Picking up where we left off yesterday, here's "Izcacus" Part 4.
Eddie Sharp’s Notes – June 7
Overslept a bit. Frankly, I needed it after yesterday’s weirdness. The storm blew over and laid down fresh powder, but the increased avalanche risk is minimal. Temperature holding steady. Air’s so thin it’s like breathing through a coffee stirrer.
Veronica still hadn’t left her tent by the time everyone else was ready to go. I barely got her to budge. She said she wasn’t feeling well and chose to stay behind. Austen volunteered to stay with her. I could’ve shown more solidarity, but that pearly white peak was calling my name.
Me, Saraphian, and Herzog made our summit bid. A few hours in, I got this crazy notion that the snow had turned to sand and the blue sky was really a tropical sea. The mountain was clearly messing with my head, so I decided to try a little jiu-jitsu. I promised myself a trip to Barbados if I made it to the top.
Bribing myself worked! At 2:26 PM I became the first man to summit Izcacus. Cold and tired as I was, I couldn’t resist taking in the magical view. The Bezengi Wall rose to the southwest like a crooked white blade, and the Russian foothills marched northward in green and brown columns. Clouds on the western horizon hid Dykh-Tau’s peak.
Conquering this hill has been a real achievement, which I dedicate to Wilhelm Pfarrer. For all I know, I’m repeating a feat he never got to tell the world about.
Herzog, then Saraphian, summited after me. We shot some photos, and Herzog took some snow samples. Riding high on success.
It’s after three. We’re starting down.
Diary of Yves Saraphian – 7 June
Today I stood on the summit of Izcacus with two foolish men. The dread from the cave drove away any joy I might have felt.
These men embody the Western mind’s habit of forgetting anything it finds unpleasant. They disregard the horror we found yesterday and busy themselves posturing or searching for poisons in the snow. I think that cave harbours a worse poison.
We returned to camp after dark, wind-burned and weary. The doctor came out and said Fulbright is getting worse. Aches, nausea, and a high fever.
Dr. Austen went to get supplies around noon, and Fulbright’s tent was filled with smoke when he got back, so he put her in his. We checked her tent, and it smells of smoke inside. There is burned paper on the stove, but no one can tell what it was.
Dr. Austen showed us a knife he found in Fulbright’s tent. It is old with dark stains that are not rust. I realized it was the knife from the cave and felt like I was sinking into the snow. Austen asked Fulbright why she had it, but she claimed not to know it was there.
I told the others that we should get off the mountain now. Austen said Fulbright can’t climb down, especially not in the dark. I said leave her. Sharp called me a coward and lunged at me, but Herzog held him back. Now they say wait and see how Fulbright is tomorrow. Fools.
Team Physician’s Notes – June 8
6:03 AM: Altitude 15,800 ft. Gale-force winds, heavy snow. Temperature 4° F. O2 level 11.2%.
Blizzard started around 9:00 PM. Wind beating the tent like a kettle drum kept me up all night. Patient’s fever has risen to 104. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness, mumbling gibberish and complaining of pain. Lack of cough and congestion argues against HAPE. Suspect a virus.
7:17 AM: Inspected patient for cause of infection. Found three-inch long diagonal cut on her left shoulder blade. Wound site highly inflamed. She claims no memory of being cut. Wound’s location makes self-infliction unlikely. Patient’s clothing undamaged.
Examined knife found in patient’s tent. Two stains on blade. A dark sticky substance, possibly blood. The other is certainly blood, and fresh.
12:22 PM: Saraphian came inquiring about Fulbright’s condition. I told him that even if she were fit to travel, which she’s not, we’d still have to wait out the storm. He argued for leaving her but shut up and turned white as a sheet when her babbling started again. I asked what was eating him, and he bolted into the storm ranting about Fulbright speaking Turkish.
Saraphian’s right about one thing. We must get to a lower altitude soon—for his sake.
Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 8
6 PM: I’m hesitant to write this down. What decided me was knowing that we’re all tired and oxygen starved. I want to record the details so I can examine them later with a clear head.
Austen came to my tent about an hour ago. His face was lined and weather-beaten—the first time since we met that he’s looked his age. I asked, half-joking, what was worth braving the storm to bother me about. He put on the look surgeons wear when they tell you the patient didn’t make it. He said Veronica had asked for me—to hear her confession.
I admit that my gut response was indignation. I may have quoted Michael Corleone. I know I said that summiting had taxed me too much to go out in the storm. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how Veronica knew I’d been a priest.
Austen’s a patient guy. Though a man of science, and a Baptist, he showed more respect for Veronica’s wishes than I did. Realizing that sobered me up. I told him I could only administer the sacrament to a Catholic, or at least a baptized Christian who agrees with Church doctrine on the matter. Austen said Veronica had converted when she’d married Wil, though he wasn’t sure how serious she’d been.
