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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Gone Girl

Like many hikers, Aubrey Sacco walked into the Himalayas with joyful excitement. But she encountered a dark side of Nepal all trekkers should know about.

Paul and Connie Sacco at their home in Greeley, Colorado
Paul and Connie Sacco at their home in Greeley, Colorado (Heshphoto)

The Saccos might have given up. Other families had abandoned their searches when confronted with the same roadblocks. Rachel Crowter, whose brother Julien Wynne disappeared in the Everest region in 2008, says her family searched for a year before stopping. “I do not see what else we can do,” Crowter says. “The whole Nepali government and system are corrupt. There is no one to investigate. It leaves our family feeling totally frustrated and helpless.”

But at home in Colorado, the Saccos went back to work. They forged relationships with ex-FBI agents and former members of the Nepali Army. Twice, they sent a private investigator to Nepal to conduct interviews.
“It isn’t just that we miss Aubrey or want to punish the people who may have harmed her,” says Paul. “It’s an unending belief that the answers are there, and that we are very close to finding them.”

Answers don’t come easily in Nepal. And it’s not just a culture clash between East and West. The country is still recovering from a 10-year civil war that ended in 2006. During that time, thousands were killed in skirmishes between Communist Maoists and the Nepali Army. According to Human Rights Asia, an estimated 1,400 men, women, and children were marched out of their homes—and out of existence. Nearly all remain missing—likely tortured and murdered—and distrust of the government runs deep. The U.S. State Department had an active travel warning for Nepal until 2011. “But travel warnings don’t mean ‘don’t come,’” says Patch, the embassy official. “They just mean ‘be aware of what’s happening.’”

But what is happening, exactly? Has this hiker’s paradise become a danger zone? The U.S. State Department offers a very clear answer. Since before 2010, it has warned strongly against solo trekking due to the increase in assaults on trekkers. On its Nepal page, it serves up a caution that reads, in part: “Solo trekking can be dangerous, and the lack of available immediate assistance has contributed to injuries and deaths, while also making one more vulnerable to criminals. Although it is not prohibited by local law, the Government of Nepal has reiterated its strong recommendation against solo trekking. In separate incidents in the last several years, a number of foreign women (including U.S. citizens) on popular trails have been attacked and seriously injured while trekking alone.”

Indeed, the Nepali Ministry of Tourism tried to implement a ban on solo trekking last year (it has issued warnings and temporary bans in the past). The measure ultimately failed, but the Ministry strongly recommends that all solo trekkers hire a guide (about $20/day).

But it’s important to keep some perspective. These warnings are meant to help trekkers increase safety, not scare them away. More than 100,000 foreign hikers visit Nepal every year, and the vast majority of them enjoy exactly the kind of experience they hoped for: majestic scenery, friendly people, exotic culture. But that also can create a false sense of security. Do many Westerners simply believe Nepali villages aren’t subject to the same human problems that plague our own cities? (Though by any measure, the violent crime rate is lower than in the U.S.) And are the missing trekkers throughout Nepal victims of violence, or of hazards found in mountains everywhere? Patch says the embassy believes most have succumbed in natural accidents, like falling into a river or crevasse. Whatever the dangers, do we contribute to the problem because we like to imagine a Buddhist haven immune to worldly concerns? Aubrey isn’t the only trekker who has said, “Don’t worry. It’s teahouse trekking.”

Two of the most recent attacks occurred just months after Aubrey disappeared, also in Langtang National Park. In December 2011, 23-year-old American Lena Sessions was assaulted while hiking near a popular shrine in the Helambu region. As her attacker attempted to rape her, she grabbed his knife and ran, narrowly escaping. Five months later, in May 2012, another 23-year-old, Belgian Debbie Maveau, hiked into the same region, disappeared, and was found 10 days later—decapitated.

Five months after Maveau’s death, I embarked on my own trek in Langtang. I had been following the search for Aubrey, and that led me to the unsolved attacks on female trekkers. Why couldn’t the culprits be caught, I wondered? Were the authorities really as unhelpful as the Saccos and others said they were?

I enlisted the help of Pemba Sherpa, a Boulder, Colorado-based Nepali business owner and guide, and in late October 2012, we arrived in Kathmandu. We drove 30 miles into Langtang, averaging just 10 mph on a rough dirt road chopped and broken from landslides. In the town of Dhunche, on the outskirts of the park, I followed a police officer named Sudeep Ghiri into a low brick building. In an unlit room, I sat on a threadbare couch covered in a floral bedsheet.

