CHAPTER TWO

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CHAPTER TWO

WHERE AM I?

I had a dream, which was not at all a dream
                                 Lord Byron

I awoke on a patch of dry grass feeling disoriented and dazed, not remembering exactly where I was. And yet, for some reason, I felt more rested than I could ever remember. Curiously it felt as though I had been sleeping for days. Most odd, I thought, considering how I had been climbing since early dawn. I must have really been tired since I couldn't even remember lying down. Now wide awake, I remained supine for some time, looking directly up at the scattered clouds in the blue sky, thinking of all that occurred since leaving home.

My flight from London to Santiago via Buenos Aires was lengthy and exhausting, but nothing compared to my extended excursion in a dilapidated bus with worn seats. For the better part of a day we navigated through the winding and back country roads. At last we arrived at a remote village where I found lodging. The next morning, I left early since I still had at least a day's trek through the valleys to reach the base of this mountain I had randomly chosen to climb. Of course, I had to choose it, simple because the aerial photographs of these sierras seem to indicate it was one of the more formidable peaks in Chile.

Also, from the topographical maps I studied, I suspected it would have spectacular vistas. Since I couldn’t find if it had a name, I thought I’d come up with something creative and then inform the Chilean authorities what they should name it. Mount Phillips had a nice ring. But first I would have to conquer it!

So here I was, ready for the final ascent. I sprung up off the ground to my feet, surprising myself with the ease and lightness with which I arose. It occurred to me again how well I must have slept to have such agility. I could tell I was only a few hours from the summit now, but it appeared there still remained some major challenges ahead, considering the height of precipices that loomed before me.

As I looked around, I thought what a splendid afternoon this had turned out to be. And yet something wasn’t right. What was it? Ah, the sun. It was still in the eastern horizon to my left, indicating it must be morning rather than afternoon. But I thought, that can't be, unless I somehow fell asleep yesterday and all last night. Was I really that tired?

Most curious, I thought, but for now it didn’t matter. Chile's bright, mid-summer sun was exactly what I needed for a winter break to lift the veil of gloom from London's dreary winter rains. The bright azure contained only a few trailing wisps of haze to the east. Everything seemed so alive, so exhilarating – the perfect backdrop for my summit moment. Amazing what this alpine environment, and a good sleep, can do for one's mind and body!

Not long ago I felt hungry, tired and bruised, but now, near the top, I felt like a new man. Apparent there actually is more to life than marking term papers while becoming embroiled in the internecine politics of incompetent administrators jostling for power and influence. Not going to be snogging anyone's scholastic arse anymore, at least not up here. But why even think about it and distract myself from this splendor with such ridiculous twaddle.

Indeed the trip had all been worth the effort, even though I knew I could scarcely afford it. After being in a chronic malaise over the last few years, I wanted to find a new world where I could face down the fears that had been holding me back. Or was it more like a subliminal death-wish I secretly harboured that I may destroy these fears by destroying myself? I hoped not. The problem was I didn’t know why or what I feared. Certainly it wasn’t these heights or anything else that was extreme; it lay much deeper than that. Maybe I would never know. In any case, it seemed I had come here to tempt fate.

Going to these extremes of randomly climbing a mountain in this remote area of the world may not have made much sense to the average person. But I didn’t consider myself an average person. For reasons I still didn’t understand, it seemed I had to try to conquer my fears by proving to myself over and over again that I was invincible. Though I was no longer eighteen, being battered about by Mediterranean storms on an old rickety merchant ship, still I felt compelled to test the limits of my strength and resourcefulness. That’s why I chose to be alone in an isolated mountain where few ventured. As a self-respecting survivalist, I had only minimal equipment.

In my adventures, I always prided myself in being able to stare down death! An analyst once suggested this was a form of psychosis, indicating I was compensating for something hidden deeply within. But I wasn't that interested in hearing what he had to say. What did he know about life sitting in his office all day? Sure I may push the limits, but at least I had calculated the threats, anticipating what to expect and what to do. But this expedition had turned out to be not only the most extreme, but also the most challenging so far.

As an aside, I now know these compulsions were only a ruse to distract myself from the unresolved fears I had hidden away for most of my life. Now I was about to enter into a strange new zone of awakening where everything was about to change where I would be confronted by what had been lurking within. Since I didn’t know myself that well, none of this was understood by me as I stood there in the shadow of the mountain’s summit. Yet it was here now, about to venture towards a new and indescribable Summit in my life.

