Langtang Valley: Trekking Through the Earthquake’s Wake

When I first arrived in Nepal I had read that the Langtang trekking region was completely shut down due to earthquake damage and new construction efforts. As the months wore on, I heard differently from locals who insisted that the park was still open and eager for business. Because it’s one of the country’s most famous and easily accessible trail systems, I was excited to get to see it for myself and learn exactly how the earthquake had been affecting local people in more remote areas.
Like both the Annapurna and Khumbu ranges, roads end early and villages at higher elevations rely on porters, animals, and helicopters to deliver their goods. And even though this transportation makes perfect sense in everyday business, for some reason seeing it used in reconstruction efforts was jarring, and powerful. All throughout my trek I saw young Nepali men carrying loads of wood more than three times their size. Mules would cart chairs, tea kettles, and cement mixture up these steep, high-altitude trails. Lodge owners were rebuilding gardens so they could rely on their own produce and thereby lightening the loads they’d have to carry up from lower in the valley.

The entire Langtang trek was an eye-opening experience of the don’t-give-up attitudes of local people who couldn’t wipe a smile from their faces, even in wake of such a powerful tragedy.

The long Langtang Valley stretching from Dhunche to the mountains

Day 1: Dhunche to Rimche

I am obligated to begin this passage by highly discouraging anybody from following today’s itinerary. Long story short, I got off on the wrong bus stop the night before. However, this mishap allowed me to glory in untouched nature and see the smallest Nepali villages most separated from the outside world.

I also got to enjoy all of this during 10 hours, 17 miles, and over 4,00 feet of elevation gain.

The road from Dhunche

After only a couple of days of the smog and congestion of Kathmandu, l was ready to get into the mountains again.

The day began with an annoying hike along the road. Luckily it was early enough where I didn’t see much traffic, but unluckily the road widened and shrank to barely a car’s width, so when towering trucks roared past at full-speed downhill, I jumped out of their way by dangling on rocks overlooking the hillside cliff. When I finally reached the trail, I was stopped by locals who discouraged me each time and told me to take a lower route.

The truth was, however arduous the steep hike up to Brabel was, its views were fantastic. Crystalline mountaintops peeked out from lower ranges that hid their startling snow-clad summits from the valley. The thick jungle blanketed me for most of the day, with exotic birds and monkeys larger than half my size jumping overhead. It was well worth the (exhausting) detour.

I had a quick lunch at Thulo Syabru, where I learned most people will stop for the night from Dhunche. This sprawling village sits along a mountainside that’s visible from days up and down the valley. Like so many other lodges I visited, the owners here had seen fewer visitors than past years, and were juggling reconstruction efforts with maintaining their business, hoping more tourists would visit in the fall season.

Road damaged from landslides are typical all along thr Langtang region

The afternoon hours blended together as the temperature rose and heavy heat stifled my progress. I drank four liters of water throughout the entire day.

Instead of overnighting at Lama Hotel, I stopped just 20 minutes short at the vertigo-inspiring scenery of Rimche. Its name alone evokes a feeling of being at the rim of the world – which is quite literally what it felt like.

Day 2: Rimche to Kyanjin Gompa

Before 7am I began the long, arduous climb through the forest out of Rimche. I expected to be gaining nearly 4,000 feet of elevation, but the going was much tougher than I’d made it up to be in my mind. Every turn I made brought more uphill eyesores. For every ridge crested, the trail turned downhill and retraced itself back skyward in an endless up-and-down tortuous game.

Finally, after just a couple of hours, I broke through the tree line and emerged into the glaciated, mountainous valley of Langtang. The sight of 7,000 meter peaks looming ahead of me took my breath away, almost as much as the altitude I was climbing to. 
I’d walked over landslide-swept trails and some small ruins of buildings the day before, but nothing could prepare me for what I’d see today. Langtang Valley was THE most badly affected trekking area hit by the earthquake last year, with hundreds of people losing their lives, and thousands more forced to rebuild theirs. The very first village I passed was on the map, but was not on the trail any longer. A smashed building stood in its placed, gigantic rocks having rolled up around its base, with broken glass, bent frames, and splintered wood scattering a huge field.

