The Epicenter

Had my kickstarter earlier this year been successful and my non-fiction book in support of All Hands Volunteers been published, this would have been Chapter Three: The Epicenter. Some names have been changed at the request of the people they represent.

-15,000 m (-49,100 ft)

The intention of the following chapter is not to cause distress or dismay, but to put our trek in context. To understand why the All Hands on Everest trek was special it is important to understand the scale of the earthquake, its magnitude not only in numbers but in human experience. It was a true disaster. For many people, doing their part to aid the relief effort was not a choice, it was a mitzvah. Reading about the quake is not, should not be, anywhere near as horrific as experiencing it. But if, for any personal reason, you may be traumatized by reading about trauma, I now take a leaf from the page of a popular author and advise that your best course of action is to look away—to skip to the next chapter.

Shortly before noon on April 25, 2015, the world trembled. Subterranean tension released. The Indian subcontinent jolted. For years (millennia), the tectonic plate shouldering India on its crust has been pushing slowly into the Eurasian plate. The lip of India’s plate dips below the Eurasian. In the timescale of our universe, the meeting of these two plates is still in its infancy. Like human children, it is prone to overdrama and explosions of mood. The results: the Himalayas, and earthquakes.

The world trembled.

“The house shook like jelly.” That’s what Tulsi, a homeowner in Sindhupalchok district, told me a year after the event. “You cannot imagine the fear that comes when your own home shakes that way.” Tulsi’s house was one of many in the region to collapse.

In Kathmandu, far from the epicenter in Gorkha district, locals and tourists alike endured the tantrums. Buildings swayed or gave out entirely, burying people in brick and rubble. Tourists in hostels feared for their lives. Some tried to stand under the lintel. I cannot attest to the effectiveness of this strategy. Some who tried it surely perished. Temples collapsed in Dhurbar Square, a center of Nepali culture.

Taleju. A goddess of the Hindu pantheon. Among the Newar people, an ethnic group originating in the Kathmandu Valley, Taleju is alive in the form of a single pre-menstrual girl: a kumari. A living goddess. The current kumari is called Unika, and she lives near Dhurbar Square. There is a temple in the square dedicated to her and the other kumari whom Taleju has left behind (which occurs upon the woman’s first menstruation). This place, Kumari Ghar, is one of the rare buildings in the square left undamaged by the quake.

The manifestation of Taleju in young girls are supposed to have powers—omniscience, healing, and wish fulfillment among them. It is a traditional dating back at least a thousand years, when, through ritual and the supposed practice of magic, girls were possessed and transformed.

The day before the earthquake, the kumari of Kathmandu had attended the Bungadya festival, in which a chariot representing the Buddhist god of compassion is pulled around the town of Patan, and any disturbance along its course can be a bad omen.

Among other minor complaints, non-reigning kumari Chanira told National Geographic the next month, she saw a snake cross the road before the chariot. Worse, the chariot didn’t stop in requisite spots, said to be the home of other goddesses.

Chanira thinks the earthquake is retribution. I implore the reader not to think of Chanira, or any others who believe in the incarnation of Taleju in young girls, as simple or primitive. Her concern about the earthquake brought up many points concerning the excesses of modern life, and the growing tendency for people to look inwards and ignore the suffering of their peers and planet. “Carelessness and disrespect will cause us great suffering,” she told National Geographic.

The survival of Kumari Ghar was a miracle among mayhem.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, Boudhanath Stupa, a religious site storied to have been built shortly after the death of the Buddha, was severely damaged. Swayambhu, otherwise called the Monkey Temple for the prevalence of its primates, was also damaged. Schools, homes, and shops were leveled. The city echoed with cries of pain and despair. In an hour, a minute, an instant, families were broken.

In the shadow of Sagarmatha, or Mount Everest, the shaking dislodged an enormous block of ice from nearby 7,000 meter Pumori. The ice was the catalyst for a massive avalanche that tumbled toward the white swath of the Khumbu Icefall, on the edge of which sat Base Camp. Brightly colored tents with hundreds of aspiring peak-baggers inside. Almost two-dozen perished at Base Camp alone. An expedition from the Indian Army got to work immediately, retrieving bodies from under piles of snow, ice, and rock, and rescuing 61 climbers.

When my grandfather fought in the Korean War, he had his best friend Don Syvrud at his side. Despite political differences, the two remained dear friends throughout life, and their children grew up together. Two of Don’s sons-in-law, Steve Strickland and Mike Violette, where on the mountain during the earthquake.

