Iceman – a winter’s tale of crossing time

A tale inspired by a skiing injury and the discovery of Otzi the iceman.

Kris Jarrett stared at his leg, still anchored to the ski that failed to detach. The leg had a new joint, half way down his shin. He wasn’t surprised, because he’d heard the dry crack as he fell.  On the far side of Kornock the village of Turrach nestled beside the frozen lake, lights twinking in the frozen air. He knew that no one would come this far off-piste, it was already six p.m. and the lifts were closed.  He was not scared, he was angry. Arrogance had made him break the most basic of rules and on the mountain, rule-breakers paid the price. Kris was determined not to panic, not yet. Fifty years of living in the mountains had taught him how to survive.

“This might hurt,” he muttered to himself. He calmed his mind in preparation, breathing deeply, bent forward and pushed the release mechanism on the binding with his ski pole, pulling his leg from the ski. The pain took a while to start, and then it blew through his body like a firestorm. The scream echoed off the crags like the cry of some mystical beast. He lay back, nauseous.  The wind chill was extreme, freezing skin, numbing fingers.  He lost time at that point.

When he eventually surfaced and forced his eyes open, the world was alien, the sky dancing with stars. The wind had dropped, and the surface of the mountainside sparkled in the pale blue light. He checked his leg. An ominous patch of pink was spreading through the snow. Again his instincts took control, and he focused his thoughts on stabilising the leg. Kris decided to use the ski pole as a splint, and one of the skis as a crutch. He would have to descend on the other ski, at least until he was low enough to dig a snow hole for the night. He made a mental list of what he must do, concentrating on the first task. Over the next five minutes, the pain would be extreme.

He started by strapping the ski pole to the top of the ski boot, breathing in short gasps. The boot lay limp in the snow as if his foot was detached from his body. Despite his ski gloves, his fingers felt like sausages, thick with cold. Clenching his jaw, he tried to straighten the break, starting by aligning the boot with his body. The sensation of grating bones frightened him, and a sudden flare of pain made him pull his hand away with a cry: a spike of white bone had lanced into it. He swore, pulling the break hard, straightening it, before falling back into the snow, covering his face with his hands to hide the sobs. It was a further ten minutes before he could sit up and complete the splint, binding the top of the ski pole to his leg using his scarf.

Now there was a chance of survival. Shaking with cold, he pulled himself up and balanced on his good leg, and looked around for the ski.  It was not there! God Almighty, he only had one ski. The other ski pole had also gone. He remembered taking it off after he fell, but where in God’s name was it?  He felt so tired now. Perhaps he should just lie down in the snow and sleep until morning.

His first attempt took him two metres before he crashed into a pocket of snowdrift. His ski sank a metre below the surface and the prospect of two broken legs flashed through his mind. He waited until his breathing calmed, listening to the silence. Softly, the wind started to skim snow over the icy crust into his face. The hissing increased, and he looked up. Clouds were boiling across the moon and he could smell the snow before it started falling. Big, soft flakes whirled down out of the blueness and collected on his goggles and he was dreaming of home; the fire cracking in the stone hearth, his brother Hans, serving gluwein in pewter tankards. His cows would be breathing out clouds of steam and eating the summer’s hay in the barn behind the big house. He would see them again.

“Give me strength,” he shouted into the snow, and the words echoed from Kornock. The mountain was laughing at him. 

He realised that he was desperately thirsty, and collected some snow, cramming it into his mouth. It melted away to nothing, bitter. As he lay there, his thoughts began to wander again. He began to remember his childhood, helping his father on the farm, working on the slopes. The pistes were crowded with noisy tourists and assaulted by machines, smashing and taming the snows each night but he liked the long mountain walks more than anything, because of the solitude. One summer they had walked in the mountains of Slovenia, staying in remote huts with the other travellers, singing songs around the fire.

Images flicked past. Races, the sensation of flying across the slopes, legs jarring, the wind tearing at his face, followed by images of his body, blue and still, lying buried in snow until the Spring. As the cold lulled him to an easy death, he could see his oldest son winning his first championship, and then the moment of his birth, the happiness on his wife’s face as she held the baby.

He heard a noise.

He lay quietly, listening and straining to see through the driving snow. A shape moving through the blizzard. A man. Loping across the snow, moving easily on snowshoes, at one with his world.

Kris called out. “Friend, I am here. Thank God you found me.” The wind blew the words away.

A deep chuckle. The man spoke in a strange language, familiar yet impossible to understand. When the figure came into focus, Kris could not help his reaction.

“God almighty” he whispered to himself, and then pulled off his snow-caked goggles to see more clearly. 

The iceman was dressed thickly in animal skins lined with straw. A shaggy hat of sheepskin came down to his shoulders, a hunting bow of wood across his back. However, it was his face that surprised Kris, because he had seen it so often in the classic features of mountain people, the large, broad nose and heavy brows, thick beard, leathery skin and laughing eyes. It was not a face of this time. The stranger shuffled up to Kris, and reached down with a thick arm. Kris took hold and was pulled up with great strength.

