Our ascent to the mountain peak was predictably long and tortuous. I was sweating and blaspheming in my mind, trying to maintain my balance and resisting my inner urge to give up the climb. My snowboard grew heavy on my shoulders and it was painfully bumping against my spine. When we had left careless shrieks of the skiing crowd far behind, it suddenly started snowing. Fluffy snowflakes were melting on my face and infiltrating unpleasantly under my collar. I could hardly see Clara, purposefully making her way through the thick lace of the snowfall curtain enveloping the earth all around us. That is why, when she suddenly stopped, I bumped into her nearly causing us both to fall into the abyss below. She stood there immobile, her hand raised in a warning sign.
“I think I saw her,” she said in a low voice. “Who?”
“The Mountain Maid.”
Right. Of course, I had heard that legend of the Mountain Maid so popular among all regular mountain trekkers and climbers, venturing into the wilderness of the Alatau range. The story was one of the best hits among mountaineer groups gathering around a warming bonfire in the middle of the night. A boy and a girl from Almaty loved each other and he made her a marriage proposal here in the mountains while on a romantic walk. As if he could not find a more appropriate time and place. Whatever. And then on their way back it started snowing and the guy just disappeared into the snowfall. Neither of them returned home. Since then the girl’s ghost has been roaming these mountains calling the guy’s name. Sometimes she is seen as a fugitive white silhouette either kindly warning humans of an imminent danger—according to some versions— or maliciously luring them into different kinds of death traps—according to others. The scientific interpretation has it that the legend was invented by Cossacks during their conquest of vast mineral-rich areas for the Russian Empire. The White Lady ghost—a cousin of our Mountain Maid—helped them ward off thieves of precious mineral resources in the mining regions of the Urals or in the plains of Siberia. No wonder that when they were building local fortresses during the Big Game to secure the Tsar Crown’s land grabs against a possible British invasion, they could have brought the White Lady cult with them in an effort to scare away a credulous horse-stealing Mongol or Kalmyk raider, preying on local nomadic pastors that Cossacks took under their protection. As time passed she could have mutated somehow into the infamous Mountain Maid of our recent Soviet past.
“There,” she said again in the same low voice. She pointed to a small patch of a pine grove barely visible in this incessant and dense torrent of fat snowflakes.
“What?” I exclaimed. And now I thought I saw her, a slender shape all dressed in white, standing among the tall tree trunks and staring blankly at the unwanted human intruders. What struck me the most was a stark contrast between her young face and an unkempt mane of grey hair. It could have been a professional city beggar were it not in a place almost four thousand metres above the sea level. Upon meeting my astonished inquisitive eye, she turned away abruptly and sank into the dark grove floating above the snow.
“Did you see her?” Clara enquired, cautiously turning to look at me.
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