Advice for Climbing in the Alps

On this page:

Before you leave home
Arriving in Europe
Riding the train
Train & lift discounts
Renting a car
Rendezvous
Rescue insurance
Equipment
Equipment selection
Packing your pack
Climbing with a guide
Téléphérique etiquette
Hut living
Getting up in the morning

See also:

Choosing a climb
Training for the Alps

 

Before you leave home

There are a few things you need to note before you leave home.

Our phone numbers in Europe

The best way to contact us in Europe is by email or by our various phone numbers there.

Try the our home phone first, then the mobile phone numbers.

We have different phone numbers for different countries. If you can't find us in one country, try the other. Often the phones can't get a signal when we are up in the hills, so you may need to leave a message on our voicemail.

Les Houches home phone +33 (0)4 50 21 24 47
Kathy's mobile +33 (0)6 01 91 24 77
Mark's mobile +33 (0)6 86 14 70 58

  • If you don't catch us in one country, try the other.
  • If dialing in-country (eg. France to France) omit the + and the country code (33 or 41) but do dial the 0 in parentheses.
  • If dialing from out of country but within Europe, eg. (Switz to France) dial 0033 (the + is shorthand for 00) and omit the (0), then the last 9 digits.
  • If dialing from the US or Canada dial 011, country code (33 or 41) omit the (0), then the last 9 digits.

Using phones in Europe

Phones in Europe are really no more complicated than phones in the US or Canada. There are a few different conventions that you'll want to know. Most European countries have the same conventions, but there are a few odd-ball variations that we'll talk about after our initial discussion.

First, if you are in a hotel, you will need to dial something to get an "outside line" Often that something is "0" but it can vary. Ask reception to be sure. In phone booths, or on your own mobile you already have an outside line so nothing is needed.

If you are dialing to a number in a different country you need to dial the the country code. The code for the the USA and Canada is "001". For France it is "0033" for Switzerland it is "0041", and for Italy "0039". Often you will see the first two 0s abbreviated as a "+". For example France's country code might be written as "+33", or the US as "+1". Just dial "00" instead of the "+".

European phone numbers all start with a "0". For example if you are in Paris, in a phone booth, and are calling our Les Houches home phone (also in France) you would dial 04 50 21 24 47. Here's another example, if you are in Geneva, calling the Zermatt tourist office, you would dial 027 966 8100. Basically, when calling to a point in the same country, start with the "0".

However, if you are calling to a phone is another country, for example France to Switzerland, you omit the "0". But you add in the "00 country code" to start. So calling from Geneva (Switzerland) to our Les Houches home phone (France) you would dial 0033 4 50 21 24 47. This might be written as "+33 (0)4 50 21 24 47", with the "+" meaning "00" and the parenthetical "(0)" indicating that there is an "0" to dial if you are calling "in-country". If you are calling from Geneva to the USA or Canada, you would dial 001, then your 10-digit phone number.

There is one important exception to the above "omit the '0' rule, and that is Italy. Even if you are calling from out of country (Switzerland, for example) you leave in the "0". So calling from Geneva to the Courmayeur tourist office in Italy you would dial +39 0165 842 060. Also, some Italian phone numbers have 8 digits, some 9 and others 10. In all cases leave the "0" in, both when calling from out of country as well as from within Italy.

Europe uses a a GSM standard for mobile phones. This is different than the standard in the US and Canada, and most mobile phones from North America won't work in Europe. However, if you have a GSM compatible phone, they should function. Be aware, however, that calling from the States to your phone in Europe can carry some hefty per minute charges. And the roaming charges, if roam so far, are often rather high. It is possible to rent mobile phones for your stay in Europe. Most airports have shops in which you can do this. It ain't cheap however, but may be worth it.

ATM cash machines

We get our cash Euros or Swiss francs from ATM machines. They work as in the US. The only difference is that the letters correspond to different numbers on the key pad, so memorize your PIN as numbers, not as letters.

You'll get Euros in all the Alpine countries except Switzerland, which is holding onto their venerable Swiss Franc. In June 2009 one Euro (€) was worth about $1.41 US dollars. The Swiss Franc (CHF) was worth about $0.92 US. dollars. Euros are often accepted in Switzerland but Swiss francs are more difficult to use outside of Switzerland.

