The Kawapatri golf course in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir usually opened in early May. This coincided with the hot season in the plains of India and the migration of tourists to the mountains. The heat came and so did the tourists, but at Kawapatri winter failed to leave. On May 11, a new storm dropped three inches of snow during the night.
In the morning, guests from bungalows surrounding the links retreated to the Kawapatri Golf Hotel, a fortress-like structure that towered above the driving range on the crown of a steep knoll. It was the only heated public building at the resort. Pungent cigarette smoke, the smell of wet wool, and a babble of languages swirled together in the balcony lounge. British businessmen from Hong Kong, Australian tour groups, and Indian families from the tropical south huddled at the central fire pit, competing to thrust damp rumps and elbows an inch closer to the flame.
Of all the refugees, none was wetter than a young man who stood shivering in the cold lobby just outside the lounge. A soldier waited with him, armed with a pistol in a web belt. Newcomers gave the two a curious glance on their way to the fire. The young man was dressed for the storm in a long parka and heavy boots, but water drained from his sleeves and cuffs. When he started to edge toward the warm air of the lounge, the soldier motioned him back against the wall. He stepped back into the puddle that marked his place.
A bead of water found one of the grout lines, zigzagged around several tiles, and ended at a pair of polished boots. The prisoner looked up to face a large, dark-skinned officer with a swagger stick tucked under one arm. The guard had come to attention.
“You are the one who has just climbed the wall of this building,” the officer said. Not a question.
“I was just practicing. I was going to the mountains, but, you know, the weather . . . .” He gestured at the storm outside, but the officer’s stare never left his face.
“Your name, please.”
“You are from . . . ?”
“The US. I'm sorry if the climbing was a problem, I was just . . . .”
“We shall find out,” the officer interrupted, and pointed him down the hall.
In fact, Trager was as surprised by his ascent as the hotel officials who had called the military police. The wall had loomed out of the clouds as he trudged across the snowy green. The buttress was eighty feet high, rising from near the base of the hotel knoll to support the structure above. The rock was metamorphic, dark, striated with quartz. The holds were small but adequate. Trager had worn his boots on the plane to save space, and for that reason the airline had not lost them with the rest of his equipment. Their stiff soles stuck to the quartz nubbins despite sheets of water coursing down the wall. The angle at the base was not excessive and allowed him to climb in balance for the first fifty feet. It was only on the final headwall that he found his weight coming onto his arms. Still he climbed on, practicing the familiar moves, until the shock of ice water running into his sleeves made him stop and try to reverse a step. He could not.
The rain had a fresh, almost sweet taste. Its patter on the stone surrounded him with a cushion of soft sound. He had a toe hold for his right foot, and his finger tips were hooked on a painfully fine edge at neck level. There was a quarry drill scar by his waist, but he wasn't sure he could step that high, or if he could, whether his boot sole would hold on the rounded lip.
Trager’s concentration became narrow, impassive. He hefted his left boot onto the drill scar. The step was easier than he expected, but as soon as he leaned toward the hold, his right foot swung free. His fingers vibrated with the strain of holding his torso upright. He straightened above his hand holds until he could use them no more. His fingers abandoned the ledge and skipped up the stone like blind spiders, reading a braille of edges and cracks. Trager balanced with his entire weight centered on a millimeter of rock. Through the thick boot, he felt as if he stood on nothing, as if he had won the battle with gravity for all time. He almost regretted finding a deep crack for his hands at the top of the block.
His left foot popped off. As his arms took his weight, he felt the strength ebb from his hands. He scrabbled his feet to new holds, racing fatigue. He climbed quickly, unquestioningly, concentrating on each move, forgetting it as soon as it was accomplished. When Trager finally stood in the slush of the sun deck looking down the wall, he could not remember exactly where he had been on the rock. It was an exhilarating amnesia, the blank space of a moment so completely used that it had been completely used up.
Trager’s boots squished as he walked between the guard and officer. They stopped at a door, and the officer made Trager go in first. Behind him the noise from the lounge was suddenly cut off.
He stood in a narrow paneled chamber. A single tall window looked out onto the side of the lounge balcony. Coals glowed in an ornate fireplace, and antique colored etchings of imperial British cavalrymen hung at regular intervals above the wainscoting. Papers and beer bottles covered a long table in the center of the room. Two people sat across a corner of the table from each other near the fire. One was a graying, potbellied man in an overstretched rugby jersey.
