What we can learn from Switzerland
Last month my wife and I had the good fortune of traveling to Switzerland for our honeymoon. We are middle class folks, so we knew our lodging options needed to be reasonably priced. Our plans included numerous hikes, a few trail runs, a bit of mountain biking, plenty of Swiss cheese, and relaxing in some of the country’s beautiful high alpine huts.
Make no mistake, Switzerland is a land of mountains, and the Swiss Alpine Club has done an incredible job of creating an infrastructure that allows skiers and hikers from all over the world to stay in one of their 152 cabanes (the French word for hut or shack). Don’t mind the French translation – these buildings are hardly shacks.
Many of them boast a caretaker/chef who will be happy to cook you a warm lunch as you pass through on your journey. Would you like a cold beer with that? No problem. Rosti, a traditional Swiss meal comprised of potatoes, cheese, and (if you’re lucky) ham or bacon, quickly became my favorite cabane meal.
It is no secret that backcountry adventures are best experienced with friends. The Cabane Mont Fort, located at 2,457m (8,061 feet), is capable of hosting 56 of your closest pals in shared and private rooms. And if you don’t have that many friends, you’re bound to make new ones as you enjoy the family-style dinner served each night by the hut’s gracious caretaker. A hot shower is yours for a few Swiss francs.
Other huts, such as the Capanna Efra, located in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, are less elaborate. There is no caretaker, and the restored farmhouse is capable of sleeping only 25 guests (still quite a party). My wife and I loved the hike to this hut because of the diverse scenery from the valley floor all the way up to the high scree fields. Waterfalls, enchanting forests, glacial lakes, goats, and centuries-old farming villages will lift the spirits of anyone lucky enough to visit. We only needed a flying unicorn to convince us we had entered utopia.
We have since returned to Vermont. We try to preserve the memories of dinners with strangers who quickly became friends by looking at photos from our trip. Our lungs have lost their higher elevation advantage, and we have eaten nearly all of our Swiss chocolate. But all is not lost on the hut front.
A new chapter in Vermont recreation is upon us. Will the Green Mountains ever have a backcountry hut system that rivals that of the Swiss? Unlikely. The people of Switzerland live in the mountains, and their culture fosters an unparalleled appreciation for their natural environment. But Vermonters are not so different. We love to play outside. We love the spirit of the mountains, and we strive to promote and protect our wilderness areas.
Other states in the US have created their own versions of a Swiss hut system. Colorado and Maine host a network of huts and lodges unique in their own way. Sun Valley Trekking in Idaho has a mix of huts and yurts for mountain lovers to fully immerse themselves in the backcountry and explore the Sawtooth Range. When we can eat and rest our heads where we play, we become that much more connected to the land.
Vermont’s hut network will cover our entire state, and I suspect each operator will bring his or her own flavor. One hut’s caretaker may be capable of offering you a delicious breakfast with maple syrup from their own sugarbush. Another might be located near an orchard or farm with fresh apple pies and sharp cheeses served up for a lunchtime snack, while others might simply offer primitive accommodations.
We can connect a farmer’s old cabin in the woods to a young couple’s modern yurt, and we can help an aspiring caretaker follow her dream of managing a new stop along the Catamount Trail. We’ll never be Switzerland, but Vermont’s hut network will be as eclectic and unique as the individuals who call it home.