The iceman said something, pointing at the ski and motioning for Kris to take it off.  Kris did as he was told, standing unsteadily, holding the ski for balance. The stranger picked up the ski and ran his gloved hand along it, face filled with wonder. He hefted it, considering what it might be useful for then came to a decision, and threw it away. He reached out and took Kris’s arm, leaned down and lifted him across his shoulders. Kris could smell the strong tang of sweat and fur as he was carried downhill effortlessly. The man was strong. 

After what seemed like hours, they were deep in the forest. The iceman was heading for a cave, although Kris had never noticed one before. Once inside, the iceman lowered him gently onto a bed of hay.  A fire glowed at the back of the cave, the flickering light playing over drawings painted on the walls. Kris lost all sense of time and place. The drawings depicted mammoths and other wildlife that had died out long ago, but the colours were bright and the animals seemed to move in the firelight.

The iceman brought cool water in a leather flask. Kris drank hungrily.

“Who are you?” Kris asked, wiping his mouth.

The iceman cocked his head to one side, looking at him steadily. He pushed his matted hair from his eyes, and then pointed to himself. “Arthik.”

Kris imitated the man and pointed to himself. “Kris,” he said.

To his surprise, Arthik held out his hand, and they shook. He spoke rapidly, and Kris did not understand a word. He tried to show that he did not understand, but Arthik simply shrugged and walked to the back of the cave. He returned with a strip of dried meat and offered it to Kris. Something swung out from his neck and caught the firelight,  a crystal of rose quartz, hanging from a cord of plaited leather. Kris took the strip of dried meat and thanked him. Then, as he ate, Arthik started to paint on the cave wall, dipping his fingers into a pot of red liquid. Kris watched him in awe.

The man was a skilled artist, and before his eyes, Kris saw the figure of a man take form. The man was a skier, crouched, balanced to traverse a steep slope and Kris realised that Arthik must have been watching him before he fell. When Arthik had finished, he patted the wall with his hand and held out the pot of paint. Then he came across, and reached down, helping Kris to stand. Patiently, he helped Kris across the cave, and then took paint and put in on his palm, before doing the same himself. He pressed his open palm to the cave wall, then took Kris’s hand and pressed it alongside his own.

As the fire crackled and spat, Kris drifted off to sleep. The cry of wolves hunting in the forest nearby did not disturb him.

When he awoke, it was light and he was alone. “Arthik?”

There was no reply.

He realised that there was no sign of a fire and the iceman was gone. He was not lying on a bed of hay, but on the cold, hard ground. He tried to stand, but was so stiff and sore that it seemed to take an age before he could hobble to the cave entrance. He started to struggle into the snow, and had only travelled a few hundred metres when a distant shout stopped him. Someone was calling his name.  

“I’m here!” he yelled, and the voice answered.

Bright red showed between the trees as his rescuers approached.

Kris told no one of his experience and no one pressed him for an explanation. His friends and family had been surprised that he had fallen, and shocked that he had gone skiing in such a dangerous place. Kris avoided the subject. It was hard to explain why a man of fifty would try to achieve what he had failed to do when twenty-five. The incident was best forgotten. His leg mended and by the spring, Kris was already taking long walks, when he could find the time. One Sunday afternoon he was walking with Hans not far from the forest where he was found, when the story came out.

“Hans, you remember where you found me?”

“Sure. Not too far away from here. Somewhere in the forest.”

The two brothers continued to climb the path, and Kris did not answer for a while. “There’s a cave there. It was strange. After I broke my leg, I became delirious. I dreamed that an iceman found me and took me to this cave. It was so real! His name was Arthik. He fed me- then he painted, on the walls of the cave. But when I awoke in the morning, everything was gone. He had this ornament around his neck. Rose quartz.” He rubbed his face, wondering.

Hans grunted. “Bad injuries do that. Make you dream when you’re awake.”

Kris was irritated by his brother’s answer. “I want to find the cave.”

“Sure, why not?”

They descended into the woods, and Kris visualised the route someone would take from where he had fallen. He led Hans across the mountainside, until he saw rocks through the trees. This was the place.

“This is where he brought me,” he shouted, limping towards the cave.

The light was dim and mellow, the air dry and old, like a crypt.  “He laid me down here, on a bed of hay. There was a fire over there,” he pointed.

Hans walked to the back of the cave. “Just dust here now,” he said, kicking at it. A cloud of earth flew up, clouding the air.

Kris walked over to the wall. “Come and look at this,” he said in amazement. As Hans watched, Kris held his hand against the faint remains of a handprint.

“I did that, next to his handprint. Look, you can see it too,” he mused, pointing.

Hans looked closely. “These look like they were done a long time ago. You can see where lichens have grown over them.” Then he fell silent and stared. Painted on the wall, next to the faint outline of a mammoth was the weathered drawing of a skier. Some of the painting had gone but there was no doubt as to what it was.

“Is that you?” he asked quietly.

Kris nodded. “I watched him paint it.”

Hans went to the back of the cave again, lost for words. Where he had kicked the earth away, something caught his eye. The two men dug away the earth. There was something, hard and yellow-stained. They dug some more and then sat back, astonished. It was an ancient skull. Next to the vertebrae of the neck lay a crystal of rose quartz.

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