The other was a suntanned blond woman in a long skirt and shawl. She had a striking face—high cheekbones and bright blue eyes framed by the lightest hair Trager had ever seen.
The officer stood by the door and announced, “There you are, Max, I have rescued your climber. Another favor you owe me.”
Trager looked back and was glad to see the guard had been left outside.
“Bullshit!” the potbellied man said. “You still owe for the last fishing trip.”
“Yes, but once again I have had to land your catch. Excuse us—Mr. . . . ?”
“Trager. Ansel Trager.”
“Yes. Mr. Trager, I am Colonel Battarchaya, Director of the Kawapatri Military Training Center, which shares these facilities with the tourist operation. And here you have Max Holz, a countryman of yours. Also the greatest wildlife conservationist in India.” He gave a small bow toward the potbellied man. “Max maintains our native fishery by graciously casting his flies into streamside shrubbery and the backs of grazing sheep.”
Max snorted, and the woman laughed. “And this,” Battarchaya went on, “is Miss Freya Martens, who knows better than to associate with Max, but who has a charitable heart.”
The woman flashed him a smile. A slight slackness around her cheeks showed her to be older than Trager, but her wide blue eyes were childlike in their size and intensity. It was a handsome, if not exactly pretty face, which Trager found vaguely familiar.
The Colonel nodded pleasantly around the room. “If you will excuse me, I have my duty. I look forward to a full account of Mr. Trager’s ascent. We shall perhaps have to add this exercise to our training program.” Trager let out a long breath as the door closed behind Battarchaya.
Max pushed one of the liter beer bottles in Trager’s direction. “We're a little short of glasses,” he said. “But you're not the kind of guy who needs a glass, are you?”
“No, that'll be fine. Thanks.”
“Shit, no, you don't even need a door to the goddamned building.”
Trager glanced out the window beside Max. It looked down the height of the wall below the sun deck. He felt the embarrassment of having been caught in a private act.
Freya Martens smiled again. “Give me your parka,” she said. “I'll hang it by the fire. Sit with us.”
She spoke with a Canadian flatness to her vowels, and her voice was low and clear. She hung the wet jacket on a corner of the fire screen and pulled out a chair between herself and Max.
“Thanks,” Trager said. “Did you just bail me out in there?”
“Did we?” Max asked.
“I thought that guy was going to arrest me.”
“Battarchaya? Maybe he just wanted to introduce us.” Max took a pull on his beer. “You know, one climber to another.”
Trager was skeptical. Nothing about Max’s physique suggested a mountaineer. On the other hand, Freya had an athlete’s build and a mountain suntan. Her wide eyes were accented by white circles where dark glasses had shielded her skin.
“You're the first climbers I've met in India,” he said. “Are you on an expedition?”
“Are you?” Max asked.
Freya leaned closer to him and said, “We have a travel company. We take people trekking and climbing. Right now we're trying to organize a trek out of Kawapatri. What about yourself?”
“Just looking around,” Trager said. “A few friends and I were talking about putting together an expedition to the Himalaya for next year, so I came over by myself to find something to climb.”
“Really?” Freya asked. “What have you come up with?”
“Nothing. I got held up in San Francisco because of the airline strike, and when I finally got to Delhi I found they had managed to lose the duffel bag with all my gear—ice axe, crampons, tent, sleeping bag, everything. Then it turned out it wouldn't have made any difference, because of this weather.”
“The shits,” said Max. “So what are you doing here? Come up for a little golf in the Himalaiya?”
Max was making fun of Trager’s pronunciation. Trager addressed his answer to Freya. “I thought I might at least get a look at the mountains. I've been riding buses all over Kashmir. I got up to Kishtwar, but the bridge above town was washed out, and I couldn't get across the Chenab River. Then I went over to the ski area at Gulmarg, but there weren't any big peaks. I guess that’s not really part of the . . . Himahlya?”
Freya nodded. Max smirked at his bottle. “I wanted to go up to Ladakh, on the other side of the mountains,” Trager went, “but by the time I got to the Zoji pass, the storm had closed the road. A hundred degrees in Delhi, and it’s still winter up here.”
“Not exactly winter,” Freya said. “I was in Ladakh a week ago, and came back over the road without any problem. It’s just an unusual spring.”
“Springtime in Kashmir,” Max muttered, and made a farting noise with his mouth.
Freya frowned at him, and said to Trager, “That’s the name of this trek we're trying to run: ‘Springtime in Kashmir.’ We've got some of the same problems you do, plus some others.”
“I'm sure this guy doesn't want to hear about our problems,” Max said. “Do you?”
