By dawn the stars had been replaced by a low overcast that was changing from purple to grey. Sonam's pots and stoves gleamed faintly on the hexagon of flattened grass where the cook tent had stood. There was just enough light for Trager to read the paper torn from Harry’s notebook.
Sorry I didn't wake you. Figured you'd be tired from last night. Actually, not sorry about a damned thing, except that I came on this trip. At least it's the last one. You two should be happy. You deserve each other. Taken 1 tent, 1 stove, 2 pots, 1 ice axe, 1 sleeping bag, 1 pad. Also some food I found lying around. Will leave the gear at Kawapatri. Don't think you'll be able to chase after me and hire your ponies back. Your piss-ass company doesn't have that much money. Will ask the headman at last village to bring you down. Next contact you'll have with me will be through my lawyer. Go to hell.
“Pony-wallah is put gunny bags on harness bells,” Lakpa said. “Gulam Mohamed is waking us when ponies are going. He say the sahib is pay one thousand rupees each day to Kawapatri.”
“Bastard,” Trager muttered. “He wouldn't even talk to me. What do you think? Should we trust Harry to send porters up from Gulpathar?"
“Gulpatharis already coming. They know this Kashmiri is quit. This is good work for them, but we pay very much. Maybe thirty-five rupees each man-porter.”
The cost seemed irrelevant to Trager. Looking up the valley, he saw that the peaks on either side of the Sonjal La had already lost their summits in the clouds. He didn't think Max or Freya would begrudge him an extra ten or fifteen dollars a day to get their remaining clients and equipment back to Srinagar. He walked back to his tent, chilled. The air was laden with dampness. A warm front, Trager thought. The kind of weather that could last for days, or weeks. He ducked in to get his parka.
Trager recoiled from the scent of Leslie's perfume. She was sitting with her legs in his sleeping bag, Trager's parka around her shoulders.
“I came in the back while you were talking to Harry,” she said. “He pulled the same trick in Nepal. I could have told you this would happen.”
“Then why didn't you?" Trager asked. “Did you pull the same trick in Nepal?"
“I wasn't the one poking around in other people's sleeping bags last night.”
“You are now. Do us both a favor and go back to your own tent before the others get up.”
“What difference will it make? We're here, Harry's not, and I think this walk could be a lot more fun than it's been up to now.” She rearranged herself slightly. The jacket was open at the neck. She had changed from her pajamas into her halter. More support, Trager guessed.
“Take off the jacket,” he said.
She did so, smiling, twisting her torso more than was necessary to let the parka fall.
“Now take your legs out of my sleeping bag,” Trager said. “And get out of the tent.”
The smile remained on her face widened into a leer. She leaned back on her arms. “I see,” she said. “I thought this just-the-simple-climber bit was an act. But you're the real thing, aren't you?"
She left by the front, mindless of Lakpa and Sonam, who were waiting at the door to serve tea. Sundown and Pratima were already up, holding their cups at the improvised cook tent.
“Never mind,” Trager said to the Ladakhis. “I'll join them outside.” Sonam laughed and made a remark, but Lakpa cut him off with a curt order. Subdued, he poured and then carried the pot away. Trager followed him back to where the Buscos stood.
“I guess you've got the picture,” he said. “Four tents to pick from, and I chose the worst. I wish I had crawled into yours.”
“We all do,” Sundown said. “What are we going to do?"
“You tell me. When the porters come—if they come—do you want to go on, or go back? The danger is, this storm may catch us on top of the pass.”
“Storm is also on Janavar Gali,” Lakpa said. “We are waiting maybe four-five days Lunwali. Harry-sahib is also there. I think Sonjal La is better way.”
“I hadn't thought of that,” Trager said. “I might even be able to get back and tell my side of things first.”
The porters came with the evening mist, although Trager did not witness the arrival of either. One moment the tents were pitched at the shore of a cloud sea that had completely filled the Sonjal gorge. A minute later Trager looked out to find the camp submerged in fog, and dark bidi-smoking figures crouched before his door. There were four of them—the headman Chandra Lal, one older man, and two youths. They carried wooden staffs, and had blanket rolls and short lengths of rope looped around their shoulders. They wore the usual long cloaks, plus woolen puttees and rope sandals.
Sonam served the Gulpatharis tea, while Trager and Lakpa rigged the red cook tarp over a rock to provide the porters shelter.
“Very difficult,” Lakpa said. “Only four porters. Ponies carry each fifty kilo, man porters only twenty-five. Now trekkers must carry sleeping bag, pads, clothing and things.”
Leslie was standing by her tent in her nylon parka and pants, arms folded across her chest. “We paid to have our loads carried,” she said. “If you don't have enough porters, hire more.”
“No time, memsahib,” Lakpa said. “We go with these men just over Sonjal La, then we are having ponies again Kashmir side.”
“Whatever,” Leslie said. “But I'm not breaking my back.”
“No, memsahib. Just take own sleeping bag.” Sonam burst out laughing, and Trager looked at him sharply, wondering how much English the cook really understood.
Dinner was a huge meal of tinned fish and noodles, saturated with a heavy sauce.
“Save weight,” Lakpa explained. “Eat now.”
But the day of inactivity, plus the high altitude, had squelched their appetites. Most of the oily meal went into a hole in the gravel. Night came in a condensation of darkness, fog, and smoke.
