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obtained. But still, at the back of my mind, the question of altitude remained; surely we were still far too low. And, indeed, the altimeter reading confirmed that we were.

t empers f r ay Now, as we approached the valley end, what had seemed to be a flat, grey approach path refocused into jumbled layers of moraine and boulders. The base of the glacier had disappeared behind hills of shale and other stone, and the route to our goal was no longer clear.

It was naive to have imagined that the ice cave would relinquish its secrets so easily. The route ahead now looked difficult;

there was no access to the south of the river, as the valley side was black, precipitous rock, leading only to the upper part of the glacier. The one apparently simple route was to go straight up the northwest bank, above the moraine jungle. There seemed to be a plateau 100 metres or so above the valley, which we could use to approach the glacier from the north and then come down into the face of it from above. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether or not we would then be met by further barriers, as yet invisible. It was now close to 4pm – too late in the day to be attempting something of this uncertainty, and at this altitude.

Nadir made what seemed to have been his first independent decision en route and took himself, and his black stallion, straight up the hill. We tried to follow. Very quickly it became clear that the hill was much steeper than it appeared. The route around the top, although passable, looked less promising than expected. It led to a point well above the bottom of the glacier, with no obvious route down again.

A fierce, pointless exchange between Nadir and me resulted in a standoff between his stallion and two of the mares high on the hill. Tempers frayed. I had premonitions of being so near and yet failing at the last moment. I abandoned my horse and started down the cliff side, telling Nadir and Sheffi to do the same, and to send the horses back with one of the horsemen.

This expanse of glacial moraine was fearsome. There were boulders up to five metres high piled up everywhere and no obvious path through. Climbing over and around these smooth, slippery boulders became increasingly awkward. We were tired, irritable and in a hurry: a certain recipe for injury.

Then we ran into two streams rushing between the boulders. They were strong and cold, even for the Wakhjir, but not impassable in width and depth; the problem was finding a place to cross. We contemplated trying to skirt the rivers and cross higher up, but decided against this, as we didn’t know how far we would have to go.

It took an hour to deal with the problem, by creating manbridges and swinging each other across, leaving the more agile Sheffi to last. The boulder clamber continued.

coal sm i l e Our precious time was draining away. I could see Anthony, now some 100 metres ahead; he had taken a better route. He was also fitter than me. Dillon was between us. We couldn’t see the glacier; the view was blocked by hills of loose shale moraine the size of double-decker buses and as secure as quicksand. It was difficult to see how hills so high could have been created by the glacier unless its base had been moving backwards. The slate dunes absorbed feet and legs in plunging steps that advanced only inches a time.

Sheffi had got ahead of all of us and was valiantly cresting the first of the hills, from where I hoped he would give a wave of success, an indication that he could see the glacier base. Instead, he merely glanced back and then scrambled over the top, and then down, presumably to tackle the next one. I was fighting for air and strength, and, not for the first time, conscious of a little extra weight around the middle, despite what I must have lost in recent days.

Anthony was ahead again, and higher, trying to reach the top of the same hill Sheffi had climbed. Then Sheffi reappeared; this time he was waving enthusiastically at us. Almost reluctantly, I set off up the shale again. The view ahead had been reduced to two remaining hills, but beyond that and below was churning water, indistinguishable in colour from its grey shale channels. Beyond that was a black ice wall, and then, finally, a revelation: the ice cave, still some distance off. It was much smaller than I had imagined – the entrance wasn’t even a metre high, no more than a coal smile cracked into the mountainside – but flooding out from under the black ice came the river. Surely this, at last, was it.

navel of the mountain We were still 40 or so metres above. I was happy, but I hadn’t actually managed to get down to see into the cave. At that moment, I couldn’t face the extra effort of the climb there and back. It was a distance that at low altitude would have posed no problem, but here I was using most of my energy just breathing.

Dillon, thank goodness, had other ideas, and set off without a word down the shale. Anthony followed, and after a deep breath or two, so did I. Only a few minutes later, Dillon was down at the river’s edge and looking excitedly to his left. When I struggled down to where he was standing, I could see why. It was then clear that the bulk of the water wasn’t coming from the small black cave; indeed, the black cave wasn’t what we thought it was. Instead, hitherto hidden behind the moraine was something much bigger and much more impressive; something almost frightening.

Here was a white wall, sheer for 20 metres, then sloping off up the mountain. At its base, a hole opened up, shaped like an upturned cauldron, maybe ten metres wide and almost as high. And from it came not a stream or a trickle but a deep, wide gush, flowing as if from the belly of the mountain itself.

46 january 2011

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