Freya had Trager drive the jeep. "It attracts less attention than having a woman at the wheel," she said. Yet people noticed them everywhere—in the bazaar, at the Kara Koram, on the road up to Darcha. Noticed, and turned away. "They know we're together," Freya said. “People like Viktor know better than to waste their time propositioning either of us.”
They drove through Darcha without a pause. The Public Works Rest House passed in a flash of whitewashed stone. Trager looked for a glimpse of the Sonjal La glacier, but it was hidden behind the bend of the canyon.
"You don't have to check in with Nazir?" Trager asked.
"I've already gone over his head," Freya said. "If we stopped to chat it would only humiliate him."
Above the village, the road followed the Murghi Nala in a narrowing valley, until constricting walls of red shale forced the track to switchback up a gravelly ridge. At the first corner above the stream, Freya said, “Pull off. Put it in four-wheel drive, and follow the nala as far as you can."
They parked after the track had already narrowed from two ruts to a single foot path. The slope so steep that the jeep crept backwards against the hand brake. Freya jumped out and wedged stones beneath the wheels. A faint trail traversed slopes of scree and cactus above the brown foaming stream. The day was hot, and Freya changed her khaki skirt for a pair of hiking shorts. "This is the only kind of place I can wear shorts," she said. "It's not considered appropriate dress for women in India."
"Leslie Macintosh wore them," Trager said.
They shouldered their heavy packs and started along the trail. Behind them, the road climbed barren slopes toward a high pass. In a few hundred yards they stopped to readjust the loads. Trager was surprised to find the road, the jeep, and the lower valley had already disappeared into the folds of the hillside. On the canyon floor the stream carved back and forth across a waste of boulders and glacial till. The trail clung to the slope, worming around the bases of crumbly cliffs.
"This is pretty narrow for ponies," Trager said. "The loads will bump the rock."
“We'll get by this season," Freya said. "Next year we put a road in."
"I am. It will just be a bulldozer track along the stream, and it will probably get washed out every year, but we'll be able to truck in supplies and construction materials."
"What construction materials do you need for a climbing camp?"
"This isn't just a climbing camp. Our clients expect more than that. I expect more than that. We're going to be living up here, remember. Do you want to spend three or four months a year without a place to wash or hang your clothes? At the very least, we'll have bunks, a wash house, and maybe solar water heat. We're here for the long haul."
After a few miles, below a cliff of friable yellow rock, a long waist-high stone wall divided the trail into two lanes. Freya kept the wall on her right, as Pratima had the cairn on the Janavar Gali. Compared to the cairn, this was a work of art. It was built of neatly placed slabs of stone, all of them completely covered with finely carved characters. Trager ran his hand over the graceful, clean cuts. It was the first time he had seen a mani wall, although he knew what it was from a childhood reading about Himalayan expeditions.
Freya traced each syllable. "'Om-ma-ni-pa-dme-hum.' It's a mantra. Mani is jewel, padme is lotus, and om is . . . om. So something like, 'the jewel is in the lotus’. It shows we’ve entered a Buddhist region. The lotus is a big symbol for them. Blossoms on top of muddy water. Something beautiful growing out of nothing.”
The trail dipped into a gulley still choked with gravelly snow. On the other side of the gulley was another wall just like the first. Beyond that was another gulley, another ridge, and another wall. And so on, at every turn of the trail. After half an hour of passing wall after wall, Trager asked, "Who did all the work?"
"Look up," Freya said. Trager was startled to find that the cliff he was walking beneath formed the lower buttress of what looked like a skyscraper. A tall, rectangular building rose out of the hillside a few hundred yards above the trail. Built of bricks the same color as the rock, it seemed to be a natural formation exposed by erosion. On the corners of the roof, long strips of white cloth fluttered in the warm breeze. "Murghi Gompa," Freya said. “This is the lamas’ work.”
"It's huge!" Trager said. "From below, you can't even tell it's here."
"That what makes it a good place for a gompa," Freya said. "And for a base camp, whatever Lakpa says." The trail dropped onto a sandy shelf dotted with large boulders.
"It looks OK to me as a camp.” Trager said to Freya. "Is Lakpa concerned about it violating something to do with the gompa?"
"Or something to do with ghosts," Freya said. "This is where Weston Ferndecker died. Just back where we crossed the snow. That avalanche track ran all the way across the stream last month. Ferndecker was on the wrong side of the stream. He tried to cross over on a snow bridge upstream, and it broke. He floated right past here—we were having lunch—and got sucked under the snow from that avalanche track. The nala has cut all the way through now, so we have to assume his body washed away. I looked for his equipment on the way up, and didn't see anything. Nazir said nothing had turned up downstream.”
