Guardian of the mountain shelter in the French Alps

  • Europe
  • Friday, 02 Aug 2019

Sarah Cartier is the caretaker of the Charpoua refuge on the Charpoua Glacier in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. Photo: AFP

Those last few metres in the snow are the toughest. But when you finally look up at the refuge, there is your hostess, Sarah Cartier, welcoming you with a smile – and a polite request to keep the noise down as the baby is sleeping.

Perched 2,841m up in the French Alps, the Charpoua shelter has been welcoming climbers for 115 years now. (And since Mont Blanc itself is 4,810m high, it’s a little over half-way up.)

There is no running water, no electricity and to go to the toilet you need to step outside and climb a little – and it’s a rudimentary affair.

“After they’ve seen that,” quips Sarah, “nobody asks if there’s a shower.”

But the view from the doorway will take your breath away – if the altitude has not already done that for you.

Sarah’s job is to look after the climbers who book the shelter and make sure they arrive on schedule – because if they don’t, she has to raise the alarm with the emergency services.

The Charpoua refuge – “more of a hut than a refuge” as one website puts it – is named after the glacier right next to it. At a pinch, it will sleep 12 hardy climbers.

This is 30-year-old Cartier’s fifth season here, working from the end of June to the end of August.

The rest of the time, she is based at the foot of the mountain in Chamonix, where she works as a ski instructor.

And rather than working in a big refuge, the idea of working up here, all alone, is what appeals to her.

She gets her water from the glacier. She bakes her own bread and cooks with local, organic produce.

Her supplies arrive by helicopter at the beginning of the season and her partner arrives every Friday from over the border in Switzerland with a few fresh products.

And when a few days of poor weather means the climbers cannot reach her, Cartier is happy to be left alone to care for her baby son Armand in the peace and quiet. He’s no trouble, she says – and a hit with her visitors.

This evening, it’s a full house. As well as two AFP journalists and their guide there are several climbing parties.

People settle down, get to know each other and exchange information on routes and conditions.

And as the beers go down, the smell of soup from the gas stove and chocolate cake from the oven fills the wooden cabin.

Two solar-powered lamps help light the meal as everyone gathers around the table to eat. Cartier puts them outside every day to charge.

And after breakfast in the morning, she is there to send the climbers on their way – up or down the mountain – with the same good humour. – AFP Relaxnews

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