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Posted on: June 3, 2015


Alpinist spoke with mountain writer and guide Charlotte Austin after she arrived back to her home in Seattle, Washington, from Kathmandu, Nepal. We asked her to write a story about her experiences during and after the earthquake. She was walking down the valley from Island Peak's (20,305') base camp when the tremors struck. Below is her first-person account.—Chris Van Leuven

Street dogs in Thamel sniff around the rubble. This photo was taken soon after the quake. [Photo] Charlotte Austin

At noon on April 25, 2015, I was walking with my client on a rocky trail in the valley between the Nepali villages of Chukhung and Dingboche. The air smelled of wood smoke and juniper. A handful of shaggy yaks grazed in the distance. There was no wind.

The ground shook without warning. I lurched sideways. Rocks the size of pickup trucks crashed down the valley walls to our left and right, bouncing like rubber balls before shattering into splinters. I watched, holding my breath, and braced to run. Mingma Sherpa, my co-guide and climbing partner, was still at the base camp of Island Peak. Images of the sharp scree fields about his tent flashed in my mind.

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Eventually, the earth was still. My client and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the yaks in the distance struggle to their feet. I could feel him panting through his soft-shell jacket. "Say a prayer for our friends in the mountains," I told him, my voice low from the cold, dry air and from a virus I'd been fighting for weeks. "I don't know what just happened up there, but I know enough to be afraid."

So many people are still lost. This photo was taken soon after the quake. [Photo] Charlotte Austin

We kept walking skittishly, keeping our eyes on the steep rock walls above. When we reached Dingboche, we saw the damage immediately. Rocks that had been stacked into fences were strewn across the path. Families clustered in fields, as far as possible from anything that might fall. A cow lay dying, covered in a blanket, her calf standing helplessly nearby. I asked the owner of a small lodge whether I might use her phone, and she silently showed me a handful of broken pieces of a plastic handset, still attached to the cord.

As we continued through the small village, some houses appeared to be unharmed; others were torn open with gaping holes, exposing kitchens and bedrooms covered in debris. Ominous fissures snaked across walls. Dingboche is a village with no cars or heavy machinery. Two days before, the silence had felt pastoral. Now it was heavy and wrong. The trail we followed down the valley was cut into a steep hillside, and I warned my client to step over deep cracks in the dry dirt.

Patan Durbar Square after the earthquake. [Painting] Gyanmani Ray

Things got worse down-valley. Local families stood in the dust outside their homes, staring at piles of the stones that had been houses and walls. There were no sirens, no public announcements, no chaos. There was no information at all; just destruction. We kept walking, looking for a safe place to sleep and thicker air and some way to call home. I watched a hundred-meter swath of hillside disappear into the river below. Aftershocks continued, and my eyes burned from squinting at the boulders balanced above us on the trail. That night we slept on the plywood floor of a stranger's room in the only unharmed single-story teahouse we could find.

The next day we walked into Namche Bazaar, where buildings were damaged but standing. A stranger invited us to a routinely scheduled showing of a movie in a bar, which he seemed sure would still play. Thinking we'd found relative safety, I walked into an undamaged four-story stone hotel, then scrabbled my way to open sky when aftershocks twisted the walls. The shaking continued erratically, and we joined the residents of Namche streaming out of the town's multi-story buildings and narrow, twisting streets.

Unsure of the path to Lukla, we made camp in a field above Namche Bazaar. By evening our tent was one of seventy. Trekkers mingled with locals, trading snippets of information about Kathmandu and the rest of Nepal. Seeing no signs of rescue efforts, I bought bottled water and candy bars and toilet paper. Somebody made a bonfire. People sang. I sat alone in the dark, smoking cigarette after cigarette, dialing phone numbers that wouldn't connect.

The streets of Kathmandu. This photo was taken soon after the quake. [Photo] Charlotte Austin

The next day, a helicopter took us to Lukla; we unloaded our duffel bags and stacked them in a pile next to a man on a stretcher with a bandage across his forehead. I finally reached Mingma, who was uninjured at Island Peak's base camp. Two days later, we flew to Kathmandu, where the dust burned my throat so badly that I slept in a surgical mask. The city was strange: despite the damage, there were cars on the roads, and restaurants were starting to re-open. The lobby of our guesthouse was littered with broken tile and pieces of drywall, and I was jerked awake when a framed painting fell off the wall across from my bed. Families in tents huddled in every park and open space, still frightened to re-enter their homes. Knowing that I had a flight out of the country, I could not meet the eyes of the people who would stay.

I'm home now, and my chest aches with a sharp, raw grief. My Nepali friends continue to share photos of grassroots relief efforts and the news that they're leaving their tents and returning to their homes. There are still serious challenges, but both international and local organizations are distributing tents and delivering food to remote villages. Outfitters are planning new trekking routes, which will help restore much-needed tourist revenue. When people ask about Nepal, I think of when the grey-haired Sherpa man whose house had fallen to pieces gave me a bowl of lentils and rice, his hands shaking as he wished me safety and health. I think of the night I slept on the ground in a tangle of strangers who were intertwined like sleeping puppies, my head on the shoulder of a man who is now a close friend. And I think of the cold soft wind that blew off the mountains the day we flew out of Lukla, slowly clearing the dust from the air.

A building in Pangboche. This photo was taken soon after the quake. [Photo] Charlotte Austin

Below are four groups working on recovery in Nepal, suggested by alpinist.com writer Pema Sherpa.

The dZi Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization, which has been assisting 25,000 people in a remote and resource limited region of Nepal. Currently, it's also providing immediate relief supplies as medicine, tarp and food to the earthquake affected areas in Nepal. For more details on dZi and make donations, please go to:

American Himalayan Foundation has started an Earthquake Recovery Fund with 100% of donations going to relief and long-term recovery in Nepal.

Sherpa Adventure Gear is currently providing relief supplies including tents and food directly to the victims of earthquake.

K2 Women Climbers helping Nepal: The three female climbers from Nepal who summited K2 last year have put aside their climbing aspirations and they are instead focusing on immediate humanitarian work helping the earthquake victims. Their efforts are updated daily.

Source: Charlotte Austin

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