“What did his family say?”
“As far as I know, the consulate is still trying to track them down. Wherever Mr. Ferndecker is now, he will keep until we get back."
One hour upstream from camp, they caught sight of the first snow peak. Only a white summit protruded above the craggy hills, giving no indication of the climbing problems below. "Murghi-I," said Freya. "Murghi-II is to the right. We can’t see it behind the ridge."
Trager looked up and down the valley, studying the proportions of the landscape between the flat below the gompa and the distant peaks. "You know, this is a funny place for base camp," he said. "It's far from the climbing, but it's also a ha1f-day from the road. It seems like it ought to be either on the road or up on the glacier."
"There are two things our clients want," Freya said. "Exclusiveness and comfort. If we set up too close to Darcha, our climbers will feel cheated. If we make them walk all day to the glacier, they'll feel abused. But for what it's worth, Max and Vasant agreed with you. They laughed when I told them we needed a comfortable base off the road. Cute idea, Freya, now go stick your tits back in that magazine ad and keep them there. Now I'm the one who got the permit, I'm the one who'll run the place, and I'm the one those bastards will have to come to if they want their clients to stay there."
"I'm not laughing," Trager said. "So relax."
"Sorry," she said, and reached for his hand. "One of the things you get to do is listen to me bitch. I haven't had someone like that around, so I’m kind of making up for lost time. Look—this isn’t an original idea. The Japanese have a hotel practically at Everest base camp in Nepal. The Alps have huts all over. My grandfather ran a mountain hotel in Alberta for thirty years. The Gletscherblick—Glacier View."
"But that was Canada," Trager said. “People could drive up in cars."
"People drove up in wagons," Freya said. "It was 1890."
"What happened after thirty years?"
"The glacier receded. It's nothing but a sand wash today."
"Like this?" Trager nodded at the Murghi valley.
"Open your eyes!" Freya jabbed a finger at the gompa. "That's a four hundred year-old Tibetan monastery. The only one in western Ladakh. Outfits like Viktor's organize trips just to look at places like that. We've got our very own. Even if a whole summer of expeditions gets stormed out, no one who gets this far will go away disappointed. When China opened up, people paid to look at a few communal factories. When restrictions were taken off Ladakh, tourists stood in line just to ride a jeep down the highway. If the Provincial Government had ever made a Restricted Area out of my moraine, the Gletscherblick would stand today."
In the early evening they came to the snout of a glacier that spilled into the valley from the direction of the Murghi peaks. Trager and Freya forded the foaming exit stream braced against each other, fighting to keep their balance in the current. On the far side, they rested on a sandy beach.
"I think Ferndecker got lost here on the way out,“ Freya said. "He hated this crossing going in, and I think he wandered down the wrong side of the nala hoping he'd find another ford."
"I noticed that old guide in Roger’s library belonged to him. And some Americans used the Richardson book to hike up here in 1947. Was that Ferndecker? Had he been here before?”
“You figured that out. I'm not sure how far he actually came up the valley in 1947. And it wouldn't have made any difference. How would you tell someone where to cross the stream?"
"Depends on how much meltwater is coming off the glacier. It would change with the temperature. I'd tell people to follow our route, unless the glacier melt is too great, in which case they'd have to get across to the east below here somehow."
"In other words, ‘proceed, except where impossible, up true left bank . . . .'"
"' . . . whence crossings may be accomplished on occasional bridges of snow.’ OK, I got it.”
"Now you see what reconnaissance reports are really like. A hundred-year-old one is about as good as one from last month. Unless something—or someone—comes along to make a permanent change."
"Like an avalanche that wipes out a village."
"Or a company that builds a new one."
They climbed along the edge of the glacier moraine to a gently sloping bench where a garden of blue gentian had taken root in the gravel near a cascade of ice water spilling off the glacier. Freya dumped her pack into the flowers and stretched her back and arms.
"Camp 1," she said. "At least for us. Once we have the base in, this will just be a lunch stop on the way to the climbing camps on the glacier."
Trager set his pack next to Freya‘s. The ground around them was patterned with large rectangles of pale, flattened plants. “Tent sites from last month," Freya observed. "Things don't grow back very quickly up here. If we can start trips next year from the gompa, we’ll never have to set up tents on this spot again.”
"How are the monks going to feel about tents set up right below their monastery?"
