For a Destroyed Nepali Village

Yesterday I heard that Langtang Village in the Himalayas, which I had visited in 1971 on a solo trek in the mountains, had been destroyed by the April 25 Nepal earthquake.

The damaged trails up from the hot farming center in Trisuli in the valley below made it impossible to even dig out the dead or succor the few, wounded survivors.

So I want to put down on paper the magic, the taste, the humanity of that wondrous village, parked in the path of avalanches sent from Langtang's snowy 24,000 foot peak in the thin air above.

I bought some water purification tablets, peanut butter and Sampa -- roasted barley flour. Crammed in a Nepali bus, I reached Trisuli and began the trail to Langtang, ruling the northern ridgeline like a giant sentinel on the Nepal-Tibet border.

Back then, in 1971, local people still called the northern neighbor Tibet. These days they call it China, recognizing the giant power that has all but erased Tibet's political identity.

I walked for five days, stopping regularly on the trail to fill my water can from streams and then letting halogen tablets kill everything dangerous. I was religious in this process after I saw a Nepalese porter carrying on his shoulders an Indian scientist. He told me in passing he had contracted dysentery from drinking un-treated water. He could no longer walk. No matter how high you trek in the Himalayas, it seems there is always some local villager above you using the stream as a sink or toilet.

On the fifth day the climb got brutal. I could hardly breathe in the thin air and my legs were shaking. The trail had gone up and down all along, but now it swept down to the roaring river in the valley and then switch-backed up from 3,000 feet to 9,000 feet, following the deep imprint of the Langtang Khola -- a fierce mountain stream pouring through giant rocks.

As I was resting -- which I did often -- along came a Nepali youth hauling a huge sack of dried corn on his shoulders. My native tongue is English and his was Tamang. But we each spoke a few words of Nepali which is similar to Hindi and Urdu. He offered to carry my backpack to Langtang for 15 rupees -- about a dollar. So 15-year-old Torche tied my pack on top of his sack of corn and proceeded slowly uphill.

Unencumbered by my pack, I passed him and reached Langtang village around dusk. There I waited as the sky darkened and evening fell.

A villager offered me a place to sleep in his house -- one of those likely destroyed in the quake He asked me what I waited for. Using a bit of Nepali and sign language I indicated my pack was missing. Maybe the porter took off with it?

"Who did you hire?" asked a woman.

"Torche," I said.

"Torche is ok," said the woman with a smile. "Don't worry."

Sure enough, in the final gloomy light I saw my backpack slowly rising up from the steep trail, followed by the sack of corn and then Torche. I felt ashamed that I had feared he might have stolen my backpack. It was one of those lessons in life -- the very poor may be more honest than the rich.

That night I lay on the wooden floor of the stone and beam house with the Nepali family as smoke from an indoor wood fire made breathing difficult. Turns out recent World Health Organization reports say indoor wood smoke is a leading cause of early death in the Third World -- causes cancer, bronchitis, pneumonia and heart disease.

Next day I passed through the maze of houses, now reduced to rubble, made of stone walls and heavy beams. Large chunks of firewood were stacked and drying on porches, under the eaves. Wooden shingles on the roofs were held down by large stones since nails were a luxury in the mountains. Everything must be carried up the trekking paths from the plains below.

I stopped at a Tibetan monastery and shared a meal with the monks. They cooked on a huge earthen stove with holes to place the pots over the fire below. One large metal pot held water at the boiling point, ready to make tea or rice or noodles.

When I said I was going up towards the heights, one monk made a sound like an animal, growling, and scratching the air with his fingers. I think he meant to warn me of bears or mountain lions. Or ghosts.

It was a few hundred yards to pass through Langtang into the upper valley, passing a cheese factory used in summer when the cows and sheep have surplus milk.

Suddenly, I was all alone, The path had vanished. In fact, the way east up the valley was blocked by huge chunks of stone the size of houses. They tumbled in a mass and I could not figure out how to penetrate the leading edge. Now I realize that those huge stones were tossed there from a previous earthquake -- more than a dozen were recorded from the 13th century.

Far down in the valley, an especially large, flat rock lay askew the stream that was fed by waterfalls pouring off the steep slopes all around me. I could see a 16,000 foot pass to the south rising like a highway littered with huge boulders. Looking more closely at the flat rock in the distance below I saw tiny dots that turned out to be sheep. Distance is deceiving in the thin mountain air at 14,000 feet. Things seem close and small but turn out to be huge and distant.

I stumbled upon an uninhabited shepherd's shelter made of stone and woven mats that afforded some protection from cold and animals. .

I collected firewood and tried to close off the entrance to the shelter with some sticks. It gave me a sense that I was prepared for defense. I also tied my Tibetan knife to one stick giving me a few more feet of distance from sharp claws and teeth.

In the night I slept badly due to the thin air. I woke up often, gasping for oxygen -- the bane of many mountaineers, especially those that don't take time to acclimatize.

In the middle of the night I got out of my sleeping bag and walked out into the cold night. From somewhere behind the clouds a full moon was showering the valley with muted light.

And then came a vision such as greets the weary traveler out beyond his limits.

A hole appeared in the clouds up the valley ahead. It drifted slowly down the southern ridge of the valley, revealing a series of sharp-toothed 20,000 feet tall snowy peaks. At my back, buried in clouds, was the tallest peal in the range, Langtang Lirung. In fact, my visit in 1971 was a half dozen years before that peak had ever been climbed.

I could look through that hole in the clouds as if it was a window into the sky above the clouds -- a sky glittering with stars in the clear mountain air.

Finally, the hole revealed the moon, full and brilliant above the snow peaks.

I wish the people of Langtang peace and comfort in this tragic moment -- the same peace and comfort they showed me and many other trekkers.