As they reached the crest of a peak with a chill wind greeting them, they looked down into the small valley, 60 metres below and all saw what they had sought. The leader of the expedition continued onwards, downwards, and the rest followed.
In the Dokriani glacier, in the eastern Himalayan mountains, the expedition of eight made their way towards what was a large gaping maw of a cave.
They trekked just over a hundred metres across the jagged ice and stony ground until the expedition leader, Andrew Rouse turned and held a hand up.
"Ok, here we are, at this cave. At this cave without even a name. As we scheduled, four of you will camp overnight inside, if it's possible to do so, and at exactly 8am we will all need to regroup outside, where we make towards the Jaonli peak, and if the weather allows us, we should be there by nightfall. In two hours from now, it will be dark, so the four of us will pitch here". Andrew turned and looked into the cave, forty metres away, seeing only darkness.
It was a privately guided expedition initiated by a tour company who sometimes allowed paying members of the public to join scientific researches for a fee. In this case there was room only for two. Misha and Yan, one year married from Poland.
The expedition was primarily to find and trek areas of the mountains that had never had human contact, never had a human footprint in the snow, and along the way, for three members, Dhanjay Regimi from Bangladesh, Gregory Childes from Connecticut USA, and E.J from New Zealand, conduct research into the potential effects of global warming. Could more evidence be found that linked climate change with the actions of humans? Although they each had separate aspects of it to study.
There were two Tibetan guides, Sonam Gyal and Kalsang who both knew the mountain terrain well and knew where the places where that had not had human contact, and as they had headed deeper into the mountains they knew they could make a slight detour and visit this particular cave that had garnered rather a reputation in the locals, so much so that they advised against going in there. It was a place to avoid, and although it was fairly well known in the myths and legends of the Himalayas, it was certainly not as well known as the Yeti, but those that knew of it, were curious and fearful of a cave, where it is said, and certainly believed by the locals, that if you enter it, you never come out.
Nobody who has ever walked in, has came out. No-one. This was the folklore that dated back since the birth of the mountains, before the Yeti took up residence, and the two guides had already strictly stated that they would not enter. The team could enter if they wished. The team could do what they liked, but the guides were not entering as they believed in it. The others though, were more sceptical, some having only scientific minds that stated simply: 'Show me the evidence'. Everything was evidence based with many scientists who could not think outside the box, because to them, the box was all there was, and was closed.
Sonam, Kalsang, Andrew, and E.J, nobody knew what the initials stood for, he was never asked and never said, all put down their gear. Gregory walked across to Andrew:
"Ok, we'll see you in the morning, 8am sharp".
"Yes," said Andrew, "If you come out," he said with a smile. "If the Yeti hasn't dined out on you". Gregory nodded and smiled.
"Alright then, see you in the morning". He, Dhanjay, Misha and Yan, all began to trek towards the cave, and as they reached the mouth, they each turned and gave a little wave to the others, who waved back, before they walked without hesitation, without fear, into the gaping maw of the nameless cave.
A bird circled somewhere high above, and flew beyond a mountain peak.
The light from outside did not penetrate far, and they all found themselves putting on their torches. It was damp, and the stony ground sloped slowly downwards until it opened out into a spacious area after around 80 metres where dripping water reverberated every few seconds. This was where the cave ended, and they could see that the ground was dry, flat and spacious enough for them to set up camp.
"Ok," said Dhanjay, "I'll light a fire",
"I'll collect some samples before I set up my tent" said Gregory, setting down his rucksack and retrieving several test-tubes. Yan and Misha did not hesitate to start setting up camp. Dhanjay had prepared for an occasion such as this by coating cotton balls and paraffin-waxed lint in vaseline and forming them into kindling, and with a box of dry matches, he struck one and a small fire created a warm glow.
It wasn't long before the four of them were sitting around the fire, each of them with thier own camping gas stoves, heating thier high energy foods, their chilli con carne with rice, and porridge with blueberries.
After around five minutes, it was Dhanjay that broke the ambience.
"So," he said to Misha and Yan. "Where did you both meet?" It was clear by the look on Yan's face that he didn't quite understand what he'd said.
"Where. Did you both. Meet?" he asked again.
"Fairground," put in Misha, "We met at fairground. He was on rollercoaster, and came off terrified. I gave him hug and that was that". The others smiled, and Yan just sipped his juice.
