Yesterday I shared the first part of my horror/techno-trhiller story "Izcacus". Here's Part 2.
Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 28 May
I watched the eastern sky turn red-gold behind the Bezengi Wall on our descent, but night lingered in the mountains’ shadow until long after landing. The wind was cool and carried the scent of beech forests as bittersweet as the memories it brought.
Mestia gave me a severe case of culture shock. The airport is just a gravel strip and a tower that looks like a postmodern sculpture inspired by a mac peripheral. Mediaeval towers jut up all over town like the splintered ribs of something huge and half-buried.
The lodgings are filled with refugees from the ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia (even though there’s not much stopping the war finding them here). Eddie calls guilt an occupational risk of climbing in the Third World. He says you learn to ignore it. But I can't meet these people's tired, fearful eyes.
We’ve temporarily set up shop at a campground on the outskirts. The dodgy security and lack of amenities are what’s driven most climbers to the Russian side, which is exactly why we’re starting from Georgia.
Everybody’s getting on well enough—better than expected in Austen’s case. I don’t know how the client convinced him to come, and I don’t want to know. Still, Eddie can be rather abrasive sometimes. I should keep a close watch on them both.
Eddie’s nosing about for a guide who’s got firsthand knowledge of the southeast Bezengi Glacier, and Austen’s gone off to hire a Jeep. (I told them I’m staying behind to make sure our supplies are packed properly, and there’s plenty of time for that after I’ve rung Stavropol.)
The next leg takes us through the Svaneti region along the Inguri River road. From there most climbers follow the trekking route to Shkhara—which is our plan too, if anyone asks.
The client wants results, but the more I try to focus on business, the more I find myself staring up at that saw-toothed ridge. I can’t help picturing Wil trudging around some glacier up there. My excitement almost overwhelms my fear.
Starring Eddie Sharp
Hey, sports fans! Sorry for the prolonged media blackout, but there’s a method to my madness, as you’ll soon see.
I’m actually writing this on May 28 and scheduling it to be posted in three weeks. Why keep my public waiting? Well, some of you took Monday’s post to mean that I’ve been gearing up for a major expedition, and now I can confirm your deductions. (I’ve always said I have the smartest readers on the planet.) This time, the prize is a major Caucasian peak (and I don’t mean it’s white…okay it is, but white like snow, not like Ward Cleaver).
Following me so far?
So when somebody mentions the Caucasus, most mountaineers would think of Elbrus, Dykh-Tau, or Shkhara. And in this case, they’d be wrong. Some of the old-timers on this blog are probably onto me by now, and are doing top-notch largemouth bass impressions. For the sake of the newbs out there, here’s a little story.
Climbers started invading the Caucasus in the 1880s after Graham’s conquest of Dent du Geant left nothing worth doing in the Alps. The silver age climbers conquered every major Caucasian peak they could find in pretty short order before heading off to the Himalayas.
What’s interesting is they missed a few. The Caucasus’ greater height, remoteness, and political instability have always made them far less accessible than the Alps. There are still Caucasian peaks over 4000 meters that don’t have official names.
I can hear some of you saying, “Big deal! That’s nothing you can’t learn from five minutes on a wiki.” Well here’s something that no amount of web research could teach you—until now.
Back in the 20s, the Russians sealed a pass that used to run through the mountains from Georgia. The route had always been obscure, but thanks to a little dynamite and a lot of rock, it ceased to exist. That landslide cut off a whole massif from the outside world for almost a century.
But it gets even better! In the early 70’s a Chinese climber named Huan Yu gave a talk at the London Alpine Club on his involvement in the ’52 Russian Everest attempt. Huan claimed that the Soviets had run their Himalayan training regime out of a Red Army base in the Caucasus. He also let slip that a team had gone missing on an “uncharted mountain over 5000 meters” near the north Bezengi Massif. Allegedly, no search was conducted because it would’ve meant sending rescuers into “forbidden territory”.
Tales of a “Caucasian Shambhala” have met with rising skepticism over the last 10-15 years, mainly from young inexperienced types. For once I think it’s fair to blame the internet. Granted, you won’t find the missing five-thousander on any modern maps (since the Russians keep it off of hardcopies, flight paths, satellite photos, and online mapping services). There are grainy snapshots taken from neighboring peaks, but pictures are easy to fake these days.
Me, I’ve got all the proof I need from Wil Pfarrer. Despite our heated debates on this blog and elsewhere, if he said the mountain’s real, I take it as gospel. But I don’t have to, because it was real enough to kill him.
