An Unknown and Compelling Force by Jade Mitchell
We’ve arrived in Ivdel. It’s good to be off the train. Igor, Zinadia and I have been running to stretch our legs. The others are drinking. Zinadia and I are going to finish washing and then go join them. Igor doesn’t drink. Tomorrow is another travel day and then, after weeks of planning, we finally begin our trek.
It would have been an easier climb in October, but it is more exciting to go when the route is at its most difficult.
Another day of sitting around. Today, on a truck. It makes me miss the train. However, knowing that we’re just a few hours from Vizhai has lifted the mood of the group. There’s a good energy in the group.
There are eight men and two women on the journey to Otorten, all are excellent mountaineers and skiiers. It’s fine company to be in. I’m not sure if all the chatter is relaxing our nerves, or winding them tighter. We’ve been talking to one another about our families, our studies, previous climbs, our favourite books, and our least favourite professors at the University.
All of us look happy to be here except for Yuri. He sits with his head tipped back, and his eyes closed. I haven’t seen him talk to anyone the whole day. Perhaps he is just tired. Or perhaps he is just rude.
Yuri collapsed after dinner. He vomited what looked like blood onto the snow as Rustem and Igor tried to help him back to bed. I feel ashamed now, assuming him to be insolent when it’s clear that he is, actually, very sick.
Finally! After weeks of planning and days of travel, today is the day our challenge begins. I cannot wait to be away from the houses and the streets and the people. Alone to battle nature and my own thoughts. On Devil’s peak. In the dead of winter. Where better to test one’s fortitude?
Yuri’s turned back, and just one day in. It was sad to say goodbye. This early defeat of our comrade casts a shadow on the trip. But he was far too ill to continue to the mountain. So far, the rest of us seem to have escaped his symptoms. It is the one, flickering light in a dark beginning.
A full day’s walking through the frozen forest has helped to ease some of the bad feeling of Yuri’s leaving. Now that the sun has gone down, it is clear how far we have walked from Vizhai. Everywhere I look there is only black sky and white snow. It is sparkling, and silent, and beautiful.
We stored the extra food and equipment for the return trip. What should have been a relatively simple task took much more time, and much more energy thanks to a sudden, bitter snowstorm. The freezing winds come racing down the pass, and make the fingers numb with cold. We are all exhausted. I think we will sleep well tonight.
I cannot sleep. It is almost four o’ clock in the morning. There is a sound all around me like a large sheet of metal being slowly torn apart. It is like the wailing of a dying animal, or an old woman, or a sick baby, but a thousand times louder. It tortures my ears and makes my head ring like a struck bell. I feel like I can hear it with my whole body. I imagine I can taste it like fresh blood in the back of my throat. It is both a deep hum and a piercing shriek. The intensity of it is unbearable.
I asked Zinadia if she could hear anything, but she said no and went back to sleep. I went outside and walked for ten minutes, into the trees, into the black night and the white snow. But there is no escaping it.
I have wrapped my ears with my scarf. I am afraid I am getting sick too.
It stopped. I could weep with gratitude. It is unfortunate to begin the first day of climbing on so little sleep, but at least I will not have to turn back like Yuri.
Today was a black day. Our progress was slowed by another, unrelenting storm. We have ascended just 1.5km. To make things worse, Igor has confirmed that we have deviated from our intended path. We have established camp for the night on the exposed North face. Semyon suggested we go back, towards the tree line. However, Igor is insistent that we sleep on the mountain. Personally, I don’t care where we sleep, so long as that damned noise does not return.
The noise is back. It is like a thousand knives being dragged across a chalk board, like an icicle penetrating concrete. It’s as if the bones of God himself were being wrenched apart. It’s a shrill, grinding, moaning, creaking drone. It sets my jaw on edge and shakes my brain inside my skull.
The others are still asleep. Why can’t they hear it?
It is as though the mountain itself is screaming.
God, please, please make it stop.
My skin feels too tight. Like I’ve been baked. Like it’s about to split and curl around my boiled flesh. It feels like I am on fire. I cannot sit inside the tent anymore. It’s too hot.
This is hell and we are damned.
The tents are being ripped open.
It feels like my blood is on fire.
The others are awake now.
There’s more screaming.
God, please send us help.
Zinadia is also praying.
Igor is running down the mountain in only his socks.
Rustem and Semyon aren’t moving at all.
It is quiet on the mountain again, finally. Everyone is quiet now where they lie. In the black night, and the white snow. And the red snow.