"Well, it's not exactly a natural environment to begin with. The only plants around the gompa are the willows and garden terraces the monks put in themselves."
“The monks themselves is who I was thinking of. Carving all those stones that no one will see."
"That's just it. People will see them now. Murghi gompa is probably the only monastery in Ladakh without its own tourist officials and concession stands. It's also probably the poorest. After four hundred years of chanting and carving, I think they'll welcome the attention."
Freya sat next to Trager and pulled off her damp clothes. It was the first time Trager had seen her naked in full light. Like Trager, she had the outlines of her clothes stenciled on her body—dark limbs and neck, white everywhere else. She did not shave her armpits. Her breasts were not large—the photographer who took the famous catalog picture had used her muscular torso to fill the frame. Her hips were narrow; she was a woman of strength, not curves. She turned to him, and from where he sat, the long crest of her body stretched from horizon to horizon. He put the monks of Murghi gompa out of his mind, and rolled to meet her.
But she was suddenly on her feet. “Shower time!” she said, and danced across the flowers to the waterfall. Trager flinched. Ice water. But he knew there was no way he would not follow. “Hurry up!” Freya called. “Get your clothes off! Before we lose the sun!”
He pulled his shirt over his head without undoing the buttons. The jagged shadow of the western ridge raced toward their garden. It would be close, but Trager knew they would win.
There was frost on the flowers in the morning. Muffled in down jackets, they sat facing each other across the stove. Trager poured the coffee. He had taken over Sonam's duties for the recon, and Freya approved.
"You know your way around a kitchen better than I do,“ she said. "Since I've been working in India, most of my meals have been handed to me by someone."
"What about before?" Trager asked. “Weren't you ever a little girl following your Mom around the house?"
"I spent more time following my father around ski areas. But I used to be a cook. I worked summers for a guide service in B.C. I thought the same thing you did—nothing could be better than to make your living in the mountains. But those Austrian guides made it pretty clear a woman's place is in the cook tent, even though I could ski and climb better than a lot of them. One day I found I was a twenty-seven year old glorified housekeeper. So I borrowed some money, and went down to Seattle, and ended up in Max's geology class. I thought geology would let me make a living in the mountains. It didn’t work out like I expected, but in the end I was right."
They shouldered the packs. Trager had discovered why Sonam always had the stove and fuel bottles dangling off his load: the lids of Indian containers did not seal. His pack already smelled of kerosene from the previous afternoon.
They worked their way up a lateral moraine to avoid the lower crevasses of the glacier. When cliff bands finally cut off their route, they plunge-stepped down loose gravel onto the ice. They put on the rope, their crampons, and an array of crevasse rescue equipment. Each of them wore a webbing seat harness and carried webbing slings, ice screws, extra carabiners, and a pair of ascender clamps for climbing up the rope after a fall. No more Darcha Glacier tours, Trager thought. Never again.
They crunched across the ice on their crampons, hardware dangling around them. The slope steepened where the glacier poured around the cliffs. The upper edges of crevasses became higher, and the bridges across the cracks tipped at acute angles. Trager looked at the seracs with anticipation.
"Can I lead?" he asked. Freya nodded, and took the rope around her hips. Trager watched her stance carefully. He knew this was a critical point in a climbing relationship—the point at which two people who have never climbed together have to come to terms with one another's technique. Trager wished Freya would tie herself to an ice screw, so that they both wouldn't be pulled off if he fell; but she seemed ready for him to climb. He would give her that, but decided to protect both of them by clipping the rope between them through a screw he placed near the lip of the first crevasse.
"Hoping you’d do that," Freya said.
Using his ice axe and ice hammer for handholds, Trager crossed the first crevasse with a single high step onto the face of the serac above. He took his time, enjoying the airy feeling of perching on the points of his crampons. He placed another screw in the middle of the face, and anchored to a third inside the next crevasse. Then he pulled in the rope to protect Freya. “On belay!” he called.
She had trouble with the step. She missed her crampon placement on the first try, and didn't try again. She simply grabbed the rope, yelled, “Hold me!," and pulled herself over the lip of the crevasse.
"That's cheating!" he called down.
“In mountains this big, nothing's 'cheating,'" she said. “You'd better learn that."
She climbed up to him, unclipped some carabiners and ice screws from a sling on his chest, and immediately set off up a steep bridge across the next crevasse. Trager watched carefully as he paid out the rope, trying to analyze her technique. Freya was no gymnast. No matter what the angle or surface of the ice, she kept the same rhythm: left foot, right foot, plant the axe, left, right, axe. He suspected she was a poor rock climber. When she came to a short ice wall, she shamelessly used a sling on an ice screw as an artificial foothold.