Credit cards are usually accepted everywhere with the exception of most of the mountain huts. Visa and Mastercard are more accepted than others.

 

Arriving in Europe

Most of the information in this section pertains to arriving in the Geneva airport. Geneva is your best point of arrival for trips that start in Chamonix, while Zurich is the best arrival port for trips in the Berner Oberland. If your climbing trip begins in other locations in Switzerland, such as Zermatt, for example, you can arrive in either Geneva or Zurich. Train connections to most destinations in Switzerland are relatively straightforward from both of these airports.

Shuttle, Geneva to Chamonix

Usually we take a shuttle service between the Geneva Airport and Chamonix.

There are a number of companies that compete in this lucrative business.For all of these companies, you should book in advance, preferably at least 2 weeks in advance. many you can book online, others you need to fax or call. Virtually all have english speaking drivers (the Brits are the primary clientele). None have booths at the airport. For any of them, be sure you have with you an emergency phone number in case there is some confusion and you need to get in touch with them, for example, you arrive late, or your ride simply does not show up.

With all of them, a representative of the service will meet you as you exit customs in the Geneva airport. If you don't see them just hang out more or less in front of the customs exit and wait, keeping an eye out for someone with a sign with your name. Occasionally they are late, so be patient. If they don't show up, give them a call. The trip to Chamonix takes a little over an hour. The shuttle will drop you wherever you like (normally your hotel).

Most of these services cost about 45 Euros for one person, one way in a shared ride van. If you can't get in a shared ride (perhaps you booked too late) they will also do private shuttles, thought the price is more like 200 Euros.

Find a list of these shuttle services on this website: chamonix.net transfers page

You can also take the train from the Geneva Airport to Chamonix, but connections are complex, the trip takes a while, and you still have to take a taxi (or walk) to the hotel from the Chamonix train station.

If you are going to a location in Switzerland, such as Zermatt or Grindelwald from the Geneva Airport, then the train makes much more sense and is highly recommended. See information on available discounts, below.

Other arrival points

For Zermatt, either Zurich or Geneva airports are good. The train ride from Zurich to Zermatt takes about 5 hours, from Geneva, about 4. Zurich is slightly better for trips starting in Grindelwald.

 

Riding the train

Swiss trains are great, and the French are nearly as good. There are lots of them, they are on time (nearly always) and they are clean. We recommend using them unless you wish to rent a car.

Swiss Federal Railways web site

The Swiss Federal Railways has a great web site wherein you can view schedules, fares and other info for all trips within Switzerland and some outside as well: http://www.sbb.ch/en/index.htm

Train savvy

Trains in Europe are generally divided into 1st and 2nd class. First class cars have a big "1" on them, and second class, logically enough, are labeled "2". Some cars are smoking, some not, and some are divided. This, too is labeled on the outside of the car.

Platforms ("Quai" in French and "Gleis" in German) are numbered. In all but the smallest stations you are forbidden to cross the tracks! You must use under- or over-passes to get to your desired platform! Look for the signs indicating no crossing (a person with arms stretched out) as there is seldom a physical barrier. These signs are important, as trains sometimes pass through a station at high speed and with little warning.

Platforms are also divided into sectors, usually A through D. Often you can look for signs indicating in what sector the first or second class cars will be positioned when the train arrives. This may help you avoid a mad walk to the other end of the platform at the last minute, towing cumbersome and heavy duffel bags.

Sometimes cars, or sections of cars, are reserved. They are labeled as such. If you are really clever you can determine for what part of the train's total journey the seats are reserved. If it is not your particular part then you may be able to sit in a reserved seat.

Baggage can be left in the small baggage areas (if there are any) near the train entry doors. Otherwise, smaller items can go overhead, above your seat, and larger ones between seats. In the stations there are often carts you can use to help you move your baggage around. In most Swiss stations the carts are either free, or a coin of 2 francs is required to use it. The coin is returned to you once you finish with it and put it away. In Zermatt a 5 franc coin is necessary.

Once on the train, keep your ticket and any discount authorization (such as a Swiss Half Fare Card) handy for the conductor when they come by. You'll need to show them both.

