Living with loss.....

18th Mar 2020

Langtang Valley

At 11.56am on 25th April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook vast parts of Nepal.  It was a devastating event that flattened family homes, religious sites and office buildings.  A huge avalanche slid off the steep slopes of Pumori and swept through Everest Base Camp with tragic results for the western climbers and local staff present.


Around 50 km’s north of the Kathmandu Valley sits the Langtang Valley.  A unique and tranquil area that many believe it to be the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas. A few days walk from the nearest road access point sat the village of Langtang.  Here the earthquake triggered an unimaginable tragedy.  A vast swathe of rock sheered off the steep sides of Langtang Lirung and careered towards the unsuspecting Langtang village below. 


There was no time to escape the estimated 40 million of tons of rock that flowed over the buildings and obliterated everything in its path.  The equation was simple - if you were in the side of the village that lay in the rockfall path you had no chance of survival whereas just to the side a small number of buildings were largely untouched.


I can describe it, but you only really get a sense of the scale of the devastation by seeing it for yourself.  The landslide only stopped near the river that flows through the valley and, as well as the 175 villagers, 27 local guides and porters and 41 western trekkers perished. The estimate is that the rubble is 20 metres deep in parts and many bodies were never recovered.


If you are trekking to Langtang from the road head you only see the landslide debris as you turn a corner.  It hits you then.  The current village can be seen up slope and yet the route to it now has to cross the massive swathe of landslide rubble by a makeshift path.  Above, the huge rock scar is there to see. It can’t be ignored. Even more is to come.  As you walk over the rock and mud to access the village, remnants of fabric and other signs of the once proud village can be seen amongst the chaos.  


The debris is probably 100 metres wide in places but eventually you hit the far edge of the landslide site and the current village is there before you.  If you don’t turn back you could fool yourself that all was well and nothing was behind you.  But, of course, you know it is. The tragedy has an aura.


Before you get to the first houses there is a memorial to those lost.  It is a simple and yet poignant structure entirely in keeping with the stunning surroundings.  Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, mani walls carry religious inscriptions and the names of all those lost are carved into rock slabs.  Who can begin to imagine what it would have been like to witness the tragedy that unfolded on that day?


The buildings are colourful, tasteful and well maintained. The village is re-energising itself. There is a cluster of tea houses, a bakery, a few family homes and a couple of small shops.  On the hillside above there is the school and as we arrived we could hear the shouts of playing children. 


We stayed in the lodge of a family that were still struggling to find a path through their grief.  We know this because they told us.  They wanted to talk.  The owner had lost his mother and brother and he said there were very few in the village that hadn’t lost relatives. If not that, it would be close friends that were gone - you know just about everyone in a small remote community like that.


He’d actually been away at one of the higher villages when the landslide occurred.  He’d felt movement in the earth but nothing more.  But then he heard the distant rumble and felt a sickening awareness that something terrible had happened further down the valley.  By the time he had raced back the sight that awaited him is impossible to imagine.  


No roads serve Langtang and they had nothing to help search for survivors.  Vast areas of Nepal were facing devastating damage and the limited services available were massively overstretched. It was a long time before help was on its way and the reality was that there was little the arriving cavalry could really do anyway. 


During our stay in Langtang we were treated with the usual grace and kindness we see all over Nepal.  It was a magical place in the most beautiful of valleys.  We wandered around and soaked up the special ambience of a typical Himalayan mountain village.  We sat in the sun and enjoyed watching visitors and locals pass by.  We revisited the memorial and sat silently in the shadow of Langtang Lirung.  There is so much good there.


But the terrible events that unfolded are unforgettable. The evidence surrounds you.  Look down the valley and your eyes are drawn to the rock scar and debris.  You sense the lives cut short, the suffering and the families torn apart.  A visit to Langtang stays with you and that is how it should be - the lost must live on in the memories of the living.


All over Nepal the events of that day live on and Langtang is only a part of the story. But the Nepalese are a strong, resourceful and independent people who have faced many difficult times before.  I am constantly humbled by their ability to adapt and survive.  What Nepal needs, and nowhere more than Langtang, is the support of visitors able to continue breathing life into challenged communities.


If you are planning a Nepalese trekking trip please put the Langtang Valley on your itinerary. Share tea with the locals, support the communities, marvel at the beauty and soak up the ambience of this very unique place. But also stop a while at the memorial and imagine what happened there only 5 years ago.  Imagine...but never forget.


Posted by Paul