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Refuge de la Charpoua, the story of Sarah Cartier

By: Ilaria Chiavacci

Pierre Cadot

Sarah Cartier runs one of the most inaccessible shelters in Europe, and she does so in the company of her two children: three-year-old Armand and 10-month-old Camille. Patagonia has discovered its story, and today we tell it to you here.

Just a few kilometers away is glitzy Chamonix with its emblazoned stores and super-chic restaurants where the best fondue is eaten, but from the Charpoua basin all this is but a background buzz, a presence in the distance. Charpoua is a valley nestled in the midst of some of France’s most beautiful peaks: it faces the right side of the Mer de Glace, which means “sea of ice” in French, and all around it soar the Aiguille Verte, 4122 meters in altitude, and Les Drus ,3754 meters. To the north is the Flammes de Pierre ridge and to the southwest the Moine-Nonne-Evêque-Cardinal range. The views here take your breath away, and perhaps that is why a tiny refuge was built in 1904, nestled atop a rock islet, the historic Refuge de la Charpoua.

Consisting of one room and still without water or electricity, it was built with pine boards carried on the shoulders of members of the Chamonix Alpine Sports Club. Today, the Refuge de la Charpoua is a key stop for mountaineers climbing Les Drus: it stands as the starting and finishing point of many historic routes, but even just getting here is a feat. From the Montenvers train station we start to climb, but adding to the fatigue is the crossing of the glacier: the approach to the hut involves going into moraines and climbing in many places. It is difficult for inexperienced hikers to arrive here. Sarah Cartier is not one of them: originally from Chamonix, she decided to leave, at least in the summer, the small town, with its stores and fondue restaurants, to run the Refuge de la Charpoua. The driving force behind it all was Sarah’s desire to work independently-she wanted to be her own boss, live as close to her mountains as possible, and do something adventurous.

Le Refuge de la Charpoua met all three of these requirements in full, and so Sarah has been running it for a full eight years: from mid-June until the end of August, she is the one who offers food and lodging to hikers. It provides information about the conditions on the mountain since it observes it daily and constantly and provides first aid when needed. Sarah stands up not only to the mountain, but also to the sexist comments that she often still receives in a traditionally male-dominated world like mountaineering. Already because a woman doing hard work all by herself and doing it in the company of her young children, in the tendentially macho universe that is mountaineering, is perceived as a rare animal. It never crossed Sarah’s mind to abandon one or the other: her passion and her work or her family. From the thaw until temperatures drop and ice and snow bar access to Les Drus, her family stays with her.

Crucial is the support of Noah, her partner, with whom she has found a way to carry on both her family life and her life in the high mountains. The first time she climbed up to the hut as a mom, she carried little Armand strapped on her back and spent that first summer with him, between work and the beauty of the peaks and the wildlife that inhabit them-Armand in particular developed a passion for the choucas, the alpine choughs, whose cry the little one learned to imitate even before he learned to speak. “Every year when I come up here, I don’t do it because I want to, but because I feel the need,” Sarah recounts in “The Charpoua Way,” the documentary that Patagonia dedicated to her. “I am a high-altitude host: I make soup at 2800 meters, manage reservations and talk to mountaineers. This is a piece of paradise, and those who go this far come to find freedom.”

Of course, living without either water or electricity, with bathrooms outside consisting of a few granite blocks in the cross, is not what can commonly be called comfort, but it is what makes Sarah and her family feel good and protected. This is a refuge in the true sense of the word: a hut nestled in the mountains where everything is shared: food, warmth and experiences. On one side is the kitchen, with a hundred-year-old wooden table; on the other side are two wooden partitions that serve as separates for a dozen bunk beds. Everything in the lodge is organized so that not an inch of space is wasted, but at the same time to ensure that those who run it and the climbers are as comfortable as possible. In such a small hut, however, privacy is not the strong point, especially if there are also two children. In fact, in the summer of 2022, Armand was joined by Camille, just 10 months old. Therefore, since 1904, the shelter has undergone slight modifications: a net has been placed around the terrace to prevent accidents, and a mini-bedroom, built by Sarah’s husband and lowered into place from a helicopter, has been attached to the main structure.

The alarm clock, for Sarah and the children, goes off every morning at 6:45 a.m., when the 7 a.m. breakfast has to be prepared and what has been left behind by the hikers who left for the 2 a.m. climb has to be put away. The work during the rest of the day is typical host work: washing dishes, making beds, keeping track of bills, and then starting to cook for dinner. Sarah tries to do most of her homework in the morning so that the children can stay in the room, or she ends up doing it with Camille tied to her by a sling on her back. If the weather is nice, Sarah puts the playpen outside for the children to play in; if it is not, she makes a dough and helps Armand create sculptures representing the sounds of the storm she hears outside. After lunch is the time to walk around and explore, then it’s nap time and bath time. Later, they welcome new guests for the night and prepare dinner before washing dishes and going to bed. Sarah likes to think she completes tasks that are as simple as they are essential: hosting, serving food, taking care of people, and having to ask for help if needed. These are all wonderful things to teach young people. “When some of the climbers realize that I am raising my children here alone, they put everything in perspective and say that climbing Les Drus is not all that big a deal. But the truth is that I brought them here out of selfishness: the hut is like my third child, I didn’t feel ready to leave this life yet, I know I still have many adventures to have here. However, this is a beautiful place to raise their children, because here they learn the sense of freedom, the contact with nature, but also the very concept of family. Because a shelter means just that: a place to feel safe, a little bubble made of wood.”