|Jan/Feb 2019 Travel|
On the dusty streets at the north end of Pokhara, Nepal, my wife, Sonia, and I were darting in and out of concrete storefronts, scrambling for last-minute supplies. It was Oct. 6, 2014, according to Western calendars, and we were a day behind schedule for our Himalayan trek. Outside a bakery, as motorcycles dodged familiar potholes, I turned and was nearly sideswiped by a dead body. Several boys in white shirts and black pants with white flags were marching down the street, trailed by young men carrying a small woman wrapped in ornate red linen on a gurney. She was on her way to the cremation ceremony. It was our first sign that death was hovering around us, mere feet away.
We were heading out on the 128-mile Annapurna Circuit, long considered the greatest trek in the world, as it circumnavigates the 26,545-foot Annapurna massif in a roughly horseshoe shape and connects village to village, accented by Hindu and Buddhist culture. We'd also tacked on a second leg to the journey, a side trip to Annapurna Base Camp/Sanctuary, bringing our total distance closer to 200 miles. Because we were scheduled to be out for 25 days, we were in a state of panic trying to second guess ourselves. What had we forgotten?
A deadly tropical cyclone, meanwhile, was spawning in the northern Indian Ocean, and we were oblivious to it and anything else beyond our own disorganization. We were among throngs of tourists heading deep into the Himalayas, the Sanskrit word for "abode of the snow." It wasn't supposed to be extreme mountaineering, but overnight it would morph into one of the worst trekking disasters.
As I would learn later, Cyclone Hudhud began as a line of thunderstorms in the northern Indian Ocean. NASA's Aqua space satellite captured a set of infrared data that looked more like a tie-dyed T-shirt. On Oct. 8, an eye was becoming visible to forecasters. With winds exceeding 131 mph, it moved from east to west across the Bay of Bengal and reached Category 4 status shortly before making landfall. By then it was fully developed, and its puffy clouds looked like an exploded snowball. This had set off a controlled panic in India where more than 700,000 people were forced to evacuate the coasts. The first confirmed casualty, according to media reports, may have been a nine-year-old girl who died in a rescue boat accident.
As Hudhud scraped across land, the storm's remnants headed for the Himalayas, creating an entirely new kind of danger as the mightiest of precipices obstructed its path and converted rain to snow. There was little reaction in Nepal. The country was distracted with preparations for its post-monsoon season festivals, and it was high season for tourists when clear weather provides some of the best views of 8,000-meter peaks.
We'd hired a 25-year-old guide, Yashoda Baniya from 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking. The company was a pioneer in training young women to work away from home, a radical concept when three Nepali sisters teamed up and started the business back in 1994. Their guides go through extensive training and a selection process. Not quite five feet tall, Yashoda made her presence known through physical toughness and a sunny disposition. She could find almost anything humorous. But she was in a state of shock the next morning when she saw us near the bus that was to carry us to the trailhead. Sonia had a cold and, in a silly bout of confusion with foreign bottles, I'd swallowed a large quantity of hydrogen peroxide late the previous night. My throat was burning and my voice nearly gone. In addition to leaving later than expected, things weren't starting off well for a couple from Colorado.
The bus ride was typical of a developing country: dangerous and overcrowded with high-pitched Indian and Nepali music filling what little hot space was left. Despite some passengers having to sit on wicker stools in the aisle, spirits were running high, but there was a tinge of apprehension. Little did we know this old hunk of metal hurtling down the back-broken roads marked the beginning of something greater. Each cluster of trekkers forms an international tribe as they leapfrog their way up the trail. Those who'd left on the bus the previous day, which was supposed to include us, would feel the full brunt of the storm.
We began our trek at the traditional starting point at 3,000 feet above sea level in the town of Besisahar, making our way up newly constructed dirt roads on top of the old trail. Most trekkers go counterclockwise around the circuit—the same direction cyclones rotate—because it's more gradual and facilitates better acclimatization. Up until 1950, walking presented the only way to enter or get around Nepal. Even today, traveling by road or air here is considered the most dangerous in the world. Many purists were afraid the circuit's four-wheel-drive roads would take away from the majesty of the trek. Vehicles were infrequent, as it turned out, mostly carrying tourists bent on finding shortcuts over the initial stretches, but the roads do provide a boon for locals and make it much easier to bring in fresh supplies.