And yet she was fast. She was clearly scoping her route several moves in advance, never needing to backtrack or reconsider. In only a few minutes, she had run the rope out and was calling for Trager to climb. The glacier was less broken above, but they continued to belay each other for several rope lengths until they emerged at the bottom of a wide valley. The glacier above climbed gently for some miles-before turning right around a dramatic triangular rock peak. Beyond the peak towered an ice wall streaming with spindrift.
"Beautiful place!" Trager said. “How are we going to get the clients through the icefall?”
“You’re going to have to allow a day for you and Lakpa fix ropes. Then another day for moving the clients through.”
“Maybe three days. How much climbing have the clients done? Will they need training before they go onto the ropes.”
“Shit,” said Freya. “I'm not sure. But they might. If we had done that before, it might have worked out better. Weston Ferndecker turned around at the icefall. Turned us all around.”
"So you never even saw this valley. Where is Murghi II, anyway?“
"Still behind the west ridge of Murghi-I. That's the ice face. Murghi-II is miles to the right. This pyramid at the corner doesn't have a name. Ravi Battarchaya showed me an Army map that puts it at a little over five thousand meters."
The triangular peak was almost symmetrical, split on the north ridge by a long ice couloir that ran in a white stripe from glacier to crest. Trager traced the obvious climbing route up the gulley and along the skyline to the pointed summit.
"Why can't we climb that pyramid, instead of Murghi-II?" Trager asked. "It's closer, and we can see the whole climbing route from here."
"For one thing it’s probably too hard for our clients. But in any case it’s too small. Max promised an unclimbed 6000-meter peak. The Army already bagged Murghi-I, and the only other six-thousander in the area is Murghi-II. Plus you have to get a permit for every peak. You can't just switch mountains at the last minute."
"Who's going to know what mountain we climb in here?" Trager asked.
"The clients! The whole point is to give them something to brag about. And you'll have a liaison officer with you, an army man assigned to make sure you get along with the local people. And only go where you have a permit."
"You keep saying, 'you' will do this, 'you' will do that. Are you going to be on this climb with me?"
"I hope so. it depends on how confident I am that this permit thing isn't going to go to hell. That's why we need to wrap this up and get back to Kargil."
Considering that the glacier was almost level now, their progress above the icefall was pitifully slow. The middle glacier had a mantle of snow over the ice. Most of the crevasses were bridged, but the valley was a reflector oven, and the snow was changing too fast to be trustworthy. They trudged through the slush, far apart at the ends of the rope, frustrated at the tedium and at the same time anxious that one of them would suddenly fall into an unseen crevasse. Trager could feel his skin beginning to burn beneath his sun screen. Freya steered for the shadow of the pyramid. Incredibly, just into the shadow of the north face, the air was near freezing, and the snow had a hard crust. They stopped to put on parkas.
Trager took off his dark glasses to admire the ice couloir, now steel grey in the shadow of the wall.
"Let's pass the next crevasse on the right," he said. "I'd like to see the base of that route on the pyramid."
“Focus, damn it! We’re here to see a different mountain!”
"What if we can't?" Trager said. "The pyramid here may be the best we can do.“
"I told you! It's too small, and the liaison officer would never let you set foot on it."
"I don’t mean for the clients. Look, at our pace, we’ll still be in this valley tonight. Tomorrow—maybe—we get to the west ridge of Murghi I. The next day we see Murghi II, but then we have another day or two to get back here, maybe not even off the glacier. We won’t actually get to Kargil and start packing for the trip together until next week."
“Shit. Shit again.” Freya said. “My itinerary is getting more screwed up the longer I spend with you. I thought you wanted me to relax.”
"I do. Just listen. The pyramid is five thousand meters. We must be well over four thousand right here. Why wouldn’t we be able to see Murghi II from the top? Tomorrow. Then we have you back in your skirt and blazer two days later. Anyway, didn’t you just tell me it’s all about exclusiveness? I’m offering you the ultimate trip. A secret climb of a hidden peak. How can you turn it down?"
Freya looked at the mountain, then up and down the glacier to where they had been and where they needed to go. She cocked her head at Trager. "I knew there might be place for you in this business."
Trager could not sleep. His bag was cramped with boots, mittens, and water bottles he had taken in to prevent them from freezing. He had a dull headache. The tent was indeed at 4400 meters by Freya's altimeter—about as high as the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington, the highest peak he had ever climbed. She must have sensed his restlessness, and reached across from her sleeping bag to hold him.