Shoes need to be kept off the seat facing you. If the train is not crowded and nobody sits across from you, you can take off your shoes (leave your sock on) and prop your feet on the facing seat. But shoes on the seat will get you a scolding from the conductor.

Times on European trains are given in "military" speak, that is 2:30 pm is shown as 14:30. Learn the system to avoid missing your train.

When you purchase a ticket, have the sales agent print out a timetable for your journey. This helps with train changes and gives you a much better idea of what to expect. You normally won't be given a timetable unless you ask for it.

On Swiss trains you can also check your baggage to your destination if you like, but it will arrive after you. that may be fine if you are planning on spending a few days shopping, sightseeing, etc. before you start climbing. This may allow you to avoid lugging heavy bags on tight train connections. Buy your ticket first, then look at your connection times and how many there are. If they are tight, and numerous, and if you don't need your heavy climbing gear for a couple days, you might ask about checking bags. Otherwise keep them with you.

Coming home, if you are traveling from a Swiss town directly to your departure airport, and if you are not using an American airline carrier, you may be able to check your bags at the train station where you get on the train, all the way through to your final airline arrival city in the U.S. A fee is charged for this service, but it may be worth it not to deal with your big bags. Check into this possibility a couple of days before your departure to determine if it is feasible for you.

Rail and lift discounts

There are a number of discounts schemes for the Swiss trains and lift. For most visits of even a few days or more, it makes economic sense to purchase a Swiss Half Fare Card. You can do this the first time you buy a train ticket for a Swiss train in a Swiss train station. In summer 2009 a 30-day half fare card cost 99 Swiss Francs. If you plan on spending a good deal of time in Switzerland, you can also purchase them for 1, 2 and 3 year validation periods.

The Swiss Half Fare Card is also good on mountain railways, most lifts, the Post bus system, and even some boats. What makes these cards so good for our purposes is the half price on the lifts and mountain railways.

There is also a discount called the Swiss Card. This combines the half fare card with another discount on a select route. You'll need to talk to the ticket agent at the train station to determine which is best for you.

If your travels in Europe involve a good number of countries, then some sort of Eurail Pass may make sense. There are a number different types and we, sadly, don't know much about them. Most are rather limiting, however, and even if you do use one for you travel outside of Switzerland, you should still consider purchasing the Swiss Half Fare Card for your travel within Switzerland.

In the Chamonix valley a "ChamPass" gives you unlimited access to the lifts there. You can purchase the pass for any number of days (more days cost more). You have to ride a lot of lift to break even, but if you think you will be on a lift more than two out of three days, especially if the lift is the expensive Aiguille du Midi, or in the valley for more than a week or so, it may be a good idea. There are also family and children's discounts if you bring the whole clan. Purchase the ChamPass as the Chamonix tourist office in the center of Chamonix.

Renting a car

If you plan to travel to lots of different areas, renting a car may be a good choice. In general, you can get the best deals if you book in advance, from the USA. Nearly all the cars use manual transmission. The cheapest cars are the sub, sub, sub, sub compacts - essentially two seaters with little luggage space, these are truly tiny. But they do get good mileage, and at over a dollar a liter, gas ain't cheap. We often go one size up from the smallest, in order to get something that more resembles a normal car.

Driving

On the motorways, the speed limit is posted. In France it tops out at 130 kilometers per hour. On the German autobahn, somewhat higher, perhaps 250 kmph!. KEEP TO THE RIGHT! Stay in the right lane unless you are in the act of passing. Those Mercedes and Audis can come up on you very, very fast.

The motorways in France are toll roads. You can usually pay with a credit card if you have no change, but not always. The booths marked "touts payments" have a human attendant and you can pay with either card or cash.

Swiss motorways don't have tolls, but you need a special highway decal to drive on them. Cars rented in Switzerland generally already have this (look on the windshield behind the mirror). But cars rented in other countries usually don't have the Swiss pass. You can buy one (they come in varying validity periods) at the border when you enter Switzerland for 40 Swiss Francs. Austria uses the same system, Italy charges tolls.

