Decatur man was hiking
in the Himalayas last spring
when disaster struck.
Photo: From the terrace of a tea house near Gong Gang, Marty witnessed a rockslide, his first indication that a geologic event had occurred. Martin Emanuel
The air was clean, and the sky was clear when Martin Emanuel, 72, of Decatur left Kathmandu, Nepal, with a guide and a porter for a seven-week trek through the Himalayas on April 25.
Home to Mount Everest, our planet's highest peak, the Himalayas span 1,500 miles and define the border between India and China.
Marty and his crew headed northwest, deviating from his original itinerary, to the Tamang Heritage Trail, away from Langtang Village. A friend of the guide owned a tea house in the Tamang area, and Marty accepted the suggestion to go there instead.
Martin — Marty for short — had trekked in Nepal before with his wife, Anne, a retired law professor. This time, however, he was going by himself. The sculptor and former Atlanta College of Art faculty member had fallen in love with the country. He'd become enamored of its people and its culture even more than the magnificent mountains, although he was captivated by them, too.
"It's not about ‘conquering' a mountain for me," Marty said of his fascination with trekking the world's highest range. "It's about going to the place where the road ends."
For two days, Marty, dressed in long pants, T-shirt and ever-present ball cap, and his companions hiked the rocky terrain up into the mountains while the porter carried their gear.
After a great morning of trekking that first day, they stopped at a tea house near Gong Gang.
The tea house owners, like many Nepalese in the area, had cut an earthen terrace into the side of the steep mountain and built a small house of rock and wood that operated as a tea house, offering food and respite to weary trekkers.
While sitting on the terrace looking out over the Himalayas that Saturday, Marty ate dal bhat, a traditional lentil soup with rice and spinach, and watched the owners' two children play.
The sky was so clear, it sparkled.
"It was absolutely gorgeous," Marty said. "We'd had a wonderful morning, a wonderful lunch."
Marty couldn't believe his good fortune.
"Things couldn't have been better," he said.
That was when he heard a loud, low rumble. It was a noise he had never heard before.
Photo: Marty points to his location on the maps his family used to track his progress as he escaped the rockslides and aftershocks following the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. Hyosub Shin
Bad news spreads
That Saturday morning in Brooklyn, Marty's son Brooks, 39, put on a shirt Marty had given him and laced up his hiking boots. A hike would be a great way to relax before finals, he thought. Brooks was winding up his last semester of law classes at New York University. Only one last round of papers, one last set of finals and a bar exam stood between him and a job in Montgomery, Alabama.
He was about to leave his apartment when the phone rang.
It was his brother, Ben, 36, who lives in Atlanta with wife, Jess Sterling, and their 16-month-old son, Theo.
"Did you hear there's been an earthquake in Nepal?" he asked.
At 11:56 a.m. Nepal time (2 a.m. EST) a devastating earthquake had struck the country. The magnitude, depending on the method of measure, was 7.8 or 8.1. The 24-hour news channels were airing horrendous images of unfathomable destruction. More than 8,000 people were dead, and the toll was rising.
Marty had given Brooks his itinerary that indicated his father was near Langtang Village, which had virtually been wiped off the map.
Brooks never made it out the door for that hike. Instead he turned his apartment into command central, gathering information on the quake and sharing it with the family.
Brooks had Marty's itinerary, but Ben had a map of Marty's route. He snapped a photo of the map and sent it to Brooks. Over the phone, the brothers compared the itinerary with the map.
Marty could be within a few hours of the worst of it, they thought. They didn't realize he had changed his course.
It was time to call Anne and tell her what was happening. They worried how she would take it.
"She was amazing," Brooks said.
"I'm just an optimist, I guess," Anne said.
Brooks contacted the State Department to inform officials an American named Martin Emanuel was trekking outside Kathmandu, and he set up a Facebook page around 2 p.m.
By nightfall, there were 5,400 shares.
