We lost the first girl before we even got on the boat
We’d been stuck out on the Argentinean pampas for a week, waiting for the steamer that was going to take us up the river. We spent our days sitting on the hotel porch drinking pisco sours and staring into the vast landscape as the ballerinas smoked cigarettes and told obscene Russian folk tales.
It was Svetlana who bolted, of course. Gloomy, nervous Svetlana, with her pale, wheat-coloured eyes full of the Ukrainian steppe. Maybe something out in all that immensity reminded her of home.
Her note said she’d run away with one of the local capybara herders. We never saw her again.
She was one of the lucky ones.
It was the early 1980s, that age of miracles, and Werner H. was the world’s second most famous German film director.
He was the man who had persuaded five hundred death row prisoners to act in a musical version of The Sinking of the Titanic.
Who had wrestled a dolphin to death for a film about environmental destruction.
Who had declared: “The universe is absurd: my role is only to try to challenge that absurdity.”
For his latest film he was attempting to transport a troupe of Russian ballerinas over the Argentinean Andes into Chile, on foot, at the height of military tensions between the two countries. It would be a sort of sequel to his early hit Over the Alps with Midgets.
Nobody was sure where he’d got the ballerinas from. The rumour was that he’d won them in a game of poker with the East German ambassador.
Whatever the truth of it, by the time we’d reached the foothills we were already down two more girls – one taken by giant otters during the five-day jungle riverboat journey, the other killed by a poison arrow – and the rest of the company were starting to get nervous.
“I appreciate artistic intention,” said Lyudmila, as we loaded up the llamas in the shadow of the twelve-thousand-foot peaks, “I am just not convinced by aesthetic and social value, on balance.”
Lyudmila was the prima ballerina and de facto leader of the troupe. She smoked more than any human being I’d ever met.
“You are writer,” she said. “You know about these things,”
I wasn’t really a writer. I’d just answered a job ad at film school – ‘script assistant needed, incredibly dangerous project, orphan preferred’ – and here I was, loading film canisters onto a herd of llamas named after the 1978 World Cup-Winning Argentinean football team.
“I’m not sure you can necessarily put a value on works of art,” I said, patting Ricky Villa the llama on the shoulder.
I was beginning to suspect I was in love with Lyudmila. Lyudmila with her sturdy Siberian knees and her magnificent cheekbones of the people. Lyudmila whose beauty could have launched a thousand tractor factories.
“Ha!” was all she replied.
Hector the llama herder drank his maté and kept his own counsel.
It took us three weeks of slow climbing to reach the fifteen-thousand-foot-high Juanita pass. The weather was terrible, and we lost four more girls and two guides on the way.
Our director was living up to his formidable reputation by throwing daily tantrums whenever the climate, or the light, or another death came between him and his vision.
“These mountains are an obscenity!” he screamed into the wind. “They are the geological manifestation of moral terror! Nature is a dog that keeps on returning to its vomit!”
And so on.
Nevertheless, it was clear that he was getting some spectacular footage as the ballerinas battled against the elements.
There was no script as such. Every evening H. and his ancient cameraman Dieter planned the next day’s shots while the rest of us sat around the fire eating roast guinea pig.
Dieter had been with H. for twenty-five years. One afternoon, as we paused between shots, I asked him why.
He squinted at me through his pipe smoke.
“Better to follow the dream of a madman than no dream at all,” he said.
As for the ballerinas, I couldn’t help thinking Moscow was probably glad to see the back of them. For all their beauty and talent, they were a demanding, surly bunch. They missed their mothers, and vodka, and good shoes, and the magnificent Moscow subway, and they made sure everyone knew it.
Also Lyudmila kept sleeping with me every few days when she was feeling homesick, leaving me thoroughly confused.
One morning I came across H. as I was returning from a surreptitious visit to Lyudmila’s tent. It was a few minutes before dawn and he was tracking the flight of a huge condor through the telescopic sight of an antique German army rifle.
“Would it be a sin to shoot it, do you think?” he said, as we watched the bird soaring against the dead white of the mountaintops. “Would that finally get God’s attention?”
I said I wasn’t sure.
H. blinked and lowered the rifle, as if noticing me for the first time. The condor floated away in the half-light.
“Three hundred years ago travellers crossing the Alps wore blindfolds to avoid being driven mad by the site of the ungodly summits,” he told me. “Now we must adopt their methods.”
And so the next day blindfolds were issued to the entire crew.
By sunset we’d lost another guide, two more girls and three llamas.
If you want to cross from Argentina into Chile without worrying about things like military checkpoints, passports, visas and filming permits, the only route is over the O’Higgins glacier. Then you have an easy path down to the treeline and along the old Inca paths toward the foothills and the coast.
The only problem is that no one has ever made it across the O’Higgins alive.
