That afternoon Marcus and I ski back down to the valley for provisions, trailing the long red strings that will help rescuers find us if we are caught in an avalanche.
We hike back up the next morning. Every few minutes now from the high cliffs comes the great boom of an avalanche. It is a commanding sound. Marcus, who knows as much about avalanches as any man in the Alps, looks up like any beginner to watch the thundering fall of snow and rock. Even here on the slopes below the hut the snow is touchy. In the last hour of the climb a small avalanche, perhaps 15 meters wide, rumbles by a few inches from my ski tips.
Next morning we pack and head up the Combin de Meitin. But it won't go. A huge lip of snow hangs over the route we must take. It is large enough to bury a locomotive. We start back down, carrying our skis. I fall and start sliding, and Marcus, climbing down ahead by no coincidence at all, pivots and fields me. He is about the right size and build; he would have made a good second baseman.
One more day, our fifth in captivity. The great snow overhang still refuses to fall. There are 18 of us still left at Valsorey, and we begin talking idly about how it would be nice to have a helicopter. The talk turns serious. At 8:10 a.m. Marcus skis down alone to arrange it.
The day is spectacular: hot sun and a clear view for a hundred kilometers. We take off our shirts, stamp out a landing pad below the hut and stack skis and packs beside it.
Then gloom. By 11 it is clear that a cloud bank in the valley is rising fast. In half an hour there are patchy clouds overhead, and by noon we are fogged in. The sun appears and vanishes again several times during the afternoon, but only optimists expect to see the helicopter. By 3:30 there are no more optimists. We carry the skis and packs back to the hut.
At 4:15 a great shout. Against all odds the helicopter is landing. Everyone halloos down to the copter, skis dragging, packs slung by one strap. The pilot signals. Seven people, no equipment. Seven of us jostle into the machine. We swing down a valley, up over a pass, through a gap between two gaudy towers of rock and land on a glacier after three minutes in the air. We jump out like a guerrilla team, running bent over under the blades, into the clean snow.
Nearly an hour and a half later we are still there. The clouds have caught us. The copter has been able to bring one more load of skiers, but our skis and rucksacks, with our food, extra clothes and emergency-shelter sacks are still stacked in the snow at Valsorey. The temperature has dropped noticeably since we arrived.
It is nearly 6 p.m. when the copter is heard again. It makes one pass, another, then lands. Marcus ducks out. He has come from the valley, not from Valsorey, which is completely weathered in.
Marcus says, quite cheerfully, that we will bivouac. We explore, and find a 30-foot-deep hollow in the lee of a cathedral-size rock. Marcus draws lines on the snow floor of the hollow. Using his skis—the only pair we have—we slice building blocks from the snow. Walls rise. A tricky part: the arched doorway. Now, after 12 men and two women have worked for an hour, the roof: wedge-shaped blocks and delicate coordination between the inside and outside crews. It holds. We have an igloo about 12 feet long, six feet wide and six feet high. As we refine the interior furniture—a snow bench faced with upside-down skis—there is yelling outside. The copter is back, carrying skis and rucksacks in a cargo sling. Cheers.