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Written: January 2019
When you're chasing your dream, do you oftentimes wonder if you're really chasing a nightmare? With deadly hazards looming and lurking around every nook and cranny, it is a miracle that most of us are favored enough to survive to adulthood and live long enough to watch our children enter adulthood as well. As miraculous as that is, for those that experience an untimely or tragic death, remorse grows within us that are left behind for loved ones lost to this ever-changing algorithm.
When one thinks of death or accepting it, we imagine a peaceful exit in our slumber; cozy in our warm beds. Or, a horrendous murderer that has killed us leaving us in a pandering dilemma. Either way, it is inevitable. But, what of the fears following death? Leaving family behind, unfinished business, unfulfilled dreams all foreboding within a now obscured spirit forbidden to ever exist among the living again. There's no second chance. But, what of deeper fears such as... no one knowing what happened to you or how you died? Would you allow your spirit to pass or remain?
Living as an engineering student in the middle of any century would be a definite challenge. For Igor, it was a mission that he embraced, loved and viewed as a decree from a higher power. At 23, he was enrolled as a radio engineering student at Ural Polytechnical Institute in the Soviet Union, with many of his good friends and colleagues. Known as the biggest technical institute of higher education in Russia, he considered himself lucky to escape the Orwellian pressure of the Communist party. Born in January 1936 to the Russian Federation, this was just 16 years after the Institute opened its doors for the very first time. If only he had caught so much as a small hint of his fate, he would have still ventured, fearing nothing and no one. January 1959 would prove this to be true.
His love interests at the time were hiking and the Ural Mountains which created the perfect love triangle for someone like Igor. Because of his fermented passion, he became a Grade II Hiker with ski tour experience and anticipated earning his Grade III certification after his upcoming mountainous adventure to Mount Otorten with his old friends that was long overdue. This would be the expedition of a lifetime! And, he was truly prepared, ready and longing to feel the freedoms of the Russian tundra.
In the frosty hours of the early morning, an old train arrived in Ivdel carrying the best group of friends to ever traverse the Russian wilderness and the excitement was growing with each passing second. The freedom that they all feel each time they are one with the elements is incomparable and they all needed a much-needed break from their studies. As the train coasted to an abrupt halt enveloping all of the waiting passengers in steam, everyone hopped off and wandered about the picturesque Sverdlovsk for a brief period marveling at the quaint town located within the northern province center and grew tired from their travels, some of them coming from afar. The small group didn't have many words while awaiting a truck to take them to their destination as they spent so much time catching up on the train car.
As the truck finally arrived just before dusk, the friends gathered slowly into the vehicle, one by one to escape the frigid cold and traveled just a little longer along the dark roads before reaching the last lorry village settlement to the north, known as Vizhai. This would be the last village inhabited by people before there was nothing but mountains, wilderness, and forestry for thousands of miles. But, all were ready for this vacation without a shadow of a doubt. Yuri sat quietly gazing out of the window as his glasses illuminated every so often in the darkness while he silently observed nothing. Though tired, Igor quietly joked and mused with Rustik, Tibo, and Georgiy smiling widely displaying his proud gap.
When they all reached Vizhai, the two women, Zina and Lyudmila were silently sleeping as they spent most of the ride holding hands and trying to squint through the darkened windows into the small villages that they passed along the way. Aleksander also didn't have too much to add during their chilly ride as there was no heat and being lean, he felt a little colder. He seemed to be the only one observing the women and thinking secretly of his family back home, but didn't want to appear to be less masculine in front of the guys. He desperately missed his sisters. All the while, Sasha appeared to be keeping watch to ensure that no danger ensued their trip.
Shortly arriving in Vizhai after about a 45-minute ride, all were exhausted and ambled out of the truck sleepily with just enough remaining energy from the day's follies to buy bread from a nearby bakery in order to build up the strength, stamina, and endurance for tomorrow's treacherous hike. Retiring to their chambers within an ancient creaky inn, they had no idea what was in store for each of them.