Fees for entering the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), similar to a national park, go toward education, infrastructure, and preserving the natural and cultural heritage. The 4,700-square-mile area in north-central Nepal draws 100,000 tourists per year, matching the number of permanent residents within its boundaries. And because of post-monsoon season festivals, there were delays in issuing ACAP passes, sending an unusually high number of trekkers heading for the high country.
We'd opted to carry our own gear instead of hiring porters. I had this primal fear of being separated from my survival tools, including our winter gear. Although the circuit is considered a tame trek, at least by Himalayan standards, I'd seen plenty of things go wrong in the Rocky Mountains.
We spent the first few days making our way up the Marsyangdi River Valley through sweltering terraced rice fields, punctuated by prismatic waterfalls, to reach the Himalayas proper. Pungent crops awaiting harvest reached for diffused sunlight. Yashoda pointed out millet, ginger, and rice growing along the roadside. Dust sopped our eyes as we passed a massive construction project, a hydroelectric plant, which will only modernize things further. The electrical system in Nepal is cobbled together and often fails, so you have to take what you can get. Sonia, having grown up in south Texas, was looking strong in the hot weather. At one point, she said, "I feel like I can trek forever." We'd trained that summer by hiking and camping in the Rockies and meticulously testing every piece of gear. For five to eight hours a day, she was carrying more than most of the male trekkers who seemed a tad provincial with their daypacks and columns of hired porters.
As we trekked along, we admired the heart-shaped leaves of Bodhi trees, made famous by Buddha's meditations. Our tribe of trekkers was sorting itself out, and faces were becoming familiar in an ever-changing landscape. The circuit draws an eclectic community, many of whom are going through life transitions: career changes, spiritual quests, relationship breakups. For us, we had some rare flexibility in our schedules and wanted to experience the culture and see the big mountains I'd read about in countless mountaineering sagas.
Some trekkers unplug entirely, while others put priority on Facebook and overwhelm village WiFi networks with photo file transfers. The toughness of the trail unleashes emotions, and experienced guides are not altogether surprised to see their much taller clients, mostly of European stock, explode into tears. And sometimes the calamities are more physical. When a client in another group was having trouble with her hiking boots, a 3 Sisters guide donated hers and walked for two days in her client's shower shoes. Young, fit Israelis, who catch the wanderlust after completing mandatory military service, were disproportionately represented and commonly trekking without guides. Whatever the motivation for being here, there's subtle pressure to move forward. Rooms at teahouses fill up, and solar-heated water goes fast, especially during October's high season.
The trail has a way of disarming trekkers by feeling a little too much like home. Signs and restaurant menus are in English. Shacks between villages answer Western sugar cravings by offering Coca-Cola and Snickers. One inn named itself The North Face and even borrowed the outdoor product company's official logo. Another was called Hotel Hilton Restaurant and Guest House. Adorable Nepali children offer the traditional namaste greeting in prayer pose. Those who are too young to talk just slap their hands together in fine clouds of dust. Knowing that tourists often pack chocolate, the children hold out their hands and chant "sweet, sweet." But at the same time, life continues for Nepalis trying to eke out a living. Everything is done by hand, mostly by women as the males are often doing construction, driving taxis, or working abroad. The trail kept us entertained with religious artifacts appearing in shadowy spaces and domesticated animals popping out in narrow quarters. In Danakyu, on the edge of the electrical grid, there was a chorten, a Buddhist shrine, in front of a waterfall to protect villagers from natural disasters.
We met a lodge owner there who, like many Nepalese, was still displaying a portrait of the royal family before they were murdered back in 2001. The woman's place was exceptionally well kept, and we admired her cooking. Out of the blue, she said that she'd love to come to America, describing it as a "dreamland," while tourists, meanwhile, trundled up the trail, trying to untangle confused lives. Some of them were from elsewhere in Nepal with the telltale dyed hair and skinny jeans of an urban hub like Kathmandu and were seeing these villages and mountain vistas for their first time. Although they spoke the national language, they were every bit as out of place as we were among the various subcultures. It was hard to believe that up until 2006, Nepal was in the midst of a civil war.
