Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Travelogue V: the approach to the plateau

The wind howls around the mountain like a banshee, and like the banshee it never has any good tidings to bring. Up above us -- and not a very long way above us at all -- are dull clouds that look heavy with snow or hail. The last of the sunlight is still falling on the mountainside below, but it's a little too late now to turn back and try to pitch a tent to wait the weather out. It would take us at least an hour to find a surface we could secure ourselves too.

Ahead of me, Jordan is hammering pitons into the rock and behind him David is passing rope through his belt and then throwing it down to me. It's a scant comfort, but at least we'll be trying to hang on with more than just our hands and feet if the wind grows stronger and the clouds decide to drop their burden on our heads.

We begin our ascent again, slower now than before because of the need to hammer in the pitons ahead of us, and I retrieve them as a pass over them. It's hard to pull them out again, but I know that if Jordan didn't make them properly secure we'd all regret it.

Below me the mountain cascades down to a high pasture where rare cattle are summered and bred, and a small group of people make the kind of living rich Westerners pay holiday money to go and pretend to do. The mountain seems haphazard, almost careless, like a woman who has lost her sense of style and dresses in the morning with her eyes closed. The people in the high pastures wouldn't talk to us, and when it became apparent that we were planning on climbing the mountain they wouldn't even look at us. I'd heard rumours that the mountain was considered sacred, and perhaps, to these people, it is.

We've spent two years planning this ascent, researching the mountain as much as we could. There's not a lot written about it, and it's debatable if anyone's ever reached the top. Some of the books that had the most information were unobtainable; there are apparently only four copies of De Vermiis Mysteriis left in the whole world and a mountain-climber doesn't have the clout to get access to a copy. It might not have helped anyway, my Latin is barely remembered from my schooldays. I casually asked the British Museum why they didn't make more copies of the book and, before the assistant was hurried away by a senior-looking man in a very sharp suit, was told that they couldn't afford the staff attrition.

There's a cry from up ahead and Jordan waves, makes sure he has my attention, and points. The next plateau is visible now, maybe only a cautious half-hour's climb away, and we might even get there before the clouds descend on us. We shout a brief conversation and decide to be a little less cautious and try to beat the weather to the top.

What awaited us on the plateau was a scene of horror.

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