The Alps, near the Austrian Border with Italy
The flat afternoon sky spread over the black and gray mountains like a stage backdrop, the color of a dog's pale crazy eye.
His ankles aching and back burning from a misplaced loop of nylon rope, Mitch Rafelson followed Tilde's quick female form along the margin between the white firn and a dust of new snow on the field. Mingled with the ice boulders of the fall, crenels and spikes of old ice had been sculpted by summer heat into milky, flint-edged knives.
To Mitch's left, the mountains rose over the jumble of black boulders flanking the broken slope of the ice fall. On the right, in the full glare of the sun, the ice rose in blinding brilliance to the perfect catenary of the cirque.
Franco was about twenty yards to the south, hidden by the rim of Mitch's goggles. Mitch could hear him but not see him. Some kilometers behind, also out of sight now, was the brilliant orange, round fiberglass-and-aluminum bivouac where they had made their last rest stop. He did not know how many kilometers they were from the last hut, whose name he had forgotten; but the memory of bright sun and warm tea in the sitting room, the Gaststube, gave him some strength. When this ordeal was over, he would get another cup of strong tea and sit in the Gaststube and thank God he was warm and alive.
They were approaching the wall of rock and a bridge of snow lying over a chasm dug by meltwater. These now-frozen streams formed during the spring and summer and eroded the edge of the glacier. Beyond the bridge, depending from a U-shaped depression in the wall, rose what looked like a gnome's upside-down castle, or a pipe organ carved from ice: a frozen waterfall spread out in many thick columns. Chunks of dislodged ice and drifts of snow gathered around the dirty white of the base; sun burnished the cream and white at the top.
Franco came into view as if out of a fog and joined up with Tilde. So far they had been on relatively level glacier. Now it seemed that Tilde and Franco were going to scale the pipe organ.
Mitch stopped for a moment and reached behind to pull out his ice ax. He pushed up his goggles, crouched, then fell back on his butt with a grunt to check his crampons. Ice balls between the spikes yielded to his knife.
Tilde walked back a few yards to speak to him. He looked up at her, his thick dark eyebrows forming a bridge over a pushed-up nose, round green eyes blinking at the cold.
"This saves us an hour," Tilde said, pointing at the pipe organ. "It's late. You've slowed us down." Her English came precise from thin lips, with a seductive Austrian accent. She had a slight but well-proportioned figure, white blond hair tucked under a dark blue Polartec cap, an elfin face with clear gray eyes. Attractive, but not Mitch's type; still, they had been lovers of the moment before Franco arrived.
"I told you I haven't climbed in eight years," Mitch said. Franco was showing him up handily. The Italian leaned on his ax near the pipe organ.
Tilde weighed and measured everything, took only the best, discarded the second best, yet never cut ties in case her past connections should prove useful. Franco had a square jaw and white teeth and a square head with thick black hair shaved at the sides, an eagle nose, Mediterranean olive skin, broad shoulders and arms knotted with muscles, fine hands, very strong. He was not too smart for Tilde, but no dummy, either. Mitch could imagine Tilde pulled from her thick Austrian forest by the prospect of bedding Franco, light against dark, like layers in a torte. He felt curiously detached from this image. Tilde made love with a mechanical rigor that had deceived Mitch for a time, until he realized she was merely going through the moves, one after the other, as a kind of intellectual exercise. She ate the same way. Nothing moved her deeply, yet she had real wit at times, and a lovely smile that drew lines on the corners of those thin, precise lips.
"We must go down before sunset," Tilde said. "I don't know what the weather will do. It's two hours to the cave. Not very far, but a hard climb. If we're lucky, you'll have an hour to look at what we've found."
"I'll do my best," Mitch said. "How far are we from the tourist trails? I haven't seen any red paint in hours."
Tilde pulled away her goggles to wipe them, gave him a flash smile with no warmth. "No tourists up here. Most good climbers stay away, too. But I know my way."
"Snow goddess," Mitch said.
"What do you expect?" she said, taking it as a compliment. "I've climbed here since I was a girl."
