Book Excerpt

FEBRUARY 1959 - NORTHERN URAL MOUNTAINS, USSR

TWO FIGURES TRUDGE ACROSS A SNOWY EXPANSE. THE PEAK OF Otorten Mountain stands icy and grim in the distance, a lone witness to their miserable progress. It is afternoon, though difficult to say how late. Time of day tends to lose its meaning in this wilderness, where the sun is a mere smudge behind cloud cover, and the haze is so pervasive as to make earth and sky indistinguishable. The pair push forward into the headwind, their bundled bodies a fleck of punctuation on this vast, wintry page.

The men are university students in search of friends who have been missing ten days. They tell themselves that this is a rescue mission, not a recovery. After all, the nine missing hikers—seven men, two women—are highly accomplished, having completed numerous mountaineering expeditions into this region. In fact, the missing are members of the most esteemed hiking group at their school, and there is no reason to believe that they are not alive, counting the days until rescue. Perhaps the two men imagine a reunion of schoolmates just ahead, beyond the next snowdrift. . . . But, other than the occasional dwarf pine, there is nothing to see.

The sun is dropping. The searchers don’t have much time before they must turn around and rejoin the rest of the team at base camp. Weather conditions are volatile in the northern Urals—snow can fly in fast and thick without warning, and hurricane-force winds are a persistent menace. Though the morning had given them clear skies, threatening clouds have since collected, and the wind is already whipping snow from the ground in prelude to a storm. It looks as if it may be another day lost. But then, through the disorienting blur, the men spy something that is neither rock nor tree—a dark, gray shape. As they draw closer, they find a flapping tent. Though its twin poles stand obediently in the wind, a section of the tarpaulin has surrendered under the weight of recent snows.

Conflicting thoughts of relief and horror flood the searchers’ minds as they approach. They shout for their friends, but there is no reply. They pass an ice ax sticking out of the snow. Then a half- buried flashlight left in the on position, its battery spent. One of the men moves toward the partially snowbound entrance. The tent is a thick, canvas fortress, outfitted with a triple barrier of fabric and fasteners designed to keep out wind and cold. As the young man begins to clear away the snow, his companion looks for a faster way inside. He picks up the ice ax and, in several swift motions, brings it down on the canvas, fashioning his own entrance.

The men enter the buckled tent, their eyes immediately darting over its contents. As is typical of camping in this climate, an insulating layer of empty backpacks, padded coats and blankets lines the floor and periphery. At the south end of the tent’s roughly 80 square feet are several pairs of ski boots. Six more pairs sit along another wall. Near the entrance lie a wood ax and saw. Most everything else has been stowed away in packs, but a few personal objects are visible: a camera, a can of money, a diary. The men share a wave of relief as they realize there are no bodies. But there is something curious about the place, the way everything is arranged—the ski boots standing in disciplined formation, the bags of bread and cereal positioned sensibly in one corner. The stove is in the center of the tent, not yet assembled, and an open flask of cocoa sits frozen nearby as if waiting to be reheated. There is also a cloth napkin bearing neat slices of ham. The entire arrangement gives the distinct impression of someone having tidied very recently, and, if not for the collapsed tarpaulin, one might expect a lively band of campers to return at any moment, kindling bundled in their arms.

The men step back into the snow to consider their discovery. They give in to a moment of cautious celebration, comforted in the idea that their comrades have not perished, but are out there somewhere, perhaps in a snow cave. As the two scan the immediate landscape, not once does it cross their minds that a forsaken camp is cause for anything but hope. Yet they cannot begin to fathom the conditions that must have compelled their friends—all nine of them—to abandon their only shelter and vanish into the stark cruelty of the Russian wilderness.