In mid-October a new Gervasutti Hut was completed at the site of the old location atop a rocky rognon in the upper Fréboudze Glacier on the Italian side of the range.
The unmanned bivouac hut was traditionally used as a starting point for the classic Hirondelles Ridge on the Grandes Jorasses, and, before the days when route were set up for abseil descents, was a safe haven, often narrowly reached before dark, for climbers descending the Petites Jorasses or Aiguille de Leschaux after a climb on the French side.
The original bivouac hut at 2,835m was a conventional wooden structure built in 1948. It was last renovated 50 years ago, so it could be argued that an update was sorely needed.
However, opposition to the project arose when it was discovered the new bivouac hut would have a "futuristic" appearance, rather than something more in keeping with the remote environment at the head of the Fréboudze valley.
Commissioned by the Turin section of the Italian Alpine Club and realized by the Sottosezione Universitana CAI Torino, it is of modular construction. Each segment was transported by helicopter to be assembled on site at a total cost 250,000 Euros.
The result is a brightly coloured tube with 12 beds, the front half of which, overhanging the glacier, is devoted to kitchen and eating facilities. There is a large circular window which gives a commanding view over the Val Ferret.
Thirty square metres, 2,500kg in weight, solar powered and with internet connection to allow real time information on weather conditions etc, the construction company LEAP (Living Ecological Alpine Pod) are calling it the bivouac hut of the future.
Justification for its garish appearance is that the old refuge was difficult to spot on the rock rognon, particularly so from above.
There was also criticism of the use of non-traditional materials, though the LEAP factory has noted they will hopefully used wood laminates in future projects, and possibly vegetable or bamboo fibres.
Named after the great Italian mountaineer Guisto Gervasutti, the hut stands in full view of his greatest legacy, the East Face of the Grandes Jorasses.
This 750m ED2 route, originally graded VI and A2 but more recently re-assessed as 5c/6a with two sustained pitches of 6b and a pitch of A1, is now accepted to be Gervasutti's finest climb. It was the hardest in the Western Alps at the time, and arguably not equalled in the Mont Blanc Range until the 1960s.
Leading up to the Second World War, Guisto Gervasutti had no real competition for this ascent and was able to make four attempts spread over five years before finally succeeding over two days in 1942 with Giuseppe Gargliardone.
Gervasutti died four years later attempting the first ascent of a prominent rock pillar on Mont Blanc du Tacul that now bears his name.
The approach to the hut, passes the site of the old Fréboudze Bivouac (2,363m), a tiny wooden shelter built in 1925. It was dismantled some years ago and now resides in a museum.
This approach is not without danger, and appears to become more so with passing years.
As long ago as 1992 Alexis Long, a brilliant French alpinist, pioneer, ENSA instructor, and for a time regular partner of Patrick Gabarrou (there are a number of notable Gabarrou-Long routes in the Mt Blanc Massif), died after being hit by a single stone when serac collapsed as he was walking up the path to the hut.
The Capanna Gervasutti will be opened officially this spring, ready for climbers to overnight at the start of the summer season. There will be a website on which reservations may be made.