 

Rendezvous

We usually will meet you in the late afternoon or evening of the day before we start climbing, often at 5 pm. Normally it will be at your hotel. We will confirm the particulars of your rendezvous with you, normally by email, some time before your trip. If you have any questions about it, please let us know!

 

Rescue insurance

We strongly recommend you purchase rescue insurance for climbing in the Alps. One of the reasons the insurance is a good idea is that the rescue capability of the local authorities is truly amazing — Helicopters can pluck you off of vertical mountain faces, and calling for a rescue (we carry mobile phones) is far more likely to bring a very speedy response than anywhere else in the world. The reason/correlary of this is that rescue is professionally done, therefore not free. You will be billed (several thousand dollars typically) for helicopter evacuation and subsequent hospitalization. Rescue insurance in Europe is designed to cover the evacuation part, but not the hospitalization or medical care. This is essentially because European rescue insurance is aimed at European customers, and all Europeans are covered by their respective national health programs.

There are a number of different companies and schemes offered to Europeans, but all of them either have serious drawbacks for North Americans, or won't cover them at all. In France you can get either a "Carte Neige", or day-by-day ski insurance for ski mountaineering. In the case of the Carte Neige however, you have to supply a Doctor's letter (translated into French, bien sûr) stating that you are in adequate health to participate in the activity. If you have the foresight and wherewithal to do this, this insurance covers nearly all non-motorized, walking, climbing and skiing activities. Sign up for this at the Club des Sports in Chamonix. An annual card costs about 60 Euros US, and coverage extends from October to October of the year of purchase regardless of purchase date. In the case of the day-by-day insurance, you will sign up at the Office de la Haute Montagne office in Chamonix.

Another, arguably better option for Americans is the American Alpine Club, which offers global rescue insurance to its members. You will need to contact the AAC for more information. Be sure you find out what happens if you are unable to contact them for pre-approval of your rescue.

Finally, you may be able to buy emergency remote evacuation insurance from either your health insurance provider, or some other insurance company such as a Travel insurance provider.

 

Equipment

Rentals

Much climbing gear can be rented in either Chamonix (better) or Zermatt. Grindelwald has no good rental options. Boots are the biggest challenge for rentals as different boots fit different feet, and any one shop may only have one or two models in their rental lineup. A better plan is to own your own. If you plan to rent, give yourself enough time to get the job done (a couple hours should do it), possibly visiting several shops to find what you need.

Purchasing gear

Chamonix is probably the single best place to shop for climbing gear in the world. Selection is wonderful. While prices are steep with the current strength of the Euros vs the dollar, you can get the 18% (-ish) V.A.T. taken off if you reach a minimum threshold of expenditure in a single shop. The price of European brands of climbing boots is generally competitive with what you will pay in North America.

On most trips we are available to help you with purchases and rentals the late afternoon or evening preceding your trip. Please let us know if you need help with this. In Chamonix, stores usually close at 19:30 (that's 7:30 PM, for us foreigners), in Zermatt about 19:00.

We encourage you to go shopping! Especially with us. We are happy to help you decide what gear will be best for your trip.

 

Equipment selection

This section offers a few very general guidelines. For more specific discussions of equipment selection please see the lists we create for each trip we do.

One basic concept.... Go light! Climbing with a light pack is much more fun, uses less precious energy, and is safer than climbing with a heavy pack. Do your best to minimize weight.

Also, alpine climbing sometimes uses different gear than say, waterfall climbing, expeditions or winter mountaineering. And the various types of gear are not always interchangeable, especially when it comes to crampons and ice tools. Here are a few things to think about:

Crampons

The best alpine crampons use a flat frame. Examples are the Charlet Moser Vasak, or the Grivel G12. You will also need rubber anti-balling plates, called antibottes, specific to your type of crampon. With many crampons, they are included when you buy the crampons.

Ice Axe

There are lots of good all-around ice axes. A great light weight example is the Grivel Air Tech Evolution. For length, go short. 58 cm max if you are over 6'4" feet tall, 53 cm for everyone shorter. Mark uses a 53cm model and he is about 5'10" and thinks that anything longer is just too long.

