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Under the Ice

by Clouise 

Posted: 28 August 2007
Word Count: 5168
Summary: This is a thriller set in New Zealand and takes the reader on a journey into the heart of a New Zealand glacier in search of an answer to the mysterious disappearance of climbers over the decades. Somet

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There’s something down here’¦

Hermitage Hotel
Aoraki/Mount Cook ’“ New Zealand

It was still dark. The moon was a crescent slip, but it still gave enough light to capture the snow covered peaks of the mountains. The stars were suspended shoulder to shoulder as they decorated the black sky. Through the hotel window, Harriet Roseby stared at the silver points of snow and shivered with anticipation and excitement at the thought of climbing into them. Her eyes travelled down past the peaks and into the heavy moon shadows below them, until she could make out the outline of the valley below. On the track, which was a lighter strip in the black and grey night, something moved. Harriet pressed her head onto the glass as she leant forward to try to make it out. She wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her, as she watched the shadowy figure making its way towards the valley of shadows that led up to the mountains. It was four o’clock in the morning, yet someone was walking out there alone. And that track led to only one place. She rubbed her eyes to make sure that she wasn’t still dreaming and when she opened them, expecting the track to be empty, she had one fleeting glace of the figure before it disappeared out of the light of the moon and into the pot of shadows.

She wrapped her silk dressing gown over her shoulders and shivered with a strange feeling in her stomach that was a mixture of nerves and the adrenalin of being awake when her body clock told her she should be in the deepest sleep of the night.

As she was climbing into layer upon layer of coarse, thick, woollen clothing, Harriet laughed at herself in the mirror. She was trying to sound unconcerned, but as she was helped into the heavy layers by her maid, she began to panic. Any trace of shivers had now disappeared and was replaced by a feverish sweat. The fire in the grate, which was so welcome to ease her out of her blankets, was now making her swelter.

Harriet was already late by the time she left her room for breakfast. The rest of the party had almost finished, and a couple were ready to leave the table. Harriet smiled at her husband, Henry, who had risen to greet her.
’˜Sleeping beauty awakes,’ he said, as he kissed her cheek. ’˜I thought you had backed out. I’d quite given up hope of you coming along.’
’˜And miss my only chance of climbing with you?’ she laughed.
’˜Well if you really are serious about coming along,’ Henry smiled, ’˜then you need to fill up with a good breakfast. They’ve plenty of bacon and eggs left, go and fill your plate.’
’˜Henry, do you know of any other climbers doing the peaks today?’
’˜No, why do you ask?’
’˜I just saw someone on the path to the glacier just now.’
’˜Yes, you probably did. Maybe a local who fancied a night walk, or a hunter up for an early dawn shoot.’
’˜Probably,’ Harriet agreed.
She managed to swallow her food, although it felt unnatural to be feeding her body when she felt as if she ought to be asleep. As she tried to eat, the image of the shadowy figure crept into her mind and she felt a stir of unease. She wished she hadn’t looked out of the window at that moment, as now she had an idea in her mind that something was waiting for them in that impenetrable darkness.

’˜Right!’ Henry announced. ’˜Ten minutes gentlemen! We’ll aim to set off in ten minutes. Meet in the foyer.’
There was a scraping of chairs, as the party moved away from the table and trudged back to their bedrooms to make the final preparations. Harriet noticed with a sense of relief that they all had the same ash white face and puffy eyes as she had. She was not the only one who wished herself back in bed.
’˜Come on,’ Henry called. ’˜the mountain is waiting!’

Harriet stared at him in mingled admiration and disbelief. He had a sparkle in his eyes, and colour in his cheeks. She shook her head and laughed, as she made her way back to her room to gather her belongings for the climb to Mount Cook.

The night air was still cold enough to send little clouds of steam out of their mouths as they stood, breathing deeply, tense with excitement, ready to begin. Harriet stamped her boots to get the blood flowing. Even inside her mittens, her fingers were feeling the nip of cold, as she clutched her carved walking stick.
’˜Right, off we go!’ Henry called, and he began to follow the stony path that wove along the edge of the fast flowing stream, which drained the water off the melting ice peaks above.

