“We’re not going back without the crystal!” Manfred paced, shouting over the wind that howled like an omen. He stared at the tent canvas as if it were a map. A large greying mustache matched his salt and pepper wave of thick hair and curved above his large square jaw.
“Azmat tells me the cold will be upon us.” I looked at the porters. The glow of the stove flickered on their wind-burnt faces. They stood together, talking amongst themselves.
Manfred’s eyes turned away. “Go back to Islamabad if you like.”
I watched him. His loss clouded his pride. Only the porters acknowledged what the shorter days meant in the Karakoram Mountain Range, north of Pakistan. I realized Manfred was too stubborn to listen.
Manfred filled a tin cup with gin. He held it before his barrel chest, covered in his brown wool turtleneck sweater, as if posing for the cover of a magazine. “I should have brought those sherpas from Nepal. Ah, those boys were up for the glory of it.” Manfred nodded to himself, then took a drink. “They would die by your side, they would. All for the glory of it. All for the glory.”
I looked at Azmat, the only English speaker of the three Pakistani porters. He listened to Manfred, then turned to the others and whispered.
I implored our brawny leader, “We have been here for most of the summer, searching every cranny of the mountain range… I fear the men will pack-it-up and head home.”
“You’re not living up to the reputation of your uncle, dear boy. Why, you know I brought you along in the spirit of my best friend’s absence, your uncle Archie. You’re the spitting image of him.”
He stepped near me and placed a powerful hand on my shoulder. His piercing grey-blue eyes sparkled like ice above his burnt cheeks. “Archie lost his life looking for that crystal. I thought it was only fair that his own blood shared in the glory of its discovery. Or rediscovery, I should say.”
His gaze was as powerful as his body, and nervousness filled me at the thought of contradicting him. He was a leader in every sense, for it was impossible for him not to lead, and I felt compelled to follow.
“I know he was your best friend, and I too miss him, but it was his life and he lived it as he thought right.” I struggled to utter a difference of opinion. “But the porters—”
“We have only searched for a month!” Manfred interrupted me. “Damn it!” He said with a clenched fist. “We need more time.” Manfred stepped away from me and continued to speak. “We spent the first two weeks setting up the base camp.”
Azmat watched us from the other side of the tent, then politely raised a finger to speak. “It will take three trips to dismantle this camp and carry it all back. We should start tomorrow before the storms arrive.”
“We won’t be bringing it back,” Manfred grimaced. “This is the last time I am coming to this infernal land. Take it all if you like, or leave it.” He curled his upper lip and looked around the room. His jaw muscles rippled. “We still have another month before the worst weather comes.” His eyes narrowed. “Archie died searching… Or should I say, he found the Crystal of Karakoram before he died.”
I raised an eyebrow at his statement. “If my uncle had it, then why did he not have it on him when they retrieved his frozen body?”
I watched Manfred look forward, lost in a vision. He mumbled to himself, as if in a conversation.
“Perhaps he had it,” I interrupted, “but those that found him kept it for themselves.”
Manfred turned with a scowl. “Don’t you think I thought of that!” He finished his cup, slammed it down on the chair and picked up my uncle Archibald’s ragged, curled diary. “This is all they turned over to me. His logbook, the chronicle of the expedition.” He flipped the pages frantically. “Do I have to remind you?” Manfred read aloud. “Beware the crystal. I held it in my hand. It stung with frozen ferocity… Cannot bring back… I must chance, venturing from this cave before it is too late. The crystal will forever be.” Manfred shrugged. “Then the writing turns to scribbles.” He set the small book down and exhaled. “He had it and left it, perhaps in that cave or somewhere, but why?”
I hesitated to speak as Manfred’s eyes searched the room. He then reached for his bottle and poured another cup of gin.
Azmat stepped forward, looking back and forth between Manfred and me. “The Autumnal Equinox,” Azmat implored. “You must not enter marriage with autumn.”
“Autumn? Ha,” Manfred huffed. “I have climbed in the autumn many times… I admit there have been a few close calls, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Close calls. Snippets of climbing lore flashed through my mind, avalanches, blizzards, and starvation.
“Please, sir, understand,” He pleaded with Manfred. Azmat urgently turned towards me, “This is not wise. Climbers only come in the summer when there is no danger of storms. They never climb in the winter because the mountains are unapproachable. However, autumn is most dangerous. You may enter at the start, but she may not let you leave.”