New trails wind through landslide damages from the earthquake

Farther along I passed similar signs of what had once been. Certain areas had been crushed from rocks tumbling down the steep valley walls, while others lay a barren wasteland of gravel. The trail wove up and down and throughout these never-ending rock fields. I learned later that white flags marked each spot where a lodge had once been, most without a single trace left to prove they had stood.

Prayer walls guide the trail up the valley

Days before I had been told that the village of Langtang itself would be desolate and empty, without any lodge options, forcing me to continue to its higher neighbor Kyanjin Gompa. Instead, I found at least a dozen buildings under constructions with workers hammering diligently away. A few places had been rebuilt just since the winter, and I enjoyed lunch at one of these brand-new lodges and met two Canadian sisters staying the night there.

Today was almost as long as the day before, so I curl up exhausted in my bed as soon as I find an open lodge with room. In fact, I’m the only guest there tonight, and my room is free as long as I purchase all of my meals there. By the time I leave in two days, 30% of my bill is racked up from the copious amounts of tea I’ve been drinking.

Mountain views from my lodge room

Day 3: Cherko Ri

A pounding rain wakes me up in the middle of the night, reminding me of how close we are to Nepal’s monsoon season, and promising clear skies in the morning. I wake early and quickly set out for my attempt to summit Kyanjin Gompa’s neighboring Cherko Ri.

Cherko Ri is supposed to be a challenging day hike from Langtang Valley’s uppermost village. I was told by a few people that it should take only four hours to reach the top at a slow pace. Sure-minded as I was (or, arrogant), I assumed I would cut a few hours off of that time to enjoy the 4,900 meter / 16,000 ft. peak by mid-morning.

I did not encounter a single other person on the trail during my 7 hour day, which ended up as one of the reasons I used to turn around early. After four hours of hard, fast hiking, I came upon a wide, open field with peaks standing in every direction. I’d long lost the trail by then, and there was no clear direction as to which was Cherko Ri. Instead of wasting my breath and energy wandering through the snow, I decided to turn around.

I was disappointed not to have made the top, but judged my decision safe. The truth was that I had had a long two days before. I was on an ambitious acclimatization schedule, ascending from 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet, to attempt a 16,000 foot peak in just three days. No matter how much hiking I’d done in the last few months, the sudden change in elevation left my head heavy and pounding.

Cozied up to our lodge’s fire, I’m reunited with my new friends, the Canadian sisters Andreanne and Joannie, who were also descending the next morning following some unpleasant effects of altitude. We talk about the pros and cons of traveling abroad as solo female Westerners, and they share some of their prized Canadian maple syrup candies with me.
Day 4: Kyanjin Gompa to Rimche

The three of us are on the trail by 7am this morning, completely enveloped in thick, damp clouds. Like every other morning, workers are hammering and shoveling away by the time the sun came up hours earlier, and will work through sunset. We all notice the rapid progress of rebuilding efforts. Buildings that had stood as frames just two days before now sported doors, windows, or roofs.

The sisters show me landmarks and share facts I missed on my ascent through the valley. I look twice at the hills dotted with white prayer flags to mark where lodges had once been, and notice even more ruins poking through other sections of rock scattered hundreds of yards away from the crumbling valley wall.

Most damaged buildings have been left untouched; pieces of wood and frames can be used for reconstruction of new lodges

On my way up, I had passed through an area enclosed by circles of prayer flags around what I originally saw as a stack of prayer stones, the same ones that guided our way up. Returning through, Joannie shows me that this is actually a memorial monument with inscriptions of the name of all the people who lost their lives in the valley from last year’s earthquake. There are hundreds of Nepali names, and two entire stones dedicated to the names of visiting foreigners. It is a beautiful and sombering stone.

The 2015 earthquake memorial

Today’s break from the blazing sun was much welcomed and allowed our lips and shoulders to heal their burns. The heavy clouds gained weight in the afternoon and we spent our final few hours walking through a cool rain. The three of us pressed on in the wet to the lodge I’d stayed at on my way up, enjoying valley views, a warm shower, and our favorite endless meal of dal bhatt.

