22 Summits Stories

Experiments in honour of the Queen


Warm Marsala wine, egg yolk in red wine, bed rest and cocaine: it was an adventurous treatment that the doctors gave Pietro Ramella. After a 48-hour climb with a 20-kilo backpack to the Capanna Regina Margherita on the signal peak in the Monte Rosa massif, the soldier suffered from headaches, nausea, racing pulses and spitting up blood. The year was 1894, and Pietro Ramella was one of a group of test subjects in an experiment to research altitude sickness. The Turin physiologist Angelo Mosso, together with 12 scientists, conducted the research in what is still known today as the "headache box". The 1894 research trip is described in detail in an article by Oswald Oelz, published in the mountain monograph "Monte Rosa. Queen of the Alps", described in detail.

In 1893, the hut was built by the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy (1851-1926), herself an enthusiastic mountaineer. Situated at 4556m in the middle of the Monte Rosa area, extended several times, demolished in 1978 and rebuilt in 1980 with 70 sleeping places, it is still the highest mountaineering shelter in the Alps. And even today, more than half of its visitors suffer from symptoms of altitude sickness, which is caused by adaptation disorders due to a lack of oxygen.

Since its construction at the end of the 19th century, the Capanna Regina Margherita has been a centre for high-altitude psychological research. Not only do alpinists descend there on their high-altitude tours, research has always been carried out there. However, more than 100 years were to pass before the so-called Margherita Cocktail - not the classic cocktail "Margarita" with lime juice, orange liqueur and tequila, but a mix of dexamethasone, nifedipine and Diamox, which is part of the mountaineering emergency kit. Today, the field of high-altitude medicine still occupies scientists worldwide.

Anyone with alpine ambitions - however modest - should acquire basic knowledge about altitude sickness. Lack of acclimatisation and climbing too fast are the most common mistakes made by inexperienced mountain enthusiasts. A rapid descent, if possible, is still the best therapy for typical complaints


Zur Capanna Regina Margherita

On the history of the hut & high-altitude medicine: Monte Rosa: Queen of the Alps. Ed.: Daniel Anker, Marco Volken, AS-Verlag, Zurich 2009.

Basic knowledge of altitude sickness: Thomas Lämmle: Höhe x Bergsteigen - Die taktischen Grundregeln des Höhenbergsteigens, DAV Summit Club, 2010.

Basiswissen Hilfe am Berg: First Aid for Hikers and Mountaineers - The Pharmacy in Book Form, SAC-Verlag.