It was the fourth hour from the moment we began our ascent to the Ivanovskiye lakes.
Mountain streams frequently cut across the narrow path. When blocked, we’d leave the trail and walk along the water’s edge to find fallen trees or a narrow spot to cross. While the water was only knee deep, it was ice cold and we needed to stay dry.
We finally spotted a log “bridge” submerged a few centimeters below the surface. Serge and Frank decided not to risk it. Instead, they took off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and waded through the numbingly cold water. I walked behind them and chose to walk across the log – the top of which barely rose above the stream of water. Having climbed it and taking careful steps towards the opposite bank, I made it half way across the river…
Suddenly, losing my balance, I slipped and fell flat into the water. I suffered no immediate damage, but was now with wet clothes as we headed up the Siberian mountain – with snow at its top.
Step by step, we climbed the hills, littered with eternally frozen snow. When descending into valleys, we grasped branches to steady ourselves – the shaded valleys were always more icy.
Upon entering a clearing, we caught a glimpse of the outline of a pale, blue lake. Serge – the most energetic of the three of us, yelled out and bolted up the trail. I immediately rushed toward him – forgetting about my heavy pack and slapping the ground with my wet sneakers. Frank exhaled, and stiffly soldiered on behind us, limping on the ankle he sprained in Krasnoyarsk.
An incredible sight grew into view. A mountain chain stretched out in a semicircle majestically. In the valley lay a crystal-clear lake – iridescent in color and clearly reflecting every cloud that was in the sky. A kilometer to the northeast lay another lake in the shape of a heart, but in order to get a good look at it, it was necessary to climb an adjacent mountain, even higher.
Short on time
Glancing alternately at us and the snow-covered hill, Serge finally asked: “So, are we going?” Frank and I just nodded our heads, not even having time to take a break.
It was necessary to hurry to have time to return to the base before sunset. A couple of days before the trip, we were warned that bears were roaming around the lakes, and we really did not want to stumble upon one of them in the middle of the night. In addition, we would hardly have been able to find the trail after dusk.
Higher, Steeper, Icier…
At the foot of the hill was a rocky slope. Hundreds of boulders lay on top of each other. We slowly moved upwards, climbing and jumping from one stone to the next. The higher we climbed, the less stable the stones were upon the earth.
The first, being the most courageous of us, was Serge; I carefully followed him, trying to repeat his steps exactly and getting ready at any moment to insure him if necessary. A little distance from us slowly rose Frank.
Gradually overcoming a rocky barrier, we approached a huge snow canopy encircling the summit. As we climbed, the angle of inclination increased, and, finding ourselves at the snow barrier, we could barely see the top of the mountain.
The first timid steps were taken by Serge, gently putting his foot on the snow cover and then digging it deeper so as not to slip.
— Follow in my footsteps! Put your foot in the same place where I put it, it will be safer!
The inclination angle inexorably became more and more. Foot holds were no longer enough and we needed to dig our fingers into the snow.
Frank had not followed us. He continued to move over the stones laterally away from us – working towards a steeper section with less snow. His figure grew smaller as we worked apart.
The top of the hill was getting closer. Serge was 10 meters ahead of me, paving the way to the top.
Suddenly, Serge’s leg went down and provoked a small avalanche that was going straight in my direction. Punching my hands through the snow, I reached for rock or earth to anchor myself. Not finding a hold, the snowy stream dislodged me and carried me several meters down. My clawed fingers left 10 deep grooves in the snow. Only clinging to a cobblestone, sticking out from under a layer of snow, could I stop. Putting my red cheek to even more red hands, I exhaled heavily: the danger was over.
— Damn it, Serge! Move a little to the left, otherwise you will kill me!
Serge, hearing my piercing scream, immediately began to move slowly to the left, gently trampling down his path.
I looked back: far below lay a lot of stones, looking with a tip in my direction.
“I don’t even want to think about how we will get down from here,” I muttered quietly under my breath, and slowly, I began to climb up, making up the lost height. It was too late to return; the top of the hill was closer.
Far from us, Frank had made it beyond the stones to the steep icy section. He was cautiously inching his way up towards the summit.
In each hand, he held a pointed stone. He would plunge one stone into the ice above him as an anchor. Then he carved a foot hold into the ice with the other stone at about his waist’s level. He placed his foot in the foot hold, stepped up, then anchored the other hand a bit higher on the slope and repeated the process. He kept his body tight against the slope through all his movements.
This is how we last saw him before we crested the last ridge separating us from the summit.
The taxi driver’s warning…
— Igor, do you remember what the taxi driver told us on the way? — Looking at me, asked Serge.
— Nope, I fell asleep in the car. What did he say? — Squinting from the sun that shone right in my eyes, I asked.
— Forget it. Be careful, we are near!
We came upon a break in the snow cover filled with dense, thorny bushes. Serge made 3 huge confident strides, hooking on the branch of one of them and cutting his arm. He pulled himself up and immediately found himself on a hard surface.
Behind him, a huge avalanche flew down, gradually increasing in size, and loudly crashed against the rocks below. Finally, exhausted, Serge, holding his bloody hand, fell to the ground, trying to regain his breath. A few minutes later I joined him.
It only took a moments rest before we got up, we were too close to stop. Shaking off the snow, we ran towards the very top of the hill, expending our last strength.
I was wearing shorts, and making my way through the thickets of bushes, I cut all my legs. Serge was in tight pants and sped away far forward, not feeling sharp spikes. Having lost sight of him, I slowed down and began to gently step over the bushes, some of which sometimes reached my waist.
Only after 10 minutes, Serge was again in my field of vision: he sat on a rocky ledge and silently looked into the distance. Before his eyes stretched the vast expanses of taiga, in the very center of which lay a picturesque heart-shaped lake. I approached him and crouched beside him. For about half an hour we, without a single word, admired what we saw, deeply plunging each into his own thoughts.
Something is missing…
After a little more time, Serge, as if awakening from a sudden flood of sleep, asked:
— Where is Frank?
At the same second, as if on cue, we rushed in the opposite direction to the place from which we could see the slope from which we were climbing: there was no one there.
For 5 minutes, we were in unison, then in turn shouted the name of Frank, hoping to hear the answer, but there was no answer. Only the stream of water boomed, melting from the ice on the top of the hill opposite, and falling from a great height into the lake, creating a waterfall. The sun was rapidly going to the horizon, and to the nearest settlement – the Priiskovoye settlement – was about 10 kilometers …