Thursday, July 7, through Monday, July 11, 2005
The supply-drop soon after dawn worked like they’d planned…mostly. The initial release was from high over Afghani territory, then, by riding southerly winds and using the drop package’s remote-controlled guidance fins, it was sent into Tajikistan toward his position. But like a golfer whose slightly too strong iron shot is online with the hole, but overshoots the flag, Meese’s package landed against the side of the mountain a couple hundred feet above his head, then started sliding down. But the mountain was smiling on him as the still attached chute dragged on the rocks and slowed its descent, so it came to rest on the ledge only a few feet away.
It took the better part of two hours to unpack the supplies and empty his backpack, then, like a minimalist hiker, sort through everything and ruthlessly jettison lots of gear non- essential for survival. The resulting load was close to sixty pounds but would diminish steadily as he consumed his food supplies. The discarded gear, the drop package and parachute were piled next to the mountainside and covered with rocks.
He scrambled across the wide rockslide covering the trail below his former hide at around ten o’clock. He’d been right, although treacherous, it was passable by a man, even one carrying a heavy pack.
Irwin had advised him to stay on the trail for a couple of miles past its turn to the north, then to follow a crevice angling up to the right. At the top of the crevice Meese would find a narrow footpath going east along the north shoulder of the first mountain… He made it sound easy.
Thursday, day one, was… He made fast time along the trail, arriving at the crevice in late afternoon; except the ascent up the crack was steeper than expected and he didn’t reach the foot path until almost sundown. But by the end of the day he’d covered twelve miles into the forty-five-mile trek – a good start.
The second day, Friday, was also relatively easy. The footpath wandered here and there, to say nothing of up and down, skirting around obstacles like canyons or rock outcroppings, but he again made good time, covering another six miles by sundown.
The only sign of human beings, other than those who had made the path over the centuries, was the contrail of a high-level jet moving northeast to southwest. There were no commercial jet routes he knew of over this remote part of the world, and the long contrail meant the plane was well above the height at which commercial jets usually fly. It had to be a spy bird, but whose, ours or theirs? To be safe, Meese hunkered down among some rocks for nearly an hour until it passed.
Saturday, day three, was when things started to, uh, become difficult… The footpath began to climb – not technical climbing, like with ropes and pitons – but steep switchback after switchback, ascending to a pass taking him around to the south shoulder of the next mountain. He found the combination of the severe angle of the climb, the still heavy pack and the thin oxygen – he was, after all, well above thirteen-thousand feet – punishing and had to take frequent rest breaks. He crested the pass in the late afternoon.
Although tempted to push on, he knew he was tired and not paying attention, a risky combination on the side of an unfamiliar mountain, so took the time to eat an MRE and rest for the night. While he’d probably hiked more than five miles and climbed a couple of thousand vertical feet, as the crow flies, he’d only actually covered a little over two miles. But he was close to the half-way mark to Lake Zorkul and still had five days to go…piece of cake.
Perhaps this new mountain wasn’t so friendly, though, because on Sunday morning he’d covered not even a mile when there were voices and laughter; young voices, casual and relaxed, definitely not soldiers or smugglers trying to be furtive.
He climbed up among the rocks and found a clear view of what was ahead; six young twenty-somethings, four guys and two girls, had set-up four colorful tents in a small clearing alongside the footpath. They were all speaking English, but with a variety of accents – a couple of Americans, a German and Swedes or Norwegians were identifiable. They were gathered in a loose circle around a pair of small stoves making breakfast.
Jesus Christ, backpackers. Where the hell do they think they are, on the Appalachian Trail? This is the middle of a fucking war zone, Meese thought, miffed and frustrated.
Except he understood as far as these young adventurers were concerned, “the war” was hundreds of miles to the west, somewhere over in Afghanistan. Listening to their conversation, he learned they were on a summer break from school; they had started at the Lake Zorkul Nature Preserve four days ago and were headed west but planned to lay-up where they were for the day, continuing tomorrow morning.
Shit! I gotta find a way around.
Except there wasn’t one. The clearing where they had camped was surrounded on three sides by a steep rock face that, while negotiable, meant he would be completely visible to the hikers. He thought about just walking up to the camp, introducing himself and passing through, but he was carrying a gun and wearing clearly military gear. Stealth and evasion…
So, he found a slightly better hide a half-mile back along the path and hunkered down to wait for them to pass, the fourth day a complete loss.
But they’d made it here in four days from the lake, he told himself, so the eight-day goal was still doable. Calling in his progress, he didn’t tell Irwin about the hikers, a little afraid the spook might just order him to go shoot ‘em and move on.
At least the group was true to their word; they were up at dawn on Monday and had packed-up and were on their way in less than half an hour. He waited another thirty minutes for them to pass before leaving the hide and starting east; his fifth day.
Next: The nightmare converse of a powder-fine Florida beach
© 2019 Dave Lager