It was a chap by the name of Curtis who told us this one night at the club. Curtis hadn't been seen for eighteen months or so and no-one had heard anything about him until he turned up that night and said he'd just come back from the Karakorams. Then he sat down and spread himself out and said "Anything been happening?" as if he expected us to tell him stories.
We weren't having any. Gently but firmly we pointed out that it was his duty to tell us stories while it was all fresh in his mind and that otherwise he would be forcibly expelled. We were seven to one so he listened to reason and promised to tell us a story which, he swore, was perfectly true.
The fellow he had joined up with to make up the expedition knew the region as well as anyone, and so they had tried a new and entirely original route through the foot-hills. This led them one night to a small hill-village so out of the way that the stay-at-home section of the community claimed not to have seen a white man before - though maybe they had short memories. There was a sort of a headman there, though, who was quite a well-educated man-of-the-world sort of person, and Curtis and his pal had an interesting chat with him about sundry things. The chief subject they brought up was the mountain which stood a few miles behind the village.
They had had their eyes on this mountain for some time on the way up. It was something like a truncated Matterhorn, a great wedge of clean rock sticking out of the screes at its base for some five thousand feet, the flat top forming quite a sizeable little plateau. Curtis considered it an ideal piece of rock on which to brush up his climbing technique, and he asked the headman if it had ever been climbed.
The Headman said no, it had not, because it was perfectly obvious that it was impossible. You might, he said, get within about five hundred feet of the summit, but there you would be stopped by the smooth vertical wall that ran all round the mountain without a break. Curtis disagreed, pointing out that he had spotted a chimney of sorts through the binoculars which might possibly go. The headman said yes, that might be so, but he would not advise the attempt for other reasons. It took a good deal of persuasion to get these reasons out of him, but eventually he came out with a vague story of seeing mysterious bonfires burning on top on dark nights with disconcerting shapes moving in front of them casting enormous frightening shadows across the sky. The villagers, he said, regarded the mountain as a sort of guardian preventing the things which dwelt on top from coming into contact with mankind. Of course he did not believe such stories himself, but he did think that it was a friendly mountain and that it would prevent Curtis from reaching the top. It seemed an odd way of putting it, and Curtis suggested that perhaps the headman believed the superstition himself, and asked for a more detailed account of the shadows across the sky. But the. headman just shrugged his shoulders and said that personally he was a very heavy sleeper and had four wives beside, so that he very rarely went out at night. Especially on dark nights, he said. So it was left at that, but the next morning Curtis and his friend got up at some appallingly early hour and set out to have a go.
It turned out to be a very pleasant climb. They went up a ridge in grand style, the rock being firm and clean with splendid holds just where they were most needed, the degree of exposure varied from merely pleasant to delightfully great, and there were a few moves of great delicacy in intimidating positions. Curtis said he couldn't have designed it better himself - and Curtis is pretty difficult to please in the matter of rock climbs. At about three thousand feet they had to leave the ridge and traverse upwards and sideways across steep slabs to the foot of the chimney, which they reached about five hours from the foot of the climb.
This chimney was a vertical straight-sided crack in the rock running straight up the cliff at the back of a wide terrace. It was about three feet wide and ran far back into the mountain and also went down below the level of the terrace, which must have been the top of a separate block of rock. Curtis was not much concerned with looking down, however; he looked up, and came to the conclusion that it would go alright with the aid of the inevitable chockstones which were wedged across here and there. So, feeling fairly bucked about it all, they sat down to have a spot of. food to strengthen them for the effort.
They had been eating for about ten minutes or so, seated with their backs to the mountains looking out at the magnificent view before them, when they heard a noise like a monstrous sigh. It grew to a vast tumultous groan interspersed with crunching and crackling noises, and finished abruptly with a single dull thud as if, said Curtis poetically, someone had slamed the door between Heaven and Hell. They turned round in wonder to see that the chimney had gone, not the slightest trace of a crack remaining, with just a puff of powdered rock beginning to drift down the cliff face were it had been.
Curtis stopped there, as if he had finished, but Stoney, who like Hemingway's old lady likes a "wow" at the end of his stories, said:
"Well, what did you do then?"
"We climbed down again," said Curtis musingly.
"Didn't you try for another route? Perhaps the movement of the rock would open another chimney." persisted Stoney.
"I don't think so," said Curtis slowly. "In any case we didn't feel like trying. You see, the noises didn't stop altogether. There was for some time a moaning noise from above, a keening noise so low-pitched in a minor key that occasionaly it sank below the limits of hearing and strong enough to keep the rocks vibrating. And from a overhang high above in the line of the crack dripped great drops of thick, dark, stinking blood. We could hear it dripping for some time after we started down. It fell plop." said Curtis absently. "Plop. Plop.
Plop. Plop. Plop . . . . ."