- Sleeping liners are required. Bunks have a bottom sheet, blankets (sometimes scratchy) and pillow with case. My liner was made of silk and packed down to the size of an orange. I was grateful it had a pillow extension.
- Dorms can get stuffy. Opening windows, when allowed, is up to the dorm room inhabitants. It pays to be assertive.
- Electrical outlets are often weak or non-existent. Consider carrying a power bank portable charger if you need your phone for its camera and map application. I used my power bank 2 out of 4 nights to charge my phone.
- WiFi is a rarity in the huts. We had better luck connecting to the internet via cellular data whenever we came near villages.
- Meals are filling and represent local cuisine. Refugés do their best to accommodate special diets. Brian is vegetarian, and I am gluten-free; we never went hungry at a meal. Here’s what we were served for dinner:
France: squash soup, cheese and bread, creamy scalloped potatoes, sausage, and fresh fruit or apple pie. Nant Borrant gave me yummy gluten-free bread with dinner and breakfast.
Italy: pasta (gluten-free for me) with tomato sauce, meat or sliced cheese, veggies, and apple pastry or fresh fruit. Italian Rifugios gave me gluten-free biscuits instead of pastries and bread.
Switzerland: creamy carrot soup, bread, chicken, vegetables, French fries, and ice cream. They served us seconds for no extra charge at Hôtel du col de la Forclaz, but the wine was pricy.
- Breakfast was light consisting of bread with spreads, fruit, cereal, and coffee. We tucked breakfast leftovers into our packs to eat later. Bring resealable plastic bags!
If I returned to Europe for any trek, I would choose to stay in Refugés again, despite the weird toilets and disrupted sleep. Each has a distinct personality of its own and the atmosphere is festive until 9pm. Hikers and staff are friendly and respectful of quiet hours. You can consult reviews of the Refugés on the internet when planning your trip. Mountain lovers have a common culture despite language and cultural differences, and talking to other travelers always gives me new ideas for future adventures!
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