As I strapped on my backpack to resume my ascent, I thought again about what possibly could have happened. Not only was the sun in the wrong place, but here I was at the bottom of a deep ravine I had already passed through yesterday, or so it seemed. Was I going in circles around the mountain? Hardly! While scrambling up the screed slope before me, I gave no more thought to these peculiarities.

It now became apparent, with my body’s new found strength and dexterity; it may not be long before I would reach the summit. I congratulated myself on having made it this far with only a short rope, a few belay anchors and no climbing companions.

Feeling giddy, I looked up towards the summit to address Zeus, the mythical god I summoned the night of that unfortunate incident at the pub last October, just before having that weird dream. ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici,’[12] I yelled upwards. ‘Time to get your welcoming committee ready Zeus, and be sure to bring plenty of champagne along with your goddesses; we’re going to celebrate!’

After scaling up an escarpment of considerable height, I thought about the shimmering orb thingies I had seen darting around on the summit yesterday. At least, I thought I may have seen something like that. But no, I couldn’t have, I wasn’t here yesterday. Probably I dreamt it -- sometimes when I'm overly exhausted, I get really weird dreams. But even if there was something shining up there, it would probably be nothing more than the sun reflecting off a satellite receiver/transmitter on top of some weather installation.

However, I thought I may prefer it to be something a bit more interesting – say an assembly of charming green aliens perched on the summit ridge, wagering whether I'd make it to the top or not. Probably their craft was equipped with strobe lights that appeared to me as orbs. Who knows, maybe later they’d give me a joy ride around the sierras.

These thoughts amused me as I continued my final upward thrust. But the more I thought about orbs, gods and aliens, the more difficult it became to dismiss any of these possibilities from my mind, making me feel a bit uneasy. What if there really was something up there – then what? Was it possible I had been drawn up here for reasons I hadn’t been aware of; something more than just conquering another mountain?

Suddenly, as I paused on a narrow ridge, flashbacks came to me from that strange dream. Had that been a premonition of what I was now experiencing, I wondered? I could still hear the voice calling to me from somewhere on high, imploring me to join them on a summit. I remembered writing down every detail l could recall, up to where I was stranded on a ledge I couldn’t seem to cross. This was becoming queer! Probably, the most logical reason for these flashbacks was the altitude's rarified air that caused peculiar chemicals to be released into my brain, causing me to have these strange visions from that most indelible dream.

So I thought, just put these quirky thoughts out of your mind James, and begin to think instead of other climbing escapades you’ll make to even higher peaks. I was still a relatively young man, in excellent condition, with plenty of strength and stamina. Maybe I should try K2 next. No, that’s probably a bad idea, with one chance in four you won't come down alive – not good odds. Maybe I'll settle for Everest, like everyone else, but in any case, I really need to do this more often.

Hot damn, I thought, I’m inspired -- like I can do anything! I've scrambled up this slope without even getting knackered, as though it were level ground. I couldn't remember being so energized before. And just look at the view up here; I can hardly wait to get to the summit to find what’s on the other side.

As I continued my rapid ascent, I came to a chasm that looked very familiar – in fact, too familiar! Moments ago I was elated, but now I was confused. Had someone mixed some peyote in the gruel I had a few days ago in the village? I sat down on a ledge for a moment, examining the chasm before me and how I should proceed from here. The longer I sat there, the more I had an impression that someone, or something, was watching me. Much like when you sense you're being stared at, and then you look around and find there actually is someone looking at you.

I wasn't sure what to think, but nevertheless, it felt eerie. In any case, I got up and continued climbing until I was very near the mouth of the chasm just below the summit. Strangely, it seemed I had been here before. But unless I was clairvoyant, I couldn't have been here before. Or had I foreseen this in my dream? It’s too bad I don't believe in such nonsense; it may be helpful in explaining much of what I was experiencing today.

As I was deciding the best way to across the chasm, I noticed there was something moving about on the summit! ‘Well I'll be damned,’ I said aloud, ‘it appears there really is someone up there.’ Not exactly dazzling light orbs that I thought I had seen before, if not in my dream, but it seemed there may be two or three humanoid figures moving about. Or are they just stunted trees swaying in the wind?