Trekking poles

Using trekking poles usually helps you save energy, protects your knees and speeds you up. Get adjustable length poles, and keep them short, so that when you're standing on flat ground your hands are below your navel. Leki makes a great super-compact version called the "Super Short" but it can be hard to find. Keep the baskets on. Avoid poles with shock absorbing springs, as they are not needed and only increase weight, length and cost.

Pack

About 30 liters is the right size. Avoid packs larger than about 40 liters. A big pack carries poorly, impacts your climbing more and saps energy. You should be able to find a good pack of the correct size that weighs no more than about 2 pounds, by avoiding excessive "features" such as crampon panels, integrated pockets or big suspension systems. Both Chamonix and Zermatt have great selections of climbing packs.

"Extras"

Try to avoid bringing a lot of extras. Food can be purchased in the huts, so we usually carry only pocket snacks and bars or Gu. While climbing we can usually stay quite warm through movement and the huts are warm, so fleece pants and big down jackets are excessive.

 

Packing your pack

Packing is usually easy, as there really should not be very much in your pack. Here, however, are a few tips.

Seldom used items on bottom

There are a few things you are not likely to need much and can be stowed at the bottom of your pack. For us, these include our rain pants, our first aid materials, extra food (not much of this), our extra warm layer, extra socks, a "hut shirt", tooth brush, crampons, and a few other odds and ends. Heavy items, such as water and crampons should be carried close to your back for better balance and agility.

Try to anticipate what you will use when, and "layer" items to keep the things you need sooner near the top.

Put stuff inside

Generally we try to carry everything except our ice axe inside the pack. This includes water bottles and crampons. For protecting other items from your crampon points, use a simple cloth or very simple crampon bag. Avoid zippers, straps, heavy fabric and rigid panels.

 

Climbing with a guide

Climbing with a guide is (or should be) a lot of fun. A few things are a bit different from going out with your pals.

Guide's job

The guide's job is basically to help you have fun, get to the summit and down again, and to help you avoid the many hazards of the wild mountain environment. Usually these priorities don't interfere with each other. In fact, with the guide watching out for many problems, you can relax a bit more and concentrate on the fun part.

Fun

"Fun" means different things to different folks. Some like a personal climbing challenge, other just being high up in the air. Some like to learn, others like to simply enjoy the experience. Almost all of our Alps climbing guiding is on a custom basis, so we should be able to get as close to your definition of "fun" as weather, climbing conditions and personal abilities allow. You can help us to do this by letting us know how you, in particular define "fun".

Famous summits

Many folks come hoping to climb some of the big-name peaks, commonly the Matterhorn, Eiger or Mont Blanc. A couple words of caution:

The Matterhorn and Eiger are difficult climbs. They require an ability to move smoothly, steadily and relatively quickly over very steep, always exposed and occasionally technical terrain, and this for many hours on end. If you have never done anything quite like them before it is hard to know what to expect, and harder still to know if you have the necessary skills. An important part of your trip will be learning what these peaks require (by doing other ascents), while at the same time determining whether you have the needed skills and abilities. One of the main objectives for your trip should be to discover what, if anything, you need to learn or do to bring these peaks within your grasp.

Another important determining factor on these peaks is the current conditions. Even the smallest amount of snow on the extensive rock climbing of the Eiger and Matterhorn can put them out of condition by making them too time consuming, not to mention too slippery, to climb safely. Once the snow falls, several days of sunny weather is needed to put them back into condition. In a bad summer, the "in condition" days may number as few as maybe 12 to 15 days out of the entire summer season. When the Matterhorn and Eiger are out of condition we'll try to do other great climbs in the area that are not as conditions sensitive. Being psychologically prepared for this will help you enjoy your trip and appreciate all the variety and challenge that the Alps have to offer.

Mont Blanc, by comparison, is mostly a snow climb and is less prone to being out of condition. In fact, if the weather is good, snow conditions, whatever they may be, almost always permit an ascent.

All in all, the best strategy is to come with a flexible outlook, rather than a specific "hit-list".

