It would be fair to say that all mountain huts are to be found in spectacular positions. Spending a night in the high mountains watching the sun set and then awaking to the alpine glow of dawn is one of mountaineering’s great pleasures.
In my view the most spectacular mountain hut is the “Margherita.”
It is situated on the top of the Signalkuppe Mountain on the Italian Swiss border at the incredible height of 4556 meters. (14,947 feet.) This makes it the highest inhabitable structure in Western Europe.
The original hut was built in 1893 and named after the Italian Queen Margherita. She was actually carried up to the hut in a sedan chair for the inauguration. In 1990 the hut was replaced by a gigantic two storied wooden box like structure. It does not have any foundations but is lashed in place by steel cables that pass over the hut roof.
I arrived at the hut with my friend Peter Little whom I have enjoyed plenty of fine mountain days with over the last few years. Peter and I had set off from Zermatt and had traversed a considerable number of Four-Thousander’s* en route to the Margherita Hut. We had taken three days to do this and were now well acclimatised having already spent three nights in mountain huts. All these huts were above 3500 meters and situated in awe inspiring situations.
The climb to the hut is not difficult in alpine mountaineering terms.
The guidebook describes it as “a glacier plod to great height.” But there are dangers if the weather becomes bad and there are delicate crevasses to negotiate.
Peter and I plodded up the track in the snow passing a group who were clearly suffering with the altitude. We rounded onto the thin narrow ridge, which leads to the hut entrance. In front of us was this amazing structure where we were going to spend the night. The wind was strong and cold so we did not hang around but burst through the door into the porch. We were still wearing our crampons, harnesses and the rope.
Once we had de-robed we made a clumsy entrance by tripping over the emergency oxygen supply which was cluttering up the hallway (or so Peter said). The Hut is so high that the oxygen is frequently needed to stop un-acclimatised mountaineers developing altitude sickness. In fact Zurich University frequently uses the Margherita Hut as a base for the study of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Rather bizarrely they recruit volunteers who are flown up to the hut by helicopter. Not suprisingly this rapid gain of altitude induces AMS very quickly. The Zurich team then attempts to figure out how to combat AMS by pumping the guinea pigs full of various drugs such as Diamox.
However the Swiss research team were not in residence when we arrived.
Instead it was full of Italian electricians who had been given the rather erroneous task of re-wiring the Hut. They looked as if they were suffering from AMS but we learned that they had been drowning their sorrows after watching the French knock them out of the World Cup on penalty shootouts. It’s amazing where you can find satellite TV these days.
Despite the electrical work being carried out, the Guardian prepared us some lunch of pasta and red wine. After lunch we had the afternoon to take in our surroundings. The Hut is beautiful inside with lots of wood paneling and old pictures of the construction of the original 1893 Hut.
The Hut itself is rather like the fuselage of a luxury Zeppelin.
Very long but only about three meters wide. The view out of the windows is enough to make you hope that the steel cables I mentioned earlier are well secured. Such is the Margherita’s position that it is not hard to imagine the whole edifice tobogganing off down to Italy.
Peter and I spent a lazy afternoon taking photographs and waiting for dinner (which was very good pasta followed by veal followed by apple cake.) But the day’s climax was not over. The Margherita’s unique position means that it enjoys spectacular sunsets. We knew we were in for a particularly memorable sunset when the Guardian appeared on the balcony with his camera too! It was great to think that he does not tire of being in such a wonderful place.
After sunset we had a couple of Grappa’s before retiring to bed.
Sleeping at altitude is often difficult. Even with our good level of acclimatisation I still had a pretty restless night’s sleep and was not sad to be woken up for breakfast. Peter on the other hand managed to make his way through the night as if he was snoring for Britain.
While sipping my hot chocolate, I looked out of the window to the south- east and could make out the Italian lakes. They were bathed in light. I then walked to the other side of the hut and looked over to Mont Blanc where it was still dark. You could almost see the curve of the earth. Storms were brewing in the west and I knew that we were going to have to get a move on.
We left the Margherita hut at about 5.30am. Our original plan was to traverse Monte Rosa but the weather looked too dodgy so we contented ourselves with a quick dash up the Zumsteinspitze, before being engulfed in mist then snow. An hour of judicious work with the altimeter and the compass got us down below the cloud base from where we marched down the spectacular Grenz glacier before picking up the Gornergrat Mountain railway which took us down to the thick air of Zermatt.
*People collect Four-Thousanders rather like Munro-Baggers bag Munros.
Bibliography: see The Alpine 4000m Peaks, By Richard Goedeke.