Manfred scoffed at Azmat’s words, while his mustache fluttered from his breath. Azmat stiffened at the insult, giving him a side-glance. Emotions were running high, I tried to make light of the moment.
“Well, if I’m married to the girl, why would she want to hurt me?” Azmat stood, unsmiling. “She is jealous and lonely. The summer has many climbers, but the autumn has very few.”
“What about the winter? That poor girl must have it bad.” I laughed again.
“Ah, yes, the winter, she has not a single one, but will keep you frozen in her grasp if she can get you.” Azmat’s words, laced with fear, slowed, “The legend tells that once a very handsome climber stayed on the mountain into the autumn. Autumn was pleased. When the climber tried to descend, she made a deal with winter for two weeks of early snow to stop him. In return, winter asked for the climber as a gift when she was finished with him. Autumn agreed. She trapped him high on the mountain, driving him deeper with wind and snow. When winter came, he froze to death.”
I felt my throat swallow dryly. Azmat, for all I could see, was serious.
Manfred dipped a toothbrush into his cup of gin. “Hit the sack, all of you. We have a colossal day ahead of us.” He watched us bed down as he scrubbed his teeth, then swallowed what remained in his cup. He blew out the lantern that lit the room. He climbed into his cot, locked his fingers over his sternum and stared upward. “Tomorrow, we’ll hike north of the Baltoro Glacier and into the Trango Towers.”
The stove crackled with its remaining embers. It cast a fading red glow about the room. Without moving my head, I glanced at Azmat, his face half in shadow. His eyes closed as his lips mumbled in prayer.
I awoke to a kick from Manfred’s boot. “Wake it, Boy,” he said. “Everything’s ready, so pull it together and drink a cup of java before we pack out.”
I stepped from the tent. The porters were loading their packs heavier than before for our next excursion. I looked north toward the granite teeth of the Trango Towers. They stabbed upward in half shadow from the morning sun. Their massive size was misleading, for the glacier that lay before them was ten kilometers away.
My meager pack held extra water, my logbook, and a small lantern. I finished my drink and stood ready. The porter’s packs bulged out from behind them, and a smaller second pack on their fronts. The great weight of the loads was evident from their need to lean forward and the straps that cut through their thick woolen layers. Each porter wore a neck scarf and a pakol cap, like a stack of flat bread atop their heads.
The first hundred feet of hiking was a remorseful reminder of all the previous hikes that pained my joints, and I regretted being persuaded by Manfred to join his team. I breathed deeply and looked back at the camp. From the tent, a thin wisp of smoke rose from the smokestack and then mushroomed outward.
As Azmat led the way, Manfred nudged me forward, grumbling. “Keep the pace steady.” Dry grasses and wildflowers shook in the breeze from their crags on the rocky ground. Summer was over, the once green tufts of plants now faded into the monotone beige of the surrounding landscape. The bright purple, orange, and yellow flowers hung like bits of confetti as we paraded onward.
Our long day of hiking ended on a ledge overlooking the glacier. The sun was now setting, and it shone against the mountainside, bathing it in an orange glow. I wrote in my logbook, the sun now sets upon us.
As night fell, it became gruesomely obvious that the canvas tent we left behind provided an incomparable warmth. The plummeting temperature pressed down on us with the weight of the bouldering mountains above us. Sleep was more of a silent meditation. I shivered through to my gut as we lay in our fur-lined sleeping quilts.
After an unknown amount of time, I awoke with a sudden pain. An involuntary spasm interrupted my sleep, something that stimulated my organs into survival, for the cold was so penetrating that my kidneys ached, my head throbbed and my toes burned. Deep breaths cleared my mind but filled me with the cold, dry, burning air. I struggled to find comfort on the bumpy ground and resigned myself to the very position I awoke from. I heard the others stir in their quilts and sensed their pain as well.
My eyes ached as they opened to the late morning sun that shone down on us from a high angle. Manfred climbed out of his bedding. I watched him hold up a water jug over his face that produced droplets from the now thawing ice inside. I pretended to sleep and Manfred cleared his throat with a low-toned rattle, a familiar rousting meant to awake us.
I heard the porters stirring in their quilts, and only when the boot of Manfred touched me did I look up at his mountainous figure.