"Terrified," said Dhanjay, "I remember being scared a couple of years ago when I was studying the effects of melting ice up in the Arctic and whether it could have been man-made. I was in a little world of my own, sat on the edge of a large ice floe, trying to type my notes on the laptop I had at the time. Primative thing really. Battery kept falling out, but then a shadow fell over me. I knew it couldn't have been the others I was there with. They were about three miles away. I was out there alone, so I looked around, and it was two, yes two, polar bears sniffing around and pacing back and forth knowing fully well they could eat me if they wished. I was trapped. Behind me was freezing water so even if I jumped in they could have came in after me. I froze. There was absolutely nothing I could do, and if there was, then I didn't know what it was. They paced around for a few minutes, looking at me, then one of them decided to turn and just slink away, and the other followed. I guessed they must have recently eaten or I wouldn't be here telling you. I've never fell fear like it".
Silence descended for a few moments, then he looked at Gregory and asked:
"What about you? Have you ever been scared?" Gregory said nothing for a few seconds, just sipped his tea, then said:
"Yes. Fifteen years ago in the Phillipines. I remember it clearly. I was two years into my job as a mental health specialist. I, and several others were being driven up through the Cagayan valley to a place called Aparri, where I was to meet with a volunteer medical team who I was to work with for a few months. It was a long journey on no actual proper roads, just tracks and pathways, but it was a well worn route, and we got within a few miles of where we were heading, a track cutting through valleys and hills when ahead of us there was a checkpoint. Not an official checkpoint as I later learned. It happens quite a lot. Members of a local milita group would have a barrier to stop vehicles and they would make a show of things by asking to see papers, passports, whatever, make us drop our guards and then rob the truck. I saw a mini-bus further up off the track, riddled with bullet-holes. I dread to think what was inside. Anyway, our driver got out and spoke to the leader of this group, about twelve of them, with their black berets on, their bullet-proof vests, and their rifles which I could tell they were itching to use. The exchange got heated though. The driver handed the leader something, probably a bribe to allow us through, but the leader wasn't satisfied, and they argued for several minutes, shouting, waving their arms around, and while this was going on, some of the others circled around our truck, one of them looking at me, pointing his gun. Even if it hadn't have been loaded, having a gun pointed at you is terrifying, but he just continued circling, waiting for the order. The driver eventually got back in the truck and the leader gesticualted to the soldier by the barrier who raised it and we drove through. For the rest of the journey, the driver, red faced with anger just continued to talk, or complain to his colleague in the seat beside him in their language. After that, it was fine".
There was silence for a few seconds, and Yan simply said, rather sheepishly:
"There's me scared of rollercoasters,".
Outside the cave, snow, pushed on a light breeze fell over the other camp. The two tibetan guides kept themselves to themselves, conversing quietly in their language. E.J also wasn't the talking type, and spent most of the night on his laptop, leaving Andrew to go for a wander in what little daylight was left. He didn't go far, always within sight of the camp. He came to the crest of a small slope, looking at the vista before him, what he was allowed to see through the fading light and drifting snow. He was tempted to go further, but decided against it and headed back to camp.
E.J was still outside his tent on his laptop, eating an oatmeal raisin energy bar and tapping on the keyboard. Andrew noticed that he was playing a game. A game that looked like it involved bubbles.
"Having fun?" Andrew asked. E.J looked up.
"This game," he said. "It's addictive. I can't get past level 53".
"Oh, right, well don't let me stop you," Andrew said, smiling and crossing back to his tent to make up a cup of instant vegetable soup.
The sky gradually darkened as night-time crept slowly upon them, and soon there were only minimal ambient sounds. Flakes of snow drifted lazily, unseen in the blackness, and everybody slept, cocooned in their sleeping bags from the icyness outside, the below zero temperatures and the mountains which greeted no-one, a place, much like the surface of planets where mankind had no environment to stake a claim, or below the oceans and seas, and polar ice caps where nature did not allow people to live. They were effectively told that they could visit, but they could not stay. Humans had no place there. They were tenants on the parts of the Earth where nature allowed them to be.
When dawn broke, the darkness gradually faded across the Himalayas, and birds and goats and insects were already awake and active as though they had not slept at all.
Inside the cave it was still as black as pitch, and it was Yan who was first up. There was silence from the other tents and as he waited for water to boil he slowly walked around the cave with his powerful torch. It was fairly circular but not very big. Probably around forty metres in circumference. The walls were wet from the snow outside soaking through the rocks and soil, and above, there were stalagtites of varying lengths.
