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Stories of a Hut Guardian

19 Oct 15
Heidi Kumm
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I think I have snagged my last two SAC hut stays of the season…snow has arrived and I am not prepared for legitimate winter mountaineering in the Swiss Alps. Sure, I’m a little bummed I won’t be huttin’ it anymore but I randomly picked some pretty amazing huts for my last trip! And I really do mean randomly, I have no idea where my Google search started but it ended with me reserving beds at Frundenhutte and Bluemlisalphutte…two of the only huts who still had guardians in October.

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My plan was to take the train to Kandersteg then spend two nights in huts — first Frundenhutte, then Bluemlisalphutte — before taking the trail down in the Griesalp and hopping on a train back to Gryon. This was probably the most planning I’ve done on my Switzerland trip, ever. Luckily it all turned out, even though the weather decided to play with me the entire time!

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When I arrived in Kandersteg it was beautiful — sunny skies, snow-capped mountains and rushing rivers all around. I was delayered down to just capris and a tank top before I even got outside city limits and still sweating like crazy. Hello, Indian Summer! I snagged an ice cream cone from the cafe near Oeschinen Lake before veering off onto the trail that led up to Frundenhutte. I left the crowds behind and spent the majority of my time completely alone, save for one couple that kindly pointed at my trail running shoes and told me I wouldn’t make it to the hut because of snow + ice on the trail. Uh oh. Maybe planning ahead and making reservations wasn’t the best idea after all?

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They seemed genuinely concerned, trying to convince me to go to the Bluemlisalpehutte instead because there was more sun [read: less snow] there. I promised to only go up for photos, turning back when the trail got bad and continued on. My meandering, photo filled hike got a bit more purposeful now. What if the trail really was impassable? Then what?! It would take me at least 3-4 hours to get back into town…meaning I’d be out well after dark. But I was prepared — I had a lots of layers + rain gear, there was a sleeping bag + cook stove in my pack if things got bad and I had two headlamps. Onward I went.

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As the trail crept upward the clouds rolled in, blocking out the sweltering sunshine. I was on surprisingly consistent switchbacks with seemed to go on forever as they wound their way up the mountain. With the thought snow and ice dancing around in the back of my mind I powered on, rarely stopping to take photos. Eventually the trail led up to another plateau and I started getting skeptical about this snow and ice. Where was it? How bad could it be?

The flag poles near the hut got closer and closer as I zig zagged along the trail but there was no alarming amounts of snow and ice. Instead, there was a slushy pile of snow along the edge of the trail. That’s when it clicked — the couple wasn’t that worried about the trail, they were worried about my skills! Rather than feeling insulted I laughed. I mean, I would have done the same thing if I’d seen a younger female heading up the mountain alone with in a tank top and running shoes. Outwardly I looked extremely under prepared. Plus, they were my mom’s age — they were supposed to worry about people like me!

A few slushy switchbacks later I finally caught a glimpse of the hut’s roof! So close! The trail was a bit dicey and if the rain continued into freezing snow over night my descent would definitely be interesting but at least I’d be doing it in the daylight. Besides, I live in the present and my only present thought was “warmth” and “shelter” which the hut had to offer!

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I was the only guest staying in the hut so the guardian, Bernhard, invited me back to the toasty warm kitchen area to share dinner with him [I paid for the dinner with my stay]. Coolest experience ever! Seriously. He spoke great English [+ French + German + Sign Language] and I learned so much from him! He told me about his trips to huts as a child, what he did before he became a hut guardian and exactly what hut guardians have to do. From what I understood they don’t even get paid to be there…unless they make enough money from the visitors. They are basically remote mountain small businesses. Which, of course, put “become hut guardian” on my list of things to do with my life. We’ll see if I ever get the experience needed for such a job!