Manfred stared upward at the Trango Towers as the porters once again lifted their packs. No breakfast was made except a satchel of nuts and dried fruit was passed around. We filled our pockets and ate to the rhythm of our marching. Azmat led the way as we skirted the base of the mountain cliffs. A trail dotted with landslides hinted at the only possible direction. Manfred pointed upward at a fissure in the rocks. “There!” he ordered, “The one known as the Trango Castle.”
We all stopped to gaze at it. The porters gathered at the front and discussed the route while Manfred stood with his hand on his hips, waiting impatiently.
Azmat called back to us, “We follow the slope to an ascension point between the first and second tower.”
I looked up at a complex combination of steep gullies and vertical rock faces topped by snowy ridges. The trail grew steep for the first ascension and then leveled as it neared a narrow trail that eroded into a sheer drop-off with a steep cliff wall against the other side.
“Spread out,” Manfred ordered.
Azmat led. I followed, and the two other porters walked behind me. Manfred drove us from the rear.
When we came upon the narrow section. Azmat stopped, waved us to come to him. “One man at a time, and spread apart.” Then he walked cautiously forward.
“Don’t look down.” Manfred warned with a shout from the rear.
As I neared the narrowest section of the trail, I looked down. The glacier far below resembled a cloud floating below us. I felt dizzy and halted. The porter behind me slowed, and the other neared him.
“Don’t stop!” Manfred called out.
I glanced behind me; the two porters were close together with Manfred standing farther back. A paralyzing fear gripped me. I fought it back and walked forward again as the two porters waited for my advance.
Then, with a sudden tearing rumble that came at us from below like a terrible growl from a hellish beast, the ground gave way and the two porters fell, as if from a trapdoor. Their shrieks faded with echoes into the chasm below. Rumbling boulders bounced with explosive crashes as everything between me and Manfred disappeared in a flash.
I froze with my back to the cliff wall as the trail sheared off. On the other side of the collapsed path, Manfred did the same. I exhaled with some kind of outward gasp, but I could still hear the cries of the falling men that continued until they blended with the whistling wind. The distant crackle of bouncing boulders followed.
I pressed my back against the adjacent cliff that crumbled under my touch. The riven trail separated Manfred from me and Azmat. The sheer walls of the Trango Towers rose like monuments into the sky beside us. Azmat, wearing his large pack, stood balanced between the ledge and the vertical mountain face. There was no place to cling for safety.
No one spoke. Only timid breaths passed from my lips as I imagined the ground beneath me breaking away. My heart pounded as I counted my last seconds of life. I inched sideways as small black granules rolled under my feet like marbles, knowing a wrong move would cause me to lose my footing. Paralyzed with fear, I willed myself to take a single calculated step and then another.
Azmat progressed slowly as I approached, keeping a distance between us. I stopped, then continued on amid falling stones from above. Whirling winds seemed to pull me toward the incalculable drop below and which called to me like cries from a well.
The trail widened, and I joined Azmat. We leaned against the cliff, digesting the disaster without a word spoken between us. Azmat shook his head in disbelief. Beyond the breakaway, fifty meters back, Manfred cupped his hands over his mouth. “Base camp,” he shouted. His booming voice echoed with the threat of starting an avalanche and then faded. He stared for a moment and shook his head in disappointment, his lips pressed tightly shut. He then turned and walked back on the trail. I felt abandoned.
A whump announced the dropping of Azmat’s packs. He waited for my approach. “We have no quilts, only food,” he said as he leaned against the flat mountain wall, looking downward, “My friends are gone.”
There, he knelt and prayed. I waited in shock. Azmat stood and looked at the sun that rose high above. “We have six hours until darkness. This trail only heightens, and there is no turning back.” He stepped to the cliff edge, analyzed it at various points, then jumped down to a small ledge. “You may follow me, but you would most certainly fall to your death. The same might happen to me, but I will not be married to autumn.” He then disappeared past the ledge.
I ran to the cliff side. The dizzying height sickened me. Far below, the grey ledge met the icy blue and white glacier with a sharp contrast where one had cut into the other for an eternity. Azmat climbed downward with the slow but sure movements of a sloth. I stood and paced back and forth with a sense of doom as a feeling of isolation choked me. Near the packs, I crouched and pulled them open. As Azmat had said, we filled them with food to last all four men for days, but not a single blanket or a drop to drink except for what I had in my small pack. The blankets, water and tools were lost with the fallen men.
