How do you break it to your 15-year-old son that he is going to be spending the evening of the World Cup final in a mountain hut in the French Alps, miles from the nearest television — at a time when England still had a chance of taking part? Theo took it well. He didn’t mind sacrificing the football — provided, that is, that we made a serious attempt on our personal altitude record.
That was set last summer at 3,096 metres when we hoofed it up Mont Buez, ascending more than 2,000 metres in a single day, only to be deflated when I later saw the peak described in an old guide book as ‘Mont Blanc for the ladies’. This time we were going to do better. Rather than starting each day down in some car park well below the treeline, we were going to stay up high for several days by making use of the network of mountain refuges which are dotted all over the Alps.
I had passed them many times before, some of them charming and some of them mini-Pompidou Centres which take the French taste for hideous public art — literally — to new heights. But I had never been inside one, let alone stayed in one.
Our first, the Refuge entre Deux Eaux, announced itself from several miles out with signs boasting of ‘douches chaudes’ as we tramped across the Vanoise mountain range from Val d’Isère. The signs were not joking, as I soon discovered, finding myself being boiled like a lobster and reaching out in vain for the non-existent temperature controls. I should have guessed, though: if a refuge advertises hot showers, it probably means they are the exception rather than the rule.
The refuge turned out to be run by a charming old lady whose family had been there since 1908. She hoisted the Savoie flag and cooked a lovely dinner. I wasn’t quite prepared for the sleeping arrangements, however. I knew they would be communal, and that would come as a bit of a shock in itself. So I did wince when Madame showed us to a room which contained nothing but a bunk version of the Great Bed of Ware — the communal bed from a Hertfordshire inn now kept at the V&A. The choice lay between sharing with a mouse-like French couple on the top or a swivel-eyed Italian on the lower bunk. It was a long night: lights out was at 9:30 p.m.
Next day we made it over the Col de Vanoise, as well as up and down a series of incredible cirques — glaciated valleys the shape of amphitheatres that could seat audiences of several million. We were each ready for a douche chaude after that — but the plumbing at our next refuge had begun to fail and there was only cold water. The sleeping arrangements turned out to be even more embarrassing: Theo and I were put in with a honeymooning couple, and had to clamber over their smooching forms in order to reach the stepladder to the gallery where we were sleeping. It was awful, like when you take your kids to the zoo and the llamas start shagging.
Then the water ran out. Though the mountains in all directions were pouring with the stuff, not a drop was making it to our refuge. There were ample stocks of absinthe behind the bar, but no water. There was no chance of washing, and we had to beg for some of the limited stocks of bottled drinking water. After a couple of days I resorted to plunging in a freezing mountain stream.
We did, however, succeed in breaking our altitude record: reaching 3,154 metres by striding up a glacier on the French-Italian border. We would have felt even more pleased with ourselves had we not been disturbed at the top by a wailing — and looked up to see a family of chamois leaping about on the final rocky outcrop that we ourselves were too chicken to climb.
There was a consolation, however. On World Cup night a Swiss gent let it slip that our refuge had a television. It was a special occasion: the management allowed us to break its usual curfew of 10 p.m. by a whole hour to watch extra time. By mountain refuge standards it was pure and utter decadence.