By nine o'clock the next morning, it seemed to Trager that he had already been climbing in the fog for days. He was at the end of the line with Pratima. Ahead, a line of steps faded away on a ramp of steepening snow below a grey rock wall. The shadowless light was deceptively intense, striking from all directions, forcing them to wear glacier glasses despite the clouds. Trager stopped to take a photo, not for the scenery, but to remind himself why he would not want to come this way again.
Snow began to fall around eleven. At first Trager dismissed the flakes as a flurry of specters. In the whiteout, his eyes had begun to hallucinate small flashes and flitting shadows. But then he felt the soft brush of flakes on his cheeks. Spindrift began to hiss down the rock above. Ahead of him, Pratima had stopped, and he could see the others were pulling ahead. She bent over her ice axe, and seemed to be trying to zip the neck of her parka. One of her mittens came off and began to slide away. Trager snagged it with his own axe.
“I can do it!” Pratima snapped, snatching the mitten away. Then she dropped it again, and it vanished into the clouds.
“Just stay there,” Trager said. I've got some gloves in my pack.” He plunged his axe in as an anchor, and started to take off his pack. But Pratima did not stop climbing. She plodded away in the steps, one bare hand swinging uselessly at her side.
“Oh, shit!” Trager murmured. “Lakpa!"
Trager caught Pratima and held her. She struggled feebly before collapsing into the slope. He managed to pin her to the snow with her own ice axe while he cut large steps for each of them. It was hard work. With the falling temperature, the old wet snow had set up. Ice chips fell out of the clouds to his right, and he knew that above him Lakpa and Sonam were cutting platforms for the porters.
Sundown and Leslie backed down the steps to Pratima.
“She's hypothermic,” Trager said. “We've got to get her out of these wet clothes.”
“Say, this is getting kinky!” said Leslie.
“God damn it, just get your pack off! Do you have an extra sweater or anything?"
“A pile jacket. It won't fit her.”
“Get it out! I've got one too—we'll put her in both.”
Trager wrestled the pack off of Pratima’s shoulders and anchored it along with his own to his ice axe. Depending on his feet alone for balance, he started on the parka. The jacket was frozen. The elbows and shoulders cracked as Trager and Sundown pulled it over her head. Underneath was all the wool clothing Lakpa had loaned out from the H.O.T. stores, and all of it was wet.
The sirdar climbed down to them while Trager and Sundown were pulling Pratima's parka back on over the dry jackets.
“We're going down,” Trager said. “I'll take the clients, if you and Sonam can handle the porters.”
“Very slow, going down, sahib. Top is very close. Maybe one hour.”
Trager glanced back at their steps, already filling in. Downclimbing the traverse would take as long as the ascent, and the important thing was to find a place where they could set up the tents as soon as possible. “Okay,” Trager said. “You're the one who's been here.”
Pratima began to shiver. A good sign, Trager thought. If she had the energy left to shiver, she might have the energy left to climb. Sundown hugged her against him as best he could on their small stance. Trager pulled their one climbing rope out of his pack and replaced it with Pratima's sleeping bag. He tied one end of the rope around his waist, coiled most of the slack on his shoulder, and tied Pratima into the other end. As he worked the straps, he realized his own fingers were growing numb. Trager climbed up until the rope snugged around Pratima's waist. Then he waited. He couldn't actually pull her up. She would just have to start climbing.
“Go on, babe,” Sundown said. “Please.” He tried to hold her arm, but there was no way he could get the leverage to lift. Babe,” he said. “There's something I have to tell you. Right now. About you coming to India.”
Pratima pushed herself away from the snow, tottering on her feet. Trager braced for a fall. “You think I'm going to die!” she cried. “You actually think I'm going to die! So now you're talking! Well I'm not going to die! So go away. Don't talk to me at all.”
She flopped her hiking boot into the next hold. Quickly Trager took another step himself to keep the line taut. Pratima stepped again. She was slow and unsteady, but in a few moments she had climbed away from her father, leaving him alone on his step, clinging tightly to the shaft of his axe.
The porters were moving again. The rich smell of their bidis blew down on the wind and warmed Trager. Pratima was climbing more smoothly now, as exercise generated some heat. Trager knew it was only a temporary reprieve.
The wind at the top of the slope almost knocked them from their holds. The snow came in volleys of stinging pellets as the storm funneled through the gap of the Sonjal La. The final snowfield looked much gentler than the ramp, but the wind had scoured the surface down to a hard crust. Lakpa was climbing above, cutting steps in the ice. The chips that flew from his ice axe never came down, but were carried by the wind over Trager's head.
As Trager watched, the air around Lakpa grew brighter. Each individual snowflake sparkled for a second, and then the clouds exploded in light. For a startling moment, the climbers stood at the bottom of a clear tunnel leading up to a circle of cirrus- streaked blue sky. The ice slope led up a short distance to a cluster of eroded rock pinnacles stuck in the nadir of the pass like teeth in a lower jaw. Even as the porters cried out thanks to God, the window in the storm snapped shut with a renewed blast of snow and wind.
“We're close!” Trager shouted down. “How are you doing, Pratima?"
“Better,” she said through a hand that shielded her face from the wind. “Where's my father?"
“Coming. Fifty feet behind you. Let's keep moving.”
“No. Wait for him.”
“Pratima . . . .”
The girl looked up to say something else, but the words caught in her throat. She screamed, and Trager wheeled around. The porters were falling.