More specifically, they were at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Base Camp.

“Our group was in our rooms packing for the trek to Base Camp, when everything started shaking,” Steve told me. “It felt like one of those movie scenes where a bunch of football players are shaking a port-a-potty with someone inside. I was wondering if a herd of yaks had gone wild and started ramming the building from all sides. But a few of our group were from California and immediately recognized what was happening and yelled, ‘Earthquake! Everybody get outside! Now!’ So we all ran outside the teahouse. The shaking seemed to go on a long time—thirty seconds or more.” In ordinary circumstances, getting clear of a building during an earthquake would be the right call. But with the avalanche coming in off Pumori, which Gorak Shep sits at the base of, it wasn’t safe for long.

“We were checking that everyone was there and okay when our main guide, Mingma Sherpa, ran up and said, ‘Avalanche! Everyone inside!’ They herded us all inside the door just as a huge white cloud of wind and snow engulfed everything. After a minute, it subsided and we went back outside to find everything coated with a few inches of snow. We weren’t actually hit by the avalanche, fortunately, but big ones typically push a mass of air in front of them that can exceed hurricane force and travel for miles. That was what hit us, roaring down the glacier from Base Camp and picking up all the recently fallen snow and blasting it forward in the huge cloud that enveloped us.”

Even then, fortunate as they had been, the ordeal was not over. Steve went on, “The first aftershock was about an hour later. We were sitting in the teahouse dining room while our guides were assessing the situation and making a plan. Almost everyone jumped up and raced for the door in a panic. Fortunately, it subsided before anyone tripped and got trampled. And our guides warned us to avoid getting sucked into the kind of melee.”

Steve, Mike, and their group hiked down from Gorak Shep for three days, reversing the path I would trek a year later with All Hands. They observed widespread damage—but it was minimal, relegated to corners of buildings and roofs. They encountered several more aftershocks on the way day.

“After arriving at Namche [Bazaar], we got up at 3:30 AM the following morning to hike up almost a thousand feet to an old dirt airfield above Namche where we waited several hours for the clouds to clear enough for a Russian-made (and piloted) MI-8 helicopter to come in and pick us up. We were loaded onto the hell with ten Indian women who had won a contest with prize of a trek to Base Camp guided by Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing, who did the first Everest ascent with Sir Edmund Hillary. After loading, we started to take off, then stopped at the end of the runway and waited another half hour before taking off for real. The clouds were constantly moving in and out and Namche is surrounded by high snow-capped peaks, so good visibility was critical.”

Their immense, white and black ride took rescued their group and the Indian group from the mountain still wracked with aftershocks and took them to Kathmandu, where they were interviewed by several news crews.

A similar fate befell Langtang Valley. A year after the event, Ashley Corral, coordinator of the All Hands on Everest trek, was working on a Workaway farm in Pokhara, where she men a man who used to work as a trekking guide. He told her about entire villages that were swallowed by the writhing earth. The official line on the death toll incurred by the April 2015 earthquakes hovers around 9,000 depending on who you ask. But with villages like those in Langtang, where bodies were never recovered and cannot, therefore, be confirmed dead, the actual death toll, the one whispered and passed around by people who really know a thing or to, might be as high as 500,000. A high number. But amid the confusion of the quake itself, and the greater ensuing struggle that is recovery, it might be possible for several thousand casualties to have been missed.

The Langtang Valley sits a few dozen miles northeast of Kathmandu. Though the trekking guide’s report of entire villages being swallowed without a trace is certainly hyperbolic, the avalanche that swept through the region was devastating. And before the avalanche, the blast of wind. Gusting at nearly a hundred miles per hour, the wind generated by the pressure buildup before the avalanche flattened forests and threw people across fields.

Colin Haley, an American alpinist in Langtang at the time, told Outside Online in September 2015, “I was flying through the air in this torrent of wind and snow, and I hit the ground a couple of times and then got blown off the plateau at the edge of the meadow down a steep hill.” Like many others interviewed, Haley proceeded to simply run, not knowing how else to save himself.

Langtang Village itself disappeared, carried away by the avalanche like refuse in a riptide. Locals were dead, tourists dead. Hundreds injured. And hundreds more stuck on the trails, blocked by boulders and other obstacles dropped by the storm.

Langtang local Karma Lachung Tamang was also interviewed by Outside. She said, “The avalanche was really black—it was swirling and swirling, with rocks, sand, ice, and snow all mixed up. Whoever was outside had no chance. My older daughter was right in the center, completely buried under the snow. We haven’t even found her body yet.”

