The first day’s walk up central Nepal’s Langtang Valley delivers exactly what a trekker might hope for: suspension bridges draped with prayer flags, lush hillsides where white langur monkeys swing from larch trees, a glacier-fed river pouring out of the Himalayas. It makes most hikers feel like skipping. It makes Paul Sacco feel like vomiting.
Paul, a wiry, 57-year-old father of three, left his home in Greeley, Colorado, nine days earlier, after his 23-year-old daughter, Aubrey, failed to return from a weeklong trek in Langtang National Park. She’d been traveling in Asia for five months, keeping in near-constant contact with her parents, when she started a solo hike in Langtang on April 21, 2010. A week passed, and a few days later her worried mother, Connie, contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. Embassy officials told her that civil unrest—a Maoist uprising—might have delayed Aubrey in the mountains. But worry turned to panic after another three days passed with no word. On May 16, Paul flew to Kathmandu, vowing to bring his daughter home. With his elder son, Crofton, then 25, he joined a search already in progress. Now, as Paul hikes through the idyllic scenery, limping because of a recent surgery, he bounces between the sharp horror of imagining Aubrey lying dead at the bottom of a cliff and the bright hope that he’ll simply stumble upon her, walking down the trail.
The physical pain doesn’t stop him, though it slows him down. Weeks earlier, he underwent hip surgery, and now the joint grinds in the socket. He fears it will pop out, paralyzing him in the muddy forest. Yet for days he hobbles amid searchers from the U.S. Embassy, local villages, guide services, the police, and the Nepali Army. With the help of a translator, Paul questions locals, calls for Aubrey, and searches—above the river, in the woods, in dark caves within the woods.
Between May 4 and July 1, some 200 people will scour the vast alpine valley that slopes steeply toward the Tibetan border. By air, by foot, and by rope they search the main Langtang trail, both sides of the bloated, rushing river, all smaller paths, and remote monasteries tucked in the hills.
An American named Scott MacLennan joins the search. He led medical trips in Langtang for a decade, and tells Paul that he suspects Aubrey fell victim to the young Army soldiers who act as rangers in Nepal’s national parks, and who have a reputation for abusing women. “None of the girls who ever worked for me in my medical clinic would stay the night because it was next to an Army post,” he says.
Then again, it could have been the river, as some locals suggest. The trail hugs the steep banks in places and crosses the churning water numerous times. Aubrey wouldn’t be the only trekker to fall victim to Nepal’s treacherous terrain.
But everyone has a theory. During the initial search and in the coming months, local Tamang villagers and others offer a bewildering number of ideas. Some say they saw Aubrey board a helicopter in Langtang Village. Others blame hunters who walk at night, killing animals and people. One Dutch ex-pat, who runs a rescue organization in Pokhara, claims Aubrey’s disappearance was sacrificial, the work of witches who worship Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. Several Nepali men blame Aubrey, saying she must have acted “too free and frank,” inviting her own rape and murder. Or she’s being held by lamas in a remote monastery. Or she was abducted by sex traffickers and spirited away to Pakistan. A teenage Tamang psychic claims that three boys buried her beneath a pile of rocks, where the forest transitions to dun-colored tundra. If she was assaulted, it wouldn’t be the first time a lone female trekker was attacked.
The possibilities would make anyone dizzy. Paul is a business lawyer and judge, accustomed to order and predictable rules. All he can think is Why, Aubrey? Why did you come here? He can’t see the epic mountains that drew her. Where she was excited by an exotic culture, he sees primitive people who can’t be trusted. By his fifth day on the trail, he can’t force down one more bowl of bland rice and gritty lentils. His hip feels like it will tear through the scar left by the operation. He continues to search, as do others, but not a single shred of evidence regarding his only daughter turns up. On June 6, he and Crofton leave Langtang, and Crofton flies home to Colorado. Paul remains in Kathmandu, scheduling interviews, meeting with the police and embassy officials. In mid-June, he Skypes Connie to tell her, through a choke, that he will not be delivering on his promise to bring Aubrey home.
As his crowded Lufthansa jet climbs above the Himalayas, Paul looks down on the vast alpine kingdom. He sees billowing white clouds, miles of lush jungle, ice-encrusted mountains. He knows Aubrey is out there, somewhere, and that he has failed her. He turns his entire body into the window so no one can see, and he weeps.