A few hours outside the village of Chame, Yashoda noticed the river turning from a steely gray to a deep black, a clear sign to her that rain was coming, the first bad weather we'd encountered. On came the rain gear, and it turned into a cold march. With wet gear hanging from our packs the next day, we were happy to have good weather again. Because a bridge was out farther up the trail, only motorcycles were making it beyond Chame. We noticed the food wasn't as fresh and the popular dish, dal baht, was getting blander without pickles or sharp-tasting delicacies like bamboo to give the rice, potatoes, and lentils an extra spark. Another sign, literally, that things were getting more rustic, was a billboard encouraging elder Nepalis to act more modern by using toilets instead of defecating in the woods. There also was a sign that helped offset the unpleasantness of the other: "Welcome to Manang District. The snow leopard is a symbol of Himalayan Grandeur."
Somewhere along the way, Sonia picked up bacteria and had a stomachache. Desperately weakened, it was miraculous she made it to the village of Manang in the afternoon. At 11,000 feet and about 56 miles into the trek, the Tibetan-influenced town represents a staging area for going higher, including the crux of the circuit, crossing the 17,769-foot Thorung La, one of the highest passes in the world. Manang has one main dirt street akin to an old Western town. There were cafes and two movie theaters, which were more like garages, featuring survival-oriented playlists like Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Touching the Void. Guests would sit on fur-lined seats and were served tea and popcorn. At the other end of town, where the locals live, there was a maze of old stone buildings. Goats and yak-cow hybrids grazed freely in the foothills while stores sold anything tourists might need from sunscreen to trekking poles.
Our plan was to take a couple of days to acclimatize—although we came from high altitude in Colorado—and explore some local attractions, then begin the two-day segment to get over the pass. But with Sonia down, there wasn't much to do except wait for her to get better. She crawled into her mummy sleeping bag and was convinced she could fight off the stomach bug.
And Sonia wasn't the only one who was down. Yashoda found out that the lama at Bhraka Gompa, who usually blesses trekkers with a puja ceremony and wishes them a safe journey over the pass, was in Kathmandu seeking medical attention.
The following afternoon I was hiking among goats and black eagles in the foothills while Sonia rested. Yashoda had become a dedicated nurse and was constantly checking in on her. Wispy stratus clouds above the infinite contours of Annapurna III had replaced the Himalayan blue. With my aviation background, the changing atmospheric conditions were of keen interest to me, but up until that point, we'd heard no talk and there were no official warnings of Cyclone Hudhud at various trail checkpoints.
At 3:00 AM on October 14, I poked my head out of our frigid room at the teahouse and saw that several inches of snow had fallen on the rooftops. It started out as light and powdery but turned wet and heavy as the gray morning crept along. People were throwing snowballs, and a woman built a snowman outside Hotel Yeti down the street. I took a short walk up the trail and saw four porters with plastic bags over their shoes, doggedly gaining altitude without looking up for a casual namaste. And later on, I ran into three young men who had tried to make it to Tilicho Lake, a popular diversion on the circuit, but had turned back at the advice of mountain guides they'd run into. The storm wasn't easy on livestock, either. A cow walked into a hotel courtyard seeking warmth and left a blizzard of defecation.
The storm had knocked out electricity and cellular phone service. And the satellite phone at the Himalayan Rescue Association's (HRA's) medical clinic wasn't working. Power outages are normally not a big deal, but this time we were essentially cut off from the world at one of the remoter parts of the circuit.
The plumbing had frozen at our teahouse, and the kitchen staff was melting snow in pots. There were no vacancies in town, and many people, mostly guides and porters, had to sleep in tents. Restless trekkers, in between card games, were trying to figure out what to do. Besides the pressure to move forward, people had reasons for getting over the pass. Many had bought plane tickets and were planning to cut the trek short by flying out of Jomsom, just over the pass, and landing in Pokhara. Jomsom also had an ATM. While you can live for next to nothing in Nepal, at least by Western standards, most transactions are cash only, requiring the babysitting of large wads of rupees. An American woman who'd had problems with her hiking boots bought new ones en route, which blew her budget after she had to pay full retail.
When the storm moved out after a solid 36 hours of snowfall, the Annapurna Range was back, wearing its winter coat. Early that morning there was chaos in our teahouse. We were awakened by hiking boots pounding paint-stripped wooden steps and laughter bouncing off loose floorboards. The herd was shrugging off cabin fever and moving forward. "This is crazy," I said to Sonia. I'd had avalanche training in Colorado and was used to psychotic mountain weather. "There will be slides everywhere."
