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9 Darcha

They kept him in a Public Works Department bungalow in Darcha. The cinder block building stood out like a castle above the mud walls and thick willow roofs of the village itself. Trager was served potato curry twice a day, but what little he ate he regretted. The digestive tract that had so impressed Max Holz succumbed to Indian Army rations. The bungalow lacked indoor plumbing, but the latrine was nearby and clean, and they let Trager go without a guard. In fact, the bungalow was always open. There was no place for him to go. All his equipment had been confiscated along with his camera. He was not so much imprisoned in Ladakh, as buried in it. The mountains across the road from his window could have been a mural painted on the walls of a cave.


Trager would not have felt so cut off if he had been able to talk to the others on the morning after the bivouac. He could at least have given them a message, a plan for getting him out. But the officer had ordered Trager into the jeep, leaving one of his gun-toting louts to walk the rest of the party down to the village. At some point while Trager was going through his first interrogation, the bus had come to Darcha and gone away with the last remnants of Springtime in Kashmir. At least that was what the officer said.

“How do I know you didn't just shoot them?” Trager asked.


“Why would I have shot them?” the officer asked. “I have not even shot you.” He smiled, and blew a cloud of smoke. He seemed to enjoy playing inquisitor. His name was Nazir, a lieutenant-—or, as he pronounced it, leftenant. He had narrow Aryan features, unlike the broad Mongolian faces of the villagers who occasionally peered in through the windows. One bedroom of the bungalow had been converted into an interrogation cell. Nazir had moved in a desk on which he arranged his swagger stick and cigarettes.


“What did you do with the money from my pack?” Trager asked.


“Your sirdar claimed those funds for purchasing your party’s bus tickets. He is Ladakhi; he is known in Darcha. He assured us the others were merely ignorant tourists. Surely you don't mistrust Lakpa Tsering?”


Trager did. Both he and Lakpa had explanations to make about their trek, and the sirdar may have decided to make sure he got his word in first.


“I need to contact Max Holz or Freya Martens. They're my employers.”


“Exactly. And Mr. Holz and his associates are now specifically excluded from the Restricted Area. Was your intrusion his idea?”


“When did Max lose his trekking permits?” Trager asked.


“As of seventeen May.”


“We left Kawapatri on the fifteenth. I was on the trail. How could I know anything about it?”


“Yes, how?”


“This trek was scheduled for months. Ask Colonel Battarchaya at Kawapatri. He knows me.”


“This officer is not at Kawapatri. I am given to understand he has resigned his commission. In any event, Kawapatri has nothing to say about Ladakh.”


“Does the American embassy know where I am?”


“This is for you to tell me.”


“Someone should at least notify my family.”


“So! This is a secret mission. Even your own family does not know where you are. I ask again the nature of your business in the Restricted Area.”


“I was just trying to get my clients out of the mountains.”


“Then what was the purpose of the signals we intercepted?”


“That was a flashlight shining on the snow. We got caught on the glacier after dark.”


“I see. But you say this was an easier route down.”


“I was wrong. But I did get my clients out of the mountains alive. That’s what they paid for.”


“You were paid. As we thought. And what was the nature of this work in the Restricted Area?”


The questions went around and around on the same themes, until they too seemed to be part of the walls and mountains holding Trager in. Trager stopped using what freedom he had. As his diarrhea subsided, he stayed in the bungalow. He lay awake at night and slept at odd hours. The moon was full in Darcha. It shone in his window and reflected off the pale dusty ground with a light so intense that there was no difference between midnight and dawn. And Nazir could appear at any time to ask questions.


Trager was asleep at midday when the Leftenant burst into his room to announce,


“You will please ready yourself for going. They wish to talk to you in Kargil.”


“Who does?” Trager said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.


Behind Nazir, a woman’s voice said, “I do.”


She was framed by the door against the glare outside. She was even taller than he remembered, towering over Nazir. Her tan seemed lighter, her hair darker. Her figure was concealed under an oversize khaki blouse and full skirt. Her cheeks were stained with road dust, and her blue eyes looked strained and bleary. For all that, Trager thought Freya Martens looked perfectly beautiful.


