2015/10/14

Serialized Short Story: Izcacus Part 3

Continued from yesterday: "Izcacus" Part 3


Izcacus

Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – May 31

Saturday.

9 AM: According to this morning’s measurements, the glacier has receded 12 m compared to samples taken from the same location this time last year. DDT, dioxins, and heavy metals are present in higher than normal concentrations.

1 PM: Yves Saraphian was waiting for me back at Bezengi base camp. I was surprised to see him, if not entirely happy. I’m grateful he got me out of hot water with those Russian border guards, but he never lets me forget it.

Sure enough, Saraphian’s here to call in the favor. He’s searching for Wil Pfarrer’s body—with a team that includes Pfarrer’s widow (she’s kind of attractive in a well-preserved news anchor sort of way). I remember hearing the reports when he disappeared. Damn shame. I’d be all for helping them if they weren’t searching Izcacus.

Saraphian accused me of superstition. I assured him that my break with the faith was as clean as his, albeit for different reasons. Ockham warned against invoking unnecessary entities, and rustic curses worry me less than another run-in with the FSB.

Easy solution: play chicken. Quote such an inflated guide fee that Fulbright will be nuts not to blink first.


Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 2

We set out on the glacier the morning after meeting Herzog (and paying him enough to fund his research for the rest of the year).

The temperature’s rising, but it’s plenty cold enough to induce hypothermia. On the map, the glacier looked like a curvy line wending southeast, but up close it’s a maze of scree and fang-like ice pillars. Mountain faces on every side make it easy to forget the outside world exists. The wind’s so loud that the guy next to you has to shout to be heard.

It was late afternoon when we neared the path that Saraphian said leads to the mountain. An avalanche had blocked the way. Just our luck.

That’s when Herzog started earning his outlandish fee. He led us back a mile to a low saddle. The way up was a gentle snow slope, but the other side turned out to be a steep descent over icy rock. Yours truly spotted the best way down.

It was dark before we all made the descent, and a nasty snowstorm blew in afterward.

The next morning I opened my tent and became one of the few Westerners to see Izcacus.

It was like seeing my hopes vindicated. My shout woke the others, who might’ve complained if they hadn’t seen what I saw: an ashen, snow-marbled pyramid thrusting upward from the collision of four serrated ridges. The snow had stopped, but the peak was lost in the clouds. I could tell that, wherever it was, the summit easily rose above 5000 meters.

The others reacted in different ways. Veronica stared as though expecting to see something. Austen looked as poleaxed as a skeptic who’d bumped into Sasquatch. Saraphian crossed himself. A moment later, so did Herzog.

We’re up around 3000 meters now. I was worried about Austen, but the altitude’s hardly slowed the old guy down. He advised us to spend a few days acclimatizing. So, we’re searching the glacier at the mountain’s base. Avalanches may have swept remnants of Wil’s expedition off the mountain, as the stench on the wind suggests.

I knew what this job could mean, but being out in some of the remotest wilderness on earth can sour you on the prospect of hauling a colleague’s body from a crevasse. Think I’ll dedicate my summit bid to Wil.


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 4 June

Wednesday.

Not so much as a glove’s turned up on the glacier. I should be disappointed, but I’m relieved.

Herzog thinks the bodies are down a crevasse where we can’t reach them. He attributes the ghastly stench to animal remains—not that we’ve found any of those, either.

Eddie insists on checking the slopes to be sure. Normally I’d agree despite his clear case of summit fever, but I get chills looking at that monster looming over me. It’s unnatural—or rather too inhumanly natural, like hurricanes or the void of space. The satellite phone is small comfort, knowing who’s waiting on the other end.

Herzog and Saraphian bowed to Eddie’s taunts, and Austen says we’re acclimatized. Looks like I’m past the point of no return.


Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 5

Thursday.

6 PM: Good progress today. The route we picked took us up the west flank of the south ridge. We made camp in a snow field at around 4000 meters with cliffs on two sides sheltering us from that shrieking wind. The lower slopes are unseasonably free of snow (indicative of warming climate?), so avalanche risk is minimal.

Seems we’re not the first to try this route. Veronica found ropes in a chimney about a hundred meters above us. They’re modern lines—the same brand that Wil preferred, she says.