Day 5: Rimche to Syabrubesi 

It’s already warm out by the time we start our descent at 7am. Light fills the valley and the blazing sun follows us all morning as we wind through rocky moraines and through landslides from the earthquake and its aftershocks. There have been more than 400 aftershocks since Nepal’s April 2015 earthquake. 

We wind west at the intersection that would’ve taken me back to Thulo Syabru from my first day, and it’s the first time I’ve seen the valley’s thick riverside jungle, and become friendly with its gnats (who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, find my face a deal more sweet than my comrades).

By the time we see Syabrubesi in the distance, we are stopping every moment we can find shade underneath trees and bushes. Our brief breaks from the sun slow our progress just as much as our heavy feet and exhaustion. The town simply never seems in reach.

First views of Sy

We finally arrive, with a few dozen restaurant and lodging options in every direction. Syabrubesi is much more tourist-friendly and amiable to trekkers than its neighbor Dhunche. The road here is fairly new, its identity as the starting point to the Langtang trek.

The Langtang region turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of my entire three months in Nepal. Like the city of Kathmandu itself, I came with low expectations, assuming I would be befuddled with the grief, depression, and aftereffects of the earthquake. But it was quite the opposite.

One of the most important lessons I have learned and seen firsthand in this beautiful country is the resilience and pure, genuine love for life that the Nepalese have. The earthquake was devastating, there is no doubt, but that event won’t wipe the smiles from their faces forever. The Nepalese and the countless friends who have jumped to help their cause will rebuild their communities and their country. And in the meantime, each of these people and places will retain this irreversible beauty and continue to be one of the top destinations for tourists worldwide.

3 Passes Everest Trek: Part III

Our trip is winding down. Dad is thankful to retreat to lower elevation where a cough he’s developed can subside, though the next week of downhill will have no mercy on our knees.
We treat ourselves to a couple of very long days, in return for extra total-rest days, trading off our original itinerary of short hikes for grueling all-day excursions. The results are rewarding.

Day 15: Rest day in Gokyo (15,580 ft.) 

Our first night in Gokyo was not only our best sleep on the trip yet, but it was the longest time we have spent in bed so far, from at least 8:30pm until 7:30am. Because of our perseverance the day before, we are awarded a long, leisurely day with gorgeous weather in this quaint lakeside town.

After a late breakfast and relaxing morning warming up to the frigid air outside, the four of us take a walk around the emerald-green lake that makes Gokyo one of the Top-3 trekker’s destinations in Nepal. We take pictures, play in the sand, and jump around rocks underneath the towering razor-like mountains on the opposite end of the lake.


Cho-Oyu towering over the tiny town of Gokyo

Gokyo also boasts one of the most impressive views of Cho-Oyu, one of the world’s few and far between 8,000 meter peaks. I’d read before that Cho-Oyu is one of the most attainable (avoiding the word “easiest”) of the 14 to summit, though the formidable peak is still not to be underestimated.

We are still acutely aware of our elevation here. Just walking along the flat trail by the lake, we’re breathing more difficultly and taking more stops than we would at home or in the gym. It’s wild to imagine the time on this trip that we’re spending above the tallest point in America.

Our guidebook makes Gokyo sound like an exciting, sprawling town, and we quickly discover that while it deserves the hype for its beautiful landscape, it is no larger or luxurious than the villages we’re used to over the last few weeks. We read for a few hours after lunch and head to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet. The taste of freshly brewed espresso and shared platters of walnut brownie and banana bread revive us. We sit by the window and strip our jackets, letting the sun warm our thinly-clad backs.

Day 16: Gokyo (15,580 ft.) to Lumde (14,370 ft.) over Renjo-La Pass (17,690 ft.)
Dad delays our typically early-morning start that’s accompanied us on the last two passes. For some reason, even though Gokyo is at a comparable altitude with our other lodges, the village feels much colder and we’re feeling patient enough to let the sun warm the lake and hillsides before setting out on our 8 hour day. We leave at 7:30 instead, which is about as much “sleeping in” as we’ll get.