As a hut guardian you need to be able to caterer to as many as 80+ overnight guests during the busy season, cook or bake dinner + breakfast + menu items, maintain the hut, clean the hut, maintain the trails surrounding the hut, work with a helicopter to get supplies to the hut, winterize the hut and…so many things! The day before I arrived the guardian had hiked up to a nearby summit to fix the support brace on the summit cross. The following day he would be removing all of the cables + poles + bridges from the trail leading up to the hut to store for the winter [when the snow freezes around the cables/poles and naturally inches down the mountain it pulls the equipment out]. Later in the week he would hike into town to create plywood shutters to winterize the hut while the actual shutters were repaired/repainted to avoid long-term water damage. That Sunday a helicopter would be the plywood shutters up and then take down all the leftover food/drinks + duvets [to wash before spring] + a plethora of other equipment down the mountain for the winter.

To say I was blown away by the amount of effort that goes into maintaining and running these huts would be an understatement. I mean, they break down and rebuild the trail guides each year! That’s not even directly related to the hut — that’s just the trail near the hut! He also mentioned that nearly all food/drink is brought up at the beginning of the summer by helicopter, meaning they have to anticipate 4 months worth of hikers. This past summer they hauled up 5,500kg/12,000lb up the mountain! Needless to say, I was no longer balking at the $75 price tag that came with my 4-course dinner, cozy bed and breakfast!

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The following morning, over breakfast, Bernhard suggested I take a shortcut to my next hut. Rather than hike all the way down to the lake and back up the other side I could take a lesser traveled trail along the cliffed out side of the lake. While he had me at “lesser traveled” he sealed the deal with “exposed” and “spicy”. Lucky for me, the previous afternoon’s rain clouds were no longer dumping rain and no snow or ice materialized overnight. Not-so-lucky for the receding glacier, the night had been quite warm so it was going to suffer through another day of melting. Yay, waterfalls. But seriously…boo, global warming!

I left the hut around 9am and giddily hopped onto the narrow trail toward the cliffs when I came upon it. At first, it was just another mountain trail with a lot of waterfalls that did a fantastic job of eroding the rocks in really cool patterns. The views all around me were stunning, even with the cloud cover. The lake was crazy blue, the mountain grass was orange, the larch trees were yellow…it was beautiful. I was happily frolicking along the trail, snapping photos and staring off at the horizon. Then the trail went up. Straight up. And into the cliff a bit. My frolicking was over — it was time to actually use to ropes/cables set up along the trail. I scrambled up a very steep section of trail that eventually flattened out along the very edge of the narrow band of dirt that ran along the cliffs. Yup, definitely put the ropes + cables to use. I wasn’t necessarily more likely to fall than before but the consequences of a stumble were greater…steeper…rockier…wetter.

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After about an hour of hiking along the lake ledge the narrow trail connected to the main trail and started uphill. By now the sun had stopped dancing with the clouds and the kind of gave up on coming out…but that meant I wouldn’t be sweating buckets on the exposed trail as I headed directly up the mountain side. After a steep climb the trail weaved through a small village with a cafe then climbed along the edge of a valley. Eventually the trail stopped zig zagging and stretched out into a long, smooth, runnable dirt ribbon that gradually climbed up, up, up.

I opted against running uphill with a pack and settled into a strong hike with lots of stare-at-the-horizon-because-it-is-breathtaking-and-cameras-will-never-capture-this breaks along the way. I was hiking along a narrow trail along the edge of a valley, below me was a dirty glacier and trickling river, across the valley a bright white glacier dumped icy water over the rocks to create a tumbling waterfall, behind the glacier jagged mountain peaks loomed, down the valley the mountain views stretched as far as the eye could see, up the valley was the Bluemlisalp Pass with the hut awaiting my arrival. Gray skies or not, I was floating along in one of those surreal bubbles I sometimes find in the mountains…fierce beauty melting together with a delicate wilderness.

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Just a few hundred feet before I reached the pass the gray clouds decided to start spitting rain down on me, it was time to hustle! I arrived at the hut just as the rain started. There were two hut guardians and both women were busy winterizing the hut. As the bustled around I snagged a cup of tea, a blanket and a window seat. Before I could finish my tea the rain drops have turned to snowflakes. The wind picked up and the slushy snow started flying sideways. I was so thankful to be in the hut!

