And the earth moved…
My last real post was six months ago – about the Annapurna Trail Race and my attempt to set a fastest known time. When I wrote that – I was in the midst of trying to ‘settle down’ – collaborating on research projects at UW, finishing papers, making a pay check, getting my life back in order stateside and being a responsible adult. And I did, for the most part.
I mostly adventured vicariously – watching Shawn Forrey and Justin Lichter complete the first winter traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail, attending a presentation about my friends Angel and Tim Mathis running across Spain on the Camino (they both happen to be on the PCT now – so the show goes on), and working with Dorjee Sherpa to help support people doing the Great Himalaya Trail and other adventures in Nepal. I also pushed myself on some tough 50k runs with beautiful names to match beautiful trails: Deception Pass, Bridal Trails, Capital Peak, Orcas, Lord Hill, Chuckanut, Yakima. Many of these were organized by Rainshadow Running which I have run with for many years. I was not really in running shape for any of these races, and I didn’t race, but I managed to get through them with a smile and also to reconnect with the mountains and friends.
April rolled around and I was still plugging away on the whole publish or perish thing in academia and living a fairly nomadic existence in Seattle. On April 25th, after a late night out with Pablo Cabrera, I started getting messages on my phone about and earthquake in Nepal. It had finally happened. Sunday was spent trying to contact children supported by Wide Open Vistas (WOV) and friends only to have everything reset when a second earthquake struck on the 26th. The next few days were filled with frustrating searches for information and putting out a special call to donations on the WOV blog. I turned a planned 50 mile run near Olympia into a fund raiser and resolved that I needed to go to Nepal. I landed on May 2nd, a week after the first quake. With me was a good friend Ewan Oglethorpe whose parents lived in Kathmandu. We paid our own way – carrying all of our food, tents, bags of medical supplies, and a good amount of trepidation.
The first few days trying to get caught up with Dorjee, Sudeep, and the WOV kids. All were ok though two of the students (twins) had lost a brother in their home village and Dorjee’s lodge in the Khumbu had sustained some significant damage. I also went to the UN compound and tried to lend a hand, sitting in tent with charts and maps all around. Ewan had already established a niche there – working with the assessment team aggregating incoming data from a large group of NGOs. I found myself drawn back into WOV administrative business, mostly answering questions from donors and others, but constantly and thinking about what was happening outside Kathmandu in the countryside where houses were built out of mud and stones.
I don’t remember when we experienced the first aftershock. It was likely on our first day as they came on a daily basis the whole month we were there. I know it was significant and in a dumb way I really wasn’t expecting aftershocks. The earthquake was over right? But then one came and another and another. Maybe a few hours apart. Maybe a day. Sometimes they were preceded with a sound like thunder. People talked about how the original quake wasn’t ‘the big one’ and more energy still needed to escape.
On the third day Sudeep came back to Kathmandu from a relief mission and on the fifth we were heading out into Helambu – east of Kathmandu. We traveled through some really hard hit areas and reported data back to Kathmandu Living Labs. It felt rewarding to use some trail skills for a greater good. But it was an unnerving experience. We didn’t know how people would react to us, would they mistake me as a trekker with a Nepali guide and feel anger? Waylay us for food? Be angry at us for not carrying relief supplies? None of our fears were founded and what we saw were incredibly hard hit communities but very strong and resilient people. It was not easy though. We smelled death a lot on our first trip – telling ourselves they must be farm animals under the rubble we passed. Surely someone would have dug a body out after 14 days? One day we were chased by a thunder and lightning, eventually sheltering inside a small hay shed when the lightning started getting too close and the rain started pounding down. At that moment we felt another strong aftershock and it just seemed like Mother Earth was incredibly angry. Later, in the middle of the night, I woke suddenly in the tent realizing the earth was moving under my back. Unsettling. Literally.
After we returned from the first trip, we took a few days to scrub off our dirt and figure out our next move. I returned to the UN compound to mooch wifi, get caught up on email, and bug Ewan who was doing a great job helping compile and visualize all the data coming into the UN from different aid agencies (Ewan would later get hired by the UN). We were sitting in a tent on May 12th when a 7.3 quake it – it felt simply bizarre and I was relieved to know that I was safe in the tent – far from any large buildings. We watched people people spill out of buildings. We slept in a tent that night outside the Oglethorpe’s house and another aftershock hit around 2 am filling the night with wails, car alarms, and dogs barking in a scary orchestra of fear and panic.
By now WOV had raised close to $15,000, earmarked for a school rebuilding project but it was clear we were going to surpass this fundraising goal and also that there were many people still without shelter. Initially I had been gun shy about trying to do direct relief work – thinking we would ‘be in the way’ or somehow mess things up. But it was clear that the government wasn’t doing a very good job and that the real help was being delivered by grass root organizations like us. So we allocated $2,000 toward temporary housing and spent two days scouring Kathmandu with Dorjee Sherpa for a large supply of tarps, hired a jeep, arranged for some porters to meet us at the trail head, and headed out for a second trip into the mountains. In the end, we were able to deliver 375kg of tarps to Dorjee’s home village deep in the mountains, helping over a 100 families with temporary shelter including his father who I was honored to meet. Sudeep and I left after the tarps were handed out and we traveled fast for 2 1/2 days on the old Jiri-Everest Base Camp trail toward the epicenter of the second quake while doing community assessments for the International Office for Migration. It was a bit surreal walking trails in a beautiful landscape only to come around a corner and see a village that looked like a bomb had gone off. The further we walked, the worse things were. This effort (and pictures) is detailed in a blog post that I wrote for WOV
My flight home from Nepal was surreal. I had a full day layover in Seoul and I went into the city to explore and eat some of my favorite dishes. I lived in Seoul for almost three years when I was in my early twenties and I spent time wandering around my old neighborhood in the rain. But I wasn’t at ease at all – subconsciously I was afraid of walking near tall buildings. A month of feeling tremors, staying away from walls and deep buildings, and seeing destroyed buildings and lives had left me what is affectionately called a ‘earthquake hangover’.
The hangover is mostly gone. I’ve been back in Seattle for over a month and I sit in my 11th floor office with only a small nibbling fear. I’m doing my best to help with Wide Open Vistas remotely and prepare for another visit back to Nepal in September to help with more relief efforts and also the Annapurna Trail Race which is now a fundraiser. I’ve been doing my best to be busy with back country adventures too and plan to get back into the groove with short updates here – mostly quick and dirty trip reports.
I’d like to thank all my friends and family who have helped with Nepal. There is much more to be done and if you would like to follow what we are doing with Wide Open Vistas, I hope you will subscribe to that blog and follow us on facebook. My mother once told me fish and house guests start to smell after three days. So a huge thanks to James and Judy Oglethorpe who put me up for almost a full month in their beautiful house affectionately dubbed ‘Kathmandu Basecamp.’ They are some of the nicest people I have ever met (and don’t even get me started on their dog). For an interesting insight into living in Nepal – I recommend following James’s blog ‘Everest and the Toenail‘
Be well, be safe, & get that earthquake kit together!