Eyewitness: Earthquake in the Himalayas

In Reportage by Dave Fanner2 Comments

This was written as an eyewitness Q&A for news.com.au, however, as I was unable to get to a computer and file the copy until three days after the earthquake, I was told that ‘the news cycle had moved on’.

Rather than just sit on these words, I decided to publish them here as I think it’s worth people knowing how well our guides performed in very trying circumstances.

Q. What were you doing over in Nepal?

I have been on a 21-day trek with Intrepid Travel which was supposed to encompass a trip to Gokyo Lakes with a trip to Everest Base Camp. There’s five people in the group, 4 Aussies and one Brit.

Q. Where were you when the quake hit?

Let me precede this by explaining just how lucky my group and I have been.

Our original itinerary had us going out to the Gokyo Lakes district last week, but halfway there in the town of Dole, heavy snowfall forced us to change our plans and head to Everest Base Camp two days ahead of schedule. So, we were at EBC two days before the quake. We had perfect weather, it was incredible. I keep thinking of that day in Dole when we were snowed in…if we hadn’t have changed our plans we would have been at EBC at the exact time of the quake, and 17 people are now dead who were at EBC.

My group was heading away from EBC on our way back to the airport town of Lukla. We had just visited the monastery at Tyangboche (which has now been partially destroyed) and were descending a trail from the town to the Dudh Kosi river. It was quite a beautiful forested area full of juniper and rhododendron.

Q. Describe the moment it hit.

Assistant Guide Dhanay is not looking to confident after the first earthquake struck.

Assistant Guide Dhanay is not looking to confident after the first earthquake struck.

Imagine being in a very small boat on a very big, angry ocean. It started as a few quick jolts before the big roll came, 10 seconds maximum.

I still can’t wrap my head around power of this thing that turned the Himalayan mountains into a writhing sea of earth and rock. One of my trekking companions likened it to being stuck in a food processor on a low speed.

Q. Describe after it hit? What were the scenes around you like.

Here’s that word ‘luck’ again. We were very lucky to be on the path we were when the quake struck. We were on a wide path, not a narrow ridge and there was very little rockfall. So, after riding the wave we were all just standing there, dumbfounded. A few rocks came down but nothing big.

After 10-15 seconds, a riderless horse bolted down the path, nearly knocking us over. Quite eery. Weird thing is, I wasn’t frightened by the quake at all, put that down to ignorance over bravery… as an Aussie I’d never experienced anything like an earthquake before, so, I had no basis for comparison.

Unease began to creep in as we passed our first town. Walls were either cracked or collapsed, people were rushing out of compromised structures.

Broken door

Once we reached the bottom of the valley we had to cross a suspension bridge across the Dudh Khosi. Very tense times crossing that bridge, my mind turned to that bit in Indiana Jones as I decided what to do if the bridge collapsed with me on it.

Maybe 20 mins later the first aftershock came. Once again we were in a fairly safe position, but the cracks in the track were getting bigger, off to the left was a 1000m drop, to the right was blunt force trauma from a rock to the head.

Our guide, Yugal performed absolutely brilliantly. This guy shows all the characteristics of a great leader, he was decisive and always made the correct decisions.

Yugal Labar (left): Natural bloody leader

After the second shock, we made for the relative safety of the town of Khumjung.

KHUMJUNG PANO

The town of Khumjung

Khumjung is the town that Edmund Hillary built. There’s a bronze bust of him in the town’s high school and a memorial to his first wife and daughter – who died in a plane crash in the area – sits atop of one of the surrounding hills.
Unlike other towns in the Khumbu region, Khumjung sits in a fairly wide valley. We thought rockfall would be at a minimum here.

We stayed at the Hilltop Teahouse, owned by climbing legend and Everest summiteer, Ang Tshering. Befitting its name, it sits on the hill above town…

At this stage we didn’t know the scale of the disaster. In my mind I was hoping that we were at the epicentre of a smallish earthquake. I sent my girlfriend Sara a text from one of the group member’s phone more as a polite thing than anything…something like, “You might hear there was an earthquake in Nepal, but all good. Let Mum know I’m safe.”
Sara called the phone straight away and we got our first real news about the scale of the disaster.

It wasn’t some small quake in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas, instead we found out were almost 250km from the epicentre and that a 7.9 scale earthquake had devastated Nepal.

This was quite a surreal and disturbing time, there was 16 or so people jammed into Ang Tshering’s teahouse that night and we could only get information through a torturous mix of hearsay and Chinese whispers (is it PC these days to say that?). Everest Base Camp was destroyed, the death toll kept rising…only international reports, news.com, BBC etc. saying Kathmandu had been destroyed. The city itself was completely silent, no phones, no internet…nothing.

An avalanche from Pumori wrecked havoc on EBC.

An avalanche from Pumori wrecked havoc on EBC.

