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A Conversation with the Captain of an Iconic Alps Refuge

Floran Tomei  /  Jan 26, 2018  /  6 Min Read  /  Community

The Charpoua Hut, a minimalist hideaway in the heart of a granite sanctuary. Photo: Pierre Cadot

Sarah Cartier, the valiant captain of one of the most emblematic refuges on the Alps, unveils life in her little corner of paradise 2,481m above sea level.

Being the start and end point of all great alpine adventures, the refuges are one of the strongest emblems of mountain culture. A warm and friendly haven, they allow mountaineers to enjoy a well-earned rest before once again continuing on their upward journey. Amongst these legendary cabins, nestled at the highest of altitudes, lies the little hut of Charpoua, a monument to alpinism on Mont‑Blanc which has been welcoming conquerors of the massif for over a century.

Overlooking the right side of the Mer de Glace, the Charpoua glacier is one of the wildest corners of the massif. Dominated by the mythical peaks of the Drus (3,754m) and the Aiguille Verte (4,122m), it is a granite sanctuary shadowed on the north by the edge of the Flammes de Pierres and on the southwest by the secondary range of the ecclesiastics: Moine, Nonne, Évêque, Enfant de Choeur et Cardinal. It is at the center of this rocky and icy environment that you will find the legendary shelter of Charpoua.

The hut overlooks the Séracs du Géants. Photo: Pierre Cadot

Looking out at the séracs of the Géant glacier. Photo: Pierre Cadot

Built in 1904, using planks of wood carried up the mountain on the backs of local men, the shelter stands on a rocky outcrop of the homonymous glacier. This historic cabin remains the only shelter in the entire valley which has kept its original shape apart from a solar panel and small separation added in later years. Despite these minor changes, the minimalism and originality of the Charpoua takes you on a journey back in time. In the olden days, those attempting to climb the Drus would bivouac under a stone baptized “l’hôtel des courants d’air” or “The Draught Hotel.” Nowadays, the stone has been upgraded to this small cabin with a single common room to house twelve people and a tiny kitchen/dining area. For anyone attempting the prestigious ascent to the summit, the Charpoua remains an obligatory stop en route and alongside its neighbor Leschaux (the starting point for the Grandes Jorasses), the hut can boast about accommodating the greatest of alpinists.

Reaching the Charpoua is not for the faint hearted and working up a sweat is part of the journey to get there. The rest of your experience will include going down Montenvers’ ladder, crossing over the Mer de Glace, negotiating the blocks on the unstable moraine and dealing with a new set of ladders before tackling the final never-ending path to the top. All in all, it will take you about four hours from your arrival at the station to reach the hut—simple! As you will have now realized, this is not a shelter for your average tourist; there’s no chip van, no souvenir shops and no tour buses parked on the terrace. It’s also a far cry from the generic, impersonal and robotic lodgings that normally welcome thousands of alpinists during the summer seasons.

For three years now, ski and snowboarding instructor Sarah Cartier has been spending three summer months as a guardian on the mountain. Thanks to a postcard that she sent to us via digital channels, the ambassador of the Patagonia Chamonix store was able to present her second home to us and describe the life which she has set up at the Charpoua.

Sarah Cartier, the only captain on board. Photo: Pierre Cadot

Sarah Cartier, guardian of the Charpoua. Photo: Pierre Cadot

“Being a Chamoniard and a passionate skier since I was a kid, I’ve always turned to the mountain. More than that, I’ve always dreamed about living there. Working as a guide or a mountain leader didn’t inspire me; the guests always got to go down in the valley while us guardians live up there constantly. After 10 years roaming various peaks and shelters, I didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to get lost in this warm and welcoming shack in the sky.

“Just a few hours walk away from the alpine capital of the world, the Charpoua escapes the hustle and bustle of the city, the noise, everything. The austere cliffs that surround me have become benevolent fortifications and I like to live here surrounded by flora and fauna. Being alone here is a selfish pleasure because the mountain often reveals itself only to me. A little chauvinist, I often say to anyone who will listen that my refuge welcomes the most beautiful sunset of the Alps. It is not only at nightfall that the landscape dazzles. It is a kaleidoscope of atmospheres: the lightness of the blue sky, the roar of the storm, the calm of the day during the gloomy weather. Living here allows me to escape and to take a break from life below.

“Aside from the spiritual aspect (in my next postcard I will give you the secret Voodoo incantation to attract the green-feathered jackdaws!) Charpoua is about human adventure. The smallness of the hut and the lack of privacy enforces a certain savoir-vivre. The simplicity of the place leads us to know what is essential—it is being up here and really going back to the basics that makes me realize we don’t need much to be happy. To live here, you don’t depend on others for entertainment but you need to be just as comfortable being alone as with a group of visiting wild-granite lovers or pugnacious hikers.

“I did not hesitate when the opportunity to come and lose myself in this warm hut presented itself.” Photo: Pierre Cadot

“I did not hesitate when the opportunity to come and lose myself in this warm hut presented itself.” Photo: Pierre Cadot

“As the guardian of such a symbolic place, I have my heart set on doing things well. Keepers are often blamed for the carbon emissions caused by the helicopters that carry our supplies but for me, I am conscious of the environmental impact of receiving my one and only seasonal food supply. This is why I choose to cook only with local produce and favor organic foods as much as possible. All of my supplies come from Haute-Savoie—even the beer and sodas. At least this way, I can quench my thirst with a good conscience! After all, if my products travel less than a hundred kilometers and endure a 10-minute flight, it’s still less travel time than the products that cross the whole planet to land at the foot of the Drus. I think that it’s time we re-evaluate our consumer needs in the mountains and lead the way in buying more and more from local producers. For us, it’s not about giving a lesson in ecology but rather to sow a little seed in the hope that it will soon grow and inspire others.”

30 Years of Patagonia Chamonix

In 1987, Yvon and Malinda Chouinard made the decision for Patagonia to settle at the foot of Mont‑Blanc, the first outdoor brand to open its doors in the French alpine resort of Chamonix. As Yvon said in his book Let My People Go Surfing: “Chamonix is the most cosmopolitan of the Alpine towns. I had fond memories of my time there and believed it was an ideal place to showcase the Patagonia line and create a direct relationship with a wide range of European customers. I wanted to create a local hangout, staffed with international hard-core skiers and climbers.”

In celebration of the store’s anniversary, we published 30 Years of Patagonia Chamonix, a zine that pays homage to Chamonix itself and the people who have helped make it the exceptional place it is today. This story first appeared in that publication.

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