By artofchandra in Stories » Fiction
Updated 11:05 IST Oct 29, 2016

Views » 784 | 8 min read


David Johnson had enough experience as a climber with as many as forty expeditions to his credit. As part of his preparations to climb peaks such as Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Lhotse and more importantly Mount Everest, he had taken many budding climbers to Mustagata summit. Located in the Pamir mountain range of Xinjiang Province, China, Mustagata served as a trial run for would-be mountaineers. With intimate knowledge of Chinese officials who regulate the permit system, liaison officers, sherpas and cooks and as many as seven successful Mustagata programs, David had gained trust of many climbing enthusiasts around the world. Each year during July, when the mountain wasn’t too melted and the route was relatively pristine, he would lead a group of mountaineers up this summit.

This year, the group consisted nine climbers. Among the team were Luke, a Scandinavian, Peter and his wife Amanda from UK, Brian, a young lad who hadn’t yet been on any expedition, Suzanne, better known as Suzy, both from Canada and Chen Cheng, an enthusiast, who hailed from Kashgar. In fact he had been accompanying David for the last three treks up the Mustagata summit. 

Leaving Kashgar, a city at the base of mount Pamir, they boarded a bus that would take them to Karakul Lake. During the peak period of the Silk Road, Kashgar was a safe haven for travelers coming from both directions. It was a place to rest, replenish and prepare for the next difficult stretches which were either going over the mountains or across the desert.

The next day, when the group left base camp, the sky was deep blue with light clouds hovering above. But as they began to ski their way up the mountain, the sky turned pale white with no trace of clouds. Barely talking to each other, the group walked in line. They were roped together and looked like ants in the vast terrain. Staring into a colorless void can play tricks on your mind and so it did, especially on Amanda, as fear and exhilaration gripped her. But Peter, her husband urged her to be calm. Ironically, the only thing that kept them awake to reality was the cold wind and Spin drift. 

Everyone was bundled up in their thick down jackets, warm mittens, goggles and face-masks. Even so, Brian had minor frostbite on his fingers. Suzy and others quickly went up to him and helped him stay calm. David examined the damage and reassured that it hadn’t reached the tissues. Suzy applied some Aloe Vera ointment and covered the injured area gently with dry sterile gauze and insulating layers. She also fed him some chocolate, dropping another in his pocket. Brian thanked her for her kind gesture. She smiled.

Along the Karakorum highway, they unloaded the equipment and camped next to the Karakul lake. This was their acclimatization camp during which they took brief walks and went through some orientation and safety procedures. They also talked to each other for long hours, thus getting to know about the fellow climbers a little more. After this day and a half of initial phase, they embarked upon their journey further. Reaching base camp at about four thousand meters late in the day, they rested.


Luckily for them, the earlier group had jabbed wands on their way up, which guided them along the way. Whoever said that this seven thousand five hundred meter peak was one of the easiest to climb must have been airlifted to the top, Brian thought. Knowing he was on his first expedition, David was extra cautious about Brian. They walked for an hour and a half, stopping three times in between to check that everyone was doing fine. As the team turned a corner, David saw it coming.

The wind began to blow hard. Looking backwards, David cautioned his team to stay close. As they walked along, he shouted to his team to lie flat and close to the ground but without much warning, a huge mass of snow came hurtling down the slope and crashed on them like a boulder of concrete.

Buried inside thick snow, Brian lay still, his body hard as wood. He opened his eyes and stared above. Some trees came in to his view. The last thing he could remember was that he fell backwards as the whole team was hit by that giant mass of snow. Trying to move his body, he realized that his face was smeared with blood, worst; he had injured his left leg due to the fall. With some strength, he heaved himself up but the next moment fell flat on his back. He must wait for some time to get his body to respond, he thought. Looking up again he tried to figure out where he was.

Collecting all his energy, he tried getting up one more time. Somehow he managed to stand straight but there was excruciating pain in his leg. Trudging along the snow laden path, he inched forward.

He didn’t know which way he must take to reach safety. He checked his GPS unit one more time. But other than the regular direction, it had nothing new to show. Now his only hope was that his team mates found him and fast! Even though he had lost track of them, not once did he feel remorseful for his climb because until that fateful storm, he had shared some beautiful moments with other members. His decision to join them was purely his own choice and come what may, he would not give up, he thought.

He rummaged through the sack to find the chocolate bar Suzy had shared with him some time back. Hardly did he know, it would come in handy this soon. Peeling the wrapper carefully, he bit it slowly first, then ate half of it, keeping the rest aside. He had hardly walked a few feet, when the searing pain in his leg became uncontrollable for him to continue. Feeling exhausted, he slumped to the ground. He checked on his injured leg to find the blood had stopped flowing. He could see the Karakorum mountain range on his right. Only fate would know, when he would reach home, he pondered. Glancing behind him, he noticed a crevice deep enough for him to spend the night.

Crouching inside the crevice, he held firmly on to its walls and entered the dark passage. Shoulders hunched, he dragged himself ahead. It was deeper than he imagined and widened further. Still crouching, he looked around. It was a cave with stalactites hanging all over. Surprisingly, it was warm inside. His head spun with pain but he continued ahead. Then he saw it; a thin stream of light that emanated from a distance. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Could this cave lead him to his freedom?

As he trudged along, the strobe of light widened. The cave had an opening. Brian felt exhilarated. Forgetting pain, he stood up. This was it then, he would find his way now. Coming to the opening of the cave, he looked outside. He couldn’t fathom what he saw.

It looked very picturesque, almost like an image straight out of an epic film. The space seemed to have widened too. He looked from left to right and the whole panorama opened to his eyes. Rows of human figures moving about, carrying rolls of cloth on camel back. Green hills in the background, westerly wind creating dust clouds. He also noticed a caravan in the distant horizon. Is this some kind of a fairy tale? He wondered. There was something very peculiar about the whole thing but what was it? He felt amazed as a child. Then it struck him. It was the Silk Road. And he was standing on the threshold of that bygone era.

Had he entered another time zone? Or was he hallucinating? His heart began to race faster.

Just then a hand grabbed him by the collar and he was hit hard on the head. For a moment time stopped. He was breathing but his mind was still. Then he collapsed to the ground. His rucksack dropped from his shoulders, the GPS flew in one corner and something spilled from his rucksack, making a jingling sound. That was the last he heard anything. The dust settled down as he lay motionless in the cave of darkness. A hand injected a shot in his arm and within a few seconds he was still as a rag doll.

The office of Chief of Staff, Chinese Military was abuzz with reporters wanting to know what happened in the Mustagata mountain range that fateful morning. All the team mates who were caught in the raging snow storm were safe they were told. One of the members by the name of Brian was in coma but stable. Apparently he had crossed a no man’s land and was attacked by a Caspian Tiger, a species long extinct.




Spindrift: It usually refers to spray, particularly to the spray blown from cresting waves during a gale.

Mustagata: Mustagata is a mountain along the fabled Silk Road near the ancient city of Kashgar.

Kashgar: Kashgar is an important hub on the Old Silk Road, a vibrant Islamic centre within Chinese territory.

Snow wands: Poles that are posted along the way by mountaineers marking a route for themselves or others to follow.


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