Thank you to all our family and friends for their messages and support, and for asking for ways to help the people that saved us. Here are the reasons we want to channel some of that help to three individuals in particular – Dawa, Chang-ju and Temba, who lost everything – their families, their homes and their community:
We left Langtang about two hours before the earthquake hit and everyone had been wishing us safe travels and telling us they were looking forward to seeing us next year. We’d had the most rewarding trip up until that point: research-wise and personally. Our friend, Son Norbu (Chang-ju’s brother), wanted to open a Tibetan Himalayan Heritage Museum and we were brainstorming all the ways we could help and support him. Earlier in the week he, Dawa and Chang-ju had taken us to visit many special cultural sites in the area and told us local stories, and we were having such a great time riding around on Son Norbu’s ginger horse, Yangry.
The evening before we left there had been a big prayer festival in Langtang, in the newly restored monastery, for which we had helped fundraise. People had come from villages all around Langtang so there were more people there than normal that morning. We were on the trail between Langtang and Lama Hotel, about 30 minutes past a place called Riverside, when the earthquake hit. The first tremor lasted about a minute. It took us a few seconds to work out what was happening because before the earth started to shake there was a massive boom as the cliff face opposite us peeled off and fell. As soon as we registered it was an earthquake, we ran to find shelter behind nearby boulders. It was hard to see because the air was filled with dust, but we could see enough to dodge out of the way of several huge boulders that were tumbling down slope towards us. One of them hit the stone under which Emma was sheltering, which started to collapse. She just managed to scramble out as it fell forward.
After the main quake we ran down the path to a more stable rock-shelter and took cover while numerous aftershocks hit. Boulders were raining past us the whole time and right beside our rock-shelter was a huge landslide, about 30 metres across - a mass of stones and ripped trees. At one point we tried to start across the landslide but another tremor made us sprint back to the rock-shelter as another mass of stones and debris hailed down the slope. The landscape had become so unstable after the main tremor and aftershocks that any small movement, even a small rock displacement, was triggering enormous landslides that were travelling kilometres down from the cliffs above. We knew they were coming because they were preceded by a ripping sound followed by a deep, thunderous boom.
So, we waited in the rock shelter for about 30 minutes. During that time we sorted through our gear and threw away anything deemed non-essential so that our packs were as light as possible. A local porter had come up-slope to find shelter with us because the path had been destroyed between us and Lama Hotel. He and our porter, Dawa, headed to Lama Hotel anyway to try and contact a helicopter to evacuate us. Whilst they were gone we were joined by two French couples, a Dutch woman and three local porters. We decided we were not safe where we were so made another effort to cross the landslide. As it turned out, there were three landslides between us and Lama Hotel, all incredibly steep and a volatile mass of unstable debris. There was constant panic as we moved over them because we could hear rock fall all around and couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. The local porters and Chang-ju held our hands the whole way and guided us over particularly difficult patches. After at least an hour we managed to get to Lama Hotel, totally exhausted.
At Lama, there were about 30-40 locals and 15 trekkers. We handed out any spare warm clothes to locals who hadn’t been able to recover anything from their homes. All the tea-houses were damaged beyond repair and two people had head injuries. We made one attempt to get further down the route than Lama Hotel that evening but turned back because the path had been destroyed and there were tremors every few minutes that sent rocks flying down on us. Fortunately, the valley sides are a bit wider at Lama Hotel, culminating in a small plateau area that gave us a slither of security. It meant we could zig-zag across the plateau in an attempt to dodge landslides, and that’s exactly what we spent the evening doing. Two big landslides came right down in to Lama Hotel that night, barely 30 meters from where we were, the second one in the pitch dark, which meant we had to make judgments based on sound alone. The safest place as far as we could tell was pressed up against two large fallen boulders that had been there years, but the downside was that they were near the river floodplain. We had noticed before it got dark that the water level had reduced, meaning there was likely a pressure building behind a blockage upstream. We basically spent the night half listening for landslides and half listening to rumbling sounds from upstream which we thought might indicate an impending flashflood. In all honesty, we didn’t think we would survive the night. On top of the physical dangers, it was freezing cold and raining hard, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and we were exhausted. If a landslide had come down right on top of us we wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
It was an extraordinarily difficult night filled with tremors every few minutes and landslides all through the valley. What we didn’t realize at this point, but were told later by a helicopter evacuee, was that some enormous boulders were pin-balling slowly down the valley from Kanjin Gompa in our direction. One French trekker had a satellite telephone and we tried to call the British Embassy but couldn't get enough reception. In desperation we phoned relatives and people in Kathmandu to try and get help but had no idea if our messages had been received. Although we hoped for helicopter rescue from Lama Hotel it was in reality an impossibility: there is no helipad because the valley sides are too steep.
