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High hotels elevate hiking pleasure

The hut is a welcome oasis in the mountain world above Zermatt

(swissinfo.ch)

A lack of mod cons and remoteness would seem to be two of the keys to success of Switzerland's highest hotels - and the views are not half bad either.

swissinfo checked into the Trift inn high above Zermatt, to find out why it is often harder to find a free bed in a simple mountain hut than in one of the resort's luxury hotels.

Zermatt, it would seem, is divided into two worlds; cable cars and mountain railways enable the masses to scale the heights on the eastern and northern slopes without breaking into a sweat, while the west is reserved for hikers.

If there were a cable car on the western side, the journey to the hut would take only a few minutes.

But without, it is a steep two-hour climb through a shady forest of larch trees and along a cool gorge.

Grasshoppers sun themselves on the dusty path as I advance slowly, taking my time to admire the variety of wildflowers clinging to the grassy flanks.

Crazyweeds and saxifrage

I may not be able to tell a lappish crazyweed from yellow mountain saxifrage but the bright colours offer encouragement, and the floral names posted on boards at the side of the trail are an entertaining diversion.

It requires an effort to reach any of the 150-odd mountain huts in Switzerland. You cannot drive, take a train nor throw yourself and your luggage into a taxi.

It's "no pain, no gain" and the three-story, century-old Trift hut is a very welcome sight when it finally comes into view.

Until a few years ago, hut keepers joined hotel managers in complaining about declining guest numbers. Yet all that changed in 2001 for the huts – not the hotels.

The owners of the high-altitude properties – mostly local branches of the Swiss Alpine Club – made a concerted effort to improve the huts' spartan accommodation, and launched a marketing campaign targeting average hikers and families instead of hardened climbers.

Tide turned

That, coupled with a renewed interest in high-altitude hiking, turned the tide, with a record 350,000 overnight stays in 2003.

"We have more than doubled the number of people coming up here to stay the night over the past ten years," Hugo Biner tells me.

Biner is, along with his wife, the manager and part owner of the Trift hut (see video).

They have restored the historic inn's exterior, replaced rough wool blankets on the beds with down-filled duvets and provide guests with the kind of service surpassed only by the in-your-face views of towering peaks all around.

I watch Biner rushing about, taking orders and pushing the hut's homemade apple pie. As he moves among the international clientele, he switches effortlessly from German to French and English .

"Climbers don't use the Trift as a base station, so nobody is forced to stay here," he says. "We have to fight for every customer, and that's why we do that extra little bit to get them to stay the night, and come back again in future."

Hut-to-hut

A small group from Germany is spending two nights at the Trift, as part of a hut-to-hut tour they do somewhere in the Alps each summer.

"So far, the food at the huts has generally been very good," says Johanna Krischki.

"I really like the apple pie here, but sleeping with 20 other people in the same room takes some getting used to," she adds.

"The huts are not everybody's cup of tea," remarks Konni Janz. "They're made for hikers and you always see the same people again and again. It's nice to exchange experiences, but sometimes the infrastructure is a little too basic.

"There's often only one water tap for 30 people, and you'd think they could hammer a nail into the wall to hang a second towel to dry your hands!"

The comfort of the huts has improved over the past decade," counters Paul Schut from the Dutch town of Haarlem. "There's sometimes even a shower."

Bedding down with a whole lot of people can be a challenge, but the Trift, as I was able to appreciate first hand, like many other huts now offers smaller rooms for two to four people.

Another nice touch, especially at two or three o'clock in the morning: the toilet can be found inside the building, avoiding what can be an adventurous and sometimes dangerous trip outside after dark.

"This place is more like a hotel than a mountain hut," enthuses Nicolas Ulibarri from Spain's Basque region.

Tall tale

"It's hard work – from early morning to late evening every day - but only for three months of the year," Biner admits after bringing me a tall and very refreshing glass of homemade ice tea.

He then launches into a short history and a tall tale about the Trift.

"The first hut was built by my wife's great-great grandfather as a hotel in 1887 higher up on the mountainside," he recounts.

"But it was destroyed by an avalanche about ten years later, and people still say to this day that bottles of wine from the hotel were carried by the mass of snow all the way down to Zermatt."

"The bottles were found undamaged in a pasture just on the outskirts of the village later that same year."

As the day begins to fade, Biner hauls out his alphorn and blows out a tune, much to the amusement of the many guests. "Anything to keep people happy," says the inn's host.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel at the Trift hut above Zermatt

Key facts

There are more than 150 mountain huts in the Swiss Alps.
The Trift hut is a 2-hour uphill walk from Zermatt, lying 700 metres above the resort at an elevation of 2,337 metres above sea level.
Prices range from SFr57-69 per night per person for half board.
The Trift is part of a popular four-day hiking tour, "Zermatt Matterhorn Trek", starting in Zermatt and connecting the huts at or close to the foot of Switzerland's most famous mountain.

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