This morning the mice had got into everything. Well, everything I was carrying anyway. Some members of the party felt I should have learned this lesson the first time. I have learned the second. I think the only way to get rid of all the muesli in my sack is to burn it. Certainly, emptying it, shaking, scraping, and inverting it, have made little impression. The weather remains miraculous. Yesterday it had fought desperately with itself to keep the Cirque de la Solitude clear (only failing a couple of times, when a stormy mist would blow in, but ten minutes later would blow out again). Today, as always it seems, the clouds built up again throughout the day, but never in our valley. Yesterday the low cloud had chased us all the way up, but never enveloped us. Today the clouds were higher, but as we walked along the ridge, we could see the valley floor of the neighboring valleys were unpleasantly shrouded.
Our luck with the weather was reflected in the walk too. Just when we felt we needed a simpler day's walk, we got one. Real path, sometimes for an hour or more. In the morning, it ran downhill--a first for us, normally we had to set out straight up some mountain or other. Then it leveled out—another first. Thus we were finally able to really stretch our legs. For several hours at a time you didn't need your hands to walk with. Indeed for quite long periods the path was smooth enough that you didn't even need to look down at it, but rather could enjoy the view of pine trees, rocky crags, more pine trees, and towards the end of the morning, the final steep ascent to Col de Foggiale (1962 m), right at the end of a short valley.
Perhaps it was because it looked so innocuous, perhaps it was the build up of fatigue, but whatever it was, the col which was half the climb any of the others so far had been, took its toll. Claudia looked as if she was never going to make it, and Martha's morale was as low as I'd ever seen it. Even Alf, much to Claudia's sympathy and relief, started to make noises about knee problems. Apart from worrying myself to death over Claudia's worsening knee problem, I was so glad that the previous day was over that I was having no problem at all. In fact, positively chatty, (not a frame of mind I generally find myself in, unless I have shipped huge quantities of alcohol), I spent the morning boring Claudia with reminiscences of previous incarnations in such surroundings. Not a moment too soon (in fact several nameless members of the party felt that it was several too late), the col gave itself up and we were over. There were about five hundred Germans taking a breather on the other side. God knows where they all came from, but He didn't give us any clues. They were just there.
The valley before us looked totally out of place: smooth sided, grassy and bushed, so open and flat that you could see all the paths criss-crossing it for miles. Yet over the ridge we could see the other valleys were the knotty, rocky horrors we were used to. Truly we were being blessed. We decided to press on to the refuge, which was reckoned to be about twenty minutes away. But now Claudia's knees were crippling her, every step requiring her to stop and rest. As was the custom, Alf and Martha went on ahead. Eventually, with about two hundred meters to go, I left Claudia and went on ahead to drop my rucksack off and come back for hers. I decided then that it was crazy for us to goon. We had a three-hour walk (at normal pace) still to do that afternoon, and then we would be in a ski-hotel, where we could rest, get help, drive out or whatever. It made more sense tonight-stop where we were, so we could rest for the afternoon, then take all the next day to do the remaining three hour walk. We had enough food to last us, despite it being the last day before we picked up our next parcel.
I explained the plan to the team. We had lunch and rested for well over an hour. It was now well after two o'clock, and I assumed we had all accepted the idea. Then Claudia had a final discussion with the committee and voted to go on. Since half of the committee would not, if past experience was repeated, hang around to help with the problem, I was a little upset that they were allowed to influence the decision, but there it was. Alf and Martha were both more experienced in these conditions than I, and of course, Claudia knew better than any of us how bad she felt, and whether she could overcome the problem or not. I suppose I felt that the most important thing for me to do was to make it clear that there was no pressure on her to go on, and that I would willingly give up if she needed to. But this was clearly a watershed. If she went on from here, now, she would keep going. If she was going to keep going no matter what, there was no point in me worrying about it anymore. I never mentioned the subject again, and I stopped worrying about it at that moment. Now I just worried about how late it was before we'd even set off.