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Colin Haley’s Epic: Surviving Nepal’s Deadliest Earthquake

An earthquake and cataclysmic avalanches in the Langtang Valley, Nepal, spell tragedy for hundreds—and a close call for Colin Haley.


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As unbelievable as it must sound, the topic of breakfast conversation on my first ever morning in Kathmandu, April 18, 2015, was earthquakes. I had arrived at midnight at the home of Raphaelle, a young woman who is half Nepali and half French, to meet my climbing partner: our mutual friend Aymeric Clouet.

I spent the meal brushing off my rusty French and sharing bread, mangoes, and Nepali bananas with Aymeric; his wife, Pauline; their daughter, Margeaux, then age 2; Raphaelle; and a few of Raphaelle’s French friends who were living in Kathmandu.

Toward the end of the meal, Pauline spoke of how, according to seismologists, Nepal was long overdue for a big earthquake.

She said, “I worry about it every trip.”

*

We finished our mangoes, and Aymeric and I took off to deal with logistics in Kathmandu. The next day we rode in a jeep to Syabrubesi, a gateway village into the Langtang Valley, where our destination was Kyanjin Gompa, the highest village in the valley at 3,860 meters. For the approach we were joined by Pinju, a kind and shy Nepali whom Pauline, a trekking guide, had worked with many times. She had hired him to help carry Margeaux, who was too young to hike all day yet.

In Syabrubesi, where a few hotels and shops mark the end of the road, Aymeric’s friend Gualboo ran out into the street, shouting, smiling, and waving. Aymeric, a mountain guide, had stayed in Gualboo’s lodge in Kyanjin Gompa the year before while climbing in the Langtang Valley. Gualboo, who had hiked down to buy supplies in Syabrubesi, had built the Holyland Guesthouse just two years earlier.

On April 20, we were finally walking—through lush, temperate jungle and past numerous small villages. The next day Aymeric, Gualboo, and I temporarily parted ways with Pauline, Margeaux, and Pinju. While the three of us hiked directly up toward Kyanjin Gompa, Pauline was to spend a couple more days on the approach, to play it safe with Margeaux’s acclimatization.

Along the way, I got to know Gualboo and learned more about the Langtang Valley. He had lived there all his life and told us that the past winter had produced the biggest snowfalls he’d ever seen. Well over a hundred yaks died in avalanches, and a few times he’d had to exit his lodge from a second-story window, walk around, and dig out the front door. In Langtang, the largest village in the valley, with 300 to 400 residents and 55 hotels and guesthouses, we saw homes with the windows blasted out, the uphill sides of the buildings still plastered with snow from the last major avalanche, just two or three weeks earlier. Aymeric had heard about Nepal’s huge post-winter snowpack a week before our departure, and we added skis to our luggage at the last minute. Ski mountaineering is a more fun way to acclimatize than just walking, and we were happy to see the mountains loaded with so much more snow than normal. It wouldn’t turn out to be the blessing we thought.

*

We stopped in Langtang village for lunch, and Gualboo, who’d grown up there, chatted with friends. We stopped by a dairy farm to buy a kilo of yak cheese, and on our way out of town waited so that Gualboo could visit with his father.

A couple of hours later, we reached Kyanjin Gompa, where a handful of lodges catering to foreign trekkers perch on a grassy bluff, with open views of glaciers and high summits. Soon we were drinking tea in the dining room of Gualboo’s guesthouse, and were introduced to Gualboo’s wife, Lopsang. Their three shy, beautiful daughters, aged 9, 11, and 13, giggled as I struggled to pronounce their names. They were due to depart in about a week for school in Dunche. Gualboo’s son was already in school in Kathmandu.

We took it easy the next two days—walking, organizing our gear, and ski-touring—to adjust to the altitude. We skinned and booted to a little sub-summit at 4,900 meters across the valley, with views of Langtang Lirung, the 7,200-meter beast immediately above the villages of Kyanjin Gompa and Langtang. Returning to Gualboo’s lodge, we found Pauline, Pinju, and Margeaux just arriving. While I spent the afternoon nursing an altitude headache, tiny Margeaux ran around gleefully.

