Robin Potanin (University Of Adelaide, Australia)
Wind ripped through her open jacket, billowing bright blue gortex out behind her. For a few seconds, she was airborne, lifted millimetres off the ground, four thousand metres above sea level. Terrifying seconds where she thought she would be swept off the mountain and smashed onto the hard surface of the glacier below.
Eyes the colour of seawater in sunshine narrowed above high cheekbones. Dark gold hair whipped back from a face lightly tanned and a brow furrowed in determination. No way was she going take a dive off this pile of rubble.
Heloise lurched forward and clung to a rock the size of a small fridge, searching for her Mongolian guide. The compact block of a man was twenty metres above and observing her erratic progress with calm severity. The perception she had of herself as a competent climber dissipated in Chenzou’s dispassionate gaze.
She yelled to carry her voice across the wind. “Are you sure a seventy year old man climbed this mountain?” Chenzou nodded once. “He went this way?” He nodded again. “In this wind?”
“It is not so bad if you keep to the east of ridge,” Chenzou called out. He motioned for her to move off to one side.
Heloise, or Hel, as she liked to be called, was fit enough to walk eight hours a day and still have enough energy to pitch her own tent, but in this moment, climbing this endless incline of snow-dusted stone in the Altai Mountains of west Mongolia, she was incredulous that someone twice her age had made this climb. Despite her exhaustion and fear, she resolved to continue. If an old man could do it, so could she. Hel just needed a little break.
“Keep going, Hel. You can do it.” Her cheerful and, prior to this climb, beloved companion called out encouragement from below.
Gary was slowly and methodically making his way up the steep slope. His short dark hair was tucked under a brown baseball cap and his tall body looked foreshortened to her higher point of view. Hel sat down and waited for her boyfriend, admiring the ease with which his long legs negotiated rocks that tripped her up at every step.
“I don’t know if I can make it to the top, honey.” Hel sighed. “My balance is off.” She handed Gary the water bottle and played for sympathy, hoping he would offer to take the backpack.
He did and she gratefully handed it over. But the exchange came with the inevitable lecture. “You’re charging up too fast and running out of breath every ten minutes. Go slower and you won’t have to stop so much.”
Gary was right but Hel was scared – scared of being blown off the mountain, scared of falling down it and scared of being stuck on it. The faster she could get through this experience, the sooner she’d be back at her tent sipping tea. Hel dragged herself upright, hunched against the wind, cast Gary a disparaging look so that he knew exactly how she felt about his advice and scrambled upwards.
Thirty minutes later, the top didn’t look any closer and Hel was puffing harder. She collapsed, ready to quit.
“You can’t quit now, babe, you’re the reason why we’re here.” Gary sat down beside her, put one arm around Hel’s shoulder and swept his other one out to embrace the view. The sky was clear cerulean unpolluted by car exhaust or factory smoke. The nearest town, Olgy, was two days drive away and only a few of the wealthier herders had 4WDs. Hel and Gary had trekked for six days across endless streams and through several summer snowstorms to see the largest and most remote of Mongolia’s receding glaciers named after Hel’s great uncle, the Siberian explorer Grigori Potanin.
The mountains on the opposite side of the glacier below them were covered with snow. The peak at the head of the glacier was the highest and shrouded in cloud. Called Friendship Peak, it straddled the junction of Mongolia, Russia and China. They were climbing the second highest peak, Malchin Uul or Herdsman Mountain, a wedge-shaped monolith with a long narrow ridge. The glacier looked very white and very far away.
“I wanted to see the glacier, not climb a pile of rubble,” she grumbled.
“But this offers the best view of it,” countered Gary, distressingly upbeat. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The altitude may have gone to Gary’s head but Hel had to admit the view was glorious. They were so high that she could see the curve of the horizon. White River wound away from the mass of ice that fed it and disappeared into grassy hills turned gold in late summer. Two wave-like moraines a kilometre wide and fifty metres high separated the glacier from their camp. Gary was right. She wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate the expanse and beauty of the glacier if they had not made this climb.
“I’m sure it’s not much further to the top, is it Chenzou?”
Their guide was made of tougher stuff than themselves. Chenzou served in the Mongolian National Guard. Trained in survival at minus forty degrees Celsius in winter, he was dropped alone in the middle of nowhere with no food, water or substantial shelter. Chenzou hunted and trekked for days across snow-covered and forested terrain until he reached a town. Chenzou’s response to Gary’s question was as uncompromising and blunt as his looks: “We will continue up, then go down.”
Hel groaned, dreading the prospect of going down the steep scree slope even more than continuing up it. She committed to the lesser of two evils and climbed.