“Pick up your things,” she ordered, and walked out with Nazir. Trager stared at the empty doorway, still waking up. A motor growled to life outside, and Trager scrambled to throw his socks and underwear into his pack. In the road, Freya was at the wheel of the blue jeep. The officer stood by the car door, holding his swagger stick under one arm.

Freya gunned the engine. "We'll talk later," she said. "Get in."

Freya put the jeep in gear, steered deftly around the children, and accelerated out of the village. Trager turned to see Nazir standing in the exhaust, flicking his swagger stick before the empty bungalow.


Freya waited until they had rounded the first corner before she spoke. She did not look at him, but stared at the road, ignoring strands of light hair that the breeze tossed into her eyes. “Do you have any idea what you've done?” she shouted over the engine. “I've just spent two weeks convincing the government that I can be trusted to follow all the rules. And then along comes Ansel Trager, throwing my name around, walking into Ladakh over a pass the Army considers a military secret. Did Vasant put you up to this?”

Trager was taken aback. “Vasant didn't even want to do the trek. Didn't Lakpa tell you that?”


“Yes. He also told me it was your idea to come into the Restricted Area.”


“Lakpa was lost. If we hadn't gone into Ladakh, the clients would still be wandering up there.”


“They are anyway, from what I understand. You were supposed to pick up six people in Delhi. Then I get a cable from Vasant telling me everyone’s cancelled. Then the hotel at Kawapatri checks you in with four. Then some Sonjalis show up at Kawapatri saying you're at someplace called Gulpathar with two men and your Indian wife. Finally Lakpa gets off the bus from Darcha with two women and a middle-aged hippie. No equipment, no cook, no ponies, and one client apparently wandering back down the Sonjal on his own.”


Trager blinked his eyes. The road seemed to have fallen into the strange half-light of a dream.


“I have to explain all of this, you know,” Freya went on. “The whole point of the Restricted Area is that we don't go in or out of it, and you show up like you own the place. And then send Lakpa to me. I didn't even know you could get to Darcha from the Sonjal La.”


“I know you didn't,” said Trager.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


Trager started slowly, fanning a spark. “You didn't know about the Sonjal La. You didn't know about Gulpathar. You didn't know jack shit about this trek.”


Now Freya turned to look at him. The jeep hit a bump, tossing them both an inch off the seat.


“Watch the road,” Trager said.


“It was a new trek,” said Freya. “People are paying to see places other trekkers don't go.”


“Then your clients got their money’s worth. They got to see the cliffs you never noticed on the east side of the Janavar Gali. They got to see the ice field you didn't know about on the Sonjal La, where the porters fell off. They had good look into the crevasses of the glacier above Darcha that isn’t supposed to exist. The only thing they missed was the village of Doda, but then that disappeared thirty years ago. Did you really hire me because you needed to work with Max, or because you knew this trek was going to be as screwed up as the last one you did, and you wanted someone else to take the blame for it?”


“You don't have any right to say that. It shouldn't have been that big a job, and I thought you could do it.”


“And I pulled it off. I brought my clients out of the mountains alive. And that’s more than you can say.” That wasn't fair, Trager knew, but then no one had been particularly fair to him. Freya drove ahead, her hands tight on the wheel. She almost failed to make an S-curve when two goats bounded off the bank in front of her. “Slow down!” Trager said.


Freya brought the jeep to a shuddering stop. Trager caught himself on the dashboard. “If you want me to get out here,” he said, “how about loaning me bus fare to Delhi?”


The two goats had climbed back to the road and were nibbling at the edges of the canopy before Freya spoke again. “It looks like we’d better start over,” she said.


“Fine,” Trager said. “I'm in Ladakh because we got caught in a storm and I had to take the fastest route out of the mountains. I told that to the Leftenant, and I'll explain it again to anyone who needs to know.”