It happened in slow motion at first. One of the boys slipped off a step, and grabbed the staff of the boy behind him. The youth rammed the stick into the slope, but the blunt tip would not dig in, and he was pulled down too. Sonam tried to catch them both but the ungainly packs bowled him off his holds. Leslie dodged to the right in time to avoid being hit. Chandra Lal and the other porter cried out and groped in the air, but the boys and cook were already gone in a tangle of cloaks and pack ropes.
Trager slammed the pick of his axe into the crust and leaned on it, as he felt the rope pull tight on his waist. Pratima was hanging on him, screaming at her father. Sundown stared at the oncoming mass of bodies. He started to move left, then right, and then Sonam hit him square in the chest, knocking him from his holds.
One porter slid into rocks near the edge of the ramp, vaulted into the clouds, and vanished. Trager did not even know which boy had died. He had only a glimpse of the HOTS logo on a duffle bag disappearing into the storm. Sonam hit next, and the other porter and Sundown piled into him. Like a bundle of rags, they rolled over the edge.
But not all the way over. A fold of woolen cloak remained pinned to the ice by the pick of the cook's ice axe. The rag bundle seemed to roll back from the lip. Slowly, hands opened on clutched fabric, and the pile resolved itself into four living people. A moment later, Pratima stopped screaming.
“It was just a pack!” Trager yelled to no one but himself. “We lost a pack!"
Sonam left his axe where it was to anchor one of the boys and began to kick a platform for the rest. Sundown sat where he had landed in a pocket of soft snow behind the jutting rocks.
“Untie me!” Pratima said.
“Okay, Trager said. “But you're not going down. I'll bring him up to you on the rope. I'll bring everyone up.”
Chandra Lal was yelling at Lakpa. “Headman is take his people back to village,” Lakpa said. “He is telling these men's families all are coming back safe. This is his duty.”
“Tell him, it's my duty too,” Trager said. “We’ll use the rope as a hand line. There won't be any more falls.”
He had Pratima climb up next to him. “Just stand in the steps, and don't move,” he said. “Give me your ice axe.” He pumped the shaft of the axe up and down the snow until it was buried three-quarters of its length.
“Hang onto that,” he said, and pulled at the knot on her waist. When the rope came free, Trager let the full length skitter down the ice to Sonam. Chandra Lal looked at the line on the snow, spat, and tipped his head.
“Okay, sahib,” Lakpa said. “Go quickly.”
“You might not be able to hear me up there,” Trager said, “so when I pull on the rope three times, that means people can climb on it. We don’t have any slings or carabiners to clip people in, so you’ll just have to tell the porters to hang on tight.”
“They know,” said Lakpa.
The angle was not steep, only slippery. With his rigid boots, Trager did not need large steps for himself. As the others would have the support of the rope, he only chipped tiny notches with single blows of his axe. In ten minutes, the rock pillars appeared through the snow. The wind was colder than ever, but Trager was overheated from exertion. His sunglasses had fogged, and sweat burned his eyes. His right arm ached from swinging the axe. He had to resist the urge to lunge for the rock, something he knew would only result in his feet slipping out from under him. He chipped two more notches, planted the pick of his axe, and stepped up.
A sharp tug on his waist nearly pulled him off the steps. He had run out of rope. He had guessed the rocks were within a regular 50-meter rope length, but then he had only seen them for a moment. He cut two larger steps and tried to climb up again. The rope stretched—he could almost touch the first tower. He leaned slightly to the left to give himself a more direct line, but there was still not enough slack. He stretched one more time out of sheer frustration, and had to catch himself on the ice axe when his feet slipped. He scrambled back into the steps, and punched his fist against the crust.
“Give me a fucking break!” he screamed into the storm. At the same moment he realized he had just pulled three times on the rope. In a moment, the porters and clients would begin to pull themselves up the line attached to his waist. The rope was wrapped around him several times. The multiple loops were not necessary: they were just his usual method of tying in when he did not have a regular climbing harness. He had been carrying the slack he needed with him all along, if he could only get at it.
The rope jiggled below him, and Trager cried out, “Wait! Wait!” but he knew the words were lost. He let go of the ice axe and balanced on his toes while he worked the knot with both hands. He yanked off his wool gloves, and let the wind carry them away. The knot finally broke apart. Trager unwound the rope from his waist, and dropped all the slack except for the very end. He hoped the sudden loss of tension would make anyone who was about to climb pause long enough for him to reach the rock. He grabbed his ice axe again, and stepped up in his highest toe holds, still holding the rope in one hand.
The rock offered nothing. There were no footholds large enough to support a belay. The seven or eight feet he had gained by untying was pathetically insufficient. He needed fifty or sixty feet to circle the rock tower. His eyes danced over the surface of the stone. All he could see was the narrow crevice where gravity and melting had pulled the snow away from the rock. He plunged the shaft of his ice axe into the crack and quickly wrapped the rope three times around.
“Got it! Got it!” he screamed, and started to tie the rope off. Before he could, the line snapped tight, burning around the aluminum shaft, and almost slipping through Trager's fingers. He pulled back, twisting the rope onto his wrist. Then more weight came onto the rope, splintering the ice at the edge of the crevice, mashing Trager's bare hand against the metal. He hung on, his eyes squeezed shut, as the pressure grew. Under Trager's straining lids, the swirling grey of the storm was replaced by a red glow that had something to do with a hot fire.