Yes, that’s probably it. But if it were my choice, I'd prefer they be sexy mountain nymphs waiting to reward me for my efforts. Or perhaps Zeus’ goddesses; why not make it worthwhile? I was beginning to think anything was possible up here. Maybe it was the altitude, but these fantasies were making me feel giddy, causing me to laugh aloud at myself.

Yet, even in my laughter, I sensed there may be more I was experiencing here than just light headedness. I felt something like an electrical force field wafting about me: very much like the electricity you feel before lightning strikes, raising the hairs on your arms. It seemed I had that same thought yesterday, but I couldn’t be sure. Everything was becoming muddled with my dream from almost three months ago. In fact, there seemed to be a lot of strange déjà vu going on ever since I awoke at the bottom of the canyon ravine.

And then, if all this wasn’t enough, out of nowhere I heard what sounded like a voice calling out to me. Was it coming from the summit or the dissonance of synapses misfiring in my oxygen deprived brain? Lots of people hear voices in their head in abnormal conditions like this. Bloody hell, I thought, now I'm really losing it; maybe I need to get more oxygen before my brain completely decompresses!

Just as I was about to dismiss it as nothing, I heard the voice again. This time it was calling out my name. Now that's really strange, I thought; too strange for words. Maybe it’s some mountain guru that sits on top of mountains giving audience to seekers who climb thousands of metres just to spend a few hours there. That’s about as likely as the gods waiting there all day to celebrate my arrival!

Then I heard it again, this time the voice was so clear it could have been from someone standing directly in front of me. Was it one or many? I couldn’t tell. I sat there stunned for a few minutes, waiting to hear if it would call my name once more. And soon it did, but this time it was a different voice. This one was soft, alluring and ah, so feminine; my exotic mountain nymph and goddess, beckoning me to the Summit. Maybe they’re the same. Why not, anything is possible when you use your imagination. For the ancient Greeks, the gods and goddesses were supposed to have lived on the mountains along with Zeus. I liked that idea, even if it was just a myth.

But whatever was calling my name was more than a myth. It was so real and yet so peculiar. I sense her voice resonating from within my mind, having nothing to do with what my ears hear from without. Normally I'm sceptical about this sort of thing, and yet there it was, I couldn’t deny it. And now, rather than hearing her voice, I saw images imposed on my mind’s eye, showing me a less than obvious approach to the summit.

Since I didn’t have a good feeling about the thin narrow ledge that crossed to the other side of the chasm, I decided to follow this inner prompting I was receiving from somewhere. Without hesitation, I retreated down about twenty yards before veering off to the left where I found a narrow indenture in the precipice. By wedging myself between the narrow sides I was able to straddle and maneuver my way up the fissure towards the summit ridge. It should have been extremely difficult for me to do this, but for some reason it wasn’t.

After struggled for the last few days to make it to this summit, I was finally here on top of the summit ridge that seemed to go a considerable distance. I was exhilarated. I stood a while, taking in the full panoramic view of the majestic ranges all around me. Then I remembered what I had seen below, and wondered if there really was anyone up here as it had appeared. I surveyed the ridge, but I saw no one – likely I had just imagined it all, along with the voices.

Or was it possible they had gone into hiding, lying in wait to pounce on me? I didn’t relish the thought! From my earlier observations this was the general area I thought I had seen something, and yet there were no trees here to explain what I saw. I was surprised how broad and flat it was on the summit, especially towards the western end where the ground seemed to slope gently downwards. The landscape was littered with large boulders and huge slabs of granite protruding out of the ground. There were patches of short alpine meadow grass and moss, along with shrubs and a variety of small but hardy mountain flowers. I decided to make my way along the ridge as it narrowed towards its highest elevation.

I wasn’t exactly sure where the ridge would end before it dropped down the steep precipice. As I continued to walk, I became aware of something in the far distance, not at all appearing to be trees or shrubs. As I drew closer I had the impression these were two distinct beings, with possibly another standing further away in the distance. At first I thought they may be other climbers who had approached the Summit from the other side. I wanted to believe one of them was my nymph, patiently waiting centuries for me to arrive; the one I imagined calling to me when I was below the summit.

Though I’ve never believed in the folklore of elves and fairies, at least since I was a child, I continued to entertain the fantasy -- had she not called out my name and showed me the way forward. In my rational mind I understood such things can only happen in one’s imagination. But as I got close, I could see only two figures. Likely, the third was just an illusion from something further in the distance, making the two appear as three.