“Lena who?” he asked, when I inquired about Sessions, and recounted the details of her attack.

About Aubrey he said, “Yes. Of course. We send her family condolences. We are sad for their loss. But you must know this is a dangerous place. In the time she disappeared it is rainy season. You can see big falls into the river. So that time you can see the accident is high in this area. We are still doing searching and have cultivated some agents. But since this case is a little bit... very... old, if you ask the people [from the Lama area] they will say, ‘That’s enough.’”

When I asked him what he thinks happened to Debbie Maveau, he sat back and said, “I don’t know. I can’t say. But her body, we found it two weeks after. It was a sloping area. Her head was down [below her]. And you know this is a national park, and lots of wild animals. Maybe, because of the gravity...”

I stared at Ghiri. Maybe gravity pulled her head off her body? Dawa Sherpa, managing director for Asian Trekking, later showed me pictures of Debbie’s corpse. Her left arm is missing. One hiking boot is gone. Her skull lies 13 inches from her neck.

No arrests have been made.

READ MORE

READERS COMMENTS

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Annapurna trekking team
Jun 11, 2014

This is a recommendation specifically for Sanjib Adhikari Independent trekking guide tour Operator based in Kathmandu, Nepal) My partner and I had chosen to trek the Annapurna Circuit for 18 days in Feb end 2014 and as we were new to the region and high altitude in general we were not going to attempt this without a guide. After trawling online forums (including here) for recommendations and requesting recommendations from family and friends back home who do have some experience we posted out requests for information to 3 or 4 of the most promising reviewed individual guides, this included Sanjib Adhikari responded promptly with the most comprehensive and detailed response we received with a background of our kit requirements (Clothes, Equipments and First Aid recommendations), route to be taken what was or was not included in terms of food and accommodation and transport details. We requested some small changes to our itinerary (walking an extra section instead of taking a bus). Sanjib was quite flexible and proposed an alternate plan that did what we wanted. He also highlighted from the beginning that as we had chosen this route in the winter that it may not be possible to complete and that whilst the high pass en route (Thoroung La) was open at the time that if snow fell during our ascent there was some risk that the pass may be closed. During the trek we both found Sanjib to have plenty of experience and familiarity with both the trail conditions and route and had particular preferred Tea Houses in each town. However when these Tea Houses were not available due to closure off season, alternatives were always found and we certainly felt we were staying in good accommodation whilst there was a choice of it lower down. Sanjib consulted us where there were options to press on if we were making good progress or if we felt we needed to stop earlier than planned for a break and he was vigilant with our altitude conditioning on the higher trail. He also outlined the plan for the next day with options depending on progress and each day over 3500 metres included a plan for acclimatization training with side treks, to take us higher and back down to sleeping altitude if this had not already happened during the days trekking (this also meant we saw some other interesting sites, monasteries, viewpoints of glaciers or lakes etc). He was also a good host and shared a wealth of information about the local environment, culture, history, religion, politics and Nepal in general. He was happy to stay with us and chat or play cards after the days trekking was finished and was also happy to head off and chat with the tea house owners or other guides porters so there was no pressure either way. He was very diligent in keeping us topped up with included drinks and making sure we were fed with all we needed to keep us going. This was nice to see as the food was included as part of the package but there was no attempt to scrimp on our food or drinks bills! Sanjib always sorted us first and made sure that breakfast was ordered the night before for a prompt departure the next day. Sanjib is also a nice guide to get on with and speaks good English. The way in which the trekking package was structured with included food and accommodation made our lives a lot easier and more straightforward when things got a little tougher. During our trek we had many comments (compliments) from others both with and without guides that we had been lucky with our choice of guide and after 2 weeks on the road in various conditions including heavy snow I have to agree! We did hit the first snow of the winter the very night before we were due to climb the highest pass and we did attempt to cross the pass before the snow grew too deep. A couple of hours in and with the knowledge of how long we had to go the other side of the pass, Sanjib made the call to turn around and return to our last camp (High Camp). The snow worsened and we were safely backe in camp as it continued through the whole day and essentially snowed us in. Sanjib advised we wait another day to see what the weather does and sure enough, the sky cleared and we partnered up with several small trekking groups and crossed the high pass together in one large party with the guides including Sanjib taking turns to break the snow at the front. We did make it over in the end and we had a very tough and memorable trip with plenty of stories to tell. I would certainly choose Sanjib again for a trek in Nepal and I would recommend that you add him to any list of initial enquiries for a Nepal Trek to compare the responses and prices with others.
Email-:sanjib-adhikari@hotmail.com
Website http://www.nepalguideinfo.com
Mobile+9779841613822
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Independenttrekkinguidenepal?fref=ts