“We'll talk about that later. I mean let’s start all over. I mean, I’m glad you brought your trek through. I’m glad you're okay. Welcome to Ladakh.”




The Kara Koram Lodge in Kargil was actually a cluster of bungalows around a central dining hall in an apricot orchard overlooking the town. The owner had diverted the runoff from a spring for irrigation, and as Freya and Trager walked up and down the rows of greening trees, they were surrounded by the sounds of rustling leaves and trickling water.


“I guess you were the first person to find out about Vasant’s plan to close the company down,” Freya said. “As far as I knew, all Vasant and I were going to do was ask Max to let us have more control over trekking in Ladakh. Why Vasant decided on that scorched-earth policy of pulling out, I don’t know. All I can think is that he changed along with everything else when Weston Ferndecker fell into the Murghi nala. Max committed all he had to Ladakh. When the government threatened to pull the permit for the Restricted Area, Vasant must have panicked.”


“But he was right,” Trager said. “About Max, I mean.”


“I know. Max was one of the first outfitters to bring tourists to Ladakh when the area was opened after the last war. He doesn't see that Ladakh now has more foreign travel companies than they know what to do with. He said ‘fuck ’em,’ right and left, and the District Commissioner threw us out. I told Max it was his own damn fault, and he told me to go to Hell. It’s no use trying to change him. Vasant simply figured that out before I did.”


“So how come you're still here?” Trager asked.


“Max left for Delhi and California. He thinks he still has some strings to pull. When he was gone, I did the same thing as Vasant. I struck out on my own. I went to the Army and the Tourist Department, and said, ‘How about me? Without Max?’ Without Max, they said, you’ve got it. I don’t know why I never thought of it before. I was the only applicant who had actually led a trek in the area before it was closed.”


“They didn't hold Ferndecker’s accident against you?”


“I blamed it on Max.” She smiled. “As I think about it now, I see that’s what we'll do with your trek too.”


“Who is ‘we’?” Trager asked.


“‘We’ are myself and a couple of Indian friends who are willing to own fifty-one per cent of me so that I can do business in this country. And you, if you're still interested.”


“That’s what I want to know. Where do I fit in to all this?”


“I’m trying pick up Max’s clients, the ones who have already paid for treks and climbs. We won’t make any money, but we have to use the Restricted Area permit to keep it. The first trip is in two weeks. Eight clients on the first ascent of Murghi-II. Max actually sold the first ascent of a six thousand-meter peak—can you believe it? All the permits in the world wouldn't allow Max to actually operate a trip like that. He hasn't even been on the trail in two years, much less lead a rope at nineteen thousand feet. There’s only one man in the world who’s in position to lead that trip right now. And one woman. And it’s probably going to take both of us to do it.”


If Trager had thought about it, he would not have hugged Freya. But he did not think about it, and when, a little embarrassed, he started to let go, it was she who held onto him.


“It seems like a long time since someone has been happy to work with me,” she said, her head on his shoulder. “I can be a bitch. You know that. But I’ve spent a lot of time being frightened these past few days, and things aren't going to be easy for a while. I won't even know if we can pay you for the climb until after it’s over. The only money I can promise is whatever’s left from Springtime in Kashmir.”


“If I end up going home as broke as I was two weeks ago, it’s still more than I dreamed of.”


Freya stepped back. “Dream bigger,” she said, “if you want to work with me.” She took his arm as they walked back toward the bungalows. “You sold a trip that had been written off, collected the money, did the trek, paid your bills, and finished with cash left over. Ansel, for ten days you may have run the most profitable adventure travel company in the world.”



The owner of the Kara Koram was a solidly-built Kashmiri named Roger Kaul. He offered Trager and Freya Scotch in the small library of the main lodge. Roger and Freya did most of the drinking, while Trager scribbled at a report of his trek.


“Look at this fellow write!" Roger said, "Have you retained him as a mountaineer or as your secretary?”


“It would be a lot easier to do it in triplicate if I had a sheet of carbon paper,” Trager grumbled.