With each newscast, the reports worsened. The family knew they wouldn't hear from Marty anytime soon because he didn't have cellphone or internet access. They knew it could be days before they would receive news that he was OK. And they considered the possibility that because of his remote location, he may not even know the severity of the situation.
But the family took comfort in knowing that Marty is an experienced trekker. They believed in his ability to handle whatever might be thrown at him.
Photo: Along his way up the mountain, Marty spotted a man wearing prayer beads and spinning a traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel. Martin Emanuel
Rumbles and rockslides
From the tea house terrace, Marty looked out across the river and saw a cleft in the side the mountain beside him. It looked like a giant spoon had scooped out thousands of rocks.
"A huge part of that mountain just slid into the river," Marty said. "Then we looked down and saw the break in the earth."
Marty took hold of one child, the mother grabbed the other, and they backed away from the terrace.
There was no panic, no screaming, not even a word spoken. But the expressions on the family's faces telegraphed fear.
Tears began to stream down the mother's face.
Because of the shifting tectonic plates beneath the Himalayas, earthquakes are not uncommon in Nepal. Thinking the quake was local, Marty and his party continued their hike upward into the mountains.
Along the way, they passed people gathered outside their homes, some huddled together under tarps. Quiet lay over the land as people listened for distant sounds. They passed a man with a prayer wheel and prayer beads.
About 4 p.m., they stopped in Tataponi, a village known for its healing hot springs. But that day the springs were dry. Concrete pools built to capture the water were empty. Villagers were confused and worried. While Marty and his party discussed what to do next, they heard a loud bang.
"It was very dramatic, very harsh," Marty said.
The villagers immediately began grabbing articles of clothing and bedding and fled down the mountain en masse while Marty and his group watched. Shaken, they weren't sure what to do. Eventually they were joined by a French couple and their guide, who had been hiking in the area. They all decided to take refuge in an abandoned lodge, but a second aftershock sent them racing outside.
"It was about eight o'clock. We actually felt the building lift off the ground and come back down," said Marty.
The six spent the night under tarps. The next morning, the couple from France decided to head down the mountain, but before they left, Marty gave the woman his wife's email address.
"If you make it down, please let Anne know I am OK," Marty said.
Photo: Displaced by earthquakes, Nepalese villagers take refuge in tarp-covered shelters. Martin Emanuel
"I never imagined how happy I could be getting a message from a French woman saying she'd been with my husband the night before," Anne said about receiving that email the next day.
She shared the news with her sons, but Brooks was dubious.
"She didn't say his name, give any details," he said. "With all the news out there and the Facebook page, I figured it could have been a mistake."
Anne and Ben were comforted, however.
"I knew he was alive, that he was OK," said Anne.
The wait continued. It was especially hard on Brooks, who was nearly 900 miles away from his family in Atlanta. But he was not without support.
Word spread among his classmates at NYU law school. He began receiving emails from professors, telling him that he could postpone his exams. Classmates signed up to bring food.
"People would say, ‘What can I do? What can I bring?' And it was funny, because all I wanted was just someone to come and sit with me. So that's what people did."
An NYU student from Nepal offered to meet with him to help pinpoint his father's location and translate any incoming messages he might receive.
"You really learn a lot about how a community comes together through social media," Brooks said. "I'm not especially into social media, but it was amazing how many people got in touch and wanted to help, and how we met people across the world."
Most touching were messages from people in Nepal.
"Here were some people who didn't even know where their loved ones were, and they were taking the time to message me and give me information and updates," said Brooks. "Their country had been devastated, and they still cared about what was going on with my Dad."
Brooks said he almost felt guilty diverting attention from the bigger rescue effort.
"I mean, it's my Dad, and I want to be able to do everything I can to get my Dad back, but I almost felt selfish. This region was hit really hard."
But he and his family came to understand that anything they could learn to help Marty — wherever he was — could also help other people in his area.
Photo: Marty and his party had to cross a rockslide to reach the suspension bridge to safety. Martin Emanuel
On Tuesday, Marty and his group climbed down a mountain, toward a river. The sights were gorgeous, but troubling.