Safety

The guide also must help you to manage risk. There are quite a few ways to "get the chop" in the mountains. But the primary three are; falling off the mountain, getting hit by something from above, and freezing to death. We have different strategies to deal with these, worth discussing briefly here:

Falling is the greatest hazard climbers face and claims the most lives. We primarily avoid falling by climbing well and carefully. As a back-up, ropes and other gear can often reduce the likelihood of injury if we do fall. One of the protective techniques we commonly use on the broken terrain of the mountains is called "short roping". By using only a small amount of rope we can move together when the terrain is easy, and belay short harder sections, with little or no slowing down during transitions between the two. Short roping does NOT mean dragging or pulling, as Jon Krakauer incorrectly characterizes it in his book "Into Thin Air". It means moving together, carrying the rope at the ready, and belaying as necessary. You still need to climb the mountain yourself, providing all the necessary skill, will power and upward momentum. Even the strongest guide can't drag anyone up a mountain.

Getting hit by something from above is best avoided by not being there when that thing falls; helmets only slightly reduce the risk of injury from getting clobbered. Avoidance depends on being able to move quickly through hazardous areas. Some of these hazards are time related, such as when afternoon warming releases otherwise frozen-in rocks. In such cases timing is critical. In general mountains are more "active" as the day warms. For this reason, and to take advantage of better snow conditions, we start early and try to finish early.

Freezing to death is best avoided by not going out in bad conditions, and this is our primary strategy. Also, we may choose a different objective, one where hands and body can stay warm though more continuous movement. But good equipment is also called for. An Austrian colleague of our once said "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment."

 

Téléphérique etiquette

There is an established etiquette for behavior on téléphériques (cable cars). They are often crowded and good behavior helps us all to get along and avoid injuring each other in these very packed confines.

You may need to readjust your notion of "personal space". To queue up in crowded conditions means to allow yourself to enter a stream of bodies and be carried along with it. It is not always an orderly process, but ultimately it works. Try not to hold things up, but also not to shove ahead of others. Most of all, try to keep your cool, know that you will get to your destination, and keep in mind that a bit of crowding is worth the thousands of meters of elevation that you are about to be whisked up, and that you would otherwise have to climb just to get to your route.

Packs off

As you enter the crush, take your pack off your back and when you get in the cabin put it down on the floor. If the lift is going to be very packed, consider buckling the pack waist belt buckle around your pack itself to help keep it out from under crushing boots. We have seen more than one plastic "fastex" buckles broken underfoot.

Be careful with your ice axe

When we expect a ride on a crowded téléphérique, we carry our ice axe in our hand.

Crampons inside pack

As stated above, crampons should be inside the pack.

Getting on the lift

As we get in line for the lift, we get partitioned into groups of however many folks can fit on the lift at one time. So when it finally comes time to board, everyone in the group will get on. There is no need to rush to be sure to have a space. On a crowded lift you will often see the guides hold back to be the last on, backing their way in. It may be tight, but relax, everyone is in the same boat.

 

Hut living

One of the main attractions of mountaineering in the Alps are the huts. They enable us to wander through the big mountains with only light packs. In fine weather the huts can be quite busy, and living in such close proximity to others can be a bit trying. If you know the ins and outs of hut living, the whole thing is a bit less mysterious, and easier to manage.

Hut guardians have a tough job. They have to cook, clean, check in and check out a new crop of tired (but hopefully happy) climbers every day. There are certain "rules" and procedures that make their job easier for them. Understanding these improves international relations and makes our stay more pleasant.

Arriving at the hut

Huts have a foyer in which you can get suited up if the weather outside is poor, and also to store certain items that the hut keepers don't want inside the main part of the hut. Leave your boots, your ice axe, and crampons in the foyer. If you keep your crampons inside your pack, in a protective sack, it is OK to bring them into the hut.

Usually we leave our packs in the foyer until we have been assigned bunks, at which time we bring the packs to our rooms.

Find a pair of hut slippers that more or less fit you and change into these (the huts supply them). Boots are never permitted in the dormitory rooms, or in the dining room. Leave them in the foyer.

In the morning put your boots on in the foyer, replacing the hut slippers on the rack whence they came.

Storage baskets

Most huts have little storage baskets you can use to help keep track of and organize your gear. Look around and see if you can find one - they are usually inside. If the hut is busy, limit yourself to one basket, leaving some for other climbers. The baskets can be carried into the dorm rooms or kept in the main dining room.

