Lama on the run

Features Issue 165 Aug, 2015
Text by Anuj D. Adhikari / Photo:

Several hundred souls have gone missing in the gorgeous Langtang valley, now left in ruins by avalanche and landslides triggered by killer quakes. A seasoned trekking guide recounts his story of survival and several unwitting lives he saved that fateful day with his training, discretion and quick thinking.

The gloomy horizon was not much to look at and the air too stuffy to breathe for Rajesh Lama, trying but evidently failing to slip into exhausted slumber. Sounds of tumbling boulders, creaking hills, shaking houses and the plight around, not to mention a first aid box that doubled as a pillow made the 25-year-old trekking guide quite queasy all night in Thulo Syabru, somewhere in Langtang. The narrow ridge would tremble menacingly as he and his clients crammed between sixty-odd men visibly shaken by incessant tremors and audibly flatulent by the dal bhat dinner with fresh chicken (killed by the quake in coop collapse) served altruistically by locals. This wasn’t how Lama hoped his two-week long Langtang trip would end for the sleepless ace trekker had seen better days – and that was till just twelve hours earlier.

Shortly past noon that day, clear skies and crisp autumn air perfectly complemented a hearty lunch. Headed back triumphantly from Kyanjin, deep inside Langtang Valley, Lama’s entourage had stopped for a deserved meal in Pahiro, a serene tiny tea station with a name as unfortunate as it was apt. A small clearing in the middle of the woods, Pahiro had two tea houses to serve hungry trekkers. Langtang Khola gushed below with an estuary that made a popular and cozy hot spring. Boulders and loose soil meanwhile looked over ominously and were rumored to have claimed many a lives in landslides in yesteryears. But those incidents were few and far between, or so they believed.

Lama and company were tenth day into their escapade and the mood was quite relaxed as most of the remaining trail that day headed downhill. All they could think of was how delicioso their macaroni and cheese was coupled with a quick dip in the hotsprings due shortly afterwards. The village was abuzz with a few dozen trekkers, guides and locals who were too lazy to budge in the gorgeous midday sun. Things were seemingly perfect. Languidly, everybody prepared to move to the pool.

A strange sound then drew their attention. A low rumble. Thinking it was a helicopter overhead, nobody really investigated much. It got louder but didn’t get a credit until everybody looked up to realize the massive boulder come falling off the cliff, headed right at their direction. Panic ensued and people scrambled everywhere. The ground started shaking violently – the fatal earthquake made itself felt. Many stumbled and fell in the midst of chaos. With the boulder just a stone’s throw away headed straight to pin down the entire village and legs too shaky to move, Lama stood there frozen, staring at the big rock and unable to react. He came back to senses and followed everybody behind one of the buildings.

Nobody saw it coming, but on the other side came rolling another huge rock. Many resigned and started saying their prayers. That’s when Lama knew he had to take control of the situation. While the ground was still rumbling, he mustered all his strength and yelled loudly at everyone to move to the clearing  because the building behind which they hid was about to be swept away by a landslide. It seemed to work – people moved away just seconds before the building was completely destroyed. If things couldn’t get any worse, Lama saw the people rush inside the last hotel, which was no safer.

With more rocks, soil and trees coming that way, Lama threw courtesy out the window and in the sternest of voices yelled at the people to come out. One particularly distressed lady got a piece of his mind. “You ****ing shut up!” he shouted at her face. Though quite calm and composed otherwise, Lama knew this had to be done. “If you cry, you’ll get the others panicking!” Just as everybody ran out, the building was swept away by soil and rocks. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that injuries and even death was spared for dozens of tormented souls that fateful day in Pahiro, thanks to Lama’s vigilance, courage and good judgment. In an instant, Lama had become a captain figure among the petrified crowd.

