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Up the Alps--on Skis

November 23, 1986|JACK HANLEY | Hanley is a Santa Ana free-lance writer.

ARGENTIERE, France — When a friend and I began making plans to go skiing, my travel agent got me into a group and we were off to Paris, where we took a train to Argentiere, France, near the Swiss border.

During the first two days of our snow safari we worked with a leader, a veteran Alpine guide who patiently taught those among us who needed teaching, to ski off- piste (off-trail) until we all gained confidence.

My group had battery-powered bleepers that were supposed to help us find each other if anyone got trapped by an avalanche. We played hide and seek with them and, fortunately, the bleepers really worked.

We learned how to climb on skis, grunting and panting our way up more than 4,000 feet and skiing down the silent, empty valley hidden behind the mountains. All this was rather exhausting, but it was also exciting. And it turned out to be a mere rehearsal for the fourth day's activities.

Waiting for Storm

On that notable day, one of reckoning, we all huddled apprehensively together about 6,000 feet above Argentiere, waiting for a storm to clear. On our backs were rucksacks packed with such reassuring novelties as avalanche shovels, ice axes, ropes, harnesses, bandages and morphine. On our feet, skis with modified bindings to help us walk more easily, and soles with removable adhesive skins to grip the snow.

In our stomachs there seemed to be frost-bitten butterflies, but of course, I speak only for myself.

We were at the bottom of a long piste running down Les Grands Montets. We were going all the way up, on skis. When we got to the top we were to keep on going, into the mountains behind us. Right into the day after tomorrow, it seemed.

Our plan was to gain another 2,500 feet in a 3 1/2-mile trek across the huge Argentiere Glacier. We would spend that night in the isolated mountain hut that is the first stop on the Haute Route, the unmarked ski touring trail that extends 72 miles across the roof of the Alps to Saas Fee in Switzerland.

The Clouds Lifted

After a short wait the clouds lifted and we were off, leaving the ski resort behind us. An hour later we were apparently the only intruders in a wild kingdom ruled by wind and snow. In single file we developed a long, loping rhythm and, with our heads bent to the elements, made our way over the glacier, but not swiftly.

The visibility was down to less than 50 yards and we began to struggle. Our guide, and a climbing friend of his who had come along, roped themselves together encouragingly at the head of the line and navigated our course with compasses and altimeters. With that good care, we were not at all alarmed, only exhilarated.

The rope was a precaution, just in case the leader stepped by accident into a crevasse. It could happen at any time. We had seen many of them earlier, but none was on the horizon at the moment. Words of mutual encouragement passed up and down the line, and we just kept doggedly at our purpose.

Chalet on a Ledge

And we made it, finally, tired but exuberant. Inside the hut, which was a large, bare chalet apparently pinned to a ledge of rock, and precariously, we ate soup by the light of a torch.

There was nothing fancy about any of it; we were really roughing. All of us had put on extra clothes against the intense cold and we crawled onto bunks to listen to the wind whistling and battering the chalet, as if anxious to hurl itself directly at us through the darkness. It was somewhat eerie, and to bolster our flagging courage, we sang old songs, then slept fitfully.

In the morning it was beautiful, sunny and quiet, for the wind had gone. The outlook was beyond the scope of any picture postcard; this was the real thing. We started early and eagerly toward Trient, the next hut along the Haute Route, almost a full day away. There were two tough cols (passes) to surmount but we were now a team, ready to take on anything collectively.

But all was not well. Before noon, about halfway up the first col, we were halted by our leader. Worried about the possible, even probable, avalanche risks under a blazing sun, we turned back. Leaning into the 35-degree slope and gazing up at the white edge of the ridge against the sky, my first reaction was one of relief.

But as I looked into the eyes of my companions, the truth shone in them, and probably in my own. We wanted more, and our last chance was gone.

All that remained was to ski down through the soft, deep snow like birds through a morning mist. Every moment was joyful. The end of our exciting expedition was at hand. We had learned a lot, not the least about ourselves, and without mishap.

Food and Friends Below

Eventually we rejoined the old world down below, where holiday makers queued at chairlifts, munched hot dogs and quaffed huge tankards of brew.

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