Just as Trager knew that he would never rest that night, he found himself swimming up from a deep sleep. It was absolutely black, bitterly cold. The stove was sputtering outside the door, and Trager heard Freya splashing water on her face. He pulled on his wool pants, wind pants, pile jacket, parka, boots, and gaiters. Then he carefully buckled on his climbing harness, feeling each attachment carefully to make sure it was correct.
They had laid out the equipment so it could be found in the dark: packs anchored to ice axes driven into the snow; crampons draped over the packs with straps folded out; rope coiled double with ends and middle already tied for clipping into the climbing harnesses. There was no need for words, and Trager would have welcomed some conversation. But when he stood up from buckling his crampon straps, the rope was already hissing across the ice, trailing after Freya.
The climb up the lower gulley went quickly. The crampons bit firmly in the hard crust, and Trager and Freya could move together without belaying. The waning moon was behind the peak, but its light reflected off the opposite ridge to give the snow a faint blue glow. They had headlamps but did not need them.
When it got so steep that they faced into the slope, climbing on the front points of the crampons, Freya called down, "I'm going to belay. Just don't pull me off until I'm anchored.” She brought him up to a ledge she had chopped in the crust. As Trager stepped next to her, she turned on her light. A wall of ice hung over them, and between the ledge and the wall was a bottomless crevasse. It was the bergschrund, the final crevasse separating moving glacier ice from the static snowfield above.
"This is your pitch," Freya said. "Yesterday it looked like there might be a bridge to the left."
Trager looked over his shoulder. The eastern sky was just beginning to pale at the edge of the face. The sun couldn't come soon enough for him. The overhanging ice seemed like the roof of a cave. He had to somehow reach the wall across the crevasse, and then climb it. He had never tried such gymnastics at this altitude.
"How are you doing?" Freya asked. Trager knew she sensed his anxiety.
“I’m having an adventure,” Trager said. He turned on his light and headed left, walking on a moving island of white. He concentrated on placing his crampons flat on the lip of the crevasse, ignoring the drop below and the wall above. The only snow bridge was five feet below the surface. At the end, the crevasse ended in the smooth rock side of the couloir.
Trager sat on the lip, double checking his equipment to make sure he could grab the screws and carabiners he needed quickly. He was being compulsive to hide his lack of confidence, both from Freya and from himself. This moment was the whole purpose of his journey to India, yet he knew even here he might take any excuse to turn back.
The bridge was composed of rotten snow that started to crumble in sugary lumps when he stepped on it. He could not believe it was still supporting his weight as he touched the far wall. Quickly, he swung the picks of his axe and hammer into the blue ice high over his head. Then the toe points of one crampon, then the other. And then the snow bridge vanished beneath him, crumbling with a sigh into the depths. Trager swung from a few millimeters of steel, the light from the headlamp dazzling back from the ice in front of him. Blood pounded in his head. He straightened his legs and slammed his hand tools in again. Immediately he let himself sag on straight arms to save his muscles, and kicked new holds for his feet.
As he straightened again Freya called, "Looks good," but her voice, coming from directly behind, only reminded Trager that he still had most of the wall to go, and he was entering the truly dangerous part of the pitch. Once he climbed above Freya, he faced a long swinging fall into the downhill wall of the crevasse—unless he stopped to place an anchor. But placing an ice screw was hard work in itself, and might even cause a fall.
In two more steps he knew he was not going to make it. Inching up a step on his crampons, he threw his left arm through the sling of his ice axe and hung on it. That freed both hands. He tried to blank out all reflection as he unclipped a fat tubular ice screw and began to twist in into the ice with the hammer pick. His left arm was completely numb in the ice axe sling, while his right, the one with the hammer, burned with exertion. He almost dropped the carabiner as he went to clip his rope through. As soon as the gate snapped shut, he sagged on his feet, and called out, "Falling! Watch out!"
But he didn't fall. Although Trager was sure he had given up, his arms and legs behaved as if controlled by another, stronger climber. The hammer appeared in his right hand again, the axe was once more in his left, he was lifting his feet—right, 1eft—lunging up with the axe, then the hammer. Trager felt the tug at his waist as Freya pulled in the rope to catch him around the anchor. He could not speak to tell her what he was going to do; he didn't know himself. Freya must have realized he was climbing on; the rope went slack. Moments later he had his axe and hammer buried in firm snow above the overhang. The headlamp flashed on the bright edge of ice as he heaved himself past the lip, and then its beam was lost among the stars.