I continued my advance warily, one slow step at a time, my eyes riveted on them. They remained standing perfectly still at the end of the highest point of the summit ridge – a bit unnerving and intimidating, to say the least! One had a long coat that was flapping in the wind. Who were they; why weren’t they proceeding to meet me half way? What if I just stood still; then what would happen? Of course, I could walk away in the other direction, but I didn’t want to turn my back and risk being followed, not knowing who or what they were. After about another thirty yards, I was close enough to tell they stood there perfectly motionless as they continued to stare directly towards me. I had an uncomfortable feeling deep in my plexus that they may have been waiting for me for some time.

Was I just imagining it, or did I just hear my name spoken, as if someone was standing right beside me? If so, what other powers might they possess besides this telepathic voodoo? I wondered if they may have had something to do with those glowing orbs I might have seen, if only in my dreams. It seemed there was some really spooky stuff going on up here. Were these two beings in the distance decoys for aliens? But then, where was the ship, hovering invisibly over the summit with their cloaking shields up? Hmm, wonder if they have laser weapons! In my mind I could already hear it: ‘Stun lasers set, ready --- take the earthling.’

Then for whatever reason, in juxtaposition to this, a far different vision suddenly flashed through my mind that reminded me of the Biblical Transfiguration story.[13] Where did that come from? Had the source of the voices projected this image on my consciousness? As befitting any credible philosopher, I’m familiar with most stories and teachings of the major religious traditions. And so, I knew this must have had to do with Christ being transfigured into a dazzling form of light. The incident is said to have occurred somewhere in Palestine on some unknown mountain that is traditionally referred to as The Mount of Transfiguration. So were these two mysterious beings now standing before me Moses and Elijah, about to witness my transfiguration on this Mount, if only metaphorically? That would be most extraordinary!

And wasn't there something in the story about a brilliant cloud shining down on them? Maybe that’s where those blazing light orbs come into this scene. Trouble is; I'm no Christ – not even close. I’m not even religious. Besides, I wasn’t sure what any of this was supposed to mean: trans-figured – but from what to what?

For a few more moments I stood there, my imagination blending science fiction with religious mythology. Then, as I continued to draw closer to them again, more insane thoughts hit me: I think I know these two! But do I? No I don’t. Yet I think I do; but I don’t know why I would think that; I’ve never seen them before. So why do I think I know them when I don’t? Obviously I’m confused. None of this makes sense. Yet I can’t deny there’s something familiar about them, even if I don’t know what it is. Just like when you think you know a stranger from somewhere before, perhaps a prior life; except I didn’t believe in prior lives, or for that matter, any other life than this.

Mixed impressions continued to flood into my mind, though I tried not to allow my imagined fears to get too carried away with me. I stopped once again to see if they would make a move, but they didn’t, remaining fixed in stony silence, as if to unnerve me. I stepped forward again, keeping my eyes firmly fixed upon them with each stride.

Again, I sensed the older one had an eerie presence of someone I may have known in the distant past, but I still couldn’t identify who that may be. It felt most peculiar when my eyes met his. He seemed to have a very serious demeanor, like a Himalayan sage; not that I've ever met any mountain sages before. There was a venerable Moses persona about him, reminding me of the movie scene when he came down from the burning bush on Mount Sinai,[14] except he was wearing old world hiking knickers. His prophetic image seemed accentuated by his thick white hair, extended just above his shoulders. His penetrating blue eyes had a laser focus which seemed to command my respect, even though I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was fear.

His companion appeared much younger, possibly in his early to mid-twenties, yet equally interesting in his own way. I estimated him to be close to six feet tall with an athletic build. He had long blond/brown hair in Rastafarian dreadlocks. This, with his tattered Alpaca coat, reminded me of a young bohemian drifter. Likely my fear and bewilderment was evident as I approached them. In response, he gave me an assuring smile to allay any lingering concerns I may have towards them in this most improbable encounter .

‘Buenos días,’ I said. ‘Good day,’ said the younger, in a cheerful British accent.

‘We've been observing your arduous journey up here,’ said the elder, in a mix of the Queen's English with a subtle underlying Gaelic inflection. ‘We are pleased at long last have you with us. Congratulations on completing this stage of your ascent, James; and welcome to the summit.’