They took refuge under an overhang at the base of one of the towers. They were not the first to shelter there. The sides of the rock had been extended by carefully stacked stones, much like the cairn at the top of the Sonjal La. Unable to maintain a shrine on the exposed Sonjal La, travelers had deposited their effigies and prayer strips on a little alter at the back of the cleft, where the ceiling was barely three feet off the ground. The brightly painted avatars looked out placidly on the mortals crouched by their door. Lakpa had unfurled the tarp and thrown it over the party like a blanket. Anyone close to an edge grabbed on to hold it down against the wind that swirled around the edges of the rock. One by one they crept out to relieve themselves, then hurried back to under the shelter. The porters huddled against their loads on one side, while the clients crouched on the other.
Sundown had unpacked his own sleeping bag for Pratima, and the girl was lying across his lap. Trager lay sprawled between the clients and porters, snow and wet sand sticking to his parka. He had unzipped the jacket enough to get both hands inside so that he could cradle them in his armpits. The tips of Trager's fingers had frozen before Sonam had arrived to help him tie the rope off to his ice axe. Now the flesh had thawed, and blood was coursing through the damaged tissue, making it burn as if seared in a flame.
“What's the story?" Sundown asked. “Are we stopping here?"
“We'd never get the tents up,” Trager said. “All of our stuff is wet. No, we've got to get off the pass. We've still got five or six hours of daylight to find a camp on the Kashmir side.”
Lakpa looked at him with wind-reddened eyes. “Sahib, we are not going Kashmir,” he said. “We are losing many things when this porter load is fall. One tent, stove, rice, stove oil. Porters are losing blankets, food. So we go back Gulpathar.”
“But we're only an hour from camp!"
Lakpa shook his head. “Very difficult now. Weather is worse, Kashmir side. I think we are not making camp. We go walk out with Harry-sahib.”
“Forget it!” Leslie said.
“Memsahib!” Lakpa said. “Gulpatharis are not going Kashmir. Chandra Lal says.”
“Fuck him!” said Leslie. “He's not running this trek. We paid to go back to Kashmir.”
Pratima's voice was so quiet, that Trager was not sure she had spoken.
“I can't,” she said. Then she said something in Hindi, and the porters looked anxiously at Lakpa.
“You practically had to carry me here,” she said. “It's harder going down. I can walk. I don't think I can stop and wait on those little steps again.”
“Oh, no, babe, listen,” Sundown said. “No problem. Ans will help you down with the rope. That'l1 do it, right?"
Trager cleared his throat. “No, not really. Not traversing that ramp. If it were steeper, if I could just lower her . . . but even then we don't have enough rope to do it without stopping to set up new belays. And it would still be pretty cold.”
“Hey, wait a minute, man, wait a minute!” Sundown cried. “Don't give me this shit. The kid said she can't make it down the way we came. You're the fucking leader, man. You're the fucking expert! You got to do something, you know?"
Chandra Lal spoke up, and Lakpa turned to Trager. “He says, they carry her. They go now.” Trager looked at Pratima, trying to think of her as a man's load.
“No,” he said. “Pratima's small, but she still weighs more than a pack. And we would have to move fast, because in a little while the new snow is going to start to slide off the ramp. We just have to make a break for Kashmir.”
“Sahib, I tell you porters are not go!"
“Then they can go back alone. And we can make a run for Kashmir. Let's look at the map. We can open it in the back where it's dry.”
He took the folded sheet from the top pocket of his pack, and crawled with Lakpa out from under the tarp to the very back of the overhang where the little shrine had preserved a floor of dry sand. Lakpa crawled up behind him, giving a cursory bow to the rows of bodhisattvas.
“Sahib, Max says this map is toilet paper.”
“I don't care about the map,” Trager said quietly. “I just want to know what the hell is happening. You can't seem to make up your mind where the camp is. You don't tell me where you're going. Ever since Gulpathar you've been treating me like one of the clients. I don't care what you think of me as a leader, but I am responsible for the climbing here, and you and I both know it would take the rest of the day to crawl down that ramp with Pratima. If the porters want to go back into the Sonjal, that's their problem, not ours.”
Lakpa rocked his head back and forth. “They know route, sahib. I am never coming this road.”
Trager could not find words.
“I go with Freya, last year, only to Janavar Gali. We see river, go back Kawapatri. We are not crossing Sonjal La.”
“Jesus,” Trager said. “Jesus-fucking-Christ! You lied to me! You, and Max and Freya. You didn't know the Janavar Gali had a cliff on the north side. You didn't know Doda didn't exist. Everyone left it to me to find out.”
“Sahib, this is leader's job.”
“But no one told me that!” Trager drove his fists into the sand. He grunted as pain shot through his injured fingers.
“All treks like this first time. We go now. To Gulpathar.” He started to back out of the cleft.
“Hold it,” said Trager. He was looking at the sand between his knees. He had driven his fists into a foot print made by the last visitor to the shrine. A short person, probably kneeling on one knee. The print was smooth, pointy at the tip, with a deep impression alongside where the pilgrim had used a staff to help her rise. Or an umbrella.
“The woman we saw in Lunwali,” Trager said. “She stopped here.”
Lakpa looked at the print. “Snow is soft then. No storm. And she is come from Ladakh. Weather is always better in Ladakh.”
“Always?" Trager asked. He began to unfold the map.
“Sahib, Ladakh is wrong side of mountains.”
“Is it snowing there? That's all I want to know.”
The white range wrapped diagonally across map like a ceremonial sash. To the left was the green stripe of the Kashmir Valley. The upper right quadrant was a wide khaki area mottled with contour lines. The cartographers had needed to spread the name out to fill the enormous space: L - A - D - A - K - H. Trager's index finger creased the paper at the head of the Sonjal valley. “Say we're somewhere along here. There's this stream without a name going northeast to . . . .” He ran his finger down the contours until it hit the first cluster of black dots.