In general, we try to keep our gear confined to one basket and our packs, the better to avoid loss or wasted time searching among far flung corners. In most huts we can take our packs up to the dorm rooms and place them by our bunks. Remember crampons must be either hidden deep within your pack or left in the foyer.

Hanging gear up to dry

Folks often hang stuff up to dry, usually in the main dining room, or in the dorm rooms. Try not to get too spread out or to hog too much space. Keep track of what you hang up so you don't lose it. Labeling your gear with markers before you leave home is a good idea.

Assigning of bunks

We will check in with the guardian. The guardian will assign bunks to everyone. If we arrive early at the hut, they may not be ready to assign bunks, in which case we'll need to wait a bit.

We'll be assigned a room and everyone a bunk number. Once we receive our assignments we like to put an article of clothing on our bunk and perhaps spread out the blankets a bit, indicating that the spot is occupied. This decreases the chance that someone will "borrow" your blankets or your pillow, encroach on your personal space or preemptively "assign" themselves your bed.

Keep your pack near your bunk, or in one of the appropriate cubby holes. You can use your bunk space to help you organize.

Getting organized

You'll need to organize your gear a bit. We often put on a "hut shirt", getting out of our damp and smelly "climbing shirt". We hang up wet gear to dry, and we pull out of our pack whatever gear we need for our night's stay. This is the stuff we want to have handy in the evening. Usually this includes;

  • Any clothes we need (to go outside to the WC if necessary)
  • A headlamp
  • Our thermos or water bottle. (Thermoses are given to the hut guardian the evening before the climb, usually after dinner.)
  • Reading material if you have any
  • Earplugs for the night
  • Money for drinks and snacks
  • toothbrush and toiletries
  • And whatever else you feel you need.

Quiet and lights in sleeping rooms

In the afternoon and evening, and especially at bed time, folks will be trying to sleep in the dorm rooms. Try to be quiet if anyone is resting in the room. Keep talk to a minimum, and at a whisper. Avoid using the room lights if possible—use your headlamp and avoid shining it in sleeper's eyes. Minimize thrashing around in your pack or fiddling with gear, or take your pack to the foyer for major reorganization.

If you are trying to nap or sleep and folks are talking loudly, it is OK to "shhhhhh" them, especially between 10 PM and the wake-up hour.

Paying for drinks and extra food

Normally we will settle up for the fixed dinner and breakfast, as well as your overnight stay, in the evening just after dinner. You can pay us back later. You will also need to pay for other menu items and all drinks as well. Often we run a tab in the guides name. Tabs are paid when we settle up for meals and lodging. If we keep a tab, keep track of what you ordered. Alternatively you can pay for things as you order them, which is generally easier.

All of the bottled drinks in the huts, as well as the food, are flown in by helicopter. This makes them rather expensive. A liter and a half bottle of water can cost as much as $7 or $8 US, sometimes more, so if you want to buy bottled water be prepared. Tea is usually cheaper. You can also order bottles of hot water. They will not, however, sell cold water other than what comes bottled, as there are health concerns with this.

During lunch time, you can order hot food. Find a menu or see the list of offerings on the wall. Rösti (Swiss hash browns) are good, and when served with cheese, or bacon ("lardons" or "speck" in French or German, respectively) provide plenty of calories. There are also usually pasta dishes, soup, omelets and many different kinds of drinks. Usually they will stop serving hot food for lunch around 2:30 to 3. After this time, you can ask, but don't be surprised if they decline to make your rösti.

Thé de marche (tea for walking, pronounced "marsh tay" with a little gurgle with the r)

Marche thé is tea sold for the next day's trip—marching tea. Different huts dispense this in different ways, but in general, the hut keeper will gather bottles and thermoses the evening before and fill them the following morning. We'll pick up the bottles in the morning before we leave. Marche thé is added to the bill before we pay it in the evening. Bring your bottles to dinner and we can in turn give them to the guardian after dinner for morning filling.

Regular water bottles can either be filled with marche thé or from purchased bottles of mineral water.

Dinner table assignments

Dinner is usually served between about 18:30 and 19:00. Different huts have different dinner times. On particularly crowded days, there may be multiple sittings.

