Someone told me years ago: “Visit Nepal. It will change your life.”
This suggestion struck a deep resonance with me, fueled by a continuous, life-long daydream of the Himalayas, and a deep desire to see Mount Everest. In reality, this began for me as a kid in elementary school. I remember listening in awe to my teachers as they would talk about the tallest mountains in the world. I knew then that this was a place that I absolutely had to visit; little did I know that one day I actually would. As luck would have it, the days of my trip would also happen to coincide with the largest natural disaster to strike Nepal in over 80 years.
I landed in Kathmandu on April 3, 2015 and was immediately met with an atmosphere that intoxicated every sense. Nothing in this place was ordinary. Everything was colorful and vibrant and full of life. Something new and exciting presented itself around every corner; the smell of burning garbage, diesel exhaust, and sandalwood incense lingered through the air.
The focus of my trip to Nepal was a two week trek through the Himalayas from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, which was—and has always been—one of my top bucket list items. Words and images cannot do justice, not only to the size and scope of this region, but also to the generosity of the local people I encountered along the way.
Beauty and grandeur aside, this was one of the more physically challenging adventures that I’ve ever been on, as hiking at altitudes over 18,000 ft. proved to be extremely slow and taxing on the entire body. Upon reaching Tengboche, I was able to catch my first glimpse of Mount Everest as the clouds broke off in the distance. Then, on the day of my 34th birthday—the ninth day of the trek—I woke early to hike to the top of Kala Patthar (~18,600 feet) to watch a sunrise over Mount Everest. I have never seen anything as beautiful in my entire life; it was hard to fight back the tears that were pooling up in my eyes.
After finishing the trek and coming down with a nasty case of food poisoning (don’t eat hamburgers in Nepal), on my last day in Lukla, I boarded a small plane and headed back to Kathmandu, nearly filling up a vomit bag on the way. This was quite possibly the worst day of my life, and after landing in Kathmandu, I have no recollection of how I made it from the airport to my hotel room in Thamel. Have you ever blacked out from food poisoning? Until that day, I hadn’t either.
After 18 hours of bed rest, I was starting to feel like myself again, but my appetite was nonexistent, and I was terrified to eat any food. I decided to board a bus and head 8 hours to the village of Pokhara for some much needed R&R.
Pokhara is a pleasant mountain town situated on a Phewa Lake. Shops and restaurants line the busy streets, and holy temples can be seen off in the distance on the top of the surrounding hills. I had seen images of the lake before, and upon my arrival, headed down to the shore to take a look around. The weather was overcast, but the view was impressive nonetheless. Hundreds of empty colorful boats lined the shore, waiting to be rented for 400 Rupees (~$4 USD).
Around 11 a.m., I decided to head to a restaurant to grab some lunch and Wi-Fi. It was situated on the fourth floor of a downtown building with great views overlooking the Lake. I ordered mint lemonade and sipped on that while I caught up with my girlfriend on the phone for the first time in over 20 days.
That’s when it happened—slowly at first, emitting deep earthly growls resonating from every possible direction simultaneously. During the first few seconds, it was hard to tell exactly what was happening. The growling became louder, and within 20 seconds it had developed into a deafening roar, accompanied with violent shaking. Fear and confusion were in everyone’s eyes as they dashed and clambered over their tables, trying to grab onto the pillars and railings. Ceiling tiles, glassware, artwork, and furniture began falling to the floor. It was total pandemonium.
I had immediate flashbacks from one of the many earthquake drills we practiced in elementary and high school. Growing up on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, we Montanans have always been ready for catastrophic events. I was bombarded by thoughts like, “hide under a doorway,” and “get under a table,” but given the circumstances, I chose to disregard them both. I grabbed my things off the table and sprinted as fast as my feet would take me, with only one objective, to get out of that building and as far away as possible. As I ran down the stairwell of the four story building, deep fractures propagated in the walls around me at the turn of each corner. I was convinced that the building was about to collapse, which only made me move faster. I burst onto the ground floor and ran out into the crowded streets. 90 seconds later, the deafening roar began to dissipate and the shaking came to a stop. The ground became still again, if only for a moment.
