Two years ago, on April 25th, my world was given a huge shake up. Literally. I happened to be in the Himalayas on my way to Base Camp, when Nepal’s biggest earthquake of 100 years struck.
We had just sat down to start lunch on the second floor of our guesthouse, when it felt like the building was performing a Mexican wave. I eyed up our tour guide, and he seemed ok, so I figured, this is fine, this is normal, he’s seen it all before. Next thing he’s run out the door, and time ran in slow motion. I was the last one down the stairs, leaving a jandal behind in the chaos. As I ran down the narrow staircase, I had no idea if I’d make it out.
We regrouped outside, and I was still pretty calm. The girl I was rooming with and I had actually discussed earthquakes the night before. I figured we are in the highest mountain range in the world, and mountains are formed by earthquakes. Put two and two together and they must be a regular occurrence.
People started firing questions at me, “you’re from New Zealand, this is normal for you, how big do you think it was, was it bad, should we be worried?” My very poor guess was that it wasn’t major for us, but it would depend where it was centred. I’d felt ‘minor’ tremors in Wellington before which were about a 4 on the Richter scale, and this was worse than anything I’d come across before.
The hallway in our guesthouse had collapsed, big rocks that held the wall up narrowly missing some of our group members. A group of Aussie boys were having a nap when it happened, and their whole room collapsed on top of them. They were so lucky to get out alive. The buildings are made so simply, with big blocks or rocks stacked on top of each other, with nothing to hold it all together, so they all tumbled down so easily.
We were just gaining our composure when about an hour later, an aftershock happened that put the first one to shame. Any sense of calm quickly drained out of me. Some people in our group were trying to say that one plus an aftershock is plenty, the worst will be over now. I tried to say this was only the beginning, with an earthquake that size, the aftershocks carry on for months after.
It was snowing, and the idea of camping outside for the night wasn’t overly appealing, so I felt we could still stay where we were, and jump out the window if we had to. That was until I realised the windows were barred. I didn’t want to be buried alive where we were.
We made the quickest attempt packing you had ever seen, and piled our belongings in the entrance to the guesthouse.
All cellphone reception had been lost, and the very limited wifi that did exist was connected to the Everest network further up the mountain, so this all went down. It was so eerie being somewhere, in the snow, which adds to the silence, and having no idea what is happening in the rest of the world.
As the day progressed, people started coming back down the mountain with information. The epicentre had been under Kathmandu, so there was huge damage. The colour drained from our guides faces as we were told. They had no way of knowing if anyone their family or friends were ok. My heart broke for them, but they still remained professional and cheery throughout. We were also told of avalanches at base camp, which has caused injuries and deaths.
Some of our group wanted to go to base camp to help, but I tried to reason with them, saying it was another day, we were unprepared, and we had no idea what we were going into.
Dawa managed to secure us rooms at another guesthouse that was all wooden, so had survived the earthquake. Each room had a door that opened straight outside, which made us feel much safer. We got settled in, and then heard news that one of the guesthouses had internet connected to a lower part of the mountain, so we might be able to make contact from there. The more time that passed, the more sick I felt in the bottom of my stomach. It was awful not being able to tell family and friends that I was alive. I kept doing the maths, hoping that the time difference was working in my favour and they would still be in bed.
We reached the guesthouse with wifi and there were so many people crowded in that the floor was creaking. Everyone was trying to get on, which meant no one could get on. We agreed with our group to only use two phones, and share these around, in the hopes that we could get a message to our families. Slowly, everyone finally got in touch with someone, but nothing I had tried to use was working to talk to my family. I think this was the one time I lost it. Someone finally realised I wasn’t coping and gave me their phone. I sent an email to my sister, because it was the only contact that would come up, and prayed that it would get through. I gave her my Facebook password to log in and let anyone that wanted to know that I was ok, and a list of people to message to say I was alive. And then I had to hope beyond all hope it worked.
We went back to the guesthouse, subdued, and tried to eat something while the group decided what to do next. I couldn’t eat anything, my stomach still a huge knot of nerves and stress.
I think I slept half an hour all up that night. The wooden guesthouse meant every creak, whether it was a person or aftershock, moved the building. This meant everyone jumped out of bed and ran outside screaming. Add to that the constant heartbeat in your body, from the lack of oxygen at altitude, plus the adrenaline, and you’re constantly rocking while you’re trying to sleep. I lay awake most of the night, trying to calm the nerves, and wondering what tomorrow would bring.