The European alps have an impressive network of high alpine refuges to offer shelter for hikers, bikes and mountaineers. We head out to one of them to experience the solitude of spending a night high up in the mountains.
It is just after sunrise as Lucien starts making preparations for breakfast. Coffee, tea, fresh bread and everything else the guests might wish for is put out on the buffet table. It’s his daily routine from June to September, as the guardian of the Cabane de Mille mountain refuge. Perched up high on the Col de Mille at 2473m altitude, the mountain refuge offers a safe haven for 59 persons and was our choice of shelter for the wednesday night.
The concept of mountain huts dates back to ancient times, when Roman roads led across the mountain passes. In the High Middle Ages, hospitales were erected along the trade routes; cottages and sheds on the high mountain pastures served as shelter for travellers and traders.
The long history of mountaineering from the 19th century onwards has led to a large number of Alpine club huts as well as private huts along the mountaineering paths. Most of them are equipped with the bare essentials only. A big dining area, compost toilets and dorm style sleeping quarter keep you away from the elements on your high alpine overnight stay.
There is definitely something magical about these places. Usually no WiFi, unreachable with any form of motorized transport and reservations are to be made by calling the landline and hoping the guardian answers the phone. Definitely not what we are used to in the times of 24/7 connectivity, emails and on-demand everything. But in my opinion, that’s the beauty of it. Anything that’s easy, is special.
Making the plan
A few days before our adventure, we gave the warden a call. After three tries, we managed to get him on the line, and in our best French we made clear that we planned to spend the night at his refuge. He had plenty of space, noted our name and reminded us that cash is king high up on the mountain. Happy he reminded us, as it would be a shame if you had to skip the after ride sunset beer.
With the destination set, it was time for some route planning. The Col de Mille is a classic destination for those in the know, littered with singletracks and ridgeline trails. Up until this summer, the only way to enjoy this side of the Val de Bagnes valley was by either pedalling to the top, booking a guide with uplift or taking the Post bus that goes twice per day. As of July this year however, the Le Chable - Bruson gondola will be running for the summer high season, opening up a whole new section to hikers and bikers.
Just because the gondola is running however, doesn’t make the ride a walk in the park. When getting off at the top station, there still is a good 800m of vertical to climb before you reach the mountain hut. Not a huge effort, but enough to get the juices flowing nonetheless. After some scouting on the map, we had our plan made. Climb up the jeep track from the gondola, until it transforms into singletrack. Following the flowy undulating trail around the Tete de Payenne, before setting off on the last pedal / hike a bike towards the col.
D-day is here. Kit packed in the bag, bikes prepped for the mission we head off towards the lift. First stop is the bakery. Coffee and pastries will fuel our uphill for the day, and with views like this you have to bring a proper sandwich for a mountainside lunch.
The gondola takes us up to the hamlet of Moay in a whizz, and before we know it it’s time to move the legs. Once we found the right jeep track, navigation was a breeze. Slowly we climb in between the spaced out pine trees, catching the occasional glimpse of the ski town of Verbier on the other side of the valley.
Although the gondola is running, we are the only ones out on the mountain it seems. No hikers, no other bikers, just us and the occasional small furry animal running into the shrubs. Higher up on the mountain we come across a herd of cows, munching away at the grass in the fading sunlight. They’re living the true hard life, chilling in the meadow all day, soaking in the views of the surrounding mountain peaks and glaciers.
We stop and join the cows to enjoy the views and eat the sandwiches we brought with us. Once refuelled, we hit the singletrack traverse, the uphill suffer fest makes way for some flowy goodness. Short little climbs are followed by sweet snappy descents. It’s a clear blue sky today and we stop several times to soak in the views. The trail isn’t technical, but riding and ‘grammin isn’t a good plan.
With the traverse done, it’s time for the final part of the climb. Moving closer to the col, the slope angles steeper and steeper to the point we have to get off and walk. As we flip the bikes on our shoulders, we move step by step on the blocky technical trail. It’s late in the afternoon, and our minds are with the beer that’s waiting for us at the top.
Bikes leaning against the Cabane de Mille, we sip on our beer inside the hut. The views are amazing, and the refuge itself is a piece of art. The warden tells us this hut has been operating since 1996. First it was a very minimalistic wooden shelter, but had a complete renovation in 2013. With over 250 helicopter flights the building materials were transported up from the valley floor.
