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Ridgey business

"We call people who drop rocks killers."

At least that's what Beno told me as he stepped delicately across what seemed to me lime vertical rubble.

"Here you must go like a butterfly."

Not long after that I found myself trapped with nothing I felt I could touch that would not fall down with me on it. Beno had just butterflied across it and he kindly asked if I would like the rope. Why yes, I very much would. So he climbed above me to a place where he could drop an end to me. I tied in with one hand, since the other was holding me in place - I didn't trust my footholds, either. With the rope for security, I proceeded to butterfly and soon I had joined him. This process repeated itself during the descent on the other side of the peak as we continued to follow the border.

It seems this east ridge of Cima di Vazzeda (3,301m) is one of Beno's very favorite climbs. This is his fourth ascent of the ridge, not counting the four times he'd been turned back before figuring out how to get up it. These "loose" sections (I'm being polite here out of respect for Beno) are what he puts up with in order to climb the fantastic knife-edge ridges of quality granite. Here you can sometimes walk with delicate balance, though usually your hands grip the edge while your feet look for footholds. And sometimes you ride the ridge cowboy style with one foot over each side.

Beno, being the sweet man that he is, arranged for this day to be pure climbing pleasure, if you discount the moments of fright. He enlisted his girlfriend Joya, who had the weekend off from working on her PhD dissertation in archaeology, to carry my pack up 1,500 vertical meters of trail so that I could climb today with nothing but rain clothes and lunch. What a treat to be unencumbered! We met her late in the afternoon at an exquisite little meadow where I decided to pitch my tent in this slice of alpine perfection.

I've been meaning to write about my first impressions of Beno, which was a partnership arranged by friends of friends since I was in need of a ropemate for the glaciers and climbing.

I had been ensconced in the Rusconi bivouac hut after a hard enough day on my own, waiting for Beno to arrive. It was raining and cold. I was wearing my warmest jacket inside the shelter. Suddenly a bearded face appeared at the window. I opened the door and there was a man wearing shorts and nothing else other than his pack and his boots. There was not a gram of body fat on him.

"Aren't you freezing?" I asked him.

"No, no, it's really quite warm." Incredulous, I offered him some coffee or tea. He pulled out a pocket-full of plants he'd picked along the trail and suggested we make tea from these instead. Very relaxing, he said. I hid my salami, fearing he might take offense at the eating of flesh.

I already knew he was a mountain runner and I soon learned that he'd just placed ninth among 500 elite mountain runners at a race in Wales. I would also learn that he had run to the summit of Bernina from his home village of Sondrio in a mere 13 hours round trip. That's 4,000 vertical meters up and the same of down during 82 kilometers of road, trail, talus, glacier, and ridgelines. No one else has even come close. He tests boots for a company because he destroys two or three pairs a year. And he's just 32 years old, younger than the crampons I'd be using for Bernina, crampons I'd bought when I was in college.

So my initial impression was "Holy mountain goat, what have I gotten myself into?" This guy will not want to wait around for this geezer (me) to crawl his way up a peak.

But it didn't take long into the conversation to learn that speed isn't what motivates Beno, it's love of the mountains. He's as keen to look at flowers and picnic on summits as I am, and his knowledge is encyclopedic. He pulled out a salami made from deer meat, and in the morning I was greatly relieved to see him eat wafer cookies and drink coffee for breakfast. He offered to carry a couple of my heavier items (a sack of electronics and a pile of maps), which helped to balance us slightly. And then I kept him talking while I panted. Between these tricks and his constant good nature, the partnership wasn't too far out of balance, and in any case we had a marvelously good time. His company was one of the best things on my long journey.

Alas, now he's left with his Joya while I must march on on my own. I learned so much from him though, that you'll be hearing his lessons often during the coming days.

There have also been other unbelievably kind people I've met these last days in Italy that I've not yet had a chance to introduce. You'll hear about them, too, in the next week or so - whenever it's a slow news day on the border.