Jun 1, 2015

The Nepali Times Article: When The Mountain Moved

Copy of the article which appeared in The Nepali Times, 1 June, 2015

Lhakpa Wongchu Sherpa and I set out from Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp on 25 April in heavy snow, limited visibility, and a gentle breeze that left the long string of prayer flags blowing gently in the wind. Despite the weather, we felt warm and safe in the mountains as we began to make our way up to Depot Camp at 5800m.
It was a long, slow plod over a maze of rock, mud and snow with limited opportunity to appreciate the mighty mountain vistas hidden in the mist. We’d only been teased with fleeting views of this 8025m summit, the 14th highest in the world.
I had been planning this ‘Himalayan Double Header’ expedition for six months: climb Shishapangma from early April to mid-May and then travel overland to climb the 6th highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu for a mid-late May summit. If successful I would be the first woman in 23 years to have done so and the 2nd woman ever.
When we reached the Depot Camp, I sat reflecting on my passion for mountaineering. Mountains provide context, they are humbling and make you realise there are forces in nature that will never be harnessed, that won't bend to our schedules. Rather, we bend to theirs. Coming from a consulting job that demands structure and planning, I find this lack of ‘control’ in mountaineering an opportunity for reckless mental and physical creativity liberating.
I was tired but content. I took a sip of water and looked down at my watch. 11.55am. My ears picked up a faint, deep rumbling sound that broke the silence and sparked an almost animal-like instinct. Something wasn't right. The rumbling continued, louder and louder.
My initial instinct was that this was an avalanche, but where was it coming from? We were literally surrounded by mountains on all sides and had zero visibility. The ground then began to shift back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement. Earthquake.
Lhakpa shouted over the roaring sound of falling rock and ice. Through the mist we tried desperately to establish the direction from which the avalanche would come. We huddled next to a rock, our eyes darting in all directions, hugging each other, terrified, praying that the rumbling and shaking would stop.
In what felt like an eternity, the seismic shifts beneath our feet finally subsided. As we fearfully made our way back to Advanced Base Camp, we noticed the impact of the quake and the avalanches of snow and rock it had released. There were fresh cracks in the ground, loose boulders dislodged, cracked ice in the lakes. Almost eerily, the snow stopped and the cloud lifted, and rather than a scene of destruction and devastation, the mountain vista stretched out before us seemed almost beautiful, natural and strangely rebalanced.
Back in Advanced Base Camp we learned that the earthquake had been widespread but were limited to the details by an almost complete lack of communications. It wasn’t until our evacuation from the mountain and arrival back in Kathmandu on 5 May that I began to realise the full scale of the disaster. 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.
My first day back in Kathmandu was an emotional roller coaster walking through the rubble and dust of the once familiar streets and past ancient monuments. Concerned for my wellbeing, family and friends demanded I return home. But going home would mean turning my back on a country that had been so incredibly generous to me since my first visit 15 years ago. I knew I had skills that would be helpful in mobilising the aid required to provide relief and support the rebuilding of the country. I decided to stay and help my friend Tashi Sherpa of Sherpa Adventure Gear and his team raise funds for earthquake relief through the Sherpa Adventure Gear Paldorje Education Foundation and provide assistance with the distribution of aid to those most in need.
On 12 May I was in Kathmandu assisting with this relief work when the second earthquake struck with a magnitude 7.3. Being on a mountain for the first earthquake and in a city for the second was equally terrifying. This time the danger wasn’t avalanches coming down, it was the buildings.
On the ground relief work has opened my eyes to the scale of the disaster: many villages still look like 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.
I’ve since travelled and distributed relief to areas that I didn’t even know existed, unpronounceable place names on a map are now personified by images of rubble and the outstretched arms of the vulnerable. This week, we distributed relief to a community in Dolakha. Last week I travelled to the Khumbu to deliver financial aid to 234 families in Thame, and delivered aid to survivors of the Langtang tragedy now living at the Yellow Gompa in Kathmandu. Over the past month we’ve distributed over a thousand tents and tarps, thousands of kg of food, and provided extensive financial support. I’ve seen more of the country and met more incredibly inspiring, resilient people than I’ve ever thought possible.
Amid the long, deep cracks and between the rubble, I’ve also found something to be positive about for the longer-term future of the country. This is the initiative and energy of Nepal’s youth which is rapidly gaining momentum: a groundswell which will bring greater and longer-lasting change than the devastating earthquakes.
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. 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.


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