It had been a couple of days since I had last spoken to Adam, and once again my incipient paranoia was beginning to kick into action. Just before lunch today, he phoned again, and although he told me first of all that I needn't worry, and that all five expedition members were alive and well, he told me that there had been a couple of close shaves, and passed me over to Richard.
"I nearly died... twice" said Richard, and although he was being characteristically bullish about the whole affair, I have known him a long time, and I could tell that the experiences had really shaken him. He told me had the first time, he was trying to cross the ice sheet, when he fell down a crevasse, and slid a hundred feet on his tummy, and just managed to grab onto a rock to save himself. He lost his digital camera and - bizarrely - his front door key, but otherwise, apart from being shaken he was OK. However, soon after he was walking along the edge of a cliff, when it collapsed, and once again he fell down a ravine. He grabbed hold of a tree, Indiana Jones style, and dangled above the ravine until his colleagues managed to pull him back to safety.
Dave also managed to fall down another crevasse, waist deep, and had to be pulled out.
All this happened on the way to the place, where - a few days ago - a witness called Sergei allegedly found found the fresh corpse of a female almasty only a few years ago. The boys had been under the impression that it was a relatively short half hour trot from the village, but whether this was because something had been lost in translation, or whether the five boys from England were just not as adept at dealing with the unfamiliar terrain, or whether even - as I have found on many occasions in the past - the local witnesses completely exaggerated the distance, just to try and make their new friends happy, I don't know, but the half hour stroll turned into four hours plus of gruelling trek across rocks, ice sheets and some of the most unforgiving terrain Richard, at least, has ever crossed.
Then, only a stonesthrow from the location of the unfortunate almasty's final resting place, Richard succumbed to altitude sickness. This is no joke. I suffered from it about ten years ago, high in the mountains above Mexico City. It is a most peculiar sensation. It is like the delirium that one gets with a high fever, mixed with a hangover, and it is one of the most unpleasant experiences that I have ever been through.
Sadly, although they excavated the place where the makeshift grave was supposed to have been situated, it was too no avail. The body was long gone. But in an area where bears, jackals and other scavengeing carrion eaters are common this is hardly surprising.
However the news is not all disappointing. Dave Archer apparently found what may be an almasty 'nest' in the woods, and they have at least 20 hairs for analysis. They have also been promised a putative almasty tooth for analysis.
This evening the party have split into two. Dave and Adam are going to set up trigger cameras in a derelict barn where there have been a string of sightings, including one by the guide Sergei (mentioned above), in 1986.
They spoke to the Vice President of the National Park who had a sighting of the almasty three years ago. It was dusk, and he originally thought that the creature was a sleeping cow. But it got to its feet and he realised that It was humaniform. He spoke to it in Balkar and in Russian, but there was no answer. He didn’t see its face, but noted its huge domed head.
Another guide, Anatoli, and his father, have both reported sightings of the giant snake. They describe it as being about 7m long and being the colour of the bark of a poplar tree.
The expedition, despite setbacks, is going well, and we look forward to the next installment.