‘I beg your pardon sir, but how do you know my name?’ I said with some alarm. ‘There's no one on God's green earth who could know I'm here.’

‘You're right,’ he said, ‘no one knows, at least not on God's green earth, as you say.’

‘But obviously you do!’

‘Indeed, we do,’ he said.

‘But how?’ I asked, trying to remain composed.

‘May we introduce ourselves?’

‘If you would, that would be most appreciated,’ I said, with a tinge of impertinence in my voice.

‘You may call me Eli,’ said the younger. ‘And if you please, you may call me Mo,’ said the other.

What the bloody hell, I thought to myself. They just called themselves Eli and Mo, short for Elijah and Moses. Those were the two with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Had I not in my mind just assigned these names to them? I wasn’t serious though, the names just somehow came to me. So how could they have known that’s what I was thinking? But then, if they were able to know my name, why wouldn’t they also know that. This was just too uncanny. Mind readers – I didn’t believe in all that. There had to be a more rational explanation. Obviously a coincidence!

‘If you care to join us,’ Mo said, ‘we’d be pleased if you join us at our campfire on the other end of this summit. We have plenty of extra food and drink.’

‘At the moment I don’t believe I have anything scheduled in my social calendar; so yes, I’d be delighted to accept your invitation.’

As we hiked towards their camp, they seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my trip to Chile and the experiences I had while climbing this mountain. My impressions of them were that they were civil, gracious and genteel, perhaps more than should be expected from strangers in such a remote part of the world. Often their eyes remained fixed on me as I spoke: a quality I always consider to be an indication of personal integrity.

Though they were still strangers, I had a good feeling about them. In some ways they still seemed oddly familiar to me; perhaps too much so. I wasn’t sure why, but it seemed they already knew me, even if I didn’t know them. Yet I kept asking myself, who are they? Was this just a friendly chance encounter or were they sent by someone to meet me for some specific reason? That certainly would be reason for serious concern! Thoughts of orbs and alien abduction still played in the back of my mind. Under normal circumstances I would never allow myself to think anything so irrational. But fear is never rational.

It still mystified me why they were up here. Obviously, they didn't just stroll up here on some eco sightseeing tour. It had taken me a very long time to make it to the summit, risking life and limb, and I'm sure I must have looked the worse for the wear. Yet here they were, fresh as daisies! Very few climbers Mo's age could have made it even close to this summit unless they were a Sherpa. Actually, I pictured him more as being a croquet player than a climber. For these reasons and more, I couldn't shake the feeling that something very strange must be going on here.

And not only that, I began to suspect there was something most peculiar about me too. I should have felt exhausted and hungry from these last days of my near vertical ascent since this was likely the most precipitous and dangerous climb I had ever experienced. Yet surprisingly, my body still felt inexplicably light and spritely, considering what I had recently been through.

My provisions of dehydrated foods were almost depleted, and what berries and herbs I gathered along the way were long gone. Not that that worried me too much, since I understand that most can survive for about forty days without food. In fact, I once fasted for over four weeks with only water, though not while climbing. But where did this surge of energy suddenly come from? Guess I was fitter than I realized. As we continued along the ridge, I thought how much I’d like to celebrate my ascent with a cool bottle of sparkling champagne. Had I not made this request to my mountain god?

As if reading my mind, Eli stopped and pulled out a bottle from his battered backpack! He shook it, popped the cork and directed the spray towards my face. Most refreshing! Laughing, he handed the bottle to me to guzzle down what possibly was the most delicious bubbly I’d ever tasted: Pernod Ricard Perrier-Jouët, no less![15]

We merrily passed it around a few times then, just as soon as it was empty, Mo pulled out another identical bottle from the inner pocket of his overcoat, like a dealer in some back alley. This time glasses magically appeared as you may expect from a magician on stage. I assumed it was just the libations, but in this strange mix of confusion, conversation and laughter, I was beginning to feel more alive and vibrant than I could remember feeling in a long time. Now that my residual fears were set aside for the moment, I felt I was in my element. I suppose with enough champagne, that’s to be expected.

But what occurred next was even more surprising. How it all happened as it did, I had no idea. After arriving near the western end of the ridge, we came to an area which was somewhat lower down, recessed among large granite boulders. Evidently this is where they had camped since there were still hot coals smouldering from an earlier fire. Curiously though, there were no tents or evidence of bedding.

