The day the world turned upside down

2015-06-08 10:39
Shane Matthews and Elsje Bezuidenhout in Nepal.

Shane Matthews and Elsje Bezuidenhout in Nepal. (Supplied)

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SIX months of training was coming to an end. The trip to Nepal was around the corner. Then a communiqué from Mountain Experience Nepal. Climbing Mera Peak (6 476 metres) was out of the question. Heavy snow falls in the Makalu/Barun area had made an ascent of Mera too dangerous. The snow was covering the deep crevasses en route to the summit and our safety could not be guaranteed.

Slightly disappointed, as Mera was the last peak we wanted to climb, we unpacked our crampons and climbing gear and decided that we would hike up the old trade route to Tibet, visiting the villages of Thamo, Thame and Lunde. We would then cross the Renjo pass to Goyko lakes, cross the Cho La pass to Dzongla and hike further to Chhunkhung where we would probably walk up Chukhung Ri (5 550 metres) turn around and return via Dingbouche, Namche and Phakding to our starting point at Lukla. We were excited about the route as it is probably the most scenic route in the Everest region. The trip would take three weeks.

Except for a heavy landing at Lukla (without doubt the most dangerous landing strip in the world), the trip commenced without incident. Hiking in the Everest region is a pleasant experience. There is no crime, people are friendly and the scenery is exceptional. It was early spring and all sorts of beautiful flowers make their appearance. Our team of a Sherpa (Pemba) and one porter (Prem) had been with us for the last four trips to Nepal and we made a happy lot climbing higher and higher and acclimatising properly. We spent two days in Namche before departing up the valley towards Tibet gaining altitude at a steady rate. It started to snow heavily and walking in the snow was very pleasant. After acclimatising for two days at Lunde we began to cross the Renjo pass.

Crossing Renjo is normally a pleasant experience for a fit person. The views from the top of Everest and other 8 000-metre peaks are exceptional. We soon discovered that the crossing was not going to be pleasant. Chest-deep snow had to be negotiated, visibility was nil and soon other hikers who were lost in the heavy snow joined our party. Without Pemba, our guide, we would surely have had problems. His expertise in guiding us was a saving grace. Fourteen hours later we staggered into Goyko. It had taken 10 hours longer than planned and we were exhausted. Goyko was buried under heavy snowfall. There were no signs of the beautiful blue lakes, just a vast expanse of ice and snow.

Crossing Cho la, our next objective, was abandoned without any debate and so we decided that we would again change our route and amble down the valley to Portse. We would visit the Khumbu climbing school, Khumjung and Khunde, and then complete the circle back to Namche.This all occurred without any drama and so eventually we were on our last day of the hike. The villages of Phakding, Ghat and Chhepking are some of the most beautiful with lush vegetable gardens and apple trees. Passing through them, I had a feeling of sadness as the hike was coming to an end. We were walking along the trail in a fairly well-wooded area admiring the blooming flowers and listening to a cuckoo. Then the world turned upside down.

It is not easy to describe the sensation of a large earthquake. It occurs without warning. The brain takes a few seconds to register. Waves pass under your feet and its difficult to keep your balance. Trees move as if they are alive, time seems to stand still. There is a pause as if all is quite and then a noise that is totally deafening. Avalanches, rock falls erupt as if from nowhere and the air is filled with the smell of rocks striking each other. People who were in the path of the avalanches and rock falls disappeared within seconds, gone forever.

Behind us a huge landslide smashed its way to the river below. Screams and people fleeing from their houses followed. A sense of complete disbelief fell over us. We knew this was a big one. One often feels little tremors in the Himalayas but not like this. Arriving in Lukla, we saw little damage in the village; it seemed to have been spared. (It has now been partially destroyed by the quake of May 12). People were all outside, scared and puzzled. We arrived at our lodge to be welcomed back and sat down to a milk tea. There was no TV, no cellphone and clearly communications were down.

That evening people who had been on the trail and pilots from the helicopter base started to return to Lukla and the extent of the damage on the trail route began to trickle in. Suddenly the news came in that Kathmandu was in ruins and many people had been killed. Many of the people in Lukla had family in Kathmandu and our guide Pemba’s two children were in boarding school in Kathmandu. The school had collapsed. Panic spread. Pemba rushed to the little airport trying to board a plane to Kathmandu. At Everest base camp many people had been killed. Thamo, Thame, Lunde, Goyko, Portse, Khumjung and Namche, the villages we had visited had all but been flattened to the ground.