“Oh, but they want you to sweat over it,” said Roger. “When you are done with this Restricted Area business, you shall be able to compose that sort of thing in your sleep.”


“Don’t put in everything,” Freya said. “Just enough so I can show the Army that you see the error of your ways.”


“What should I say about Lakpa’s error?” Trager asked.


“Are you referring to his route finding or his relationships?”


Roger guffawed. “Has that boy been naughty again? You said you were going to let him go if he dipped into the cherry bowl one more time.”


“This was no cherry,” said Freya said. “And Lakpa may have saved the day. At least she got some satisfaction from the trek.”


“Sorry,” Trager said. “It wasn't in the job description.”


“Your job was fine. If Max tries to turn her husband on us, we can tell the truth: It wasn't your fault. Also, it might be useful to have something to hold over Lakpa Tsering.”


Roger grunted. “Spoiled, is he?”


“It looks that way,” Freya said. “Ansel said he was pretty cheeky toward the end.”


“But you know he did the best thing at Darcha,” said Roger. “That Nazir is a martinet. He could have locked up the whole party. Going over the Leftenant’s head was the quickest way to free your man.”


“True, but if I hadn’t already gotten the Restricted Area permit, Ansel would still be eating army rations in the PWD bungalow. In any case, we’re going to have to remind Lakpa what his job is.”


“That’s a switch,” Trager said. “Most of the time he reminded me.”


“Exactly,” Freya said. “So leave Lakpa out of the report. You were the leader. Yours is the only apology that counts.”


“What about Sundown and Pratima?” Trager asked.


“Them too.”


“No, I mean, how did they act when you saw them at the bus? I just want to know.”


“Why?” Freya asked.


“They were the ones who made the trek go. They let me in on some of their own problems. And they stuck up for me, even though they had all the close calls.”


“Sometimes that’s what makes it for a client,” said Freya. “Our mistakes provide the biggest thrills of all. For what it’s worth, those two were worried about you, especially the girl. And they seemed pretty close. Clingy. People in the bazaar were staring.”


“I’d stare too,” Trager said. “Do you know what they were like when I first met them?”


“No,” Freya said. “And I don't care. And neither should you. Don’t wonder about any of your clients after a trek. There are too many of them and only one of you. Now finish that report. Talk a lot about the weather, not very much about the people. Make sure they know you were working for Max, don’t say anything bad about Leftenant Nazir, and leave me out altogether.”


“Good Lord, woman,” Roger said. “Why not just write it yourself? Do sit down. You are acting like a nervous school girl.”

Freya had gotten up to straighten her blazer and blouse in a wall mirror. “These are my negotiating clothes. I'm going to wear them out before the summer is over. It’s a real trick, you know? I have to look businesslike, but not masculine. Otherwise they treat me like a child who doesn’t know her place. But if I’m too feminine, I’m just a woman who doesn’t know her place. What with having had a woman for Prime Minister, I’d expect you people would have come around by now.”


There was the noise of tires on the drive outside. “Oh, God, here they are!” Freya cried. “Ansel, are you done?”


“Just a minute . . . there! I don’t know if they can read that last copy, but I'm sure they’ll find somewhere to stick it.”


“Hah, he is already beginning to talk like Max!” Roger said.


Freya did not laugh. “These things usually run late,” she said. “Don’t worry if I miss dinner.”


Trager watched as a young man let her into the back seat of a small sedan, then got behind the wheel. As the car pulled away, Roger asked, “So, how does it feel to be in Max’s place?”


“I don’t think I’m in Max’s place,” Trager said. “I’m just a climber. I’m not running
anything here.”


Roger nodded. “A man who knows his situation.” He reached across the table and filled Trager’s glass to the brim. “I must see to my duties and I am taking my whiskey away with me, but I will not be considered a miser of drink. You need only find me to ask for more.”


“If I finish this,” Trager said, “I'll be lucky to find the door.”