They followed; luggage carriers, Henry’s friends and Harriet. She was not the only woman in the party, as another wife had elected to join her husband on his climb. Harriet watched with mingled respect and envy as the woman strode confidently at her husband’s side, matching him stride for stride, as they began the ascent. She didn’t even seem to be out of breath when Henry called for the first break, and as Harriet panted to get her breath back, she looked around and realised that everyone else was relaxed, and breathing easily. Harriet instantly held her breath and tried to stop the obvious sign of tiredness.

They had been walking now for almost two hours, Harriet realised as she checked her pocket clock, and other than the initial ten minutes across the valley floor, they had been climbing the whole way. Their path had led them up and around a hillock of debris from an ancient glacier, and now, as the sun gave its first light, the party suddenly stopped, as if controlled by one mind. No one broke the silence, and there was no need to speak. All eyes were lifted to the spectacle in front of them.

In an instant, Harriet’s feeling of unease, and her early tiredness, lifted. The night had been full of stars, and they had breathed its cold, dark air. Then a grey light had seeped in from behind the eastern mountains, until the sun’s face burst out from behind a shadowed peak, and sent an arrow of brilliant light across the valley that struck the summit of Mount Cook. The snow reflected the sun shaft, and blushed a deep pink. It was magnificent, there was no need to marvel in words.

They carried on, winding upwards until they reached a glacial lake, which had chunks of ice still floating, refusing to melt unless the water temperature rose. Grey boulders and rocks were strewn around the edge of the lake, and Harriet gratefully climbed onto one of these, resting her limbs. The other climbers were busy pulling containers of drink from the bags. Henry brought Harriet over an orange and a cup of water.
’˜Beautiful, isn’t it.’ Harriet said. From her perch, she could see the route that they had climbed, and further, to the narrow, flat valley floor. Instead of the thick, lush grass that carpeted the valleys of the Alps, this was almost barren, but where it lacked the beauty of the Alps, this had the mystery of unexplored land. From either side of the flat plains, the rocky slopes of the mountains rose. The instant, unattainable rise of the mountains, jutting so sharply from the valley, heightened its mystery. And through it all a violet blue ribbon twisted until it flowed into the sprawling lake at the end of the valley. Almost too blue, too impossibly coloured to believe.
’˜I’m so pleased that you’ve seen it at its best,’ Henry said, wrapping his arms around her.
’˜I’m so pleased you persuaded me to see it.’
’˜Its worth the effort to get here?’
’˜Without a doubt,’ Harriet replied, and then brushed his cheek with a kiss.
’˜Which one are we climbing to?’ she asked, shielding her eyes against the dazzle of the sun struck white snow.
’˜You see Mount Cook?’ Henry replied, leaning over her shoulder and pointing at the highest peak.
’˜Follow the ridge from the summit down to the left, past that first rocky peak, carry on down until you get to the snow covered point. Got it?’
’˜The one with that triangle of rock beneath it?’
’˜That’s the one.’
’˜Goodness,’ Harriet replied, ’˜it looks a long way up from here.’
’˜Should take us about three hours to reach the base of the final ascent, and then two hours of straight up to finally reach the peak.’
’˜Henry, I’¦’ Harriet had turned to face him. There was a look of bemused fear in her eyes.
’˜I know, I know. I don’t expect you to do the final ascent, half the party will stay there with the bulk of the kit. Jeffers, Edward, myself and one or two others will do the final climb.’
’˜Oh,’ Harriet responded, and then forced a laugh. ’˜Of course.’
She looked up at the summit again, and then felt a bitter pang of disappointment. She had thought that she would be climbing to the summit, a real summit, where snap shots would be taken, where she would marvel and feel as if she were on top of the world. The snapshot would then be proudly displayed to all their friends, and then it would stand as a lasting achievement. But Henry did not think her capable of reaching that summit. Maybe he had decided this morning. Maybe he had realised how futile it would be to take his wife, gasping for breath after the first tiny climb, up to the mountain.
’˜Are you alright?’ Henry asked, lifting her chin gently so she looked at him. ’˜You look angry all of a sudden.’
’˜Angry?’ Harriet forced her voice to be bright, ’˜Darling, what could make me feel angry to be up in the mountains with you?’
’˜That’s alright then. Right, time to move on, I’ll just go and tell them to pack up.’
’˜Henry,’ Harriet called after him, and he turned to listen. She jumped off her rock and ran to him.
’˜Henry, by the way, I was just curious, is Mrs Jeffers climbing to the summit with you?’
’˜Magdalene? Er, yes, I believe she is. You should have a chat with her you know, you two would get on like a house on fire. Very experienced climber is Magdalene.’
’˜That would be lovely, yes, of course I’ll have a chat with her, absolutely smashing.’ Harriet found herself chatting almost wildly to cover up the childish, bitter jealousy she felt. It was ridiculous, after all, to expect to reach the actual summit on her first proper climb.

