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The High Life: Hut, Hut, Hike!

Why should a backpacker want anything other than a tent? Michael Lanza can think of five good reasons.
NOV12HUT_RBrame_rifugiolake_445X260Rifugio Croda Da Lago On Italy's Alta Via 1 (Photo by Rich Brame)

1. Laugh at the weather

The rain began pounding New Zealand’s Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park hours before we even started hiking in the Tasman Valley. We set out to cover several miles and 3,000 vertical feet—mostly off-trail—in a mounting torrent, hoods cranked down around our faces, gaiters cinched tight. But in New Zealand, just when you think you’ve seen it rain as hard as water can fall, it comes down harder. The earth transformed to a slick sponge of wet rock and muck. We scrambled up and up, driving rain pelting our faces.

In different circumstances, I would have worried about hypothermia at the end of a day like this. But even as we grew wetter and muddier, we laughed and actually enjoyed the miserable weather for one simple reason: The Caroline Hut awaited us. When we arrived at the shelter at the end of what could have been a dangerously wet and cold day, we stepped inside that cozy metal box, fired up its woodstove, and brewed the first round of hot cocoa. I know exactly what shivering all night in a cramped tent feels like, which made our warm refuge all the sweeter. We lounged and talked into the evening as avalanches periodically roared down Mt. Cook’s Caroline Face a half-mile away.

 

2. Eat like a king

Halfway through an eight-day hut trek in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, we anticipated a fairly easy hike from Olavsbu Hut to Leirvassbu Hut. The sun was shining for the first time in three days. But we hiked much of the way across snow—including a long descent of a steep slope that tried our legs and nerves. A rock-hopping ford of a 100-foot wide, foot-deep stream turned into an hour-long affair getting everyone across safely. When we finally stepped inside the Leirvassbu Hut, we were in that famished state all backpackers know well, when even lukewarm ramen tastes gourmet. So imagine what it was like to sit down in a spacious, elegant dining room—in the middle of nowhere—and knock back a round of beer and wine with an appetizer of skinke (like prosciutto, in this case with potato and egg). It’s hard to write about the rest without getting misty-eyed: a savory salmon in a creamy white sauce, cooked carrots, a baked potato, all followed by strawberries and ice cream.

3. Invite mom

Or dad. Or young kids. My own mom, then 60, said “You’re nuts” when I proposed we hike Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range. But I showed her how we could make a full Prezzies traverse over three days, spending nights at two Appalachian Mountain Club huts. She gave in to the lure of the alpine and we went for it. The first day’s 3,500-foot climb didn’t wear her out, so after a family-style dinner, we hiked 20 minutes uphill to catch the sunset from atop 5,366-foot Mt. Madison. Day two’s haul over Mts. Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and Washington left her a bit knackered—but not enough to pass up the sunset view from the 5,372-foot summit of Mt. Monroe, a 10-minute walk from the hut. Needless to say, she tagged all eight Presidential summits—and concluded her son was actually pretty smart.

 

4. Hike fast and far 

My friend Jeff and I walked out of the Refugio Grey, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, carrying light packs with only clothes and food for the day. It was early, but we had much to do before sunset. We followed the Paine Circuit trail north, past the heavily fractured Grey Glacier; it unfurled a few hundred feet below us, spanning two miles wide and stretching beyond sight. We cruised for hours through the screensaver scenery, then descended back through the lenga forest amid raw showers and infamous Patagonian wind to Paine Grande Lodge on Lago Pehoe—where we celebrated hiking 19 easy-going miles of world-class terrain on Jeff’s birthday.

 

5. Make friends

Italians, Swiss, Germans, Brits: My new companions came from all over, and they weren’t making me wish for a remote valley with only squirrels for company. Over drinks and dinner at Berghaus Diavolezza hut in the Engadine Alps of southeastern Switzerland, overlooking the 13,280-foot Piz Bernina, they were giving me tips on their favorite hikes and invitations to join them on the trail. We toasted our good fortune with shouts of salut and skol (the Diavolezza has a wine list!) and exchanged email addresses. 

Wilderness? Not exactly. But my new Euro friends would argue that huts belong in the mountains as much as trails do. Spend a night in one, and your tent might soon start gathering dust.

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