Trager climbed another forty feet past the lip, cut a platform, and tied off the rope to two ice screws. On a smaller, lower mountain, Trager would have held the rope as a safety line while Freya climbed the ice. But with a thousand feet to go, they had agreed that they needed to save time by having the second person on each pitch climb up the rope using the ascender clamps. Trager had nothing to do but wait.
His clothes were soaked with sweat that was beginning to chill. His head swelled with pain, and he was hyperventilating long after he had caught his breath. Damn, I'm scared, he thought. The climbing was much harder than he imagined, and he had only done half a rope length. The sheer size of the task seemed to emanate a force that was pushing him down.
"Ansel! Turn your headlamp off! You're wasting the batteries."
A white flush had spread across the sky behind the mountains at the east end of the cirque. Opposite, the quarter moon, too late to do any good, drifted above the west ridge of the pyramid. The rope ran in a quivering line to Freya as she swung over the edge of the bergschrund. Freya pulled herself up the rope to his stance.
"Nice lead. Am I on belay?"
"What? Wait a minute, where's your end?"
Trager grappled at the ropes now draped around him. Freya climbed up a few feet without waiting for him, and was placing an ice screw by the time Trager had the rope around his waist. She moved quickly up the forty-five degree slope, climbing straight up the fall line. It took her only a few minutes to complete her pitch and anchor the rope.
Trager's confidence returned as he pulled himself up the fixed line. Another hundred and fifty feet of climbing done, another hundred feet of elevation below them. He led through for the third pitch without saying a word. They climbed on that way, changing leads as the rising sun cast serrated shadows on the glacier below.
Freya drew the eighth lead in the gulley. The cornice at the top of the couloir had seemed within reach for the last several rope lengths, and it was Freya's pitch that finally gained the ridge. They had worried about the route around the cornice, but Freya found a convenient series of rock ledges to one side of the snow wall, and vanished over the top. Trager let out a cry of joy. They needed to rest, to eat, simply to sit. They had been standing on crampon points for three hours since passing the bergschrund, and Trager‘s legs vibrated with fatigue. But when he pulled up to the crest of the ridge, he found himself face to face with Freya, separated from her by a knife edge of snow.
"Don't come over the top!“ she said. "There's nothing to anchor to, so I just hung onto the rope across the ridge."
It was a terrible place. The crest was composed of striated, rotten rock that protruded from granular snow melting in the full sun. Freya perched on a platform stamped into the slush.
I'll tie you off," Freya said. "We'll both just hang in our harnesses on either side of the crest. We can clip the packs to the rope to keep us off the snow." Once Trager was perched on his load, with the weight off his back and feet, he found he could get reasonably comfortable. Over Freya's shoulder was a spectacularly deep space between their thin ridge and the great west face of Murghi-I.
"So how are you, stranger?" Freya asked, as they rummaged for food. "I haven't talked to you all morning."
"I was busy," Trager said. "You knew I was about to lose it down there at the bottom of the gulley, didn't you? That's why you took off on the next lead so fast. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I certainly couldn't have done it. Maybe you wouldn't have done it without me, but then that's why we're together."
Trager looked back down the route. Their tent was a yellow mite caught in a spider web of crevasses. "Did you ever do anything like this with Max?" he asked.
"Are you kidding? Max didn't climb."
"I'm not sure how to ask this without sounding like a jerk, but what did you see in him?"
"It's a touchy question, but you've got the right to ask. Back to adventure again. Max was an adventure. But another thing—he gave me more responsibility than I had ever had before. If he hadn't also given me such a pain in the ass, I might still be working for him."
"Did you love him?" Trager was pleased to find he could ask the question without jealousy. There was no one in sight to compete with.
"Did I love Max Holz? I don't know. It was a very strange relationship. I thought Max's world was exciting. I loved that, and to that extent, I loved him too."
"What about me?" Trager asked. "Am I just lovable so long as I'm exciting?"
"And so long as you're not a pain in the ass," Freya said. "Are you planning to tell the Indian Minister of Defence to go fuck himself? Are you planning to brag to clients that ‘others have got tours, but we've got tits?‘ I don't think so. You don't have anything to worry about right now unless we can’t see a damned thing from the top of this peak.”
The craggy summit ridge still blocked their view. They had not packed for rock climbing. They had no jamb nuts to wedge into cracks for anchors. It was not technical climbing, but the rope was now a hazard. If one of them fell, the other would be plucked off. They discussed whether one of them could jump off the other side of the ridge fast enough to stop a fall. In the end, they unroped and climbed together, a few yards apart, Trager in the lead. When Trager tested his first handhold, a softball-sized block broke out and caught him on the chest.
