A brief history of the Britannia Hut, up to our 2023 visit

The Britannia Hut stands at 3030m between the Klein Allalin and the Hinter Allalin above Saas Fee. Owned by the Geneva Section of the Swiss Alpine Club, it is an imposing four-storey stone building with 134 sleeping places providing a stopover on the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt as well as a jumping off point for the ascent of several 4000m peaks, notably the Allalinhorn, the Alphubel, the Rimpfischhorn and the Strahlhorn. Due to its prime location, it has become one of the most frequented of all Swiss Alpine Club huts in both summer and winter.

The history of the hut is inextricably linked to the history of the ABMSAC for it is thanks to the generosity of the Association, and in particular to the hard work of one man, James Bruce, that the hut was built. When the ABMSAC was founded in 1909, the two main objectives were to encourage British alpinists to support the SAC by becoming members, and to collect funds to present a hut to the SAC as a token of gratitude for the hospitality that British climbers had received in Switzerland. The gift of a hut was Bruce’s idea, and he was indefatigable in promoting the fund-raising. By 1911 even more than the original target of £500 had been raised, and the final choice from among the sites proposed was agreed on by the SAC and ABMSAC committees. The four communes of the Saastal were persuaded to donate the land on which it was to be built and the architect’s plans were approved. The task of overseeing the building was entrusted to the Geneva Section which had been instrumental in assisting the formation of the ABMSAC and to which many ABMSAC members belonged.

The estimated cost of CHF 20’000, in those days £800, was raised by January 1912 and a wooden hut was ordered. It seems that the Geneva Section had a low opinion of the builders in the Valais for the prefabricated parts were prepared in Geneva then delivered to Visp in the form of 35 - 40 kg loads, 500 in total. The original intention was to transport these loads to the site by sledge, but the lack of snow that winter meant that they had to be carried up the steep path from Saas-Fee on the backs of porters. In the end almost one third of the total cost of the hut was spent on the transport of materials as only the stone foundation was prepared by local contractors. In early summer a team of builders from Geneva arrived to erect the hut, and by 27th July it was standing and the interior ready to be fitted out. It was 9.40m long, 5.5m wide, and 8m high, and had two floors: on the ground floor were a kitchen/dining-room and sleeping rooms for the hut warden and 10 guides; upstairs were two dormitories for 16 men, a separate dormitory for 8 ladies, a sitting-room and a washroom with water supply, a rare luxury in those days.

At the inauguration on 17th August that year the hut was formally named the Britannia Hut in recognition of the gift by the British Members of the Swiss Alpine Club. As a token of their gratitude, the Geneva Section presented a banner to the Association, and this was carried up to the hut at the head of a large group of 200 members, accompanied by guides. In those days there were no lifts, and the group left Saas-Fee early that morning to climb the 1300 metres to the hut, decorated for the occasion with Swiss and British flags. The ceremony took place outside and commenced with a luncheon provided by the Geneva Section, followed by speeches. The key was handed to the ABMSAC who then presented it to the Geneva Section as its future owner and administrator. After a blessing by the clergy, the hut was opened for the first time for everyone to admire what was, in the words of Clinton Dent, the first President of the ABMSAC, “the largest and best hut in the Alps”. The day ended with a banquet in Saas-Fee with further speeches and the reciting of a poem entitled “La Cabane”, written especially for the occasion by a member of the Geneva Section. From the start a warden was appointed to look after the hut, though at this stage there was no restaurant service and alpinists provided their own food and drink.

The hut proved instantly popular for by this time Saas-Fee was a much-frequented mountaineering centre with several hotels. Though there was no motor road up the valley, the Visp-Zermatt railway went as far as Stalden from where a mule-track led to Saas-Almagell in four hours and to Saas-Fee in a further hour, with the additional possibility of access from Zermatt over the Adler and Allalin passes. In its first season the hut hosted 353 overnights, and the following year this had already increased to 1042. By 1927 it had become so popular that an extension and other major works were planned at a cost of CHF 40’000, twice the cost of the entire hut in 1912; this time the ABMSAC donated CHF 20’000. The original wooden structure was faced with stone and a stone extension was built, doubling the size of the hut to provide bunks for 80 and a larger dining-room. The hut was re-opened in a formal ceremony on 25th August 1929 in the presence of several members of the Association, including General Bruce, that year’s President, whose speech was enlivened by anecdotes of his exploits on the early Everest expeditions.

