May 30, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE: Sometimes I forget that I came to Nepal in April to climb mountains.

Sometimes I forget that I came to Nepal in early April to climb mountains. 

At 11.55am on April 25th, 2015 I was on the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck. 

The weather conditions that morning offered zero visibility so when the earth began to move and the ice, rock, and snow tumbled down with a vengeance we were left paralysed with fear and confusion. Completely disoriented by our surroundings my Sherpa guide Lhakpa and I didn’t know where to run for safety – we were literally surrounded on all sides by mountains. It was like we had 4 loaded guns pointed at us as we tried to guess which would ‘shoot first’.  Fortunately none did.  I can say with a strong degree of confidence that it was the most terrifying few minutes of my life

On May 12th I was in Kathmandu assisting with relief work when the second earthquake struck. I escaped unscathed but sadly, in old and poorly constructed buildings around the across the city and around the country, many lost their lives. 

The contrasting experiences of being on a mountain for the first earthquake and in a city for the second have been equally terrifying. In the city it wasn’t avalanches coming down that frightened me, it was Kathmandu’s old rickety buildings. 

Still today, 1-month on, I feel a perpetual ‘earthquake hangover’ and jump at the slightest ‘bumps,’ both real and imagined - apparently a common inner ear reaction to the aftershocks - some 260 since April 25th. On more than one occasion I’ve gripped the table, frantically seeking confirmation, ‘Did you feel that?’

I’ve been asked by many people how I feel about what happened… Am I sad not to have continued with my expedition? What I have I learned from my experiences over the past two months? How have I made an unfortunate situation a positive one? What have I learned through the relief work that I’ve been involved in?

I could write a book about everything that I’ve felt, seen and heard. To keep it simple I’ve found three simple words which best sum it up Resilience. Resourcefulness. Respect.

The past two months have taught me about resilience.

It wasn’t until our evacuation from Shishapangma and arrival back in Kathmandu that I began to realise the full scale of the disaster – something we’d been protected from in our lofty Himalayan heights. I’d only heard about the tragedy on Everest but hadn’t prepared myself for the bigger picture.  It was overwhelming, at a scale unprecedented to my senses and any previous frames of reference. The earthquake’s devastating impact had killed over 8600 people, injured over 18,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless and sleeping under flimsy tarps in the streets. 

One month on and many of the villages I’ve visited still have the look of a war zone. Buildings tilt at vertiginous angles, a door or window visible through a twisted mess of corrugated iron. Brown dust drifts over the disintegrated remains of once proud homes. 

But between the rubble and cracks in the walls, hope shines through. I’ve been astounded by the resilience with which Nepalis have been tackling the most adverse of conditions in not only a stoic, but also a heroic, manner. This applies not only to the villagers in the most-affected districts, but the waves of Nepalis selflessly volunteering to help themselves and their fellow citizens in this time of national need. As swathes of the country have become a patchwork landscape of tents, Nepalis stand resiliently strong.

I can’t help but think back to an elderly woman we met in Thamo, just outside of Namche Bazar in the Everest region. She was praying on the trail on our way into the village – her face weather beaten, her eyes tired but strong. She led us to what was left of her home where she had been making lunch when the earthquake struck. She had run out of the house as the building crumbled to its foundations around her. 

As if that wasn’t enough, the pile of rubble caught on fire and the fire consumed all that was left. 

When we visited, all that remained what a blackened, charred heap of rocks. Beside it, two simple bright orange tarps that had been converted into a tent, a  dented kettle, a mud-stained and charred duvet, a blackned photo of a religious figure and an emancipated and sickly looking cat.

We were invited into her tarped ‘home’ where we met her elderly husband who was praying in front of a small alter set up against a pile of rocks. The woman offered me a cup of hot milky tea – I knew how scarce resources must have been for the couple and how proud she was to still be able to offer me a drink. I felt humbled. A package of dry biscuits then appeared… I think that ‘tea’ and ‘biscuit’ were among the only two English words she spoke. 

The couple never asked for money, they never complained, they only told their story and spoke of their plans in an uncertain future. They would take what they had and rebuild, slowly but surely, brick by brick. 

We offered them a meagre contribution of financial relief which they accepted with tears streaming down their cheeks. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the looks of quiet gratitude on their faces.

The past two months have taught me about resourcefulness.