Some of you might still lump the Caucasian Shambhala in with El Dorado and the Kangchenjunga Demon, but I’m willing to put my mouth where my money is.
That’s right. I’m so sure that there’s an unconquered 5000 meter peak somewhere in the Caucasus that I’m on my way to climb it.
Hence the posting delay. The Russians still consider the area off limits, but by the time they read this, I’ll have been to the summit and back and will probably be hosting a slideshow at GRHQ.
Assuming I don’t get thrown in jail or buried in an avalanche, expect to see plenty of pictures on Friday.
Posted 2014/06/18 at 14:00 MDT.
Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 29 May
I can’t say I’m pleased with Eddie at the moment.
First, Ed the “Mountain Man” waits until we’ve landed in the Dark Ages to tell me he’s got no experience with the southeast Bezengi Glacier. He assures me it’s no problem; he’ll hire a local. Later he swaggers up to me, all smiles, and announces he’s found a guide. He just needs another grand.
So I give him the money, possibly due to hypoxia. What does Eddie do? He comes waltzing back into camp with a dodgy looking Armenian tagging along like some mangy stray.
No worries, says Eddie. Yves here is the real deal! He saw alpine combat during the USSR’s breakup. Been guiding teams all over these hills ever since.
Now, after a bum-numbing ride through the Land that Time Forgot, Saraphian turns what was supposed to be our final planning session into a row when he says he doesn’t know Izcacus.
I ask him who the bloody hell Izcacus is. In that porridge-thick drawl of his, Saraphian explains that Izcacus means Blood-Drinker. Apparently that’s our destination’s local name.
Austen, ever the legalist, says he thought the mountain didn’t have a name. Saraphian puts on a superstitious villager act worthy of a Hammer film and actually says that the locals avoid speaking the mountain’s name for fear of bad luck.
Austen throws a fit. Eddie rambles on about how lots of peaks have spooky names, like Death Mountain in the Urals and Nanga Parbat’s playful “Man Eater” nickname. Somehow, Austen doesn’t seem appeased.
Saraphian finally defused the situation by recommending yet another guide—an American named Steve Herzog who’s studying effects of Soviet-era pollution. Saraphian makes Herzog sound like an eco-terrorist, but ambivalence for the law highly recommends him for this team.
Saraphian advises hiking to Bezengi base camp, where he’s sure we’ll find Herzog. I’m already in so deep that there’s nothing for it but to let Saraphian earn his guide fee.
What am I doing here? Everything smells like goat, and it’s impossible to get a decent claret.
Why couldn’t you have had a proper job, Wil—or at least better business sense? If you’d screened your clientele more carefully, you’d still be alive, and I’d still be in Fairlie!
Diary of Yves Saraphian – 30 May
Please forgive my long silence, brother. I have not written because not much has changed. There is always fighting. Once it was in Azerbaijan. Now it is in Abkhazia. The Svaneti region reminds me of home. Apart from that, I like it.
I write again because a new thing has happened. Westerners have come and hired me for their expedition. That is not so new. What is new is that they wish to climb Izcacus.
You would chide me for joining them. The war took your life before it could take your belief. I sometimes envy you that, but I could not do my job if I still believed the tales of the priests.
The villagers share those superstitions. They act as if the plague were banished only yesterday—as if the carriers did not perish when the Russians sealed the pass.
I tell people here they do not know the way of the world. The same Turks who brought disease here attempted genocide against my people. Others tried to destroy our nation when the Soviet Union fell. I have killed and watched men die. Ghosts from the past are nothing.
My clients are strange, even for Westerners. I called them all Americans at first, but the woman corrected me. She calls herself after a fruit or bird, but to me all English-speakers sound the same: loud and arrogant.
One—the man called Sharp—is more arrogant than the others. He says he is a famous climber, but I have not heard of him. He colors his hair brown to hide the grey and preens like a teenage boy around the woman, but he pays well.
The doctor is older, but strong. They say he has made many climbs, and I believe them. He glares at Sharp and mutters to himself. Sometimes his hands shake.
They climb Izcacus because the woman’s husband went there and did not return. For all I know, he is rotting in a Russian prison. His wife gives us orders, but she sounds, looks, and smells nervous. I know these signs from the war.
The others became angry when I told them I have never been to Izcacus. Sharp only said he wanted someone to guide them on the glacier. I am confident in surveying the mountain to find a route, but that is not enough for them. So I will take them to Herzog.
I am not afraid. But the sooner I finish this job, the better.