There is more climbing to do: a half hour's stiff climb through another pass, the Fenêtre de Saleina, after a brief, shallow descent from the Chardonnet Pass. It takes me an hour and much quelling of interior mutiny.
At the top of this second pass, however, Marcus hands me a cup of Kraftbrühe (strength broth)—a bouillon—and with a swallow or two and a cleaning of sweat from my glacier glasses perspective returns.
It is a rare perspective. We have worked our way back up to 3,200 meters; the sky is clear, and ridge lines 70 miles away are visible. The vast Plateau de Trient glacier slopes down and away. At 6:20 the snow is still crusted hard. One push of the ski poles and a few huge, lazy turns for style send me three kilometers out across the French border into Switzerland. No customhouse, no line painted on the snow, only a few black birds, called Dohlen, watching as we sail the glacier at 40 kilometers an hour.
The long flight across the glacier ends at a narrow chute called the Fenêtre du Chamois. It is too steep to ski and touchy to climb down. A fall would mean an uncontrollable slide, and the chute drops for 70 meters before its pitch softens. We abseil. The maneuver—a method of letting oneself down a cliff on a rope, like a dangling spider—is called rappelling by French-and English-speaking mountaineers. It is enormously satisfying to beginners because it looks difficult but is not.
I lean back on the doubled rope, relax my left hand, smile a thin, fatalistic smile and advance down, backward. The rope ends after 40 meters. As I work my way down from this point, using my climbing irons for the first time and feeling melodramatically like George Mallory, fist-size knots of snow, dislodged by the abseiler now coming down above me, ricochet off my skull.
We spill out of the chute at the top of a huge bowl. The snow is easy—one or two inches of sun-softened corn over a crust that still holds—and I can swing down the bowl's sides almost without thought. The sun is bright and the air is still cool. Halfway through the descent the four members of our party—Schmuck, a young Salzburg surgeon named Albert Haigermoser, Photographer Del Mulkey and I—pull up together on a broad rise of snow. We are all grinning, laughing aloud. Someone says, "Magnificent! Glorious!" There is a feeling, too openhearted to be smugness, that of all the places to be in the world at this precise instant we have picked the right one.
Toward the end of the four-kilometer run, well past the point at which the big bowl has become a valley, the snow changes. First it becomes breakable crust, then deep mush. I am too tired and too new to deep-snow skiing to handle it well. I take several foolish, squashy falls. No matter, the day has taken an irreversible turn toward magnificence.
The valley's tailing of snow runs for a few hundred meters beside a stream. We stop, drink and move on, the snow now ragged and thin, interrupted by tree roots and patches of moss sprouting white snow roses. At last our trail is nothing but gravel and pine cones, a pleasant walk for summer tourists.
We shoulder our skis another kilometer into a bright mountain town called Champex. It is 9:30 in the morning. By 10 we are sitting by a small lake in a restaurant garden, drinking Radlermass—a mixture of beer and lemonade favored by racing cyclists and other desperate sorts—and eating a healthy breakfast of steak, fried eggs, French fries, salad and coffee.
Alpinists first tried to find a high road across the Alps in 1842, and the greater part of the trek now accepted as the classic Haute Route was first traversed by French skiers from Chamonix in 1903. The trail rarely dips below 8,200 feet, and only twice does it drop down as far as the highest Alpine meadows. Once is at Zermatt, and here the descent is optional. A skier could bivouac high above Zermatt's clean beds and cheese fondue, but after a week or more in the snow-fields it would be the act of an insane man.