“Sure—I don't care, I mean, I don't mind . . . .”
“Shit no,” Max went on. “You're here to look at mountains. You got places to go, things to see.” Max was talking too loud for the small room. “Let me ask you something. How’s your stool?”
“Your stool,” said Max. “Do you get the runs?”
“No,” said Trager. “I'm pretty careful.”
“Freya, get this!” Max said. “First trip to India, and he still takes a solid shit!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Max!” Freya said. “Ansel, how long are you planning to stay here?”
“I'm not,” Trager said. “I’ve got more than two months left on my visa, but I'm using my return ticket to Delhi this afternoon, and then I'm going home.”
Freya looked quickly at Max.
“Going home?” Max asked. “Where’s that?”
“Right now, Oregon,” Trager said. “Portland.”
“What do you do back there, Ansel?” Freya asked.
“Ski area work. Outward Bound. Equipment sales. Whatever it takes to keep me climbing.”
Max nodded. “Big mountains in Oregon. Must be, what—ten, eleven thousand feet?”
“A little lower than the pass above Kawapatri. About the same as the valleys in Ladakh.”
There was an aggressive edge to Max’s voice that Trager did not know how to take. “I guess so,” he said. “I have to go. I have to catch the bus to Srinagar this afternoon.”
“Shit, it costs a lot to fly to India now,” Max said. “Goddamn air fares just went up.”
“That’s what I found out. Thanks for the beer.”
“A hell of a lot, just to run back to those chickenshit mountains in Oregon.”
“Hey, what’s your problem?” Trager said, and reached for his jacket.
Max put his hand on top of it. “Bugging out? You come halfway around the world, and all you do is ride buses for two or three weeks?”
“Eight days,” Trager said. “That was enough. Anyway, it’s nothing you have to worry about.”
“Bullshit,” Max said. “Our business is adventure. That’s what people pay us for. Hey, you're not my client or anything, but it pisses me off to see someone crap out of a trip.” He stopped and stared hard at Trager. “Eight days? You went all over northwest India in eight days? By fucking bus? Shit, I've been here for years, and I've never seen Kishtwar at all! At that rate, you could see every fucking mountain from Nepal to Pakistan by the end of the summer. You've got the stomach for it—all you need is the balls.”
“Max! Stop!” Freya said. “Ansel needs to go. And we have work to do.” She rose from her chair.
Christ, Trager thought. She was more than six feet tall, with shoulders broader than his own. She walked him to the door. “If you have any trouble getting out, come back and look us up,” she said. “We're driving through Srinagar this afternoon and could give you a ride to the airport.”
”Thanks. I know where to catch the bus.”
At the hotel door, porters in long farin cloaks hunkered over small clay-lined baskets of coals. As Trager emerged, they jumped to their feet and began calling to him. Each man had a short wooden sled at his side. Trager caught on that he was expected to sit on a sled and be pulled to his bungalow. He couldn't imagine a more undignified and unnecessary service. He walked away down the side of the knoll and across the golf course.
At the edge of the green he came to a narrow sunken road. He turned onto the lane just ahead of one of the sled porters pulling a woman wrapped in a blanket. She clutched at the edges of her sari to keep it from dragging in the slush. A well-dressed man in a sport coat walked beside, shouting encouragement.
The two of them giggled like children every time the sled veered or tipped. Trager regarded the Indian tourists with a kind of envy. A slippery road was all they needed for their adventure. He, on the other hand, needed an entire mountain range. Walking with his chin in his collar, he did not notice the overtaking footsteps until a moment before a hand touched his shoulder.
Freya Martens was at his side. She wore a fleece jacket and carried a small day pack.
“I wanted to apologize for Max,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. He was just getting on my nerves. My problem.”
“I don't think so,” said Freya. “Can I walk with you?”
“Sure,” said Trager. She fell in beside him. Trager noted the worn toes of hiking shoes poking from under the hem of her long skirt.
“I'm sorry about your trip,” Freya said. “I suppose the rest of them were counting on you.”
“The rest of who?”
“The other climbers. Your friends.”
“Oh, right. They'll get over it.”
They walked a few more paces, and then Freya said, “Would you like another chance?”
“What do you mean?” Trager asked.
“Another chance at your mountain. Would you like a job?”
Trager stopped walking. “This isn't going to be one of those offers to change money or sell hash, is it? I always turn those down.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Freya laughed. “We're a travel company. We need someone to lead a trek next month, that’s all. We were just talking about it with Ravi—Colonel Battarchaya—when you came scrambling past the window. He ran out and grabbed you. Have you ever guided before?”
