There are some places in the world which are more dangerous than others; places so inhospitable that humans simply can’t live there. Those who venture out into such places must accept that there is a significant risk to their journey. Even in such a place, it is possible for tragedy to strike on an unexpected scale. When those involved are able to catch the events on camera, providing a visceral insight into the drama, the world takes notice.
The 25th of April 2015 was the deadliest single day – so far – in the history of the world’s tallest mountain, but this was only one small aspect of the catastrophe.
Standing 8,848 metres or 29,029 feet above sea level, Mount Everest is the tallest peak in the world. It was not until 1953 that it was first (officially) conquered, and although today there are many organised expeditions to the summit, it remains one of the most challenging ascents you can make.
Nobody challenges Everest lightly. Above 8000 metres, or 26,000 feet, you enter an area known as the death zone. There is simply not enough oxygen at this height to sustain human life.
And the idea that the mountain is lethal is far from academic. The mountain claims lives, and many of them still remain there. Their bodies lie, frozen, sometimes right beside the climbing route for years, because it’s just too dangerous to bring them down.
At least 290 people have died on the slopes of the mountain since 1920; the last year without a fatality was 1977, and yet the number of people who want to make the attempt keeps rising.
So, twice each year, as the climbing season approaches, the Sherpas of Nepal clear out rocks and snow and transport tents and vital supplies by yak up to a point 5,364 metres (17,598 ft) above sea level. Here they set up the South Everest Base Camp to cater for all the expeditions going up, and for thousands of tourists who trek to this point without planning to go any further.
This city of tents becomes one of the biggest tourist attractions in a country whose economy relies significantly on tourism. Whilst it’s hardly luxurious, a range of vital amenities can be found there, including showers and doctors who are specialised in mountain medicine. There’s even mobile phone reception and wi-fi access there these days.
From Base Camp, climbing teams will make several trips up to higher camps, and then back down, in order to acclimatise gradually to the conditions. Timing of the ascent and particularly the summit attempt is crucial; there are relatively short windows in spring and autumn when the conditions are most favourable, so that’s when most expeditions happen.
On the 25th of April 2015 there were between seven hundred and a thousand people on the slopes of the mountain. 359 were at Base Camp; others had already set off to higher camps.
Alex Gavan, a Romanian mountaineer planning to summit Everest’s neighbour, Mount Lhotse, was resting in his tent at Base Camp.
“Suddenly everything starts moving: an earthquake. I keep calm and wait for it to pass. The moment seems like an eternity—a huge, shaking, moving, unstable, noisy eternity. I’m expecting the whole glacier to crack and embrace me into its depths. And then, silence.”
Earthquakes are not uncommon in Nepal. It lies in one of the most seismically active areas of the world; the processes by which the huge Himalayan mountains were created are the same ones which shake them today. This was, however, the worst earthquake to strike the country since 1934, and it came with dire consequences. A huge pile of snow, ice and rock was shaken loose from one of the neighbouring peaks, and it hurtled down to engulf Base Camp and everyone in it.
“I jump up and open my tent, and I see a white wall of snow coming directly toward me from the Pumori Mountain. It is so large and so high that I cannot really grasp its magnitude. I run in the direction of the mess tent, where there is a large boulder where I can find shelter.”
Sauraj Jhingan, another of the climbers at the camp that day, also recalled the scene.
“The last thing I remember was jumping into our kitchen tent when we saw the mountain of ice and snow hurtle towards us. Now, all I see is white. “I can’t breathe, is this the end?” That’s the first thought I have. “Why can’t I breathe?” I open my eyes, and for a second, I am terrified. I fear I have lost my eye sight.
It takes me a few moments to focus, and realize that everything is covered in snow and ice, including me. The tent I was in has been shredded to ribbons and blown away, leaving just its twisted frame and an open sky.”
Several of the climbers there were actually filming at the time of the avalanche; their footage was widely distributed in the news afterwards, and you can find many on YouTube now. It’s scary enough to watch, but it must have been terrifying to experience.
Many of the tents that made up Base Camp had been destroyed; not necessarily by the avalanche itself but by the strong wind that accompanied it. One of those still just about standing was a familiar, and reassuring sight – a white tent with a red cross; Everest ER.