As I wandered down the street, restaurant televisions played graphic videos and showed images of the extent of the damage in Kathmandu and the surrounding areas. From where I was in Pokhara, it was almost hard to believe. There had been relatively little to no visible damage or casualties, and things seemed to go on as they always do in that town. The restaurants and shops remained open and conducted business as usual. I grabbed a chair at a restaurant to watch the local news reporting from Kathmandu. It was heartbreaking. Mass casualties, destroyed temples and villages, landslides, avalanches at Everest Base Camp…I felt like it was all part of a horrible dream.
Over the next few days, I lost count of the onslaught of earthquakes that struck, all of them registering from 4.2–6.8. In reality, the ground never did stop moving. I slept with my clothes on every night ready to run at a moment’s notice. I was startled awake dozens of times during the nights and scrambled to get out into the street. Breakfast, lunches, and dinners were all interrupted by a seemingly endless occurrence of earthquakes. They happened so often and sometimes so quickly that it was hard to know for sure if one had just happened, or if it was merely just my imagination.
The road from Pokhara to Kathmandu had closed as parts of it were damaged or covered in rocks. I patiently waited for an opportunity to get back to the city. As luck would have it, I met a fellow Montanan who managed to convince her driver to attempt to take us to Kathmandu. Information about the road conditions was sparse and unreliable but he decided to take a chance. For us, to be back in Kathmandu was one step closer to being home.
For the first half of the 10 hour drive to Kathmandu, there were almost no interruptions. Our first mandatory stop along the way was at the junction city of Mugling. 20 miles of backed up traffic heading from Kathmandu waited to gain access towards Bharatpur, and beyond, towards Chitwan National Park. The road, however, was heavily damaged from rockslides and the traffic headed in that direction was at a complete standstill. We slowly pushed our way through the seemingly endless entourage of traffic. From Mugling on, the scene was very surreal and doomsday-esque. Being one of the few vehicles that was actually headed in the direction of Kathmandu only amplified this feeling. A mass exodus from the city was underway; I learned in a later report that up to 30% of the population of 1 million had left the city in the first week after the initial quake, attempting to head back to their home villages to help their families recover from the disaster. Upon our arrival in Kathmandu, the extent of the damage became clear. Entire buildings had been reduced to piles of bricks and tens of thousands of people were waiting in lines at the bus stops trying to leave the city.
Our driver dropped us off in the Thamel district. What was once a bustling locale for tourists and merchants was now remnant of a ghost town. The silence was deafening. Not a single shop was open and only a few local people and stray dogs wandered about. We walked aimlessly towards the direction of the U.S. Embassy before managing to hail one of the few available taxis. It was only a short ride, and the cost was 2000 rupees ($20 US). For the first time on my trip, I didn’t try to haggle with the driver about the price. I handed him the money and we stepped out.
After checking in at security, we entered the Embassy grounds. We literally stepped out of the madness of Kathmandu and into the United States of America. Approximately 400 Americans had come here seeking refuge after the earthquake and the Embassy was feeding everyone three meals a day. It was an incredible sight to see—one where taking pictures was strictly forbidden. People of all ages were volunteering any way that they could, helping to prepare meals, working in the library, organizing activities for the young children, etc.
My responsibility was to find acceptable food (not damaged or expired) at the local supermarkets. A local Nepali driver would pick me up in the mornings and we would head out to search for milk, juice, and canned fruits and vegetables. During my shift, we had a modest budget of only $300 per day, forcing us to only buy limited quantities of select items.
After my volunteer duties were finished for the day, I left the embassy, caught a taxi, and headed towards the areas where relief efforts were taking place to see what I could do to help, as well as to document some of the efforts. After seeing first-hand the extent of the damage, I was completely heartbroken, not only about the excessive loss of life, but also about the loss of the incredible historic temples. In total, 5 of 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, some dating back over 1500 years, were severely damaged or completely gone.
During my last week in Nepal, I have never seen such sadness and despair. Yet I’ve also never seen so much hope, resilience, and perseverance in times of such incredible adversity. There were no boundaries based on nationality, rich or poor, friends or strangers, or religious preference. Everyone present during this catastrophe came together as unified humans with one common goal—to help their fellow man. I feel extremely lucky and fortunate to have witnessed first-hand an event of this magnitude. There is no doubt that I will be forever changed because of it.