At the same time, I wasn't one to judge. We couldn't go anywhere until she felt better. We took an easy walk around town that afternoon as many of our teahouse mates were returning, defeated and sunburned. We ran into an Australian man who'd read an online story about an avalanche on the pass. I asked a police officer how many were missing and he said, inexplicably and without hesitation, "No one is missing."
Puzzled, we went into the ACAP Information Center and were told that the high pass was officially closed until further notice, creating a bottleneck that was felt all the way down the trail. On a brighter note, we were also told that Manang hadn't seen snow in October in 19 years. That sounded a little curious. I asked a young local man if that was true and he laughed, saying his parents would certainly disagree with that.
Returning trekkers were lugging unsettling rumors back into town about avalanches, dead human bodies and yak horns sticking out of the snow. They said the trail was impassible. Late that afternoon we heard a helicopter, which is never a good sign in Nepal. With the electricity back on, we checked email and found our families—in between marketing messages from REI and Victoria's Secret—in a panicked state. Our original itinerary had put us on Thorung La, precisely when the storm hit, and they didn't know about our delays. Sonia and I had been added to an online list of missing persons.
Pandemonium ensued at one of two Internet cafes. Carolyn Smith, a Canadian emergency room physician and a temporary volunteer at the HRA's medical clinic, needed to send an urgent message to the Nepalese government. It's one of two clinics operated by HRA, which are staffed during the main trekking seasons. The other clinic is in the Mount Everest region. While Smith was in line, she got chewed out by a man in front of her who was saving a seat for his wife. "I have four children. Otherwise, I have to wait 30 minutes," he said. As one of three computers freed up, Smith started typing a dire message, saying that her clinic was ready to accept "many patients (or bodies)."
The clinic's first casualty wasn't a trekker but a government official who'd flown up from Kathmandu and suffered altitude sickness. He was treated using the clinic's portable oxygen concentrator. The clinic also treated two Nepalis who'd been trekking for six hours without sunglasses. Dr. Ian Quigley, a volunteer from London, saw similarities in the injuries that welders suffer when they fail to protect their eyes.
Yashoda had handed me a copy of the HRA's "Mountain Sickness and Other Hazards in the Nepal Himalaya" pamphlet, which foretold the haunting events. "In the main trekking seasons in the Spring and Fall, the weather is often stable, and even the high passes may be free of snow and relatively easy to traverse at times. Those trekkers who encountered an easy day at altitude may spread the word that boots and warm clothing are not required. This is a mistake! Sudden storms can occur at any time, dumping one or two meter of snow on the passes. At that point, anyone with simple running shoes will not be able to proceed, and may be stranded for a number of days."
It was one of those times in life where you second-guess yourself. We wondered what would have happened to us had we stuck to our original itinerary. What if we were up higher with Sonia as sick as she was? Seeking answers, I spoke with several survivors to hear their tales.
A Hell of Their Own
From Manang, the trail heads north through a series of villages, including the yak pastures of Yak Kharka at 13,287 feet and the blue sheep grazing grounds of Thorung Phedi at 14,599 feet. Beyond that, there are two overnight stopping points, Lower Camp and High Camp, to spread out the hard slog over the pass.
In the late afternoon of the day before the storm, 21-year-old Erin Erb, of Seattle, and her Israeli boyfriend, Tomer Cohen, 25, arrived at High Camp. They felt lucky to find beds and wouldn't have to resort to sleeping on the floor. They shared a sleeping bag. Packed with 200 people, the teahouse was unusually crowded, even for high season. They were trekking with two friends of theirs, an Israeli couple who'd hired a porter.
Although Erb didn't have much outdoor experience—other than day hiking and car camping—a week before the Annapurna Circuit she and Cohen had completed the Mount Everest Base Camp trek, which reaches a slightly higher altitude. Unlike the Annapurna Circuit, though, their Everest trek was uneventful.
On the morning of the storm, Jim Schaden, 68, and his wife Jeanie, 66, of Rockland, Maine, rose at 3:30 AM at the similarly crowded Lower Camp. After a hot breakfast, they and their experienced guide and porter were out the door by 4:00 AM. Dressed in warm clothing, the couple figured they were among the oldest on the trail and were a good hour and a half behind those leaving High Camp. A narrow, steep path connects the camps, and the snow was just beginning. Soon the Schadens found themselves in the middle of a line of 300 to 400 trekkers, headlamps blazing, making the steady high-altitude shuffle. Jim Schaden was hoping the snow would stop on the drier, western side of the pass. Like almost everyone else, the couple hadn't heard about the cyclone and assumed it was simply a smaller squall.
