Alpenglow Doctor’s Account of the Earthquake and What’s to Come
29th April 2015
Everest Base Camp North Side.
This is going to be a difficult blog to write. Expressing the events of the last few days in a way which does justice to the magnitude of the tragedy that has hit Nepal whilst also sharing our own journey, our experiences and our emotional responses is not an easy task.
On the 22nd of April we left Kathmandu and flew to Lhasa. Just a short flight that nonetheless managed to offer some spectacular views of Mt Everest, Lhotse and Makalu with their three summits just poking out above the thick, high cloud. When you fly past the very top of a mountain in a commercial aircraft and the mountain seems to be just below the altitude at which the airplane is cruising, it is unfathomable that a human being could climb to that summit on his or her own two feet. It adds another perspective, another layer of magnitude, a greater understanding of the enormity of mother nature and of the vulnerability of humans, and, in the light of current events, the human race.
The following two days offered a peep into what remains of Tibetan culture. We visited The Potala Palace, a huge edification in the centre of Lhasa, augmented to its current enormous size under the reign of the 5th Dali Lama, The Johkang Monastery in Shigatse, home to the Panchen dynasty of Lamas and still home to some 800 tibetan monks today. We also had the pleasure of experiencing the idiosyncrasies of Chinese traffic rules which only allowed us to drive at a painstakingly slow pace of 40km/h for the 200kms that separated us from Base Camp. Plenty of time to take in the latest road reparation techniques (tar patching from a teapot) and the unique scenery of the Tibetan plateau with it’s striking, barren, beauty represented in shades of only three colours: brown, blue and white.
Arrival at base camp was postponed by one night due to bad weather; a night which we spent in the town of Tingri. Tingri is a roadside town with a dozen ramshackle buildings lining the side of the road. There are stray dogs and Tibetan style pimped up motorcycles, shops selling everything from dried sheep carcasses to gum boots, restaurants offering Chinese cuisine and wifi, and solar powered street lamps. After checking out every option in every shop, but not without some hard bargaining, we were at least able to purchase the mirrors we had been commissioned to buy by our staff at base camp.
The next day the final three hours of the drive to base camp proceeded uneventfully on the only section of road that has yet to be paved. We got there in good time, happy and excited, delighted to see our Sherpa team and nepali cook staff and the great job they had done of setting up camp for us. We had about two hours of happy time before the earth moved.
I have never experienced an earthquake of this magnitude before. I was actually on Manaslu a few years ago when a small earthquake shook Nepal and caused some structural damage and a (surprisingly small) number of casualties: but I didn’t feel it so much and I don’t remember it that well, and it certainly did not leave a lasting emotional impression.
On the 25th of April 2015, the Alpenglow 2015 Everest team was happily sitting in the dining tent finishing up lunch with excited chatter about the plan for the coming days. Our Sirdar had just told us that the ropes had been fixed to 8300m that day…so we felt like we had a lot to celebrate!! It was early in the season, the route was in stellar condition, and the ropes were in as high as camp 4. We were happy… until the earth moved. I suddenly felt quite strange. I felt like everything was moving around me and I wondered if I was about to faint, maybe I had AMS? then the sensation got stronger, and the others started looking up with disconcerted expressions. Within seconds we had all jumped up and run outside where we met our sherpa and kitchen staff with similar uncertainty and fear in their eyes. I swear I literally saw the ground ripple…waves in the solid earth beneath my feet. It is the most unnatural disconcerting feeling I have ever experienced. Physiologically wrong…my brain trying to interpret the motion without realising that it’s point of reference for stability was in fact, what was moving. At the same time we were all trying to assess imminent danger from rockfall off the slopes above us. We moved away from the potentially threatening slopes, although the dislodged rocks were well away from us and never came close. The rippling, undulating ground did not recover its motionless state for minutes. Estimates of time are always pretty risky when describing situations like this, but we have discussed the events of that day many times since, and we all concur that that first tremor lasted somewhere between 2-3 minutes….which was a LONG, SCARY time.
Although, like I said, I am no seismology expert, something inside me made want to immediately message my family and friends to say that there had been a “big” earthquake but that we were ok. Adrian encouraged the whole team to do the same. At that time we had absolutely NO idea of the magnitude of destruction that the earthquake had caused, but I suppose I knew that if the ground had wobbled like jelly for three minutes under my feet, there was no way that something somewhere hadn’t fallen down, nor was this likely to go un-noticed. The next hours were peppered with further hiccuping and juddering of the earth beneath our feet. Sometimes, short sharp jerky movements, other times, subtle waves and ripples: all equally discomforting.