Not since 1934 has an earthquake done so much damage to Nepal. People around the country muttered Sabai gayo, or, it’s all gone. A far cry from ramro din auney cha.

Britta, a Swedish tourist, had just celebrated her twenty-first birthday on April 24. She was in a dorm in Thamel when the tremors began. Also staying in the dorm were a Canadian woman, a French woman, Kiwi man, and a Scotsman. This melting pot of tourists escaped the hostel they were staying. When the ground became stable, they banded together to find a new residence. Hotel Pokhara Peace opened its doors, becoming their new home.

That night, the five of them were wracked with nightmares. Earthquake dreams, Britta called them. A haunting way to revisit the devastation. The group would awaken at every aftershock, shivering with fear that the roof would fall over them in their sleep. Somebody suggested they leave.

Leaving Nepal was not an option so soon after the disaster. Planes were being delayed. The airport itself was mildly damaged and many airport workers were killed.

The group became grew close. They knew nobody else in the world who’d gone through their same experience. The Earthquake Family, they dubbed themselves. It was fitting. When one of them awoke from a nightmare, the others would be there to comfort them. In all other aspects of life for the immediate future, they stuck together.

Aftershocks continued. A note carried by somebody airlifted out of Langtang Valley reads: “NO FOOD; NO WATER NOT SAFE!! Earthquakes every day!!” Ashish Sherman, a helicopter pilot, says of the days after the quake, “…we just couldn’t meet the demand, with calls coming in from the government, from embassies, from the families.”

Chanira, non-reigning kumari, once the embodiment of goddess Taleju, said, “People have to stop being foolish and start concentrating on what matters most.” The Earthquake Family decided to use their time in Kathmandu as best they knew how, by helping the people who needed it in any way they could.

I was not there at the time, so I cannot say how difficult it was to go about. My first assumption would be that finding people to pull out of the wreckage was a simply matter of walking through it and listening to the groans and screams. More difficult would be clearing away the rubble itself. All of Kathmandu was rubble. If you remove a brick from one pile, where can it go in order for it to be out of the way. Until my own volunteering work began almost a year later, I couldn’t fathom the importance of clearing rubble. For Kathmandu immediately after the quake, I’m certain it was paramount.

But still, where to put it? This is, actually, a shadow of a question cast by the real question: Who’s in charge here? The Earthquake Family and others like them seeking to accomplish some good were looking for evidence of organization. Unskilled and inexperienced in disaster relief, they needed, more or less, somebody to tell them what to do.

In comes: All Hands Volunteers. As with any disaster they respond to, All Hands had deployed a DART to Kathmandu. The DART, or Disaster Assessment Response Team, was on site for immediate recovery assistance and to figure out whether Nepal required long term relief. To anybody with eyes, it did.

DART provided what the Earthquake Family and others in Kathmandu required: organization. Under their guidance, Britta and her newfound friends helped All Hands construct temporary learning centers in the Kathmandu Valley. There were other organizations operating in the area, and the Earthquake Family devoted a day or two to each one.

Months later, the All Hands project in Nepal well under way, Britta was back home in Sweden. Every now and then she still woke up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, having just relived the earthquake in her dreams. She wasn’t alone. The rest of the Family also continued to have their earthquake dreams. This is a common feature of living through such trauma. I can only imagine how many thousands of other tourists and Nepalis suffered the same dreams. In Sweden, Britta had nobody available to comfort her in the way her Earthquake Family had. Her Swedish family hadn’t felt the tremors or the rumbles. Unable to escape thoughts of Nepal and the people who had suffered, still suffered, she resolved to return.

In April 2016 she and two members of the Earthquake Family arrived in Hotel Riverside Melamchi, the All Hands base where I was stationed at the time, in Sindhupalchok district. Stuck sick at base, I was there to welcome them. They didn’t tell me about their past in the country at that time. I learned later.

I believe they were in awe of their own return. Nepal, site of their most traumatic experience, had pulled them back. It has that power, I have seen it first hand. Foreigners stroll Thamel who have been there for decades. When you see it, see the mountains and smell the incense and hear the flutes backing a chant of Om mani padme hum from a nearby music shop, it latches in your heart or your navel and grips you. If you leave, Nepal will follow you wherever you go. It will hunt you down, Ahab to your White Whale, until you finally return. Many things were destroyed in the earthquake, but Nepal’s raw magnetism wasn’t one of them.

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