After saying goodbye to Renzin and leaving Namaste, Aubrey continued hiking alone, ascending the valley. Here, she may have seen other people—a smattering of trekkers, the ubiquitous porters, Tamang families in trail shoes donated by travelers. The path narrows above Namaste and then crosses the Langtang River on a suspension bridge. From there the track switchbacks up a steep, soft-dirt hillside, where a person could slip and tumble into the churning rapids. But Aubrey didn’t slip, according to witnesses who saw her at another village several hours up the trail. (National parks in Nepal are not empty wilderness areas.) At Lama Hotel—actually a town of a half-dozen teahouses flanked by a vegetable garden, prayer flags, and a tent platform overlooking the deep, shadowy valley—she may have aired her feet, or layered up against the cold air coming off the silver river. Locals later reported seeing her eating a pizza, drinking a Coke, and holding the book Renzin had given her.
In the Sherpa Lodge, according to locals, Aubrey sat down at a long wooden table. Three young men, in their late teens and early 20s, struck up a conversation. At first it was lighthearted. But when Aubrey said that she wanted to continue to the next village, Riverside, the atmosphere allegedly turned sour. It was early afternoon, and the men told Aubrey that Riverside was too far for her to trek to safely so late in the day. But this was Aubrey, who in her journal described herself as a “strong traveling woman.” On the table she’d spread out her map. When the men tried stopping her again, she stood up, pointed up the valley, and said, “Riverside is only an hour from here. Don’t lie to me.” And she left.
The walk from Lama Hotel to Riverside usually takes about two hours for a reasonably fit person. When trekkers reach a teahouse there, they’re encouraged to sign a register. But Aubrey left no signature at Riverside. There’s no evidence she ever made it. Did she decide to go farther? Ghora Tabela, site of an army checkpost, is another two hours beyond (near where the French girls reported being assaulted by soldiers). But Aubrey didn’t sign this mandatory register either. Somewhere between Lama Hotel and Ghora Tabela, she disappeared.
The Saccos learned what had occurred at Lama Hotel from Ramesh BK, a local kayaking guide who questioned villagers in the weeks after Paul’s initial search. When nothing came of the information through official channels, Paul returned to Nepal with Connie and their younger son, Morgan, in July 2011. Again, they trekked up the Langtang Valley. Inside the dim, hazy Sherpa Lodge, the Saccos questioned the owner, the cook, and one of the boys, Tasi Gurung. According to BK, all three had confirmed seeing Aubrey a year earlier. But now their stories changed. The owner and cook claimed never to have seen Aubrey. Tasi Gurung said, “We don’t remember seeing this girl, but if we had known she was going to go missing, we wouldn’t have let her leave.”
When the Saccos tried questioning the cook again, Connie says the owner’s wife screamed, “Don’t answer!”
Paul and Connie felt betrayed. Angry. But mostly, Paul says he felt shock. Who are these people who would intentionally hamper our investigation? he thought. Who would intentionally stop parents from finding their daughter?
Were the villagers lying? Maybe. Maybe they were afraid. It’s possible they remembered an incident from 2000, in which a British trekker was found dead in the Langtang River and the fishermen who reported it were imprisoned for a decade. As a woman searching on behalf of the Saccos told CNN, “All the villagers in the Langtang area say that [the fishermen] didn’t do anything, and that the people who did it were never caught.”
Back in Kathmandu, the police assured the Saccos that they’d re-interviewed the young men, the cook, and Renzin Dorjee. According to a spokesman for the Nepali Army, each soldier at Ghora Tabela was questioned multiple times (including those on leave during Aubrey’s disappearance), and troops searched the area three times between 2010 and 2012. But in the chaos that has defined Nepal’s political situation for years, the Saccos kept learning that their contacts had been fired, jailed, or promoted. Plus, in a developing country like Nepal, police investigations are chronically underfunded.