KATHMANDU — Nepal had always been on Sandy Kyin’s travel list. She loved mountains and loved the outdoors. So seven months ago, Sandy, a 29-year-old risk consultant in the banking industry in New York, quit her job and began traveling. On April 17 she headed into the Himalayas, north of Gorkha and into the Tsum Valley, one of Nepal’s wilder and less-travelled regions. Before heading out, as a tease to all her friends who were worried about her adventurous side, she started a blog: IsSandyAlive.tumblr.com.
Sandy and a young Spanish couple were planning a three-week trek along the Manaslu circuit, led by Nir Gurung, a 27-year-old Nepali guide. They visited temples, prayed with Buddhist nuns, and hiked six hours or more a day while Nir gave them constant Nepali lessons. On April 25h, just before noon, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit, they were all sitting on the second floor of a guesthouse above the tiny village of Ripchet.
“I was learning how to say ‘peach’ in Nepali when the floor started shaking,” she recalled over a tea in Kathmandu.
At first they joked that something must be happening in the ground-floor moonshine distillery. But Nir screamed at them to get out. Sandy grabbed her phone, leaving behind her diary and her wallet. They huddled in the tiny outside courtyard as a collapsing wall buried their knapsacks, and bricks piled up just a foot away. Screams rose up from the village as the rolling earth flattened every house in Ripchet.
Nir dug out their bags and tested the roof of a collapsed house before helping them walk over it. Some houses in the village had caught fire, and the group joined a human chain of women passing water containers from a stream up the hill to help get the fire under control.
Aware that one earthquake often presages others, Nir was keen on getting his group to a safer flatter area. They hiked for another six hours, without food or water. Long sections of the already narrow trail had been obliterated by rock landslides. Nir insisted on walking across them first to determine their stability. When they finally arrived at the bigger village of Lokhpa, they were greeted by a crowd of Nepalis.
“Nir really saved my life,” Sandy repeated several times during our interview. “I would not be here if not for him.”
Many trekkers were not as lucky as Sandy and her group. As of May 5, the death toll from the earthquake exceeded 7,300. Nepali authorities reported that 57 foreigners had died, 52 were wounded, and 109 trekkers were still missing.
But the numbers of missing are hard to ascertain in the mountains. Embassies are trying to triangulate information from relatives, social media, Nepali trekking permits, and news reports.
The trekking area that was hardest hit was one of Nepal’s most beautiful, at the foot of the Langtang massif and national park, north of Kathmandu, bordering Tibet. Five Nepali villages were completely obliterated by multiple rock and ice avalanches triggered by the earthquake. In one, 200 Nepalis died.
From the air, the sea of mud makes it hard to imagine that there ever had been any buildings. In the village of Langtang, only one concrete structure is left standing, prayer flags still on its roof, spared perhaps by a sheltering mountain overhang. Some 350 villagers had been rescued alive from Langtang village. Nepali authorities say that no one else requires rescuing in the area.
Friends and families of the missing trekkers have launched social media campaigns to find their loved ones. But SAR Dogs Nepal, a Nepali search-and-rescue organization that knows the area well, having searched the valley many times in the past years for missing trekkers, says that finding and then recovering bodies from the cement-like residue of a landslide will be extremely complicated and difficult. Most likely the trekkers buried there will never be found.
Up at Lokpa, Sandy met other stranded Americans, Andrew and Jennifer Maiorana, a San Francisco couple in their early 30s who had also quit their jobs to travel around the world. On the village satellite phone, Andrew’s Nepali guide called the owner of his trekking company in Kathmandu, who immediately set out to charter a helicopter.
“The owner of the company basically slept at the airport for several days trying to get us out of here,” Andrew said. But the waiting list for the few helicopters was long. Sandy and her group decided to walk down. “For me it was mental torture to sit and wait,” she said, adding with a self-deprecating laugh. “Better to walk through landslides than not move.” It took Sandy seven days to get to a town where she was able to catch a bus.
There was death and destruction all the way down.
The sleeping bags of 15 Germans were half buried under a landslide by a river, where they had camped: all perished. Many of the ubiquitous mule trains that carry food, cooking gas and housing material up and down the mountains had also been buried, and the stench of their rotting flesh enveloped the group as they walked past.
In the meantime, the Maioranas waited days before a helicopter became available. It took them, their guide and porter south and dropped them off at a small village where every one ran out to greet them. Using the last bit of their porter’s cell phone battery, they called the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, and someone promised to pick them up that afternoon. The helicopter, piloted by a Nepali but including a member of the U.S. Special Forces, ferried six foreigners and the Maiorana’s guide back to Kathmandu. They arrived on May 3, the same day as Sandy.
Neither Sandy nor the Maioranas want to leave Nepal. Tonight Andrew and Jennifer are having a celebratory dinner with their porter and guide. Meanwhile, Sandy is trying to find a way to return to Tsum to help the remaining villagers whose lives have been ruptured by the earthquake. Despite the horrors of those last seven days in the mountains, she has fallen in love with Nepal.
“Nepalis are so protective of their own,” she says. “I became one of their own.”