Knowing it wasn’t safe in the clearing or by the hotels, he led everybody to higher grounds in the forest. The grounds would still shake without warning and rocks wouldn’t stop falling. Lama had the entire village sit there for almost an hour, and reassured that it’d be all right. Everybody was safe in the forest, except one Nepali bloke who seemed to have injured his leg pretty badly trying to escape from the building to the trees. He sat there immobilized and screaming in pain. As a trained Wilderness First Responder from Himalayan Medics, a company which he’s an Executive Director of, Lama went back to help.

Making sure he it was safe to approach, Lama assessed the injury. It was clearly a femur fracture. Thankfully, it wasn’t a life threatening injury, so he dragged him carefully next to a huge boulder next to the jungle. The injury was nothing wilderness expert Lama wasn’t trained to treat. Using trekking pole and scarves, he improvised a solid splint for his patient. And with branches and clothes, a stretcher was ready. It had already been more than half an hour since the first big shake and Lama decided for the group to stay there for another hour.

The situation seemed to have gotten better and the aftershocks got less frequent. People had calmed down but the patient had to get across the landslide which had now blocked access of the trails on either side. There was going to be no air rescue deep inside that valley any time soon. But for the trekking guide on duty, he had to get his clients out of there and back to civilization. He made sure the injured guy made it across the landslide safely, so as scary as it sounds, he had three other guys carry the stretcher and walked right over the landslide, braving the loose soil and a possible tumble onto Langtang khola hundreds of feet below. When they made it across in what seemed like forever, Lama instructed them to tread the trails safely and watch out for more tremors; and left for Thulo Syabru with his clients.

With no phone signal, no solid plan or any idea about what the situation was like in Thulo Syabru, they kept following the trails blindly as the ground trembled every so often. He was lucky because it was not snowy and he had travelled the region quite thoroughly, so knew the trails pretty well. He’d lost his bag with his clothes, camera, money, navigation device and satellite phone. But that was least of his concerns at the moment when he had to get to the next station in one piece.

After hours of walking, they finally saw Thulo Syabru, which seen from a distance seemed to have withstood the earthquake’s impact. But as they walked closer, they saw all houses were in bad shape and abandoned. Turned out the entire village was staying in an open space under large plastics that the village luckily used for greenhouse plantation. Villagers remained frightened but were happy to have Lama’s team. A local woman dismally said Dharahara, Bouddha and Swayambhu were gone. Kathmandu was destroyed. For Lama and his clients, they were just glad to have made it alive, though definitely disturbed and eager to return home.
A lovely meal of dal bhat and fallen chicken sufficed but all attempts to get a good night’s sleep in the midst of sixty men half scared to death made for quite an interesting night. Mountains were covered by gloomy clouds by night. The winds were calm but not the shaken hearts and tormented souls.

A barrage of incessant aftershocks shook everything up pretty badly, which meant an extra day in Thulo Syabru for Lama and team. Early next day, they left for Dhunche as it rained, and it was in no better situation with several landslides en route. They’d have to walk 27kms next day to reach Kalikasthan by Trishuli as the highway was obstructed. Finally as they approached their jeep, they felt a deep sense of peace - the worst was over. A good nap on the drive back to Kathmandu was well deserved and while the three days stranded in Langtang seemed like forever ago, Lama reflected sombrely if he’d ever be able to come back to the valley again.

But duty calls. As a part of Himalayan Medics, Lama is preparing to head to lower Langtang’s trails to assess damage and identify needs for relief and reconstruction through their program Community Empowerment - First Aid Response. HM team has been actively engaged in providing valuable knowledge and skills on first aid, hygiene and health with the collaboration of local resources and labor. CE-Far program has already taken place successfully in many villages in Sindhupalchowk, Nuwakot, Dolakha and Rasuwa.

As for Pahiro, the information flowing in is still dubious. Some locals are believed to have returned back to higher grounds of Langtang, but with the region utterly devastated, it’ll be some time before the legendary Himalayan valley regains its timeless charm and beauty. Considering that countless organizations and individuals, Lama no exception, are working tirelessly to rebuild tourism in Langtang, that day will not be too far.