Curious neighbors gathered. I asked if anyone had been close to the arch, close enough to touch it. "Why would you want to?" one man replied, to laughter. I dug out one of Shipton's books and opened it to a picture of Usman (following page). This caused a stir. People passed the open book with sad looks. Some of the men took off their hats as it came to them. One elderly woman pressed it to her forehead with a mournful, keening sound.
Usman's elderly brother-in-law, Juma Akhun, explained the sadness: Shipton's group had been cheerful people, he said. Usman liked them and enjoyed traveling with them. But some years later, in the hard aftermath of Mao's communist revolution, there had been trouble. Some local people with what he called "wrong ideas about foreigners" had punished Usman for associating with an Englishman. In telling this, the old man's voice broke. Tears flowed into his beard, and I, mindful of Shipton's backcountry intelligence reports, did not press him for the painful details.
"I could take you to the arch," said a voice. I turned to see a slight, bald man. "Yes," said Arken Murat cheerfully. "I know the way."
It goes through deep canyons, he warned, dark and narrow and wet. We might have to swim. And when it rains, he added, "rocks come down!" He held his arms up and shook them to illustrate a flash flood. Then, grinning impishly, he asked his son to bring out his new green sneakers. He laced them tightly, then announced, "I can run like a deer. You'll never keep up!"
Piling into our 4WD, we drove three miles (five kilometers) to a canyon at the base of the range, where I began to wonder if Arken was playing a joke on us. This canyon seemed wrong; it was too far west. On the other hand, this landscape had foiled one of mountaineering's great explorers. When Arken charged up the canyon in his green sneakers, we followed.
Starting out, we could just see the pointed top of the arch but soon lost it behind high walls of unstable brown mudstone. For two hours we followed a small stream steeply uphill through a tangle of house-size boulders. We clambered over some and squeezed under others until we came to an abrupt change in the rock. Cliffs of hard gray conglomerate rose thousands of feet on either side of us. Our pulses quickened: Surely these were the "walls of the main massif" that Shipton had described five decades earlier in his book.
A few hundred yards farther, the cliffs closed in, blocking out the sky. As we picked our way upstream, twisting through shoulder-width narrows and scrambling up cold waterfalls, the canyon grew deeper and darker until it pinched down to a cavelike slit echoing with the sound of falling water. In a place like this in April 1947 Shipton encountered a frozen waterfall, a pillar of ice in a cul-de-sac so dark that he had to strike a match to see it. Unequipped for those conditions, he turned around.
So did we. It was getting late, and Arken said the first view of the arch was an hour away for him and three hours, he teased, for us. Either way we were out of time, stopped like Shipton at the bottom of a cold black pit.