Lights go out at 10pm on the dot and the following morning breakfast is served from sunrise until 7am. The red-and-white chequered blankets must be folded according to Swiss military tradition – lengthwise first. The wash room is about 5°C and its melted glacial water even colder.
But the ‘hardships’ of hiking from one Alpine hut to another are easily outweighed by the rewards: the shrill cry of woodchuck-like marmots, the sharp silhouettes of mountain goats on a narrow ledge, the deep blue of a gentian, awakening to a landscape turned suddenly white with snow, and ending the day playing cards huddled around the oven.
The Swiss Alpine Club lists 153 of these huts on various hiking routes, including private huts, which are sometimes run by ski clubs and other associations. There are more than 300 mountain lodges ranging from ‘comfortable’ with showers and four-bed rooms to simple unguarded shelters.
The fun begins halfway up the valley, two-and-a-half hours out of Lenk, an Alpine resort town in the Bernese Oberland. After walking along a stream, past a massive waterfall, grazing cows and tiny villages, you arrive at Iffigenalp, a picturesque Alpine meadow at 1600 metres. Here you find a cosy, Swiss inn whose roots go back to a turn-of-the century spa for those in need of fresh air.
The crisp autumn air carries appetising whiffs of regional specialties. The inn’s enthusiastic new owners offer a sorbet of Alpine roses, cheese fondue and heusuppe, literally ‘hay soup’, made from mountain herbs steeped in bouillon and hay that is removed from the broth before it’s served.
At the annual ‘chamois evening’ in late September, guests dance to music from an oergeli – a miniature Swiss accordion – and eat dishes made with meat from chamois, the small goat antelope of the Alps.
You can even dance with the local hunters,” says innkeeper Helen Gfeller, whose specialities include cheeses and butter made from unpasteurised milk at a neighbouring dairy that she says her guests adore.
Two-and-a-half hours further up, you reach Wildhornhuette at 2300 metres. In the foyer, there is a pungent smell of dirty socks and wet hiking boots. Hundreds of fur-lined waterproof galoshes and a primitive stove tell of cold winters when the rest of the cabin is closed off and this serves as the day room.
Inside, hikers slump over their cards and drink warming cups of tea. Outside, the snowfall has turned into a full-blown storm. Willy Romang, a mountain guide-turned-lodge keeper from Gstaad, is a bit grumpy.
“I had 80 reservations for tonight, but most have cancelled due to the weather,” he says.
In the end about 20 hikers show up. At exactly 6.30pm, Romang serves lukewarm lumpy polenta accompanied by meat stew – typical hut fare. Chatter about hiking routes and the weather fills the room before the guests start drifting away to get ready for bed.
Romang’s last check-up just before lights out provokes some mumbling of “stricter than kids’ camp”. There is some quiet giggling on the bunk beds before the snoring sets in. The room sleeps 20.
The next morning, because the snow has covered most red-and-white trail markers, hikers are guided by piles of stones, known as cairns, up a narrow slippery ledge into a moonlike landscape. Once the clouds lift, the panorama is stunning and even the otherwise dangerous crevices of the Chirchli glacier shine in the sun.
Up on the pass, the view is yin and yang – white on one side, and grey, rocky landscape on the other. Descending, the trail has you jumping from rock to rock before the landscape opens up to a wide vista.
Several hours later and after a last steep ascent you reach Wildstrubelhuette at 2800 metres. If the sunset is breathtaking, the hut’s interior is equally so. After serving homemade hazelnut-and-pear pie topped with a thick layer of whipped cream, the guardian fires the ancient stove in the 1927 hut.
Until its renovation and extension last year, this part of the lodge was solely used as winter retreat. The original Alpine flower etchings still decorate the window sills and the old signs on the cupboards read “first-aid pharmacy”, “games”, and “emergency food” – a reminder of when the hut was unguarded and hikers brought their own food and drink.
• The Bernese Oberland and Lenk are about two hours by train from Bern, the Swiss capital, or about four hours by train from Zurich or Geneva airports (www.rail.ch). As a rule of thumb, huts are open in July, August and September, but many huts are open for the ski touring season and selected winter weekends. Costs for overnight hut stays range from 20 to 40 Swiss francs depending on amenities. Not all huts have guardians so you must sometimes carry your own food. Usually half-board (supper and breakfast) costs about 30 francs.”