A group of hikers gets more than what they bargained for. Edit away!
A Weekend in the Ural Mountains
He was tired, couldn't feel his nose, and could barely pry his fingers open. His bright green mesh rucksack stuck out in stark contrast to the snow coated grey buildings around him. When looking down the street he could see the flickering lights of different malls and shops in all their late night glory. Across the street he could make out a small toy store with different stuffed animals in the window. There was a lion, a polar bear, a panda and another animal at the end of the lineup he couldn't quite make out. Curious, he stepped forward to find out what it was, but before he could get a better look he heard a slosh in the street and, turning around, he saw that it was what he had been waiting so long for. He threw up his now crippled hand and the bright yellow taxi lurched to a stop in front of him, sending a wave of slush to crash against his boots. At the relief of finally finding a taxi at four in the morning he let out a brazen smile and hopped in the car.
"Kuda?" belched the bearded driver.
Rick returned the driver's blank stare and immediately went for his rucksack. Out came a map, to which he pointed and slowly pronounced "Kar-Zha-Vina". Satisfied the driver nodded, his grey beard nodding with him. Happy he was starting to warm up, Rick began to feel the excitement of the adventure he was about to go on.
This was Rick's first time outside of North America, and even if it was for work he had made up his mind that he was going to enjoy it. He had been sent here from his company in New Jersey to meet with new Russian clients, and so far his experience had been far from mundane. Upon arriving to Russia, everything Rick had seen had been completely foreign to him. Instead of speaking, Rick had taken on a pseudo language consisting of pointing and facial expressions. His company had given him three extra days in Russia and, to reward himself for getting through the work anxiety his company had put him through, he had decided to have some fun. That was the one good thing about being single at 28, he thought. If he wanted to climb the Ural Mountains there was no reason he couldn't.
As his taxi arrived, he could see the run down base camp through his frosted window. Outside, in what looked to be the town center his climbing group was preparing in the morning cold. Assembled online, the group was made up of amateur sight seers. He had met them all at a bar two days ago and it turns out they were a pretty diverse group. They had a young couple from the UK, an eccentric local photographer, an Australian girl and their local climb leader.
Rick saw Mary and Thomas, a young couple from London, were crouched packing their matching bags. Thomas was tall and had long brown locks, the kind of hair a person usually grows out of after high school. Mary was much shorter than Thomas, and almost seemed half his size from a distance. Although you couldn't tell by looking at her face, her long straight black hair gave away her Asian heritage. At the bar they had described how they were trying to see the world before they had a kid, and how amazing Australia was last week. Yet no matter how happy they said they were together Rick couldn't help but notice that they were enjoying talking to the climb group more than each other.
Rick paid the driver and, after exchanging a few grunts with the Russian, got out of the cab. As he walked toward his team he saw Isatov, the climb leader, barking instructions. Completely bald and lacking facial hair, he had the appearance of a bouncer. At the bar he had said very little, save to tell them that the hike would be hard, and that they should leave their cellphones at home. No cell towers on the mountain. Although Isatov had said little, Rick felt safe knowing that the mountain man was with them. He was the kind of man who did not need to talk to demand respect.
Mary looked up and she saw Rick slump out of his taxi. At the bar when she had met him he had seemed very cordial. Mary remembered being surprised that someone as handsome as Rick could make it to 28 single. Rick had short brown hair, and at the bar he always had a smile when talking. She looked next to her at Thomas packing his bag.
"Did we bring sunscreen?" Thomas looked back at her and asked.
"Yes, I already told you I packed it in my bag," Mary replied annoyed.
"Good, because you know even though it's no hot the sn--"
"BLOODY HELL! I KNOW! You've told me a million times how the snow reflects enough light on to your face to cause sunburn" She looked around at Kate and Gary, and could tell that they hadn't brought sunscreen.
Not that she cared what Kate was doing. The Australian, Kate was slightly younger than Mary, and annoying. The only thing she wanted to talk about was how this was not her first climb. Every time Mary tried talking about her trip to Australia, Kate would keep letting her know "Been there, done that". Kate had made a point of telling the group the proper way to pack their sack, tread the mountain, and preserve food. All morning she had gone around asking whether anyone needed help carrying their bags. At first Kate had sounded helpful, now it felt condescending.
"I was just saying..." Thomas muttered.