Once World War II was over mountaineers flocked to the Alps, and by 1947 the Geneva Section realised there was an urgent need to enlarge and renovate the Britannia Hut yet again: there were not nearly enough bunks, on occasions more than 100 people had been crammed into a dining-room for 40, and the water supply from the Chessjen Glacier was drying up as the ice retreated. The Section began a fund-raising campaign for the CHF 60’000 needed, to which British members of the Section donated CHF 660, and by 1951, with the help of the Central Committee, there was finally enough money for the work to begin. The lower floor now comprised a large well-lit dining-room seating 100, a much larger kitchen with an indoor wood supply, more comfortable accommodation for the hut warden, bunks for 16 guides, and an indoor toilet and washbasin. A wide staircase led to the upper floor which could now sleep 104 in four well-ventilated dormitories, three with 88 bunks for men and one with 16 bunks for ladies. There was also a water tank large enough for several thousand litres and a ski-room, for the hut was popular with ski-mountaineers, especially those doing the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. The re-inauguration took place in early September 1952 with ceremonies both at Saas-Fee and at the hut.

Switzerland now began to build more roads and lifts, facilitating access to the mountains and to the huts: in 1951 a motor road was constructed to Saas-Fee and in 1954 the first cable car was built there, to Spielboden which in 1959 was extended to Längfluh. 1959 was also the 50th anniversary of the ABMSAC and a meet was held in Saas-Fee that August for 74 members, the biggest function the Association had held there since 1929. To celebrate the Jubilee, the sum of CHF 2’600 was donated towards the cost of furnishing one of the dormitories of the hut, in commemoration of which gift a plaque was erected in its dining-room. A large party of British and Swiss members walked up to the hut on 9th August for the dedication of this plaque, followed by an ascent of the Allalinhorn the following morning.

In 1962, three years later, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Britannia Hut was celebrated and once again the ABMSAC donated funds, this time to provide furnishings for the hut common-room. In early September the Geneva Section organised a weekend of celebrations at the hut which were attended by a few British members, one of whom, Mr Ellwood, had been present at the inauguration of the hut in 1912 as a ten-year-old boy. After an informal dinner on the Saturday, there was a more formal ceremony on the Sunday with presentations, speeches and a religious service. The President of the Geneva Section paid special tribute to the ABMSAC not only for their generosity in founding the hut but also for their continuing interest and financial support.

The 1960s saw the increase of mass tourism with package holidays and cheaper flights. Two additional cable cars were constructed at Saas-Fee: in 1963 to Plattjen, three hours from the Britannia Hut, and in 1969 to Felskinn, at 2989m less than one hour’s walk from the hut. This was now more easily accessible for even non-mountaineers, and the newly opened restaurant service profited from day visitors. The hut continued to be increasingly popular, and by the 1980s was hosting more than 8’000 overnights per year. In 1978 Ambros and Thérèse Andenmatten became the hut wardens, and after the untimely death of Ambros in 1988, Thérèse continued as warden, a position she was to hold for the next 35 years.

The 75th anniversary of the ABMSAC was celebrated in 1984 with a meet in Saas-Fee that August, and the hut once again provided the focal point for the festivities. A large group of members assembled there for a candle-lit dinner, with the same menu as that of the inaugural banquet in 1912. All wore the climbing outfits of 1909, the ladies in long woollen skirts. An ascent of the Allalinhorn was made the following morning, but only eight members reached the summit as, in worsening weather, the majority turned back for the ceremonies at the hut. A picture of Patterdale, painted by an Association member, was presented to André Roch, current President of the Geneva Section and son of Maurice Roch, President in 1912 when the hut was built. Perhaps the only ABMSAC member to be present on this occasion as well as at the inauguration in 1912 was Noel Odell of Everest fame, now 93 years old. Everyone kept on their traditional outfits for the descent to Saas-Fee after lunch, and the celebrations ended with a Grand Procession and final banquet there.