The beauty that she had initially found in the mountains had now been slightly dimmed. Although she still marvelled at them, they no longer seemed hers anymore. When she had thought she was going to climb into the snow, and stand on the rocky peaks, some how that had made her part of them. Now she was just a tourist. Admiring but not entering, not exploring.

And she had now been forced to smile and make polite comments to Mrs Jeffers, whose long legs marched on, relentless, and who never even broke a sweat. Harriet had already peeled off several layers of her thick clothing, and was still hot. To remove anymore would cause a scandal.

The party reached Henry’s Base Camp earlier that expected, and they allowed themselves a longer midmorning meal. For Harriet, this was as far as she would climb, as far as she was expected to get. As they handed out the portions of pie, and rich fruit cakes, Henry’s friends patted her on the shoulder, and complimented her on her achievement.

The food had an amazingly quick effect. The energy from it poured into her, and a warm rush of elation was washing over her. She had made it this far, and although the first hour or so had tired her, the rest had been no problem what so ever! In fact, now she wanted, she desperately wanted, to continue the climb. It wasn’t for the snapshot anymore. She had already had several of those, which she knew would come out superbly. No. This was for herself, for the trophy cabinet inside her soul.

Above her, the peak that they were aiming for, now seemed tantalisingly close. All she had to do was cross the narrow part of glacier in front of them, zig-zag up that rock face, cross the patch of snow, then another zig-zag up a rock, and they were there. She traced the route with her finger, and it really did not seem too bad at all, and yet she still felt too foolish to ask to accompany the climbing party. They would smile indulgently at her, as they would a child, and then pat her arm and tell her it would be too difficult, that she hadn’t enough experience.

’˜Harriet,’ Henry whispered in her ear, making her jump. ’˜Please don’t look so concerned, it isn’t as dangerous as you may think. We’ve all done these sort of peaks before, and it’s really not that bad.’
’˜I’m not worried about you.’
’˜Oh, right. I see.’ Henry replied, sounding slightly disappointed.
’˜No, no it’s not that Henry, of course I worry about you anyway. No, I was just wondering, well I was thinking, you said it yourself, it’s not that bad.’
’˜What, the climb?’
’˜Yes. I want to come with you.’
’˜Harriet,’ Henry said, with the slight indulgent smile that she had predicted. ’˜When I said it’s not that bad, I meant for a climber who had had experience’¦’
’˜Don’t bother justifying, I know what you’re saying.’ Harriet cut him short, and walked away.
’˜Harriet, please!’ Henry called after her, but she rejoined the group, ignoring his call.

The climbing party, including a smug looking Mrs Jeffers, were saying their farewells to those who were to wait at the base. Although Harriet still felt annoyed at not being allowed to go, she smiled and forced her feelings away. Henry was about to leave her and climb the side of a mountain. She knew that she had to part with genuine love between them, that wasn’t soured by resentment from either side, so she took his hand, smiled, and then allowed him to draw her into a huge bear hug.
’˜I promise to take you next time. I’m sorry.’
’˜So am I .’

Their route took them across the glacier, and from there they would climb diagonally up the rock face to the snow field above them. Henry checked his pocket watch. Although they had made excellent time to the base camp, he now frowned, as he realised that their extended rest had lasted longer that he had thought, and now they would have to keep up a steady pace to reach the summit and be down before the sunset. He wasn’t too concerned about the descent to the Hermitage Hotel, as the path was clear, and they could light lanterns as they needed.

They were now well across the glacier, winding across the narrow ridges of ice. On either side the crevasses opened up, but they were all safely roped together, so even if one did slide, the others would slam their axes into the ice to stop a fall.

