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Swiss Cheers

A stop along the haute route proves to be a festive and frugal way to sample the freeride terrain outside of Saas-Fee.

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As our group approaches the century-old stone hut at the end of a splitter spring day, we can’t help but be awestruck. The building is perfectly cobbled out of the same rock protruding from the glacial alpine around us, pock-marked with Swiss-red window shutters. At 10,000 feet, the vision before us appears as a giant reverse ladybug. Outside it, a terrace with picnic tables sits before a chalkboard surreally announcing that night’s menu. It feels like the Mad Hatter is just around the corner.

The writer, along with athlete Marcus Waring, make their way to the Britannia Hut, outside of Switzerland's Saas-Fee resort.
The writer, along with athlete Marcus Waring, make their way to the Britannia Hut, outside of Switzerland’s Saas-Fee resort.Photo credit Simon Ricklin

Trusting the vision, Marcus Waring, Simon Ricklin, and Andreas Seiler pile onto the terrace ahead of me. On this day, only a handful of other people sit here; the rest are still playing in the mountains. It’s late March and the piercing Swiss sun will be out until about 7 p.m., providing ample time to imbibe in the adjacent shady north pitches before dinner—or stagger in late from a long day’s walk. This spot can either be the beginning or the end of the “Haute Route,” a variable ski-mountaineering traverse connected by huts that lead some 125 miles from Zermatt, Switzerland, to Chamonix, France. Or the reverse.

We get to show up at the end of our exhausting day with nothing but our ski-mountaineering gear and outerwear, not weighted by the typical overnight fare that would normally have our packs exploding with fuel, stoves, sleeping bags and “danglies”—all those hanging bits there’s no room for inside your pack.

The sturdy stone Britannia Hut dates to the early 1900s
The sturdy stone Britannia Hut dates to the early 1900s.Photo credit Simon Ricklin

The Britannia Hut is only a short tour from the top of Ski Saas-Fee, a resort sharing the same name as the village at its base, 6,000 feet below. Our team is using a short overnight stay to get an early start in some of the abundant freeride terrain surrounding it while spring heat limits midday backcountry skiing. It’s a perfect setup. The Britannia Hut can accommodate up to 133 people and comes full service with breakfast and a three-course dinner. There are an assortment of duvets, hut booties and pillows all waiting for you. It has a melt-water reservoir that runs flush toilets, propane heat and solar panels for electricity—complete with a charging station for your electronic devices. You can even buy lunch and booze. If you’re alright in your same long undies each night, you can come here with what you’d bring for a day tour, and stay for days.

Built in 1912 by British members of the Swiss Alpine Club, and renovated in 1997, the hut’s inner amenities are among the most modern in the Alps while still remaining rustic and Old World-y. Settling in before supper, we socialize with German-speaking members of the Swiss army who’ll later serenade us with accordion ballads. At our dinner table, there are Italians, a Spaniard, and a woman from California. Some doing the Haute Route, some not. It’s level international dining: We all sport stinky polypro and tousled hair as we fumble through communicating. Soon enough, though, we’re all quieted by leek soup, roast beef, and seasoned rice followed by a calorie-dense dessert of meringue.

When it comes time for bed, things get a bit more primitive. We pile together in rooms that sleep up to 18, side by side—without dividers. It’s not an experience for the shy, or those unequipped with earplugs. Morning comes sharp and hard as everyone rises simultaneously for a 5 a.m. breakfast of muesli, tea, and coffee.

There's no dearth of powder turns accessible from the hut.
There’s no dearth of powder turns accessible from the hut.Photo credit Simons Ricklin

Leaving in the dawn light is worth it. The move delivers several quick ascents in perfectly preserved north-facing powder. We lay flowy lines down three steep faces of about 1,000 feet each, spilling back down onto the glacial flats of the Allalin Glacier, surrounded by the 12,000-plus-foot peaks of the Monte Rosa, Strahlhorn, Stellihorn, and Rimpfischhorn. If you want to go check out the mother of all horns—the Matterhorn—it’s only a short skip away in Zermatt.

Switzerland is crazy expensive, it’s true—something to do with insular national policies and hidden wealth from World War II—but in the grand scheme of skiing, at 79 CHF a night (which converted to $79 at press time), this is the cheapest way to get the goods. While we slink 4,000 feet back down towards the neighboring village of Saas-Grund, with three epic runs behind us, most people are just hitting their snooze buttons. 


Getting there: The approach to the Britannia Hut takes about an hour and 30 minutes from the top of the Felskinn Cable Car at Saas-Fee. 

Closest airport: Geneva or Zurich, then connection via rail. 

Cost: $79 a night including breakfast and dinner. The restaurant at the hut serves simple, hearty Swiss alpine fare such as rosti and fondue.