Nearly four years after Aubrey Sacco left the Namaste teahouse, any would-be trekker who Googles images of Langtang National Park to get a preview of the scenery will see Aubrey at the top of the page. She’s smiling, her shoulder-length brown hair disheveled. She’s wearing a blue halter top, her round, expressive face pressed close to a yellow dog. In another photo, she’s sitting on a rooftop, wearing a bright orange skirt and strumming a guitar. Go ahead and Google it: It’s eerie to see her smiling there, amid the snowcapped peaks and colorful prayer flags, as if she’s still in the park today.
But the Google search doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t show the other young women whose lives were ended, or profoundly altered, during treks in or near Langtang National Park. In 2005, Frenchwoman Celine Henry and German Sabine Gruneklee vanished five weeks apart. Investigators found blood, clothing, and pages from both of their passports in a hiking park called Nagarjun Forest, on the southernmost edge of the Langtang-Helambu trek. Police told the Nepali Times that they felt certain a serial killer was “raping women, killing them, and burying them.” Yet no killer was found.
In July 2010, three French girls reported being sexually assaulted by the soldiers manning a checkpost called Ghora Tabela, not far from where Aubrey vanished. Later, two more Western women were attacked in the same region in separate incidents, one in 2011 and the other in 2012.
If the Nepali police keep records of exactly how many female trekkers have been the victims of violent crime, they won’t say (the police didn’t respond to repeated requests for information for this story). For that matter, it’s hard to determine how many trekkers, male or female, have gone missing over the years, whatever the reason. Tourists in Nepal come from dozens of countries, meaning news about them gets scattered across the globe. According to Christopher Patch, Deputy Consular Chief at the U.S. Embassy when Aubrey disappeared, dozens of Western trekkers have vanished on popular trekking routes in the last decade. That’s an alarming number for anyone contemplating a trip in Nepal.
Paul and Connie knew none of this when Aubrey called from Darjeeling to tell them she intended to trek solo in Langtang. By Connie’s own admission, she couldn’t have located Nepal on a map back then. Still, they tried to dissuade Aubrey from going. Paul was scheduled for hip surgery on the same day Aubrey wanted to start her hike. Connie pleaded, “Can’t you at least wait until Dad is out of surgery? What if something happens?”
On the desk in Aubrey’s room, Connie kept a clock counting down the days until Aubrey’s return (she was scheduled to fly back from Sri Lanka on May 22). Near the light switch in Aubrey’s room, Connie hung a map dotted with pushpins, each marking one of the towns or cities in Southeast Asia that Aubrey had visited. Red thread linked the pins together, like a mandala calling her home. Yet another thread would stand between them and seeing their daughter return. But when they tried stopping Aubrey again, she summoned the voice that indicated, on this one, she was the authority.
“Guys,” she said. “Don’t worry. It’s a national park. It’s teahouse trekking. It’s safe.”