Gualboo and Aymeric Clouet take a rest during the hike in to Kyanjin Gompa. (Photo: Colin Haley)

On April 25, Aymeric and I woke up at dawn, crossed the river, and booted uphill with our skis. The day was grey and misty, the valley socked in. After a few hours of exercise, we were still in fog and the snow wasn’t softening, so we skied down early and were back at the lodge before most people had even woken up. We sat outside eating bread and yak cheese, and were back in our cozy sleeping bags by about 9 a.m.

I woke up from a nap around 11:40, put on a jacket and shoes, and went downstairs to find Aymeric, Pauline, and Margeaux in the dining room for lunch. When the shaking started, it took us only a second or two to realize what was going on. We ran out of the lodge, Aymeric with Margeaux in his arms.

*

People were darting out of buildings, and at first we all just stood in the open spaces. Although a few of the newest buildings were sounder, many were made of stacked granite blocks, with minimal cement in between; all around us, these blocks began falling to the ground. My instinct was to get out of the village, away from the collapsing buildings, and it seemed like everyone pretty simultaneously started walking and running toward the grassy plateau at the east end of the village.

I was just about past the last buildings, almost into the meadow, when I glanced back and saw a humongous mass of snow descending through the cloud layer. None of us had heard it over the noise of collapsing buildings and people screaming, nor seen it because of the thick cloud ceiling. I have seen many big avalanches in Alaska and Pakistan, with ice falling down thousands of meters and powder clouds that travel several kilometers across flat terrain, but nothing even remotely on this scale. The avalanche roaring down through the clouds and across the moraine seemed to be 300 to 400 meters tall, and moving extremely fast. I could tell from the shape and movement that it was a powder cloud—not the solid debris of rock and ice—but the speed and size were nonetheless terrifying.

I pointed and yelled, and because I was in the mode of thinking in French, “Regarde!” (“Look!”) is what came out. Almost no one around me spoke French, but people turned to see, and within a moment everyone was screaming and running. I lost track of Pauline and Aymeric with Margeaux. I simply started running as fast as I could across the meadow, away from the avalanche.

The powder cloud was upon me halfway across the plateau, and I crouched down on my elbows and knees. At first I thought it would be all right. I’ve been in many other powder clouds, where tents blow around and snow packs into crannies, but normally they look much fiercer than they are. The wind was thick with snow, and I pulled my hood down past my face, creating a little pocket in which to breathe. Within a few seconds, there was so much snow in the air that it blocked out all light—it truly went pitch dark. I could feel snow accumulating around me, against the sides of my body. Now I was scared.

A photo taken on the author’s first day in the village. The building shown here withstood the ensuing earthquake and avalanche well, and became an infirmary shelter. (Photo: Colin Haley)

The gusting increased, and despite desperately trying to crouch in place, I started to be pushed across the meadow. I had only been pushed for a few seconds and meters when the real blast hit—an incredibly powerful pressure wave, in another league from the worst winds I’ve ever felt in Patagonia. I have no idea what the wind’s actual velocity was, but I can say with confidence that a Subaru wagon would have been blown away like a leaf. In an instant I was airborne, body limp, ragdolling through space.

OK, this is it. This is the avalanche I die in.

I estimate that I was blown a horizontal distance of 30 to 40 meters. I flew off the edge of the plateau, landed partway down the now snow-covered, bushy/grassy slope below, and slid about 60 meters farther, down to the valley floor. I came out covered with bruises and scrapes, with pulled muscles and a subluxed shoulder, but the only impact I distinctly remember is my head hitting the ground—hard, but fortunately not on a rock.

I’d barely rolled to a stop when I leapt up and started running, fearing a debris wave or more avalanches. Within a hundred meters I slowed to a brisk walk, and followed the tracks of a yak that was leaving copious amounts of blood on the white snow. I looked anxiously over my shoulder every couple of seconds for signs of more avalanches. Somewhere near the middle of the valley floor, which I figured to be the safest compromise between the steep terrain on both sides, I stopped to look around. A Nepali man stood beside me. For a couple of minutes we stared into each other’s face, shaking and hyperventilating, neither even trying to speak.