Svati Narula, a reporter who was working at Base Camp and survived despite being caught outside in the avalanche, made her way there to try and assist.
“The tent’s poles were twisted, and snow covered every surface inside. All the medicine that had been neatly organized in drawers and boxes along one wall was scattered on the opposite…
There wasn’t enough space inside the ER for all the critical patients who were arriving. Some were brought on makeshift stretchers, pieces of plywood that had served as tent floors before the avalanche swept the tents away. One man had been put down with just his head poking out of the sleeping bag he had been brought over in. A few minutes later, the bag would be zipped all the way closed. Within the hour, another patient would be laid on the ground nearby, and his head would eventually be covered, too.”
Early reports from the mountain said that at least seventeen climbers had been killed; many more were injured, and needed urgent medical help. At least one died even after being evacuated to hospital.
Higher up the mountain, many climbers were stranded. The avalanche and earthquake had destroyed the routes through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. They were forced to wait until helicopters were able to make a dangerous flight up to Camp One to evacuate them. This is far beyond the height that most helicopters fly, and the thin atmosphere meant that they had to travel light. This led to excruciating waits while hundreds of climbers were evacuated just two at a time.
This was criticised by some at the time; David Roberts, a mountaineer and author, said;
“As a traditional mountaineer, my first reaction was, ‘Why can’t they find a new way down the icefall by themselves?’” “There’s a very traditional climbing ethic. You get into a predicament, you get yourself out. It sounds like these guys thought they were hiring a taxi.”
In fact, a team of experienced climbers did actually descend from Camp One to try and rebuild the route through the Khumbu Icefall, whilst another team attempted to ascend from Base Camp. Aftershocks took out the ladders that they were using, and three Sherpas were killed in the attempt. It was too dangerous to continue; the helicopters were the only way down.
But the climbers were not the only ones affected by the earthquake. Devastation had swept across Nepal. Nearly nine thousand people had been killed, and almost twenty two thousand injured. Another avalanche, in the Langtang Valley, had completely wiped out Langtang Village and killed around three hundred people. Many of those who were in desperate need of help were trapped in remote areas, where roads had been destroyed in the quake, and where the only access was now by helicopter.
And locals felt that their needs were being ignored in favour of the Western tourists.
Lhakpa Jangba saw this in his village.
“Some strong healthy foreigners tried to board. I was angry so I talked to the pilot and said “our people are dying, they need help. You need to send helicopters for us.” But he said “No, we came for the NGO workers and the foreigners.” We lost hope.”
Kat Heldman, an American climber, watched as one helicopter arrived at Kyanjin Gompa, in the Langtang Valley. It would only be able to take about six people to safety. When three able-bodied foreign nationals got on board, the villagers grabbed hold of the helicopter so it couldn’t leave. A local baby had broken both legs in the tragedy, and would likely lose them if he didn’t get to hospital.
She said later, “It’s quite possible that they thought, once the foreigners are gone, we’re screwed. Once they’re gone, there’s not gonna be any more helicopters to come and get us.”
The three foreigners did agree to leave the helicopter and wait for evacuations, so it was able to take the injured child and his mother to hospital for treatment.
Dave Hahn, a guide who was stranded on Everest with his group, defended their use of the helicopters. “There is no question that our buying power is why the choppers were there in the first place. They are a private enterprise, not owned by the government. They are very expensive machines to operate and are doing a lot of good work, subsidized by being able to charge us full price.”
Once evacuated from the slopes of the mountain, the climbers could clearly see the devastation around them.
The earthquake, which registered a moment magnitude of 7.8, had been centred near Gorkha, north-west of the capital Kathmandu, and at a depth of just 11 kilometres or 6.8 miles. Because it was so shallow, the tremors reaching the surface were stronger, and the damage accordingly much worse.
Many of the buildings in the affected areas around Kathmandu and the district of Sindhupalchok were old; many were poorly built. They were simply not able to withstand the force of the quake. They collapsed like houses of cards.
In addition, in the following days and weeks there were hundreds of aftershocks, including a second strong quake on the 12th of May.
