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Postcard - Overnight at King Albert's Hut
An overnight experience in the French Alps, hiking to the King Albert Hut near Chamonix, France, Summer 1996
While staying near Chamonix, we decided to introduce our friends Van and Julie to the joys of mountain huts. An overnight visit to the King Albert 1st hut, perched on the lateral moraine of the Glacier du Tour at an altitude of 8800 feet, was our destination. The views over the glacier and the Aiguilles (the needle-like mountain peaks) of the Chamonix valley promised to be inspiring, while the hike up would be moderate (the hut's web site touts itself as accessible for families with children).
As we approached the jump-off point in the village of Le Tour, we discovered that the trek up to the refuge could be shortened through the use of one or more ski lifts. Since none of us was working on our hiking merit badge, the vote was 4-0 to use both lifts. We believe that getting up to higher altitudes quickly is desirable because you are able to draw inspiration and motivation as you hike, from the panoramic views. So, when we exited the second lift at 2186 meters, we only had 620 meters of vertical to cover during our hike to the refuge.
Since we were making this trek in mid-June, which is early season for mountain huts, we anticipated that late season snow might obscure parts of the trail. Despite my wife's arched eyebrows that screamed "Gear Freak!", I elected to bring two ice axes, "just in case". This turned out to be a good choice, since we encountered two or three trail sections that were snow packed, and the final ascent to the refuge terrace was a nearly vertical climb up 30 feet of packed snow/ice. All of these could have been navigated without equipment, but the protection of being able to hold on to something that was secure was reassuring for the squeamish amongst us. While celebrating our successful climb with nice cool beers on the refuge terrace, we witnessed the arrival of a German couple. The woman balked at the final steep climb, and no matter how much reassurance she received from her husband, she refused. Her use of the veto left them with only one alternative - turn around, and go back down.
Our hike from the lift to the refuge is listed on the refuge's web site as a 1 1/2 hour hike, but we stretched it out to 2 hours - too many photo opportunities. It was a beautiful sunny day and the vistas surpassed all expectations. Throughout the hike, we were serenaded by warning whistles of marmots. Occasionally, we would spot one.
After settling in on the terrace, we watched other hikers and climbers arrive, while we nursed our beers in the brilliant sunshine. Van and I decided to climb up above the refuge towards the base of the peaks, while Julie and Linda chose to fawn over a group of British Royal Marines who were staying at the hut while conducting a glacier rescue training session. Using the ice axes, Van and I climbed up the steep packed snow above the hut until it seemed our hearts would explode in the thin mountain air. The brilliant sunshine was so warming that it was t-shirt weather. When we stopped and rested, it was so quiet, that you could hear absolutely nothing, except for the occasional sound of the wind on the peaks above. As the sun began to set below the peaks across the valley, we glissaded (sliding down the mountain, using your hiking boots as skis) down to the hut for our evening meal.
While eating our evening meal, a lamb stew, we met a 50-ish British couple that was sharing the bunkroom with us and six of the Royal Marines. After introductions were completed, the woman made some reference to "Ken's snoring"; alarm bells began going off in my mind. While Julie and Van and the Royal Marines segued into an evening of story telling and drinking, I was beginning to feel a little chilled from my afternoon's activities and the plummeting temperature. I decided to go to bed early to keep warm and avoid the problem of falling asleep with a snorer in the room. Nice try!
Falling into a deep sleep almost immediately, I was later awoken by someone starting a chainsaw not five feet from my bunk, in the middle of the night! No! It was Ken - and thus began my night of torture, and also the inclusion of some more mandatory equipment for the equipment freak - ear plugs. I stayed in bed until I heard the climbers leaving from other bunk rooms and I went down to eat a really early breakfast.
Soon, others from our bunk room began to filter into the eating area, and I knew it was safe to go back and pack for the trip back down to the valley. Van good naturedly chided the soldiers, "And you call yourselves commandoes - six of you and you couldn't even take out one old man!" One Royal Marine's reply: "Don't think we didn't consider it, mate."
Julie, Van, and my wife were all ready to go. The marines were assembling on the terrace, getting their gear ready for a day on (and in) the glacier. We didn't even wait for the sun to come up over the peaks.
Some times there's a price to be paid for such an incredible adventure. None of us will ever forget the grandeur of the light on the aiguilles and the eerie sounds of the ice moving in the glacier. Julie will always be able to tell about the night she slept with six British Royal Marines, and Van can tell about how he solicited the murder of a British gentleman - all for the price of one night's sleep. Priceless!
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3416: Overnight at King Alberts, photos from this hike, Steve and Linda Jones
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3607: Hiking Austria's Virgental, photos from this hike, Steve and Linda Jones
Slow Travel Austria - Hiking Hut-to-Hut: What to expect with this kind of hiking in the alps, Steve Jones
Slow Travel Austria - Hiking Austria's Virgental: Postcard of hiking to a hut in the Austrian Alps, Steve Jones
© Steve Jones, 2005
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