Whoever fixed those ropes was climbing faster than us, which makes sense considering Austen’s age and Veronica’s inexperience. Hell, even I’m feeling a little woozy. Must be rustier than I thought.

Sharp figures the previous team camped on the ridgeline just below the shoulder. He wanted to go up the chimney, but Austen says there’s too little daylight for a technical climb. I agree. Better to tackle it fresh in the morning.

Sharp’s drive to keep climbing is understandable. Those ropes were the first signs of life since we entered the valley. I don’t know what’s worse: the earsplitting racket when the wind’s blowing, or the deathly quiet when it’s not.


Team Physician’s Notes – June 6

Friday.

12:00 AM: Altitude 13,120 ft. Weather clear. Temperature 0° F. O2 level 12.5%.

Rose and met Sharp and Fulbright exiting the latter’s tent. They admitted sleeping little. Saraphian checking the gear. Reported fatigue and shortness of breath normal for this altitude.

Herzog still asleep. We roused him with difficulty, and he awoke gasping for air. Moderately hypoxic. No other signs of pulmonary edema. I advised Herzog to stay in camp and rest. He said he’ll see how he feels once he’s up and about. I advised him to stay hydrated. He said he would.

12:31 AM: Breakfast. Even instant coffee tastes and smells irresistible at this point. Its value as a bronchodilator outweighs any diuretic effects.

1:06 AM: Setting out for the day’s climb. Herzog has improved and is with us.

5:32 AM: We made it onto the ridge by the skin of our teeth. Fulbright slipped in the chimney and pulled everyone off the slope above. Only Sharp prevented the worst. He grabbed hold of the fixed rope and belayed us until we got our grip again. Thank God for Wil Pfarrer! It’s a miracle that old rope held. For the record, I take back any aspersions I cast on Eddie Sharp’s abilities.

No injuries except a few bruises and Fulbright’s faulty crampon, which caused the fall when a binding broke. Saraphian probably missed it due to mild hypoxia. I told him to be more careful.

6:16 AM: Altitude: 14,470 ft. Wind’s gusting. Black clouds to the north.

No sign of Pfarrer’s team. Sharp insists they camped here, since going any farther would’ve put them in an avalanche zone. Saraphian thinks the camp was swept off the hill or buried.

Fulbright wants us to press on. Seconded by Sharp. Saraphian and I oppose. Herzog wants to study a shrinking serac up on the shoulder. He’s identified a route leading up.

7:38 AM: Setting out again.

10:03 AM: Altitude: 15,049 ft. The weather’s taking a turn for the worse. Heavy snow reducing visibility. The temperature’s risen since dawn, but the wind’s pummeling us.

10:46 AM: Found cave along the route. Entrance mostly blocked with snow. Trying to clear it.

2:15 PM: Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Cave interior strewn with human remains. Smells like the meat locker where my uncle kept a wild hog carcass. Corpses not from Pfarrer’s team. Much older. Strange maxillary deformities. Body near the center immaculately preserved. Male in late 30s – early 40s. Frozen solid, but no frostbite. Complexion ruddy. Wool coat ca. early last century too thin for this climate. Saraphian agitated. Talking rapidly and cursing. Says this man was a Turk. We’ve probably found Ottoman refugees left stranded when Russians closed the pass.

Sharp, Fulbright, and Herzog rummaged around. Turned up some gloves, bits of rope, a knife, and the like. Nothing here postdates the 20s except for modern boot prints. Not all of them ours.


Veronica Fulbright’s Expedition Log – 6 June

Friday.

We made camp on the shoulder. No one knows I found Wil’s journal in the cave. I’m shivering in my tent. I wish I were just cold.

The cave made me fear this mountain. Wil’s notes make a night descent in the storm sound preferable to spending another minute here.

I know how my husband died, though closure brings no comfort. Let Wil’s body rest forever in the abyss like he wanted. Better to leave him down there than risk disturbing what he took with him. Let the world keep thinking he never brought his clients to harm, however good his reasons.

I’ve held my satellite phone and contemplated calling the first saved number a dozen times tonight. I could tell them we found nothing, but my concrete fear of disappointing the client still trumps my abstract fear of that ruddy corpse.

Part 2
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