Star Star Star Star Star
Trekking guide rescommnded Nepal
Jun 11, 2014

This is a recommendation specifically for Sanjib Adhikari Independent trekking guide tour Operator based in Kathmandu, Nepal) My partner and I had chosen to trek the Annapurna Circuit for 18 days in Feb end 2014 and as we were new to the region and high altitude in general we were not going to attempt this without a guide. After trawling online forums (including here) for recommendations and requesting recommendations from family and friends back home who do have some experience we posted out requests for information to 3 or 4 of the most promising reviewed individual guides, this included Sanjib Adhikari responded promptly with the most comprehensive and detailed response we received with a background of our kit requirements (Clothes, Equipments and First Aid recommendations), route to be taken what was or was not included in terms of food and accommodation and transport details. We requested some small changes to our itinerary (walking an extra section instead of taking a bus). Sanjib was quite flexible and proposed an alternate plan that did what we wanted. He also highlighted from the beginning that as we had chosen this route in the winter that it may not be possible to complete and that whilst the high pass en route (Thoroung La) was open at the time that if snow fell during our ascent there was some risk that the pass may be closed. During the trek we both found Sanjib to have plenty of experience and familiarity with both the trail conditions and route and had particular preferred Tea Houses in each town. However when these Tea Houses were not available due to closure off season, alternatives were always found and we certainly felt we were staying in good accommodation whilst there was a choice of it lower down. Sanjib consulted us where there were options to press on if we were making good progress or if we felt we needed to stop earlier than planned for a break and he was vigilant with our altitude conditioning on the higher trail. He also outlined the plan for the next day with options depending on progress and each day over 3500 metres included a plan for acclimatization training with side treks, to take us higher and back down to sleeping altitude if this had not already happened during the days trekking (this also meant we saw some other interesting sites, monasteries, viewpoints of glaciers or lakes etc). He was also a good host and shared a wealth of information about the local environment, culture, history, religion, politics and Nepal in general. He was happy to stay with us and chat or play cards after the days trekking was finished and was also happy to head off and chat with the tea house owners or other guides porters so there was no pressure either way. He was very diligent in keeping us topped up with included drinks and making sure we were fed with all we needed to keep us going. This was nice to see as the food was included as part of the package but there was no attempt to scrimp on our food or drinks bills! Sanjib always sorted us first and made sure that breakfast was ordered the night before for a prompt departure the next day. Sanjib is also a nice guide to get on with and speaks good English. The way in which the trekking package was structured with included food and accommodation made our lives a lot easier and more straightforward when things got a little tougher. During our trek we had many comments (compliments) from others both with and without guides that we had been lucky with our choice of guide and after 2 weeks on the road in various conditions including heavy snow I have to agree! We did hit the first snow of the winter the very night before we were due to climb the highest pass and we did attempt to cross the pass before the snow grew too deep. A couple of hours in and with the knowledge of how long we had to go the other side of the pass, Sanjib made the call to turn around and return to our last camp (High Camp). The snow worsened and we were safely backe in camp as it continued through the whole day and essentially snowed us in. Sanjib advised we wait another day to see what the weather does and sure enough, the sky cleared and we partnered up with several small trekking groups and crossed the high pass together in one large party with the guides including Sanjib taking turns to break the snow at the front. We did make it over in the end and we had a very tough and memorable trip with plenty of stories to tell. I would certainly choose Sanjib again for a trek in Nepal and I would recommend that you add him to any list of initial enquiries for a Nepal Trek to compare the responses and prices with others.
Email-:sanjib-adhikari@hotmail.com
Website http://www.nepalguideinfo.com
Mobile+9779841613822
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Independenttrekkinguidenepal?fref=ts

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Elisabeth
Jun 05, 2014

My heart and blessings go out to Audrey's family, may they find peace.
Thank you Tracy for putting your heart and soul in this peace of writing research!
As for trekking in Nepal, which I did with my husband on numerous occasions thirty odd years ago, where we also did the lLangtang trekk. It was already dangerous then!!! And we were warned in Kathmandu to better travel in a group of four!
On our treks we heard different stories of single male and female travellers disappearing in the higher regions and others having been attacked with Kukris, a Nepalese sword, while sleeping in their tent.
I BEG YOU SINGLE TRAVELLER BEWARE, USE YOUR HEAD AND STAY SAFE AND ALIVE !

