Alpine refuges: high times in the Italian mountains

Clare Mann tours Italy’s isolated – and occasionally very cold – mountain refuges.

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Why would you want to sleep in a refuge in winter?” asked Brigitte, a friend from Chamonix. “In the summer, when I go mountaineering, is bad enough. You won’t sleep a wink at the altitudes. There are horrible smells and noises, and everyone drinks to blot out the experience.”

This didn’t bode well, as we were to spend three nights in the Aosta Valley from Cervinia to Alagna, then four nights in the Dolomites, staying in mountain refuges around Cortina. From Turin we took a taxi to Cervinia. There, my husband, Edward, and I met Poldo from Guide Monterosa, who had touring skis, boots and rucksacks waiting for us at the ski lift.

Poldo looked anxiously at our two large ski bags. “What are you planning to do with them?” he asked. I had thought they were being sent from refuge to refuge ahead of us. No such luck. Our taxi driver offered to keep our luggage until we could be reunited and we decanted the bare essentials into our rucksacks, already half full with skins, shovels and avalanche bleepers. Dressing gown, hairdryer and Scrabble were abandoned.

The weather was perfect and despite there having been no snow for weeks, the conditions were still excellent. We spent the afternoon warming up on the slopes of Cervinia, with a late lunch at one of Poldo’s favourite refuges, Guide del Cervino.

But our first night was testing: Rifugio Teodulo, run by the Mountain Guides Association and our highest refuge at 3,317m, was an austere building at the top of the piste straddling Italy and Switzerland. Behind us was the majestic Matterhorn and spread out below lay the Aosta Valley. There were no showers and the lavatories were primitive but the snug dining room, stove and an Italian version of Scrabble compensated. Minor discomforts were forgotten as we watched the sun set over the magnificent panorama of mountains.

We ate a hearty supper of vegetable soup and mushroom pasta, rounded off with grappa. Happily, Edward and I had the dormitory to ourselves, but it was cold, the wind howled and the refuge rattled. I slept in my ski clothes and five blankets.

Brigitte was right about the altitude, but the sunrise was worth a restless night. Even yesterday’s bread for breakfast tasted good before we set off with our skins to ski the Colle Cime Bianche, a two-hour, off-piste run down to Champoluc, without a soul in sight.

Our next night at Orestes Hütte, high above Gressoney, was comparatively luxurious with our own bedroom and a hot shower (water, we discovered, is a precious commodity at these heights). Orestes, built by a local family of mountain guides and carpenters, opened a year ago. A friendly young team, led by brother and sister Emil and Marta, took good care of us.

Conditions were ideal the following day for a heli drop at 4,260m on the glacier below Punta Dufor on the Monte Rosa. We skied the Col de Lys, the only skiers heading down.

Our third night was spent at the Rifugio Guglielmina, built in 1872 and owned by six generations of the same delightful and welcoming family. Alberto and his son Franco Calaba are currently in charge, aided by Francesco. The spectacular wine cellar at 2,000m has over 7,000 bottles of a hundred different wines.

The creaky, uneven floors, worn stone steps, wood-burning stoves and cosy panelled bunk bedrooms (shared bathrooms) have remained unaltered for years. Views stretch as far as Milan, Lake Maggiore and the distant Apennines.

Our visit coincided with a large and noisy English party celebrating a 40th birthday and three non-skiing Chinese girls somewhat bemused by their surroundings. “Someone told us in Florence we must come.” But small groups of serious skiers with guides gave the refuge authenticity.

Even breakfast was perfection: fresh bread, croissants, yogurt, cheese and charcuterie in the panelled dining room as the freshly lit wood stove belted out the heat.

Then it was on to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, a six-hour drive east. Our first night was spent in the Dolomiti d’Ampezzo National Park at Malga Pezie de Paru, a simple farmhouse 15 minutes outside Cortina, in the forest, with three comfortable bedrooms and a wonderful restaurant. With snow thin on the ground, we abandoned the backcountry and stuck to the pistes.

Our next night was spent at the family owned Rifugio Pomedes on Tofana. Grandfather Bibi Ghedina built the refuge just before the 1956 Olympics, and was a founder member of the Società Lo Scoiattolo (Cortina Squirrels), an elite mountaineering society. After supper (barley soup and goulash), staff sang accompanied by a guitar. Then, from out of the cold night appeared a middle-aged couple (one wearing the Squirrel badge) who had walked up from Cortina on skins, a mere couple of hours. They told us they hiked up twice a week, a good antidote to a day in the office.

After a day skiing in Cortina, we moved on to Rifugio Averau by the Cinque Torri. The family-owned Averau has had a smart facelift and lost some of the rustic character that I remembered from a previous visit. The bedrooms, however, were comfortable, with plenty of hot water, and the food was excellent. Two jolly groups of locals were staying with guides for the weekend.

Next day we took the cable car up the historic Lagazoui mountain, a fortress for both Italian and Austrian armies during the First World War. There is now a museum, and one can visit the hewn-out galleries where the soldiers lived and fought. Rifugio Lagazuoi at the top is charming. We ate lunch there – beetroot ravioli, a local speciality.

Our final refuge was at the head of the San Vigilio valley at Perderü, eight miles as the crow flies from Cortina and accessible on skis. But we had to take the long way around, 50 miles by road. This had better be worth it, I muttered as we negotiated yet another hairpin bend.

Indeed it was. We were collected by snowmobile and driven up into the heights of the valley where it opened into a wide bowl with a few of barns and summerhouses. The Mutschlechner family has run Rifugio Fanes for several generations. Built in 1928, the refuge has beautiful wood-panelled rooms and is crammed with photo-graphs, fragments of shells from the Great War, curios and bowls of orchids. After dinner, our host Max played the accordion, accompanied by chef Stefan and a couple of friends on homemade instruments. We drank grappa until late. What a wonderful evening, I remarked. “It’s like this almost every night,” said one of the regular guests.

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