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Most of the mountain huts in the Alps close their doors and send their staff home for the winter, approximately from mid October until mid April. However, many have a winter room which is either unlocked or accessible using an alpine club key. The winter rooms are wonderful places to cook a simple but enjoyable dinner, to look at the stars, to sleep and to wake up to the morning sun with spectacular views.
This winter we visited three different huts, for four nights in total. Twice there were nobody else, once we shared the room with a group of three others, and once on a weekend with particularly good weather there were about 20 hikers and the warden staying in the same hut. However, in that case the whole hut was open so there was enough space for everybody.
The photo of this blog entry is of Bad Kissinger Hütte, which is located in the Tannheimer valley, Austria, about 80 km south of our home in Memmingen. That's one of the easiest huts to reach with about 700 meters of altitude to climb along an easy path. It's also located on the south slope, which means less deep snow, particularly when the winter is already turning towards spring. For us it took around 2,5 hours to climb up including a couple of short breaks, and we did not have snowshoes or skis.
In contrast to the summer when the huts have full restaurant facilities, the winter rooms operate on a self service basis. Mattresses and blankets are usually provided so one could go just with a thin travel bedsheet, but we always carry our sleeping bags to be sure of staying warm. We've also taken a camping cooker which generally has been unnecessary: all the winter rooms we've been to this far had a cooking possibility with either wood or gas. In Bad Kissinger Hütte we did use our own kettle though, as there were two pans but no pots. Nowadays the winter rooms also commonly have an electric light powered by a battery, which is recharged by a solar panel during the day.
The cost of an overnight stay is usually 5-10 euros for alpine club members and 10-20 euros for non-members, depending on the place. Payment works on a basis of trust: people are expected to write their names in the visitor book and make a bank transfer afterwards to the account of the organization which takes care of the hut.
One piece of equipment which we found out to be a nice addition on the winter hikes is a snow glider, a piece of plastic just big enough to sit on, with a handle in the front. When coming back, we can often have fun by gliding down on the snow instead of walking during part of the way. The gliders are lightweight to carry so even if the slope is too icy, bumpy or otherwise unsuitable for using them, it doesn't matter very much.