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Gregory Fowler
May 29, 2014

I was in Nepal a year ago doing a 14 day birthday Trek. I was aware that things can happen, but that's true anywhere you go. Thus year I climbed Mt St Helens in Washington State on my birthday. I saw several posters of a Japanese man who went inexplicably missing while climbing St Helens last year. I'm also reminded of all the other hikers and climbers who are still missing in the Pacific Northwest.

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Old Pest Howard
May 29, 2014

Young folks, seeking adventure, male or female, are at-risk traveling alone. They are often the prey-species for all sorts of mischief. It is prudent to travel with others, even for medical reasons, as in injuries on the trail; and sharing the experience with others increases the enjoyment. Humankind has a personal nature, but also a social nature. All things in life are an exchange: gain something here, but lose something else there. Be prudent, be very careful, maintain a low-profile, and be safe...and return home with lots of pictures and stories.

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nissan gajurel
May 22, 2014

It is great and very hard work .You did it .come in Nepal make Investigation on the case of missing girl four years ago . A great job and thank you very much. gajurelnissan@mail.com.

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Best Trekking guide in Nepal
May 01, 2014

Best Trekking guide in Nepal Sanjib adhikari
Email-:sanjib-adhikari@hotmail.com
http://www.nepalguideinfo.com
Mobile+9779841613822

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Lisa Typpo
Apr 22, 2014

I went trekking in Nepal solo 6 months ago. I must say that I was apprehensive because I had heard about Aubrey's story through researching trekking and took it into consideration before departing for Kathmandu. Such a beautiful country, but so isolated too in many parts... As a solo female traveler, I do feel for her. Bless.

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Trekking in Nepal
Apr 21, 2014

PrevNext1234
Welcome To Nepal Holiday Planner
The landlocked country Nepal, sandwiched between the giant countries like India and China, amazingly has extremely exhilarating, exotic, mind boggling, fantastic and never ending tourist destinations that never cease to amaze even the nationals of its country. Being home to the highest peak in the world and the birthplace of the peace loving Buddha is not enough to define the marvels Nepal possesses. It is the most diverse country both in terms of climatic and geographic conditions. Its versatility ranges from accommodating the most beautiful and highest of mountain ranges to rocky hills to plain land in a small area of 147,181 kilometer square. It possesses 8 out of the 10 highest peaks in the world, perfect wilderness destinations and religious sites to visit. It is a country that thrives on the Tourism industry as it is the largest source of foreign revenue.

Nepal being the hotspot destination for mountaineers, rock climbers and people seeking adventures, requires the proper information about the suitable time of the year for visits, revenue required etc. Holiday Planner provides the best platform regarding all that there is to know about the treks, tours and holiday destinations to various places situated all over Nepal.


Bhutan is another country which thrives in its tradition and works hard to keep everything intact. Trekking locations in Bhutan too are many and varied and offer spectacular views of its mystical mountains, hills and valleys which cannot cease to amaze the eyes of the observer. Tibet, located along China and Nepal border too is an entity of its own. It has extremely captivating natural beauty and heartwarming ethnic populations. Bhutan and Tibet too are perfect holiday destinations.

The different routes to every destination, the lodging facilities, the time required, the transportation facilities, medical facilities, the most suitable time for visit, the best places to go to etc are extremely vital issues that come to play for a proper touring experience. Holiday Planner incorporates all the required data that might come in handy while on a visit to a certain place in Nepal.