"We noticed the foliage was covered in dust," Marty said.
As they continued, they approached a rockslide about as wide as a football field not far above a swiftly flowing river. On the other side was a steel cable bridge spanning the Bhote Koshi River. If they could make it to the bridge, maybe they could escape imminent danger.
"We stopped to assess," Marty said. "We wanted to be certain the rockslide was over."
They decided to chance it.
Each step had to be balanced, steady and slow. Marty and the guide wore backpacks. The porter carried the gear for all three men on his back. Every foot placement had to be calculated with load and wind in mind; the possible swivel and pivot of each rock anticipated.
"It was slow-going," Marty said.
Step by careful step, arms held out from their sides for balance, they walked in silence.
After about 30 minutes, they reached the safety of the bridge and breathed heavy sighs of relief.
They made it.
Photo: Displaced by earthquakes, Nepalese villagers take refuge in tarp-covered shelters. Martin Emanuel
Tuesday brought fatigue for Anne and her sons.
"It was a difficult week," said Ben. "It was more the not knowing than anything. And we considered the possibility that we knew more about the situation than Dad did."
All the family could do was wait.
Friends were still bringing food to Brooks. He was updating Facebook, checking with the State Department. Anne was trying to preserve energy, not taking phone calls, trying to keep the line clear in case Marty called.
The family had downplayed the significance of the quake for Marty's 99-year-old mother, Evelyn Emanuel, who lives in a condo a floor below Anne and Marty.
On Wednesday, Anne received another email from the French woman. She and her beau had made it back down the mountain to a checkpoint. She included a photo of Marty.
It was a huge relief.
Anne and the boys stayed tuned to their TVs and computers to hear minute-by-minute updates on the rescue efforts, which seemed painstakingly slow.
They had heard about an army base near where Marty was trekking that was being used to shelter those whose homes had been destroyed. Anne figured her resourceful husband would be able to make it there. She didn't know that the base was no more than a checkpoint, a makeshift village of tarps housing native Nepalese and tourists hoping to get airlifted out.
"I tend to be an optimist," she said. "I try not to buy trouble."
Photo: A boulder blocks the road following the earthquake in Nepal. Martin Emanuel
A treacherous crossing
With the rockslide behind them, Marty and his group now faced crossing the single-file suspension bridge.
It didn't look as secure as they had hoped.
"There was no handrail about halfway across," said Marty. There was no protection between a slip of the foot and the river below. They had to balance every step.
Once his guide reached the part of the bridge that had railings, he began to run. Marty and the porter did, too.
Safely on the other side, they took what felt like their first breaths since stepping on the bridge.
"We were jubilant," Marty said.
Onward they trekked into the next village where they began to hear reports of casualties. They heard another rumble and looked across the river. It was another landslide, right where Marty and his party had been just before crossing the bridge.
News about the magnitude of devastation had finally reached the heights of the Himalayas. Villages were deserted, trails blocked. There was no place to eat or sleep. The trio decided there was nothing to do but head back to Kathmandu.
Marty arrived at the checkpoint in Dunche on Wednesday and sent a text to Anne.
Photo: During Marty’s ordeal, Brooks (left) was in Brooklyn and Anne was in Atlanta, along with younger son, Ben, who also lives in Atlanta with his wife, Jess Sterling, and their child, Theo. The family was in constant communication until Marty was home. Hyosub Shin
Hi I'm fine!!! Will get back to you in a few days. LOVE, Marty.
"So I get a text from him," Anne recalled, laughing, "and it says ‘I'm OK.' It doesn't say where he is, where he's going, anything."
Nevertheless, relief washed over her. Brooks and Ben were elated.
Working with Marty's trip insurance company, Anne put Marty in touch with a company agent to arrange a flight out of Kathmandu.
Marty's initial response was, No, thanks.
He thought he might stay in Nepal a while, to help out, do something, anything.
"I wasn't ready to leave," Marty said.
But his family prevailed. They wanted him home.