Avid hikers, the Schadens had experience to draw on. Four years ago they completed the Everest Base Camp trek with the same guide. They'd also climbed 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro in Africa and lived in Alaska for nine years. They figured their best shot was to keep moving and traverse the pass while daylight remained. With limited visibility and slippery footing, it was too dangerous to turn around and walk against the upward moving herd. They were shocked by how unprepared the other trekkers were, some of whom were experiencing snow for the first time.
Like Lower Camp, the teahouse at High Camp stirred to life in the early morning hours. Erb and Cohen awakened at 5:00 AM to find a foot of snow on the ground. They were among the last to leave at 6:00 AM, presumably somewhere behind the Schadens. Erb remembered an "enormous train of people" who were laughing and in good spirits. As in Manang, the fresh snow was a novelty.
Erb's group, like most of the other trekkers, had merely summer gear. They put on their sunglasses to block blowing snow. Even before the storm, Erb and Cohen were concerned that their friends' porter was ill-equipped, although he'd been over the pass before. In a village somewhere along the way, they'd bought him what was available, a women's canvas jacket. It was far from adequate.
As they trudged along, they became more concerned about the conditions. Their friends were motivated by thoughts of relaxing by the lake at Pokhara as their vacation time dwindled. Since the group opted out of doing the full circuit, their finish line was just over the pass in Jomsom where they could catch a jeep and proceed south down the horseshoe's other arm. At around 8:00 or 9:00 AM, Erb and Cohen decided the conditions were only getting worse and, against pressure from the struggling herd, turned back while the Israeli couple decided to keep going.
Erb and Cohen said their goodbyes and gave the other couple a chocolate bar they'd been saving as a surprise. On the way back down to High Camp, Erb realized just how serious it was. The trail had filled in with fast-falling snow, and because of the flat light, they couldn't see drop-offs. Cohen bravely took the lead and told Erb to walk only in his footprints. They were now alone and it donned on Erb that it was, in fact, a life-threatening ordeal.
They made it back to High Camp and found 15 to 20 other people, all soaking wet. Of the 200 who headed up, only eight had retreated. The rest of the people had come up from Lower Camp and stopped.
Erb's friends, meanwhile, made it to the last shelter before crossing the pass. Backpacks were stacked outside to make more room. Conditions were deteriorating on the inside as well. People were going to the bathroom on the floor in front of each other rather than heading back out in the blizzard.
At some point, the proprietor decided to evacuate and offered to lead the trekkers over the pass for $2,000, which worked out to $20 apiece. Seeming like a good enough deal, a group of trekkers, including the Israeli couple, followed the man on horseback. Every step was a struggle in the hip-deep snow.
They walked until dark in summer hiking boots. They saw at least two dead bodies. Somewhere below the pass, the couple was too weak to make it any farther. Their porter waited for several minutes, then disappeared. He was later found dead.
The Schadens, meanwhile, only stopped for a few minutes every two hours. Although they'd started in the middle of the pack, they were now in the front. The storm had picked up in ferocity, bringing higher winds and heavier snow as they neared the pass. An array of emotions leered from whiteout conditions. Some trekkers decided to wait out the storm on the pass while others were either paralyzed by fear or too exhausted to move and sat on snow banks and cried. The Schadens told other trekkers that they had an experienced guide and implored them to follow.
If the east side of the pass was rough, the west side was treacherous. It was sheer ice and people, including the Schadens, fell repeatedly. They, nonetheless, kept moving. Once they made it to the bottom, Jim Schaden turned around and asked, "Where is everybody?" They were alone.
What would have normally taken seven or eight hours had turned into twelve. The Schadens made it to the nearest town, Muktinath, at an elevation of 12,335 feet. The power was out and they huddled by a fire. During the evening, a horrific avalanche let loose and killed an estimated seven people who were trying to make their way down the pass in the Schadens' now invisible footsteps.
"I never felt like we were going to die there. We kept going," Jim Schaden said.
Still caught in a communications black hole, the Schadens wouldn't be able to reach their only child, a son in New York, for four days. In any case, Erb and Cohen—who were poorly equipped for the conditions but much younger—and the Schadens—who were much better off but older—had made the right decisions and won their respective coin tosses.
