SCARS OF LANGTANG VALLEY
The earthquake and landslide
The Langtang Valley starts from an altitude of 1,500m beside the road at Syaphru Besi, disappearing up a narrow, forested gorge. For much of its length it is less than a kilometre in width, and the mountains rise sheer on either side. The valley ascends steeply, and gradually widens before emerging into wide open spaces at Kyanjin Gompa (3,850m), where the last teahouses can be found. Most trekkers go no further than Kyanjin, but the valley continues east, right up to the high glaciers of the Tibetan border region.
There are several villages and teahouse communities between Syaphru Besi and Kyanjin. The largest of these was Langtang village, at 3,400m. It used to be a thriving community of teahouses sitting in a bowl, a wider haven within one of the narrower sections of the gorge.
This all changed in an instant at 11.56am on Saturday, 25 April 2015. Langtang village lay directly beneath the south face of Langtang Lirung, where there was a large glacier and a frozen lake sitting in a hanging valley high above. This glacier and lake were the source of a river which ran down a wide couloir or gulley, past the western end of the village to join the main Langtang valley.
When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal that morning, a vast landslide fell off Langtang Lirung. It was as though an entire section of mountainside came off, bringing with it giant boulders, much of the glacier, and the entire frozen lake. An estimated 40 million tons of rock and ice was funnelled down the couloir, straight onto the village. It produced a gust of wind so powerful that the air pressure flattened every tree on the opposite side of the valley for many kilometres downstream.
Around 9,000 people died during the Nepal earthquake of 25 April 2015. This tiny village in the Langtang Valley accounted for 243 of them: 175 villagers, 27 local tourism staff (guides and porters), and 41 foreign trekkers. All of their names are now recorded on a memorial mani wall that has been built among the wreckage.
While nobody in the main part of Langtang village stood a chance of survival, some people in houses around the edges did. Strangely, more elderly people survived than young people. The reason for this is because they stayed indoors. Traditional Nepali houses are built on two levels. The top floor is always living accommodation, while the lower floor is for storage and animals.
When the earthquake shook, the natural instinct of younger people was to run outside so that they wouldn’t be crushed by their own houses falling around them. What they didn’t know was that outside was a far greater danger. A few seconds later they were killed in the landslide that followed. Older people, however, didn’t try running. Instead, they took shelter downstairs. A handful of them survived the tragedy.
There were other landslides all the way down the Langtang Valley, and the evidence is everywhere. Trails were destroyed, and people up the valley were trapped for days after the earthquake, until Nepal’s small number of helicopters were freed up to evacuate them. Infrastructure was devastated. Homes were destroyed, and the collapsing trails meant that supplies could come up to Langtang only with great difficulty.
A new Langtang village is being built 100 metres above the ruins of the old one. This new site looks to be marginally safer than the old one, because it is not directly beneath the couloir that funnelled down the devastation two years ago. However, it is still extremely close to the steep cliffs on the north side of the valley. Although vertical cliffs are less likely to carry snow, and therefore less prone to avalanche, it still feels like rockfall will be a considerable hazard.