Holiday Planner effectively plans your holidays and provides you with the best knowledge about the doís and doníts of a certain place. It also provides sufficient data about the alternative places within a restricted boundary where you can spend your time and money and get its optimum value from. Plan your holidays with Holiday Planner and obtain the best out of your visits in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet.

http://www.nepalholidayplanner.com
Email - nepalholidayplanner@hotmail.com

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Don Mogorit
Mar 24, 2014

It is appalling to me that Acute Trek Pvt. Ltd. has used this tragedy to post an ad. They are pathetic, unprofessional, and insulting.
My prayers go out to the Sacco family, and thank you, Tracy, for helping to illuminate this event.

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Trekking in Nepal
Mar 08, 2014

Acute Trek Pvt. Ltd. an indoor outdoor trekking and tours operative company takes you that further way to guarantee you has an unforgettable adventure that you have been dream of. Benefit, of course there is the Acute trek part of choice. We have your choose of trekking for 3 days or 30 or more days it depending of your timetable, sleep under lodges or tent. We always respect our duty to constantly your holiday satisfaction in Nepal. Whether you are looking for a quiet gateway, a memorable outing with a family or an exciting nature adventure. We offer you with the best progressive information and itinerary leading focused and modified as per your requirements. It is significant to memorize, though, it necessitate an enough level of physical homework and must remembers that there is also a psychosomatic assurance in walking in mountains. Acute trek is an attempt to encourage Nepal to the exterior world while striving to defend an aged tradition as well as conserve the surroundings for generation to come.

Acute Trek specialize in organize Nepal travel activities excursion such as:- Nepal trekking, Helicopter tour, peak climbing, rafting, mountain flight, Kayaking, Cannoning, Bird watching Tour, Honeymoon Tour, sightseeing, jungle safari, rock climbing, Pilgrim's Tour, Hotel Reservation, air ticket, Tibet Tour, Bhutan Tour, Paragliding, Bungee Jump, Eco Tour, local village tour and many more.

We dedicated ourselves to take each step essential to provide you and skill you will dotingly look back upon not kind what it cost you, as you will be recurring a wealthier person full of reminiscences. We, trekking and tours company in Nepal that is very believable, responsible and fully offers personage, group, tailored travel and trekking excursions in Nepal. If you would like to explorer lifetime knowledge of trekking and visiting destination of different part of Nepal as well as tours to Bhutan and destination Tibet in a secure and safe mode, then we is the exact agency for you. Our trekking tours involve knowledge all aspect of country, the enormous historical sites, natural loveliness and wildlife, most prominently, they give you the opportunity to get with local people and to see their custom first hand. Further you need not have to be an sportsperson, as trekking in Nepal and between the people is itself an well knowledge as trekking, tour, hiking is not climbing. Anyone with a join up to strong legs and strength of adventure to discover the exotic will pleasurable the excitement of trekking, tours and charming discovery.

http://www.trekshimalaya.com
http://www.holidayhiking.com

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Brenda Fantroy-Johnson
Feb 27, 2014

Going next month with a well known guide group. I'm not that worried. Not really going off track, staying to the regular route. I hope Aubrey returns soon.

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Lee
Feb 23, 2014

These parts of the world are not like run-down gang infested US urban dangerous neighborhoods. The latter are not so romantic and easy to avoid. These other places are beautiful and for the most part the people are genuine, traditional and friendly. However beneath that veneer, there is a kind of lawlessness and danger that comes to the surface with political intrigue, bad boys, and miscreants who prey on young women like Aubrey. I hope that this article results in her returning to her family or at worst, the repatriation of her remains so that her family members can have closure and continue their earthly journey in peace.

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Esy Ray
Feb 23, 2014

What a heart wrenching story. Greeley continues to pray for Aubrey's safe return and for God's strength to sustain all of the Sacco family.

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Sandi Elder
Feb 20, 2014

Great article... I continue to pray with hope for Greeley's daughter to return home to her parents..

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Bray Lake
Feb 20, 2014

Thank you for your attention to Aubrey's story and for writing such a detailed account of this complex case. The depth of your work on this is evident. This piece paints the most complete picture of the days leading up to Aubrey's disappearance, as well as the frustrations and challenges faced by the Sacco family, that I have seen yet. I hope shining the light on Aubrey's story will help bring her home and make other trekkers mindful of the potential dangers of traveling alone through this region. Aubrey and her family remain in our thoughts and prayers. Glitter the world!

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Connie Sacco
Feb 20, 2014

Again, Tracy, great job! So many hours spent talking, traveling and making sense of this complicated story, you are a trooper!!

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