"You're still a girl," Mitch said. "Twenty-five, twenty-six?"
She had never revealed her age to Mitch. Now she appraised him as if he were a gemstone she might reconsider purchasing. "I am thirty-two. Franco is forty but he's faster than you."
"To hell with Franco," Mitch said without anger.
Tilde curled her lip in amusement. "We are all weird today," she said, turning away. "Even Franco feels it. But another Iceman ... what would that be worth?"
The very thought shortened Mitch's breath, and he did not need that now. His excitement curled back on itself, mixing with his exhaustion. "I don't know," he said.
They had opened their mercenary little hearts to him back in Salzburg. They were ambitious but not stupid; Tilde was absolutely certain that their find was not just another climber's body. She should know. At fourteen, she had helped carry out two bodies spit loose from the tongues of glaciers. One had been over a hundred years old.
Mitch wondered what would happen if they had found a true Iceman. Tilde, he was sure, would in the long run not know how to handle fame and success. Franco was stolid enough to make do, but Tilde was in her own way fragile. Like a diamond, she could cut steel, but strike her from the wrong angle and she would come to pieces.
Franco might survive fame, but would he survive Tilde? Mitch, despite everything, liked Franco.
"It's another three kilometers," Tilde told him. "Let's go."
Together, she and Franco showed him how to climb the frozen waterfall. "This flows only during midsummer," Franco said. "It is ice for a month now. Understand how it freezes. It is strong down here." He struck the pale gray ice of the pipe organ's massive base with his ax. The ice tinked, spun off a few chips. "But it is verglas, lots of bubbles, higher up--mushy. Big chunks fall if you hit it wrong. Hurt somebody. Tilde could cut some steps there, not you. You climb between Tilde and me."
Tilde would go first, an honest acknowledgment by Franco that she was the better climber. Franco slung the ropes and Mitch showed them he remembered the loops and knots from climbing in the Cascades, in Washington state. Tilde made a face and retied the loop Alpine style around his waist and shoulders. "You can front most of the way. Remember, I will chisel steps if you need them," Tilde said. "I don't want you sending ice down on Franco."
She took the lead.
Halfway up the pillar, digging in with the front points of his crampons, Mitch passed a threshold and his exhaustion seemed to leak away in spurts through his feet, leaving him nauseated for a moment. Then his body felt clean, as if flushed with fresh water, and his breath came easy. He followed Tilde, chunking his crampons into the ice and leaning in very close, grabbing at whatever holds were available. He used his ax sparingly. The air was actually warmer near the ice.
It took them fifteen minutes to climb past the midpoint, onto the cream-colored ice. The sun came from behind low gray clouds and lit up the frozen waterfall at a sharp angle, pinning him on a wall of translucent gold.
He waited for Tilde to tell them she was over the top and secure. Franco gave his laconic reply. Mitch wedged his way between two columns. The ice was indeed unpredictable here. He dug in with side points, sending a cloud of chips down on Franco. Franco cursed, but not once did Mitch break free and simply hang, and that was a blessing.
He fronted and crawled up the bumpy, rounded lip of the waterfall. His gloves slipped alarmingly on runnels of ice. He flailed with his boots, caught a ridge of rock with his right boot, dug in, found purchase on more rock, waited for a moment to catch his breath, and humped up beside Tilde like a walrus.
Dusty gray boulders on each side defined the bed of the frozen creek. He looked up the narrow rocky valley, half in shadow, where a small glacier had once flowed down from the east, carving its characteristic
U-shaped notch. There had not been much snow for the last few years and the glacier had flowed on, vanishing from the notch, which now lay several dozen yards above the main body of the glacier.
Mitch rolled on his stomach and helped Franco over the top. Tilde stood to one side, perched on the edge as if she knew no fear, perfectly balanced, slender, gorgeous.
She frowned down on Mitch. "We are getting later," she said. "What can you learn in half an hour?"
"We must start back no later than sunset," Franco said to Tilde, then grinned at Mitch. "Not so tough son of a bitch ice, no?"
"Not bad," Mitch said.
"He learns okay," Franco said to Tilde, who lifted her eyes. "You climb ice before?"
