My pace quickens, and my mind races without thought. I have long lost possession of the faculties most take for granted. I can hear its voice, but it does not speak in words. It is like a slideshow playing in my mind. Images flash through my head, and a crushing tunnel vision consumes me.
Some images are foreign, but others are familiar. The snow beat down on our camp, and we huddled close for warmth. The expedition was my first opportunity to study bacteria found in some of the most inhospitable places in the world. It would be a great adventure, until everything went wrong.
The third day began no different from the first two. Our team of five broke camp early to cross the Abra del Acay pass before afternoon storms reduced visibility to an impenetrable wall of snow. The pass sat high atop a massive ridge snaking through Argentina, and the ascent was grueling. We had trained for months, but nothing can truly prepare a person for the oxygen-starved air found sixteen-thousand feet above sea level.
We reached the pass at noon, and took a brief rest to hydrate and eat. Our team leader was a colleague and good friend of mine. Brian and I had worked together in a biological research lab for four years. He was a veteran field researcher and actively encouraged me to expand my horizons beyond the lab. The team also included a scientist who went by Suzy and two lab technicians named John and Isaac. Suzy was researching the effects of high altitude weather patterns on biological diversity, and the lab techs were there to provide technical support.
Dark clouds were beginning to form in the distance. Brian slid his pack off and walked toward a better vantage point to scout our descent.
“We should probably head down over there,” he shouted over wind buffeting the peaks above us.
“How long will it take for us to reach a safe altitude to camp?” asked Suzy.
“I’m not sure, but we should reach somewhere to camp before losing light,” Brian responded without gazing down from the distant clouds. “My concern is getting off this pass before lightning or snow becomes a danger,” he added, pulling his pack on and gesturing for us to follow.
We hiked along the ridge toward an area where Brian felt we could begin our descent. The winds were much stronger now, and I could sense a nervous tension in the air.
“I don’t know if this is going to work,” Brian yelled over his shoulder.
He was assessing a long narrow ledge connecting the area where we stood to a sloping stretch of shale that might lead us down toward the tree line. The ledge was no more than a few inches wide, and there were no good handholds. Jagged rocks and a steep slope lay twenty feet below. A fall could kill one of us, and a serious injury would likely be a death sentence when night fell.
“I don’t think this a good idea,” Suzy said.
“I agree, we need to circle back and find a safer way down,” Brian conceded with a frown.
He slid by the rest of the group and began leading us back toward the area we had rested an hour earlier. The temperature had dropped significantly, and ominous black clouds were approaching from the West. A light snow began to fall as we searched for another route.
A new trail led us around a different peak and seemed more promising. We descended with relative ease until the snow began falling faster. Visibility declined from several hundred yards to a few feet, and strong winds whipped snow into our eyes. The cold pierced my jacket and my boots struggled to find sound footing as we pressed forward in total silence. It was very difficult to gauge our progress, and I was not sure we were making any.
“I think we need to shelter,” I yelled over the howling winds.
Brian stopped several feet ahead of me. I was not sure he heard me, but he eventually turned and nodded in agreement. I looked around to determine if there was a suitable place to pitch our tents. The dark silhouette of a tree was all I could see through the swirling snow.
“I can’t see anything. We need to pitch a tent and get out of this wind,” said Brian.
He pulled a tent from his pack and motioned for me to assist him. The tent flapped violently in the wind, and it took all five of us to assemble it. Securing it to the ground in the deep snow was a lost cause, and we piled in to prevent it from blowing away.
Suzy and Isaac were shaking, and I was concerned for their health. Brian ducked outside to retrieve sleeping bags from our packs and suggested we huddle together for warmth. Attempting to pitch the other tents and sacrificing warmth for privacy did not make sense under the current circumstances. I thought the deafening howl of the wind would keep me up all night, but exhaustion won out, and I eventually drifted off.
I awoke to total silence. Light crept down the walls of the tent, and everything seemed still. I slipped on my wet gear and stepped outside. A virgin coat of snow covered the ground and extended as far as the eye could see. I thought we had reached the tree line, but I could not see any signs of vegetation. I also did not see our packs. We had left them outside to make room in the tent, and several feet of snow now concealed them.