Throughout the entire hike, we have a clear view of the tiny village of Gokyo below us, growing smaller as we climber higher. Our path zig-zags along the hillside up past the alpine lake, growing over a huge ridge of rocks where we scramble with our hands and feet to clamber upwards. It’s such a seemingly short distance, and at sea level it shouldn’t take us too long, but high above the tallest point in America, our lungs are short of breath and our muscles short of oxygen. It takes us three and a half hours to reach the pinnacle of prayer flags and people shouting loud “whoooops” of celebration at the top.


The descent is endless. We’re blessed with good weather which aids our spirits as we wind farther and farther through valleys, hopping over streams, traversing hillsides and kicking up dust until we finally see the tiny dots that mark Lumde below. By the time we reach our lodge flurries of snow are whipping around us, and no more than an hour after we’ve had a cup of hot tea and dug into our books, a whiteout outside blocks all views of the previously stunning mountain backdrops that drape across both sides of town.

So close to the seeming metropolis of Namche Bazaar, and so far from the outer reaches of Gorak Shep, Dad and I are surprised to find our lodge in Lumde to be the most primitive that we’ve stayed at. The one door separating kitchen from dining area swings open every few minutes, letting the billowing cold and weather into our dung-heated common area. While we don’t need to leave the building to access the toilet, the room is lined with sheet metal effectively keeping out any warmth (albeit, smells as well). We also don’t have a light in our room and navigate nighttime by the glow of our headlamps. These aren’t complaints, though; we’re accustomed to simple living by now.

Approaching the tiny town of Lumde just as the storm’s clouds roll in

Day 17: Lumde (14,370 ft.) to Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
Today we are on the most beautiful trail that we’ve encountered so far. The wide dirt path wanders downhill at a slow grade, making our entire day a leisurely and enjoyable walk along the river and through some of the most famous villages west of Namche.

We transition down past the tree level again, trading the harsh mountain environments we’ve adapted to with a lush, colorful countryside. There are signs of life (and tourism) through Thame, which we reach late morning. Our original stopping point of the day, Thame is a sprawling city of a village that boasts endless lodges and restaurants, catering to Gokyo trekkers on their way up. Indeed we pass dozens and dozens of more trekkers than we’d seen in the last day, happily clad in shorts and t-shirts. 

We wind down into Namche over a ridge full of prayer-carved stones scattered across an area the size of a football field, painted with colorful words. Construction workers are digging deep tombs beneath some of the rock slabs which makes me question whether this is a sacred prayer area, or a graveyard.

A gompa off of the trail, overlooking Thame

Day 18: Rest day in Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
We get to enjoy another full rest day in the village hub of the Everest region. Namche Bazaar is a true trekkers paradise; pubs serving the only cold beers you’ll find on the trail, movie and documentary showings, bakeries with limitless options for sweet tooths, and an abundance of information and cultural tours on local life.

Overlooking Namche Bazar

In the morning we set off for the Sherpa museum, perched on a northeast hill overlooking the town. We see a traditional Sherpa home, stocked with tools, clothes, and decorations from years ago. The truth is that the Sherpa are typically such humble and traditional people whose lives haven’t completely revolutionized with the introduction of modern technology, and so much of what we see is already familiar to us.


The buzzing Saturday market

On our way back into town we stop by the famous Namche Market, warming up for weekend traffic. Every Friday hundreds of local people from neighboring villages meet here to trade food and other supplies for the largest market in the Khumbu Valley. We see the seats, tea pots, spices, and other amenities that all of our lodges have been using – most likely originally purchased right here.


Kids play football at a schoolyard overlooking the Khumbu valley

Dad and I enjoy pizza, pastries, and coffee for lunch and spend the entire afternoon buried in our new books. We’ve accumulated a small library on this trek of classic non-fiction mountaineering stories. Over the last few weeks it seems we’ve been racing each other to finish a book, trade with the other person, and buy new when we’ve run dry. It is on one hand very fulfilling and appropriate given the climate we’re in, but on the other hand embarrassing to be voluntarily carrying so much extra weight on a trek where we already require the assistance of a guide and porter. I hide the extra books in my backpack and hope Pasang or Ang won’t notice.