Tents at Everest Base Camp

EBC – Two days before the earthquake

Yugal’s wife and family live in Kathmandu and it was heart-breaking to see the worry on his face…on all the Nepali’s faces as they thought about their loved ones. We tried everything to contact but Kathmandu had basically disappeared.

It was snowing but we slept outside for fear of more aftershocks. In truth though, no-one slept much that night with aftershocks coming at midnight and 5am.

Sleeping outside after the quake

There was one bright moment from that long night.  One of Ang Tshering’s prize cows gave birth at 5am that morning to a healthy and impossibly cute baby calf.  Life, it seems, will always find a way.

Baby cow is born

A baby cow is born

Q. Is there still chaos in the town with the aftershocks?

We went for a walk into Khumjung the next day. There was no chaos in the streets, but no-one was sleeping inside. The overriding sentiment was to pitch a tent in open ground and for Khumjung that meant that everyone was camping out in empty potato fields.

An hour after returning from the walk, the big aftershock hit. This was 6.7 on the Richter scale. I was having some soup when the teahouse started to shake…we all dropped everything and ran outside to our designated ‘safe zone’.

From our vantage point above the town we saw the immediate effects of the aftershock. It looked like the town was being shelled, like something out of a war report from the Middle East. Walls that were cracked from the initial quake now came crashing down in big plumes of dust.

Then silence. After 10-15 seconds, people could be heard crying.

An hour or so later we helped evacuate John, a sick English trekker who had some kind of nasty chest infection.  His mates had timed their walk into town very poorly and no-one was there to help him get out of bed and into the waiting chopper at the other end of town. I helped him weave his way through the rubble as two others from my group had to go ahead and remove debris from the path so we could get through. 100 metres from the chopper, John’s porters caught up to us and piggy-backed him the rest of the way. (John was about 6’2”…they were at least a foot shorter).

Helicopter evacuation from Khumjung

Yugal was able to organise a chopper for us the next day but as we got closer to the pick-up zone I felt less good about taking it. In the end, I walked another 2 days with the porters, staying at the home of Eka during the night (best daal bhat meal of the entire trip) and walking extra kms to avoid landslides around Phakding. Let me tell you, two days walking at porter speed equals 10 days walking at slow Westerner speed!

Landslide near Phakding

I met up with everyone again at Lukla, where the airport for the region is. I learnt they had the unfortunate experience of disembarking from their helicopter to see 12 body bags, from Everest Base Camp, lined up for transportation. There were no rooms available in Lukla so I slept in a tent in a teahouse courtyard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not exactly roughing it.

Surprisingly, Lukla is very busy, but not the ridiculous, crazy disaster of people everywhere that you might have expected.  At all times, the Nepalese people both as private citizens and as officials handled the quake and its after effects efficiently and effectively in the Khumbu region.  I can’t speak for elsewhere, but from my experience it seemed that very few people at all buckled under the pressure.

Lukla airport open for business. Courtesy T. Tang

Lukla airport open for business. Courtesy T. Tang

With a flight scheduled for the next day, we had one or two beers at the teahouse that night.

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Eka enjoying a frosty one.

In Lukla, they ring this siren when planes are coming to land…let me tell you, we let out a great big bloody cheer when we heard the siren from our tents the next morning!

Once again,the word ‘luck’. We were so lucky to get out of Lukla that day…the weather closed in and we got out on the last flight can you believe.

Q. What is your plan now?

So, now I’m in Kathmandu. It’s raining and that is making people uneasy about further degradation to buildings.
Driving from the airport to the hotel, (both on the east of the city), you didn’t see that much damage. But after talking to a police officer he said go two blocks west and it’s a different scene entirely.

Pashaputinath Temple, where the Hindus cremate their dead is obviously extremely busy. The golf course, army barracks…any flat piece of ground has tents on it as people fear returning to unstable buildings.

Durbar Square, where I was having lunch a fortnight ago has been leveled.

There is so much destruction and the death toll is now pushing 8,000, but the Nepali are resilient people and in many ways life goes on here.

Yugal was able to contact his wife in the end and she was fine but this guy was such a professional he didn’t mention that his wife’s parents house was actually destroyed and they had been staying with relatives.  He didn’t want to upset us…

I’ve managed to get a flight out of KTM for tomorrow morning (*1/5/15) at 11:40am, so this time tomoz I’ll most likely be waiting in a queue somewhere at the airport!

Dave Fanner

Kathmandu,

30/4/15

**Below is an interview I did with Andrew Lock, Australia’s most accomplished mountaineer and ambassador for the Australia Himalayan Foundation.  We talk about the effects of the earthquake and the AHF’s recent mission over there to help assess the damage and start the rebuilding process. **

Comments

  1. Dave a great article, you’re a talented writer. You should forward this to intrepid/peregrine as part if your feedback (if you haven’t already).

  2. Remarkable piece of writing David. Relieved to read that you are safe.

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