Space-age 'huts' for Alpine trekkers irk the traditionalists

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The Independent Online

An unwritten rule of the mountains states that anyone in need can take refuge in the solitary huts dotted across the world's higher peaks.

But lonely Alpine trekkers seeking to escape the bitter cold this winter might wonder if the mountain hut marked on their maps has not been replaced by something from outer space.

A new wave of gleaming, hi-tech refuges springing up across the Alps promises to bring an extra comfort and safety for weary travellers, while respecting the increasingly threatening mountain environment.

The trend was started in September with the opening of the Monte Rosa Hutte, perched 2,900m up in the mountains of the Swiss canton of Valese. With its angular, metallic walls scattering Alpine light in all directions, the energy-efficient lodge owned by the Swiss Alpine Ski Club is designed to resemble a giant crystal.

The latest addition to the futuristic line-up is the planned replacement for the old refuge on the Frebouze glacier on Mont Blanc, overlooking the east face of the Grandes Jorasses mountain.

The Giusto Gervasutti refuge, to be completed next summer, will resemble an aircraft fuselage poking out of a rocky outcrop more than 2,800m up Europe's highest peak. Stefano Testa, one of the architects responsible for the new structure, being built for the Alpine Club of Turin and the Sucai ski school, was keen to talk up the refuge's green credentials, because the environmental damage to the formerly pristine Alps is becoming a concern. "It's a contemporary structure that will leave no trace of itself," he told La Stampa newspaper. "The idea is to use all available technology to avoid any pollution."

Four pre-assembled blocks will be flown to the site by helicopter. The eight metre-long lodging, with room for 12, and big windows allowing spectaculars views, is equipped with sensors to predict weather patterns and control the climate inside, and solar panels.

But not everyone is happy about the new architecture. Arrigo Gallizio, president of the Alpine Guide Bureau at Courmayeur on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, said the old refuge at Bivacco was "fine as it was", adding: "The old refuges had a unique charm and history. Why throw that all away? The impression is that they [the architects] want to amaze you, that they pursue an idea for the sake of appearance. Why treat the mountains so badly? And above all, why cancel signs of the mountaineering history?"

But Mr Testa said there was nothing wrong with advancing hut design or placing a strong emphasis on comfort, comparing the advances in refuge design with the progression from wooden skis to the hi-tech equipment we take for granted today.

"We don't understand why a revolution in mountain clothes and facilities shouldn't be followed by research into modern hospitality in a refuge or hut," he said. "It's a paradox to finally reach a mountain refuge and find that it's a fleapit."

Even bolder designs are planned. Welsh designer Ross Lovegrove's eight-metre capsule hotel concept resembles a metallic bubble. Through its mirror skin, occupants will have a 360-degree view of the surrounding Dolomite peaks in the eastern Alps.

But it seems likely this hi-tech refuge will provide winter entertainment for those with deep pockets rather than a bed for the night to hardened trekkers.

And with half a metre of snow already covering the higher parts of the Alps, it should not be long before the other refuges are called on again.