Where Scientists Sleep: A History of Alpine Huts

Do you prefer going to the beach or the mountains? This simple icebreaker aims to provide insight into one’s personality or interests. For mountain lovers, it’s a question that may also evoke a dramatic landscape with snow-capped peaks reminiscent of those found on the Instagram page of National Geographic Adventure, for example, where mountaineers are captured undertaking challenges that test the limits of human capability.

What is critical but often overlooked are the high-altitude shelters that protect adventurers and tourists on their treks. Hikers and climbers today typically rely on tents and other camping gear, but earlier generations sought shelter in more permanent structures or huts. A recent study by architectural historians Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo explores how the design and construction of huts in the Western Alps in the late eighteenth through nineteenth century was a milestone in the exploration of the Alps. The construction of shelters offering overnight accommodations made it possible for explorers to undertake wide-ranging scientific explorations in the Alps for the first time. Unlike existing housing models, these huts were usually simple—carved into rock surfaces or leaning against them, providing the minimum needs for protection against what explorers saw as a hostile and frightening alpine environment.

Prior to the construction of these huts, mountains represented “an insurmountable barrier to discovering areas at higher altitudes,” according to the study. The researchers state that such shelters “in the most inhospitable areas of Europe” represent the “progressive transformation of the alpine region from sharp construct into an outpost of scientific learning, the ‘playground’ of mountaineers.”

The architectural structure of these first shelters present another dichotomy. The huts represented a safe space free from the harsh environment outside, a place where one could recharge before persevering the next day. And not only did the huts provide shelter, but they also gave visitors a psychological comfort with a brief chance to withdraw from the otherwise extreme non-human terrain.

Not mentioned in the article but interesting to note is the historical context surrounding the establishment of these shelters. When first constructed in France and Switzerland during the late 1700s, European high society was in the later periods of the Age of Enlightenment. A corresponding movement during the previous century was the Scientific Revolution, an era when the concept of modern science emerged with revolutions in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry. It appears logical that the intellectual heritage from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment was under the same impulse that led to the expansion of studying astronomy in these remote regions. Additionally, it raises questions about who constructed these structures and the political dynamics that might have impacted the desire to expand into these regions. While, the Dini and Girodo study doesn’t address these questions, it sets the stage for further research to explore how the political and social perspectives influenced the design and use of alpine huts.

During the 1800s and 1900s, researchers and explorers could rely on the haven of shelters to plan more extended expeditions. These huts sparked curiosity among Enlightenment-induced scholars to study the not-well-understood glaciers and alpine landscape previously unattainable. But as a result, the introduction of shelters and exploration also led to an increased human intervention in the European Alps. According to the study, a consequence was the systematic physical alteration of the high-altitude region.

For scholars interested in the intersection between humans and the environment (and breaking the sharp dichotomy between the two), the authors indicate that high-altitude areas are “an ideal setting for testing a qualitative conciliation of the natural environment and human intervention.” In other words, alpine huts can be of interest to people not even working in mountain areas since they offer such a contrast between the natural environment and human interventions.

In recent decades, huts have even transformed from the historically crude and limited models to more luxurious structures that experiment with style and design. With the primary need for overnight shelter established, the building has become increasingly conceived as a place of short-term stay (whether overnight or a few nights) and a location for consumption of food and pleasure. 

The striking Monte Rosa hut near Zermatt, Switzerland (Source: martin_vmorris/Flickr).

In the last twenty years, designers such as the ones behind the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland have responded to the surging interest in environmental questions and sustainability by incorporating energy-saving technology and rational resource management for isolated alpine refuges among glacierized terrains. Although still primarily serving as short-term housing and as protection against the elements, these newer shelters seek to enhance the outdoor experience for humans with interior designs that feature large windows and open floor plans. Earlier huts lacked windows, and this change reflects not only our improved technology and better heating but also our cultural shifts. Early on, humans perceived mountains as so hostile that they wanted to withdraw from them. Now, the Alps are a place of interest for people to explore and experience first-hand.

Despite the transformation of alpine shelters from simple design to luxurious spaces, two primary points remain unchanged throughout the last three centuries. First, visitors are still temporary. Whether they enter for a few hours or a couple of days, the structures reflect the come-and-go nature of tourism. Second, the reasons behind individuals occupying these shelters remain tied to the luxurious sphere of free time and pleasure. Certainly, the professional lens of Enlightenment-inspired scientific endeavors or today’s mountaineering expeditions have transformed the leisure activity into a professional occupation.

On the whole, the inhabitants of these shelters remain an elite group of predominantly white male individuals who continue to explore the heights of the world’s tallest mountains. The construction of alpine huts is a part of the history of white male privilege. But as these shelters transform from an image of stark refuge to more sustainable designs that celebrate (and market from) the surrounding environment, perhaps alpine shelters too may become more welcoming of a diverse team of scientists and explorers in glacierized environments.

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