Author Ziggy Dox is a Netherlands-based contributor with a hunger for mountains and waves, and a roll of film always loaded when he steps out the door.
European mountaineering culture is characterized by the presence of many unique refuges spread across the Alps. One of the most remarkable huts is the Charpoua Refuge, which looks out over the endless Mer de Glace Glacier—the name translates literally to “sea of ice”—above Chamonix and at the foot of the Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest peak. For the past century, the hut has served as shelter for the boldest of alpinists.
Perched on a rocky spur, the tiny wooden cabin is surrounded by jagged and icy granite peaks of the Drus (3,755 meters) and the Aiguille Verte (4,122 meters). The surrounding terrain is a playground for only the most experienced climbers and many have ventured here to test themselves on one of the legendary routes in this wild corner of the Mont Blanc Massif.
"Reaching the hut is quite the challenge, nevermind summiting the peaks it provides access to."
Recently, while passing through the Chamonix valley with a night to spare, I asked around in town for advice on an accessible overnighter, and that's when I learned about Charpoua. Shortly after I found myself stepping onto blue glacial ice en route to the refuge with nothing more than some extra warm clothes and my trustworthy Canon AE-1, loaded with one last roll of film.
Though the valley is relatively small and remarkably accessible, reaching the hut is quite the challenge, nevermind summiting the peaks it provides access to. Yet the views would surely be worth it.
Starting from the famed French mountain town of Chamonix, the route heads to the Mer de Glace Glacier (many go via the little red train that takes tourists up for the view). The glacier has been melting rapidly for the past few years, and there are now long ladders to reach the ice where previously one could simply step onto it from the station platform. Once on the ice, the path follows the glacier upwards, avoiding the many crevasses, to arrive at another few hundred meters of ladders up the slippery rock face that ends in a grassy plateau. From here, a technical trail goes up to the cabin.
The hut itself dates back to 1904, when locals from the valley carried the wood for its structure up the mountain on their backs. It’s been upgraded since, but remains the same minimalist hideout it always has been, and it catapults you back in time from the moment you walk in the door. The single space sleeps 12 people max, and also features a stove and a small kitchen.
Sarah Cartier, a ski and snowboard instructor from the valley, has been the hut guardian and steward for multiple summers. She scrambles up at the beginning of the season while all the locally sourced supplies are delivered by helicopter.
During recent seasons, her two-year-old son has also been in her backpack, joining her at the remote dwelling for the entire summer. The pair is often alone and undisturbed for days at a time, immersed in the vast solitude of the place. When climbers do arrive, the family takes the bottom bunk and the guests sleep up top.
For me, sharing a table and sleeping quarters with a young family I had just met, in a place I'd only decided to trek to on a spur of the moment whim, was a warm and intimate experience that's rarely encountered, and one I won't soon forget.
If you find yourself within reach of Chamonix with a night—and plenty of energy—to spare, this is one pitstop worth every bit of effort to access.