In the centre of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, the historic Dharahara tower had collapsed. Built in 1832, the nine-storey tower had been open to the public for ten years, and around two hundred people had been trapped in its rubble.
Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was severely damaged; several of the ancient temples collapsed.
In the Kathmandu valley, several churches had also been toppled. Because the earthquake had happened on Saturday, the main day of worship in Nepal, many would have been full of people at the time.
Tribhuvan International Airport was forced to close sporadically in the aftermath of the earthquake, as aftershocks made it too dangerous to operate, which further complicated the issues of evacuating foreign visitors and bringing in aid from elsewhere.
But the greatest devastation was in the rural areas of the country. Schools, houses, farms, roads – in some places, everything was gone. It was reported that, in some villages, there was literally not a single building left standing. Many of those who survived had lost their entire livelihood – or their entire family.The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 255,954 houses were destroyed in the earthquake, and another 234,102 damaged.
One survivor, a 65 year old woman named Hari, described how the earthquake had affected her family of fifteen, leaving them all homeless.
“The earthquake happened right after lunch. We were in our fields. The young children were playing outside the house. We couldn’t grab anything from our houses because we were already outside. We were shaken and couldn’t stand up. Everything around us was shaking and there was dust everywhere.”
Although their home was still standing, it was so badly damaged that they didn’t dare re-enter for fear that it would collapse around them in one of the continuing aftershocks. They sheltered in tents and under tarps provided by humanitarian organisations.
26 year old Ram and her mother were buried in the rubble of their home. Her father tried to dig them out but couldn’t; eventually her brother managed to free them.
“The top two stories of our house collapsed after the very first tremor. My mother and I were instantly trapped. It was so fast I can’t even describe it. I don’t have many scratches on my body but it hurts. I have a lot of back pain.”
Throughout the country, survivors were left desperately seeking shelter. Tent cities popped up in open spaces, from fields to the grounds of Narayanhiti Palace. But these flimsy shelters were a very temporary solution. The monsoon season was a little over a month away, and it would bring with it heavy rains.
The need for a well organised humanitarian relief effort was obvious, and many nations leaped into action. Teams of rescuers and medical experts from around the world converged on the country to find and care for survivors. They brought with them a range of modern technology, including video cameras on flexible poles and thermal imaging equipment, which helped them to identify collapsed buildings where survivors were trapped within voids.
These cameras could be threaded through small spaces in the rubble so that rescuers can quickly see what – or who – lies beneath, rather than trying to move it all just in case there’s somebody there. Similarly, the thermal imaging equipment could be used to spot survivors’ body heat.
In the village of Chautara, north of Kathmandu, rescue workers used advanced heartbeat detection to find four men who were trapped underneath ten feet of rubble, and successfully rescue them.
Technology also allowed volunteers at home to help with the rescue effort by helping to create maps for the responders. By using existing digital mapping technology, and adding in data from satellite imagery taken in the aftermath, information from social media and pictures taken by drones, they were able to provide information on which roads were passable, where buildings had collapsed, where there was suitable space for a helicopter to land, and where people in need were gathering.
Dale Kunce, who leads the international data and maps team at the American Red Cross, said, “Crisis mapping saves us a lot of time. We have a telecommunications group on the ground; they’ve asked us where they can put equipment so that it reaches the maximum number of people and they need to know how to get from one village to another village.”
He also pointed out the need for continuing mapping efforts in remote areas; “We need to stop mapping after the disaster has happened. We need to map the vulnerable people around the world before disaster happens.”
However, the relief teams also relied heavily on the knowledge of local people. The survivors would know best where to look, which buildings were busiest, where people were last seen.
Heavy lifting equipment was desperately needed, but couldn’t be employed in all situations. An army officer, Santosh Nepal, told reporters that his soldiers had had to use pickaxes to dig through a three storey building in Kathmandu because the ancient city’s streets were too narrow to get a bulldozer there.
The aid effort was not without its complications, though. Penny Sims, a spokesperson for the British Red Cross, told the BBC that initially it was difficult even to get an accurate picture of what was going on.
“A lot of the roads are blocked,” she said. “There’s rubble, there’s been landslides as well… so that is going to make the aid effort very difficult.”
