This is a continuation of No Return From Dead Mountain. Read previous parts:
“Do you recognize this place?” Zinaida asked quietly as she sprinted awkwardly on her snowshoes up to where Igor was leading their trek home. She continued whispering, “I don’t remember there having been an incline or decline like this on our way in.”
They had been walking for what felt like half the day. Shortly after the group had left last night’s camp, the snow had begun falling. It was light and quite beautiful in the beginning, the delicate flakes decorating their gear like glitter. Now, it was whipping uncomfortably against the sides of their bodies as they walked. They had been forced to stop to rewrap their faces in scarves and tighten all their protective outer clothing. All of them were on snowshoes now and had been slowed significantly by that and the low visibility. Igor was concerned they wouldn’t make it back to Vizhai before the end of the day.
Zinaida, now walking slightly ahead of Igor, suddenly stopped and whispered, panicked, “Igor! Look!” Igor caught up to her and looked in the hand she had extended. Panic shot through his body as he realized what she was showing him. Resting in Zinaida’s damp glove, was her compass. Beneath the glass, the compass needle was swinging, unnaturally, back and forth in a sort of slow motion sway. Then it appeared to hop slightly and sway the other way. He looked at Zinaida to see if maybe she was trembling or unsteady in some manner, and causing the movement herself. Zinaida was still. His heartbeat quickened and he could feel sweat forming on his brow in spite of the 30 below temperature.
“It must be the extreme weather. It must be affecting your compass in some way.” Sounding more like he was trying to convince himself than Zinaida.
She looked at him in disbelief, “I’ve been on plenty of treks, to many places in these conditions and I have never seen a compass behave this way.” She said as she shook her head.
“I did’t say anything ’cause I thought mine was broken!”. His face was now awash with uneasiness.
“Guys, relax. Seriously. Now, I am definitely convinced it’s the weather to blame. What are the odds that two compasses would be malfunctioning in the same way for any other reason?” Igor turned his snowshoes in the direction they had been heading. “Luckily, we are not far and we came this way yesterday. As soon as the snow lets up, the compasses should work again.”
“Where’s yours?” Zinaida asked him.
Igor dug around in his pocket and produced his old, worn out instrument. Sure enough, it was swaying as erratically as the other two. “See? It has to be the weather. Now, let’s get going. I don’t want to waste anymore time.”
Alexander and Zinaida exchanged looks that seemed to suggest that neither of them was buying this explanation. But they turned and followed Igor without question.
As the hours fled by, the snow seemed to get more intense. The sky darkened and Igor looked at his watch. It was still afternoon. It must be some thick cloud coverage, he concluded, looking up. He was unable to see the sky for all the falling snow.
With each step he took, he noticed a steeper and steeper incline. He was beginning to be concerned that they had veered off track. There had been no change in altitude on their way in. They hadn’t needed to climb at all. Now, he was resisting the urge to pull out his crampons.
Is this a snowdrift we’re ascending? He thought to himself, trying to get his bearings. The snow was simply too thick for him to see anything. He pulled out his compass again, hoping it had corrected itself and they could figure out where they were going. It was no use, the compass needle still swayed uncontrollably. He looked back at the group and realized he couldn’t make them all out. He decided to stop and wait for everyone, grabbing his rope from the side of his pack. When they all caught up, he would suggest they tie in to a length of rope so they didn’t lose each other. He wasn’t about to lose anyone now.
As everyone arrived one by one, he held out the rope and they began tying in. Yuri was the last to arrive and he tied in, silently, avoiding eye contact with anyone.
“We are going the wrong way.” He announced, nonchalant and totally emotionless as though he was saying, “that bicycle is red” or something just as meaningless and mundane. The entire group had startled together when he spoke. It was only the second time he spoke since he had come back from taking Vlad to Vizhai with Ludmila. He swung his arm to the right of the group and pointed in a direction that Igor could only guess was West.
“Are you certain?” Igor asked, trying to look Yuri in the eyes.
The blank-faced man slowly pulled his compass from his pocket and held it out for all the others to see. Igor gasped as he barely made out the fact that it was functioning perfectly before the glass became covered in snow. Igor wiped the compass off and saw once again that yes, it was functioning and yes, Yuri was right. They needed to veer right.
As Igor caught his breath, he looked up slowly and caught Zinaida’s glare. He could only see her eyes. The rest of her face was obstructed by her scarf, but he could still make out that her entire face was paralyzed in horror. Her dark, glassy eyes staring at Igor as if to say, “I told you so”. Igor tried to comfort her by softening his stare, but he had a feeling it wasn’t working. How could he convince her that everything was ok, when he wasn’t even convinced himself?
“Very well! Let’s go that way, team. No sense in wasting any more time”, Rustem announced, clearly trying to get everyone focused and on track again. They were running out of daylight time and had to try to make up some distance.
Igor led the way once again, as the snow began to dump even harder. The wind was picking up and changing their direction had the snow now pummeling their faces. It was sharp and their skin stung as they all raised their hands to protect themselves. These conditions were making the hike more and more impossible. Igor felt panic rise in his chest as he began to come to the realization that they would have to stop and set up camp for one more night. He knew that even that would be no small feat in this weather.
He pushed on, not wanting to be the one to make the call. He would keep trying to make his way forward until someone else stopped the group and suggested setting up camp. The light was all but gone now, and Igor could not make out his own feet in front of him. Finally, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Rustem looked at Igor, and Igor nodded. They waited for the rest of their friends, asked their opinions and with a unanimous vote in favour of setting up camp, spread out to find at least some tree coverage, still tied in to each other. After just a few brief moments, they heard Nicholai yell, “Here!” and felt a tug on the rope. Nicholai had his torch out, pointing at a cluster of trees. They were close enough together to provide a small amount of shelter from the storm.
Without a word to each other, the group began detaching themselves from the rope and opening up their packs. Struggling against the wind, they managed to set up their tents and anchor them into the ground. Igor, Rustem, Alexander and Nicholai scoured the ground for firewood and were unable to find enough to last the night. They would have to chop down a tree. Nicholai quickly unstrapped an axe from his pack and started on a small, dead-looking pine. A few minutes later, it was on the ground and the group of men was breaking it down into logs and kindling. When they had completely taken apart the entire tree, they fought against the wind and the snow to get a fire started. After 45 minutes of exhaustive attempts, they finally had fire and heat. The entire group huddled around for a few moments to get warm, before retiring to their tents for the night.
Ludmila trudged, coolly behind Igor as they crawled into their tent. They climbed into their sleeping bags in silence. Soon enough Igor could hear her breathing pattern change and figured she had fallen asleep. He lay awake, fully prepared to spend the night this way. When he was anxious, it was impossible for him to sleep, and he was certainly anxious. Listening to the wind whistling outside, he went over the day’s events several times in his mind, the compasses, the fact that they seemed to be on the side of a mountain when they hadn’t passed any yesterday, the unrelenting weather. He was glad today was over but worried what tomorrow would bring. He pictured the group arriving in Vizhai tomorrow, under clear skies. He envisioned them locating Vlad and sending off their promised telegram to their sports club back home. It would, of course, be early but that no longer seemed to matter to Igor. All he wanted to do was get home, now.
“I love you, Igor” The silence was suddenly broken by Ludmila’s voice, still stoic, still not herself. It was enough to ease Igor’s mind, though. He grabbed her ring from his pocket and reached over, slipping it on her finger. “I love you, too, my darling.” He whispered back.