“‘Darcha.’ Do you know a place called ‘Darcha?’?”
“Many places called Darcha. In Lahoul, in Murghi . . . .”
“That's the one. On the Murghi Nala. Do you know it?"
“Yes, sahib. We are there last month. Bad road. Kargil bus is not go above Darcha.”
“You mean, if we got to Darcha, we could catch a goddamn bus?“
“Sahib! Darcha is on wrong side of mountains, far away.”
“No!” Trager said. “It's not far away.” He held his fingers like calipers over the map. “The distance from where we are to Darcha is less than the distance to Gulpathar.”
There was a shaking under the tarp. Sundown called out, “What are you guys doing? Don't fuck around, man. We got to get Pratima out of here!"
The Gulpatharis were pushing their loads out the end of the tarp, getting ready to leave. Trager and Lakpa turned together to shout for quiet. Then they thrust their heads back into the stillness of the little shrine. “We might be in Darcha tonight,” Trager said. “We could be in Kargil tomorrow. And we have the storm at our backs all the way.”
“Yes, always dry in Ladakh,” Lakpa said. “But I am never hearing of Sonjal-Darcha track. And mountains are steeper, this side.”
“But she made it,” Trager said, pointing at the footprint.
“She is Ladakhi.”
“So are you. Is this woman stronger than you?”
Lakpa tipped his head. “We find out.”
Sonam Gyaltso carried his new responsibility lightly. At the
top of the ice slope he wrapped the rope around one leg, saluted Trager with his free hand, and slipped smoothly over the edge. A few minutes later, when he pulled on the rope, the porters followed, one at a time, backing hand over hand down the line toward the fresh steps the cook was cutting in the crust. They carried all the equipment except for a day’s food,
a stove and pot, and the red tarp. When the last one was gone, Lakpa pulled up the rope and Trager began to coil it. It was difficult: His fingers ached, and he wore a pair of Lakpa’s too-small mittens to replace the gloves he had lost. But he did not want to show any weakness to the sirdar. He felt as if he had only now become the real leader of Springtime in Kashmir.
Under the shelter, the others had made up new loads from
the remaining equipment. Sundown had most of his daughter’s belongings stuffed into the embroidered shoulder bag now lashed to the outside of his pack. Pratima's rucksack bulged with a sleeping bag and two ground pads. A food bag dangled from Leslie’s pack straps. She regarded it with distaste.
“You'd better hope this damned bus is where you say it is,” she said.
Lakpa pulled up a corner of the tarp in an explosion of snow and wind. The others held it while he crumpled the heavy material into the top of his pack. The snow was drifted into waves on the level part of the pass. The knee-high drifts made for hard going, but Trager was counting on the exertion to keep people warm. Trager sent Lakpa first to break trail, and to serve as a target. Trager shielded his own face with one hand, and held his compass up to his eyes with the other.
“Okay, go right!” Trager called. “Right! Straight ahead! Good! Now left! Left, left, left! Hold it!"
He wanted to keep Lakpa on a bearing that would intersect the stream above Darcha. After half an hour Trager realized that he could only see the sirdar from the knees up. The slope was dropping ahead of them. The clouds were thinner. Trager could make out the texture of the snow, and in front of them, right on the bearing, he could distinguish a dark feature on the slope. He dropped the compass, and began to stride after Lakpa, his eyes luxuriating at having something to look at besides the thick whiteness of the storm. He recognized the object a little at a time: a graceful arc shading from white to deep blue.
“Oh, no! Stop! Stop!"
The contour lines on the map only marked every five hundred feet of elevation. They had no way of recording features as small as a fifty-foot drop from the lip of a crevasse. But it seemed incredible to Trager that they could have missed marking a glacier altogether. Trager and Lakpa looked in wonder at the tower of ice leaning over the steep slope.
“Sahib, I am never see glacier from Darcha,” Lakpa said. “This is wrong road.”
“Or a short glacier,” said Trager. “Look at the map: The nala makes a couple of right-angle bends. Maybe you can't see up this far from the village.” The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, trying to block the wind from the map. Darcha lay on one side of a crease, and the Sonjal La on another. That required Trager to unfold the sheet, and as he did so, a gust blew the pleated paper out like a sail. There was a sudden snap, and he was left with only the east and west margins in his hands.
“Toilet paper,” Lakpa said.
They traversed right to find a snow bridge. Lakpa wanted to keep going in that direction to get off the glacier entirely, but when they approached the eastern edge of the ice, they found a vertical wall of rock. They retraced their steps to where they had first encountered the crevasse, and then kept going until they found a bridge at its left margin. The glacier below flowed down at a gentle angle, and did not seem badly broken up, but with the new snow, it was difficult to tell solid ice from a gossamer snow bridge.
They stayed in single file, following carefully in one another's steps. Lakpa and Trager shared the lead, taking turns probing the snow with their ice axes. When an axe went through without resistance, they would beat at the surface, revealing the fissures underneath. The climbers would then hike along the upper edge of the exposed crevasse until they found a bridge of older, consolidated show strong enough to bear weight. Trager thought they were making perhaps one mile an hour. As far as he could remember, the map showed the first bend of the Darcha Nala to be about two miles from the ridge. And indeed, in about two hours, they walked out of the bottom of the clouds to find themselves at a sharp corner.