“Outward Bound, like I said. Ski patrol in the winter. Outdoor program climbs in college.”
“Where was that? What did you study?”
“Portland State. Psychology.”
“Perfect! You’ll certainly get to use that with some of our clients.”
“If they’re rats working for pellets. Look, I've never done a trek. What I do know is that things go a lot better leading a group if you know where you're going and have the equipment you need. I don’t have either.
“But we do! You'd have our best sirdar along—that’s like the head porter, or crew chief. And we have all your equipment. Have you done any trips as long as this trek? How long do Outward Bound treks last?”
“We call them courses. Depends on the school, but mine were three weeks in the North Cascades. And I climbed Mt. Foraker in Alaska last year. That was a couple of weeks. And I spent a month bushwhacking in the British Columbia Coast Range the summer before that.”
Freya smiled. “I don't think Springtime in Kashmir would be any problem for you. Just nine days with six clients, and there are only a couple of days of steep snow when you'd have to be on your toes. The baggage will be on ponies, and if horses can make it, you know the trail can't be too bad. And listen—there are enough unclimbed routes to look at along the way to keep you and your friends busy for years. Plus you'd make a few hundred dollars. Are you at all interested?”
Trager was very, very interested. But Max’s taunting still grated on him. “Why didn't you ask me before? Why the hustle in the hotel?”
“Because it’s Max’s company, and that’s what he considers an interview. I knew you were going to tell him to go to hell, and I'm the one who really needs the help. I'm supposed to lead Springtime in Kashmir, but I need to go back up to Ladakh with Max as soon as the road opens. We have a new program up there we have to get organized, and I know Max can't do it alone.”
“Frankly, it doesn't look to me like Max has done much of anything in the mountains.”
Freya smiled. "You might be surprised. Max has trekked all over. But it's been a few years."
A crude archway of logs stood by the side of the road. A hand-lettered sign at the apex read, Bungalow Nanga Parbat de Lux. Beyond the arch a low building with a sagging roof lay in the gloom of a dripping pine grove.
“This is home,” Trager.
“Oh, my God! I stayed here years ago, and they haven't done a thing to it. May I come in? I have some things you should look at.”
A gray-haired chowkidar, or caretaker, shuffled around the dining room in his farin hunting drips with an aluminum teakettle. He eyed Freya suspiciously. Trager led the way down a narrow hall with puddles on the worn carpet. The only light came through a dirty window at the end. When Trager stopped at his door and looked back, it was a tossup which was brighter, the light from outside or its reflection on Freya’s hair.
Underwear, socks, jeans, running shoes, toilet kit, notebook, and a small camera were strewn on the low bed and cold wood stove. Trager was embarrassed by his own shabbiness. Freya seemed unconcerned. She quickly unlaced her hiking shoes and hopped up to sit cross-legged on the bed with her feet tucked under her skirt. "Do you mind?" she asked. "I left my climbing boots in Ladakh, and my feet are soaked in these."
Freya opened her pack and pulled out a large manila envelope. She turned it on end and dumped a pile of papers and pamphlets onto the dingy bedspread. Trager looked at the color brochure she picked out for him.
It's H O T ! A New Season of High Adventure with Holz Overseas Trekking Service
The title floated in a blue sky above a ridge silhouette. On the inside fold, Freya Martens beamed at the reader from an alpine rock garden. She was clearly not wearing a bra under her sleeveless t-shirt.
"OK. I've seen this brochure. I thought your face looked familiar."
"Thank you. Most people don't notice the face. The trek is on page three or four.“
Springtime in Kashmir was illustrated with a picture of a meadow full of sheep. The text read:
Kashmir's famous Vale is never more beautiful than in early spring. The orchards and fields of the valley floor are green with life. Winter snow still clings to the surrounding mountains, reflected in the water of Srinagar's famous lakes. On the hillside pastures, lambs graze on the new grass. Come ramble through this enchanted land, the vacation retreat of kings. We will trek across the spectacular Janavar Pass and into the remote Sonjal Valley to greet the first wildflowers of spring. An unforgettable experience! Rated C: backpacking experience required.
IATA # ITSTGIHOTZO
Dates: May 14-June 1
Land cost: $1995
“Grazing lambs? Wildflowers?”
“Keep in mind that most of this trek is on the other side of the Janavar Pass,” said Freya. “It’s drier over there. Sit down. Let me show you on the map.”