"Don't rush it!" Freya called, although it seemed to Trager that he could not possibly move more slowly. At one o'clock in the afternoon they crawled over the last rocks onto a snow ridge that snaked up to a surprisingly flat summit.
And there it was: Murghi II, rising on the skyline with every step they took, until they could look down on the glacier and see the entire northwest face. The ridge connecting it to Murghi-I rose in a smooth slope to a summit dome.
The wall between the glacier and the ridge did not seem particularly steep, judging from the amount of snow that clung to it. That snow load presented its own problem. As Trager and Freya watched, three separate avalanches came down from different parts of the face.
"Look back at Murghi I,” Freya said. “That face isn’t all ice. There’s a lower angle arête the goes up to the main ridge, right at the lowest point. Probably about the same elevation we are.”
Trager studied the range, and turned to look back down the Murghi Nala. “OK, let’s take it from the bottom. Base camp below the icefall. We decided a couple days for the icefall. Then we get all the way to the corner the next day. Then, over to the base of your arête. Then we have to camp on the summit ridge. That’s a week . . . “
“Or more. On the higher camps, you’ll have to carry the tents up, come back down to sleep, then occupy the camp the next day. And people will still probably be sick from the altitude."
“Okay, eight or nine days to the ridge. And then that’s a long way from the top. It might even take another camp before the summit. How’s your itinerary holding up?”
"Doesn’t matter," Freya said. “That's the best schedule I can imagine. You won't make it, of course. You'd need the logistics of an Everest expedition. But the clients will have a glorious defeat.“
"We’re selling people on a climb we know isn't going to go?“
"We certainly can't call them up and tell them to forget it, just because you don't want to let them try something too hard. Ansel, you didn't have a chance of climbing at all when you showed up in India, and look at you now. Who knows? If we throw in some extra food, you might pull it off. Even if you don't, we still might sell the clients another try next year. Or another mountain."
"Another mountain! I've got it!" He stood and looked west, shielding his eyes from the sun. "There—I think." He pointed at a cluster of snow peaks on the horizon. "Aren't those the peaks above the Sonjal La? There's one I had Harry Macintosh photograph. Doesn't do us any good now, but the approach isn't any harder than this one, right up the nala above Darcha and onto the pass."
“And way, way, out of our permit area.”
"Well, fuck," Trager muttered.
"I know, those were the first high peaks you saw. But there are a lot of mountains in the world you won't c1imb—what difference will a few more make? You'd do better to worry about the one you're on. We're not getting off of here in the daylight, you know."
They climbed the last snow ridge in slow motion, leaning heavily on their ice axes, taking breaths for every step. As the sun lowered a few degrees, the sky took on a deeper blue, and the mountain glowed brighter. Below them to the north, Trager could see over the tops of the brown foothills toward Kargil, the Indus valley, and a faint line of snow far away in Pakistan. Down in that warren of ridges and valleys, Nazir brooded over his boundaries, and Viktor Axt fussed with his clients’ lunch. Beyond the horizon, Pratima Busco would have his telegram by now:
AM OK WANT TO SEE YOU ALSO BUT WORK TO DO HERE
LET ME KNOW HOW ALL COMES OUT. AT.
He saw her tossing the scrap of paper away, and folding her family around her like a blanket.
A few yards below the top, Freya, walking behind, grabbed a loop on the back of Trager’s pack. She stepped up and slipped her arm through his. “This is as far as we go. We need to be able to swear that we never climbed this mountain.”
Approaching summits, Trager usually experienced one of two emotions: relief that an ordeal had ended; or else a wave of something like nostalgia, as if he were coming back to some place he had always called home. Holding Freya on this unnamed peak, he felt neither. They were too far from safety to feel relief, and the thrill of a new world at his feet was tinged with a sadness for what no longer waited below.
The next morning they needed to sleep in. They had rappelled all night long: once from crevasse rescue slings lassoing a questionable flake of rock at the top of the gulley, five times off of single ice screws. They were only able to accomplish the descent because Trager had included a roll of parachute cord that allowed them to retrieve the climbing rope after each rappel. Otherwise, the rope would have been doubled and they would have run out of equipment halfway down. By the time they dropped over the bergschrund and climbed down to their tent it was two o’clock in the morning. So they needed to sleep in.
