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On top of the Alps

It was a long haul, but eventually we made it to the Rifugio Regina Margherita, the highest hut in the Alps.

Perched in the most unimaginably spectacular location, it is not far from the summit of the second highest peak in the Alps, the Dufourspitze, 4634m, which is part of the massive Monte Rosa complex. The hut is Italian, and maybe it's on that side of the border by a meter or two. It's perched exactly on a 4554m subsummit, and the border runs through it. From the balconies on the Italian side you look down a couple of thousand vertical meters, more or less, and across the infinity of the Po plains. On the Swiss side you look toward a vast number of peaks, the most spectacular of which is the Matterhorn. Its wedge shape is unmistakable even though it is actually below us in altitude.

Getting here required some of the most entertaining mountain travel there is: navigating a maze of crevasses through an icefall. Where a glacier rolls over a steep bulge, it splits into crevasses, and the steeper the bulge generally the more the crevasses. They tend to link up, yielding numerous dead ends and/or interesting passages with snow or ice bridges and sometimes climbing down one side and up the other. We had a rope on for most of it, but only had to belay the trickiest passages, and only once resorted to placing ice screws for protection. This wasn't the normal route, as we'd decided to shortcut the climb by not dropping all the way down to the Monte Rosa hut, much though I'd have loved to have seen it.

The summit traverse was also more challenging than expected, with quite a bit of rock climbing in crampons. After that came knife-edge aretes of snow with a good track from previous parties.

At the hut I spoke with the guardian of nine years. Michele Cucchi, better known as Longhez, told me that the original hut was built in 1893, and the Queen herself hiked up here for the inauguration. This (and her finances) explains the name, Regina Margherita. The current building is the third hut, built in 1982. From 1985 to 2000 the hut was a major research facility for doctors studying the effects of altitude. Today they would have had a test case, as a woman from the Czech Republic fell victim. She was helicoptered off just as night fell.

John Bird has suffered from what I call "third day fatigue" because I suffered the most on my third day and so did my friend Richard Forsyth on the Austrian border. We're both hoping he's much recovered after a night's sleep, which is what I'd better get for myself just now as well.

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