Day 19: Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.) to Monju (9,301 ft.) 
I wake up sick in the middle of the night, my body fighting itself, covered in a cold sweat and a hot fever and unable to move until mid-day. My dad, Pasang, and Ang are all very thoughtful and helpful in my agonizing walk down the gentle terrain that leads out of Namche.
Luckily, today consists of almost exclusively downhills. Unfortunately, I am too incapacitated by my pounding headache and seemingly endless supply of sweating pores to take a single photo on our descent to Monju. 
It takes us about three hours in the hot afternoon sun to reach this tiny town perched on a cliff overlooking the river. We are completely in the forest now, breathing in the psychological affects of extra oxygen that the trees bring us.

Day 20: Monju (9,301 ft.) to Lukla (9,383 ft.)
Our final day of trekking has arrived. We are both elated and disheartened, sad to be leaving the captivating world of the Khumbu. 

Because of my sickliness (which has totally cleared up today), we have a longer day than originally planned, and it takes us about five hours to reach the tiny airport town of Lukla. Today, it seems, 90% of the trail winds through villages, with short departures up steep hillsides or stretches along the forested side of the river. We’ve come a long way from the few-and-far-between lodges at higher altitude. Here, a bottle of water is sold for the meager price of 80 rupees and snickers bars are down to a manageable 90.


Villages and homes dot the entire trail from Monju to Lukla

Dad and I both get our own king-sized beds tonight, sprawling our dirty backpacks and sweat-stained shoes around the room as we settle in. We’ve long run out of “clean” clothes so we don our favorite, somewhat clean and comfortable, outfits for a final celebratory dinner with Pasang and Ang.

Six large cold beers, four heaping platters of dal bhat, and endless card games later, we thank our companions for their help on our journey and call it a night. In the morning we’ll all carry our bags to the airport to depart back to Kathmandu, an easy process made headache-inducing with its unavoidable crowds and lines and Dad’s impatience.

Leaving Lukla, our friends give us khasi scarves for thanks and good luck on our journey. I know that this will not be the last time I see this beautiful valley and it’s charming villages, so it is easier to say goodbye for now. The flight rewards us with stunning views to the west of the mountains we’d walked between for the last three weeks, reminding us that no matter how long our memories of this place stand, these peaks will stand longer.

Climbing to 20,305 ft.on  Imja Tse (Island Peak): An Adventure Into Himalayan Mountaineering

Dad gives me a longer hug than normal when setting off from Island Peak base camp. He and our guides walked me up to the 16,400 ft camp and left around noon so they’d be safe in the lodge after a grueling and windswept three hour walk.

Imja Tse is the farthest peak to the left, peeking out among the Khumbu hills

This trip came together only the day before when I got the thumbs-up from our lodge owner that my climbing permit from Kathmandu was secured. I had heard about Island Peak before and was interested in climbing it, but didn’t think it would work within our schedule or budget. As luck would have it, we only had to adjust one day of our three week trek to fit in the climb.
I’m camping and dining with a group that is headed to Everest in a few weeks. If I get nothing else from this climb, it’s all made worthwhile by getting to talk to these ambitious, sharp, and fun people hoping to summit the world’s tallest mountain. Their plan is to make a “high camp” at 6,000 meters (that’s 20,000 ft), just below the summit, beneath the tall, intimidating vertical ice wall that awaits climbers on their final push. They’ll acclimatize there instead of the dangerous and unstable Khumbu Ice Fall, and use the wall to practice climbing techniques.

