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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.

YOU FIND A NEW HERO
“Here, you must go like a butterfly,” said Beno as he stepped delicately across what seemed like vertical rubble. This was Enrico “Beno” Benedetti’s fourth trip up his favorite climb, an unnamed ridge on an obscure border peak called Vazzeda. It’s a great route, except where the loose rock makes it awful. “We call people who knock rocks down killers,” said Beno, just in case I’d underestimated his imperative. 

Beno’s partnership had been arranged by a friend because I needed a ropemate for Bernina, the easternmost 4,000-meter peak in the Alps. We’d never met. It was raining on the appointed afternoon, and I shivered inside an unheated hut. Suddenly, a bearded face appeared at the small window. I opened the door and there stood a man wearing shorts and nothing else other than his pack and his boots. There wasn’t a gram of body fat on him. “Aren’t you freezing?” I asked. 

“No, no, it’s really quite warm.” He’d just run up the trail with a pack full of climbing gear on his back.

It didn’t take long to learn three things about Beno: 1) He’s fantastically fit, one of the world’s fastest at running up mountains; 2) he loves being outside so much that he’s happy to go slow; 3) he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Beno makes his living writing the mathematical equations that focus the beams that carve silicon chips for computer processors. But his passion is the mountains, specifically protecting the ones on the Swiss-Italian border near his home in Sondrio. To that end, he founded the gorgeous magazine Le Montagne Divertenti. As Beno sees it, the greatest threat to Italian mountains is the upward creep of development. The best way to save this alpine refuge, he believes, is to inspire readers to protect it. It’s a philosophy I admire—a goal I aspired to when I joined the staff of this magazine more than two decades ago, and hope to fulfill in part with my current border project. 

But now it was my turn to be inspired. Beno’s enthusiasm is infectious, and his knowledge of the terrain invaluable. When I paused beneath giant icicles to take a photo, Beno cautioned me: “Here you must breathe deep and then move fast. No helmet will save you from those.” He then doubled his already considerable speed to the top of the 45-degree snow couloir.

Friendships forged in wild places are the deepest sort, and I knew I’d just met a kindred spirit. 

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