Mary got up, not ready for the weight of her backpack; she struggled to fully straighten her back. The rest of the team was gathering near the head of the trail and she was determined to not hold the rest of their group back.
"Let's go Thomas, everyone else is already ready to go!"
Thomas hated it when Mary rushed him to go somewhere. Every time he would go meet friends Mary would make sure he left with a half hour gap, even when she wasn't coming. They had been married two years now, and he started feeling the honeymoon phase of their relationship dissolve, taking its place was a relationship filled with silence and nagging. Mary didn't seem to understand that the reason for all the vacations was to salvage a rocky start to the marriage.
As Thomas and Mary approached the group, Thomas noticed they had split into pairs while talking amongst themselves. Rick and Kate seemed to be hitting it off. 'Good for him' Thomas thought as he checked out Kate. She was slim from all her past climbs, and her blonde hair was pulled back and ready for the hike. Next to them, Isatov was talking to Gary about god-knows-what.
Gary was the forty year old local photographer's English name. His English had been poor at the bar but that didn't prevent him from letting everyone know how excited he was. Gary communicated with the group mainly in movie quotes like "Go ahead make my day" or "The stuff dreams are made of". He looked old for being in his forties, life as a photographer in Russia had turned his beard grey and had wrinkled his skin. Yet surprisingly, he had the excitement of a child, and was still nimble in his aged wiry body.
As the group started out, Thomas began to notice the landscape change. The path, which was once frozen mud, had slowly morphed into a trail of small rocks. Around them, the trees began to get smaller and smaller the higher they went. As the sun drifted above their heads, the foliage provided less and less protection. And this is why you bring sunscreen thought Thomas. Further up the mountain, Thomas saw that their rocky ledge would soon become nearly vertical, leading them to a ridge at the very top.
Exhausted Thomas stopped to rest. As he stood there he peered to the top of the icy ridge. It was so far away, and seemed like an almost impossible task. As he kept looking at the lining of the ridge against the sky he noticed something move. The small blur in the distance was moving very slowly, almost pacing. From this distance he couldn't tell whether it was a cat or a wolf or something larger. Anxious, Thomas began wondering why he didn't bring binoculars.
"Isatov? " Thomas said as he returned to the group's brisk pace. "What kind of animals would you say live up this far?"
"Animals? Ve hahv owls ahn fohxes. A fohxes up here very tiny, von't broblem us" Isatov replied gruffly.
When Thomas looked back up he saw the animal was already gone. Comforted by what Isatov had said he decided to try and stop thinking about what he saw.
Behind him the photographer began complaining in broken English about being tired and hungry. The more the group climbed the more Thomas hated Gary. His childlike excitement about things that didn't matter like American pop culture was driving Thomas insane. He had been so excited at the bar to climb and now he was the first one to complain. Thomas looked ahead of him and saw that Rick and Kate were still talking. He missed how fun it was to be single.
Kate had been in high spirits all day. She loved being outside and pushing the limits of what her body could do. As her and Rick reached the top of the slope they found themselves at a large flat ledge. The ledge was stained and flattened from tents of past hikers. As the rest of their team caught up, she looked around, and could see that everyone else was exhausted from the day's hike. She looked behind her at Rick. She had thought he was cute when they had met at the bar, and it was hard to imagine someone as happy as him sitting in a cubicle all day.
"Alright lez put down ze tents and zen we can eat," Isatov yelled over the group. Everyone began frantically throwing down their bags with the hopes of soon eating a much deserved dinner. Kate put down her tent deliberately next to Rick, and when Rick saw this he shot her a smile. The ledge began to look more and more like a campsite with each passing minute. As the tents were put up, Isatov had already started a fire with small brush living on the ledge and was boiling some snow to cook with. Kate looked on as he began tossing sausages and some spice into the pot. Impressed, she watched as the large man meticulously prepared his food.
The sun was now almost fully set, and after eating Kate and the rest of the crew were in high spirits. Even Isatov was smiling and attempting to tell stories through his thick accent.
"Three dayz ve vur lost on zis mountain. Vith no more food or vater, ze sun started to make ahs lose mind. Ve began hearing zings in ze znow. Zat waz my first clahmb on ze mountain"
Apparently the Russian veteran had deemed it OK to bring alcohol, and he passed around a bottle of vodka. Kate looked over at Gary; he had a bright smile on his face, and was back to his enthusiastic self after half a day of complaining. Even Mary and Thomas looked like they were finally getting along. Isatov offered to take them on a 10 minute walk to a more open area, it would be lit by the moon, he said, and was "a great amazing see". Of course most of the crew said they would love to come. Drunkenly Kate looked at Rick, let her blonde hair down, and said she would stay behind.