While Mo was stoking up the flames and Eli off somewhere to find more wood, (even though there was no wood in sight), I decided to take a stroll further along the ridge to take in the spectacular views of the northerly sierra. Upon returning after a while, the next thing I saw was a feast of exotic foods laid out on a long wooden table. Unbelievable! Where they got all this, I had no idea.

Not only were there foods, seemingly imported from all over the world, there were also several bottles of wine displayed for me to choose from. I wondered if they had procured them for just me, since they were all my favorite blends, which, considering the expense, I rarely indulged in.

I poured myself a glass and commended my hosts on their exquisite tastes, as though I was standing in the tasting room of an elegant winery on the Mediterranean shores, explicating the comparative merits of their finest wines. At dinner parties in the past, I’d often assume my most affected airs as a wine connoisseur, just to see if anyone would take me seriously. I had learned enough of the vocabulary and clichés to pull it off on occasion.

‘Gentleman,’ I said in my most unctuous tone, ‘may I recommend this elegant Zinfandel vintage with its robust yet delicate solera bouquet comingled with a subtle European vitis vinifera. Now contrast that with this dry red Bordeaux, obviously most aptly aged in a cured French cask. Don’t you agree, unlike this sweet, racy Italian Merlot, it provides a more mature and satisfying oaky char?’

They seemed to be amused at my little charade, or perhaps by how little I knew what I was talking about. But that didn't matter, the wines were about as good as anything I had ever had tasted.

Then I raised my glass to quote a line from Homer I had memorized for dinner parties to amuse and impress the guests. ‘The wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.”

Most impressive James – wouldn’t you say Eli? ‘Imagine us finding a Homer aficionado up here so far from the Aegean Sea.’

‘Most impressive indeed,’ Eli said.

A bid startled, I asked, ‘how would you know this obscure line from Homer’s Iliad?’

‘I wouldn’t,’ Mo said, ‘at least not from The Iliad, but I would know from The Odyssey, Book 14, I believe.

‘Oh,’ I said, a bit shocked and humbled that he would know that. ‘You may be right; I’ll have to check.’

‘Don’t bother; I am right,’ he said. ‘But what does it matter after such a long and arduous climb. You must have a big appetite – go help yourself to the spread Eli prepared for you. There’s plenty more if you want!'

Which is exactly what I did, including the plenty more, as I surfeited myself on the most delightful delicacies I could ever remember having, including prepared meats, breads and several exotic cheeses. And caviar never tasted so good when sprinkled on stuffed deviled eggs.

That’s awfully finicky work, I thought, especially to accomplish here or anywhere else for that matter. How could they have done all that up here and where did they find all this food? Santiago is a very long way off for food catering services.

As we continued to visit over the course of the evening, I found that Eli`s offbeat humour and banter sometimes struck me as being a little too much like mine. The more I got to know him, the more it seemed we were two former shipmates that had been reunited after several years, except he was way too young for that.

Mo too had a sense of humour, which he often expressed through his razor sharp wit. I noticed during the evening he would sometimes wonder off in his mind as he gazed into the sky, as though zoning into his own universe of rarified thoughts. Then he would re-emerge in silent contemplation for a few minutes before uttering something that sounded both so profound and peculiar that I didn’t know what to make of it. Which made me wonder, just who is this bloke? – besides someone who knows his Homer.’

In spite of their affable natures, I remained wary of them. Now and then they would say or do something that was just too bizarre to make any sense. I wondered at times if they did this just to throw me off. Besides Mo’s stargazing eccentricities, Eli seemed to enjoy answering my question just before I would ask him, as if to gobsmack me.

But even more disconcerting was how they seemed to know so much about me. It was unsettling. Not just my name, that was only the beginning; they also knew what my favourite food and drinks were – even my favourite books. Was it only coincidence we had read many of the same authors and titles, from Teilhard de Chardin to Dostoyevsky? Which made me wonder, how did Eli, being about a decade younger than me, know so much?

Though I probed them, they disclosed almost nothing about themselves, as if to mystify me even more. The most I got of any significance was that they were independently wealthy, having come into great abundance several years ago, now free to come and go as they pleased to places I’ve never imagined. How they made their fortunes they didn’t say specifically, except something about coming into an inheritance, which made me suspicious as to whether there wasn’t something more to the story that was suspect.

