Finding Nemo

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Tale of Dipendra

On the last day of my trek, strolling down the wide gravel road, I casually asked my guide Dipendra about the well-known ill-fated trips that had occurred on the path to ABC.  In the early 2000's two group of tourists had died in two different years by avalanche.  His reply was shocking.

"Yes, was February 17, 2002.  Was horrible.  3 Germans dead, 1 Nepalese, my friend.  I almost die too."

What???!!!  My guide had been on that trek?  With a little prodding he slowly told the story in bits and pieces.  He worked for a German mountain-climber turned entrepreneur, who at the time was bringing in German tourists for trekking.  He had gotten together a group that had some time off in February even though the season wasn't ideal.  There was still heavy snow on the high-trails, and this particular year there was a great deal of snowfall, the high mountains were overflowing.  They had made it up to Deurali, which is the last stop before ABC.  The trail winds along the Modi Khola river, through the narrow ravine directly between the peaks of Hiun Chuli and Machhapuchhre that marked the gate to the Sanctuary.

Back at this time the trail past Deurali went under the Hiun Chuli side, its peak straight overhead 3200m (almost 2 miles) above.  That night the German group celebrated their progress, they drank and partied late.  The next morning, several members of the group confided to Dipu that they'd had bad dreams.  Altitude can give people funny dreams, I remember my first night at Gorak Shep I had a terrible nightmare that I was being suffocated.  So Dipu wasn't too surprised at first.  But what was strange was that 3 people in the group all came up to him with different dreams where they had died.  One said he had drowned in a river, the other had been climbing when his roped snapped, and the third had fallen off a cliff to his death.  It was almost as if Death had visited the 3 condemned men overnight and warned them to turn back.

Dipu said it was a very weird morning, he was a little disturbed by the men's dreams.  He told the German guide that it wasn't safe, there was too much fresh snow and it was snowing again that morning.  The German guide, who had climbed a few Nepalese peaks already, replied that he was very strong and he was not afraid of anything.  He would take full responsibility for anything that happened.  In fact, it was implied that Dipu better not hold them back.  So off they went.  The group of Germans, hungover, were unusually quiet.  No one spoke as they set off.  Dipu said it was very gloomy with the storm and the trail was covered in knee-deep snow, making it difficult going.

Dipu said that suddenly he heard a tremendous roar overhead, getting so loud he couldn't hear anything.  He knew instinctively what it was, and tried to run but the snow was too deep.  Suddenly he felt an overwhelming force lift him in the air.  It was the wind pushed by the mountain of snow and rock above.  He was thrown 100 yards into a nearby tree, out of harm's way as the enormous avalanche poured down next to him.

Imagine how strong wind would have to be to toss a man the length of a football field!  And then, I considered the incredible luck that the wind tossed him completely out of harm's way and into a relatively soft tree!  He shouldn't be alive.

He woke up in a cave.  Apparently, some local men had found him in the tree and had pulled him out of the snow.  He was given some medicine.  A helicopter arrived to ferry the survivors to safety, but Dipu could not afford the trip.  His cheap German guide had not purchased insurance for the staff.  So, he found a stick of bamboo and began to walk the 3 day trek back down to the road.  After the first couple hours, the medicine wore off and Dipu, who grew up in a gang and was tough as nails, said the pain was so bad he began to cry.  Something was wrong with his knee.  But there was noone left to help him.  So, he walked, alone, for 3 days back to Nayapul.  He cried every day and night from the pain.

In the hospital stories came in.  His Nepalese friend for 5 years, a fellow guide, had died.  Three Germans had died.  His German guide had half his face smashed in but survived.  He would need plastic surgery to put his nose back together.  In the hospital, the German guide visited him and cried and told him he was sorry for everything.  But Dipu replied, "You will never be a good guide.  You have no respect for nature.  You are strong, but nature is always stronger." Dipu left the company and never spoke to him again.

Six months later, his knee healed and he promised his parents he would never trek again.  He worked in a restaurant as a waiter for awhile, but he said it didn't feel right.  Eventually he agreed to start guiding camping trips in the local mountains around Kathmandu.  Finally, after a few years, he returned to trekking, and even started mountain climbing.  He was back.

And in karmic payback, the disaster actually turned out to be a good thing for him.  The news coverage made him a minor celebrity for a little while and when the BBC covered the story Dipu made contacts.  When the BBC returned a few years later to shoot a documentary on the snow leopard and red panda, Dipu was hired as a guide.  He started his own trekking company and is now rich by Nepalese standards.

I stood there in silent fascination at my guide.  I had now spent 4.5 weeks with him over the last two trips, and on the last hour of the last day I finally heard this amazing story.

Just the year before, 2001, again in the late winter, another avalanche claimed the lives of a few Australians and an Israel at the exact same spot under Hiun Chuli.  It was a little unbelievable that the German guide had decided to risk their lives on the anniversary of the Australian disaster.  I thought about the bout of summit fever I'd had myself a couple days ago, and how the mountains make people throw logic, caution, and their very lives into the wind.  Today the path crosses a bridge after Deurali and continues up the other side of the river, and when the snow piles up guides stay put in Deurali and wait.

No one else has died since.

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