In 1996 the hut was closed for almost a year in order for it to be totally renovated and enlarged to its present size. The interior was gutted and a concrete extension was attached to one side to provide a spacious entrance hall, modern kitchens and sanitary facilities, and three dining-rooms, while upstairs were comfortable dormitories of varying sizes with 134 sleeping places, each with an individual duvet. In addition, there were winter quarters, a drying room, and large water tanks capable of storing 18’000 litres - even more necessary now that the water supply from the Chessjen Glacier had dried up. Peter Ledeboer, past President of the ABMSAC, organised the raising of £10’000 to help finance this, the money being used for the refurbishment of one of the dining-rooms, thereafter named “Britannia Stube”. At the re-opening in late June 1997 Peter Ledeboer and Brooke Midgley, that year’s President, were guests at a gala dinner and entertained by a choir in traditional dress while outside the hut a blizzard raged with heavy snow, thunder and lightning. The ceremonies of the following day had to be curtailed for the cable car from Saas-Fee could not run in the strong winds, and no more guests could reach the hut.

In the following years the hut continued to provide a focal point on club meets, and in 2009 the club’s centenary was celebrated with a Jubilee luncheon there. Organised by the Geneva Section and prepared by the hut warden’s team, this was attended by 62 members, all wearing the bright blue anniversary shirts designed by Mike Goodyer for the occasion. Those on Alasdair Andrews’ hotel-based meet in Saas-Almagell made the short journey from the top of the Felskinn lift, and Mike Pinney, that year’s President, took the same route, carrying the Association banner and a large painting of Scotland, the club’s gift to the hut. Meanwhile, Ed Bramley led a small group on the Haute Route from Chamonix, arriving at the hut the day before the luncheon. A traditional part of anniversary celebrations at the Britannia Hut has always been an ascent of the Allalinhorn, and some members stayed on at the hut in order to achieve this the following day.

In preparation for the centenary celebrations of the hut in 2012, the Geneva Section published a book to commemorate its first hundred years. The Association was involved in this too, for Pamela Harris was asked to help with the text and the English translation. And on the opening page are these words: “This book is dedicated to the memory of Alasdair Andrews in recognition of the energy and enthusiasm he devoted to reinforce the ties between the ABMSAC of which he was President (2003 – 2006) and the Section Genevoise du Club Alpin Suisse”.

The centenary itself was celebrated in June 2012 by a formal luncheon at the hut with the warden’s son, Dario Andenmatten, as master of ceremonies, dressed in 1912 climbing gear. A small group of ABMSAC members, including Pamela, Ed Bramley, that year’s President, Mike Pinney and Mike Goodyer, were invited as guests, along with the British Ambassador to Switzerland and local Swiss dignitaries. Ed and the two Mikes walked to the hut from Täsch via the Allalinhorn and Allalinpass carrying the Association banner, now 100 years old. After the meal Ed handed over the club’s gift of a cheque for CHF 25’000 to help pay for the installation of solar panels for heating the rooms in winter and, even more importantly, for heating the water tanks to prevent them freezing. Special thanks were given to Thérèse Andenmatten-Renaud for her 35 years as warden, during which time she had looked after 275`985 visitors to the hut. The celebrations ended when Air Zermatt helicopters arrived to airlift the guests back to Saas-Fee, an unforgettable experience for the privileged few. Photos of the Celebrations

The following year a group of 16 members made a day trip to the hut during that year’s hotel-based meet at Saas-Almagell, once again taking the easy route from the top of the Felskinn lift. Thérèse had just retired as warden, entrusting the guardianship to her eldest son Dario, who had grown up at the hut. He took us on a tour of what was now “his” hut, proudly showing us the donations made by our club. Later that summer Mike Goodyer and Andy Burton also visited the hut while staying on the camping meet at Randa, climbing the Allalinhorn the following day. Then in August 2015 a small group, including Margaret Moore, Mike Pinney’s sister, walked up to the hut with Mike’s ice-axe. After Mike had died on a climbing accident the previous year, she had found the ice-axe he had been using since he joined the ABMSAC in 1975 and decided to present it to the hut in his memory.