Erupting through the rickety antique wooden door frame, the wintry frost of -9 degrees Celsius was unforgiving to the patrons as Igor, Yuri, Georgiy and Zina burst through the opening to the local popular pub with rigor enjoying each other's company. Igor was quite lively and on the tail end of a joke upon entering.
"If that Viper couldn't take you out, I doubt Yuri ever could!" Igor boomed aloud, as he held the door open for his friends.
Zina and Yuri walked closely together, but did not exchange any words in recognition of Igor's joke and seemed to ignore each other. Georgiy followed up behind them overcome with laughter and stifling tears as he found everything that Igor said to be hilarious, especially involving the two estranged lovebirds.
"There will be no vipers on this trip," Sasha replied darkly from the corner of the pub where he had been seated for a while awaiting the tardy.
"I didn't realize that we were going to be running late," Igor tried as he caught Sasha's exasperated gaze. Igor looked around to see that Lyudmila and Aleksander were also already waiting there at the pub patiently for the rest of them and immediately felt guilty. He was quite known at times for breaking the rules, but still cared a lot about his friends and kept his word.
Strangely, Lyudmila, Aleksander, and Sasha were sitting apart as if they'd never met, but Igor knew that he was the glue that held most of his expeditions together and made a mental note to take more care to be as communicative as possible with the rest of the group.
"Where's Rustik and Tibo?" Igor inquired after a moment to Sasha and the others to receive a nonchalant reply from Aleksander.
"They stayed up drinking into the late hours of the night. It would only make sense that they are passed out now." Aleksander responded, in a weary tone, almost apologetically, as if he did not want to upset anyone and Igor caught his drift.
"One moment guys and we'll get this show on the road!" Igor enthused, as he made his brief exit from the bar to double back to their lodging to find the missing two.
Two days after leaving Ivdel and arriving in Vizhai, the group began their trek towards Otorten and the clear, bright sky before them seemed so promising. It was cold and brisk, but they were all trained for this and it would be a blissful few weeks of bonding, learning and surviving. It was freedom for them all. The wind whipped snow like small crystals that mystified around their feet as they pressed on with each step in the knee-deep snow.
"Do you know the legend of Otorten?" Sasha asked, loudly of the others, not turning around, as he and Igor were leading the group through a deep snow trench. However, before receiving an answer, he responded immediately.
"Don't go there... is the translation. It's sacred to the indigenous Mansi people and is believed to be the only path that takes you to the peak of the mountain..." Sasha grunted and breathed heavily, as he barely escaped losing his footing in the soft, thick snow beneath his boots.
"Why are you telling us this? Are you trying to scare us?" Lyudmila responded in a condescending, yet inquisitive tone that shocked everyone because she hadn't spoken much to Sasha from the very beginning of the trip.
"No, I...." Sasha began but was interrupted by Yuri collapsing. Yuri hadn't said much from the start and now they were all realizing why. Lyudmila let out a scream and became faint as she was startled by Yuri's immediate collapse and Zina hastily assisted her as the youngest of the group.
Igor and Rustik rushed to his side to discover that Yuri hadn't been hurt, but was experiencing symptoms from dysentery. Ultimately, he was already exhausted. They all decided collectively that it was best for him to return to Vizhai to await their return after the expedition. Yuri disagreed, but was reluctant as he didn't want to burden the others with his maladies.
Aleksander, tall and wavering, asked Yuri if he needed an escort to accompany him back and Yuri declined to state that, "I don't want to ruin your fun."
Igor patted Yuri on the back and reassured him, "I'll send a telegram to our sports club when we return to Vizhai. They will expect us by the 12th of February. We may take a bit longer, Yuri." Igor's eyes pleaded with Yuri to not be disappointed as he planted one firm hand on Yuri's shoulder. Lyudmila rushed over and hugged Yuri tightly, as Zina quickly snapped a picture.
Retreating to Vizhai, Yuri turned back once more to fatefully watch the others disperse not knowing that he'd never ever see them again.
To Be Continued... Part II - A Hiker's Dream