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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.
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.

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