They reached a ledge that offered horizontal respite and took photos. Chenzou posed fiercely erect, arms tense at his side with Friendship Peak serene and white in the background. Hel and Gary huddled against each other for warmth, smiling into the lens with weary relief. They were only five metres from the top.
Chenzou suggested they continue along the horizontal spine of the mountaintop but Hel declined. The malevolence of Malchin Uul was palpable. Shaman lore invests mountains with souls. The Herdsman was male and objected to this female stepping upon his surface, she reasoned unreasonably. Time to go and go fast.
Chenzou picked his way across the spine to the western side. In unspoken agreement Gary and Hel followed.
Within minutes they were standing at the top of a steep kilometre-long slope coated with snow and ice. Chenzou dug out a folded box from his pack, pointed to the rolling countryside below as he unfolded the cardboard flat and proclaimed the valley Russia. He allowed them a moment to absorb this fact, and then leapt – cardboard under butt.
Hel watched Chenzou slide the fast way down the mountain, delighted at not having to climb back down. But the sharp intake of breath beside her signalled that hers and Gary’s outlooks had reversed.
“There could be sharp rocks under that snow. We’ll be ripped to shreds.”
“Looks thick and soft to me, honey.”
“What if we hit the ice and lose control? We could shoot off the mountain and into space.”
Hel smiled, imagining the mountain as a slippery-dip. “We’ll use our feet to brake and our hands to steer.”
“This is too dangerous.”
“Look,” Hel turned to Gary, “I can’t climb back down and I’m not leaving you here.”
Gary shook his head and stared at the slope mesmerized by unseen dangers. Hel remembered he suffered from vertigo. This trek had challenged his fear of heights and he had never once complained.
“I’ll count to three and we’ll jump together. Okay?” He nodded reluctantly, then again with determination.
Gary yelled and charged forth to dive-bomb the slope. Leaping high, his arms and legs pedalled air. He hit the snow feet first and fell on his backside. Gary ploughed downwards for half a minute and stopped. Waves of snow-crust radiated down-slope from his supine body, preventing any further descent.
Hel eased her way past, backside against heels. “Careful Kimosabe or you’ll break the speed limit,” and kept going.
Hel twisted her head back to locate the shout. Gary hurled down the mountain head first on his belly. The pack on his back had drag-lined his first attempt. Without that impediment, he was sliding fast. Gary swept past Hel with a snow-plastered grin.
They levelled out three-quarters of the way down and walked the remaining fifty metres to the next ridge. Hundreds of rivulets ran from the snowline over smooth rocks towards the outer glacial moraine below. Hel followed Gary and Chenzou, carefully picking her way down the slippery slope.
The guys had disappeared behind boulders near the base of the first moraine and Hel quickened her pace, afraid of losing them. Soon each step became a long slide of pebbles. She slipped sideways. Her right leg buried up to the knee in scree.
“Bloody hell, Hel,” She muttered to herself, “watch what you’re doing.”
Stones rained down on her companions alerting them to her predicament. Gary and Chenzou took cover while she struggled to extricate herself. Hel sank to her thigh. Larger rocks up-slope lost their purchase and rolled towards her. She froze as boulders the size of basketballs bounced past and crashed below.
“I’m stuck!” Hel yelled, at a loss at what to do. Any movement would start a rockslide.
“See that outcrop of rocks on your left?” called Gary.
Hel looked around and despaired. “Where isn’t there rock,” she cried. The weight of stone on her lower body was suffocating. Her breath became shallow and rapid in panic.
“Chenzou says to head for the rock, slowly,” added Gary.
“What rock?” Hel screamed in frustration. “I’m covered in them!”
Hel took a deep breath and focused on the area to her left. A vertical ridge materialized in the scree – solid rock. Hel grunted and hauled herself out from under the blanket of stones. She crawled on all fours to the outcropping and paused, grateful to grasp something that didn’t move, then inched her way down to join the men.
By the time they reached the base of the mountain, Hel’s right knee felt stiff and swollen. It was only four in the afternoon and the sun wouldn’t set for another five hours but she looked forward to lying down in the tent. Maybe she would try some of that yak vodka Gary and Chenzou liked so much. It might help her sleep. Sleep would erase the day.
“You want to walk on glacier now?” asked Chenzou in his most cheerful moment of the day.
Any excuse Hel could think of for not exploring the glacier lost significance in the face of the enthusiasm of the two men before her.
Gary had resumed his former exuberance. “C’mon Hel, you’ll be the only one in your family for generations to do this.”
She was walking, well limping, in her explorer uncle’s footsteps a hundred years later. Like in a Cousteau doco, she thought, only, Hel hesitated, she was more like Alby Mangels. “Isn’t it dangerous?” she asked Chenzou.
