May 3, 2015 by
On the 25th of April at 11:56 a 7.8 earthquake struck in the area of Barpak in Nepal. The Nepali Himalaya are packed with small villages clinging like swallows nests to the steep hillsides. Thriving in this tough environment is almost impossible, simple tasks are made brutal by the plunging valleys and soaring peaks. Tiny fields are cut like steps into the hill sides, water is piped from wherever it can be found, basic supplies have to be manhandled for days on foot from civilization up into the hills.
The local people are incredibly poor and live hard simple lives. Homes are simple structures of mud and rock lined with basic wooden frames, a central fireplace, small kitchen and a roof for the animals. There are no luxuries other than warmth, shelter, food and company.
The life of a Nepali mountain family is a hard one. Their diet of rice and lentils, simple. Their medical care, non existent. Their daily round of subsistence farming, brutal. Days are long and physically demanding. I love these people. They are a happy bunch, they laugh easily and are hard to anger. Both their generosity and kindness have touched me deeply over the years and the majesty of their mountains is addictive.
By 12 O’clock on the 25th I was stood in freezing mud in nothing but my socks trousers and t shirt bruised and battered sobbing in the arms of a total stranger. The earthquake struck while I was dozing in front of the fire. I tend to start the day early when I am trekking 7am breakfast normally means I am on the trail by 7:30 and finished by 11am, less chance of sun burn and I finish just in time for a doze and some lunch. That lazy hour in front of the fire contemplating lunch was brought to a close as the crescendo of the earthquake struck. I have been through a lot of small quakes in Pakistan and the initial few seconds of rumble, rattle and heave didn’t really bother me. The full force of the quake was like nothing I have experienced, it was as if a giant had grabbed our house and was shaking it with all his might to see what was inside. I am unashamed to say I panicked, leapt to my feet and ran for the door, my head hit something, my leg and arm hit something and I landed in the dirt outside the house. The ground just kept shaking and shaking the roar of rock falls, the deep base rumble of the bones of the earth ripping apart was deafening. Screaming people collapsing buildings and splitting rock combined with this otherworldly sensation of everything moving so violently my senses were overloaded.
After the initial quake subsided I tried to take stock, I started to scrabble wildly in the meter deep pile of rubble that was once my lodge. I had to find my boots and some clothes. At 3600m it was cold and wet. The drizzle that had annoyed me all day now terrified me. I was cold and getting wet. Frantically I dug trying to remember where I had left my boots. Quickly I found them and my bag; I put on as much warm clothing as I had and all my waterproofs and felt a little safer. The shouts of other tourists could be heard all along the ridge, The Nepali lodge owners were huddled together higher up, three Czech that were in the lodge with me were off to the left, I felt immensely alone.
Down the path appeared a group of three French girls and their three Sherpa’s. One of the girls asked if I was ok and we hugged, shaking with fear I sobbed and began to take stock. 500m away we could see a group of people, Nepali and tourist milling around a couple of piles of rubble that had once been lodges. Grabbing our stuff we headed over. Purposeless and confused people milled around. One of the lodge owners was trying to pull stuff out of the lodge. Most of the tourists and Nepalese started to pack themselves into a shelter that a local family used while they were herding animals up there. The space was tiny and clearly couldn’t accommodate us all. Together with a couple of Sherpa’s and the lodge owner we started to build a shelter with a big blue tarpaulin this rude shelter began to turn into a kitchen, ropes and poles were found kerosene stoves, pots, pans and benches were brought in.
Still clearly not enough shelter. Three German lads joined the construction team. We started on a second shelter hopefully our room for the night. More poles, rope and a tarp filled with holes. Corrugated iron and some thin foam as flooring. A rude rock wall, bits of wreckage as gable ends time passed fast as we struggled to make ourselves safe. Tents sprang up, tea was made and in dribs and drabs new people stumbled into our camp. Some helped, most didn’t all were clearly shaken.
The rain turned into sleet and a French man and his daughter dirty and clearly exhausted staggered into the camp. They had come from further up the pass, a huge landslide had killed a French man and his porter, his wife and Sherpina were trapped under the rubble. A couple of the younger tourists offered to help but most refused, I tried to persuade some of the guides and porters to form a rescue party, no one was willing to take the risk. Round and round I went begging people to go and help, after about 3 hours 5 of the porters agreed to go, clearly terrified, under equipped and exhausted. We got them jackets, head torches and medical kits. They refused to take any foreigners and ran off into the dusk.
We kept on working making the tent as warm and dry as possible, collecting what we could from the rubble. Digging we found some blankets and solar powered lamps. Food and water barrels appeared pressure cookers and fuel. The kitchen was now fully functioning.