You know,’ I said, ‘after such a remarkable evening of food, drinks and laughter, along with everything else that’s happened today, I don't think I’ve ever been this high before, even on a mountain. But since it’s late, I probably should come down and retire for the night.’

‘Indeed,’ Eli said, ‘truth be known, you are even higher and lighter than you may care to know at this point. But that's okay, you’ll get used to it. Here, before you bed down, let me fill your glass with this very smooth Scotch. It’s from Edinburgh. You studied there, right?’

‘Yes I did, but how did you know – I didn’t tell you?’

‘Because you seem a man of great erudition,’ Mo said, ‘deserving of the finest institutions in Great Britain. And because you seem to know a thing or two about Scotch, for which they are famous. So before you retire for the night, here’s to you, Dr Phillips.’

As he and they raised their glasses, Eli said, ‘to your arrival and ongoing expedition here. Cheers!’

‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘though I don’t understand what’s going on or what you mean by “ongoing.” But at least I can say you’ve been most gracious this evening. Cheers to you both!’ I said, as I raised my glass of Scotch to them. I'd certainly do more climbing if I knew I could celebrate like this every time I peaked a summit.’

‘Well, maybe you can,’ Mo said. Then suddenly they got up and wandered off in the dark, leaving me alone to sit on our make-shift bench in the glow of the hot coals. What a strange day this had been! Was any of it real or had I gone over the edge into an altered state of reality? What if I was actually still back at my flat on a wild psychedelic trip, the kind I used to go on – although that was several years ago. In feeling so light now, I began to wonder if I hadn’t somehow taken leave of my body. And yet I recognized any out of body experience I felt would have only been an illusion of my addled mind.

As I poked away at the coals with a stick, I remembered experiences similar to this in my undergraduate days. I did some interesting stuff back then with some of my more experimentally inclined friends. But that was over ten years ago, I hadn’t participated in anything like this since. If for some unknown reason I really was on another of these excursions, this was one of the better ones. I smiled as I thought this. But at least once I came down, if I did, I wouldn’t be so mystified about all this strange confusion here. It wouldn’t matter because none of this would have actually happened. Yet I knew this all was actually happening; my mind had been more lucid.

Darkness descended on us hours ago, leaving only the bright red embers to illuminate the surroundings. I should be exceptionally weary by now, having regaled all night at the sumptuous Summit Diner Club, as Eli called it. But I wasn’t tired. In fact, I should have passed out long ago considering all I had imbibed.

As I climbed into my bedroll, I thought of my fortuitous and peculiar encounter with these chaps. And that was the last I remembered; once asleep, I didn't awake until dawn.

Then, as the sun rose, I continued to lie there, completely relaxed. I had never slept so peacefully before – except possibly the previous night in the ravine, when it seemed I had slept for days. While lying on my back, I stared up at the bright pink clouds and reflected on all the strange events I experienced yesterday. Everything was coming back to me now in a big swoosh, as did my curiosity about my new friends and where they had gone.

If they were still here, I would make it my business to learn as much as I could about them. I was more curious now than ever. These were most unusual characters! I remembered how I was often blown down at how adept they were in everything they did, as if this was their natural element. Though these mountains were very harsh environs, nothing seemed to concern them. In some ways they seemed a little too in control of everything – including me. Still my big question remained, what were they doing up here on such a remote mountain and how did they get here? There's no way they could have gotten this far, especially with all these provisions, unless…

Yes, of course, that's it! They dropped in by helicopter; probably with some eco-tour company. Likely they’ll spend a few days here then get airlifted out to return to wherever they came from. That certainly would explain their large stash of food and drinks. Why didn't I think of that last night? Amazing how much clearer things become after a good night's sleep! The only problem was, there was no outfitter or eco-tour operator doing anything like that in these parts. But then, if they had the resources, they could have hired both a copter and an outfitter. That’s likely the most probable answer, I told myself.

And yet for some reason, I wasn’t completely buying it. That would be too simple and logical when nothing else here was simple or logical. Though my new friends seemed to be reasonable and well-tempered, still there was something about their demeanor – so mysterious I couldn’t begin to understand. But it made me wonder if this chance meeting was more than just chance.

Had the gods driven me to climb this remote mountain, or was it fate? My rational mind never believed in fate any more than gods; but then what was it? Divine providence was completely out of the question since I didn’t believe in providence either. And yet here I was, a philosopher of all people, entertaining all these irrational thoughts to find a rational answer.