Henry was leading the party, choosing his route carefully, when a shout made him stop.
’˜Henry!’ Jeffers shouted.
Henry turned. Now the whole party had stopped, and were all staring across the glacier where they had just been. A dark figure was making its way across, following in their footsteps.
’˜Good God!’ Edward cried. ’˜It’s Harriet. Henry, it’s your wife!’
’˜Excuse me, please,’ Henry shouted, and he shuffled past the others on the narrow ridge. He had to get to her.
’˜Harriet!’ he called at the top of his voice. ’˜Harriet!’
At first he thought that she hadn’t heard, but then he saw her stop, and lift her hand to her face as she peered at him through the glare of the ice. Then she waved, and carried on towards him.
’˜Oh my Good God, please’¦’ Henry muttered to himself, as he released the rope from around his waist and made his way towards her as quickly as he could.
’˜Harriet! Stand still!’

’˜Henry!’ Jeffers had caught his arm. ’˜For God’s sake, tie this around you again!’ Jeffers thrust the rope into Henry’s hand, and, retied to his group, Henry crossed the glacier towards Harriet, who had stopped moving and was waiting for them to reach her.

Now the initial fear had worn off, the anger kicked in.
’˜How could she be so bloody foolish!’ he almost spat out the words.
No one replied, as their thoughts echoed his words. Now the climb would definitely have to be abandoned, as there would not be time to make it safely down from the peak. Frustration boiled in all their disappointed minds.

They were a hundred yards away when Harriet began to walk towards them.
’˜Harriet!’ Henry barked. ’˜Stand still!’
’˜I’m alright,’ she called back.
’˜For God’s sake Harriet! You’ve caused us enough trouble without sliding into a crevasse, so bloody well stand still.’
Even from the distance he was standing, Henry saw the hurt and confusion in Harriet’s eyes.
’˜Henry, I’¦’
’˜What? Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? To stop us climbing, just because I said you needed more experience? Are you happy?’ Henry felt the anger and embarrassment surge out of him. And of course the shame that his wife should follow him onto the glacier, like a lost puppy.
’˜Henry,’ she was crying now. ’˜I just thought I would cross the glacier with you and wait at the bottom of the rock face. I didn’t mean you to stop.’
’˜What? Where’s your rope? Where’s you axe? Where’s your ice boots?’
’˜I thought ’¦’
’˜Don’t bother. In your mind, this was the best way to stop us all.’ Henry turned his back on Harriet. ’˜Mrs Jeffers, gentlemen, I apologise for my wife,’ and turned back to Harriet.
But she had gone.

There was a second of silence, and in that second, the glacier seemed to double in size, and the mountains curve over his head so they almost touched. The silence swelled, and then burst in a hundred voices all yelling at once in his head.
’˜Harriet!’ Henry’s voice was not the only one yelling. He charged forward and slid to his knees on the jagged ice, and looked into the crevasse that his wife had slid into.

The ice curved down into the glacier. It wasn’t an open crevasse, where the bottom was visible, instead, it seemed as if a smooth curve of water had frozen, hiding its depth.

’˜Harriet!’ Henry screamed, leaning far over the drop, as both Jeffers and Edward held his arms to prevent him throwing himself in after her.
’˜Harriet!’ he screamed over and over again.
’˜Henry!’ Edward said, in an urgent whisper. ’˜Listen! I thought I heard something.’

He held his breath, straining to hear his wife’s voice.
’˜There! Did you hear it? It’s Harriet! I heard her!’
’˜Yes! So did I, it was definitely a voice!’

From the ice, Harriet’s cry echoed.
’˜Henry!’ It was faint, but they knew she was within reach.
’˜Harriet, listen carefully.’ Henry’s madness had evaporated, and a confident calm had replaced it. She was alive. The crevasse was not endlessly deep. They would pull her out. ’˜I’m going to lower a rope to you. I want you to tie it tightly around your waist, and then we will pull you out. Did you hear that?’
’˜Yes, yes I heard. I’m alright Henry. I don’t think I’m more than about twenty feet down.’
’˜Ok. Here comes the rope.’
’˜You just need to lower it past that curve of ice that I slipped through. Then it can come straight down. Its like a small cavern in here.’
’˜Did you hurt yourself when you fell?’
’˜No, not badly. A bruise and a scrape, but nothing serious.’

