The ultimate escape: a pilgrimage to Europe’s highest hotel | FT

The ultimate escape: a pilgrimage to Europe’s highest hotel | FT


Of all the thousands
of hotels in Europe, one stands head and
shoulders above the rest. It isn’t luxurious. It doesn’t have a pool. But it’s the ultimate retreat. The Capanna Margherita, the
Margherita Hut in English, sits on a mountain
top surrounded by glaciers at an altitude
of 4,554 metres, almost 3 vertical miles above sea level. Apart from a tiny emergency
shelter on Russia’s Mount Elbrus, it is Europe’s
highest building, and no other hotel comes close. It’s the end of a
sweltering week in Europe, but we’re going up somewhere
where it’s always snowy. We’re going up to
Europe’s highest hotel. The Margherita Hut sleeps
70 and is open to all, but getting there isn’t
exactly straightforward. You start in one of two Italian
villages – Alagna or Gressoney – and ride their cable cars
as high as they will go, to 3,275 metres. From there, it’s an hour’s
walk to a climber’s refuge where you spend the night,
and at dawn the next day you don crampons and a rope
for a five-hour glacier hike to the hotel. You’ve made it up to
the Capanna Gnifetti, a pit stop for the night
before we go up early tomorrow morning, up to the
Margherita Hut. They were both built in the
middle of the 19th century when Alpinism was just
starting to take off across this area as an
upper class pursuit. We’re going on a
glacier all the way so we’ve got a problem of
dealing with crevasses. It will be demanding mainly
because of the altitude. So it’s 5:45 and we’re
just about to set off up towards the Margherita Hut. We’ve got about 900 metres
of vertical ascent to go, so I better get on with it. No one would build a
hotel so high today. The Margherita Hut is a relic
of an earlier golden age of mountaineering. In the late 19th century
little Italian villages at the foot of Monte Rosa
were booming as climbing became an increasingly
popular pastime. Even the king and queen,
Umberto and Margherita, were regular guests. The Italian Alpine Club ordered
the construction of the hut in 1889. It was opened by Queen
Margherita and named in her honour, as later was a
certain type of pizza. The world wars saw
an end to all that. Tourism collapsed and the
villages retreated to obscurity – but up on the frozen
summit, the hotel endured. So we’ve been going
for a couple of hours. We’re just at the
Col du Lys which is where we cross
over into Switzerland to cross the final glacier
up to the Margherita Hut. The big unseen danger
is the altitude. Up here there is 40
per cent less oxygen than at sea level, which
makes altitude sickness a real possibility. Guests at the hotel
sometimes have to be rescued by helicopter
and taken back down the valley. Most mountain huts in the Alps
are halfway up the mountain, to be pit stops for climbers
on their way up to the summit. Crazy thing about
this place is they built the refuge right
on the summit itself. Thanks, mate. We made it. Fantastic. So it’s 10:45. We made it up to
the Margherita Hut. It’s a long way
to come for lunch but just look at that view. We’re at 4,554 metres. There’s only two peaks
in all of the Alps and the Pyrenees that
are higher than us and yet this isn’t some
gnarly climber’s bivouac. There’s a full
restaurant, a bar. They’ve even got wifi. Claudio Bonetta is one
of the team of five who run the hotel, typically
working for a fortnight before descending for a
break at lower altitude. I asked him what it was like
to work up among the clouds. Maybe the first days when
you are just arriving, you can feel the altitude,
a little bit sick. But – then no problem –
and work at the same time. When you finish your season
here, where do you go? I’m going to holidays. On the beach? Yeah, on the beach. With my girlfriend, yes, yes. The most popular dish here is
Pizza Margherita, what else? There’s also a small
bar with a real espresso machine, a tiny library,
and a big sun terrace. But the hut has
always also been used as a base for high-altitude
scientific research. I’ve been to thousands
of hotels but this has to be the most spectacular. Now, though, it’s time to
start the long walk down.

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