At first light we took the decision to try and head to a village called Rimche, which we had attempted to get to the previous evening. From there, Dawa told us there was an old path up to the top of the mountain to a place called Sharpa Gaon, which isn’t on the main trekking trail. For both of us, the thought of getting back on the narrow path, with the continued threat of tremors and rockslides, was overwhelming. We had so much adrenaline pumping through our legs that they were heavy and unsteady. We started out with 11 trekkers and 10 locals, including Chang-ju and Dawa. The rest of the group started to head back up the trekking route towards Langtang. Though the path was missing in many places we made it to Rimche, but 7 people (4 trekkers and 3 porters) turned back because the terrain over the landslide and the destroyed path made the going extremely dangerous. For a large portion of the route up to Sharpa Gaon the path was completely decimated and we were forced to go straight up the steep, rocky cliff face, using clumps of grass and roots to cling on whilst we traversed around to where we could pick up the path again. Dehydrated and weak, our lungs were pushed beyond what we ever thought we could physically do. We wanted to stop so much and just lie down against the rock but we both kept saying to ourselves that it was a choice between moving or dying – that’s no exaggeration. Rock debris continued to tumble around us as we climbed. The whole way our local friends – Dawa and two brothers from Lama Hotel – held our hands and dragged us over particularly treacherous portions of the route. As we became more and more fatigued, there were times when they literally dragged us up the slope. We must have climbed nearly 1000m in about two hours. Finally, we saw the relatively safe(r) terraces of Sharpa Gaon in the distance and were greeted by hot cups of tea made by the villagers. The entire way we were cared for by people we had never met before, as if we were family. It’s absolutely true that they saved our lives several times over.
After about four hours of resting and trying to catch the attention of the occasionally passing helicopter, Dawa decided to head towards the next village to try and get mobile reception and call for a helicopter. He was successful and a helicopter, piloted by Dougie, eventually landed on the edge of one of the rice terraces at about 4.15pm the day after the quake. Emma, Hayley, Dawa, Chang-ju and a Slovakian woman, Katarina, who had also made it to Sharpa Gaon with a broken foot, clambered into the helicopter. As if the whole thing hadn’t been dramatic enough up to that point, the locals suddenly began screaming and gesticulating that we needed to take off rapidly. We can only presume it was because of other rock falls coming our way down slope.
The relief of arriving into Kathmandu was shattered when Temba (Chang-ju’s husband who had come in the helicopter to pick her up) informed her that the village of Langtang had been totally wiped out by an avalanche riding on top of a mud-slide. Dougie had flown over Langtang earlier that day and described it like a nuclear fall-out. The force of the debris had stripped and bent trees on the opposite side of the valley. There were no houses, and as far as he could tell everyone was dead. All of the amazing, beautiful people that had welcomed us into their little community for the past week had been wiped out. The children we had been photographing playing on a bicycle were gone. Chang-ju’s, Temba’s and Dawa’s entire families are gone, after generations of living not only in the same village but in the same homes. Dawa’s dream of becoming a teacher in the newly built school in Langtang was crushed – there are no more children there to teach. We don’t know if Son Norbu and his horse Yangry are alive. A little village, generations old and part of an already fragile Tibetan culture, just got wiped out.
We know that there is nothing we can do to ease the bombardment of loss Dawa, Chang-ju and Temba must be feeling. The weight of that will last several lifetimes. But we want to do something. We know there are lots of people doing great things to raise money and help for the people of Nepal, but we would like to also do something specifically for Dawa, Chang-ju and Temba.
We have set up this Just Giving page called Langtang Survivors Fund, and would be so grateful for any contributions to help our friends.
In addition, we work with the charity Community Action Nepal (CAN), who are spearheading a relief program for the entire valley. If you would like to offer financial help for the immediate assistance of local people, and the longer-term regeneration of this community, please also donate to CAN.
Hayley and Emma