On Broken Ground
Not many get to witness the majesty of the Himalayas up close and in person. An even smaller fraction of those are in the region when a massive earthquake strikes.
Words by Angelina Hess, Photos by Patrick Brower
The multi-colored prayer flags, worn and faded from years of sub-zero wind, storms and ice, criss-crossing throughout the Himalayan mountain range are akin to the American flags on the moon. They each symbolize human ability to reach an elusive destination through treacherous conditions and compromising physical means all in the name of exploration, whether personal or for the sake of a nation. As is the case for all expeditions, something is bound to go wrong in the face of such extreme environments.
When University of Oregon students and close friends Katie Nock and Megan Sherritt were confronted with a series of earthquakes that hit before and during their scheduled ascent through the forebodingly beautiful Himalayas in Nepal, there was nothing they could do but follow the mantra: “Stop and Look up.”
Wearing shorts and sunglasses, Nock and Sherritt, along with other participants of the Wildland Studies Himalayan Ecosystems Project and their trip leader Chris Carpenter, landed in Nepal in mid-April 2015. The group traveled to study the geology, botany, religion, zoology, and culture of the country. But this was no ordinary study abroad experience. A majority of the program included a hands-on, 28-day backpacking excursion through the countryside and up into the Himalayan mountains. They spent each day “in class” along the route. Though many of the students were experienced travelers and backpackers, this was the first time any of them had been involved in an endeavour like this.
Nock and Sherritt were two of the four University of Oregon students accepted into the program nearly a year before. Echoing each other’s sentiments, the two young women attest to an internal call to the mountains that prompted this pursuit. They expected gorgeous landscapes, rich culture, and days spent with monstrous bags on their backs. What they didn’t expect was an earthquake.
Only one week after the group arrived, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake shuddered from the outer region of Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, killing more than 8,000 and injuring upwards of 17,000 locals, tourists, and travelers, making it the worst earthquake to hit the region in 81 years, according to published reports.
“After the first earthquake, I almost threw up,” Sherritt reflects. “We were on a terrace on the edge of a huge hill and we could see trees moving in all directions. There were buildings falling down over here, people screaming over there.”
Though the earthquake’s epicenter was far from them, approximately 77 km northwest of Kathmandu, they had already hiked nearly four days out towards the small rural village, Sete, the quake had brought nearby barns and homes to their knees. Miraculously, in the hills above the towns, the students were left unscathed yet rocked to the core.
They knew little of what occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake. What they had seen from their bird’s-eye-view was not an accurate representation of the wreckage, carnage, and panic that ensued around the areas of Nepal that housed greater populations. In Kathmandu, the death count was rising dramatically by the hour.
For Nock and Sherritt, the degree of devastation was not understood until, after a grueling day of hiking on a donkey-trekked trail through torrential rain, they rested in a small Internet cafe. It was there where the group found their first tangible connection to the historical city they had left only a few days before.
“We saw the news for the first time and places we had just been to, temples that were destroyed,” says Sherrit. “They said the death count was up to 8,200 people, and we were all sitting there, shivering, and dead quiet, wondering why no one had made us leave the country.”
With access to local WiFi, the entire group discovered that they had each been individually contacted by the United States embassy via email. After the initial earthquake, most of the outlying villages in the Everest region were evacuated. Citizens fled to Kathmandu to garner supplies, food, water, medical aid, and housing in its wake. The emails urged the students to leave the country, as did their universities and parents. But nothing stalled their plans.
“Right when they started evacuating the Everest region, our professor [Chris Carpenter] said they had changed the course of our trip and we were going to the Everest region,” says Nock.
A geologist and instructor for Wildlands Studies programs, Carpenter was the head of operations and fearless leader of the students as they navigated the backcountry and ingested the layers of Nepalese culture bit by bit. Described as a man of steadfast intelligence, Carpenter didn’t waiver at the realization that he was responsible for 15 young adults in a country that was in a state of panic.
Patrick Brower, a fellow University of Oregon student on the program, says, “Chris was always very calm. Looking back, I think he was very worried, but he knew he had to stay calm for us. Everything was always okay.”
Whispers began to fill the towns and villages they navigated through saying that there was a 50 percent chance of a second earthquake occurring. Carpenter alleviated these fears, however, and the group continued on.
For the most part, they were placated and unconcerned, even as a new route was charted through the frosty footpaths in order to exchange the planned remote trail for the more trafficked path towards the Kala Patthar peak. If anything were to go wrong, and the possibilities seemed slim, they would be found more easily. Though the students were prepared to carry out the program, several of their parents had expressed concern over phone calls and urged them to consider traveling back home. Some students, Nock says, seemed embarrassed at their parents’ pleas. No one wanted to leave.
“We all figured that there wasn’t going to be another earthquake. Our professor was so confident.” Carpenter showed no trepidation and the students followed suit.