Once again I recalled that strange dream I had. I wondered, was it insane or was it there to drive me insane? I could still hear the haunting voices that called to me. Was it to this mountain I was called? The more I thought about it, the more the dream seemed to merge with the reality I was experiencing here. Maybe there was a plan or agenda my new friends were complicit in. But why? Was there something they wanted from me?

Each encounter with a new inexplicable phenomenon made it increasingly difficult to explain things away, beginning with the shimmering orbs I may have seen. And then there were the voices I heard, even from a very long way off. Obviously, no sound waves from that distance could have reached my ears, so something else must be communicating directly to my mind.[16] And how could I deny the soft and sensual voice of the enchanting mountain nymph directing me to find my way up the summit. I could still hear her.

It was thoughtful of Zeus to arrange for Champaign as I request, but what about the goddess who was supposed to serve as we shared a few glasses? I smiled at the thought; if only I could make my phantom real – as in my imagination!

Then my thoughts turned to my new friends again; wanting to believe there was no direct reason for them to be involved in any of this psychic mischief. Perhaps I was in denial, but they appeared no different than me; two mountaineers who just happened to be on the same mountain as me. I’d wait until later to find how they knew my name and all the other things they seemed to know about me. I’m sure there must a logical explanation, perhaps some mutual acquaintance in London. Yes, that must be it – I had nothing to be concerned about. As for everything else I wasn’t able to explain away, I didn’t wish to think about it.

Enough paranoia, I told myself, time to get up and start a new day. Hopefully my friends hadn't departed yet. I still needed to ask them if they knew of a less precipitous route down. Unless, of course, there was a copter coming by to airlift them out, in which case, I may catch a ride to Santiago if that’s where they were headed.

I noticed dark clouds beginning to sweep in from the west. The early morning sun shone brightly in the clear eastern horizon, but likely it wouldn't last; I realized how quickly things can turn nasty at this altitude. With all my brooding, perhaps my thoughts had attracted a storm. If this was superstitious, at least I didn't take it seriously like many do. I certainly wasn’t given to such foolishness in linking mind with matter, weather conditions or anything else.

And yet many of my assumptions about what may be possible were being challenged with all the telepathic tricks that were being played on me while I was approaching the summit yesterday. Still, I didn’t believe that any of this was actually possible. It only seemed that way.

I sprang to my feet, again amazed at my agility and how easily I got up. My muscles weren’t in the least sore as they generally were after a day of climbing precipices. I stuffed my bed roll into my backpack, slung it over my shoulder, and made my way along the ridge to find shelter, hoping to avoid the rain and wind that was about to gust over the summit ridge. In spite of all the confusion last evening, I was feeling great, ready to take on whatever new wonders and challenges the day may bring.

Yet as confident as I was feeling, nothing could have prepared me for what awaited me this day – my life would never be the same.  

CHAPTER 3


STORY TIME


From these depths depart towards heaven,
you have escaped from the city full of fear and trembling 
                                               Rumi

 

Before I could find shelter, the rain and sleet had swooped over the summit. I trudged along just below the ridge, searching to find a rock protrusion where I could take refuge. I hadn’t gone very far when I suddenly caught a whiff of smoke wafting up from somewhere below. I scrambled further down a short way where I saw what appeared to be a shelter nestled on a small plateau beside a granite slope. As I got closer to it, I could see it was more like a log cabin, complete with the stone chimney where the smoke was billowing out.

‘How the bloody hell could this have been built here?’ I asked aloud. I had a hard enough time making it up here. Hauling logs up such precipitous escarpments from below would have been impossible without a zeppelin or military helicopter.

By now the squall passed as quickly as it arrived, which is normal enough at this altitude. In the distance below, I could see someone outside sitting on a chair with their feet propped up on the railing. As I got closer, I saw Eli strumming on a guitar with a fag hanging out the side of his mouth. With the sun brightly shining on the landscape now, the scene reminding me of one of those over-embellished mountain scene paintings, except this was very alive and vibrant. It appeared the lodging was conveniently sheltered far enough down from the Summit ridge to avoid the howling winds arching over the ridge.

‘It’s about time,’ Mo yelled from the doorway.

To read the rest of chapter three and all of chapter four, access www.elysiumspassage.com

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