I shook out my hair, which was matted with about 10 centimeters of snow, then shook the snow out of my clothes, and finally from my shoes, which had miraculously stayed on. I could tell that my neck was hurt, but my body seemed mostly to be working fine. In less than a minute, the powder cloud had deposited snow 20 to 30 centimeters deep across the whole valley, terrain that had all been bare grass. Later a Cambridge glaciologist would tell me that the solid debris of the settled avalanche
was 50 meters thick across the entire upper portion of the glacier—an unheard-of mass to come down all at once.

People appeared atop the hill above, yelling and gesturing to us. The Nepali man started walking back toward the village. I hesitated to head in the direction the avalanche had come from, but after a few minutes, I started back, too.

The peaks to the east of Langtang Lirung also avalanched into the valley above Kyanjin Gompa, though the solid debris stopped short of the village. (Photo: Colin Haley)

Partway up the hill, I saw Aymeric peering down from the meadow. He ran down to me, his face blasted with dirt.

His first gasped word was just the expletive, “Putain!” but he quickly followed with, “Ça-va?” (“Are you OK?”)

Oui,” I said. “Je pense. J’ai mal au cou.” (“Yes, I think. But I’ve hurt my neck.”)

I at least seemed to be OK enough. Aymeric gestured to me to help carry two injured Nepali men up the hill. About six other people had been blown off the meadow the same way I was, but not all had fared as well. One Nepali man was bleeding significantly from his head. Another had injured his back and couldn’t walk. A Korean woman had broken her leg.

At the edge of the village, I regrouped with Aymeric, Pauline, and Margeaux. Upon seeing the avalanche, they’d wisely hidden behind some stone walls rather than try to run. Thus they had been blasted with snow and wind, but were protected. Had Aymeric been crouched out in the meadow with me when the blast hit, I can’t imagine that Margeaux would have made it through.

*

The village had been hit by a double-whammy. In the earthquake, the stone buildings fared poorly, while the wooden structures held fairly well. Then, in the avalanche, what was left of the stone structures fared well, while less dense materials crumpled or blew away. Down in the valley floor lay pieces of corrugated metal, plywood boards, and other detritus. Luckily, none had hit me in the air. Many roofs had blown off buildings. Every steel post in the barbed-wire fence encircling the village helicopter pad had been flattened.

We discussed our course of action. Using some corrugated metal and other scavenged building materials, Aymeric and I built a bivouac against the downhill side of a boulder, hoping for some protection from avalanches. (We avoided taking shelter in what was left of the buildings, for fear of aftershocks.) Here in the Himalaya, wearing just the clothes we’d had on indoors, we were entering what could be a prolonged survival situation. Aymeric and I took turns dashing into Gualboo’s destroyed lodge to collect what we could, while the other person waited outside, ready to yell at the first sign of an aftershock. We figured the lookout would notice any shaking sooner than the person rummaging through the lodge. The interior was filled with snow, broken wood, and granite blocks from the collapsed ceiling. Most of our gear was cached in a closet, fortunately still intact; we grabbed sleeping bags, foam pads, boots, gloves, clothes, a stove, some food, headlamps, and the satellite phone.

A few days after the avalanche, as the snow melts away, pieces of corrugated metal and plywood are visible scattered amid the damaged and destroyed buildings. (Photo: Colin Haley)

Gualboo, Lopsang, and their daughters were all fine; I don’t know where they’d sheltered. Pinju had huddled in Gualboo’s kitchen, a separate building from the lodge. The kitchen fared well in the earthquake because it was built almost entirely from wood, and again in the avalanche because it was in the lee of the two-story lodge. Some people in Kyanjin Gompa quickly started hiking down-valley; a few hours later, the first of them returned from Langtang. I was standing with Gualboo outside his lodge when the news arrived.

The village of Langtang had been obliterated by the debris of a cataclysmic avalanche, with hundreds killed and only a dozen-odd survivors. Gualboo’s home and business in Kyanjin Gompa had already been destroyed. Now he and Lopsang learned that their parents, their siblings, their cousins, aunts and uncles, their friends … had all died. They screamed and wailed, the tears streaming down their faces. I will never forget witnessing such pain.