I fell back on my last defense. Without priestly faculties, I can only hear someone’s confession in a life-or-death emergency. I asked Austen if Veronica’s case qualified, and he just nodded.
That’s how I found myself trundling through frigid, near whiteout conditions to Austen’s tent. The sickroom scent hit me when I opened the flap, and when I saw Veronica’s red swollen face peeking from the mummy wraps of her sleeping bag, I knew she’d been right to send for me.
8 PM: Austen came and told me that Veronica passed. He’s sure it was a virus, and he’s torn over what to do next. His fear is that those corpses we found died of the same disease—the one the Russians dynamited a pass to contain—and that we’re at risk of infection. He says it’s happened before. Frozen bodies found in the Alps contained viable Spanish Flu particles.
Alpine tradition calls for burying Veronica in a crevasse, but Austen asked about the ethics of keeping the body for research. Her tent’s been without heat for more than a day, making it perfect for cold storage. He thinks it’ll help, so I hid my misgivings.
The Church and I may have grown apart, but I’d rather be shot than violate the seal of confession. Was what happened between me and Veronica sacramental? It was close enough that I didn’t tell Austen. It’s why I feel dirty writing this now.
Veronica was delirious when I came to her bedside. She alternated between incoherent mumbling and tearful pleading for the pain to stop. I thought it was me she was begging. I’m less sure now.
I tried coaxing her back to lucidity. Several minutes passed without success, so I decided to begin the sacrament. The instant I made the sign of the cross, her whole demeanor changed. She fell quiet. Her dull, half-closed eyes were suddenly wide open and piercing. Her face looked like an old painting with the eyes cut out and someone else staring at me from behind it.
She told me things then, calmly and in exquisite detail—shameful things only I and the chalice chippers from seminary should know.
God forgets absolved sins. A retired exorcist warned me about those who don’t forget—the counsel for the prosecution. They can’t make us do evil. They tempt us to condemn ourselves.
I asked if I was speaking with someone who died in the cave. She said he wasn’t dead. She said we won’t be either.
I’m tired and thinking’s hard. I won’t write what else Veronica said. It might be her fever or my hypoxia. Just in case I got the box of salt from my pack and blessed it.
Steve Herzog’s Field Notes – June 9
11 AM: The storm finally broke. I’m going out to give Veronica last rites. Who knows when death really occurs?
2 PM: Saint Michael defend us in battle. Cast into hell the evil spirits who seek the ruin of souls. Goes something like that.
Veronica’s tent was cool, not cold. Smelled like a slaughterhouse. No reason it should have since her stove was gone—along with her body.
I must’ve cried out because the others came running, or as close as you can get to running in knee-deep snow.
Snow without any footprints
Sharp was livid. He thought someone threw Veronicas body off the mountain. Soften it up first in the heat. I think he suspected me.
Saraphian muttered about hearing voices coming from Veronica’s tent last night. Sharp demanded he say it out loud. Saraphian laid into him, shouting that everything had been wrong since the cave and that Veronica was speaking like the diseased Turks.
Sharp exploded. He accused Saraphian of cutting Veronica to get her sick and make us leave. They nearly came to blows, but Austen broke them up. Sharp turned on Austen, saying he’s senile and no wonder they took his lisence. Austen said we’ve been up here too long and it’s effecting our judgment.
Now Sharp thinks Veronica’s not dead. He thinks she wandered off in the storm and wants us to go look for her. Austen said Sharp’s thinking with his pants. I told them to bury the hatchet til after we find her.
Saraphian refused to join the search. He was red-faced and shaking. Said to leave the izcacus and get off the mountain. Sharp told Saraphian to climb down alone. I said you don’t leave your people behind. Sharp said we could go and he’d search alone. Austen agreed to help search to prove Sharp wrong about Veronica.
Saraphian went quiet.
3 PM: We’re going out to look for Veronica. Saraphian’s with us. He says he’s resigned to fate, but my presense gives him comfort.
Diary of Yves Saraphian – 9 June
David I am in the Russian tent. Should have turned back like Sharp said. He’s as good as dead now. The rest of us scattered.
The cave was warm. Reeked like an open grave in summer. Our escape was a miracle. My ice axe did nothing. But Herzog I think threw salt and she fell at his words. I lost him when they swarmed us.
I ran don’t know which way. Doctor and I somehow found old tent at the same time. Red army markings. More than fifty years old but kettle still on stove waiting for climbers’ return. It smells clean. Not like a tomb. We are cold but afraid to light the fire.
The storm is starting again. With luck we are too lost for the blood-drinkers to find us.