But didn’t. “Skirt and blazer in two days. You promised,” Freya said, as they crunched down the lower glacier at dawn. Trager didn’t answer, only contemplated the need to watch his words with this woman. The early start did have one advantage: The slush that had bogged down their reconnaissance was frozen, and they walked to the top of the icefall as if on a sidewalk.
The first few rope lengths in the icefall were not too bad. Trager belayed Freya from a shallow crevasse. He noted that she was as tired as he was, and made several awkward mistakes, catching a crampon in her own ice axe strap and needing an assist from the rope to recover her balance. Trager could afford no such errors, because the rope was below him as he descended after her. When he reached her stance, he told her what he thought: She needed to go first so he could hold her rope, because he was “more comfortable on this terrain.” She did not argue, just started climbing down on belay. He was sure she resented it. On the other hand, he was sure he was right. Something he had sensed on the climb became clearer on the descent. Freya was strong and experienced, but not practiced. She had not spent recent time on vertical ground. She clipped in a carabiner upside down, so the gate might open against the ice. She tied two ice screws together too tightly, so the sling put unnecessary load on the anchors. She neglected to tuck in the tail of a knot that might come undone. These were part of the many details that an active technical climber would have integrated into habit or ritual. In the wrong context, a lapse in any of them could be fatal.
Trager did not want to downclimb the pitch where they had first shared the lead, but all their anchoring hardware was in the ice couloir. “We’re going to have to cut a bollard in the ice,” he said.
“Oh, for God’s sake! Then you go down first, and I’ll downclimb.”
“No. You’re good, but not that good. And neither am I. And we’re both punchy.”
“OK, whatever, just do it!”
Trager began to chop at the edge of the crevasse above the steep pitch, putting his frustration with Freya into each blow. As he swung the axe, Freya’s absurd offer to downclimb the pitch unprotected echoed in his ears. Suddenly he recognized what had escaped him before. He had seen the Pyramid as a test, but it was Freya who was trying to prove herself to him. And on reflection, she had.
Together, they finished crafting a mushroom of ice at the edge of the crevasse. Using the same retrieval line technique as the night before, they lowered themselves one after the other to the gritty ice by the moraine. By the time they tried to retrieve the rope, the day was growing warm, and the line had melted its way into the bollard and was frozen fast. They walked off the glacier with less equipment than Trager had carried over the Sonjal La.
Freya did not take the lightened packs as any clue to relax. She was gone from the edge of the moraine before Trager could get his crampons off. He caught up to her at the descent to their first campsite, and he did not like what he saw. She was walking carelessly on rocky ground where a misstep would break a leg. She was stumbling and not learning from her stumbles, pushing herself off her ice axe and lurching ahead.
This chick is nuts, he thought. This is one high-maintenance relationship. Suddenly, at that moment of naming, Trager saw the options. As he stepped into the flowers, he made his decision.
“Freya! Do you want to die?”
She stopped at the edge of the next stony slope and turned around. “What is this shit?"
“You’re exhausted. You need to stop. You're not going to be wearing your blazer. If you don't break your neck, you’re going to be in a cast. After some porters carry you down in a basket. Won’t that impress your investors? And who’s going to be left to serve your clients? To explain things? Me! Just like the last time. And I’ll do it. You know why? Because you’re worth it. But for your own sake, for our sake, it doesn’t always have to be Springtime in Kashmir!”
She threw her pack down and walked back across the flowers toward him until she was in his face. “God damn it!” she said. Trager could not say how long she stood glaring at him before she reached out and gripped him firmly by the shoulders. “Your right, she said. "Let’s hit the showers.”
On the last night of their first expedition, things changed. The ice water was as awful for Trager as ever, but Freya betrayed genuine delight both in teasing and warming him. Later, he invited her to be on top, but the tent was too small for her frame. After much squirming and giggling, they settled for her being on his lap, which turned out to be a good thing. Afterwards, they lay their heads on stuff sacks full of dirty clothes and shared pillow talk:
Histories: Freya told of coming of age at resorts where it was easy to have relationships with people you would never want see again. “OK, now let’s hear about your first time.”
Intimacies: “Oh, God, we leaked all over this sleeping bag.”
“Yours or mine?”
“Doesn’t matter. Just make sure we get it cleaned before it ends up with one of the clients."
Strategies: “I'd like you to be at that show in Vancouver with me. You'll learn about high-end travel. And we'll have a great room.”
“Do I have to wear a tie?”
“Yup. And I have to shave my armpits. Want to swap?”
And so it went until the tent passed into shadow. They fell asleep to the sound of falling water and the smells of kerosene, love, and flowers at the campsite where they would never stay again.