Intrigue trumped fear in the event of a voyage into the mountains even while aftershocks rattled the land each passing day. Nock and Sherritt attest to having felt waves of seismic activity on many occasions. Some nights they jotted down thoughts from the day into personal journals and visibly witnessed their penmanship jut up and down. Despite the many signs to flee, Nock and Sherritt didn’t consider turning back.
Nock said she felt like she could “confidently say we were among the last 100 people on the trail.” Fifteen of the last mountaineers in the Himals were just “kids”.
At 4:30 a.m. on May 12th, these “kids”, some lacking in snow gear and alpine experience at this level, arose from their camp to summit the remaining 18,514 foot elevation of the Kala Patthar peak. The day ahead was the grand finale of Nepalese travels. After hours of taxing elevation gain, the pack of friends reached the summit sweaty, laughing at their aching bodies, and basking in the sheer high of exertion as they took posed photos in front of the Everest majesty and ate Snickers bars.
Once the novelty became numbing, Nock, Sherritt, Brower and other friends — self-deemed the faster hiking group — deliriously descended back towards their camp. Their steaming cups of hot orange juice shook when they felt the ground beneath them quake and they heard what they could only describe as “breathtakingly loud sounds of crumbling rock”.
A second 7.3 magnitude earthquake cracked through the snowy landscape. As Sherritt says, “It was like the gates of hell opening.”
Glacier shifts and small peak avalanches are not uncommon occurrences in the Himalayas. However, this was anything but the norm. In the glacier valley behind them, a landslide cascaded forth bearing a veritable storm of snow and ice. It plummeted where the four had left their group to venture ahead.
Forgetting that a lack of oxygen comes hand in hand with elevation gain, they immediately ran up the hill in a panic of gasps. Collapsing to the ground they dared to imagine the worst — that 13 of their newest friends, their professor and several daring porters, might be dead.
It was only a few weeks before that multiple avalanches barrelled forth into the Everest Base Camp, colliding with tents, gear and bodies. Sixteen experienced mountaineers – including Sherpas, photographers and hikers – were killed by frozen landslides and icefall during the first earthquake, while 37 were injured. These were individuals who had prepped, trained, and planned to take on the elusive task of summiting Mount Everest but were stopped before they had even started.
Amidst the power of Himalayan catastrophe, the Wildland Studies students and their guides should not have survived. But by the sheer breadth of a miracle, 15 university students exposed to the aftermath of a natural disaster that devastated the lives of brave Everest mountaineers sidestepped a frozen fate. Not a single student walked away with a scratch.
“We were sitting there speechless. I thought this might be the moment my life changed forever, but all of a sudden there they were, completely fine,” says Nock.
The group emerged among fallen boulders of age-old rock that surrounded them in all directions, unharmed, but shaken. After what they had seen, it was time to return back to Kathmandu.
Taking a leisurely four days to return to the nearest village of Namche, Nepal, the team found the once bustling village deserted and damaged. Those who remained in the village were fearful and on edge. Many villages they passed through on the days back to Kathmandu reflected this devastating landscape. The second earthquake had hit during country-wide relief efforts and killed an additional 150 people while survivors fled toward the capital city.
Though rebuilding efforts had already been underway for nearly a month following the initial earthquake, arrival in Kathmandu revealed that chaos had ensued and yet, there was palpable resiliency in the air.
Locals camped in tents outside of their fallen homes, surviving on helicoptered rations and salvaging broken wood from the wreckage to rebuild their livelihoods. The entire city was a refugee camp and, while some foreigners were leaving as quickly as they could, others wanted to stay to help.
The students were among the latter. However, they were not only a liability to their universities and the United States, but their aid would do more harm than good, they were told. Resources would be exhausted in order to feed them, time and energy would be needed to explain and orient how to aid. It was evident that it was time to leave.
As a result, they left Nepal four days before their program was scheduled to end. Nock flew to Paris, France; Sherritt to Jaipur, India.
“I was so heartbroken to leave but at the same time I was so scared,” says Nock. During her travels, Nock had kept a journal. She later published some of her writing to a personal blog titled “Words Are My Friends”. In one entry she wrote:
“While the Himal is the most incredible place I have been, I have never felt more confident that it is time to go. For one of the first times in my life I actually feel scared. I keep feeling, or imagining, tiny tremors and it stops my heart every time.”
After returning back to the United States, Nock and Sherritt settled back into their routine at the University of Oregon. While adjusting back into life in Eugene hasn’t been a difficult task, they say they feel what may be moments of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though they haven’t been clinically diagnosed, they both jump at the sound of loud phone vibrations, feel their hearts drop at a wall shake, and panic in a space of concentrated people. Despite this, neither would be stopped from returning.
“You can’t not do something because of an irrational fear. That’s one thing that I’ve really gotten from this,” Nock says. “Like with Cascadia, there’s really no preparation for it. It’s going to happen if it’s going to happen. But you can’t not go to the mountains because an earthquake could happen.”