When Isatov had broken out a bottle of local vodka Thomas had been extremely skeptical. Thomas had always been told that drinking in the cold could cause hypothermia or further dehydrate you. Too tired to argue with his whole group, Thomas had apprehensively given into the large jar of liquor. Finally, satisfied with the alcohol, Thomas and the group decided to follow Isatov, to what he promised would be a good view. As they left the camp Thomas looked around and began to notice Rick and Kate had stayed back. Smiling, Thomas kept walking.
Thomas was now in a great mood; Isatov's vodka had drowned out any annoyances Thomas had been fighting earlier in the day. As they walked, he and Mary began holding hands for the first time in a year, and suddenly all was good in the world. He even began laughing at all of Gary's incredibly average jokes. He found the two of them had found a common love for football, and how, although Gary had spent his whole life in Russia, he always kept up with the Barclay's Premier League in England.
"So who's your favorite player then?" Thomas smiled and asked.
"Onl vun player zat can move run so fast as better zen everyone else and is Messi" Gary said passionately.
"Well I can't argue with that, Messi's probably the best player right now. The way he looks at his opponent and breaks him down is pure art. Before the defense can blink it's too late"
"Ven Messi come at you, BANG! BANG! He run by HASTA LA VISTA BABY!"
"Did you play much football growing up?" Thomas asked chuckling.
"Me? No! Ven I touch ze ball no good, no bahd, just ugly"
Thomas broke out laughing. Turns out Gary isn't so bad after all, he thought, and it was good to talk to someone else who loved football as much as he did. Thomas was about to ask if Gary wanted to come back with him and watch a game live when Mary tightly squeezed his hand.
Mary had been so delighted by the conversation between Thomas and Gary that when she looked ahead of them she realized they had lost Isatov. She shined her flashlight around but could only see heaps of fresh snow.
"Guys...where did Isatov go...?" Mary said nervously. She could quickly see Thomas's smile sap from his face.
"He was right ahead of us I thought", Thomas softly replied. Mary could tell he was doing his best not to panic the group.
"EEESAATOVVV" yelled Gary, but the shout was in vain. Not even an echo replied in the dense snow.
"We're just going to have to follow our tracks back. No sense walking in circles trying to find him. He knows his way around the mountain" Thomas said trembling, "He'll be back at the camp later tonight I'm sure of it"
"And if he's not??" Mary replied, her nervousness was slowly churning in her stomach and she began fearing the worst. "It's starting to snow Thomas."
Thomas looked up and Mary saw his eyes widen when he saw the sky was no longer clear. "Well...I guess... if he doesn't return within say an hour after getting back to we'll just have to go back out and look for him. Yea, that's probably the best thing we can do"
Rick had been surprised at how forward Kate had been that whole day, and when she said she was staying behind of course he was going to keep her company. As they continued to talk about the differences between the US and Australia he noticed that she had become less and less interested in what he was saying.
"Well I think it's time for me to go to bed" Kate told him in flat tone.
Confused, Rick said "OK?" and she quickly put down her empty plate and wiped her lap off of any crumbs that she had accumulated. Rick looked on as Kate got up and slowly sauntered towards the tent. As she began unzipping the tent she looked back over at him.
"Well, are you coming?" Kate said with a coy smile.
Taken completely off guard, Rick walked over to her tent. Where did this come from?
Rick thought to himself as he entered the tent. Outside, the fire was still crackling and as he struggled to take off his jacket he could see the warm glow of the fire. As Kate now helped him with his shirt, he began to notice a shadow creep onto the tent from the radiance of the fire. Shit, they're back, so soon! The shadow began to stretch further and further up the tent until Rick could fully view the wide frame of a man. What could Isatov possibly want??
Kate had by now noticed the shadow and they watched as the figure slowly began clawing at the side of the small mountain tent.
Thomas frantically began leading the group back to camp. As the snow came down harder it was getting hard to see their foot prints, even with Mary's flashlight. Any drunken happiness that had once occupied the group had been stamped out with the sober reminder that, they were missing their leader. All Thomas wanted right now was to be back at the warm campsite, and find Isatov there already back. If Isatov did not return Thomas had no idea what the plan was. No one said a word on the return journey and when Thomas lost the trail the only complaint he heard was silence.