As I pottered around trying to find stuff and building I would stop and sob uncontrollably, after shocks and landslides kept the stress levels high and our nerves on edge. We cuddled up in the tent waiting for news from the rescue party. I had a shawl that barely kept the cold out some people had summer sleeping bags but nobody was warm. The fitful sleep of exhaustion kept washing over me but the knowledge that soon we would have injured people kept snatching me back into wakefulness. A couple of hours after dark with the rain falling hard the rescue party came back, as gently as possible Natalie was rolled soaking wet into our tent. Clearly unconscious, white and frozen the atmosphere in the tent changed. Isabelle and Olivier swung into action, we stripped off her wet clothes made a mattress of blankets and wrapped her in all the blankets we had, Her hands and feet were as cold as death her face that of a corpse. I assumed we would see her die during the night. Cuddling up to share what warmth we had we started rubbing her hands and feet, talking to her constantly, rubbing and rubbing. Hope beyond hope I prayed. Suddenly she started to moan and shake with vicious spasms as life returned. Over the next few hours, she came back to us, memories of her husbands death tearing at her heart we spoon fed her hot orange juice and tsampa. At some point the Nepali boys brought the Sherpina in and we started to care for her, the hours passed, rubbing frozen limbs, encouraging words, hot drinks. Food was brought for the nursing team but we couldn’t stop. Eventually late in the night the two patients appeared to stabilize and I wandered over to the cook house to eat. A small bowl of rice and lentils, some banter, lots of cigarettes and I turned in for the night. At some point in the night the rain turned into snow, strangely warmer than the rain, condensation dripping from the inside of the tarp, squeezed between a French guy and a Czech guy I drifted off. Woken by fits of panic, I crawled out of the tent into the snow. 2 inches of fresh snow blanketed the silent camp, the damp cold bit deep, I felt a long way from safety, it had taken me 6 days to get to where I was. The chance of surviving felt daunting. I crawled back into the tent miserable. The old French guy next to me offered some words of praise and encouragement and I fell asleep feeling a little more hopeful.
The cold light of dawn woke me before everyone else, I crawled out packed what I had and lit a cigarette. Slowly people started to appear, the tireless lodge owner started to make tea, a few people had radios on there phones and news began to trickle in. The epicenter had been 40km away from us, the destruction in the hills total. Kathmandu was reported as destroyed, Pokara destroyed, help unlikely.
Debates about escape routes swung back and forth. I was committed to descending by the ridge line back to Kathmandu. Others wanted to risk the steep path down to the valley floor and the hope that the bridges would still be intact. I hooked up with the 3 French girls, their 3 porters, Olivier and Isabelle. We would be a strong team, 9 people, some good mountain experience and 3 locals. Some German lads and a couple of old French guys also decided to take our route. Some of the local lads also chose the ridge line. After a cup of tea the ordeal began.
Within 15 minutes we came to the first landslide, a huge unstable mess of mud, rock and timber. We started to try and find a way across, half of the people following us fled at the first tremor. Eventually we had everyone across. The next landslide we scrambled up and round the top of it. The third turned into a huge endurance scramble up through bamboo and rhododendron forest. Eventually we found the ridge again. The rumble of rockslides and landslides, a constant reminder of the certain death that could get us at any point. We dropped below the snow line. The trail cracked and subsided. Under steep cliffs we quailed at the prospect of rock falls. Across steep faces with bottomless ravines below us we trudged on and down, every step full of fear. The after shocks and landslides felt constant, our chances of survival slim. After 5 hours we arrived at the village where I had slept the previous day. all the lodges were in various states of destruction. Surreally the locals offered us menus tea and food! More cigarettes, veg fried noodles and tea. We set off again.
The next few hours just went on and on plodding through the forest, the fear drove us on. Landslides, broken trail, aftershocks. On and on we marched. I hoped and hoped that at Kutumsang we would find something like safety. As we descended to the village where I had stayed 2 days earlier hope played games with my eyes, it looked ok, we would be fine. As we staggered into the village the reality hit. Nothing left, total destruction, every house had collapsed. Just heaps of rubble and people wandering around aimlessly. Two camp sites had been built one big tent and a cluster of trekkers tents. The death toll had been pretty high, people were digging through what had been their homes. The old and injured huddled in the tent. Looking out over the valleys funeral pyres could be seen burning above every village. Kutumsang was well organized, they had split the village into committees, cooking teams, rescue teams, shelter builders, harvesters and a funeral team.
