The other descent is not a matter of choice. From Champex, where we are eating our midmorning steak, to a mountain village named Bourg-St-Pierre, where the snow resumes, there is a stretch of lowland to be crossed. It is about 25 kilometers wide and cannot be circumvented. A purist might march down the road from Champex, traverse the valley and slog up the road to Bourg-St-Pierre. But Alpinists are not so fond of pointless exertion as flatlanders imagine. We take a taxi.
At Orsières, a valley midpoint, we buy provisions. Swiss Alpine Club huts are spaced a day's travel apart along our route, and hot meals are available in some of them. It is never certain which huts have food, however, nor is there any guarantee in the high mountains that weather will hold long enough for climbers to reach the hut they set out for. The trek to Zermatt, our next break in the tour, takes four days at best, and we buy food to stretch for five. Any hot food we find will be welcome, but we have enough to make it on our own. We divide the provisions among the four rucksacks: tea, a kilo of sugar lumps, sausage, a chunk of bacon, a dozen packets of dried soup, a couple of small sausages, a big piece of mountain cheese, chocolate and a couple of big, heavy cans of ravioli to be carried for one climb and eaten the first night.
Next morning, at 5 a.m., it is cloudy as we leave the Caltex station, where we have spent the night. Within half an hour it is raining lightly. It is still raining as we reach the snow line and change to skis and climbing skins, but after another 20 minutes we move into a fall of aimless, soggy snow. We have been climbing in the quiet air of a narrow valley, but as we reach the exposed upper slopes a gusting wind snaps at loose bits of gear. The trail steepens. An hour's climb above, skiers are strung along a series of angling switchbacks laced high across a headwall. They are moving very slowly.
I may be hardening; today it has taken me longer to fade. But I am tired now, and climbing has become sickeningly hard work. Skis and skins are nearly always awkward. In hard, crusted snow the bristly fibers of the skins do not bite, and the climber slips. In the wet snow we have today traction is good, but great clots of snow stick to the skis, and at each step I lift extra kilos. I begin to rest on each tack of a switchback, then more often. Someone feeds me raisins, and I resent it when he accepts my offer of some fruit juice. There is not much juice left, and thirst frightens me.
Five minutes later I make a bad mistake. I have stopped again to rest, and I drop my mittens on the snow so that I can hunt in my pockets for a piece of candy. The wind gusts, and one mitten begins rolling slowly, then fast, down the headwall. After about 40 meters, the gust loses interest and the mitten stops. I shuck my pack, and ski after it. My luck holds; I have no spare mittens, but I find this one before the wind does. As I catch my breath and read myself a lecture on not being more of an idiot than is absolutely necessary, a climber above me loses his balance as he leans over to fix his climbing skins. He falls and spins down the snow wall on his slick nylon parka for at least 60 meters before he can dig in a ski pole and stop himself. One ski breaks its safety strap and slides on by itself for a few meters and then, contrary to ski behavior, stops.
At the top of a six-hour climb, at about 10,000 feet, is the Valsorey Hut. It is a squat cube of granite—no more than 20 feet long, wide or high—tucked in under the shoulder of a massif called the Combin de Meitin. The hut has two rooms. The upper room is a dormitory, with three lagers. The lower room contains a wood stove, a sink and two tables.
The hut was built in the '20s, and it was intended to be a refuge for no more than 25 or 30 climbers. Now, at 11 in the morning, every square foot of lager is covered with exhausted climbers. Damp bodies sag beside the wood stove. There are 45 people in the hut, and more are struggling up the head-wall behind me.
Someone makes room at a table. Marcus, who reached the hut an hour ago, hands me a bowl of tea. Later there is soup. After that I put my head on the table and sleep. The afternoon passes faster than might be imagined in drowsing, tea drinking and talk. There are three or four French climbers and two Americans, but most of the talk is in the soft German of Austria and Bavaria. A Bavarian named Max yells out, in heavy dialect, "What are we?" Four other Bavarians, all from Max's home town of Kelheim, yell back, "Healthy are we!" The exchange is roared twice more, and then all the Kelheimers together bellow, "Lord, we are healthy!" Much laughter and foot stamping from everyone. The cheerfully nitwitted beerhall toast becomes a battle cry—a bottle cry when there is beer—for the dozen or 15 of us who go on to finish the Haute Route together. Its self-mockery seems appropriate.
At 2 the next morning, when we hope to start climbing, there is a full blizzard blowing through the dormitory's open windows. Everyone waits for Marcus, the most experienced Alpinist in the hut, to say the obvious. He says it: "Not possible." Again we lever ourselves into position and sleep.
Two days later. We have not moved a meter from the Valsorey lagers. The big storm has blown itself out, but so much new, unstable snow hangs on the steep sides of the Combin de Meitin that avalanches are a certainty. There is no question of going over the Combin, and there is no way around it. Until the new snow slides safely down we are stuck.