Henry felt a surge of love towards his wife. He could detect the tremor in her voice as she called to him, and he knew the panic that she was controlling. She was claustrophobic, and the thought of being trapped in a confined space terrified her. At least she hadn’t broken a limb, as that would add hours to the rescue operation.

’˜Ok, Harriet, can you see the rope yet?’
’˜No, lower it further. Wait, yes! Yes I can see it! Keep lowering it about another ten feet and then I’ll reach it!’ The adrenalin was making her voice shake.

They fed the rope into the crevasse, and when it was pulled taut, they all cheered. Harriet had grabbed the other end.
’˜Ok then Harriet, now tie it around your waist, and get ready to scramble up the side of the ice as we pull you. Can you do that?’ There was no reply. ’˜Harriet, can you do that? Did you hear me?’
’˜Yes, Henry, I heard, but I think something just moved down here.’
’˜What do you mean?’
’˜A shadow or something, I don’t know, but it looked like a shadow moved.’
’˜Probably some ice falling. Now tie that around your waist and let’s get you out of there.’
There was a short silence, and they felt the rope move.
’˜Ok Henry, I’m ready!’

’˜Right then, let’s pull her out.’
Henry, Jeffers and Edward heaved on the rope, and must have lifted her several feet into the air. Henry reached forward to gain another hand hold on the rope, when the rope suddenly went slack. He fell back onto Jeffers and Edward, knocking both men over.
Then Harriet’s scream seemed to fill their ears.
’˜Christ she must have broken something!’ Henry cried. ’˜Harriet! Are you hurt? Can you tie the rope back around you?’

Henry shouted it again. Still no reply.
’˜Right, I’m going down there.’
’˜Pull the rope back up and we’ll lower you down,’ Edward agreed.

Jeffers was already coiling up the rope, and when he had the pulled up the last section, he knelt onto the ice, and picked up the end of the rope.
’˜Bloody hell,’ he said, holding up the end of the rope for the others to examine.
’˜It looks as if it snapped,’ Edward said.
’˜Impossible. That was a new rope! It could hold the weight of twenty men and still not break.’
’˜Well it must have been faulty, either way, it hardly matters now. At least lets hope it holds me to lower me down there. She must have knocked her head when she fell.’

Henry leaned back over the crevasse, the rope secure around his waist. He took a step back, leaning out over the drop. The rope held. With a little more confidence now, he began to abseil into the glacier. Harriet had said she fell about twenty feet, around the curve and into a small cavern. He wouldn’t be able to walk his way down the whole way, and would have to rely completely on the rope to dangle him down the last part. At least then he would be able to see Harriet, and judge her injury. She still wasn’t replying to his call.

The ice beneath his feet curved away, and although he scrambled for a foot hold, it had curved out of reach.
’˜You’re going to have to lower me down this bit,’ he called up, as they were now out of sight.
Gingerly, he swung away from the ice, expecting to feel the rope snap, and his stomach lurch at any moment as the rope gave way. But still the rope held fast.

Henry was lowered in little jerks, until he swung out over the cavern. Harriet was right, it probably was about a twenty foot fall in total.
’˜Harriet!’ he called for the hundredth time, as he swung himself around on the rope to see the ice floor below him. With an instant relief, he saw that there was no bleeding figure unconscious below him, so she wasn’t knocked out.
’˜Harriet!’ Now he craned his head over his shoulder to look for her. If she wasn’t unconscious then why didn’t she answer?

By the time his feet touched the bottom of the crevasse, he was completely confused. There was no sign of her. She wasn’t holding an injured leg in the corner, nor was she waiting for him to get her. She simply was not there.

He looked up, and tried to work out if by some strange chance, there were two caverns off this curve of ice, and he had been lowered into the wrong one, but no, that was impossible. There was one way down here, because there was one cavern.
So where was she?

Perhaps she had explored the ice cave, so he began to look into the three tunnels that led off the cavern, but then stopped. Harriet was claustrophobic. He knew for certain that she wouldn’t have gone shuffling into one of those narrow passage ways. And she had screamed. Why had she screamed? She couldn’t have fallen more that a couple of feet. A sprained ankle would be the worst injury she might have suffered, so where was she?