Trager leaned back in his chair after Roger had left, thinking of how far he had come from his detention in Darcha that morning. On reflection, it was not as far as he would like. The empty room and the time on his hands already reminded him too much of imprisonment. He sipped at his drink, and scanned the full-height bookshelves, looking for anything of interest. Roger’s collection consisted of travel guides, natural history books, hunting and exploration tales, and a number of classic and obscure novels. The Scotch was having an effect on Trager’s ability to focus, and he was about to take his glass back to the bungalow when he picked out a current date on the spine of a journal. Walking up to the shelf, he found that Roger had several decades’ worth of the Himalayan Journal, the mountaineers’ record of climbs and expeditions. On an inspiration, he opened the index edition.


There was only one reference to the Murghi valley, which turned out to be a brief note that in 1946 a group of English and American officers had “followed Richardson as far as the gompa.” Trager recalled overhearing references to a gompa, or monastery, during his Darcha incarceration, but no such building was anywhere near the village. Trager also looked up the most recent Indian Army climb of Everest. The account was all martial language, with the peak described as “the target” and the climb as “the mission.” The author did not mention the view or climbing techniques, only the schedule of campsites and an alphabetical list of personnel. Trager found Lakpa’s name under “High Altitude Porters.” He was about to put the journal away when another name caught his eye: Nazir, A., Leftenant. His nemesis was a mountaineer.


“Hello, sahib?”




The sirdar stood in the door, smiling as he had on their first meeting in Kawapatri, wearing the same jeans and ski sweater. Trager juggled his drink and book for a moment, then set both down on the floor and shook Lakpa’s hand. He knew he was supposed to regard the Ladakhi as “spoiled,” but he was going to leave that to Freya. “Where did you come from?” he asked.


“Srinagar, sahib, just now, with Sonam.”


“Sonam made it! What happened to Harry Macintosh?”


“I am not seeing Harry-sahib. Men in Lunwali tell Sonam he is walk out Sonjal, back of Manali, out to Chenab River.”


“Manali! I went there on a bus! It’s what—a hundred miles from here? What did Leslie say?”


“I am not talking to Leslie, no.” Lakpa became visibly reserved.


“Listen,” Trager said. “I don't care about you and Leslie. I really don't. And neither does Freya.”


“No, sahib. But I am not seeing her after Kargil bus. I think she is go to hotel. Others are on houseboat.”


“Sundown and Pratima?”


“And the mother.” He reached under his sweater and produced a wrinkled envelope from his shirt pocket. “Pratima says, for you.”


Trager started to tear open the corner, but at that moment Roger stuck his head into the room. “See here, chaps, your lorry driver is taking out the wall of the building. Be some good fellows and show him the road.”


It was dark outside. A truck was backing up the driveway, guided by Sonam with a lantern. The cook flashed a smile of greeting to Trager as the truck’s rear wheel ground several flower pots to dust. Lakpa shouted, and the vehicle pulled forward to clear the building. The truck finally just parked where it stood. A Sikh driver got down from the cab and rolled back the tarpaulin that covered the load. The bed was loaded with wooden crates and piles of blue duffle bags.


“Is this Max’s equipment?” Trager asked.


“Freya’s equipment,” said Lakpa. It was an impressive amount of gear. There had been more to salvage from Holz than permits and rosters.


“What do you think of all this?” Trager asked. “You knew Max a long time, didn't you?”


“Yes, sahib. He is like little kid. Do this, and this, whatever he wants, always changing. He does some trekking, but he is not knowing these mountains. And he is never have money after a trek. I think, now, more work, better work. And more money. Even after Springtime in Kashmir, there is money left.”


Trager helped Sonam and Lakpa move the equipment into the bungalow, while the Sikh sat smoking in his cab. Trager could only guess at the contents of each load he shouldered in the dark: rattling bags of hardware, lumpy duffels, stiff bundles with protruding tent poles, oily stove sacks. Some were the same bags and cartons that he had lived out of for a week—with one difference. Wherever the HOTS logo had been stenciled, there was now only an empty rectangle of fresh black paint.

Springtime in Kashmir ©Talbot Bielefeldt 2020.

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