Thursday, October 9
As weather forecasters pondered the red swirl of a developing cyclone on satellite images of the Andaman Sea, my friend Mike and I were near the town of Besisahar, Nepal, decorating our bikes with prayer flags.
We were off to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit, a popular 150-mile trail that sweeps around 15 Himalayan peaks topping 23,000 feet, including the world’s 10th-highest, 26,545-foot Annapurna 1. Twenty thousand hikers and bikers visit every year, more than 5,000 each October alone. This year would make history—not for how many trekkers arrived, but for the number of who didn’t return.
I’m a physician from Oxford, UK, but for the last five years, I’ve been on a quest to cycle the length of six continents. While in India this September, I met Mike Roy, an American cyclist on a two-year ride through Asia. We both had the Annapurna loop on our agenda, and decided to ride it together.
We cruised through Besisahar, the route’s first town, under a clear sky with a light breeze. Perfect weather, it seemed. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, forecasters upgraded Cyclone Hudhud to a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm, as sea winds exceeded 100 mph. Several thousand miles south, India braced for landfall with a mass evacuation of the coastal towns in the Bay of Bengal.
Monday, October 13
After four days of pedaling and lugging our bikes over the rock-strewn Annapurna road, we arrived in the village of Manang. At 11,500 feet, we were two days from 17,769-foot Thorong La pass, the trail’s highest point.
In Manang, the high-altitude chill gave a sting to the afternoon air. Rosy-cheeked children wearing so many layers they could hardly flex their limbs welcomed us. As I returned their waves, I noticed a fleet of ragged gray clouds driving up the valley. That night, I walked outside our guesthouse and noticed snow falling. Not a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few pioneering white specks floating out of a starless sky.
Tuesday, October 14
A white glare wrestled me from sleep. The bright morning light penetrated a slab of snow overhanging the metal roof of our room. We were stupefied: October in Manang means brochure-blue skies, not blizzards. We’d heard no weather warnings at any of the trekking permit checkpoints en route. My mind jumped to our impending 6,200-foot climb: If there are 2 feet of snowfall here, then Thorong La must be impassable.
With the power and phone lines out, Mike and I bided our time in Manang reading and crowding around a stove fueled by dry yak dung. In the afternoon, a snowman in sunglasses appeared outside the window. More hikers arrived from lower elevations, and the village became a clog of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.
While we hunkered down in Manang, certain that the surprise snow had closed the pass, more than 200 hikers, many in sneakers and jeans, were taking off from Thorung Phedi (14,600 feet) and High Camp (15,900 feet) in light flurries to cross Thorong La pass. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at 17,000 feet, even in the dry season, and most left with hopes that the snow might peter out.
Jeff LaForge, a 27-year-old hiker from Michigan, left Thorung Phedi at 8 a.m, later than most. With his wife and a couple of other hikers, LaForge scrambled up 1,500 feet through stacking snow to High Camp. During that hour, he watched an avalanche thunder down a slope not far from their route. The snowfall was heavier now, visibility all but gone in the whiteout. The decision for him was easy: wait out the storm at High Camp.
Jacob Martinez, a 21-year-old mountain guide from Colorado, was already at High Camp. He, too, had been hoping to cross Thorong La that morning, but dizziness and headache, telltale signs of altitude sickness, convinced him to wait. Uneasiness sank in as he watched scores of trekkers depart from High Camp in the increasing snow. “They didn’t all look fit or like seasoned hikers,” Jacob told me later. “I was worried.”
He was right to be. As the heavy snowfall continued and temperatures dropped dramatically, chaos descended on the pass (see “In The Eye of the Storm,” below). Many trekkers, both with and without guides, had little to no experience in the backcountry. Some guides themselves were not well-trained or equipped. The day’s tragic events unfolded in a haphazard way. Would trekkers find safety on the far side of the pass? Should they turn around in a whiteout or stay put and risk hypothermia? Each had to make his or her own fateful decision.
In High Camp, as LaForge, Martinez, and the others strived to stay warm, layering clothes and hunkering down in sleeping bags, a Czech couple rushed into the main stone hut. They’d become lost in the whiteout as they tried to return to camp after heading out for Thorong La that morning. Fortunately, they’d spotted a dark shape in the blur of snow. It was a porter and his horse, and the couple followed them back to High Camp.
In the afternoon another porter arrived at High Camp with a hastily scrawled note: There are Israelis stuck on pass in mortal danger. Send help. The trail was already hidden under the fast-falling snow—there was no way to make out the path up to the pass. A depressing reality dawned on those huddled in the hut: An unknown number of trekkers were scattered high on Thorong La, in deadly blizzard conditions, and there was nothing anyone could do.
Wednesday, October 15 to Saturday, October 18
I awoke in Manang to a blue sky. The Annapurnas seemed to smolder as the sun shone on their white faces and gusts whipped snow from their upper reaches. The power came back, and we saw the BBC was reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies identified so far, at least 140 missing. I thought of my family and joined the huddles of anxious trekkers surrounding Manang’s few computers to email loved ones. Websites began publishing lists of hikers, their names chased by their status: safe, deceased, unknown, unknown, unknown…
The drone of helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks as the choppers scooted through the Marsyangdi Valley, minutes apart. Soon, the Nepali government’s olive, Russian-made models joined the red search-and-rescue ones, ferrying the dead and injured to Pokhara in the biggest rescue effort ever conducted in the region.
