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Hiking Switzerland: Around the Alps in 80 Days

Well, maybe 105. But who's counting? Contributing editor John Harlin defies conventional wisdom with a 1,400-mile circumnavigation of this mountainous kingdom.

As I fell, my body bounced off ledges. My partner thought I was a goner. But I thought: I will not let this kill me. I knew my pack would shield my back. My helmet would protect my head. Eventually, the rope would catch me. 

After 50 feet the rope snagged on a rock edge and I jerked to a stop, upside down. (Due to a long traverse and sparse protection, there had been too much slack in the rope for my belayer to catch me.) I twisted myself around to place a butt cheek on a ledge and take the weight off of my climbing harness. My hands were bloody and there was a stabbing pain in my chest that I assumed was a broken rib, but otherwise I felt nothing but a great surge of life-affirming energy. I tried standing, but my feet hurt whenever I weighted them. So I went back to my seat, half hanging from my harness and half sitting on granite. My climbing partner, Cam Burns, was now 100 feet to the side and above me. He was surprised and gratified to see I was not actually dead.

A couple of hours earlier we’d been on the French side of the Aiguilles Rouge du Mont Dolent, where we’d climbed delicately up teetering granite plates perched on each other like a deck of cards dropped on a steep roof. Then we crossed to the Swiss side of the ridge, which was considerably worse. The very skin of the mountain felt like it could peel off. Then it did: The six-foot block of rock I was standing on broke away from the wall, taking me with it. 

Cam called for a helicopter rescue, and two hours later, I was in a hospital in Sion, where I learned that I had five broken bones in my feet. I returned to my Oregon home with casts on both of them. It was good to be back in the arms of my wife Adele and daughter Siena. For a time I was in bliss. It’s true what survivors say: You return from a near-death experience with a renewed commitment to life and love. I was a really good person for a while. From my rented wheelchair I was a tolerable husband, a decent father, and not a bad friend. The sensible thing to do? Acknowledge that my border route was dangerously arbitrary—and go to Plan C, perhaps a nice trek on one of the Alps’ famed trails. But here’s another truth this survivor learned: That life-affirming feeling doesn’t stand a chance in the face of unfinished business.

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