Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
Morning came, slow and dreary. There wasn’t so much a sunrise as a faint brightening of the tent fabric. Christopher had given up on sleeping, but he thought it would still be best to wait in the tent until morning and whatever warmth it brought. As soon as he opened the tent, his trapped body heat would be lost.
He had time to think and assess his situation. One of the poles that crossed the tent roof had bent significantly. He would have to see if he could bend it back into reasonable shape, but it would be permanently weakened. He also realized that he should not have completely closed the zippered mesh vents at the front door and along the walls. The tent had been keeping him warm enough. He could afford to lose a little heat, and he suspected it was the lack of circulating air that had caused condensation to accumulate: that and the snow that had gotten in and melted.
He had two sleep pads. The bottom one would be wet no matter what he did now. The top one was relatively dry, so he carefully rolled it up and put it back into its bag. He put it into his pack and put the pack in a corner of the tent that was slightly elevated and dry. When he was as prepared as he could be for morning, he sat and planned what he would do when the sun was up. Mostly, there was nothing to do but wait.
When he exited, there was no way to keep out the snow. It was still coming down, although it seemed to have slackened. He guessed there had been at least six inches of accumulation overnight. The real problem, though, was the piles that sloughed off the branches above, and the wind-blown drift that had nearly buried one side of the tent.
Christopher changed into dry clothes and suited up before exiting. All the wet things went into the second sleep mat bag, loosely tied and strapped to the outside of his pack. They would likely freeze, but he could thaw and hopefully dry them by the fire once he was out of the blizzard. With the ground covered in inches of heavy, wet snow, it didn’t seem worth trying to start a fire. He ate a breakfast jerky bar, strapped on his snow shoes and began hiking.
It was immediately clear that his pace would be much slower. The snowshoes helped, but it was still more effort for less distance. The cloud cover and falling snow made for poor visibility as well. He continued to pause regularly to tie ribbons on the trees and drink, but navigation was much more difficult. He had to rely on his compass.
“The safest thing to do would be to go back,” he mumbled to himself. “Of course, the safest thing to do was to not go out in the first place.”
There was always going to be an element of risk. He knew he couldn’t expect the weather to cooperate. Knew that the world around him was inching over the edge of autumn and into winter. The only question was how much risk he thought he was in, and how much he was willing to tolerate. Going back in the face of the snow felt like giving up at the first sign of difficulty. He wasn’t sure how often it snowed in Alaska, but he assumed it was at least as much as it had back home in Minnesota, and probably much more.
He had enough food to travel for at least one more day and still be able to get back to the bunker. He had a good amount of water, and the means for melting more. Hell, he could suck on snow if he had to.
He realized what was really bothering him was his destination, or lack of one. He hoped, desperately hoped, that there was something at the dot on the map. But what did he even hope for? Some park ranger station? Another mystery compound like the bunker he had just come from? What would that even tell him, if these places were scattered across a swath of Alaskan wilderness? His best hope was so vague as to be meaningless, and he couldn’t connect the dots into a believable story that ended with him getting home safe.
Still, if he did nothing, then he was even less likely to get anywhere. The risk was still worth it. He had to keep going, to feel as though he had made an effort to save himself. He would still have more opportunities to turn back toward safety.
He hiked on, up the forested miles of gradual incline. He saw nothing but dense pines, occasional boulders, and blowing snow. He existed in a small bubble of forest, contained within murky whiteness. The trees gave him some cover from the sharp wind, although occasional gusts still chilled him. He took care to keep as much skin covered as possible, and took his water and food breaks sheltered against the largest trees, or behind rocks and escarpments when he could find them.
He continued his careful strategy of frequent breaks with food and water, and still tied ribbons on branches as he went. Now though, the ribbons were lost in the snow after only a dozen paces, and he kept his mittens on against the wind, which made tying them that much harder.
The ground began to level out, and he wondered if he was finally coming out of the forested area he had seen from the cliff. He wasn’t sure whether he should hope for more forest, and the protection that it offered, or for open spaces where he might get his bearings if only the wind and snow would let up.
He came to a clearing, or at least a less dense patch of forest. There was a bowl-like depression with a hill next to it, almost as though some giant had dug out a huge scoop of earth and plopped it, upside down, nearby. Between the depression and the hill was a tight cluster of thick birch trunks. They were rooted so close together, Christopher wondered if they weren’t all trunks of the same tree. They formed a perfect sort of semi-circle to protect him from the wind.
He walked around the perimeter of the depression and approached the cluster with his back to the wind. It did, in fact, have a large drift piled against one side, while the other was so protected that there was scarcely more than a dusting of snow. Within the half-circle was a nest of browned leaves and other forest detritus.
There was also a series of faint depressions in the light snow, leading out from the shelter. Two rows, alternating, fading as they went into the deeper, more windblown snow. Footprints. Human-sized footprints.
Christopher approached slowly, almost creeping, as though he might scare them away. He crouched and examined them. They weren’t clearly footprints. They had no pattern like he would expect from ordinary boots, but they might have been made by something smooth, like a moccasin. He wondered if it would even be possible to make moccasins that were warm enough to protect feet in this kind of weather. He supposed there were native people in Alaska who must have been able to do it. Maybe the footprints were made by boots like his own, and they had just been subjected to enough blowing snow to be partly filled in.
He tried scooping out the snow to look at the ground underneath. There were no natural features below to explain the sequence of divots. The size, the shape, the spacing—they all fit human footprints. Somewhat smaller than his own feet.
He looked around, staring into the blowing snow, looking for shadows out beyond where the visibility faded to shades of white.
“Is somebody out there?” he shouted. The wind and the snow stole away the sound of his voice.
He screamed louder, “Hello? Anyone?”
There was nothing but the wind and the sound-dampening snow.
“Help!” he roared, straining to project his voice. He thought he just might be able to hear a faint echo of his voice from some unseen geography out beyond the veil of snow. No person, no indistinct shadow showed itself. No other voice sounded in the surreal, half-visible forest.