At about 9 pm, the Earth shook for a second time. We were already in bed emotionally drained by the happenings of the day and worried about the safety of all the people we had met along the trial and who had welcomed us into their homes. It was as if the second quake was worst that the first. The bed shook, the walls swayed and things fell down. People ran screaming out of the lodge and the staff who were in the kitchen and dining hall feeding late comers ran screaming. We, too, fled outside. Again there was utter disbelief that this could be happening. Sleeping outside was the safest option. Other smaller aftershocks followed.

The days that followed revealed the true extent of the disaster. Helicopters buzzed continuously bringing in bodies. The injured were flown in and taken to Kathmandu. Rescue flights were receiving preference and civilian flights out of Lukla were few and far between. Communications returned and we managed to contact our relatives to tell them we were safe. We were totally unaware of the drama unfolding in South Africa where we were given up as missing.

As the days progressed so did our fear that we would miss our international flights out of Kathmandu. We waited at the little airport in Lukla day after day, only to return to the lodge in the evening. Luckily, we had factored in three days of sightseeing in Kathmandu after our trek so we could afford to wait it out. We had planned to visit the ancient city of Baktapur (now completely destroyed). As time passed, we became desperate. Our flights could be rescheduled but we were to expect a two-week delay.

Our company in Nepal managed to charter a flight out of Lukla and we ended up in Baratnigar in the east of Nepal/India. From there a further charter flight took us to Kathmandu where we landed late in the evening. The sight that greeted us was beyond belief. The airport was a war zone. Helicopters and large freight planes were parked in every available space. The golf course was a sea of tents and tarpaulins. No one was indoors. After our driver had manoeuvred through the ruined streets of Kathmandu, we managed to arrive at our hotel. We had been told it was closed due to damage but we had left a suitcase with personal property in it and needed to retrieve it. Fortunately the hotel had opened that very day and the first two floors were available. We gladly accepted a room that had a serious crack in the wall and fell asleep. During the night we are told that there was a serious aftershock but we were too exhausted to notice.

The next morning we walked a short distance to see the damage. Kathmandu was in ruins. The smell of cremated bodies was hanging in the air. On noticing a high sky scraper leaning over we decided it was safer to return to the hotel and await our flights. Shortly thereafter an American medical team arrived at the hotel and I saw for the first time the power of the social media. Within hours they had set up a network and requested volunteers. We, too, volunteered only to be told that if we could not speak Nepali or if we had no medical training it would be better to leave Nepal and make space for the medical teams.

Within hours the youth of Kathmandu had responded. Hundreds of them. They arrived on their motorcycles, cellphones in hand, and within minutes were divided into team — communications, solar energy, water purification and so on. Their energy and enthusiasm stunned me. Their form of transport, motorcycles, the ideal form of transport to negotiate the ruined streets of Kathmandu. I suddenly realised why I love this place and its people. Kathmandu and Nepal would rise out of this devastation. That evening on our way to the airport, our driver who was listening to the Nepali news on the radio said that there was a warning of an imminent earthquake being broadcasted on the radio. Within seconds hundreds of thousands of people poured into the road all frightened and hysterical. We managed to take side roads until we arrived at the International Airport. There was chaos at the airport. Thousands of people were trying to get inside the perimeter. Only people with tickets were allowed in.

Later that evening we flew out of Nepal. I felt like a thief fleeing in the night leaving behind the desperate and the needy. In the airport I had read that Gift of the Givers had arrived. I felt a sense of pride; they were from my home town. Then I felt a sense of guilt and disgust. What had I done to assist? Why were these poor people being punished?

I will return to Nepal in the next climbing season. I owe it to my friends and the people who had welcomed us with open arms and a smile. Thank you to all who welcomed us back in South Africa. Your response has been overwhelming. On behalf of my friends in Nepal a special thanks to all the medical personal and others who went to Nepal to assist, and especially to the Gift of the Givers

Read more on:    everest

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