*

That night, none of us managed to sleep in our boulder lean-to, except perhaps for Margeaux. Pinju slept in Gualboo’s kitchen. A German woman who had been out on a day hike took shelter with us, as she had no camping equipment. We all sat in sleeping bags with our backs against the boulder. I kept my helmet on, and we placed our most critical gear in places we thought safest if another avalanche hit. It snowed most of the night. There were several aftershocks, and every time we were silent, hearts pounding, listening for the next avalanche. The aftershocks, some minor and some intense, continued for days. Every time, people screamed and ran to find shelter from any avalanches; I did too. During one aftershock, I was leaning against the downhill side of a huge granite boulder that felt as though it were floating and bobbing on liquid. In the end, there were no more avalanches; all the slopes in the Langtang Valley that could go must have cut loose during the first earthquake.

The day after the avalanche, Aymeric and I recovered more of our gear, including our two bivouac tents, which we set up behind a larger boulder in the meadow. Gualboo’s family, along with most of the Kyanjin Gompa residents, decided that the safest spot was a group of house-sized boulders just west of the village, and set up a communal camp there.

I ended up spending four nights in Kyanjin Gompa after the avalanche, although I can only tell by looking through the dates on my photos. Events seem a blur. On April 27, Aymeric and I went on a mission for drinking water. The village gets its water from a stream several kilometers away, carried in via a large-diameter plastic pipe that traverses the hillsides. The earthquake and avalanche had clearly damaged the pipe, and no water was arriving. We traced the pipe up- valley, and at first labored to reconnect separated sections. Eventually, we realized that we needed materials and tools. We hiked to the water source, counting the breaks so that we could tell the Kyanjin Gompa residents. On our way back, we stumbled upon a smaller-diameter pipe that was still largely intact. We connected a few sections, and were pleasantly surprised to see water flowing to the village again.

The room at the Holyland Guesthouse where the author was napping 15 minutes before the earthquake. (Photo: Colin Haley)

Using the satellite phone I’d brought, I called friends and family back in North America, and they were overwhelmingly helpful in planning options for me to return. Aymeric and Pauline made similar calls to France. Soon word spread that I had a satellite phone, and I became a sort of village telephone booth. Some of the calls, those that I prioritized, were for rescue logistics—various residents of Kyanjin Gompa called the Nepali Army, describing the number of injured people and the degree of devastation, and asking for aid and helicopter evacuations. The majority of the calls were people calling family members. For hours each day, I stood in the meadow while people waited their turns, holding scraps of paper scribbled with phone numbers. The process was often frustrating, as in addition to the usual difficulties of using satellite phones in mountainous areas (the calls rarely last more than a few minutes before the signal is lost), most of the Nepali phone numbers we were calling were not working, presumably because phone lines were damaged all over. When the calls went through, they were usually emotional. People cried for joy to hear that faraway relatives were OK. People cried in grief when relaying the news to relatives in Kathmandu that almost everyone in Langtang had died.

The first helicopter arrived in Kyanjin Gompa just a few hours after the avalanche. It was a private helicopter, called to rescue an Indian woman who’d been on a day hike when the earthquake hit. Her leg had been broken and her husband killed by rockfall. It was right for her to be one of the first evacuated, but unfortunately the helicopter took no one else. The second helicopter, also private, arrived on the morning of April 26. Aymeric, Pauline, and I, standing about a hundred meters away, expected injured people to be loaded up, but watched in disbelief as three uninjured tourists climbed aboard—with their luggage. The three had hardly gotten inside when the helicopter was swarmed by Nepali men wielding rocks and sticks. After some tense moments, the tourists climbed out, and the Nepali men started ferrying injured people onboard. It was one of the only times during the whole experience that I cried.

People huddle on the lower side of a boulder during an aftershock. (Photo: Colin Haley)

*

The Nepali Army soon assumed control of all the helicopters in Nepal, including privately owned ones, and took the class politics out of rescue operations. The army evacuated whoever was in need, Nepali or foreign, and charged no one.

By the afternoon of April 28, all of the injured had been evacuated from Kyanjin Gompa, and then Aymeric, Pauline, and Margeaux were a priority. The situation had been stressful enough for me—I can only imagine how it was to care for a small child amid the chaos. At 5:45 p.m., a helicopter was suddenly audible, and only a minute later we saw it coming in. Gualboo, who had been in contact with the Nepali Army, yelled to Aymeric and Pauline to run and get on. Although they had prepared, it was extremely last-minute, and they dropped everything to make it aboard, with Margeaux in their arms.

