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Up in the Clouds

The wind on the summit ridge of the Grand Combin knocked us around like drunks on a pitching sailboat.

We had a feeling this would be coming, as the night before our tin-can of a bivouac hut made popping noises as gusts slammed into it from one side and then another. The cirrus clouds that covered Mont Blanc and all the mountains to the west were a pretty good clue as well, especially when you take into account that the 4314-meter Grand Combin is Switzerland's highest peak west of the Matterhorn. But John and I were determined to climb this "bad boy," to use one of John's favorite expressions, in part to make up for missing out on the Matterhorn itself. While the Grand Combin isn't precisely on the border, our hiking route along a variant of the Haute Route put us in a hut at 3662 meters on the south flank of the Grand Combin, so we were perfectly positioned to climb it.

All we had for a route description were the words of pipe-smoking Jacques Borca back at the Chanrion hut, whom we'd taken to calling "the old man of the mountains." He assured us that the west ridge was a great climb, with difficulties to UIAA 5 (meaning about 5.8 to American climbers, or moderately difficult rock climbing to non-climbers) and that the rock was good.

From the bivouac the rock looked like a teetering stack of dirty dishes and the difficulty of the cliff bands dripping with icicles looked hugely intimidating, at least when we could see the ridge between ripping clouds. But we trusted the Old Man of the Mountains enough to give it a go. We really wanted to finally get in some real climbing - the technical kind, with a rope and protection equipment on a steep face.

With our usual speed in the morning, we had the little hut cleaned up and were on our way shortly before 9 am and had stashed our backpacking gear and were climbing the route by 10 (by typical Alps climbing standards, this would make us maybe four hours late to get going, but we're not early risers).

The route opened as we climbed, with wandering ramps of decomposed schist that let us weave our way around most of the vertical rock. When the options were too many, helpful cairns marked the favorites. And when it was actually necessary to rope up and do some "real" climbing, solid bolts appeared on the suddenly solid rock. Crampon scratches on the rocks also helped to show us the way, as we and seemingly most everyone who had come before climbed the entire route in our crampons. Frequent patches of ice and snow made this necessary, but we also found them helpful on the frozen dirt/scree that characterized nearly everything else. And it's remarkable how well one can rock climb wearing sharp steel points on one's feet.

There was wind, to be sure, but it was nothing compared to what hit us on the summit ridge. We arrived at the lower west summit in a cloud and couldn't see anything that wasn't below us, and little of that as well. The cloud was the wind made visible, and it battered us hard on the long traverse to the main summit, where solar panels on a weather monitoring pole looked downright ludicrous. But a few minutes later the cloud lifted above the Grand Combin and we could suddenly see most everything except the peaks to west that I really wanted to see. But the invisible wind had just as much force as the visible kind. At one point I was filming John staggering along when the wind knocked me to my knees. Later, as we descended certain steeper gullies, the wind blew so much rocky and icy debris that we had to hold a hand in front of our faces and try to see through slits between the fingers. This was awkward, as we really needed both hands to hold onto the rocks.

But the wind abated as we dropped lower, and by the time we'd regathered our backpacking gear and continued down the steep scree slope, all that remained of it was the evidence of clouds moving fast far above.

It was a long descent to the valley floor here in Bourg St. Pierre, about 2700 vertical meters from the summit. Which is something I've been meaning to talk about. The thing I feared most about my entire trip around Switzerland was how my knees would hold out. I feared it last summer and was proven right to, but then my accident intervened and I couldn't see how bad they might get. Last winter when I was visiting John in Salt Lake City while trying to persuade him into joining me, he took me over to his next door neighbor, Jim Macintyre, who happens to be a renowned knee surgeon who works with athletes far more athletic than I. Jim listened to my concerns and then prescribed me two simple exercises: side leg lifts and shallow knee bends, or knee drops - no more than a 30-degree bend. If I did these diligently, he said, I'd be good for 30,000 vertical meters a week. So I did them diligently for the next few months, as the exercises are so simple and painless that even I didn't mind doing them (I'm not a fan of calisthenics, to put it politely). The idea is to strenghthen the muscles that make the knee stable, muscles that originate near the hips. And sure enough, I've been pounding out the vertical meters all summer with only occasional help from aspirin. My knees might be a bit sore this morning, but nothing that won't go away on today's gentle hike to the Great St. Bernard Pass, only a few hours away. During this entire summer I think there have only been five or six days without hiking, and my body feels fit to do this forever. So thank you Jim, for making this possible.

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