Margherita Hut, Italy – 2023
Anticipation filled the air as the group began to assemble in Geneva Airport for the society’s third trip to Europe’s highest building – the Margherita hut. After unavoidable circumstances led to the failure of our most recent expedition to complete data collection in Nepal in October 2022, this was our second chance to collect much needed experimental data. Yet again we had an ambitious agenda, but this time we hoped the weather would be on our side.
With only one week to work with and no porters to help carry our equipment, our research focussed on highly translatable, minimally invasive techniques with light weight equipment. The main questions being: 1) ‘Can we predict who will get acute mountain sickness using oxygen saturation measurements?’ and 2) ‘How is cognition effected by ascent to high altitude and acute mountain sickness?’. From a practical point of view, this meant collecting continuous overnight pulse oximetry data (Nonin Medical), symptom questionnaires, and daily cognitive testing using a smartphone-based application (Cognitron). We were also being supported by an age and sex matched control group back in the UK, who were also performing daily cognitive testing and symptom questionnaires in parallel to the expedition.
The 20 participants on this year’s expedition showed how much the BMRES has grown since its conception in the mess of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, with trip members travelling from across the United Kingdom and spanning a 60-year age range (a new record).
From Geneva we started our several-day ascent into the Alps. First a several hour bus trip across two borders and under Mont-Blanc took us to Gressoney-La-Triente (1,635 m) for our first night in the mountains. The following morning, a cable car and short walk took us to the comfortable Oreste Hut, a surreal vegan retreat at 2,600 m. This was our first introduction to the two-edged sword of alpine cable cars, which facilitate effortlessly fast ascents: a blessing for altitude researchers, but real danger to unsuspecting tourists.
That evening we received the disappointing news of a storm rolling through the region that would likely delay our planned ascent the next day. The tension started to rise. Those members of the trip who had been in Nepal were all too aware of the potential consequences of a foul weather and our one-week timeframe left little redundancy for a change of plan. The following morning it was confirmed, we would be unable to ascend further. At least that was what we thought until an excited phone call from our guide came through mid-afternoon that there was a weather window, but we would have to move fast, as the cable cars were closing soon. The race was on! We hastily packed our bags and ran back to the nearest cable car station just in time to catch the last lift. When we emerged from an eerie lift journey engulfed in clouds, we realised we’d left the alpine meadows far below us. From now there would be nothing but rock and ice for several days. As we hiked onwards to the Gniffeti hut (3,647 m), the weather window began to close. By the time we were putting on our crampons to cross the base of the Gartstelet glacier to the refuge of the hut, the wind had picked up, snow swirled around, and the lightning got closer… and closer. Inside the hut we were safe from the storm outside, but not the hypoxia and few members of the group began to feel the altitude. Simple tasks such as walking upstairs became a challenge.
The following day brought clearer weather, perfect for our final push to the Margarita hut, which is perched precariously on the summit of Punta Gnifetti at a ludicrous 4,554 m. We divided into four groups, each roped to an alpine guide, for the gruelling glacial trek. By the time we arrived, many of the team were feeling the effects of the altitude, retiring to their bunks to nurse their headaches. Throughout the day stunning views provided ample compensation for our efforts, including a serene sunset behind the Matterhorn.
However, our first night over 4,000 m took many victims, with over half of the team displaying symptoms of acute mountain sickness by the following morning. Those of the group who were feeling well enough took the opportunity to submit two of the local peaks over 4,00 m: Parrotspitze (4,432 m) and Zumsteinspitze (4,563 m). Parrotspitze is a beautiful ridge with sharp drops either side, giving very dramatic views. For those more familiar with English hill walking, it could be likened to a significantly higher, snowier Striding Edge (Lake District). The second ascent, Zumsteinspitze, was an approximately 500 m snow-covered scramble: physically tough but immensely rewarding. The peak provided marvelous views across the rest of the Monta Rosa Massif.
The descent the following day back to Gnifetti hut was largely uneventful, apart from a few episodes of vomiting from some members of the team. The next morning, we descended again, this time back below the snow line all the way to Gressoney for much needed showers. That evening we all reflected on the success of the trip over a well-deserved glass of Pinot Noir – “to bum res”.