In most huts we will be assigned a table for eating. This may not be the table we happen to be sitting at before dinner, hence we may have to move. The hut keepers do this in order to be sure to seat everyone. Often they will put a note on the table indicating which parties are to sit at that table, and the number of people in each party.

Cleaning up table

After dinner, we are expected to carry dirty dishes back to the counter by the kitchen. Usually the guide does this, but we can all pitch in if it seems appropriate. When we are done with dessert we need to wipe down the table with a cloth usually provided near the kitchen. We need to clean up the table, remove garbage and personal items, and finally wipe it down before we go to bed. If you are the last of your group to leave the table (the guides, in their exhaustion, having gone to bed!) be sure it is clean and clear when you turn in.

Usually there is a recycling receptacle for aluminum cans, and often one for the clear plastic bottles many drinks come in, marked PET.

Hut keepers dinner time

After the climbers in the hut eat, the hut keepers often take their dinner. Usually you can ask for more drinks during this time, but keep your requests simple so as not to too greatly interrupt their dinner.

Paying the bill

After the hut keepers finish eating their dinner and cleaning up the kitchen we will settle up the bill for the night. This is when the tab gets closed. Anything you want to buy after that time you need to pay for with cash, at the time of purchase.

If we are staying multiple nights in one hut, we can usually pay everything all at once on our last night there.

In all of our Alps summer climbing trips you will need to pay your own hut fees, meals and drinks. Normally the guide pays the bill and you reimburse the guide. You will need about $60 per night (in either Euros or Swiss Francs, depending on where you are) to cover these costs. A very few huts accept credit cards, but they are in the minority.

Ordering breakfast and lunch

At some point in the evening your guide needs to tell the hut keeper what sort of drink you will want in the morning. The options usually are coffee, tea or chocolate. Also, if you would like to order a packed lunch for the day, we need to do this in the evening, before we close out the tab. We often order a lunch if the next day is particularly long, but otherwise a couple of candy bars (sold in all the huts) are generally enough.

 

Getting up in the morning

Departing in the morning is often a rather hectic affair. This is especially so when an early start is called for.

Usually, the entire hut will get up at once. If some of the occupants of your room choose to sleep in, try to be quiet when you get up. In some huts with a variety of climbing objectives nearby, there are different wake-up times. For example, there may be breakfast service for one group at 1 am, another at 3 am and so on for 5 and 7 am. We'll choose the time that best suits our needs. They often divide the guests into rooms sharing the same wake up time.

A quick departure

Often your guide will be quite anxious to get out of the hut quickly. The is especially so for the Matterhorn, where your position in line can spell the difference between summit success and failure. For many other climbs, however, a more leisurely start is fine. Ask your guide if the following morning calls for a speedy departure.

The trick in departing is to be ready with your pack already packed as much as is possible before you go to bed. Be organized in the morning and everything will go more easily.

The first thing we do is to change into the clothes we will most likely use that day (except for our outer shell jacket which we put on just before we go outside. Keep these handy, by your bunk, so that you can get dressed quickly.

After we get out of the bunk, we fold the blankets. Some huts even post directions as to exactly how they like you to fold your blankets. In any case, fold them neatly and stack them and your pillow as you found them.

Do a last check of your sleeping area to be sure you have not left anything under a pillow, etc.

Stuff your belongings quickly into your pack (you will be able to organize them better after breakfast) and bring it and your basket (if you have one) downstairs to the dining room or foyer. Find a place to stash your pack out of everyone's way, and find your way to the breakfast table.

If you need a bathroom stop, try to do this early, as the WC lines seem to get longer as it gets later.

After breakfast and the ritual clearing of the table, we pack up our packs, put on our boots and head outside.

Remember that the vast majority of the time we will be wearing our harnesses all day long so consider the donning of your harness to be part of getting ready for the day, and try to make your last bathroom stop before you put on your harness.

Also remember to pick up your ice axe, crampons, trekking poles and anything else you left in the foyer. Think about whatever you left in various parts of the hut, and be sure you have them with you. If you left something up in the dorm room you will need to take off your boots to go looking for it. The hut keepers don't like guests to wear boots in the dorms or upstairs.

All images, layout and text ©2004 Cosley & Houston Alpine Guides, All Rights Reserved