"Not like that," Mitch said.
They walked over the frozen creek for a few dozen yards. "Two more climbs," Tilde said. "Franco, you lead."
Mitch looked up through crystalline air over the rim of the notch at the sawtooth horns of higher mountains. He still could not tell where he was. Franco and Tilde preferred him ignorant. They had come at least twenty kilometers since their stay in the big stone Gaststube, with the tea.
Turning, he spotted the orange bivouac, about four kilometers away and hundreds of meters below. It sat just behind a saddle, now in shadow.
The snow seemed very thin. The mountains had just passed through the warmest summer in modern Alpine history, with increased glacier melt, short-term floods in the valleys from heavy rain, and only light snow from past seasons. Global warming was a media cliché now; from where he sat, to his inexpert eye, it seemed all too real. The Alps might be naked in a few decades.
The relative heat and dryness had opened up a route to the old cave, allowing Franco and Tilde to discover a secret tragedy.
Franco announced he was secure, and Mitch inched his way up the last rock face, feeling the gneiss chip and skitter beneath his boots. The stone here was flaky, powdery soft in places; snow had lain over this area for a long time, easily thousands of years.
Franco lent him a hand and together they belayed the rope as Tilde scrambled up behind. She stood on the rim, shielded her eyes against the direct sun, now barely a handspan above the ragged horizon. "Do you know where you are?" she asked Mitch.
Mitch shook his head. "I've never been this high."
"A valley boy," Franco said with a grin.
They stared over a rounded and slick field of ice, the thin finger of a glacier that had once flowed nearly seven miles in several spectacular cascades. Now, along this branch, the flow was lagging. Little new snow fed the glacier's head, higher up. The sun-blazed rock wall above the icy rip of the bergschrund rose several thousand feet straight up, the peak higher than Mitch cared to look.
"There," Tilde said, and pointed to the opposite rocks below an arête. With some effort, Mitch made out a tiny red dot against the shadowed black and gray: a cloth banner Franco had planted on their last trip. They set off over the ice.
The cave, a natural crevice, had a small opening, three feet in diameter, artificially concealed by a low wall of head-size boulders. Tilde took out her digital camera and photographed the opening from several angles, backing up and walking around while Franco pulled down the wall and Mitch surveyed the entrance.
"How far back?" Mitch asked when Tilde rejoined them.
"Ten meters," Franco said. "Very cold back there, better than a freezer."
"But not for long," Tilde said. "I think this is the first year this area has been so open. Next summer, it could get above freezing. A warm wind could get back in there." She made a face and pinched her nose.
Mitch unslung his pack and rummaged for the electric torches, the box of hobby knives, vinyl gloves, all he could find in the stores down in the town. He dropped these into a small plastic bag, sealed the bag, slipped it into his coat pocket, and looked between Franco and Tilde.
"Well?" he said.
"Go," Tilde said, making a pushing motion with her hands. She smiled generously.
He stooped, got on his hands and knees, and entered the cave first. Franco came a few seconds later, and Tilde just behind him.
Mitch held the strap of the small torch in his teeth, pushing and squeezing forward six or eight inches at a time. Ice and fine powdered snow formed a thin blanket on the floor of the cave. The walls were smooth and rose to a tight wedge near the ceiling. He would not be able to even crouch here. Franco called forward, "It will get wider."
"A cozy little hole," Tilde said, her voice hollow.
The air smelled neutral, empty. Cold, well below zero. The rock sucked away his heat even through the insulated jacket and snow pants. He passed over a vein of ice, milky against the black rock, and scraped it with his fingers. Solid. The snow and ice must have packed in at least this far when the cave was covered. Just beyond the ice vein, the cave began to slant upward, and he felt a faint puff of air from another wedge in the rock recently cleared of ice.
Mitch felt a little queasy, not at the thought of what he was about to see, but at the unorthodox and even criminal character of this investigation. The slightest wrong move, any breath of this getting out, news of his not going through the proper channels and making sure everything was legitimate ...