I dug in the general area where I remembered placing the packs, but to no avail. I returned to the tent when my hands began to shake.
“I can’t locate our packs,” I told Brian.
“They have to be there, and we’ll find them,” he replied. “How is everyone feeling?”
“I’m not doing too well,” said Isaac, shivering in his bag. “I think I’m sick,” he added.
Nobody needed to say anything. We all knew we would be unable to travel with a sick team member.
“We need to locate the packs and boil some water,” said Brian.
He joined me outside for the search, and we scoured the area for more than an hour without any luck.
“This isn’t good,” Brian groaned. “We have no food and it will be very difficult to melt snow without a stove.”
We returned to the tent to inform the team of our bad fortune. Isaac looked very frail, and we decided to let him rest for a day before pushing on down the mountain. Suzy located a granola bar in her pocket and we were able to melt a small amount of snow in an empty canteen. It was not adequate nourishment for a team of five on a physically demanding expedition, but we thought it enough to endure one more night.
A fresh coat of snow dashed my optimism the next morning. I was hoping to find our way below the tree line where small villages offered the prospect of food and shelter. The snow would be very difficult to cross without snowshoes or skis, and Isaac remained ill.
“John and I are going for help,” Brian said from behind me.
I turned to find both of them standing just outside the entrance to the tent. Brian appeared very serious.
“What if you become lost in the snow?” I asked.
“It’s going to be dangerous, but doing nothing is no longer an option,” Brian replied. “We will travel until noon and return if we haven’t found signs of people. We will be back by night if we don’t find help.”
I did not like the idea of staying behind, but I knew John was our strongest hiker, and leaving Suzy to care for Isaac by herself was not a good idea.
Suzy spent her time talking to Isaac and melting snow in her canteen. I passed the day thinking about all of the food I would eat when Brian and John returned with help. The hours went by slowly, and I began to worry as the sun descended toward the horizon.
The winds returned that night, and I found it difficult to sleep. Brian and John were out there somewhere. Would they be returning with help in the morning, or had something terrible happened to them?
“Where could they be?” I asked Suzy, but she had already dozed off.
I wished I could turn my mind off.
The morning brought more snow, and I began to understand the meaning of cabin fever. I needed to go somewhere, and to do something, but three days without food had left me feeling weak. Suzy and Isaac had resigned themselves to waiting for help, and I did not have a better plan. Time passed with little meaning, and despair began to control me. Night came and went, I think.
I found myself struggling to concentrate the following day. I could not remember how long it had been since I had eaten, and I was losing weight at a startling pace. I tried to think about other things, but I could feel my body devouring itself from inside. Suzy’s face appeared taught and Isaac was emaciated. I was sure we were going to die as the sun disappeared behind the mountain.
I shot up off my back at the sound of crunching snow.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” replied Suzy.
“There it is again,” I insisted.
“I don’t hear anything at all,” said Suzy, sounding frustrated. Unzipping the entrance to our tent, I craned my neck to see if someone was approaching.
“Brian,” I yelled. “John, is that you?”
There was no response.
I stepped from the tent and yelled again, but the encroaching darkness seemed to swallow all sound. I could still make out the edge of a distant peak, and the last rays of sun cast it in an eerie glow. I was preparing to climb back into the tent when something caught my eye. It was the silhouette of a tree near the edge of our camp. I had looked for trees in the daylight, and our camp was well above the tree line. Nevertheless, there it was. Was I hallucinating? I had to know. A tree could provide fuel for a fire, and we desperately needed heat.
I was fighting my way through the snow when a sliver of moonlight escaped the omnipresent clouds. The broken beam of light danced across the ground and illuminated the dark presence looming just outside my perception. Its trunk was a gaunt body, and its limbs slender arms that dragged upon the ground. A long hairless muzzle covered much of its strangely proportioned head, and matted hair clung to its face in clumps. Dark eyes sat in sunken sockets and seemed to stare through me with a woeful and penetrating gaze. A horrible sense of dread enveloped me, but the fear was paralyzing. Leaning forward, the creature opened its massive jaws and released an awful scream that shook the ground beneath my feet. It sounded like the fierce winds whipping through the mountains, it sounded angry, and it sounded of pain.
