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Mountain people

They start 'em young in the Alps.

Beno was just 11 years old when he first climbed Bernina, with his dad.

Giuseppe della Rodolfa was 15. By age 25 he was a mountain guide, taking clients up Bernina while based at the Marinelli-Bombardieri hut. Now he's the caretaker of perhaps Italy's oldest mountain hut, the Marinelli.

During a normal season Giuseppe would climb the mountain a couple of dozen
times in a month, along with other nearby peaks. Soon he dreamed of becoming the guardian of this historic hut, if you can call it a hut. Built in 1882 and perhaps the oldest in the Italian Alpine Club's vast collection, the building has been enlarged several times until now it sleeps nearly 300. As late as the 1990s, a half-dozen guides lived here during the summer, earning a living from all those who wanted to climb the high mountains.

Affable and gregarious, Giuseppe dreamed of one day becoming the hut's guardian, which is a version of manager, caretaker, leasor, and chief bottle washer. The guardian runs his hut as a private business under an annual contract, though what he can do is controlled by the club (CAI). Above all, he must pay the rent even in bad years, like this one.

A few years ago Giuseppe was offered the job. Now he guides vastly less because running the hut consumes all his time. It's a complicated job, including cooking, arranging for supplies to be delivered by helicopter, and planning for how to attract more business, to name just a few things on his daily plate.

Attracting new business is a big thing these days, since tastes in climbing have changed so much that no guides currently have enough business for them to base out of a hut. Bernina is climbed vastly less than it used to be, and the other mountains even less than Bernina. These days most climbers stick to short cliffs near a road; high peaks are too much work with not enough sport. So Giuseppi is thinking of reducing the number of beds, cutting out the dormitory rooms and increasing privacy. Maybe even adding a sauna, though he wonders how the prudish Italians will cope if a German strips off all of his clothes in the heat.

Next week the Marinelli hut will host a rock music concert, organized in part by Beno. The musicians and the several hundred expected guests will have to hike all the way up here (three hours), though the sound system will arrive by helicopter along with the food and beer. It's not like the old days when wood for the fireplaces was carted on the backs of humans and mules.

One thing that's as true now as ever is that you eat well in Italian huts. I'd been told this, and experienced good meals, but nothing like here. After a starter of pesto, they brought me a sizzling hot plate of polenta with several kinds of meat still grilling as I cut into it. Along with plenty of local wine, of course, and followed by desert and coffee.

It's a marvel I was still able to hike in the morning. I've been amazed and delighted by how kindly I've been treated here, with more generosity coming right up.