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Earthquake!

May 4, 2015

in Nepal, Transformation

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On April 25th, getting acclimatized to high altitude in Namche Bazaar consisted of a 4-hour hike, gaining 1000 feet, in fog with light rain and snow. The 25 of us with Mountain Madness–clients, Nepali staff, and myself–had just returned to our teahouse before lunch. In my room, I took off a goretex shell beaded with water and shook the rain from my pack cover, happy to be back under a roof. I felt the floor vibrate a little, but I was on the second level of the lodge, and for a moment I simply thought someone was stomping up the stairs outside my door as they often do. No steps, no sound, yet the vibration was getting stronger. Suddenly wary, I saw the belongings strewn across my bed begin to quiver and realized in a flash that I had felt this before, both in California and in Nepal: EARTHQUAKE.

I jumped up, flung the door open, and ran into the hall shouting at the top of my voice, “EVERYBODY OUT!!! OUT!!!” Doors opened and people suddenly came running towards me in a pack. A few people ran past. I turned and joined them, running down the outside stairs, as hewn stone from the side of the building started to fall.

On the flagstones we were still too close to the building, so we ran towards wider open space, between buildings. The earth was shaking hard by this point. Loud cracks. Screams. Crashes of rock. Nepalis jumping 10 feet down from the kitchen building to an open field. Someone jumping out a window. A distant siren starting to go off. Heart racing, alert. What next???

All of us were outside, holding our balance, looking at each other, scanning the nearby buildings for danger, staring in disbelief at the ground beneath our feet. The quake then subsided into a moment of quiet fear and expectation. Was it over? I started a headcount, noticing a woman wrapped in a towel having run out of the shower, others in states of half dress, shoeless, and otherwise interrupted. All clients accounted for. Looking towards the kitchen, is everyone there okay? All the Nepali staff were out in the yard, field, or standing under the door frame. Cold and foggy out, a man ducked inside to retrieve a blanket for his shivering, towel-clad girlfriend. We all took a breath in the momentary stillness. Then the ground shook again.

Some people are calm, some are panicked or distraught. Most of us are unsure what to do next–sit down? cry? go somewhere else? We are charged with fear in its various forms. Is it over? All I can do is help to keep people calm. Waiting. Waiting. Starting to believe the quake is finished, a few of us walk around outside inspecting the nearby damage: cracks in the old wood-frame dining hall and one whole wall bowed out. Heaps of granite on the stairs we just ran down. A client with cuts and abrasions on his hand from the falling stone. (Surprisingly, and thankfully, minor abrasions are the only injuries across our whole team of 48 people.) Logistics begin: shifting people’s rooms to an undamaged one-story building, getting everyone to put on shoes and hold on to their passports in case of further emergency, scouting a safe space to eat lunch two hours late, getting messages out to home that we are okay before everyone on the other side of the planet wakes up and hears the morning news.

The wifi is out, the cell service comes and goes, the sat phones work. For a few hours, we still believe we might continue with the trip. We have no idea of the magnitude of what has happened. For many, this trip is a lifelong dream, and it is difficult to let go of. We begin to hear that the earthquake is a 7.6 (later upgraded to 7.9) and that both Kathmandu and Base Camp have serious destruction. We realize that our goal is no longer to get to Base Camp but to get everyone out of Nepal–and that’s not going to happen quickly. In the early afternoon, we feel another quake. It is an indication of how the next few days will go–nerves frayed, people running outside at the slightest tremor. Thankfully, we are healthy and safe, and we have plenty of food and water. I am conscious of the chaos that is likely to ensue in both airports and damaged areas. I am uncertain about trail conditions and aftershocks. I am certain, however, that we are not leaving safe shelter for mountainous trails we have until we have more information.

Over the next two days, reports filter in to us about avalanches and deaths at Everest Base Camp, about vaporized temples and bodies in the rubble of Kathmandu, about villages flattened in central Nepal near the epicenter. We gather together every few hours and share information gleaned from the neighborhood, the internet, contacts in Kathmandu, and friends and family back home in the U.S. and Canada. We sit tight in Namche for two days, quelling our own fear, reassuring families at home, visiting the health post to offer help (but finding it quiet and empty the day after the quake), visiting nearby villages with greater damage. Injuries in Namche are minimal and no deaths. We talk with women and children sheltering under large tarps in a field down in the center of town, and we see fields of blue, orange, and yellow tents spring up at the top of town. A few buildings are seriously damaged, but most have only minor damage or have cracks but are still standing. Namche has mostly escaped the blown out walls and collapsed houses that neighboring villages have suffered. Still, Namche’s multi-story stacked stone lodges are suspect in terms of stability, and we are lucky to have two low and solid buildings for shelter in the cold and sometimes drizzling rain.

No one sleeps much in the night, with aftershocks ranging from mild to jarring. Many people sleep in their clothes, with their boots on, ready for the moment they need flee outside. The second day, an earthquake sends everyone running outdoors again around lunchtime, a replay of screams, siren, cracking, and crashing, with the same follow-up of people assessment and building assessment. Senses are heightened, emotions are amplified, and fear bubbles up. People peak at different times in their experience of the stress, frustration, fear, and freaking out that comes with a traumatic experience, but it seems someone is always there to help someone else who needs it. Aftershocks come hard and sporadically over 36 hours. In the second evening, after a few jolts, the earth begins a soft rocking, on and off, through the whole night. It is a strange sensation, an amalgamation of lulling comfort and anxiety induction. I wake every hour or so, groggy and confused, wondering if I’m imagining the soft rocking, if fear is merely planting this feeling in my brain. Comparing experience over breakfast, many of us realize that we shared the similar experience of wondering, in the dredges of sleep, whether it was our imaginations or reality. Yes, the earth was indeed rocking all through the night.

Aftershocks subside, reports indicate the trail is passable and safe, and so we begin a slow exodus, over the course of days, to Kathmandu and flights home.

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Still on the ground in Kathmandu and planning for the future–I continue to be committed to the people of Nepal. Please consider donating to our relief and reconstruction efforts: Changing Lives Nepal Reconstruction Programs and the Fund for Mountain Madness Staff

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Four families are living in this greenhouse:
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Kathmandu:
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