"IT'S CLEARING." Sue is standing in the doorway of the bivouac hut. "Mark, come check it out."
I've been trying to memorize the map. Somewhere just to our left—to be absolutely avoided—is a drop-off of 5,000 feet.
I fold up the map and step outside. The clouds have lifted just enough for the ground to materialize. Sue is kneeling beside a boulder protruding from the snow. There's a wide yellow dash painted on the rock.
"Follow the yellow brick road. Follow, follow, follow..."
She's making a joke. We've discovered such slashes of paint intermittently. They are the most useless of trail markers. You only find one when you are standing right on top of it.
"It's getting late, Suz. Should we stay or should we go?" I already know her answer. A glowing hearth, wooden benches, kitchen smells, a hot meal—they all form an irresistible vision that draws us toward the next hut like kids to Christmas morning.
We reload our small packs and set out in the direction the dash indicates. The fog is still thick, so we stay close together. Keeping
our eyes on the ground, we find three more random rocks with yellow streaks before they disappear.
According to the compass, we've been moving due south. This makes me anxious. The Valsorey hut is due west.
"The trail must swing right," I insist.
We veer west and immediately begin to descend through a series of small ledges. Visibility is still no more than 20 feet. We carefully belay each other from one slick ledge down to the next. The farther we go the more uncomfortable I become. Something's not right. Even for the Haute Route, this is too technical.
Eventually we reach an exceedingly steep snowfield that drops into the mist. I descend first, facing in and front-pointing. When I reach the end of the rope, I set up a belay around a rock outcrop.
"On belay?" Her voice is unnatural. I can hear the fear.
When she rejoins me, appearing out of obscurity, she says nothing.
"I think we should traverse north," I tell her.
On the next pitch I kick steps simultaneously down and left. Before I reach the end of the rope I drop beneath the clouds—and instantly realize we have made a grave mistake. Below me is a thin rock band, then nothing but damp sky for thousands of feet. We are exactly where we didn't want to be: too far south, on the cliffs far above the Valsorey Glacier.
I stop at the ledge and set up another belay.
"On belay! Take! Your! Time!"
Sue starts to descend. I bring in the rope. She's moving too quickly.
I hear her scream, "Why?"
When Sue drops out of the clouds she immediately looks to her right, then to her left, then down between her feet. She stops dead. She stands still, both toes kicked into the snow, both hands on the adze of her ax, leans forward and presses her forehead against the snow.
I don't say a word. She begins to downclimb very methodically. Reaching me, she silently clips into my belay, looks over her shoulder at the chasm of air below, and says, "I'd say we're off route."
We both break out laughing.
"You know what went wrong? Those yellow dashes, they loop up to that bivy hut, not down to Valsorey. We went the exact wrong direction."
I point to a mellow couloir to the north of the face we're on.
"That's where we were supposed to descend."
"Then we'll just have to get over there," says Sue with can-do aplomb.
And so we do. When you have no choice, you do what you have to.
THE TRAVERSE IS steep and icy and slow, but successful. We slip into the main cirque of the Meitin Glacier, drop down to the moraine, find the trail, and burst into the Valsorey hut just at dusk.
It is like coming home after a great adventure. The warm, wool-moist heat of a blazing black woodstove envelops us. We sink into the safety and soft foreign voices as if into a hot tub. The caretaker is pulling a homemade peach pound cake from the oven. We order four thick slices.