Langtang | Each Day We Watch the Skies

Just before noon on April 25, while I was trekking in the Langtang Valley of Nepal, an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale rocked the region. In the village of Kyanjin Gompa, an avalanche tumbled down the slopes of Kyanjin Ri, effectively making the destruction there total. By sheer luck, there was very little loss of life. Returning to the partial ruins of Super View Hotel, only one of my belongings was salvageable in the rubble of my bedroom; my Canon camera.

With locals and tourists I fled, heading for the village of Langtang two hours south. Along a freshly beaten path through snow we rushed, a small helicopter passing overhead on swift reconnaissance. Our group crossed the dirty, towering peaks of a fresh avalanche chute, and diverted past the prayer stones on the outskirts of the village. A single story concrete building, roofless, intended as the new village hospital, stands solitary on the ridge above Langtang village. There are already many other survivors there.

The village of Langtang is gone.

Down the valley the landslides are kilometres wide, and metres deep. The shockwave from the collapse of the glacier above Langtang had blackened the sky, flattened trees on the opposite mountainside, and plucked the feathers from birds. There is barely even visible rubble.

Over the next four chilly nights and almost equally cold days, the population of Langtang New Hospital fluctuates around the 100 mark as local wounded pour in almost as quickly as the lone charter pilot for the valley can take them out. On the second day, an army helicopter arrives, and hopes soar. They bring limited medical supplies, but no food, water, or shelter. And when the MI-8 chopper reappears on the evening of day three, it brings only 30 packets of dry noodles, 25 of biscuits, and 80 litres of water. It leaves with no one but the military on board.

As the only source of water nearby dwindles on the rocks, tensions rise when some tourists take rice, tinned fish, and cooking pots from the village wreckage. Still, the small chopper brings no supplies on its sporadic visits to the site. Every day we watch the skies, willing the weather to be clear, eating small portions of rice or shriveled potatoes and wondering when relief will come. Three lists of survivors are sent out on three separate flights; our only chance at communicating our survival to the world outside.

On the fourth day, an Israeli, privately contracted for emergency response, lands among us. From him we learn for the first time of the scale of the disaster, and as he fortifies our shelters against the evening rain, we allow ourselves hope for a rescue.

When the army arrives and evacuates our camp the next morning, it is with shell-shocking speed and professionalism after the anxious days of waiting . By 11am our camp of almost 80 are out of the valley, and into the town of Dunche.

At time of writing, May 7, over 100 bodies have been recovered from the upper Langtang valley. Estimates are that a further 200 souls remain unaccounted for in the region. For so many, the horror of this ordeal continues.

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