Three miles wide and thirty long, it’s a frozen sea of jumbled, jagged ice and hidden crevasses. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds howl down its length from the twenty-thousand-foot peak of Mount Muerte above. At night its unfathomable depths are said to sing with the souls of the dead.
“Entire brigade of Chilean Army lost down there in 1972,” said Lyudmila, as our party considered the horrifying spectacle at dusk. “Also planes.”
We’d been struggling to get this far for the best part of a month. Altitude sickness, exposure, rock falls, lightning strikes, blizzards, snowblindness and suicidal depression had thinned our numbers considerably.
For H. it was now a battle of wills. Whatever demons he had come up here to face had proved themselves worthy adversaries. He started every day by screaming quotations from Nietszche at the mountains. He filmed the exhausted ballerinas performing lectures on the sublime as they waded through the waist-deep snowdrifts. He declared himself disgusted with the universe.
When we spotted the avalanche rolling down the valley toward us as we made camp that evening, nobody was very much surprised.
That night we slept under the brilliant frozen stars. After the last survivor had been dug from the snow there were eleven of us left. The tents were gone, along with Irina, Yelena, the three Tanyas and the last of our guides. We had two llamas, and a week’s worth of food between us.
Lying next to me in the sleeping bag, Lyudmila smoked furiously and stared at the Milky Way.
I told her that I had never seen such a huge sky before.
“You people see nothing that is not in your own image,” she said bitterly. “Everything speaks to you of yourselves.”
In the morning Hector the llama herder had disappeared, taking the last of our provisions. He’d left us poor Ricky Villa, weighed down with film cans.
While H. climbed a low ridge behind the camp to survey the route across the glacier, we held an emergency meeting without him.
The situation was impossible, we agreed. We’d all given everything. There was no shame in turning round now.
Finally Dieter spoke. Loyal, beautiful Dieter, who had followed H across deserts and through jungles and into combat again and again, and never once complained. Dieter who had given half a lifetime in the service of H’s vision.
“We go back,” he said.
There was the crack of a gunshot and the sound of a bullet ricocheting off rock.
We all looked. H. was fifty feet away, aiming his rifle squarely at Dieter.
“We don’t go back!” H. shouted.
It was a disaster, of course. Within two hours we were hopelessly lost among the huge ice boulders and thousand-foot-deep crevasses, with no way to retreat even if H. had allowed it.
By that point Masha and Katya had already fallen to their deaths. Little Natalya followed shortly after.
We spent eight days wandering through that monstrous maze while the weather threw everything it had at us. We sucked snow for moisture. We slept huddled together in soaked, frozen sleeping bags.
We lost poor, sweet Marta to hypothermia, and beautiful Oksana to a reccurrence of the malaria that, ironically, she’d picked up on the Pampas. Galina got frostbite on her toes that turned into gangrene. Unwilling to accept a life without dancing, she bravely hobbled out into the snow one night while the rest of us slept.
Then there were only four of us left.
H. kept on filming. He directed Dieter to shoot roll after roll of Lyudmila and I stumbling through the snow. To stop Ricky Villa from walking away in the dark he tied himself to the beast, running a rope from Ricky’s halter to his right ankle. During the day they shuffled along together like the last surviving members of a chain gang.
“Only in the immeasurableness of nature can we find our own limitations!” H insisted “And only then can we discover our pre-eminence over nature!”
And then on the seventh day a hidden snow bridge gave way, and Dieter was taken from us. And with him, the camera.
H. knelt down in the snow and wept.
“Every victory is denied to me!” he cried, tearing at his hair. “Fortune spits in my face! Nature conspires with fate to insult me! I am cursed by God to wander the Earth, eternally thwarted!”
Embarrassed, I bowed my head. Even now, as much as I hated myself for it, I couldn’t help feeling that we’d all, somehow, let him down.
Then noble Ricky Villa, startled by something or just exhausted with it all, suddenly reared up and threw himself into the crevasse too.
It took H. about three seconds to realise he was doomed.
He looked down at the rope around his ankle and back to us, and opened his mouth.
“I-“ he said.
And then he was gone.
Lyudmila and I stood at the edge of the crevasse, looking down into the brilliant blue depths for a while.
“Und wenn du lange in einen abgrund blickst …” she said, finally.
“What does that mean?” I said.
She took a drag on her cigarette, and then flicked it into the abyss. We watched it tumble away from us.
“You stare into glacier too long,” she said, “eventually glacier stares back.”
A week later, so the story goes, two people walked out of the mountains near the Chilean border town of Maldonado.
Foreigners. A man and a woman.
They went into the first bar they found and started drinking. They didn’t stop for three days.
And then they disappeared.
They say it takes thirty years, give or take, for the glacier to give up its secrets. Thirty years for a wrecked plane, or a camera, or a llama, or a man, to make the journey from below the shadow of the mountain to the glacier front.
Needless to say, I’ve recently started paying careful attention to the international news.
See, I’ve got this great idea for a film.
All I need are some ballerinas.
– End –