After a few minutes, he was sat back in front of his tent, soon to be joined by the others.
Andrew's watch read 07.10am. That was enough time for them to have breakfast and get ready for 8am when the others came out of the cave and they could continue their expedition, although there was no real rush, they didn't have to set off at eight, but Andrew liked to keep things to a timetable. He liked order, and felt sure that by at least 08.15, they would all be heading unto the unknown.
At 7.30am, everybody in both camps was up and having breakfast. There was no fire in the cave, but everyone had angled their torches inwards so they had plenty of light.
"So we're expected at eight sharp," said Yan.
"Yes," said Gregory, "We need to head towards Jaonli peak, then to the east from there it's on into uncharted territory".
"Let's leave it a few minutes after eight, so they may think the myth of the cave is real. 'They never emerged'. Let's see if one of them comes in to see where we are". Gregory drank the last of his juice and shook his head.
"No, we stick to the schedule". Yan nodded reluctantly, and carried on munching his energy bar.
"Five minutes," he added, "We all need to be ready to go".
In the camp outside, Sonam and Kalsang were slower in gathering their belongings together. Andrew and E.J were stood twenty metres outside of the cave, ready. Andrew looked at his watch: 07.59am. The guides trudged across to join them, and they all stood looking into the cave, into it's darkness, into its welcoming maw.
Andrew's digital watch struck 08:00am.
The group inside the cave had gathered their belongings, and were ready to leave. With their torches still on, Gregory led the way out, along the tunnel. It wasn't long before the light from outside meant that they could switch the torches off.
"So here we are then," said Dhanjay, "About to leave the cave where nobody has left. Maybe we are the first. Well maybe nobody's really known about it. We might have been the first ones to enter it". They all put their torches away and continued to trudge to the entrance, and before they left it's cover, it was Misha who noticed it first. So much so, she halted.
The others emerged from the cave, noticing it also. Misha slowly joined them, and they all stood there in the snow, outside the cave.
"Where is everyone?" asked Misha. "Where are the others?". The others were nowhere to be seen. There was no disturbances in the snow, no footprints, no evidence of them having ever been there.
08:02am, said Andrew's watch as he still stood outside the cave, waiting. "Few more minutes then I'll go in" said E.J. Andrew nodded.
A few more minutes came, and a few more minutes went, and Kalsang said, with a fearful look at Andrew. "See, it's true".
"A bit more time" said E.J.
Fifteen minutes passed and the guides were muttering to each other, and Andrew could tell they were scared. It was clear E.J had changed his mind about going in. He paced around, looking at his watch.
"Where are they?" he asked Andrew as if he knew. Another five minutes passed, and Andrew took out his mobile phone.
"Let's all use our phones to ring all of them," he said, and they set about doing so, but none of them could get through, as if the phone signal couldn't find the other phone to ring.
"Nothing, not a thing" Andrew said, looking at the phone as if he'd never seen it before. The others tried and tried, but got through to no-one. They put the phones away.
"They're not coming out," said Sonam, and Andrew could see the fear on his face and he realised, he may be right, that the myth was real. E.J had his gloved hands on his face, looking at the cave through his fingers. He slowly shook his head.
"Yes, they're not coming out. They're not coming out". The scared mutterings of the guides grew more frantic, and Andrew nodded.
"Ok", he said "This expedition is over. Let's get back to base-camp". He turned and walked quickly away, followed by the guides, followed by E.J, and none of them looked back before they rounded a corner, out of sight of the nameless cave.
Andrew, Misha, Dhanjay and Yan, slowly walked in the snow, looking at the Himalayan mountains around them, searching for the others. They had tried their mobile phones and had got through to nothing.
Everything looked the same as it did before they went in. The mountains still looked formidable and welcoming.
"I think we should head back", said Gregory, "Back to base camp, maybe they are there". They all agreed and headed away in that direction, but noticing a rocky pathway that wound back out of the valley, curving around a mountainside.
"Was that there before?" said Dhanjay. "Could we have come from that way?"
"I didn't notice it," said Gregory. "It goes the way we would have been going anyway. Let's try it".
The sky was a clear blue and a few birds circled above. The temperature was slightly higher than the previous day, and there was barely a breeze. No snowflakes drifted by, and there was quiet save for the crunching stones beneath their feet as they walked along the path, and before they walked out of sight of the cave, it was Misha who looked back at it, back at the gateway, the door, the portal to a parallel Earth.