Pinju and I, along with three Japanese climbers and one Nepali man, boarded a helicopter on the morning of April 29. We flew to Dunche, the closest town of significant size, where the Nepali Army had set up a refugee camp. In the next couple hours, the army flew several more helicopter flights to and from the Langtang Valley, and evacuated, as far as I could tell, everyone who wanted to go. The road from Dunche toward Kathmandu had been destroyed by landslides, and many foreigners had already been waiting in Dunche for four days, hopeful of a helicopter ride to Kathmandu. Neither Pinju nor I wanted to sit and wait there. Fortunately, I ran into a Nepali man, Pratap, whom I’d befriended in Kyanjin Gompa. We had talked about hiking out together, and now he said he was walking toward Kathmandu and asked if we’d like to come. A few hours after landing in Dunche, we started walking south: Pinju, myself, Pratap, a Canadian named Jim Campbell (who was in Kyanjin Gompa during the avalanche, hiked to Langtang, and was evacuated from there), and about seven other Nepalis who lived in Kathmandu.

Oddly enough, the journey from Dunche to Kathmandu is my fondest memory from the trip. We hiked through mountainous villages in a rare moment when there were no cars on the road. Decades ago, these villages had been connected only by footpaths, and now walking between them felt like a glimpse of the past. Our group developed a camaraderie. We’d shared a very intense experience, and were happy to be heading home.

Aymeric Clouet and the author undertake a mission to trace and splice a damaged pipe, to restore water to the village. (Photo: Colin Haley)

Near the end of our hike to Kalikasthan, the road made a long switchback to lose elevation. We veered off and cut the switchback on a steep path that has probably been in use for hundreds of years. I don’t think anyone made a conscious decision, but we all started running down the trail, and when we arrived in Kalikasthan everyone was sweating, smiling, and complaining of sore legs. The next day our ragtag group from Kyanjin Gompa made it to Kathmandu, traveling in the back of a pickup truck and then a bus. Sitting in the back when the bus went over a big bump, I was thrown in the air, and felt a horrible crack in my neck when I crashed back down. For a stunned moment I thought my neck was broken. I soon realized that I could still move, but that the neck injury I’d sustained was clearly more serious than strained muscles.

Hiking from Dunche to Kalikasthan, we had seen many collapsed buildings, but the extent of the damage there and in Kathmandu was nothing compared to the Langtang Valley. In Kathmandu, I went to the US embassy and logged on to the internet. Surprisingly, I’d already been quoted in a few media pieces—words sourced from my sat-phone calls, it appeared. It was of course a “telephone game,” and the information was understandably inaccurate, but I was uncomfortable with accounts
claiming I’d stayed behind to help others; I had simply not wanted to occupy a helicopter seat before all the injured were evacuated.

After returning to the United States, I only got one X-ray, to rule out fractures in my neck. I probably should have done more to rehabilitate, but I had very basic health insurance and little money. Nearly seven years later, I still have lingering injuries in my neck and shoulder. A few weeks after the earthquake, back in Squamish, where I lived at the time, I was relaxing on the couch when I heard a rumbling noise and froze, my heart pounding and body wracked with adrenaline, certain I was in another earthquake. I was about to run out of the building when I realized the sound was only the kids in the neighboring apartment running down the stairs. The PTSD was to dissipate slowly.

Still, I didn’t suffer career-ending injuries, and I didn’t die. I didn’t lose my family and friends, or my home. I was lucky: that Aymeric and I descended early from skiing that day, saving us from being swallowed by massive avalanches; that I woke from my nap a few minutes before the earthquake struck and my sleeping bag was pounded by granite blocks; and that I survived being hurled by the pressure wave. I’m just one person, a survivor, who was witness to a disaster. The Langtang Valley was the worst-hit part of Nepal during the Gorkha earthquake, and the avalanche that obliterated Langtang village was the most destructive in Nepal. That single avalanche killed at least 243 people, mercifully most probably in a matter of seconds.

Originally from Seattle, Colin Haley is a professional alpine climber now based in Chamonix, France.