I could list numerous examples of resourcefulness. From the grassroots movements of Nepali and international volunteers who travel to far-flung villages to distribute food to the individuals and communities who worked together to provide emotional and physical support during the grim and difficult task of searching the rubble for survivors to the ongoing staffing of 24-hour medical posts operated by local and international volunteers... ‘Community Kitchens’ have been established in the tent cities whilst relief-and-rebuilding initiatives, school rebuilding projects are all underway.

Many of these initiatives started within hours of the first earthquake and are ongoing to this day.

Since my return I’ve been fortunate enough to stay with my friends, Tashi and his wife Tseten Sherpa at Sherpa Adventure Gear, a global outdoor clothing company headquartered in Kathmandu and with retail outlets around the world. Tashi is CEO. The company’s logo is the ‘the Endless Knot’ – meaning, ‘What goes around, comes around.’ The auspicious symbol represents the unity of thought and action, words and deeds, wisdom and compassion.

Within 24 hours of the first earthquake Tashi and Tseten had assembled a team of volunteers (employees who themselves had been directly impacted by the earthquake) who worked around the clock using the sewing machines and fabrics once reserved for waterproof and fleece jackets and jumpers to produce and distribute hundreds of blankets, tents and tarps to those most in need. 

Despite international and local business pressures, clothing production and distribution deadlines were put on hold as the factory became a recognised as a leading example of relief coordination and activity. 

Through the Paldorje Education Fund, an existing Sherpa Adventure Gear fund providing scholarships to underprivileged children, Tashi immediately established an Earthquake Relief Fund – which has raised nearly $150,000. The money, from generous donors around the world, has provided relief in the form of tents, tarps, medical supplies, food, and financial assistance to hundreds of families most in need. 

The resourcefulness of the company, its selfless leadership and the compassion shown to the people of Nepal has become an example for others – and has provided a personal example to me, demonstrating a resourcefulness that I’ll remember long after these tectonic tremors have subsided...

The past two months have taught me about respect for the environment.

I majored in Geography in university. I knew that nature could be as ruthless and powerful as it was beautiful. Through mountaineering I've seen the beauty firsthand. Through mountaineering I've now also seen and felt the other extreme. Never in my life have I felt as humbled by nature as when the ground began to rumble below my feet on April 25th. I was convinced that the avalanches rolling down the face of Shishapangma would be my end. Subsequently, I’ve continued to feel completely helpless with each of the aftershocks – their unpredictability, their randomness, their silent, omnipresent threat. 

In the village of Langtang, one of Nepal’s most popular trekking destinations, moments after the earthquake struck a massive expanse of ice fell thousands of feet, creating an avalanche that obliterated a community where 400 people lived and where nearly 100 foreign trekkers are believed to have been. In a matter of seconds the entire village was wiped off of the face of the earth, buried under 50 – 80 feet of rock, snow and ice. Only 180 villagers survived and many of the trekkers lost their lives. Landslides triggered by subsequent aftershocks continue to make the area unstable and unsafe and the search for bodies have had to be put on hold. Nature's ruthless force.

Last week, here in Kathmandu, the ‘pre-curser’ to the monsoon rains began. It was only 3pm but the sky was completely black. As the sky began to rumble from above, the unsettled earth began to rumble from below. Once again I felt incredibly helpless and truly put in my place unsure where to go to ‘hide’ from the powerful forces that nature was once again about to unleash up on us. It came in the form of gale-force winds, claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, hail, and torrential rain.

But then in contrast to the chaos I can’t help but think back to those early weeks of April on Shishapangma. As Lhakpa and I fearfully made our way back to Advanced Base Camp, we couldn’t help but notice the impact of the quake and the avalanches of snow and rock it had released - fresh cracks in the ground, loose boulders dislodged, cracked ice in the lakes. Almost eerily, the snow had stopped and the cloud had lifted, burnt off by a blazing Himalayan sun. Visibility was restored and rather than reveal a scene of destruction and devastation, the mountain vista stretched out before us seemed almost… beautiful, natural and strangely rebalanced. 

As quickly nature destroys, it also brings peace and reveals beauty.

Closing thoughts…
Sometimes I forget that I originally came to Nepal in early April to climb mountains. Little did I know that when I arrived that these mountains would be more proverbial than real. As I prepare to head back to the UK tomorrow, I can’t help but reflect that the people that I've met, the things I've seen and the lessons learned have been more impactful than any summit I've ever attempted, stood on or dreamed about. And for those lessons I’ll be forever grateful. 


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