It was more than a bend in the valley. It was a place where all the forces of nature seemed to have twisted and broken. Just before the bend, the glacier spilled abruptly over a steeper pitch, fracturing into a web of crevasses running in all directions. To the east, the cliff still rose into a ragged overcast. The western wall was made of more friable rock that had weathered into a jumble of scree and rotten bluffs.
Lakpa pointed up at the bands of shattered stone. “Ladakhi woman is go there, I think,” he said. “We are on wrong way.”
They traversed toward the west, but in a hundred yards Trager could see they were approaching a major fault. The glacier flowed over an escarpment and had sheared to its full depth. The combined drop of ice and rock was over two hundred feet. As they watched, a section of the glacier to their left calved off and crashed to the bottom in a cloud of ice dust.
“Move . . . back,” Trager said evenly. Sundown, walking behind him, took three steps and suddenly dropped to his waist through the snow. “Bummer!” he cried, and flailed with his arms. He sank deeper into the bridge. Trager took a step toward him, and felt the snow give way under one of his own legs. He caught his balance on the other foot and stumbled back from the black hole he had made. Pratima and Leslie were both yelling at Sundown, and Lakpa was trying to crawl out to him on hands and knees.
“Just stay where you are!” Trager cried. “Sundown, roll forward on your chest. Get your axe in!"
Sundown hunched his shoulders, pulled with the ice axe, and tipped his pack over on the downhill side of the crevasse. The weight of the load levered him out of the snow like a cork from a bottle. Lakpa climbed up to him, and chopped at the snow with his ice axe to find the margins of the crevasse. It was small, barely six feet across, but it was long, fencing them in between itself and the ice wall.
“Everyone move up to the lip of the crevasse,” Trager said. “If we're right next to the crack, at least we know we're not standing on top of anything else.”
Leslie kicked some snow into the hole. “When you screw up, Trager, you do a good job of it.”
“Leslie's right, man,” Sundown said. “This trip is totally fucked. If anything happens to Pratima, I'll kill you. You understand me?"
The girl was leaning on her ice axe next to him. She straightened up and said, “Stop it! You're the one who fell in.”
“I’ll kill you,” Sundown repeated.
“I believe you. And so you won't get the chance, we'll put the rope on here. We won't be tied in very far apart, so we'll have to move slowly. Hold your ice axes in arrest position. If it looks like anyone is going to fall into something, everyone else just drop on your axes.”
“Forget it,” said Leslie. “I'm not tying in with a bunch of people who are going to pull me down.”
“Fine with me,” said Sundown.
“No, it isn't,” Trager said. “Leslie knows how to use an ice axe, and we need her.”
“He needs me,” Leslie said. “Now he needs me.”
“Yes!” Trager cried. “For the first time we actually need you. Instead of being just a pain in the ass, you could actually help out. But one way or another you're going to tie into the rope.”
He pulled the coils off his shoulder and began to undo the knot that held them together.
“Fuck you!” Leslie said. “When we get back, I’ll nail your sorry butt to the wall!”
“Harry's taking care of that. I'm going to put you in the middle, between me and Pratima.”
Trager shook out the line in the snow, and began to run it doubled through his hands, ignoring the pain in his tender finger tips.
“Memsahib!” Lakpa said. “Very dangerous. Tie onto rope. Just do this. What you want is no matter.”
“That isn't what you said at Doda. At Doda what I wanted was everything. I was Leslie, then, not the memsahib. And you were so damn eager to please. But now it looks like you were just a servant ready to get his hands on a little white ass.”
Trager stopped measuring the rope, and looked up. Lakpa was holding himself very straight, not moving his eyes from the woman. If course, Trager thought. It made it all so simple. Lakpa's attention to Leslie, his surliness after the incident with Harry. Was Lakpa jealous of him, he wondered. Or was he afraid, as Trager was afraid?
“This is not Doda, memsahib,” the sirdar said.
“I suppose it isn't,” said Leslie. “Now I'm just an embarrassment to you.”
“You're an embarrassment to everyone,” Pratima said.
“Memsahib!” Lakpa said. “Leslie. Please.”
He stepped around Sundown and Pratima, picked up a loop of the rope, and held it out to her. Trager thought it looked like crude bouquet, an offering from the small man to the large woman standing over him. Leslie hesitated another moment, and then snatched the rope from Lakpa's hand. Trager climbed up to Lakpa with one of the ends. “This is good work,” he murmured to the sirdar.
Now they crept down the glacier. Grey ice protruded through the snow like bones through the skin of a carcass. Crevasses were no longer hidden; they were everywhere, with few bridges. Trager would traverse a hundred yards searching for a crossing. On the narrower bridges he and Lakpa belayed each client across one at a time. Trager would sit on one side of a crevasse, anchored as best he could to his axe, and haul in the rope around his hips. Lakpa would protect from the other side with the trailing rope. Then they would cut back, looking for passage across the next gap. After a zigzag of a quarter mile, they might find themselves only ten feet down glacier on the lower lip of a crevasse they had crossed half an hour before.
A cold wind announced that the sun had gone behind a ridge. They would have been in shadow, had there been any shadows. The clouds just turned a darker shade of grey. Close to the left edge of the glacier, a crevasse they had just crossed sliced through to the ice cliff. Through the crack they could see the lower moraine. A chockstone wedged in the cleft only heightened the impression of empty space. Lakpa tried to follow a bridge back to the center of the glacier. He was blocked by a mammoth crevasse.
