By the first light, we set out in the rain, deciding to at least start out together and see how it goes. By noon, two of us have made it to the timberline in gale winds. The others are not even in sight. The French have provided bread, cheese, and chocolate in our knapsacks.
The snow has not melted at all. In fact, it is 3′ high and higher in places. The Pyrenees make the hills back home look like straightaways. We are crossing slightly south of the central ridge that forms the boundary line between occupied France and “neutral” Spain. The highest peaks are 11,000; , but we figure we won’t get higher than six or seven thousand; the trouble is we are up to our knees and higher in wet, heavy snow. We cross ridges so slick with ice that we cross thme on the seat of our pants. I keep wondering why the Maquis didn’t wait a little longer – till the snows had melted.
(I learned a couple of years ago – when I revisited the area – that 1944 was a very severe winter and that Gabriel, Mayor of Nerac, head of the Maquis, had gotten a tip that the Gestapo had been tipped off and had come into Nerac to round us all up just days after I left. One farmer refused to leave his home. He was picked up and never heard from again.
Gabriel went out the back door as the Gestapo was coming in the front. He ran to the cemetery and hid in a coffin. Then hid in the woods for six weeks, leaving Dr. Henri, the assistant chief (of Maquis) acting chief, Many years later, it is where Gabriel is buried.)
At first we rest every hour, then every half-an-hour; but as we climb into the thinning air, we are stopping every 10 or 15 minutes, cold and exhausted. The climb is endless, and I’ve got to wonder how many of our guys actually make it across these mountains and how many feed the crows that caw overhead.
We sleep and rest when we can using outcroppings to protect us somewhat from the constant, freezing wind. Our feet are numb, and we both worry about frostbite. The French have given us four pairs of wool socks. We wear two pair at time but our boots leak.
By the end of the second day, we are not sure how long we’ve been up here; we wonder if we are lost; late into the next day, we’re almost ready to give up. We should be near the frontier but low clouds restrict visibility to less than fifty feet. It’s four in the afternoon, and we are so exhausted that we catnap between each step we take, staggering like two drunks. I’m thinking this is just the kind of situation that produces fatal accidents….