When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 26, it caused widespread destruction, killing thousands across the country, including 19 of the roughly 1,000 people stationed at Everest Base Camp. But the number of Everest climbers is only a fraction of the thousands of international tourists who were hiking and backpacking in the country — many who are still unaccounted for. The Red Cross has said that there may be as many as 500 Americans missing.
"There were a couple thousand people, trekkers and guides, in the Everest Region alone; thousands more were in the Annapurna region," says Prem K. Khatry, owner and operator of ACE the Himalaya. "I think the worst news is still to come."
It was the height of Nepal's busy trekking season, and one of region's most popular destinations, Langtang — just North of Kathmandu and home of Nepal's first national park — seems to be one of the regions hardest hit, based on the few reports emerging from the area. Since communications services returned on April 29, Khatry, of ACE the Himalaya, has received several calls from foreign insurance companies asking for rescue assistance for their members.
"The problem is, the only information they can give me is that these people were trekking in the Langtang region," says Khatry, "and that's not enough to go on."
Khatry says for once the situation on the ground is far more serious than what's being reported in the media. "Most trekking companies have no electricity, still no landline access, and the mobile connection is very poor," he says. "There are many trekkers and guides missing, but it may take another week or two for the news of them to get out."
His company had five trekking groups out in the field when the earthquake hit: two on the route to Everest Base Camp and three in the Annapurna region. Other outfitters had a more difficult time tracking their guests. Naba Raj Amgai, the Executive Director of Himalayan Glacier Trekking Group Ltd, says that without communications services, he was not able to confirm the safety of the company's 125 hikers and guides until yesterday.
"After the earthquake, there were landslides, especially in the Manasulu trekking area, where some of our groups were, which further held up communications," says Amagi. "We're very lucky that we didn't have anyone in Langtang at the time."
The majority of Himalayan Glacier Trekking's clients are on their way down from Namche Bazaar (a major stopover for hikers on the route to Everest Base Camp) to Lukla — and they're walking. "There is a danger of landslides, yes, but the helicopters are too busy evacuating the injured to help, so there is no other option," says Amagi.
Jon Kedrowski, an American ski mountaineer and geographer who was making his way down from Everest Base Camp, has said the area feels eerily quiet. "The upper villages are completely deserted," Kedrowski says. "Most of the tea houses there have extensive damage."
Both Amagi and Khatry say that the tourists who were trekking without guides are at the highest risk, and the least likely to be able to establish communication. "We have regions where people trek that don't have any tea houses, just camping, with no telephone, no satellite," says Khatry. "Many people are still out there. They could be fine. We just don't know."
As of April 29, the focus of search and rescue efforts for hikers will increasingly turn towards Langtang, as word gets out. "We are receiving news about more tourists stranded in Langtang region," Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, wrote in an email. "We would like to kindly request you to share information about the people stuck in this region. It will help us to conduct rescue operation in a quick manner."
The efforts haven't been fast enough for many back in the U.S., who've been waiting for any news since the earthquake. "There was no information coming out for, I would say, a couple of days," says Brooks Emanuel, whose 71-year old father Marty started a hiking trip in the Langtang region the day before the earthquake.
Emanuel began posting about his father on Facebook and Twitter, using #Langtang, and the information was picked up by Californian Caroline Heldman, who was searching for her sister Kat, also in the Langtang region at the time of the earthquake. Heldman launched a Google docs spreadsheet, with detailed information about trekkers known to be missing in the Langtang region. She also started a Facebook page called Langtang Missing/Found People to coordinate search efforts and share information. Heldman's sister and crew have since been found and rescued, but the social media effort to find others is still in full swing. "So many families are still searching," Heldman says.
At the last estimate, 17 American hikers were thought to have been in the Langtang region at the time of the earthquake. Emanuel worked with Heldman's spreadsheet and other sources to compile a detailed list that he sent to the State Department on April 29. "It's really become a community effort," Emanuel says. "Nepalese people, who are searching for their own family members, have reached out to me on Facebook offering their support. A French woman emailed my family to tell us she saw my dad the day after the earthquake, and sent a photo as proof. He's not safe yet, but we're guardedly hopeful."
Anyone searching for a hiker who was in Nepal at the time of the earthquake, or who has information about someone, is encouraged to use the Google Person Finder. Local newspapers in the U.S. are also breaking stories about lost (and found) residents.