The result is impressive though. Once inside the refuge feels like a solid, modern quality accommodation. Fancy floor tiles, an open kitchen, proper indoor toilets (not very common at altitude) and even showers.
As we bring our kit to our dormitory, we realize we are lucky. There is no one to share our sleeping quarters with tonight. A big bonus as not all mountain lovers are snore free creatures.
As the sun sets behind the mountain tops dinner is served. A full plate of carbs to replenish any lost energy over the day is put in front of us. We spoil ourselves with another beer as we discuss our plans for tomorrow.
We are divided over the two options we have to return to the valley floor. One will lead us across the ridgeline towards the east. It will involve some climbing but I am a sucker for a good ridgeline… Option two is to return on the north face of the col. This trail will take us on a long singletrack below Mont Rogneux and Becca Miedzo towards the town of Versegeres. We agree to postpone our decision until the next morning.
Heads or tales
I always wake up early, especially when sleeping in a hut. There is something magical about sunrise at altitude. You feel the energy of the mountains as the light of a new day shines on them. I’m already on my second coffee as the other guests of the hut wake up and get ready. We are the only mountain bikers that spent the night, most of the other people use this hut as a stopover while walking the ‘Tour du Saint Bernard’, a 7 day hike route passing through Switzerland and Italy.
Bellies full, we grab our kit and prepare for our descent back to civilization. I flip a coin to determine which descent we take. Heads - ridgeline ride, tails - north face singletrack. Suspense in the air as I lift my hand from the coin… TAIL! North face singletrack it is. I’m slightly disappointed as I was looking forward to riding the ridgeline, but ah well. Best reason to return and do it all over again soon!
Will we keep it dry?
Directly out of the hut we hit a crossing with multiple tasty looking singletracks. I have a hunch which trail it is we are after, but as I hate to lead us to the wrong part of the mountain I stop to double check. Great moment to also check the weather forecast. We are surrounded with big fluffy clouds and they’re moving fast.
Trail confirmed, scenery documented and we’re off. Flowing through the pristine singletrack towards the valley. I won’t even start to describe the joy such a fine singletrack gives. You probably already experienced it before, and if you haven’t you can probably imagine it. The trail fairies have done a lot of work the last few weeks, crushing rocks and turning the unrideable into rideable.
When we arrive at the iconic ridgeline, the raindrops start falling. Nothing torrential, but enough to break out the rain jackets and turn taking pictures into a tedious task. After numerous lens cleaning attempts and some frozen fingers we bagged a few decent pictures to prove this isn’t fiction. We cross some slippery patches of snow and continue our way as more clouds gather to watch us ride.
An exhilarating 40 minutes later we arrive at the tiny high alpine lake. It’s small, but does not see much sunshine here on the north side of the Becca Miedzo. A quick dip of the finger was enough to inform us this water is cold. Really cold. Now we all spent enough time in lockdown to hear about the benefits of cold water submersion and see Wim Hof dip in frozen lakes without twitching.
Question is, do we follow suit?Of course we don’t! Cold water submersion is fine but not when there is singletrack waiting. We’re currently at just over 2000 meter altitude, which means we still have a good 1200m to descend. What a drag!
Time to hop on the bike and get going. As we didn’t bring any lunch it would be ace to be back in town before our bellies start protesting. As we move from high alpine pastures into the tree line, the trail gets steeper and more technical. Boulders litter the trail, and the melting water from the snow patches doesn’t make life grippier.
On the wide open sections we give our brakes a break. Trying to cool the hot smelly calipers after the steep sections. Wrong plan though. As farmers have a tendency to not think about bikers when putting up their cattle fences. An extreme brake test and almost mass collision later we decide to lower the pace a bit. The 12v electric fences aren’t lethal, but still highly uncomfortable to hang around on.
With rumbling bellies and thundering skies we roll into the town of Le Chable. Is this summer or Autumn? Mother Nature is a bit confused it seems. What feels like a week-long adventure, actually only took us 30 hours. Einstein already mentioned it, time is relative and passes slower when you are moving. Basically, if you get out now and go ride your bike, you will age less and it will feel longer to you.
What more excuse do you need?
By Jarno HooglandJarno's life has revolved around two wheels ever since he swung a leg over his first BMX at age 4. After a BMX and DH racing career, he moved on to work for bike shops, distributors and brands before ending up in the editors seat at IMB. Based in the ultimate testing ground in the Swiss mountains, he runs his guiding operation and makes sure every IMB issue is filled with top notch content.