From the throbbing interior of the Ecureuil helicopter, Nepal on a monsoonafternoon is a glowing, emeraldland. In the blinding splash of chlorophyll,the white vein of the BudiGandaki cuts through a bright greenvalley radiant with ripening rice. To the north, veils of rain hide the mysteriousvelvet depths of the high Himalaya. Hereand there, through a tunnel in theclouds, you catch tantalising glimpses ofthe icy rock of Himalchuli's sky-scraping ramparts.
Despite the dull heartache and theemptiness inside, I couldn't helpadmiring this stunningly beautiful land.Padam Ghaley, Raju Gurung and I wereon our way last week to the MarsyangdiValley below Manang to look for my missing brother, Kanak. He was on thelast leg of his solo Annapurna Circuit trek from Pokhara to Besi Sahar,completing a two-week journey in an amazing 10 days. After crossing Thorung La (5416m) he had made good progress through the Manang Valley, calling home from Dharapani on 19 August, saying he would fly back to Kathmandu from Pokhara on 21 August. Twenty-four hours after he failed to show up, and worried that he had not made any other calls despite phone facilities being available all along the trail, the family started to get worried.
By 2:30 pm on 22 August, Padam, Raju and I were walking across the tarmac at Kathmandu airport towards the Fish Tail Air helicopter. Right then, my mobile rang. It was Anil Shrestha from Himal, who had been coordinating communications with lodges, police stations and ACAP offices along the Manang trail for the past two days. News had just come in that Kanak had checked out of the Sushma Lodge at Jagat on Sunday morning, 20 August. Right there, we changed plans and decided not to fly to Dharapani, but to land at Jagat and begin searching from there. This decision, taken in the nick of time, was to make the difference between life and death.
After Besisahar, the Marsyangdi Valley gets wilder and narrower. The steep flanks on either side were barely a dozen metres from the whirling rotors. Below us, the white surf of the monsoonswollen river dominated everything. Tiny Gurung villages were perched on the mountainsides next to spectacular waterfalls that tumbled down to the deep valley. Padam pointed out Jagat to the pilot: a tiny cluster of shingle-roofed houses in front and below, perilously close to the frothing river. Capt Anil Rawal nudged the helicopter down on a millet field between the river and the houses, nervously close to a huge boulder.
As the whir of the departing helicopter receded, we were already searching through the room at the Sushma Lodge where Kanak had stayed. We got to Syanje, checking the river banks and the slopes below landslides with our binoculars, talking to chicken porters and tea shop owners who said they had seen him on Sunday morning. Their description of what he said and what he was wearing were accurate. At Syanje he had stopped for tea on Sunday morning. The Gurung pasalni remembered he had asked about the huge landslide nearby that nearly choked the Marsyangdi, and he was taking notes.
We spent the night at a place called Ghermo. A scenic spot overlooking a 1,500 ft waterfall, mountains in the mist and pine trees that looked like a Japanese painting. It rained heavily all night.The roar of the Marsyangdi and the waterfall was deafening. Little did we know that only 2-3 km away Kanak was spending his third night out in the open, drinking rain, talking to wild animals to keep them away, and desperately anchoring himself on rocks so that he would not slip off the ledge to the river below.
We left the lodge at six in the morning, and by 7:15 Raju had spotted a blue rucksack about 50 ft below the trail at Lili Bhir, a particularly slippery nearvertical slope directly above a bend in the Marsyangdi. I looked vertically down through binoculars and immediately recognised Kanak's purple cap. It was so steep Raju had to use rope to get down. It took another 15 minutes to find Kanak, lying on his back some 40 ft below. A good Samaritan porter went down clinging to branches, and in a singularly astounding feat of mountain climbing brought Kanak up on his back to the trail. We never found out the porter's name or home village, he just picked up his load and disappeared up the trail soon afterwards.
Kanak was seriously hurt, dehydrated and weak. There was a gash on his scalp and his neck looked badly injured. But at that point, for the three of us what was important was that he was alive. Another porter carried Kanak ten minutes up the trail to a lodge and we put him on some sleeping bags on top of a dining table. Raju had already run up to Bahundanda to call for the helicopter. Fortuitously, Jyoti Gurung, a nurse on her way to Tangje Health Post in Manang happened to be passing by. She organised an intravenous dextrose drip with Shiva Raj Silwal, an assistant health worker from a nearby health post assisting. They took his blood pressure, cleaned up his wounds, gave him some water and tea. Padam brought some hot soup. His first question for me was: has Nepali Times gone to press? What is the headline?
The drip was already making a big difference, Kanak was alert and joking with Jyoti and Shiva. He told us about feeling the wispy wind of a butterfly flapping past his face, contemplating the best way to eat a bumble bee, of shouting for help but not being heard over the river's roar, and waving feebly at our helicopter the previous afternoon. There is much more, and I'm sure Kanak will write about it some day. Within two hours, there was the familiar and welcome sound of an Ecureuil coming up the valley. The support and networking by Anil and his team in Kathmandu, the police's own search and rescue network was crucial at this stage.
Forty minutes later, Kanak was on his way to hospital in an ambulance with siren blaring through crowded Kathmandu streets. Dr Upendra Devkota and his team at Norvic stitched up the scalp wound and will now try to straighten out two thoracic vertebra. Family and friends have provided tremendous moral support. Kanak is alert, speaking normally and slowly recounting the terrible ordeal of surviving three nights and four days on the side of a cliff. What is emerging is a story of unbelievable will power and determination to survive. Without this, our rescue would have been futile. This is a survival classic.
Words like "luck" and "miracle" are inadequate to describe the survival and rescue. It was a series of many miracles. Some force kept Kanak alive, the same force took us to the exact spot where he was lying, and it made sure we found him. A million things could have gone wrong, a million things went right. May the force be with him.