It was late July, the hottest day the UK has ever recorded, and I was at home packing. London was pushing past 37ºC – Paris had topped 40ºC – but I delved in the back of the loft cupboard to find down jackets, ski mittens and waterproofs. I was heading for a unique Italian hotel, Europe’s highest – above the clouds and surrounded by snow all year round. As I squeezed woolly hats and thermals into a bag, the prospect of needing them seemed both delicious and far-fetched.
The Capanna Margherita, the Margherita Hut in English, perches on the summit of a 4,554-metre peak the Swiss call the Signalkuppe and the Italians know as the Punta Gnifetti, part of the vast Monte Rosa massif that straddles the border. There are beds for 70, you can book online and it costs a modest €100 (S$152) per night. Getting there, however, isn’t exactly straightforward.
First, the phoney war. I flew to Milan, picked up a hire car and drove north-west to the village of Gressoney (best known as part of the Monterosa ski area, alongside its neighbours Alagna and Champoluc). Going straight from sea level to almost three vertical miles up would be goading altitude sickness, so my first two nights were spent in the Orestes Hutte, a delightful little hikers’ hotel on the hillside, where marmots played on the grass outside and ibex paraded past after dinner. At lunchtime on day three, I met my guide, Nick Parks, and we rode the cable cars as high as they go – to the Punta Indren, at 3,275 metres.
I had boarded the first lift in shorts, but we emerged from the top station into fog and snow, the temperature somewhere around freezing. (Funny how rapidly, even after weeks of sweltering nights, the novelty of being cold wears off.) An hour’s walk, over a glacier, then up a succession of ladders and metal steps hammered into the rock, took us to the Gnifetti Hut, built in 1876, our overnight pit-stop before an early start for the Margherita Hut itself.
Giovanni Gnifetti was the parish priest in Alagna and, in 1842, was the first to climb the Signalkuppe. That feat helped put Alagna on the map and the village grew quickly, with grand new hotels and a roster of professional guides ready to lead wealthy clients up to the peaks. Even Umberto I and Queen Margherita became regular visitors.
The Italian Alpine Club ordered the construction of a hut on the Punta Gnifetti in 1889 both as shelter for climbers and as a place to carry out high-altitude scientific research. The building was brought up on the backs of mules and labourers and was completed in 1893. With a courtly entourage, Queen Margherita herself climbed up to cut the ribbon.
The world wars put an end to all that. The flow of aristocratic adventurers dried up, many of Alagna’s hotels closed, and the village slunk back into obscurity. Up on the peak, though, the hotel endured.
Our summit day started at 5.45am, just before dawn. We fixed crampons to our boots and roped together (to avoid falling into crevasses), but it was just a walk, albeit long and high – the air up here contains 40 per cent less oxygen than at sea level. Some 40cm of fresh snow had fallen overnight but enough people had set out before us to break a trail all the way. We paused often to take in astounding views, down to the summits of the Dent Blanche and Matterhorn, and the long Gorner glacier flowing towards Zermatt.
And then, by 10am, we were on the final ascent. The most dangerous part came with a few steps to go, when a helicopter swooped in to land beside the hut, its tail rotor metres from our heads, the downdraft enveloping us in a momentary hurricane.
Inside – all was calm. In the dining room, a few guests looked up as if we had walked in from a busy high street. Throughout the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites, only two peaks are higher, but it quickly became apparent this was not some gnarly climbers’ bivouac. There was a restaurant, WiFi, a small library, a proper espresso machine, even a bar. Did anyone actually drink up here? “Oh yes – beer when they arrive, red wine after dinner,” said Claudio Bonetta, one of a team of five staff who typically work for two weeks before descending to the valley to recuperate.
We ate lunch – pasta and Margherita pizza (what else?) – then sat in the sun on the terrace, wisps of clouds below us, streaks of glitter from the great lakes far beyond. We didn’t stay; I had to get back to work. After an afternoon descent to the cable cars, then a dash to the airport, I was home in London that night, the mittens and down jacket ready to go back in the loft, my weekend in the cold already a little hard to believe.
For details of Capanna Margherita see rifugimonterosa.it. It is usually open from late June to mid-September; in winter there is a bunkroom for climbers but no staff. Nick Parks (backcountryadventures.co.uk) offers guided trips to the hut, from €190 per person. The Orestes Hutte costs from €95 per night, half-board, based on two sharing a double room
By Tom Robbins © 2019 The Financial Times