By: Carson Brown
As a photographer it can be easy to fall into the habit of living through a lens. This trip, though, was one for us. Okay, yes I did take a few (hundred) photos but it wasn’t about “live posting”, breaking some other site-seeing PR or checking some “extreme” peaks box. Redirecting our focus was the driving force of our Hut to Hut trip in the Italian Alps. From the charm of staying in Rifugios to overworking our entire bodies, here’s my take on a trip every adventurer should try at least once in their lifetime.
How an Italian toaster-strudel changed me
We wanted a break from our lives that can often feel too focused on outcome. Hike the Orobie Alps seemed a good place to start. As a freelance artist, overtime I’ve become more focused on process than on outcome, or at least that’s what I’d like it to be. I think we’re all haunted by a result driven world more than we’d like to admit. So on this trip we wanted to let go of that feeling of competition, the sense of being rushed or needing to “keep up” that I personally experience too often.
We wanted a trip that was centered on process. Our focus was hiking beautiful (and sure hard) trails, enjoying each other’s company and also making it the next rifugio which was just a few thousand feet of elevation away.
The ultimate goal? Find ALL the cheese, wine, espresso and make sure we made it to warm beds in the mountainside rifugios* scattered through the Orobie Alps before dark.
I was a bit baffled when I arrived at my first Rifugio last year. Why are all these people lounging under the sun, eating italian style “toaster strudels” that I’m pretty sure didn’t come from a box in the freezer with a frosting packet stuck to the side. Did they hike those warm pastries up here? Where did they get that espresso? And wine? Wait, was that a charcuterie board?! At that point the picture I had in my mind of a “Rifugio” or mountain hut was just that, a hut. It would have four walls, a leaky roof, a few musty canvas cots; probably running water, some sort of pit toilet, but likey no heat, electricity and definitely no delicious italian toaster strudels. I quickly learned, although there is a range of amenities from hut to hut, these mountain rifugios are really just that, a refuge. They’re there to provide stable, dry and even comfortable shelter with warm food for mountain recreation.
Was it maybe a little too accessible? Comfortable? Bougie?… Even on a “holiday” backpacking trip there’s a certain degree of suffering required for me to enjoy a hostel style refuge. If I didn’t carry this warm shelter, soft bed and cheese plate to the top of the mountain, then I don’t deserve it…
… This feeling of not deserving such nice dwellings. The idea that, it’s not hard enough. All those “concerns” disappeared with one bite of an artisanal Italian “toaster strudel” while sitting in an Alps renaissance landscape painting. Lounged over my pack sipping an esspresso, snarfing on the most delicious pastry I’ve ever had, I had my own moment of awakening. “Man, they really got it figured out over here.” I started scheming of “holidays” and “backpacking” and thought of all the friends I could invite to put these things together.
* side note for those who of you who aren’t familiar with a rifugio, here’s the footnote – The rifugios were born from a heritage of alpine recreation. These mountain huts are now scattered across the alps providing refuge. Each one has a unique character influenced by the different families and staff that care for them but all offer genuine hospitality, simple accommodations, home-cooked meals and a modest bar with mountain enthusiasts from all over.
The rifugios we stayed in on this trip could only be reached via foot as they were scattered in the mountainsides of Italian Alps.
Do you think the Von Trapp Family wore dry-wicking lederhosen?
Our first-day hiking began from the town of Fiumenero, on the “Via Dante” trail and included a refreshing dip and a meandering trailside lunch. This carefree stop ended in a sobering realization that no matter how leisurely we planned, a 5000 ft. climb is still, just a “leisurely” 5000 ft. climb.
Personally, I never thought I would use the word “devastating” to describe my first rifugio sighting of the trip, but spotting the chalet as a faint speck on a mountainside was just that, a devastating realization that a “leisurely” pace = slow progress. Instead of sharing my far-in-the-distance-rifugio-mirage sighting with the group, I had us take a vote on red or white wine or maybe beer? Thankfully we shuffled into Rifugio Brunone at the end of dinner and in time for drinks. Did you know that “Via Dante” is Italian for “Stairmaster”? Well, it’s not, but the first hut supplied ample liquid remedies.
Waking up at all the different rifugios felt like waking up on the set to the re-make of “The Sound of Music”. A movie I’ve only seen photos of, but in the re-make there are way more trail runners.
We would sleepily sip our coffee and milk with Fette Biscottate (a small, pre-packaged-pedestrian-like-cracker-bread). It was surprisingly (and unfortunately) omnipresent at breakfast, even off the mountain. Once packed up and on the trail, the blissful weather turned on us quickly. Clouds rolled in with a drizzle. Thunderstorm rolled through, cleared out, only to whirl back around. It was overcast, sleety, windy, then the sun came out again.
A thick fog arrived next, bringing a sprinkle that eventually built to a downpour, and back to a sprinkle. Each of these changes lasted from minutes to hours. The thunder would get louder in the distance from a new direction, then suddenly the sun broke. We were basically navigating through terrain in an unpredictable microclimate pinball. Personally, with the right gear, I feel fine backpacking through most of these conditions. I’m just not the biggest fan of setting up camp and cooking in them, let alone carrying that camp and kitchen. Not to mention planning a meal calorie strategy for the trip. But knowing you’re going to finish your day at a remote mountain side shelter with a warm meal, a small bar and a soft bed makes most weather conditions even more manageable.
After three days of “real” hiking, climbing up and down and back up mountains to find our rifugios, our fourth day was more of an active rest day. The weather and the terrain of the alps can be challenging and unrelenting which gives way to the beauty and majesty of these mountains. This is definitely the allure, at least for me.
We spent the last day doing a day hike from our rifugio. There is so much to explore, from different peaks and valleys to many water features. Staying an extra night in the same rifugio and exploring is a great way to get lost in the alps. We got lucky with sunshine most of the day and found ourselves swimming in a lake we rushed past in the downpour the night before. We hiked to another rifugio for lunch, and played in the mountains surrounding it. As the sun began to fall and the rain started again we hurried back to our rifugio, to the warm dinner and people that awaited us. Having the network of rifugios throughout the alps makes you want to spend hard, long days on the trail, even in the rain. This trip isn’t “easy” but it is definitely doable and it made me think of how many more of my friends could and would do a similar trek. It’s really my favorite type of backpacking.
Some Quality Takeaways: Your leisurely schedule might not be everyone else’s
The people we met were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. Always inquisitive as to how we found the Bergamo province, as opposed to some of the more trafficked areas of the Alps. This led to warm, slowly translated conversations. My favorite taking place under a starry alpine sky on the deck of the Coca Rifugio.
As romantic as this sounds it wasn’t all shooting stars and curious cultural mingling. There are a few alpine hut norms we missed in our research online, but picked up in the field. Specifically through one passionate rifugio host that liked to talk with his hands.
1) Dinner begins and ends at a specific time, don’t be late! But if you’ve called ahead and they know you’re making your way through the downpour, they’ll (most likely) leave some plates aside for you.
2) Quiet hours mean different things depending on who’s running the rifugio and how busy the season is. This can range from “inside voices” to “mom and dad said it’s time to go to bed.”
3) Pre-packaged-pedestrian-like-cracker-bread hour is early. Which isn’t a culinary experience you’ll be sad to miss but at the more remote rifugios it’s likely the only thing served until lunch.
4) Different rifugios sell different treats. It might behove you to squirrel it away in case you sleep through breakfast or are late to dinner.
Blog post written by Carson Brown. All photos in blog taken by Carson Brown