Watching the choppers buzz overhead, I couldn’t help but wonder: If the cyclone was predicted, why were no weather reports called in, no radio contact, no warning system in place? This is one of the world’s most famous and highest hikes, choking with ill-equipped amateurs. Every trekker pays up to $20 to register with the government-run Trekkers’ Information Management System, designed to help with search and rescues. Shouldn’t some of that money be going to help prevent disasters like this? Although, to be fair, Manang has Internet. Any of us could have checked the forecast ourselves.
The foreign doctors volunteering at Manang’s medical clinic had set up a triage station and were treating hikers who’d suffered snow blindness while trekking to the ridges surrounding town. When I checked in to see if I could help, the clinic was eerily quiet. Scores of hikers higher up, like La Forge and Martinez, were still stranded, while those rescued from the pass by helicopter were being flown to the hospital in Pokhara. In Manang’s small clinic, the anticipated rush for medical care never came.
With the avalanche risk lower and the melt underway, Mike and I set out for the pass on foot, hoping to go as far as we safely could. I thought it might be impossible to reach the pass, but turning back now would be too spirit-sapping. It felt good to be moving again.
As the skies cleared above High Camp on Wednesday, a group of 30 or so hikers arrived from lower-elevation Thorung Phedi determined, now that the blizzard had ceased, to cross the pass. LaForge, Martinez, and others who’d been hunkering at High Camp all along decided to hang back a day to let the trail firm up overnight. The next day, news filtered back to them: The first group had made it to Thorong La, but had been airlifted from the pass to Muktinath, the next town on the other side. The descent was too treacherous and the pass was officially closed for the removal of bodies. LaForge and Martinez made plans to return to Manang.
Sunday, October 19
Mike and I decided to get as far as we could, uncomfortably aware we were the only ones going up. Our plan was imprecise, but we wondered if the pass would open again by the time we got there. En route, though, we met more hikers in retreat.
“Over there, you see?” one said, pointing to the shape of a man by the river. “It’s a body.”
Until that point, I hadn’t dwelt much on the brutal reality of what was happening around me. But it was set before us now, in the shape of the dead man in the snow. I walked over to him. He was a monk, his head lying on a red rucksack, a blanket draped over his legs, one of his hands balled into a fist. His body was frozen. An army helicopter hovered above, preparing to remove the corpse.
We trekked on in silence. My perspective shifted as I thought of the dead man, skin shining, growing hard in the snow. Death was everywhere: with every cliff face ready to rain down boulders, every crack in the ice a potential avalanche. At times we passed sprawls of avalanche debris like seabeds of pallid coral. I found footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.
At High Camp my head ached with the altitude. Mike and I were now the only foreigners this high, aside from one Chinese hiker. The rest had turned back, or been airlifted out. After a quick stop at High Camp, Mike and I continued nervously up but soon encountered waist-deep snow. I thought of my family I’d just assured I was safe via email; it would be stupid to risk being claimed by an avalanche now. We turned around.
Monday, October 20
The next morning, sunlight roused the valley, reawakening the colors and contours of rock exposed by five days of sunny skies and melting snow. Mike and I trudged back toward Manang through the ice and shrubs.
Fewer choppers flew overhead, and a week after the snowfall began, the village was a ghost of the bustling refuge it had been. More than 500 people had been rescued from the trail. Many of the earliest to leave High Camp on Tuesday had made it over the pass to Muktinath; others either found refuge in a stone hut below the pass or got lost and perished in the snow. Some found the hut and then left, only to succumb to the same fate as the rest.
Even in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as ever: The high rock faces sheeted with snow, the October sky a piercing blue, the yellowing larches. Tranquility had returned as fast as it had vanished. ■
Stephen Fabes continued his bikepacking trip: cyclingthe6.com.
In all, 518 people (including 304 foreign trekkers) were rescued from the region and at least 43 died (including 21 guides and trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit). A tourism official with the Nepali government told Reuters that, in the future, trekkers will be required to hire guides and rent GPS tracking units. Official new rules will be announced in the spring.
In The Eye of the Storm
Survivors share reports from the epicenter of a disaster.
Paul Sheridan, England
“The ground became the same color as the sky. It was difficult to see which way was up and which way was down… But fortunately there was a brief respite and I saw a pole [trail marker]…. We picked our way down for two hours through this maze of poles that sometimes we couldn’t see for minutes on end.” He thought 10 people were following him to safety; it turned out to be more like 150. –BBC Radio 4, October 17, 2014
Maya Ora, Israel
The inexperienced trekker huddled in a crowded cabin near High Camp. “We didn’t have much equipment, and we[‘d] just dropped our bags and kept going through the storm … Everybody was saying if you stay you are going to die [of hypothermia or altitude sickness].” After 20 hours, she and six friends left the cabin. “We couldn’t see the way. There’s no path. There’s 150 cm [5 feet] of snow. Then we were walking between the bodies and bags, and we could see our dead friends and the bodies of the guides. I don’t know how many, twenties of them. They are buried under the snow. It will be very difficult to find them. It was horrible, a horror,” –The Guardian, October 16, 2014