Luckily I snagged a few photos of the views from the hut before the weather really rolled in. The clouds here in the Swiss Alps are truly incredible. When I started the 5 minute hike from the pass to the hut the valley leading down to Griesalp was perfectly clear, by the time I arrived at the hut it was cloaked in fluffy clouds. These clouds kept building up until I could barely see the outbuildings just 50 feet from the hut door! They aren’t threatening like the clouds of Colorado, rather than being charged with electricity they just hang around a hug you. It’s weird and it took me a while to get used to!

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The blizzard continued throughout the afternoon and evening. When I started out on my hike that morning I was hoping to get to the Bluemlisalphutte with time to explore the mountain trails in the area…I had all the time in the world to do that but there was no way I was venturing outside! Someone had to keep those blankets warm!

Once again I was the only guest staying at the hut [weekday adventures, FTW] so the guardians were especially accommodating, they gave me a few options for dinner and we ultimately settled on rosti, a Swiss dish with potatoes, egg and raclette cheese. It did not disappoint! Just as I started eating dinner the snow suddenly stopped and visibility cleared for a bit — I could see a few hundred feet down each side of the pass and the snow eventually stopped sticking to the ground. This gave me hope for the next day’s hike down to Griesalp!

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Before we all burrowed under our warm blankets it was decided we would start the next day a bit later with breakfast at 8:30 instead of the standard 7:30. The women working in the hut suggested it because “we saw your shoes!”. Those trail running shoes of mine do a great job of making people worry about me! It’s not the shoes…it’s the wearer’s ability to frolic around in them! Sure, my feet may be warmer in hiking boots but stiff soles won’t make much of a difference in packy snow, or at least that’s what I told myself.

In reality, my trail runners did a fine job in the snow. I do stand by my belief that grippy trail shoes clung to the trail better than stiff soled hiking boots would have. Heck, my toes didn’t even get wet until I was well below the snow and traipsing through mud puddles. I left the hut around 10am and spent the next 3.5 hours hiking through snow and mud with a constant cloud of misty rain surrounding me. Needless to say, it was not the most scenic hike I’ve been on but it was still oddly beautiful. There was no one else out on the trail and the odd terrain [dark rock, rolling hills, lumpy grass] made me feel like I was hiking on another planet.

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I arrived in the small village of Griesalp at about 1:45, just in time to catch the 1:53 bus down the mountain. At first I patted myself on the back for having such impeccable timing. As I rode the bus down the insanely step, winding road I stared out the window and suddenly realized I did NOT want to be on this bus! I should be hiking…and two weeks later I still seriously regret catching that bus.

The trail near the road plunged down the mountain as it followed and crossed over an ashy white river surrounded by bright fall colors. I almost asked to be let off at the bus stop near the bottom of this ravine just so I could hike back up. It was incredible and I was so sad I was missing it. I kept telling myself it’d be fine, I’d get over it…nope, still incredibly bummed I got on that bus! Sure, it got me into the train station earlier but I could have easily spared another hour or three for that hike. If anything, this little snafu and all of its disappointment reminded me that the “no money on buses if I can walk” rule I had prescribed to earlier in my travels was worth it…no more buses if there are hiking options! Harumph!

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At the end of the day…everything worked out just fine. The bus driver was great and even stopped at a few extremely beautiful areas to tell me a bit about them. My gaping mouth and wide eyes must have hinted to my actual feelings about the area. Pictures would have never done it justice so I didn’t even try, I just soaked it up with every pore of my body [quite literally, I was soaking wet]. Once down the mountain I caught all the right trains at the right times and arrived back at the chalet in Gryon with plenty of time dry all my wet clothes and unpack my gear before dinner. And now, when I return to Switzerland, I know exactly where I’m going to spend more time! Fall or not, I’ll put money on the Kandersteg/Griesalp area being worth the hike, every time.

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