I must have waited an hour, then peeked over the ledge once more. Azmat was nowhere to be seen.
Had he made it or had he fallen?
I looked across the wide expanse of the glacier where another ridge of mountains rose upward, as fierce and desolate as the one I stood upon, then all around me at the many nonliving things that had existed since before man. I was not one of them. A sickening panic filled me that quivered in my gut and rose with the crying of a child. Now I was alone. Death was as certain as the sun would set. This clock of my remaining time drove me to move forward as I wanted to run from it. Confused, I moved in the only direction left for me and followed the trail on its gradual upward climb. The sun was nearing the western horizon. Soon the temperature would drop below freezing. I rehearsed my options and came to only one conclusion: a cave. I needed to find a place to hide from the cold.
My hike led me to a cavity at the base of the flat red wall of the formidable Trango Castle, a place carved out of the mountain which bled a trickle of water. Small footholds assisted my climb.
Inside the small curved room, the setting sun shone in, painting the space in crimson orange. It was not a cave, but a beveled hole in the cliff side. From its ceiling, a steady drip of water fell upon a single chest-high boulder in the center floor. On its top, a thousand years of erosion carved a smooth bowl. I drank from it and waited for it to fill again.
I sat at the back of this room and withdrew my logbook. In the remaining minutes of sunlight, I described our ascension and losing our comrades as the steady water drops fell like a metronome.
I paused when I thought of Manfred and how stupid we had been to listen to him. He must nearly be back to the camp and the warm tent, with his bottle of gin.
“You selfish bastard!” I shouted. I clenched my fists near my gut that ached with fear. “We trusted you! We believed in you!”
It echoed with a clapping noise from the small round space. The smooth stone wall against my back radiated some warmth while the air before me froze with the breath of approaching death.
I stood and attempted to drink once more from the bowl, but it was now forming ice.
The cave darkened, and I shivered with that familiar painful meditation that was now intensified by the perpetual drip from the ceiling that counted the seconds of my life. In the darkness, I awoke again with a desperate impulse for survival that rose from a place of instinct. There was no comfort except the thought of finding it. I remembered my lantern, retrieved it from my bag, and lit it with a single match. An internal drive forced me to stand. I scanned the room for any hope of finding relief. But how could such a thing exist? The anguish of the cold pushed me toward insanity.
Outside, the wind howled like the shrieks of my fallen comrades. I set my small lantern atop of the rock. A miraculous sight exploded before my eyes. There, the water carved bowl cradled an ice crystal that rose upward like a diamond stalagmite. The light from the lantern shone through it and sparkled upon the cave walls.
The Crystal of Karakoram!
For a moment, I forgot my pain and reached to lift it from its granite basin. It stung my hand with its frigid bite. I then realized that I could never bring this ice crystal back, and why it could never be found in the summer, for it would only melt.
I chose not to disturb it. What for? I thought and reached for my logbook to add to the chronicle of this adventure. My uncle’s last words came to me and now made perfect sense.
Beware, the crystal is not what it appears. I held it in my hand. It stung with frozen ferocity… Cannot bring back… I must leave before it is too late. The secret of the crystal will forever be.
But it was too late for him, as it was now too late for me. I realized this would never be told by my lips, but only read in what would be my last words. Anger rose within me as I realized it was all for nothing, a mere ice crystal. I strained to hold my pencil against the paper, writing not with fingers but with a clenched frozen hand and the movement of my arm. The only warmth I felt was the anger that raged within me. How foolish we were, burning our lives out in a dream. I sought to tell the truth of this mystery once and for all. When the world found my chronicle, it would be the last word on this subject.
The thought of Manfred and all of those who toiled for him and how my life and all the others that tragically ended for nothing replayed in my mind.
Through the darkness of the cave exit, snow blew horizontally with a howling sound. It reminded me of the men that fell into the glacier below. Autumn, I thought, had me. Winter would soon have me. Was I dying for nothing or something greater than myself? My last thought was that I could not die for nothing and that, as strange as it was, I had found the Crystal of Karakoram. I found it when so many others could not. I had little strength left and realized this was my epitaph.
I wrote, “I have found the Crystal of Karakoram. It is real and will forever be.”