May 20, 2015

A Firsthand Account of the Fatal Nepal Earthquakes

The picture above was taken on April 7, 2015, in Vienna before the Slovak expedition team departed for Kathmandu, Nepal. Miki is third from the right holding his 15 month old son, Dani.

A lot of the stories I tell on this blog are silly nonsense. This is not one of them.
This is the story of my best friend, Erika's, cousin Miki, a mountain expedition guide who climbs mountains all over the world. On April 25, 2015, Miki was climbing Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world located south of Mount Everest in the Mahalangur Himalayas on the border between Nepal and China. April 25, 2015, is also the day of the Gorkha earthquake, a massive earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people and injured more than 19,000.

When Erika texted me in April worried about her cousin who was stuck on the side of the mountain, waiting for rescuers who would hopefully save him from becoming one of the 8,000, I was terrified for her. Luckily, Miki and his team lived to tell their story about the horrific event. The story below was first published on Miki's blog, and has been translated from Slovak by Erika for my U.S. readers.

As you know, this year an earthquake struck Nepal, devastated the country, and triggered many aftershocks and avalanches in the mountains. We were lucky that no one got hurt on Makalu.

I started my journey with eight others from Slovakia on April 7 of this year, our goal was to climb Mount Makalu. From the beginning, I got sick with the flu and cold so I stayed an extra five days at 3600m above sea level to get better and continue to acclimatize to the elevation while the rest of the group continued on. It was rough, but in the end I managed to get better. I decided to join rest of my team who were already at Advance Base Camp (ABC), 5800m. Slowly, I hiked to BC - base camp, which sits at an elevation of 4800 m. I took a day off here to acclimatize again, and the next day I continued to ascend towards ABC, where the rest of the team was.

On April 25, 2015 at 11:59am, I was en route to camp ABC when the earthquake struck. I was extremely lucky because that was the day I had escaped death.

It happened just at the end of our several hour long traverse underneath the 1,000 meter unstable rock faces which are dangerous even under normal circumstances. The whole time I looked at the walls above me and did not have a good feeling about this traverse but there was no other trail that led to ABC so I continued on.

When I was nearing the end of the traverse, the trail opened into a clearing and continued on to the next hill. When I reached this open space, the strangest thing occurred. It did not hit me that an earthquake struck, but all of the sudden I could not stand on my own two feet. I found myself on all fours where on each side of me swarmed two huge rock slides. One slide was behind me at a distance of about 100m and another one about 3-400m. The entire mountain was swaying, and I was certain it would give way any minute. After about a minute, everything stopped. I was sitting down and looking at the frightened Sherpa who was with me, Pemba. He was also sitting on the ground staring blankly. I had no idea this was an earthquake; I merely thought that these were huge rock slides. I realized that day that we both had escaped death. If I was just five minutes slower, nobody would ever have found me.

Home sweet home.

After all that, I kept a very brisk pace and finally arrived to ABC, where the guys were playing cards in the shared tent. They welcomed me and we shared our experiences that day. That’s when I learned that it was not only a huge rock slides but that I had witnessed one of the worst earthquakes Nepal had seen in 80 years. We did not know all that had happened below and what catastrophic consequences this earthquake had caused.

The news began to trickle in late in the afternoon. The devastating earthquake resulted in massive casualties and many people lost their homes and livelihoods. Later came the news about the Everest BC, which was hit by an avalanche, leaving behind many dead and wounded people. We could not believe what had happened.  After that news, we all went our separate ways back to our tents. I wondered whether another aftershock would come. I laid at night thinking to myself, “Are we safe here at ABC?”  As I gradually fell asleep, I was forced to relinquish control of the situation. I woke up frequently at night replaying in my mind what terror was going on below Makalu.

Our team had a meeting the next morning discussing the situation and whether or not we would continue. We divided into 2 groups: Tibor, Pacho, Kevin, Palo and I made a clear decision that it made no sense to continue the expedition further, and that we would descent to base camp and try to get to Kathmandu and then home. Tono and Andrew decided to wait there and see how the whole situation played out.  All other expeditions remained at ABC awaiting developments. The Sherpas decided to end the expedition. From my perspective, most people would’ve done the same. If you were in this situation where your loved ones lost their homes and even family members, you would also choose to not continue to climb.

A shot of the devastation caused by the quakes.

The five of us quickly packed and around noon, we started our descent. Just before we left, the earth started to shake again, but this time it was much weaker. We reached BC that evening before sunset and were housed in a new building, perhaps the first and only one with a chimney. Dorgie’s sister was the one in charge of this building. Dorgie was the Sherpa who was in charge of our team.

We knew that getting to Kathmandu would not be easy. We connected with Nima, a travel agent in Nepal who helped us book everything. Nima told us that it was unsafe to hike down from BC because all the roads were destroyed and impassible due to landslides. He told us to wait at BC for helicopters. We knew that waiting for helicopters in these conditions would take some time because the rescue teams were preoccupied with those in more dire circumstances. One of our team members, Palo had lung problems and was coughing up a storm, but in the current situation patients with more severe injuries were the priority. So we waited, and waited, and waited.

Finally, after four days of waiting the day turned out for the better. On that day, the weather was nice and helicopters finally started flying to Makalu. Since there were five of us, we had to take two separate trips. Palo, Tibor, and Pacho took the first flight, and Kevin and I took the second along with the luggage. The helicopter flight was an eye-opening experience. The Italian pilot was flying in between mountains and near rockfaces and tried to take advantage of the airflow during the flight. There was only one seat in the helicopter, otherwise everything is completely discarded. We sat on our luggage and could not fathom how the helicopter could go that close to the mountains.  We flew around Everest and Lhotse and got to the village of Periche.

The village was almost entirely destroyed. Every house that was located here before was damaged, some were completely destroyed. It was a sight no one in their right mind would ever want to come across. We waited about an hour for the heli to come back so that we could go to Lukla. Subsequently, other people had joined as and we were all sitting there with our luggage next to us as we flew to Lukla. We were hoping that once we got to Lukla, we could spend the night and the next day fly to Kathmandu.

The airport at Lukla was unimaginable. The runway was about 100 to 200 meters and was all situated uphill. Lukla airport is known as the most dangerous airports in the world. Watching airplanes land and take off was a nerve-racking experience. After a whole day of waiting we got on the last flight to Kathmandu. Nima was waiting for us at the airport and brought us back to the tourist district of Thamel to hotel Holy Himalaya, where we stayed at the beginning of our trip. This section of Kathmandu was relatively new and hardly any traces of the earthquake could be seen in that area.

Life slowly was getting back to normal, the streets were still half empty and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Since we failed to book our flights for that day, we had an extra day before we could get out of Kathmandu and back home. We used this day to inspect the old town where we were at the beginning of our trip. We were absolutely appalled that almost all of the ancient monuments and houses were destroyed. It was a sad sight, but life in Kathmandu was already continuing on. The streets were already slowly getting cleaned and people were going about their business.

Finally, we took an evening flight via Abu Dhabi Ports to Vienna. The journey from BC home took us 11 days and we are happy that we are finally at home in Slovakia.

On May 12, a second major earthquake occurred near the capital of Kathmandu and Mt. Everest, killing more than 125 people and inuring more than 2,500. Had the order of the quakes been reversed, it is likely that Miki and his team would not be here to tell their story, as Makalu and the surrounding villages were completely devastated. It's a chilling thought to consider but luckily for Erika and her family, a thought is all that it is.

To learn more about Miki and his expeditions, you can check out his website here