He climbed slowly down. “We camp,” he said.
Trager gauged the angle of the slope. “We could. If we cut in a little, and sit on the packs, and throw the tarp over us. We'd be out of the wind.”
“We'd be out of our minds,” Leslie said.
He agreed with her. Even if they could survive a night on the ice in damp clothing, it was steep enough that a careless move could cause someone to slide out of the bivouac. The only available anchor he could see was the chockstone at the end of the crevasse they had just crossed, and it was too close to the edge of the ice cliff.
So close, that it overhung the moraine below. "Lakpa, put me on belay,” Trager said.
He walked carefully down the edge of the crevasse to where it split the ice cliff. The exposure was dizzying. He could not tell the exact height above the ground. The chockstone, perhaps a yard wide, was jammed a few feet below him. The crevasse walls closed together thirty feet down the face, and below that a bulge in the ice wall blocked a view of the cliff base. In the fading light the fallen chunks of ice at the bottom could have been the size of bricks or boxcars.
It was not easy to get the others to follow to his exposed perch. Leslie called him an asshole. Sundown threatened him again. Pratima came silently, wide-eyed, crawling on hands and knees. But they came, coaxed by Trager and belayed by Lakpa. The sirdar walked down last, and knelt at the lip, looking grimly at the descent.
“Belay me from the chockstone,” Trager said. “I'll climb down until I can see if the rope reaches the bottom.”
“What if the rope doesn't reach?" Sundown asked.
“I'll climb back up and we'll make the best camp we can.” Trager hoped his voice did not betray the difficulty he would have climbing up the vertical ice without crampons.
“Leader is stay with clients,” Lakpa said. “I go down.”
“I'm the climber here,” Trager said.
“And I am sirdar. Leader stays with clients.”
There was no time to argue, and Trager sensed that he was not going to win. “Okay,” he said. “You stay tied in. Everyone else unrope.”
Trager climbed down to the wedged rock first. It was a short step, but the exposure on both sides made it the most frightening maneuver of the day. He straddled the rock and tied himself to it with heavy nylon gear ties scavenged from his and Lakpa’s rucksacks. He cursed Max, Freya, and the universe for not providing even a sling or carabiner to Springtime in Kashmir. Then he took the line to Lakpa around his hips.
“You don't have to prove anything, you know,” Trager said under his breath as the Ladakhi stepped down next to him. “Not to Leslie, not to Max or Freya. Sure as hell not to me.”
“Yes, sahib. Talk later. Belay okay?"
Lakpa rested his back against one wall of ice and let himself slip over the edge of the rock until Trager was holding his weight. Trager strained with his legs to keep himself from pivoting under the load.
“Slack, sahib,” Lakpa said, and Trager lowered him smoothly down to the bottom of the crevice. When it became too narrow, the sirdar swung onto the face, leaning out so that he seemed to be walking down the vertical wall.
“Are you kidding me?" Sundown muttered.
“Does it reach?" Trager asked.
“Yes, sahib, I think.”
“Think isn't good enough. You'll strangle on the end of the rope if it doesn't reach. Swing back into the crevasse and I'll belay you up.”
“No. Slack, sahib.”
There was no way he could pull the man up by himself. He let the rope run slowly through his hand. Lakpa disappeared below the bulge, and Trager concentrated on the coils piled between his legs. The wrap of tape marking the midpoint went by all too soon. With only a few feet left, Trager tried to brake. His cramped fingers could no longer control the rope. It continued to slip until it pulled tight on the loop around the rock. Trager relaxed his hand. He could feel Lakpa's weight where the rope cut across his thigh. The sirdar had not reached the ground.
“Hey, man, what's he waiting for?" Sundown asked.
Death, Trager thought. A person remained conscious only about ten minutes hanging from a waist loop before his chest collapsed and he could no longer breathe. It took about another ten minutes to die. There was movement on the rope. Lakpa was beginning to writhe. Half-formed rescue plans flashed through Trager's mind, and dissolved. Even with climbing equipment, it could take an hour to haul a man a full rope length. Trager could not bear feeling the death struggle through the rope. He clawed at the rope, trying to roll it off his leg.
Suddenly he was holding a loop of slack. Lakpa was gone. Trager looked in horror at the rope. But then in moved again: one . . . two . . . three. A shout echoed off the rock walls. Trager began to haul the rope in hand over hand, wondering if the others had ever realized that for a moment Lakpa had been dead. The end of the line came up with Lakpa's parka fluttering on the ragged end of a loop that had been cut with a knife.
“What the hell is that?" Leslie asked.
“Lakpa's engineering,” Trager said. “We'll find out when we get down. Leslie, you're the closest. Come on.”
“Leslie, let's go! He made it. We're almost out of here.”
“I'll rappel on my own. They showed us how in Austria.”
“We're not set up for that now. Come on, it's almost dark.”
“How convenient. Just time enough for a little accident. That would take care of things, wouldn't it? You're going to have to cover all your fucking around somehow. You and Lakpa both.”
“For Christ's sake, Leslie, there wasn't any fucking around. Remember? And the only one who cares about you sleeping with Lakpa is Lakpa, and you can discuss it with him as soon as you get to the bottom. Now tie in.”
“I disgust you, don't I?" Leslie said. “I'm too old. You like that fresh, pubescent, virgin cunt. And dark skin, besides.”
“Hold her,” Trager said.