Thereafter, the magnitude of the devastation began to unfold. Our first thoughts went to the other side of the mountain and base camp on the south side, Phortse in the Khumbu Valley where all of our Sherpa team are from and where their wives and families were. So near yet so far. I suppose we all sort of expected there to have been some damage on that side…the teetering towers of the ice-fall, the sickening serac of the West Shoulder, some of the older more fragile buildings of the towns in the Khumbu…but the scale of what was going on was unfathomable. We found the duffel bag with the radio in it and quickly set up our base station to listen to the radio communications on the south side. It rapidly became obvious that a horrific tragedy was unfolding.
Perseverance and patience allowed our full Sherpa team and Nepali cooks to ascertain that their family members were safe, and that their houses were either moderately or severely damaged. We tried fruitlessly to contact teams in ABC on this side by radio, to ascertain whether there had been any injured up there and whether they needed any support.
Then the media reports started filtering through, and the nauseating realisation of the devastation throughout Nepal occupied thoughts and conversations across camp. That probably brings us to around about the time at which you and the rest of the world was hearing that an earthquake of a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale had flattened huge parts of Kathmandu and the surrounding areas.
The days since the tragedy have been strangely surreal. We are undoubtedly in a bit of a bubble here. We have good internet access and so we are able to read the international news and contact friends and family all over the world, but we are not subject to the unfiltered barrage of images and reportage that is the norm at home. We have followed the steadily rising death toll in Kathmandu with horror; and listened on the radio as the tragic events on the south side of Everest unfolded with the unsettling realisation that this community had once again witnessed more loss of life.
Hopes of continuing the climb, gradually morphed into a strange emotional limbo of conflicting desires and the realisation that extraneous forces would probably call the last shot. The desire to help, the realisation that from here we could do nothing. The desire to climb, the realisation that, once again, the stars were not aligned correctly for this to happen. We had a long and fruitful conversation with our Sherpa team to try and ascertain if they wanted to stay and climb or go home and their response was yet again humbling. Unanimous in their wish to do what they deemed to be the best thing, they replied “we are climbers, we love to climb, if the CTMA keeps the mountain open and other teams also stay, we want to stay and climb.”
The CTMA has officially announced that the climbing season of all 8000m peaks in Tibet has been cancelled. Thoughts and energy now shift to organising the not so straight forward exit from China where red tape and bureaucracy could probably make a pile bigger than Everest itself. At the moment we have got as far as being confirmed transport to leave base camp on the 1st of May. We hope our team members will be on their way home a few days after that.
Hearts are heavy with all the tragedy, with all the loss, and with broken dreams, but I have to say that the Alpenglow Expeditions Everest team this year has shown an unimaginable level of comprehension, patience, and empathy along with an ability to keep smiling in the face of adversity that has been a pleasure to be a part of. A unique team of climbers, all of whom were on the South Side of Everest last year and had their expeditions cancelled after the avalanche in the ice fall; some of whom had even been on Everest in 2012 and also been forced to leave without setting foot on the mountain but all of whom have demonstrated a phenomenal ability to remain positive. Working with this team has been a pleasure and they deserve only the best of luck in their future endeavours.
As for the Alpenglow team, Adrian, Brian and myself are reaching out to all of our contacts to see if there is any way in which we can be put to good use somewhere in Nepal. Between us we have an intimate knowledge of Nepal, a unique skill set, food, medications, solar power, water sterilisation kits, tents and many of the things that could help some of those rural areas that have been so badly affected. Yet we are struggling to find a way to get to where we can be of use, and the last thing we want to do is divert resources from the dire needs of those affected by the earthquake. Kathmandu is close to collapsing with the influx of international aid workers and volunteers. There is not enough water, food, shelter or medication for the tens of thousands of people whose houses have been destroyed, let alone those arriving to help. Big aid organisations with experience in the management of natural disasters are in situ and trying to mount a structured response to the overwhelming needs of a destroyed city and its decimated, injured and sick population; but finding a way to put ourselves in a position where we can help is proving very difficult. It may be that right now the best thing we can do is to leave precipitously and formulate a plan to offer aid and support in months to come. In the longer term, the best thing that anyone can do is to come back to Nepal, to go trekking, to go climbing, to bring money into a broken country and allow it to rebuild the tourist industry that Nepal desperately needs in order to heal the sick and to rebuild the villages, towns and city that have been devastated.
– Monica Piris, Expedition Doctor, Alpenglow Expeditions