How, the hell, do you lose a trail of footprints in the snow. And what, the hell were they going to do if they didn't find it? What were they going to do when they do find it?? Mary's mind raced as she helped Thomas try and find the trail again. Were they just going to tell Rick and Kate what happened and hope for the best?? As virtuous as a rescue mission sounded, she was not about to let Thomas lead them to their death.
Where would they look? With every snowflake that fell any footprints that had been left behind got fainter. It was probably better to search for him in the morning when they could see better and it wasn't snowing, and it wasn't so cold and...and... they should wait it out right? Every second searching for the footprints felt like a life time. What am I doing in these god damn Russian mountians??
Mary’s heart stop and she turned around. Then she let out a sigh of relief. After 15 minutes of wandering around looking like asses, Gary had finally found the trail. Quickly, the grouped jogged to the tents, making up for lost time. When they finally saw the light from the campfire Mary gasped. Kate’s tent was little more than a pile of shredded cloth.
Rushing to the tent, Thomas heard Mary crying behind him. What had Isatov done??
Thomas sifted through the shredded tarp and found two coats and a sleeping bag soaked in blood. Hands now stained red, he began to dig deeper through the gnarled mesh, until he felt the hand of someone else. Thomas immediately threw up, it was Rick's mangled left arm. Thomas was heaving over the carnage, Mary was still crying, and Gary, who had up until this point remained silent, let out a cry of despair in Russian. Slowly the trio began to recover, and realized their night was far from over. It was now dark, and the snow had brought the visibility down to almost a pitch black, a frantic hike down the mountain could easily result in death.
"AIIIIIEEEEE AIIIIIIEEEEE!!!!!" A high pitched cry consumed the pitch black mountain that Mary was now trapped on. The animalistic scream would not stop, and, instead of slowing down, the territorial screech repeated itself faster and faster. The utter inhumanity of the sound made her blood curdle; when she looked around she saw Gary and Thomas's blank wide eyed faces. Jerking away from the huddle, Gary began sprinting down the tall slope. Invisible in the darkness Gary's footsteps soon faded down the mountain.
Mary grabbed Thomas, who was still frozen out of fear, and rushed to follow Gary down the mountain. Both of them, oblivious to what was happening around them, tumbled and tripped down the mountain, reaching the speed of a brisk jog in the now thick snow. Neither of them noticed that the screaming had turned to silence. Relieved, Mary finally noticed she recognized some of the trees they were passing. They were, maybe a third way down the mountain already, if she remembered correctly. The adrenaline and the promise of soon being at the base of the mountain kept her fatigued legs moving.
Then she heard Thomas yell, and when she turned around, she saw Thomas staring at the tree in front of them. Slowly she shined the rigid beam of her flashlight up the tree. Each branch slowly moving back and forth, laden now with the weight of the snow. As the light moved up she saw each branch of the tall, coniferous tree slowly getting smaller and smaller, as if leading to some wondrous finale. Mary clutched Thomas's hand, then she saw it.
Swaying at the top of the tree was the outline of a large animal. It's disproportionately long arms grasped tightly to the branches underneath. As Mary and Thomas stopped breathing, you could hear the slow coarse breathing of the large animal. As the breathing intensified, two glowing orbs popped out of the silhouette. It was looking right at them, and then Mary blinked.
It had been a week since the incident, and Gary still could not shake the animalistic screams out of his head. When the rescue party was sent, Gary had gone with them to take pictures. Yet the only pictures he had returned with, were of a decimated and bloodied campsite. When people asked him what had happened he always thought back to one of his favorite quotes. You can't handle the truth! Gary had already put his small apartment up for sale, deciding to move away from the mountains. Unable to wait for his apartment to sell, Gary just bought a place as far away from the mountains as he could afford. Ready to leave the past week behind, he was now on his way to the train station. After leaving his hotel, he began waiting at the corner for a taxi. Today was a rare sunny day in the city, and as he waited he looked at all the happy people around him. Peering across the street he noticed a toy shop, and thought it was nice that there were places that still specialized in stuffed animals. As his cab drove away he examined the smiling creatures in the window. A chill went down his spine as his taxi passed the smiling white gorilla at the end.