’˜Henry?’ Edward called down. ’˜Is she alright?’
He couldn’t reply, his mouth was dry, and he turned in circles, his mind racing, trying to find his wife.
’˜She’s gone.’ Henry’s voice hardly carried out of his mouth.
’˜Henry? Are you alright? What the devil is going on down there?’
’˜She’s gone! She’s not here!’ Now he found his voice and shouted.

They searched, all of them, till the sun set behind the mountains. A rescue team, who were based at the Hermitage for such emergencies, were there to help them. But Henry was right. She was gone.

They wrapped him in a blanket helped him down the mountain. They pushed a large brandy into his shaking hands and seated him in front of an enormous roaring fire. The brandy remained untouched, and the warmth from the fire passed him by. All around people were talking in hushed voices, but snippets of their conversation entered his ears. They thought she had scrambled off to explore an ice tunnel. They thought she had explored too far, slipped, and then fell further into the glacier, too far for them to reach her. They all agreed that it was pointless to search anymore. She would be dead. She was gone.

At first Henry had shouted into their faces, that no, she had not gone into that tunnel. But then they asked him where she had gone, and he had no reply. All he could say, as the grief and disbelief settled into his mind, that the glacier had swallowed her when she fell. For Henry, that was the more likely option than her crawling into that narrow, frozen tunnel.

At first light the next terrible morning, Henry led the search party back into the glacier. In the darkest hours of the night he had pictured her, so clearly, huddled in an ice corner, clutching a bleeding leg, unable to move. He had seen the blood stain the ice around her, and he had seen the terror in her eyes. But he could see that she was still alive. So, at dawn, he had gathered the exhausted, and reluctant search party back together, and begged them to go back for one final, conclusive search. They followed, humouring a despairing husband in his last clutch at hope.

Henry hardly bothered to tie the rope around him in his desperation to get back to the ice cavern. They lowered him down, and as he descended he swung around wildly on the rope, certain that he would recognise a tiny corner of the cavern that somehow they had missed yesterday, and there, unconscious but alive, would be Harriet. But as the rope lowered him to his feet, his knees gave way and he sank to the ice. There was no undiscovered corner. There was no hidden ice cavern. There was no Harriet. Still he crawled around the edge of the cavern, scanning every last section. He crawled deeper into the tunnels, until to go any further he would have to wedge his shoulder through, and even then he tried, but could not fit. Harriet would not be through there, he knew that. She really was gone, and his dream was nothing more that an image.

They found him, eyes open but unseeing. His cheeks were stained with the tracks of the tears, now stopped. They lifted him to his feet, and tied the rope around his waist to hoist him out. Realisation that he was to leave must have entered his shocked mind, because he fought his friends, choosing to stay in the empty cavern that was now the tomb to his vanished wife, than to rise above and face life without her.

Henry buried her memory at a funeral service that was a hollow as the coffin. No-one knew what to say. Already the rumour had fully circulated that he had murdered her and hidden her body. It was a rumour that had taken succour from the empty coffin, and now was growing into a seed of fact in the minds of their acquaintances. Henry hardly cared. Let them lock him away. There he could be alone to wallow in his grief.

But they didn’t lock him away. The police asked him questions, and then the same questions to everyone who was there that day, but the questions stopped and they went away.

Live your life. Carry on. It’s what she would have wanted.
People said the same lines over and over to him, rephrasing the words to try to make it sound new and inspirational. But in the end even they stopped, and went away. The misery and the grief around Henry was almost contagious. The shroud of death hung over him, and it seemed safer to forget him and move on.

The year that she vanished, they held a memorial to her memory. On the rocks to the left of the glacier they set a rough, wooden cross, and a plaque as an epitaph to her memory below.

Five years after her disappearance, Henry climbed back to the cross, alone, and carved his own message into the rock beneath the cross. But his was no epitaph. It was a message to all those who would cross the glacier in the years to come. It was a warning.

Henry then dragged the blade roughly across each wrist, sank back onto the rocks, and stared at the ice below him. He could not live without her. He would not live without her.

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