Mitch had gotten in trouble with institutions before. He had lost his job at the Hayer Museum in Seattle less than six months before, but that had been a political thing, ridiculous and unfair.
Until now, he had never slighted Dame Science herself.
He had argued with Franco and Tilde back in the hotel in Salzburg for hours, but they had refused to budge. If he had not decided to go with them, they would have taken somebody else--Tilde had suggested perhaps an unemployed medical student she had once dated. Tilde had a wide selection of ex-boyfriends, it seemed, all of them much less qualified and far less scrupulous than Mitch.
Whatever Tilde's motives or moral character, Mitch was not the type to turn her down, then turn them in; everybody has his limits, his boundary in the social wilderness. Mitch's boundary began at the prospect of getting ex-girlfriends in trouble with the Austrian police.
Franco plucked a crampon on the sole of Mitch's boot. "Problem?" he asked.
"No problem," Mitch replied, and grunted forward another six inches.
A sudden oblong of light formed in one eye, like a large out-of-focus moon. His body seemed to balloon in size. He swallowed hard. "Shit," he muttered, hoping that didn't mean what he thought it meant. The oblong faded. His body returned to normal.
Here, the cave constricted to a narrow throat, less than a foot high and twenty-one or twenty-two inches wide. Angling his head sideways, he grabbed hold of a crack just beyond the throat and shinnied through. His coat caught and he heard a tearing sound as he strained to unhook and slip past.
"That's the bad part," Franco said. "I can barely make it."
"Why did you go this far?" Mitch asked, gathering his courage in the broader but still dark and cramped space beyond.
"Because it was here, no?" Tilde said, voice like the call of a distant bird. "I dared Franco. He dared me." She laughed and the tinkling echoed in the gloom beyond. Mitch's neck hair rose. The new Iceman was laughing with them, perhaps at them. He was dead already. He had nothing to worry about, plenty to be amused about, that so many people would make themselves miserable to see his mortal remains.
"How long since you last came here?" Mitch asked. He wondered why he hadn't asked before. Perhaps until now he hadn't really believed. They had come this far, no sign of pulling a joke on him, something he doubted Tilde was constitutionally capable of anyway.
"A week, eight days," Franco said. The passage was wide enough that Franco could push himself up beside Mitch's legs, and Mitch could shine the torch back into his face. Franco gave him a toothy Mediterranean smile.
Mitch looked forward. He could see something ahead, dark, like a small pile of ashes.
"We are close?" Tilde asked. "Mitch, first it is just a foot."
Mitch tried to parse this sentence. Tilde spoke pure metric. A "foot," he realized, was not distance, it was an appendage. "I don't see it yet."
"There are ashes first," Franco said. "That may be it." He pointed to the small black pile. Mitch could feel the air falling slowly just in front of him, flowing along his sides, leaving the rear of the cave undisturbed.
He moved forward with reverent slowness, inspecting everything. Any slightest bit of evidence that might have survived an earlier entry--chips of stone, pieces of twig or wood, markings on the walls ...
Nothing. He got on his hands and knees with a great sense of relief and crawled forward. Franco became impatient.
"It is right ahead," Franco said, tapping his crampon again.
"Damn it, I'm taking this real slow, not to miss anything, you know?" Mitch said. He restrained an urge to kick out like a mule.
"All right," Franco said amiably.
Mitch could see around the curve. The floor flattened slightly. He smelled something grassy, salty, like fresh fish. His neck hair rose again, and a mist formed over his eyes. Ancient sympathies.
"I see it," he said. A foot pushed out beyond a ledge, curled up on itself--small, really, like a child's, very wrinkled and dark brown, almost black. The cave opened up at that point and there were scraps of dried and blackened fiber spread on the floor--grass, perhaps. Reeds. Ötzi, the original Iceman, had worn a reed cape over his head.
"My God," Mitch said. Another white oblong in his eye, slowly fading, and a whisper of pain in his temple.
"It's bigger up there," Tilde called. "We can all fit and not disturb them."
"Them?" Mitch asked, shining his light back between his legs.
Franco smiled, framed by Mitch's knees. "The real surprise," Franco said. "There are two."