I unleashed my curry cooking skills I joined the catering team. Chopping potatoes and garlic with a gurka knife for Aloo curry, dal and rice. We must have fed 60 people. The lady in charge of the catering team seamed to have verbal diarrhea her constant chattering, occasional shouting and general bustle gave a sense of purpose to our exhausted efforts. The Nepali boys banter and joking kept the mood light but the desperate nature of our situation was always there in the back of our minds. Tired wet and cold I curled up for another fear filled night.
Aftershocks woke me in the morning, an amazing breakfast of porridge, tea, tsampa and rolled rice. Off we stomped, some of the greater group decided to stay there for a day to recover but feeling strong our little group pushed on. By 10am we reached the village where I had stopped a few days earlier, amazingly one house was untouched, they fed us and we tried to ring home to no avail. Onwards and downwards, destruction and funeral pyres greeted us at every village. The human suffering was terrible; people who had lost everything greeted us in little huddles at the center of each village. We marched on and on. I had stopped at Chissopani on the way up from Kathmandu and all day I kept thinking of the rest we would have there. Chisopani is a hill top village just one tough days walk from Kathmandu, the views of the whole Himalaya are spectacular and the proximity to Kathmandu means it used to be a “resort” with 6 big concrete hotels. The climb up the Chisopani was brutal. I was shattered and the steep hill sapped what little strength I had. Sweating like a pig I stumbled into the village, a local lady at the edge of the village greeted me with a look of horror. I couldn’t work out what her problem was but thinking I must look a state I used my phone as a mirror. The face that looked back at me explained a lot. The cut on my head where I had opened the lodge door with my head in my haste had opened up. A mix of sweat, blood and dust covered half my face. Eyes sunken, lips cracked I looked a mess! I took a couple of minutes to improve my appearance and trudged on.
Chisopani was destroyed; the concrete buildings were splatted, collapsing in on themselves crushing all those inside. People either sat in shocked silence or dug through the rubble. A huge digger was delicately trying to clear rubble so rescue teams could get to the victims. Everything stopped when a body was found. Iron bars, pick axes, bare hands, people scrabbled at the rubble to retrieve the limp dust covered bodies.
There was nothing for us in Chisopani. A few bottles of water were thrown at us with contempt by an obviously distraught man. On we marched. The hill above Chisopani went on and on, an endless stone staircase, the afternoon heat burning away what energy we had left.
From Chisopani to Kathmandu is a good days walk. We had already done one and a half days walk that day but with no where to stay we pushed on. The next 4 hours are a blur of exhausted fear and relentless walking. At dusk we arrived right on the edge of Kathmandu. Signal! Finally our phones were working! I rang Vania and my family in the UK. It is almost impossible to describe the sense of relief talking to those you love. 14km from the center we found a sort of summer house in a hotel garden, they fed us, made us tea and we curled up for another cold damp fear filled night.
I woke up to some huge aftershock, tea, Tibetan bread, delicious honey and hope. We managed to get to the bus station at Suderijal, joy there was a bus! The ride into Kathmandu was surreal, total destruction death and suffering side by side with totally sound modern buildings. The poor living in tents all their worldly goods heaped up under a pitiful tarpaulin. Glass fronted office blocks standing arrogantly proud of the rubble. Every temple and old palace flattened. At Boudnath we got a glimpse of the giant Buddhist stupa, unscathed apart from it’s topmost ornaments a solid reminder of the unshakable truths taught by Gotama.
We stopped close to the French and British embassies. We parted company and agreed to meet later. Stiff, tired, emotionally distraught I arrived in front of the bombproof wall and bulletproof glass of the embassy front gate. I would love to say they welcomed me in, offered me tea and assistance, advice or a caring word. Sadly I can’t. Palmed off and advised to find shelter I wandered off into the center of town. Thousands of tents, terrified people living on the streets, destruction and death, the once bustling city was a giant refugee camp, the old town leveled, palaces shattered. The main tourist center of Thamel, normally an insanely busy throng of tourists, traders and locals was deserted. I found a cafe that had a generator and plugged in my phone and ate some food. From the waiters and some travelers I got advice on where to stay, what was and what wasn’t working, where there was mobile signal, how best to get out and where was safe. Directions to my airlines head office and to where most of the foreigners were camping. I set off cowering beneath the tall buildings in the narrow streets, dreading the next aftershock.
Qatar air! Qatar f-ing air, I love you. A short fast moving queue, a caring and pleasant team. “Are you ok sir” “Don’t worry we’ll look after you” “Wherever you need to go we’ll get you there” “Of course there will be no charge for changing your flight” 3 hours later, still shaken I was on a plane flying to safety.
It hit me in Doha, I was sat there in a sterile androgynous international airport, standard international shops selling standard international tat, travelers wandering around thinking about their holiday or business and me, alone again, safe again, I broke down; sobbing like a baby I cried and cried.