He had been walking down the river bed for hours. The clients were lost. He could tell. There should have been some sign along the trail by now.
He stood on top of a boulder and swept the long valley with the binoculars. At the upper end, the white tips of the main Himalaya poked above intervening rocky hills. The valley floor below was choked with mounds of rubble disgorged from the glaciers that flowed down from the crest. The entire party had camped together close to the ice last night.
Now all were lost in the maze of huge rocks that stretched from the glacier snouts to a bend in the valley below.
His eyes lingered on the intersecting ridge lines at the bend. If only they could make it that far, he thought. Below, there was some organization, some discipline to the wilderness. The goat paths collected into one trail. The braided glacier streams flowed into one river.
“That’s the place to find them,” he said aloud. “That’s the place to pick things up.”
His own voice had a pleasing familiarity, an agreeable tone that he had missed the last two weeks. This group had been a contentious lot. On the plane up from Delhi, on the road from Srinagar, on the trail and on the glacier, he had needed to constantly reassert his authority.
“It was that woman,” he said. “She put them up to it.”
He climbed off his rock and began to head downstream. Among the boulders, the heat was intense. His feet burned inside his heavy mountaineering boots, and the metal ice axe in his hand was hot to the touch. Almost immediately he had to make a detour to ford a branch channel. A half hour later, when he climbed another house-sized rock to get his bearings, he found he was heading upstream once more. He took a compass bearing on a narrow break of shrubbery on a hillside near the bend in the valley.
“Willows,” he said. “Some concentration of water there.” There was movement in the brush. He got out his binoculars. “Goats. Young ones. You can tell by the coats.”
A figure stepped out from behind a hush, hitching up baggy pants under a long smock. He refocused. “It’s a man, all right,” he said. “Local. You can tell by the cloak.”
He followed with the glasses as the man scrambled down the gully. Where the slope ran into the valley floor, there they were—a circle of people in bright T-shirts around a red tarpaulin. Other figures dressed in dark ponchos crouched to one side against a pile of blue duffel bags.
“Right where you‘d expect. The porters, too. Every one of them on the wrong side of the valley.”
One figure at the far side of the tarp stood up. Even at this distance, he could tell from the shape of the torso that it was a woman. Her close-cut, almost-white blond hair sparkled in the sun. She seemed to be shielding her eyes with both hands. When she waved one arm in the air, he realized she was looking back at him through another pair of binoculars.
He beckoned to her. She beckoned back. The two of them swung their arms at each other. Then the rest of the people around the tarp joined in, laughing, motioning him to come.
“Damn her!” he muttered. “Always disrupting meals.”
It took him almost forty-five minutes to follow his compass bearing across the boulder plain. When he reached the edge of the valley, he found that the main channel of the river ran between him and the hillside.
His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and the sand in his boots was wearing his feet raw. He sat on a rock by the churning stream and plucked at the front of his bush shirt to pump air under the sweat-soaked fabric. He was debating whether to risk drinking the silted water when a voice brought him to his feet.
He wobbled on the stone and caught his balance. The blond women was shouting at him from the far side of the stream. Her long legs splayed out of khaki culottes at a firm angle on the uneven ground. Her sunburned face was unnaturally dark under her platinum hair. Beside her was a short brown man in jeans and a sweatshirt. It was the chief porter, the sirdar, concern lining his boyish features.
“Wrong side!” the woman yelled over the roar of the water.
“Indeed!” He called back. The woman pointed downstream and began to walk in that direction.
“I mean you're on the wrong side!” he shouted, but she did not turn.
“This way, sahib!” the porter called.
He banged a rock with his ice axe in frustration. He took a deep breath to quiet himself. “No good to get angry. Bad example.”
He began to follow on his side of the river, picking his way carefully over the waterworn stones. The woman and the porter walked easily along the opposite bank. Every few yards they waited for him to catch up. The stream turned abruptly to the right. As he rounded the corner, he halted in surprise. Rising above the sunbaked rocks, a huge pile of dirty snow filled the channel from bank to bank, the remains of a massive avalanche from the previous winter. The nearest snowfields were now a thousand feet above the valley. The stream carved a tunnel through the center of the pile, leaving a graceful arch above the rushing water.
He kicked his toes into the softened crust, stabbed his ice axe in for balance, and quickly reached the crest of the span. The woman saw him climbing, and shouted, “Go down! Down!”
“No! No, sahib! This way!” the sirdar yelled, pointing downstream.
He was disappointed in the sirdar. Lakpa Tsering had seemed like a level-headed boy. The woman had a bad influence on them all. “The problem trekker. There’s nothing worse,” he said, as the snow bridge broke beneath him. The sheer edge of the fractured arch swept up in front of his nose like a white curtain.
“I could climb it,” he said. “Axe in piolet- . . . ” He tried to remember the term for the appropriate ice axe position. “Piolet-traction!” he cried, but the moment had passed. The water caught the fallen section of the snow bridge and carried it downstream with him standing on top.
“Jump!” the woman shouted from the bank as he passed. He shook his head. “The last thing I need to do is start taking orders from her,” he muttered. Then she was gone.
The sirdar tried to keep up, running along the bank, screaming, “Jump! Jump!”
He came to a decision. This was Lakpa’s last trip with the company.
His feet skidded out from beneath him. A thrill of alarm went through his body, and he scrambled on his knees to the end of the snow raft. He searched the moving bank for a place to get off. At that moment, he floated past the red tarp on the sand. The clients and porters were still at their meal. They gawked at him, tea cups or bidis halfway to their lips.
“God, don't look like a fool.” he muttered, trying to rise. The best he could manage was to lift one hand in salute. Then he had passed them. He could no longer keep his position on his knees. As he began to slide, he realized the block of snow was turning over. As he shifted his grip, the ice axe skidded out from under his hand. It vanished instantly in the opaque water.
“Glacier water. Can tell by the silt.” He followed his ice axe into the stream.
The stunning cold knocked the wind out of him. He tried to climb up the snow block, but his hands and feet could not grip the shifting surface. The block was upstream of him, pushing him ahead of it. The chalky taste of the silt was in his mouth. His skin felt wooden, dry.
The sound of the river grew louder. He twisted his head to look downstream. He was rushing toward another snowbank that blocked the channel. The current rolled up against the dam and then sucked underneath. He flailed at the raft, but only slipped deeper below the surface.
“This is it,” he said. “You can tell.”
Only sirdar Lakpa, staggering to the end of his sprint along the bank, was there to witness the man’s last words. The trekkers found him standing at one end of the snow dam, hands pressed together, head bowed.
The blond woman scrambled onto the snow to watch the water emerge downstream. The river churned up only ice chips and muddy foam. Behind her the others were screaming, “What the fuck was he doing this time?” “Why do we always have to wait for him?”
She could offer no explanation. It had to happen sooner or later, she supposed. Spend all your life in the mountains, it’s only a matter of time.
But truly, in all her years of guiding, never had she had such a client.