While Erb and Cohen were commiserating with other trekkers at High Camp, a porter appeared with a handwritten note. It was in Hebrew, and Cohen translated it. The note said that several Israelis were stuck on the pass and needed help immediately. There was a working phone at High Camp, and Cohen and some other Israelis began making a series of calls to the Israeli Embassy. The embassy was unaware of the situation and told the trekkers to put together a list of the missing, which included their own friends. Within hours, the snowstorm was starting to make international news.
The embassy called High Camp each day and told Erb and Cohen to stay put. The young couple later gave up a spot on a helicopter to a young non-Israeli woman who was suffering from asthma. People continued to move up to High Camp from the lower reaches of the circuit. When Erb and Cohen were finally rescued on the fourth day, she estimated the population at 50 to 60. Erb wouldn't find out until later that her friends had severe frostbite on their hands and were eventually airlifted to Kathmandu. At least they were safe.
As foreign press agencies kept updating the body count—15, 24, 33—a mix of civilian and military helicopters were flying. The Israeli government had cobbled together a well-coordinated rescue effort to save all Israelis. Normally in Nepal, you have to prove that you have the funds to cover a helicopter rescue, which can run $5,000 or more. Despite nonstop helicopter activity for days, many guides and porters where lost in the confusion and had to find their own way out from the high lodges and camps.
After watching several Israelis celebrating on the ground and hugging their pilot behind the clinic back in Manang, I was approached by two 20-something Dutch women in culturally inappropriate shorts and tank tops. They'd packed too light, even for Manang, and were wondering if they could bum a ride on a helicopter so they wouldn't have to walk out.
Trouble Down Below
Grief was hanging over Manang. Some felt betrayed by the trek. We'd reunited with a group of people from our original bus. Everyone seemed to have reasons for being farther up the trail and in harm's way. A Venezuelan woman was sobbing in a cafe. "I didn't sign up for Everest," she said.
Survivors were easy to spot. They looked spent, shaken, and severely sunburned. Some had patches over their eyes to ease the effects of snow blindness. While the news media were focused on the pass, there was trouble down below.
Surrounded by the comforts of fresh-baked goods, Alison Conway, 29, of Australia didn't look weathered like the rest, but she had some lingering terror in her eyes. Just east of Lower Pisang, about ten miles down from Manang, Conway and her group were hiking a few days earlier in the rain and were pleased when it turned to snow; it was better than getting soaked. As they were making their way through a pine forest, she heard what sounded like continuous thunder. Her guide yelled "run" and took off up the trail. Conway didn't think she would make it as tons of snow and rock showered down a gully. The group's porters had stopped and were caught on the other side of the slide. They had to cut a path across.
Back at our teahouse, people were sitting in the sun at picnic tables, taking hot showers, and doing laundry with the now common helicopter din in the background as hundreds were being rescued. With the pass closed for rescuers to retrieve bodies, trekkers were smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, a clear sign they'd given up on going higher.
Long Walk Out
After days of uncertainty, people were hugging each other goodbye and heading down. Turning around was almost unthinkable on the way up, but in light of the deaths, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Sonia's sickness was up and down. Yashoda had tried every home ready she could think of: garlic soup, ginger lemon tea, white rice. It didn't help that I was giving Sonia constant updates about death and destruction. She was having vivid and terrifying dreams, fighting off her own tempest from within. Sonia remained weak and didn't think she'd be able to carry her own backpack. We considered putting her on a horse, but she knew full well she couldn't handle the constant movement. We did have helicopter rescue insurance in case she became worse.
Yashoda took a break from caring for Sonia and was outside our teahouse when she saw a ghostly figure making her way through town. It was a fellow 3 Sisters guide who'd been trapped at Tilicho Lake. Although we had good information that she was okay, Yashoda had seen images of a dead body on a TV report that looked remarkably like her friend. The two women embraced and broke down in tears. We immediately hired the other guide to carry Sonia's backpack.
We were hearing rumors of swollen rivers and landslides, so the trip out was shaping up to be interesting. After seven days in Manang, we were among the last to head back. The trail was now vacant and eerie, or perhaps we were projecting our grief onto the few others who were knowingly heading up toward a dead end.
