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Twists of fate

You never know what the mountains will give you. Or the rest of life, either.

Last night near dark and in deep fog, four French climbers finally found our hut, thanks to the siren the guardian repeatedly sounded. Life had been difficult for them for a while, and you could see the relief on their faces as they dived into their soup.

Beno and I awoke with the guardian at 4:30 am and looked out into the dark. The air was thick with cloud and it didn't look hopeful for an ascent of Bernina. Beno had already suggested that we climb something lower and more aesthetic. Bernina is merely the highest, not the most beautiful. Normally my climbing is directed purely by the promise of beauty, either in line or in quality. Altitude is not the point. But this case was different. Bernina is widely known as the easternmost 4,000-meter peak in the Alps, and its symbolic value to my journey is high.

So we breakfasted and as the coffee went down the clouds evaporated. By the time we were strapping on crampons the peaks had the rosy glow of alpenglow. The route itself turned out to be spectacularly beautiful. With about 30 centimeters of fresh snow, even the steep rocks had a coating that had to be brushed aside or dug through with ice axes. It proved exciting in places and gorgeous throughout. The clouds didn't return to envelop us until we were standing on the summit itself, and they parted again as we descended. We had the peak to ourselves.

Three hours after leaving it we were back to the Marco e Rosa hut at 3,610 meters. I had hoped to meet the hut's manager, Giancarlo Lenatti, better known as Bianco. But he is away this week. Beno tells me that because of the hut's altitude, the staff is required to spend a week a month in the valley. Bianco's hut is a colorful place with a strong theme of unclothed women displayed in photos throughout the building. But he's better known for his hair-raising exploits on skis on the neighboring peaks. We looked both down and up some of these couloirs, and it's frightening to imagine descending them. Many or most have never been repeated.

Beno says that Bianco was a man who thought he could do anything and always felt in control. Until his eleven-year-old son came down with cancer. Bianco tried everything, but a year later his son was dead. Inflamed with grief, Bianco's marriage fell apart not long after. Now he has started a foundation. Not with the impossible mission of curing cancer, but to help families as they cope with the horror.

I cannot imagine losing my daughter. There must be nothing worse than losing your child. As the son of my mother, I have a responsibility to spare her that fate. Balancing this need against my passion for mountains has been a life-long challenge with no end in sight.

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