In 2022 the hut celebrated its 110th anniversary, and once again the Association showed its commitment by donating CHF 8’000 for an eco-friendly storage-heater for the dining-rooms; a group of members visited the hut to see this in July 2023, during the hotel-based meet at Saas-Almagell.

However, access to the hut is becoming increasingly problematic, and the group will no longer be able to take the short route from the top of the Felskinn lift. Problems started in 2003 after a summer of intense heat, and by 2005 the Chessjen glacier had melted to such an extent that the track from Egginerjoch to the hut was becoming too dangerous to take in summer. In 2011 a replacement track for this section was created which bypassed the glacier by descending to the lakes to join the route from Plattjen before making a final ascent to the hut. At this point it was still possible to cross the glacier from Felskinn to Egginerjoch, but by 2020 the glacier had retreated so much that even this route had become impossible. Now the only access in summer is from the Plattjen cable car or from Morenia, the midway station of the Alpine Express cable car, both options making the journey considerably longer.

The problems with the path have highlighted the importance of the solar panels donated by the Association in 2012. Since the recession of the Chessjen Glacier in the 1940s, the only source of water at the hut has been snowmelt and rain, together with water brought in winter by snowmobile from Felskinn. But even before 2012 this track had become impassable for a heavily laden vehicle, with the result that the tanks could no longer be regularly replenished. Thus it is even more important that the solar panels keep what water there is in the storage tanks from freezing, for without a supply of water, the hut cannot remain open.

The gift of the hut itself and the continuing support that the Association has given are testament to the long-standing friendship between British and Swiss alpinists, and a source of pride to all members.

At the opening ceremony of the hut in 1912 these words were spoken, and Ed Bramley quoted them again at the hut’s centenary in 2012:

“We are united by the strongest of bonds: the love of the everlasting peaks.”

Written by Pamela Harris, August 2023

Opening of the Britannia Hut 1912

As discussed in the history above the Hut was built with money collected from the members of the ABMSAC and other climbing clubs over the period 1909 to 1912. A total of 20,000 Swiss francs was collected.
The hut was formally handed over to the Central Committee of the Swiss Alpine Club on Saturday August 17th 1912, who in turn presented the keys to the Geneva Section.
The Centenary of the opening of the Britannia Hut was in 2012. The Geneva Section celebrated the centenary of the Hut at a formal function at the Hut in June – Report.
Photos comparing 1912 to 2012.

In 2011 Pamela Harris sent me a photocopy of the book “Inauguration of the Cabane Britannia on the Klein Allalinhorn, Saas Fee, August 17th, 1912.” Mike Pinney then searched our library, housed at the Alpine Club archives, and found an original copy of the book

I have taken the liberty of copying it into a PDF format for you to download and read. To help with referencing I have split the book into sections:

  • Contents - Overview and Book Contents and Illustrations
  • Opening Ceremony part 1 - (1) The Opening Ceremony – Facsimile Letter from Clinton Dent – Speeches at Opening
  • Opening Ceremony part 2 - (2) Accounts of Opening, Translated from German, French and Italian
  • Speeches at Dinner - (3) Speeches at the Dinner at the Dom Hotel
  • List of Subscribers - (4), (5) and (6)Lists of Subscribers and New Members
  • Clinton Dent Obituary - (7) Obituary Notices of our late President Clinton Dent and Portrait
  • ABMSAC End Papers - ABMSAC Committee Members
  • The numbers in () denote the sections in the Contents page of the book.

    The book belonged to Mr W Bellows of Gloucester. He was present in Saas Fee during the Celebrations in August 1912. Unfortunately he had a bad cold and did not make the ascent to the Hut for the ceremony (see handwritten note in the contents chapter above). However in Section (4) he is listed as attending the ceremony at the Hut as well as the celebrations in the Saas Fee.

    Mike Goodyer, Hon. Editor
    Updated 20 September 2023