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Saturday 2 September

All night we tried to drive away the rain by sheer will-power. By morning, it had subsided to a heavy drizzle, but only because the rain drops did not have time to gather momentum: we were right in the middle of the cloud. Visibility five to fifty meters. We got up slowly, took our time over breakfast, did all sorts of chores, like sweeping out the hut, but finally, at about quarter to ten, there was nothing else to do except put our packs on. The choice was simple: although we had a short day in front of us (only four and a half hours), if we did not move then, we would have to spend the day in the hut. Whilst this idea was not without its attractions, to get a day behind at this stage was really not an option. At that precise moment, the rain stopped. We hurriedly suited up and set off.

Figure 7: The four of us enjoy the views provided all day Saturday

We'd been on the road well over a minute when we were stopped in our tracks. A large carved-wood National Park sign pointed the way to the next hut. It also gave a time estimate: 6:30 hrs. To use the vernacular, we were gob-struck. With the wave of a carpenter's chisel, the day had turned from one of two short days we had allowed ourselves to one of the longest. We tried to convince ourselves that they had made a clerical error-our trusty guide was quite clear that it was only 4:30 hrs. But we knew this was out of the question. It turned out that the area had been hit badly by fire a year or two back, and the route had been diverted away from the destructed area, casually adding two hours to the route as it did so.

We set off again, taking time to fill our bottles from the real source this time. It was a typical English day. Humidity one hundred percent, as wet when it was not raining as when it was, never able to see more than fifty meters in front of you, and just enough wind to keep you too cold to be in one outfit, but too hot in another. To make matters worse, Claudia's knees were starting to become a problem. I waited for her to catch up then walked on until I caught up with Martha and Alfie, then waited for Claudia again. It was even worse for Martha and Alf, who waited for us every half hour or so, because as soon as they stopped, they rapidly started to cool down. By the time we arrived, they were so cold that they were naturally keen to get going.

My natural optimism made the almost impossible map-reading totally impossible. Alf proved to be far more accurate. However, even he found it hard to believe we were really covering the ground so slowly. But that was part of the problem. The route was hardly ever path. It was climbing around trees, down rocky slopes, and across streams.

As we climbed higher, the trees gave way to even rougher rock work. The wind increased, the rain got worse, the temperature dropped. The only thing which stayed the same was the visibility: there wasn't any. The basic route for the day was about a five hundred meter climb, then a traverse along a ridge, through the Col d'Avartoli (1898 m), then seven hundred meters down the other side to the refuge.

Each of the three stages was about the same length. The middle, ridge, section proved to be the worst. It was up one chimney, down the other side, then up the next. You could see that the path ran through the next chimney, and that it was only ten meters away. But the twenty meter shear drop, and climb up the other side would take ten minutes. In the nine hours it took us to walk the day's stage, we probably only covered four or five kilometers.

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