It took all three of them. Sundown pinned Leslie's torso, while Trager, still tethered to the chockstone, tried to feed the line around her waist. Pratima stared in shock at the struggle, until Leslie began to kick Sundown with her heels. Then she wrapped herself around the woman's legs and held them to the ice.
The hardest part was getting her over the edge after the knot was tied. She clutched at Sundown, and nearly pulled him with her. Trager had to hit Leslie's arm with her own ice axe to break her grip. Leslie kicked at Trager's head, even while he was trying to pull the rope around his waist to keep her from falling. In the end, he simply had to push her off. Leslie toppled from the chockstone with a shriek. The slack in the rope snapped out, slamming Trager hard against his waist anchor. The rope whipped around his body, and it took both hands to bring the fall under control.
In Leslie's absence there was only the sound of wind across the ice, the hollow clatter of distant rockfall, and the whir of the running rope.
“I hate this job,” Trager said.
“Too bad,” said Sundown. “You might be pretty good at it.”
“We’ll see. Sundown, go next. Lakpa may need help with Leslie. Pratima? You okay?"
“Warm now,” Pratima said. “Should have done that earlier.”
The rope went slack, and after a minute, Trager felt three tugs on the end. The light was so dim that he had to check Sundown's knot by feel. The tall man went down clutching the rope in both hands, muttering, “Oh, shit, oh, shit,” until Trager could not hear him any more.
When the rope went slack again, Trager called out for Pratima. “I'm right here,” she said. She was lying at the edge, her face a few inches from Trager's. “Not so bad in the dark. Can't see what’s coming.”
“I'd rather know,” Trager said.
“Don’t believe you. You wouldn’t be here.”
“Probably not. But this wasn’t what I had in mind. And it’s not the nice talk you were supposed to have with your Dad.”
“We’ll talk. When Leslie said I was a virgin, I thought he might come out and say it.” She giggled.
Trager was unnerved by the sound. “What? What was he going to say?"
“That I'm not. That’s why I’m here.” She giggled again. “If Julio Rodriguez hadn't left rubbers in my room, we wouldn't be here. Junior high boyfriend.” The strange giggle again. “Mother couldn’t deal with it. Drove right his Sundown's office in the middle of the night. Two weeks later we’re in Delhi.”
When she giggled again, it dawned on Trager that she was dying. The struggle with Leslie had not warmed her so much as taken the last of her heat. He recovered the end of the rope and leaned Pratima against his shoulders while he threaded the line around her waist.
“Haven't been nice to you,” Pratima said. “Stupid. I liked what you did in the village. And you talked to my Dad.”
“Not really,” Trager said, struggling with knot. “He doesn’t even know about the condoms.”
“W-W-What?” That awful giggle again.
He pulled her to him with one arm, holding her tightly until she was sitting next to him on the chockstone. As soon as he released her, she sagged onto the belay rope around his hips. She was so light compared to the others that she seemed to float away from him into the dark. This was not the first technical retreat Trager had organized. Normally he was exhilarated at being last on the mountain, alone with his skill and his equipment. But tonight he seemed to have run out of both. He was certainly alone.
He forced himself to be careful and methodical attaching the packs to the rope. He had to stand on the chockstone to drag them up to the lip of the ice, and if one slid over before he was ready, it could easily knock him from his perch. By the time the last one was down, the sky was black. Trager shivered as he wrapped the line under one leg, across his chest, and around his back. He sat on the edge of the chockstone, checked the knot one more time by feel, and then slipped over the side. Braking with his right hand, he slithered down the crevasse, and then stepped out onto the main face. His feet became lighter on the ice as the wall steepened, and in a few steps he swung clear altogether. The rope sawed through his sore fingers and burned under his thigh as he traveled through a bottomless dark. Then a bright pool spread across the blocks of fallen ice below. The rope twisted into the heart of the light, and Trager followed, falling slowly toward a star.
Ladakh came in shades of ochre and yellow, stark hills glowing under a brass-bright sun that rose over higher ranges to the east. In the west, the Himalayan crest was hidden in a maelstrom of cloud that seemed held back only by the force of the sunbeams. The path lay thick in dust. Dust. For the first time in his life, he loved dust. He wanted to tell someone, but there was no one to talk to.
Sundown and Pratima walked together. At some point during their bivouac in the short grass along the Murghi Nala, they had begun a private conversation that was still in progress. Lakpa just did his job, setting up the tarp, taking down the tarp, starting the stove, packing the stove, bringing up the rear as they pounded down the rough track toward Darcha. Leslie was close behind Trager, but walking in a world of her own. As Trager saw her aged face looking through reddened eyes, it occurred to him that she was stark, raving mad.
Fuck ’em, as Max would say. Trager had brought them as far as he could, and now he would walk on until he found someone else to talk to, someone who would want to know what he saw, what he thought. Someone who drove a jeep around the next corner, dropping into dips and bouncing over stones, coming to meet them.
“Freya!” he called, and waved.
The vehicle stopped with a jerk, and its own dust cloud caught up, passed it, and enveloped Trager. When it cleared, it was his own face he saw dimly in the soiled windshield. He did not expect to see such an old man. Nor did he expect to see two soldiers spring from the jeep and level heavy rifles at his chest. It was not Freya Martens who got out from the passenger seat, but a young officer armed only with a swagger stick that flicked in his hand like a fly swatter.
“Ap kahan ja rahe hain?" he demanded. “Where are you going?"
“Darcha,” Trager said.
“Just as we thought,” the officer said, and flicked the riflemen forward.