Base camp is a wind tunnel at the top of a long valley which ensures every one of your belongings will be covered in dust before you’ve even unpacked in your tent. Unfortunately we have had two choppers try to land here today to pick up ill climbers who couldn’t reach the top. We aren’t sure the state of the rescuees but hear that they are simply exhausted – so the rest of us discuss whether this is a desperate situation, or just a really expensive ride home.
After lunch we jump right into training. My guide Dawa takes me to two connecting ropes up a ridge and refreshes me on the art of ascending with a jumar and descending with an eight. Once we’ve gone up and down a few times the real fun starts. The Sherpa crew has set up an elevated ladder that we’ll use to practice crossing with our crampons and ropes. We safety ourselves in on either side with carabiners and lean our weight forward, relying on the security of ropes tied behind us. The best technique is to secure the front two points of your crampon into each ladder rung as you inch slowly forward. Even though it feels unnatural and scary to rely on just these two prongs, we’ll have full visibility of the front of our feet, and absolutely zero of our backs – so trying to put any weight on your heel could throw off your balance and send you toppling over the side. Practicing is actually a lot more fun than I thought it’d be, but I remind myself that I might feel differently when it’s THREE ladders I’m crossing, strung together with ropes, waving in the wind, above a never-ending crevasse. Dawa tells me if it’s too windy, we will need to crawl across on hands and knees.

Our base camp crampon and ladder practice

After dinner I lie restlessly until I hear my new friends go to bed themselves. My body is comfortably warm head to toe thanks to the second down sleeping bag I was given, and a boiling hot water bottle at the bottom of the bag to warm my feet. Midnight comes quickly, and the hectic wind from earlier in the day has vanished. Stars dazzle from horizon to horizon, and I can faintly see the alpenglown from our neighboring 6,000ers reflected from the moonlight.
We start walking at 1am and pass High Camp in about an hour, reaching the crampon point around 3:30. I put on my down parka, helmet, glacier gloves, harness, mountaineering boots, crampons, and finally clip in to the fixed line at the base of the ice. It isn’t until hours later when the sun rises that I realize what hard, smooth, slick ice I had been walking on all day. 


A look back up what we’d climbed, around 8:30am

Dawa and I finally get to put our ladder practice to use. The first is a 10-foot long combination of two construction ladders strung together with rope. The second, however, is three combined ladders whose rungs are spaced out differently than the first. Dawa’s crampons are actually too small to reach from rung to rung, so he is forced to walk on a tip-toe across this 15-foot long man made contraption suspended hundreds of feet over a crevasse. We high five after each successful crossing.


A daylight look at the shorter of the two ladders we crossed in the pitch black of night


Sunrise over the Himalayas as we begin our ascent of the ice wall

Just as the sun is beginning to light up the mountainsides, we reach the famed ice wall that leads to the summit ridge. A Ukrainian guy at one of our hostels had shown me photos and told me of this infamous 100 foot tall vertical wall that delineates trekkers from true climbers. Upon seeing the wall, I quickly understand he meant to say meters – not feet. I misjudge this distance and leave my pack at the base of the wall, handing Dawa just a bottle of water to carry up. It takes us about 1.15 hours to reach the top.


Another daylight version of the ice wall we’d climbed just at dawn

This ice wall is way tougher than I’d made it out to be, it is the one obstacle that’s turned this day into the most technically challenging feat on my climbing resume. I’m using my entire body to propel myself up this unrelenting vertical ice. My arms and shoulders pull upwards to ascend my jumar, and my thighs, hips, and glutes push my legs and hold my feet steady as I front-point my crampons at a 90 degree angle into the wall.


Looking down at the “high camp” – perched at 20,000 ft.

At 6:30am we’ve reached the summit at 20,305 ft. We are the first people to summit today, and soak in the serene, windless calm and watch the sun begin to creep across the peaks around us. It is an incomparable feeling, a moment of fulfillment and pride and complete awe at the landscape around us. I can’t remember ever feeling happier.


All smiles at the top!

We descend slowly, making it back to base camp by 11:30 and finally arriving back to our lodge in Chukkung at 2:30. I’m wiped, but reenergized by seeing my dad again and getting to tell him all about my adventure. He reminds me how close I was to the altitude of the tallest peak in America, Denali in Alaska, just a mere 15 feet off… I mentally bookmark that statistic for the next time I try to scare myself.