Freya got to her knees and swiveled around so that she crouched next to him, nudging him lightly with her hip. The scale of the map she unfolded was huge—one to a quarter million. Tiny black squares indicating villages dotted the sheet like grains of pepper. They gradually disappeared near a central white strip labeled Great Himalaya Range.
“This is from the U.S. Army,” Freya said, “and it’s not very good. But the Indians think any map is a security risk. We don't flash these around in front of police or military.”
“I tried to order some of these,” Trager said. “They wouldn't let me have them. I just came over with notes from climbing journals.”
“Your sirdar will know where to go. The trail starts right here, at Kawapatri. It takes three days to cross the first pass, the Janavar Gali, here. You’ll have ice axes for the clients. A couple of ropes, too, but I don’t think you’ll need them. You'll have to make sure the clients know how to use their axes. There are peaks on either side of the pass—you can see them from here when the weather’s good—but the rock is pretty broken up for climbing.”
“How broken up? Like the Canadian Rockies?”
“You know the Rockies?”
“I spent a month poking around the Columbia Icefields once. Mt. Andromeda . . . “
“Mt. Athabasca . . . .”
“Yes! What did you do? The northwest ridge?”
“The north face. Nice climb.”
“I know! Oh, Ansel, that’s where I grew up. If we were there, I could take you . . . ” She broke off with a laugh. “Sorry. You want to know about the trek.”
That was not entirely true, but Freya was back over the map again.
“All right. The Janavar Gali. Northeast, on the other side of the Sonjal River, this glacier area includes probably a half-dozen nineteen-thousand-foot peaks that haven't been climbed. Those are the ones I thought you’d be interested in. You walk for two or three days up to the Sonjal La at the head of the valley—about thirteen thousand feed—and cross back into Kashmir. Jeeps meet you at the end of the road and take you into Srinagar. That’s it. It’s really not a big deal.”
“There must be something to it, or you wouldn't be asking two thousand dollars.”
“Plus air fare. That’s nothing,” she said. “Why do you think people hire us? They need everything—food, equipment, and guiding. Don't forget how much you've already invested in climbing yourself. You can go on a trek with twenty-four hours’ notice. The clients can’t.”
“Wait,” Trager said. “Twenty-four hours?”
“This is the twelfth. The clients are already getting on their planes. They arrive in Delhi tomorrow night, come up here the next day, and are on the trail the morning of the fourteenth.”
“That doesn't leave much time to get organized.”
“It doesn't leave any time. But that’s the point—it’s already organized. You just have to go down to Delhi tomorrow morning to meet the clients.”
Trager felt a cramp in his stomach. Trager was not fond of cities, not even Portland. Delhi—hot, dusty, crowded, raucous Delhi—had been purgatory for him when he arrived in India. The Himalaya had no more formidable defense.
“Why couldn't I meet the people up here?”
“No need,” Freya said. “The sirdar takes care of all the logistics in Kashmir. But we do need someone to make sure all the baggage gets to the hotel, and that everyone gets on the right flight to Srinagar.”
“I didn't even hang onto my own baggage,” Trager said. “Are you sure sending a climber to do a travel agent’s job is a good idea?”
“This is what the clients expect. A western leader to meet them at the plane. And what the clients expect is what your job is. But I need to know—have you decided to lead the trek?”
He picked up the map and stared at it, trying to disentangle Freya’s description of the Sonjal Valley from his own memory of the crowds and heat of the city. Freya reached out and touched him on the arm. “Ansel, the adventure travel business is still a business, and in any business you have to deal with people. No, guiding is not like a day hike with friends. But that’s what makes it special. People need you as a leader. And when have you needed to see any mountains as much as the Himalaya?” She pronounced the word as Trager had. Himalaya.
“How do you know what I need?” he asked. “You just met me.”
“Sure. But don't I know someone who would ride Indian busses for a week just to get a look at the mountains? Who can't keep his hands off the first rock he finds, even if it’s a hotel wall? I remember coming to Kashmir the first time myself, watching every cloud from the plane, hoping it would turn out to be a glacier.”
Her fingers were still on his arm, and they moved down until she was holding his hand. “I went up to Gulmarg—just like you did, but on a clear day—and stared all afternoon at the Karakoram from the top of the ski lift. I didn't even know they were across the border in Pakistan. I didn't care. I just thought, here I am—this is the place. And I remember how you looked, climbing on that wall, totally absorbed, completely in balance. So yes, Ansel, I think I know you very well.”