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black and white Nepal by Andrew BydlonNepal (Photo by Andrew Bydlon)
March 2014

Gone Girl: Aubrey Sacco’s Disappearance Hiking in Nepal

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

Aubrey Sacco in Mysore, India where she volunteered at an orphanage and taught kids the Hokey Pokey. (Courtesy Sacco Family)

In recent years, Langtang National Park, just north of Kathmandu, has gained popularity as the less-crowded, easy-access alternative to the Everest and Annapurna regions. On a weeklong journey up the Langtang Valley, trekkers climb toward the Tibetan border and the towering Himalayas. The track passes shaded forests and scattered farms, offering occasional views of fin-shaped, 23,711-foot Langtang Lirung. Almost all trekkers stop in Kyanjin Gompa, at 9,800 feet, to taste the famed local yak cheese. Brightly colored stucco teahouses in the Buddhist villages along the way offer cheap beds and a steady supply of dal bhat—all-you-can-eat rice, lentil soup, meat, and curried vegetables. Ancient stone monasteries welcome visitors who want to witness a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. It’s no wonder Aubrey—who loved Eastern philosophy—chose to hike there.

When she arrived in Nepal, Aubrey was nearing the end of a post-college adventure, during which she’d made a point of going beyond the beaten path. In Sri Lanka, she’d searched for octopus in the Indian Ocean with a boy she had a crush on. Later, she volunteered at an orphanage and studied yoga at an ashram in sweltering Mysore, India. Afterward, to escape the heat, she traveled to Darjeeling, India.

It was there, from a hostel rooftop, that she gazed at the vast, white Himalayas for the first time and decided she must visit Nepal. A two-day journey to Kathmandu, a day of renting gear, and a seven-hour bus ride to the trailhead, and Aubrey was at the start of a life-list trek any backpacker would covet.

It was April, one of the best seasons for trekking in Langtang because the days reach the 70s and rhododendrons paint the hillsides red, pink, and purple. The roaring Langtang River, swollen with snowmelt, pours over falls and crashes around giant boulders. Walking down a two-track road, Aubrey arrived at a simple, open-air checkpost staffed by a Nepali military policewoman. Despite the thousands of people who pass through yearly, Aubrey made an impression. The soldier later reported that Aubrey signed the trekkers’ register, beamed her wide, toothy smile, walked through the checkpoint, and waved.

Hiking north, Aubrey passed sun-drenched hillsides, mist-filled hollows, and farms ringed by wild marijuana plants. She also would have encountered a steady stream of people—porters hunkered beneath rice and fuel, trekking guides with clients, and villagers dressed in colorful kirtans and hand-me-down puffies. The porters, carrying loads twice their body weight, likely wouldn’t have acknowledged her. But the compact Tamang women, themselves carrying bulky loads, would likely have smiled back if she smiled at them. And everyone who knows Aubrey agrees the odds are good she smiled. This was a girl who, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, organized a Campus Dance Day, and who was known by her friends as “Aubrey Glitter” for her habit of carrying a bottle of the stuff and sprinkling it on people, to remind them to live life to the fullest.

Her exuberance had been unleashed in college, where she frequently went to raves. But Amanda Sacco, Aubrey’s best friend and future sister-in-law (she married Crofton in 2011), says she changed in Asia. When Aubrey called her from India, says Amanda, she could tell the party girl was gone. “She didn’t need all of that to feel energized and happy.”

In Langtang, she must have had plenty of zip. By 10 a.m., she’d covered a distance that usually takes four hours, arriving at the Namaste teahouse, a red, blocky building above the river. She may have sat on the sun-warmed deck overlooking the water, marveling at her surroundings. While lingering there, she met a young trekking guide, Renzin Dorjee Yonzan, who grew up in Langtang Valley and guided tourists during breaks from his studies at a Kathmandu university.

Locals say Aubrey and Renzin hit it off. They talked for hours—about travel, volunteering, and the local Tamang culture. At one point, Renzin gave Aubrey a book—Ethnic Groups in Nepal. Later, they retired to separate rooms, and then, say some, to the same room. Only the two of them know what happened between the parchment-thin walls of the Namaste. But the following morning, after hugging and promising to meet again in Kathmandu two weeks later, Renzin hiked down the valley, while Aubrey went up.

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