His willow-gathering expedition put on hold by the smoke rising from below, Einar paused for a long minute, torn between slipping down the slope to investigate the source of the intrusion, and hurrying back up to the basin to warn Liz and make sure she, herself, did not have a fire going which might betray their presence to whoever was camped in the valley. Quickly seeking a spot from which he might have a better view back up the slope, he scrambled partway up a scrawny spruce, branches mostly dead but providing him good grip, seeing no sign of smoke from above and slightly reassured by the fact. The smoking tent was not finished, needed racks, still, and so he doubted Liz would have a reason to start a fire until the time came to heat an evening meal. Good. That gave him several hours, and practically falling out of his spruce-top lookout, he shook his head in an attempt to clear his vision, got to his feet and set a course for canyon. Though he had not as yet caught sight of the smoke and lacked knowledge of a precise location from which it might be rising, the direction of the breeze gave him a starting place. Warm and rising it came from the canyon, sweet-sharp with willows and water, meaning that the smoke must come from the canyon, too.
Whoever might be camped along the thawing creek, Einar had every reason to believe that their mission in the canyon did not involve his own presence or that of his family. Had the intruder been part of some search, surely he would have wished to be more mindful of his security practices, smoke, light and noise kept to a barely-detectable minimum. The campers likely believed they were alone, and it was best, by far, to leave things that way. No approaching the camp too closely to investigate. Not this time. All he wanted was a good fix on the location of the camp, a count of its occupants and some sense of what might be their purpose in the area. For this, he should not have to draw too near or risk giving away his own presence. Momentarily, working his way down through the timber, he considered returning to the shelter to let Liz know his intentions and destination, but hoped by continuing to make short work of the reconnaissance, and return home, himself, before nightfall.
Corner of his mouth twisting up in a hint of an ironic smile at that thought, Einar increased his pace. Back before nightfall, is it? Since when have you made it back before nightfall from one of these scouting expeditions, even when the snow wasn’t rotten and barely-navigable and your legs were working a bit more normally than they are, now? Well. He knew the answer, knew that one could not very well put a strict time-limit on such an information-gathering trip, but believed at the same time that his chances would be pretty good of making quick work of it, this time. Hopefully the situation wouldn’t even demand that he descend below the canyon rim. If it did…well, all bets were off and he would end up wishing he’d gone and consulted with Liz before setting out. In any case, enough pondering and debating with himself; time to go.
Day warmer than those that had come before, Einar struggled to find footing on the rotten snow, still-sore leg quickly tiring as he fell through numerous times and had to extract himself, climbing gingerly from the crumbly remains of ice and crust as he strove to avoid breaking it further. Not good. Didn’t like leaving so much sign, yet with temperatures creeping up above freezing, not even in the shade could he find solid footing, anymore. He could, though, reduce the visible trail he was leaving from the air if he did his best to keep beneath the trees, so this he did, down the narrow spine of a craggy, spruce-spiked ridge and into the tumbling confines of the rock-choked couloir which took off from its terminal end, sweeping down the mountainside. No rotten snow in there, not much snow of any kind, really, and he crept carefully but with as much speed as he could muster from boulder to boulder, testing the tenuous hold of each on the mountain. Most held, but a few did not, movement beneath his hands and once a desperate scramble to prevent a quarter ton chunk of lichen-encrusted granite from coming loose beneath him and thundering down the remaining three hundred vertical feet of the couloir. His weight quickly removed from the unstable behemoth Einar jammed his back against one side of the rocky chute, feet pressed hard against the other and hands behind him for stability, silent, breath held as he waited to see what the boulder would do. A heavy grating, the illusion of stillness, broken when he tore his gaze away from the massive granite piece below him and glanced at the side of the chute…
Nothing he could do, not once that thing started to gain momentum, and though he briefly considered throwing himself beneath the boulder and attempting to wedge it with a stout length of broken spruce trunk he saw lying on a ledge beneath it, the idea was quickly dismissed. A sure way to die, that one, and then how would he finish his reconnaissance of the smoke in the canyon? No need, as it turned out, for any heroic action on Einar’s part, boulder grinding to a slow halt before it could really gain any momentum and he—legs trembling with the strain of so long holding his position there above it—soon on his way again.
More cautious than ever after his incident with the boulder—it was one thing to risk losing one’s footing on the glassy sections of water ice that lay so smoothly contoured as to be all but invisible in some of the steep shadows of the couloir, but quite another to chance setting off a rockslide which would inevitably draw the attention of whoever camped down there in the canyon—Einar took the remainder of the descent quite slowly, testing each step and trusting nothing to sight, alone. Down at the bottom, then, ground opening up around him in a broad shelf of mixed spruce and aspen, last respite before the plunging steepness of the canyon wall, itself. Several more times on the descent Einar had caught a whiff of smoke, faint but unmistakable, and though he had hoped to have a more definite fix on the location of the camp by the time he began nearing the dropoff down into the canyon, such was not the case.
Afternoon light. Already he had been traveling for some time. Needed answers, so he could report back to Liz. So he could return to her before she really started wondering where he had gone, and—a moment of panic at the thought—perhaps even tried to follow him. Last thing he wanted was for her, with Will on her back, to end up in between the treacherous walls of that couloir, just waiting for the first freeze-loosened boulder to ease its way loose from its icy moorings and come tumbling down from above… This thought nearly turned him back, but he shook his head, carried on. Had come too far to return without at least some basic information regarding their uninvited guests. Must make a good effort to pin down the origin of that smoke, and put his eyes on the individuals who sat around the fire.
To the rim, then, and avoiding the more open ground beneath the aspens he zigzagged down the remaining dozen or two yards of forested slope, glad to see that he had happened to come out at a place where the walls fell away in a near-vertical drop beneath him, rather than a more gradual descent which would have allowed for the growth of trees and shrubs that might have obscured his view. He would be able to see.