Yesterday I was scared.
Not the "I lost control and now I'm about to die" kind of scared, but the "In the blink of an eye or the slip of a boot I could lose control and die" kind of scared. Climbers get that way sometimes, but we do our best to avoid it with good judgement, good route choices, good equipment, and good partners. Yesterday I had none of those.
I was on top of Piz Tambo in a thick cloud with no view when I tried to follow the border ridge southward. Soon I was on rock as bad as anything I've ever seen. Table-sized blocks shifted as I came near them. After a while I escaped left into Italy, still in the fog. The map gave me the impression it might go. The route crossed the remnant of a glacier and than led to the most dangerous ground in the Alps: steep wet grassy slope-ledges. Twice I lowered my pack with my 15 meters of cord.
When eventually I reached the bottom of the cliffs I wanted nothing more to do with the rocky cloud-covered heights. So I dropped way down into the valley to a trail system and gratefully wandered through the precious green trees.
The good trails gave me time to think back to recent weeks and remember happily when three past presidents of the Sondrio section of the Italian Alpine Club swooped in on me in Campocologno and lifted me off to join them at a small mountain conference in nearby Bormio. One of these was the first female president of the group, Lucia Foppoli, who had arranged my upcoming partnership with Beno. Another was Angelo Schena, who was originally from the mountain town of Bormio and who showed me a few interesting places, including the hot springs that have been popular at least since the Romans.
At the conference I sat next to the current president of the 600,000-member Italian Alpine Club. A somewhat portly gentleman, he exemplified the majority of membership: not climbers, but people who love to be in the mountains and feel part of that community. The sort who stick carefully to trails between huts and go to watch slide shows by people who don't.
Afterward Angelo said "Let's get together in Chiareggio after you're finished with Bernina. It's one of the most beautiful villages in the Alps. And you can eat very well there."
When I walked into Chiareggio a week later, Angelo, Lucia, and Beno had organized a dinner party with even more climbers. I sat next to Jacobo Merizzi, the pioneer of rock climbing in the Val di Mello, a world-famous granite valley often compared with Yosemite, though far different. I would walk across its upper reaches two days later on the Sentiero Roma. Jacobo and I talked about many famous places we'd climbed in common and whenever he thought a route or a place was particularly beautiful he would put his fingers to his lips and make a theatrical kissing gesture. He, like me, loves best the elegance of a line, the touch of good stone, and the joy of great scenery.
But the great honor of the evening was meeting Linneo Corti, a 92-year old who had climbed most everything between Chiareggio and Bernina in his very long day. Corti could not let a woman pass witbout kissing her or a man without good-naturedly slugging him. He'd grown up in these peaks with his father, Alfredo Corti, a natural history professor who had written the first climber's guidebooks to the region including Bernina, beginning in 1911. Beno is in the process of digitizing Alfredo Corti's vast collection of mountain photos.
It was an amazing gathering and I was honored to be a part of it. The Alps is stuffed full with mountaineers who love as much as the climbing the pleasure of the climbing community. Those who use good judgement live to be a ripe old age, enjoying the mountains' good tidings even when it comes vicariously through the exploits of friends at the dinner table.