The Mongolian smiled for the second time in as many minutes. “Follow me and there will be no danger.” Chenzou turned and started up the moraine slope. “Just do not step on cracks,” he said, picking his way along the boulders.
Distracted by the unwelcome prospect of traversing more rocks, Hel couldn’t grasp her guide’s last comment. “Cracks? What cracks?”
Half an hour later Hel straddled one of what seemed like a million cracks along the glacier’s edge. In contrast to the brilliant whiteness viewed from hundreds of metres above, the glacier was dirty grey up close. Rivulets ran under a thin surface of ice and snow, branching outwards like the veins of a varicose woman.
“Do not step on snowy patches. Do not step on cracks.” Chenzou repeated.
“Why?” asked Gary, subdued. Even his enthusiasm had waned a little. The glacier was vast and they were heading into what appeared to be a maze of slush and ice.
“There may be crevices under snow.” Chenzou answered matter-of-factly. “Come, we walk back to camp this way.” He pointed to a part of the glacier that curved downwards and to the right ahead of them. If that was where their camp lay, it was hidden from view by the moraine wall.
A direct line would take them further away from the glacier’s edge and across the interior, but not, Hel realised with relief, into the centre of the glacier. Still, their destination looked very far away. Hel glanced behind her. The clouds that had shrouded Friendship Peak had darkened and were advancing towards them. Hel turned back to her companions. Chenzou and Gary were already ten metres ahead. For the second time that day Hel hurriedly limped after them, eyes glued to the sooty crust below her booted feet.
Head bent, Hel picked her way along a seam, gingerly stepping on ice where she could see the flow of crystal ink underneath. It was unnerving and she had to resist the urge to test the more solid looking patches of snow. At least at this slow pace, her dodgy knee wasn’t troubling her. The sun that had previously reflected off the ice mass and prompted Hel to don sunglasses against the glare had now disappeared behind a bank of cloud. She stopped to take off her sunnies and to ask Chenzou how much longer before they reached the camp.
Chenzou? Where was Chenzou? Hel spun around. A wide expanse of empty ice and rock surrounded her. There was no sign of the man, not even Gary. Hel searched for their tracks but saw only her own treads melting in the slush. She was alone on the glacier.
Maybe they had surged ahead and reached the camp, she reasoned. Hel gasped. What if they’d fallen down a crevice? Suddenly, it seemed colder by several degrees. Hel didn’t know in which direction the camp lay. Tears pricking at her eyes, she did the only thing any damsel in distress would do and yelled, “Dammit Garrryyyy, where are you?”
A brown-capped head peered around rocks jutting out of the ice twenty metres in the distance. “Whaaat’s up, babe?”
Hel walked on frozen water.
She strode up to Gary, ignoring the cracks and stepping on snow. Hel wasn’t about to take her eyes off her boyfriend.
He and Chenzou stepped out from behind the rocks as she drew close. Gary grinned. “We were seeing to the horses,” he said cheekily.
The Tuvens from their camp must have brought mounts to take them back, Hel thought. She looked around for the brightly robed men.
Chenzou watched her searching eyes and shook his head. “We say hello to Mr Johnson,” he said by way of explanation. “You want to say hello to Mrs Johnson?” he suggested helpfully.
Who the hell are the Johnsons? There was no one else but the three of them on the glacier.
Gary laughed at her confusion. “He wants to know if you want to take a piss.”
Half an hour later, accompanied by the constant banter between Gary and their suddenly loquacious guide on the cross-cultural subject of urination, Hel reached the top of the last moraine and looked down with relief at their camp site.
“We call it a long drop…” started Gary as he and Chenzou headed down the slope.
While her boyfriend extolled the virtues of the bush toilet, Hel hung back and contemplated the sunset-tinged setting below. Their tents lay in deep shadow. The Kazak cook crouched beside a fire. The father and son Tuvens checked the camels and horses. She looked up at the snow dusted mountain she had climbed earlier that day and back at the glacier behind her. Hel felt at peace. It was an exhausted peace, but a feeling of serenity all the same. This is where you know who you really are, she thought.
“It’s your favourite, Hel,” Gary called up from the camp site. “Stewed marmot!” Gary sniffed at the cooking pot appreciatively and motioned for her to come down. Chenzou joined him, beside the fire, a flask of clear liquid in hand.
Hel’s stomach rumbled. Her knee no longer hurt. A fat juicy rodent washed down with sour distilled milk – Hel’s idea of heaven.
Robin Potanin is a second-generation Siberian Australian who has produced and written videogames on PS2, Xbox and PC. She grew up in the Deep South of the USA which came in handy when she worked on the Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee game. She was the first in Australia to write a game story and scripts for a Masters in Creative Writing, and she remains interested in tales from central Asia. Currently Robin is researching videogame writing for a PhD at the University of Adelaide.