I met a French school teacher who'd been visiting the area for four months at a time, eight years in a row, and asked her about the comment from the ACAP Information Center regarding the lack of snowfall in October. She found it strange, too, and remembered it snowing two feet in 2010. Saddened by the tragedy, she was glad for the long walk out. She was having tea with a traveling monk one day, and the next he was found dead in the snow, yet another casualty of Cyclone Hudhud. She also was concerned about her friend, a teahouse owner where she stays. Lodge owners stockpile supplies in advance of the high season, and she knew the tragedy would have a severe economic impact on locals.
On the way down, we passed the remains of Conway's avalanche. It was a good 30 feet high and 300 feet wide where it had settled on the dry trail. It was the only snow around for miles. Unlike most tales that tumble along the circuit, this one was more dramatic in person. We stopped there for a while and thought about all those who'd been entombed up high on the pass, the members of what was supposed to be our original tribe.
Two days later, we met a Nepali guide who was making his way back to Kathmandu after his Israeli clients were whisked away by helicopter. He'd been up at High Camp. I asked him, with Yashoda translating, if he'd had any indication of approaching bad weather. He only noticed some unusually fast-moving clouds. Even if it's available, Internet access doesn't come cheap for traveling Nepalis. One hour of access charges at cafes and teahouses can wipe out half a day's take-home pay.
As we moved down toward steadily warming temperatures, I asked Yashoda what to expect during the annual post-monsoon festivals. Being her usual chipper self, she said simply, "There will be dancing." Back in Chame, we made sure Yashoda and her friend had downtime. They found a cooking pot, and in a perfect display of Nepali resourcefulness, headed to the hot springs to boil eggs.
To save time, we hired a four-wheel-drive truck. The ride was exceedingly rough. We had to switch vehicles about halfway since a landslide, caused by the cyclone's sudden rainfall, slashed a 50-foot deep gorge through the road. By the time we reached Besisahar, our original starting point, Sonia was sick again as the antibiotics we'd brought with us failed to work. Once we were back in Pokhara by the lake, I was reading a book while Sonia slept. After a couple of hours, I felt my concentration waning. I put the book down and stared at the walls. I, too, was nauseous. My energy was gone, and it took me an hour just to put on my shoes.
Yashoda came by and was, once again, surprised to see us in such bad shape. She was planning to take Sonia to a local doctor the next morning, and now she had a second patient. In between vomiting, I spent the night staring at a baby lizard circumnavigating the room. I was having my own vivid thoughts after seeing an image in the local media of two trekkers sealed in clear plastic body bags as the shell parka on the one in the foreground was the same royal blue as mine. But Yashoda was right, there were dance parties in the streets, which went on into the early morning hours for several days. Despite being confined to bed, Nepali culture found a way in and delighted our souls.
Although it was only a 15-minute walk to the doctor's office, I didn't have the energy and we opted for a cab. I had no idea how Sonia made it as far as she did. The doctor was mildly amused over our worthless Western pills. He diagnosed us with severe intestinal infections, told us what not to eat, and gave us more powerful antibiotics and probiotics manufactured in India.
Despite centuries of enormous death tolls along the Bay of Bengal, an estimated 124 people in India and Nepal had been killed by Cyclone Hudhud. Of that total, some 43 people died in the Annapurna Region, nearly half of whom were Nepalese. The rest hailed from Canada, Vietnam, India, Poland, Slovenia, Japan, and Israel. None of the victims were American.
And so the finger pointing began. Trekkers were blaming the Nepalese government for not providing adequate weather warnings, and the government was blaming "budget trekkers" for foregoing local guides. Erb was angered by the criticism while convalescing in Pokhara. Besides recovering from trauma, her long blond hair was mysteriously falling out in clumps, something she attributed to a vitamin deficiency after seeing a doctor. She explained that the eight people from High Camp who turned around in the storm were also the ones who didn't have guides.
"It's a terrible tragedy," she said. "It hurt when they pointed the finger at us."
In any case, the Nepalese government promised new rules for trekkers, such as requiring guides and rented GPS tracking devices. Unpreparedness and poor decision making killed many and will always be an issue depending upon the perceptions of danger. The Kathmandu Post took a stand:
...Unlike the avalanche on Everest earlier this year in April that killed 16 Nepali mountaineers, this blizzard was no "freak occurrence"; it was a near certainty, predicted by meteorologists everywhere, including in Nepal and India... Given that extreme weather events in the Bay of Bengal routinely affect weather patterns in Nepal, meteorologists had been sounding the alarm over Cyclone Hudhud at least a week in advance. A number of trekking agencies, mostly foreign, had reportedly even warned their clients of a possible blizzard days before the event. And the Annapurna Circuit is no backwater; it is a teeming tourist trail with phone and internet connectivity almost every step of the way, except for the high areas like Thorung Phedi, where there is a communication blindspot.
