There were six of us sharing a five-man lager in the Argentière Hut. This is even worse than it sounds. Lager in Alpine usage does not mean beer—it means a communal sleeping shelf covered by a straw-filled pallet that is downright elderly. This sort of lager is less soothing than the liquid kind. It is slightly better than huddling all night in the snow—but not much. The limbs congeal, the wings of delirium flap through the brain, but true sleep does not come.
At 2:30 a.m. it was less painful to heave out of the lager than to stay in it. We ate without talking: cheese, sausage, small chunks of uncooked bacon, dense brown bread carved off a heavy loaf with a jackknife, tea with as much sugar as could be dissolved in it and with a faint flavor of gasoline from the pocket cooker. We were on skis by 3.
The glacier was dark, with only a filtering of starlight. The mushy snow of the afternoon had frozen hard. We scraped raggedly over old ski ruts, legs locked rigid. The long, sloping traverse was not steep but its pitch varied, and the poor light gave no warning of variations. There was only a rim of grayness above the high ridges to brace the mind against, for balance. Speed was unjudgeable by eye; it was whatever it sounded like as the skis grated against the snow. The wash of cool air was lulling; we moved through an unidentifiable dream.
The figures ahead stopped. I took off my skis, feeling dulled and stiff in the chill. Now we would carry our skis. I fitted my ski tails through the side flaps of my rucksack, tied the tips together and worked my shoulders under the packstraps. The others were already moving up the steep snow face toward the Chardonnet Pass, half a mile above.
Our guide was Marcus Schmuck, a 44-year-old electrical technician from Salzburg. A couple of months before he had volunteered to take me over the Haute Route, the longest, most difficult and most varied ski tour in the Alps.
The Haute Route edges across the shoulders of the Alps from Argentière, France, a few kilometers from Chamonix, eastward to Saas-Fee, Switzerland, not far from Zermatt. The straight-line distance is 90 kilometers, or about 56 miles, and the up-and-down, traverse-and-switchback distance is at least twice that. In perfect weather, which is unheard of, the tour takes nine or 10 days. Avalanche danger is extreme and constant, and there are intermittent opportunities to fall off headwalls or into crevasses. Severe sunburn is almost unavoidable, and the altitude can cause nausea and headaches. The beer supply is unreliable.
Marcus Schmuck knew well enough, of course, that on any ski tour the hours of upward suffering exceed those of downward skiing by a ratio of 7 or 8 to 1. He is, however, an experienced mountaineer and fond of challenges.
Seen from the Argentière side, and from the viewpoint of a climber working his way up from the glacier, the rise to the Chardonnet Pass looks straight, like the slant of a barn roof. Actually it is rounded, but in the starlight the curve is undetectable. After an hour's hard climb what seems to be a ridge line appears. It should be reachable in about another 15 minutes.
The nearness of the ridge line rouses me. Marcus, who is leading, has been climbing fast, and I am beginning to tire. The rucksack with the skis lashed to it weighs about 45 pounds. Now every few moments I look up to cheer myself with my progress. But there isn't any. The ridge refuses to get any nearer. What in hell's the matter with it? The irritation is perfectly real. I am able to put it aside; an adult does not, after all, lose his temper at a mountain. But even after I understand my mistake—what I saw was no ridge line, merely the point at which my line of sight lay tangent with the rising convex curve of the snow face—it is hard to keep my feelings below the level of childish anger. I am running out of strength, Marcus does not slow down, and the STUPID GODDAM PASS KEEPS ON RECEDING!
We reach the top—3,323 meters, or about 11,000 feet—at about 5:20 a.m., a few minutes too late for the sunrise. We have been climbing hard for two hours. Marcus looks closely at me and I grin at him, but I don't feel like grinning. I feel cross, tired and foolish. And on this first full day of the Haute Route we have another four hours of work ahead of us.