Because access was so difficult, many of the areas in need could only be reached by helicopter, but with the people there now in flimsy shelters the helicopters came with their own issues. The rotors created so much wind that they could blow tin roofs off shelters, or cause further damage to buildings that were already in a precarious state. As part of their relief effort, the UK sent three Chinook helicopters to Nepal, but they were returned unused because of these issues.
Although neighbouring India was quick to send aid, and their efforts were both widespread and extensive, there were reports that they were not fully cooperating with Nepalese authorities and other relief operations. The Indian Army were accused of blocking the only international airport in Nepal with their military cargo planes, which were waiting to take Indian citizens home. In the meantime, relief coming in from other countries was delayed, because they had nowhere to land.
The Indian media also faced criticism; their reporting was regarded as insensitive, and there were reports that journalists had taken up spaces on helicopters heading to rural areas – where those spaces were desperately needed to evacuate the injured. As a result, the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia trended on Twitter.
Aid for the Nepalese people also came directly from the survivors of Everest, who were deeply affected by the sights they saw as they left the mountain, and tried to help as best they could.
Sauraj Jhingan stopped at remote villages on his way down the Khumbu valley, and said that, “On our return journey, we distributed all our remaining food and rations as well as any extra resources we had from our expedition.”
Many others used social media to raise awareness of the level of need in Nepal, helping to raise relief money from richer countries which would be so greatly needed.
And in the aftermath, some reconsidered the draw of the mountain.Guide Dave Hahn said, “It’s hard to think right now of what’s exciting and fun about Everest. Right now, it’s starting to be a place of sadness and death.”
Many of the Sherpas, whose assistance is so vital to Western climbers, were also unsure about returning.
Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay, who made the first recorded ascent to the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary, said that,
“Sherpas are very superstitious and religious. Everest is a deity. It’s where the gods live and it’s been desecrated, and so maybe there is a message over here that the gods are angry about how the mountain has been trampled on and how it has been desecrated.”
But Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia; the burden of repairing the damage of the earthquake has made things even harder. Tourism, including the draw of the worlds tallest peak, is vital to the country’s economy. And the climbers did return; at the end of the spring 2016 climbing season, their department of tourism reported that 199 foreigners from 29 countries and 257 Nepali climbers had stood at the highest point in the world.
So if Everest continues to be a draw for Western tourists, it continues to be a much needed source of income for the Sherpas who guide them. While the average salary in Nepal is only around 700 US dollars, Sherpas climbing Everest can make between three and five thousand in a single season. They know that they face exceptional dangers on the mountain, but they are willing to risk it for the ability to pay for their children’s education. Many would argue that they are still not paid enough.
The spotlight that was thrown on the disaster by the involvement of Western climbers at Everest did help to increase awareness in the immediate aftermath. That awareness converted into donations converted into concrete assistance for the survivors.
But nearly three years later, recovery in Nepal is still underway; the Government’s National Reconstruction Authority reported in February 2018 that 1458 educational institutions, 111 cultural heritage projects, 119 health centres, 140 security buildings and 965 drinking water infrastructure projects were still under construction.
When natural disasters hit rich countries, recovery can be startlingly quick, because the infrastructure to support a relief effort is already in place. When it hits a poor country like Nepal, where many settlements can only be reached on foot, recovery is a slow process. If the rest of the world forgets about them, it could be even slower. So, remember, if you’ve got a little extra cash in your pocket, there are plenty of humanitarian organisations that could put it to good use.
Thanks this episode go to:
I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters spicyboi and Mish Liddle, and to all of you for listening and reading
Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon means you can earn exclusive rewards like seeing your name here in future!
Sources and Further Reading:
I consulted a huge number of sources for this episode, because it happened so recently and therefore the many (many!) news articles from the time are all online. For that reason, I’m not going to list them all here – it would take a lot of space and be a pretty boring list of links, so here are a few highlights.
Raw footage from the disaster is available on YouTube, here are a few links:
Svati Narula, quoted in the episode, wrote an article on her experience for Quartz.
Alex Gavan’s account was published by Time.
Many humanitarian organisations, such as UNICEF, have information on how they’re able to help the people of Nepal thanks to donations.