The editorial failed to factor in that it takes most trekkers more than a week to reach higher elevations, so they would have needed to receive word about the storm while en route. And the most severe weather occurs in the so-called communication blindspot where weather warnings would do the most good.
While Hudhud was big news in India, the October 14 archived weather forecasts from Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology only mentioned widespread rain. The cyclone was highlighted once, in the October 12 evening forecast, and was limited in detail: "HUD-HUD cyclone crossed the coastal land mass of Andhra Pradesh of India today afternoon and is moving towards north-west direction."
The Post's editorial went on to rightly place blame in many directions:
The culpability for this disaster, in some ways, is collective, though some are more to blame than others. Meteorologists might have had warning but this was not communicated effectively to trekkers, neither by the government nor trekking agencies, both of whom have an abiding responsibility to trekkers. The government's pledge to build weather early warning centres in the wake of the disaster feels too little, too late. But the onus also lies partially on the trekkers themselves. It is common knowledge that the Himalayas are unforgiving and Nepal is a country whose resources are stretched. In a world of constant weather forecasts and internet satellite maps, everyone can benefit from being a little vigilant.
One place The Post didn't point the finger, though, was at the media itself. As I was sipping masala tea, I went through old English-speaking newspapers and was surprised by the lack of pre-cyclone coverage; there were only rain-induced crop warnings for farmers. Local newspapers, after the fact, floated an even more universal subject, climate change, as a central culprit. This is not a trivial concern for a developing country with melting glaciers. At the same time, there was something missing from the debate, a sense of deja vu. One year ago, a similar storm, Cyclone Phailin, had developed almost to the day of Hudhud and swept across the Bay of Bengal, but was much less destructive and brought only rain to Nepal. While Phailin could have served as a wakeup call, there was an even bigger event in 1995 when a fall storm hit the Everest region and killed, although estimates vary, more than 40 people. They died in much the same way they did on the Annapurna Circuit: avalanches, exposure, exhaustion, and altitude sickness.
Jamie McGuinness, a five-time Mount Everest summiter and owner of Project Himalaya, an expedition and trekking service, posted a laundry list of criticism on the outfit's website. Among others, he blamed the media, along with the lack of a severe weather warning system, and argued for simple fixes such as better trail markings. He also pointed out confusion regarding the meaning of cyclones.
Natural disasters are a way of life in Nepal. While the cyclone spurred talk of preventing the "avoidable," or at least limiting risk, the country was six months away, a mere smidgen in geologic time, from a devastating earthquake that would kill more than 8,000 people in April 2015. The Annapurna Circuit, a major lifeblood of tourism, would emerge unscathed.
Before heading back to Colorado in early November, we did a follow-up visit with the Pokhara doctor to make sure we were fit to travel. Sonia and I were walking along a busy paved street as cab drivers and buses found space among blurs. We saw yet another funeral procession, but it was across the street and much farther away this time. A little Nepali girl turned to us, crinkled her nose and stated the obvious: "She is dead."
Despite the tragedy, we'd fallen in love with Nepal and were sad to leave the people, especially our newfound sister, Yashoda. We'd also miss the clank of yak bells, the little boy in the woods selling apples, the monk who served us lemon tea, the smiley cook at the guesthouse in Pokhara, the bakers next door, the crippled roads that kept delivering surprises. Like the leaves of Bodhi trees, we'd experienced both shadow and light. All the tourists we met during or after the trip felt the same way. The Schadens, for instance, were already planning their third trekking trip to the country. I thought back to the first night of the festival in Pokhara after we'd returned from the circuit. There were candles on every level spot. At the 3 Sisters headquarters building, we found white footprints made of flour with a row of candles leading to a religious shrine. What was the word to describe it? A yellow school bus full of uniformed children later provided the answer. Their school was called "Sublime." Yes, that was it.
Thanks to our own foibles, we'd joined the tribe that barely got away. Unlike other families, ours was able to update the online list and move us from the "missing" column to "safe."