It was time for morning prayers at the Chabad Jewish center in Pokhara, Nepal, last Thursday. The rabbi had rented space for the festive Simhat Torah services in a small hotel in the very serene North Lakeside area of the city.
But it was not a peaceful morning. Far from it.
At 11 a.m., a group of female Israeli backpackers marched into the hotel lobby, bags around their backs and chests, poles in their hands. They kept it together, for a few last moments. But as soon as they spotted their friends, the dams holding back their fear and tension gave way and they immediately collapsed in tears on the floor of the Nepali guest house.
The group had just returned from Annapurna, survivors of the deadly snowstorm and avalanche.
Dozens of people were killed in this tragic incident in the Himalayan range last Tuesday on one of Nepal’s most popular treks. Over 200 were rescued, and several are still missing.
‘Hollywood horror movie come to life’
Many groups of hikers depart for the famous Around Circuit trek daily, some in groups, some using local porter-guides, and others on their own. The trek can take several weeks, depending on the hikers’ pace, and passes through several villages and camps that serve as rest areas on the way. It is the primary draw for many backpackers in Nepal.
The Israeli survivors who came to the Jewish center that Thursday described their ordeal as “a Hollywood horror movie coming to life.”
In all, four of their friends died in the storm.
“There were a few snowflakes early in the morning that Tuesday when we all left the high camp for the trek. It was so nice, we all took selfies with the snow,” said Dana Dayan, a psychology student in her twenties. Little did she know at that moment how tragically the day would unfold.
“I arrived at the pass at the 5,400-meter peak before noon; that’s when the serious blizzard began,” she said.
“I was not sure what to do. My friends wanted to stop and wait at the local tea house on top, but my guide insisted we must make our way down as soon as possible. And so I chose to listen and leave with him, which ultimately saved our lives.”
Dayan kept walking, despite the worsening weather conditions. Along with her porter, she marched for 13 hours in fast-growing drifts. The two could barely see a thing in the blizzard, and at one point she no longer felt her hands and feet. Eventually, in the night, they found their way to the nearest village and took cover.
Some of Dayan’s friends, who remained in the small tea house at the peak, were not as lucky.
Around 2 p.m., the tea house owner decided to evacuate his property and escape. Travelers recalled he told everyone to leave and promised he’d guide them down in the unbearable conditions. Of the 30-odd people followed him out, only a handful reportedly arrived safely at the nearest village many hours later. Marching for so long in the cold and dark, with fog and snow clouding the path, many lost their way, collapsed with exhaustion and froze to death.
“We were lucky that we did not stay in the tea house with all the other travelers and follow its owner,” said Dafna Frumer, who arrived in Nepal on her honeymoon with her husband, Michael, and escaped the fatal storm as well. The two marched without a guide but did not hesitate nor stop along the way for a moment. They recalled seeing bodies strewn along the path.
‘He had ice in his hair’
The local Nepali porters were themselves in survival mode. Some were separated from their clients, who hired them to lead them through the trek and carry their belongings. Others took off, looking to save their own lives. There were a few who remained loyal to the backpackers who hired them, weighed down by their gear every step of the way.
“I saw one Nepali porter who could barely move due to the large travel bag he was carrying,” recalled Michael Frumer.
“He had ice in his hair, he was freezing. I approached him, removed the backpack from his back, and tossed it aside in the snow. I gave him my hat and pushed him forward.”
This porter survived.
“Finally we arrived at Muktinath village. The next day, the Nepali military began with rescue efforts and brought in injured travelers,” he said.
The couple said that the army was not properly equipped with warm clothing and treatment for the injured, who mostly suffered from hypothermia and frostbite.
“Along with some other Israelis, we took off our clothes, placed them on the survivors and helped warm them up,” they said.
The avalanche was apparently unexpected — many Nepalis said they hadn’t encountered such a storm in decades. Rescue efforts have officially been suspended, but many hikers are still stranded.
“More than 100 people are still stuck in the villages; they are okay but they cannot make contact because there is no reception. When the snow level will go down they will come back,” said Ghan Shyam Adhikari, the manager of Swissa company, which organizes treks and tours to Annapurna.
Many of the injured who were rescued were rushed by air to Kathmandu. Those who survived and required no immediate medical treatment made their way independently to the nearest big city, Pokhara, a few hours’ drive away.
For the Israeli survivors, the Chabad Jewish Center in the city was a home away from home, a place they knew their friends would turn to, a place they were certain would provide a warm meal and a hug.
Indeed, names were called in the center, lists were made: who showed up, who disappeared, who was lost along the way, who was still missing.
After lunch, the rabbi passed by each one of the survivors in the group and helped them chant the Hagomel blessing, which is traditionally recited by Jews who escape mortal danger.
For the survivors, it was a bittersweet blessing, filled with conflicting emotions: gratitude, certainly, but also guilt over the friends they left behind.