I woke up in the tent. My head hurt badly and my stomach ached with hunger. Suzy looked like she was losing strength. Had it all been a dream?
“How long have I been sleeping?” I asked.
“You aren’t well,” she replied. “You were hallucinating and collapsed in the snow. Brian never returned. John tried, but he didn’t, well, he didn’t, John is dead,” Suzy stammered with tears welling in her eyes.
“That doesn’t make sense, John went for help,” I argued.
“He tried to return,” she said. “I found him this morning. He was only a few hundred feet from the tent. He probably didn’t even know we were here in the dark, but I spotted his orange jacket this morning.”
Suzy tried to keep me in the tent, but I did not believe her. I could not believe her. If John was dead, then Brian was probably gone. My friend was dead, and we were going to die as well. The sun burned my eyes as I scanned the horizon. It did not take long to locate John’s bright orange jacket. I lurched through the snow until I stood over him. His skin was bluish-grey and he had a peaceful expression on his face.
I should have felt bad, but I did not. I was hungry. Every human needs to eat, and I was starving. I pulled out my pocketknife. I would take a few small cuts of meat and share it with Suzy and Isaac. They might think I was a monster, but they must not want to starve. I pulled John’s pants down to his knees and attempted to cut into his thigh. The bitter cold had frozen his entire body. It would be impossible to cut into him in this condition. A wave of despair washed over me. I was so hungry.
I returned to the tent without telling Suzy about my plan. Isaac’s health continued to deteriorate. I did not want him to die, but Suzy and I might be able to survive until the snow melted if he passed away.
“How is Isaac?” I asked.
“He’s not doing well,” she said softly. “I think he can make it another day, but I’m not sure.”
I tried to rest, but my hunger was growing. I could not think about anything else. If only there was a way to warm John’s body, I thought. We could eat until Isaac died, and then he would provide enough food for another few days if we kept the meat warm. I looked over at Isaac. His chest rose and fell with short halting breaths. Suzy snored gently beside him. I knew we could not wait any longer.
I pulled a wool sock from my left foot and climbed on top of Isaac. I placed the sock in his mouth and covered his nose with my other hand. Using all of my weight to prevent him from struggling, I held him down until voluntary resistance gave way to the involuntary.
“I think something is wrong with Isaac,” I whispered to Suzy.
In a bit of a daze, Suzy checked Isaac.
“He doesn’t have a pulse,” she said with a blank expression. “I think he’s gone.”
We needed to act quickly, but something was troubling me. Suzy would grow stronger and I might have to wait a week or more to feed again if I shared Isaac.
“I’ll move him outside,” I told Suzy.
She did not reply, but she did not object. I lifted Isaac from beneath his arms and dragged his body into the snow. Working quickly, I used my pocketknife to cut deep into his thigh. I stripped off large pieces of meat and fed my insatiable hunger. The world seemed to drop away. I did not feel the cold, I did not feel remorse, and I did not hear Suzy until she screamed.
Suzy had found me crouched over Isaac with blood running down my chin like some kind of ghoul. She fled in the direction Brian and John had attempted to travel for help. I started to pursue her, but I had to finish feeding. I fed until I could eat no more and my strength returned. I felt stronger than ever, but the hunger remained.
I found Suzy the next day. She had survived the night, but she was not well. She gave me the strength to find my way down the mountain to a small town. I approached a driver for a ride, but he would not assist me. People pointed and spoke in hushed tones as I passed. I do not know why they refused to help me, but I did not care. I waited until night to approach another driver and used his car to reach the city after feeding.
Images flash through my head, and a crushing tunnel vision consumes me. The beast I saw on the mountain is always with me, but I no longer fear it. I have come to understand its pain as the hunger that consumes me. The world around me no longer exists. All I can see is the young woman with her groceries. She is fumbling with her keys and I will feed again soon.