I feel lucky to be writing this. Had the course of events only been slightly different, this would have never been written and my wife Yati and I would probably never be found.
I had planned to go on the Langtang-Gosainkunda-Helambu trek – the part of the Himalayas just north of Kathmandu – as early as February, just to get out of Jakarta for two weeks. I became less enthusiastic as the trip drew nearer. Unfortunately, everything was already booked. I did not feel overly fit; I had a badly inflamed and swollen left toe and I had torn my right meniscus, causing me some pain, especially going down steep slopes. I had the feeling that turning 74, trips like these are not so easy as they were some years ago. Ironically, my infected toe probably saved our lives.
We start at 7.30am, planning to end the day in Langtang, 1,100m up with a distance of about 18km. After 600m altitude, we are out of the forest, the valley widens, with blossoming rhododendron trees everywhere. We pass through villages with lodges and teahouses, where Sherpa ladies cook and serve, children play, and we see yaks, sheep, horses, dogs – everything was peaceful. We arrive at Langtang village in the early afternoon, the largest in the area with about 250 inhabitants.
Our plan is to continue upwards to Kyanjin Gompa, a Buddhist monastery. Among the guests is a couple, seemingly from Eastern Europe, and two Japanese girls in their early 20s, playing with their handphones and giggling. I am pretty sure that they all are no longer living.
I have an uneasy feeling about going to Kyanjin Gompa – I don’t know why. I consider it, but my painful, inflamed toe makes me refuse, insisting to return immdiately. This was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. The Langtang valley, including all the villages, is annihilated the next day. Almost everybody perished.
On Saturday April 25 we are on our way down.
After about four hours, we arrive at Pahara Lodge. Shall we sit down and have another tea or noodle soup, or just continue? It is still early, 1pm, and we have lots of time, so I say, let’s stay here for a while. A decision to continue would have killed us in seconds.
We sit down; Madan puts our luggage against the lodge wall. I get a pen to write down our order. At this very moment something happens which is difficult to describe.
The stone plates on the floor start vibrating.
I look at the wall of the lodge as it moves forwards and backwards and threatens to fall on me.
The most frightening noises fill the air; a deep grumbling, getting louder and louder. Just a few metres past the lodge, a stone avalanche of giant boulders starts rumbling down.
Without much thinking, I run back amidst the bombardment, grab my backpack and run back up into the forest. We hide in an earth hole behind a rock, about eight of us closely pressed together. A stone avalanche rolls down a mere 80m from us, just beside the lodge. Stones the size of shoe cartons, some smaller, some bigger, cruise around with a terrible whistling noise. We hear cracking from falling trees, noises from the impact when the stones and boulders hit the ground; it’s a concert of destruction. The air is filled with dust, so thick that you can hardly see.
After about five minutes the shaking and the noises stop – an uneasy silence sets in. The people beside me are in shock. An English girl is kissing her boyfriend, in a trance. She feels this is the last moment she can be with her loved one. A very pretty Israeli girl is mentally absent, murmuring prayers and crying silently. The lady who owns the lodge sees her property in ruins and laments. Yati is silent, rolling her eyes and moving her lips, praying for mercy.
All of a sudden: an aftershock. It is a feeling the soldiers must have had in World War One, sitting in their trenches, not knowing whether the next shot will end their lives.
Some Sherpas try to keep everything under control. They recommend waiting for approximately half an hour, avoiding possible aftershocks before continuing our descent into the relative safety of Syabrubesi. Despite the warnings of others, I leave our hiding place and go for an inspection.
The entire lodge is gone. I look beyond; the trail is completely gone, buried under meters of huge rocks and boulders. 200 metres away I can see the trail reappearing, covered with a few stones – still passable. I look for our luggage; the two bags carried by our porter, and can’t find anything. Everything close to the lodge was swept down by the avalanche and buried deep under the rocks.
It is quiet, but an aftershock could come at any time, so we try to pass all the avalanche areas as quickly as possible. We climb huge boulders to reach the original trail. One hour down, crossing three more dangerous landslide areas and a tributary to Langtang Khola, we reach a little, badly damaged village. We continue as fast as possible, 5km further to Syabru.
Two km down, the trail is completely destroyed, where it used to be is a yawning gorge down to the river below. The only way to get around is up. Yati is ahead and Madan comes back to help me get over the obstacles. Then a chance to cross parallel to the former trail, but higher up and steeper down again to the place where the trail still exists. I manage, partly riding down on my bum, and see the trail again.
A bit further down, the trail crosses a big stone fall area of about 200m. I try to continue, discover a frightened green snake between the rocks, when two hiding porters call me back. Not a second too soon as another avalanche hits. After a few minutes, the stones stop and the two guys who saved me are running over the field like weasels. I cannot follow that fast, and in the middle of the field another aftershock sets everything into motion again.
I jump into a hole in the ground under a rock, with a rather knotty tree on top. Any bigger rock hitting my hideout would kill me. The inferno gets worse, as boulders as big as cars come down left and right, luckily not in the middle. The worst things to endure are the noises. I can’t say how long it lasts. Three minutes maybe, but that can be an eternity.
I nearly faint, and I do something that I have not done for 60 years. I pray. Oh Lord, have mercy on me.
The noises finally stop. Was it the prayer? I can’t say. I step out of hiding; rub my body, everything still there.
I continue my walk as fast as I can. Yati and Madan crossed the place earlier so I know they are safe. Two km more, crossing smaller stone falls, up to the village opposite Syabru on the east side of the Bhote Koshi Nadi. A few hundred metres up to the collecting point in the village, Yati and and Madan are waiting, immensely relieved to see me.
Recently, I read that about 112 trekkers are missing in the Langtang area. My decision that day to cut the trip short and descend saved our lives. I think about the many trekkers I saw moving up the mountain, full of optimism – they are not with us anymore. The Langtang area was probably the worst hit in Nepal. April 25, 2015 was a day that I can say in all confidence was the worst day of my life.