Marty had an hour to get to the airport, and his guide's family insisted on seeing him off. Eight people piled into a compact car and took off on deserted roads to the airport in Kathmandu.
"Every time we hit a bump, I thought we'd break an axle," Marty said.
He made it to the airport just in time to catch a chartered flight to Delhi.
Still, he hated to leave. He loved this stunningly beautiful country. He didn't yet know how many people had lost their lives, but he knew life would never be the same for the survivors.
Eager to lay eyes on his father after his ordeal, Brooks took a cab to Newark to surprise Marty when he arrived in the United States en route to Atlanta. It was at 5 a.m. May 3. With airport security and access restrictions, he wasn't sure he would actually get to see Marty, but he was sure going to try.
"I tried to text him to tell him I'd meet him in Newark, but he didn't get it," Brooks said.
Brooks stood behind a security rope in a corridor, hoping he could catch Marty's attention as he disembarked and made his way to his connecting flight.
"There were a lot of people coming through, but I couldn't see him," Brooks said. Then, from about 100 feet away, he spied his dad, looking spaced-out and tired.
"He's coming, and I see him, but he's got no idea I'm there," Brooks said. "He's not looking. I'm trying to get his attention, but he's just looking straight ahead."
Brooks started waving. Marty kept walking. In a swarm of people, he was about to turn a corner and disappear down another corridor.
Desperately, Brooks tried to get the attention of someone, anyone close to Marty.
"There's this guy behind him, and I motion for him to tell Dad to look," Brooks said.
Marty looked up.
"I've never seen anyone with a more confused look on his face," Brooks said, laughing. The exhausted father and son walked toward each other and embraced.
They had an hour together before Marty's connecting flight departed. At one point, Marty felt something rumble — maybe a jet taking off — and he jumped. He realized the trek had made a lasting impression, even if he had remained calm throughout all the challenges he encountered.
Marty was greeted at the Atlanta airport by a family welcoming. The first thing he saw was baby Theo holding a sign that read "Welcome Home, Hoolie," his name for his grandfather.
Since his return, Marty has become involved in efforts to help the tens of thousands of people who were left homeless by the quake. In addition to his own grassroots effort to send tarps to Nepal, he's working with the Mundito Foundation, a Decatur-based nonprofit that's raising money to build a school.
And while the country needs tourism dollars to survive, Marty won't be returning anytime soon. Trekking in Nepal is more dangerous now than when he was there — even during the earthquake —because of the rains and mudslides, he said.
"There's no way out of those," said Marty. "They're like a river of concrete."
People often ask Marty if his experience in Nepal was surreal. His answer is no, it was very real.
"Nepal is very poor, and it has very little infrastructure. The terrain is tough, the geography — it's all tough," Marty said. "There's a common misperception that there'll be flocks of helicopters like birds" bringing aid. But that wasn't true, he said, especially for villagers in the countryside.
They had to walk to get help. Marty knew; he had shared the journey with many on their way out of the mountains.
So while his experience in Nepal did not seem surreal, he finally experienced something that did in Delhi.
"The luxury hotel. That seemed surreal," he said. "In the midst of all that poverty, it was very surreal."
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
When the earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, I, like many of us, was horrified by the images of destruction in the news. When my Facebook feed filled with posts about a Decatur family trying to make contact with their 71-year-old husband and father who was hiking near the epicenter, it felt more personal. Like many in the metro area, I followed the story to its happy conclusion. Here, for the first time, is the story of his harrowing experience.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys Editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Virginia Lynne Anderson has covered courts, sports, business, politics and medicine over her 25 years in journalism. She was the lead reporter on a six-part series on a thoroughbred breeding farm that went public and, later, bankrupt. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Anderson is a native of Athens and a University of Georgia graduate.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
HOW TO HELP
Mundito Foundation is a Decatur-based nonprofit that seeks to change the lives of individuals who live without adequate resources, public health care or education. Building a new school in Nepal is one of their many projects. For information, go to www.mundito.org