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Beware of icicles

"Here you must breathe deep and then move fast, said Beno as he nodded toward the giant icicles hanging above us. "No helmet will save you from those."

He then doubled his speed to the top of the 45-degree snow couloir.

I was following Enrico Benedetti (a.k.a. "Beno") today as we climbed toward Piz Palu and then the Marco e Rosa hut on the border just below the summit of Piz Bernina, the easternmost 4,000-meter peak in the Alps.

Beno is the editor, publisher, and chief writer of a beautiful magazine called Le Montagne Divertenti, whose subject is the incredible terrain all along the Italian side of the peaks we are now traveling. He produces this spectacular magazine as a hobby of pure passion, as his real work is writing the mathematical equations that tell mirrors and lenses to focus the beams that carve silicon chips for computer processors. Or something like that.

But mountains are his true love, and these hills are his backyard. He publishes the magazine in large part to show people how beautiful these places are and to inspire readers to preserve them. As he sees it, the greatest threat is concrete: all the new construction that is infesting the Italian side of this region, from uncontrolled housing to new roads that aren't necessary.

The magazine, like so many in Europe, has a strong interest in history, where the culture of alpine farmers is as fascinating as that of Alpine guides and environmental changes. The most recent issue of Le Montagne Divertenti displays a large collection of photos showing the vast shrinkage of glaciers in the last century and decades, right up to the most recent years.

I hope to show some of these contrasting images in the near future. But today I witnessed them personally as Beno pointed out that rocks we were hiking were under glacier a mere decade ago. Vast rock landscapes we were viewing were under ice in his youth – and he is a mere 32 years old, younger than the crampons I strapped to my feet.

You'd have a hard time comprehending the shrinking glaciers today, though. Not long after we passed under the dripping icicles Beno warned me about, our sunshine turned to hail and then a snowstorm. Just as we reached the summit of Piz Palu, the camera in my hand started buzzing. Moments later the sky brightened briefly and then a clap of thunder enveloped us.

Our intended lunch on the summit turned into a forced march along the storm-tossed ridge as we raced to traverse it to a point where we could gain the glacier on the Swiss side.

The ski poles now lashed to our backs buzzed constantly like a school science project in electricity. Our plans to follow the complete Bellavista traverse turned into a race for the Maco e Rosa hut. We'd also hopped to climb Bernina itself this afternoon, but I'm sitting here now after dinner and it's still snowing hard.

Since I need Beno's generous company on the rope tomorrow and there is a long distance to the hut where he needs to leave me, I may have to give up on Bernina. We'll wake at 4 am, look out the window, and decide what to do.