August 21, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

One Step at a Time 

A trek to Everest Base Camp reveals how Nepal has struggled to rebuild after a devastating 2015 earthquake.

click to flip through (11) PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Descending from Thokla Pass to the Khumbu River Valley en route to Luboche, Gorak Shep and EBC, Pumori (on left) dominates the view.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • Descending from Thokla Pass to the Khumbu River Valley en route to Luboche, Gorak Shep and EBC, Pumori (on left) dominates the view.

At 9:59 a.m. last Nov. 19, my partner Asta Kovanen and I were sitting at a low table in the fourth-floor flat of a classic Newari home, a walk-up warren built around a roofed-over central courtyard so as to resemble a small apartment complex. The building's historic character doubtless aided in its conversion to a collection of suites available on Airbnb, discovered by us, while searching from Whistler, for accommodation during a few days we'd spend in Kathmandu before a planned trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

With comfy, upscale, bare-brick digs and great reviews, Dwarka House also advertised itself as "earthquake safe," which, while added bonus, seemed but an abstraction along the lines of "storm proof" in not being key to our decision. But at 10 a.m. that day, when the low rumble of what sounded like a passing truck grew louder, and the table began vibrating — lines on a topographic map swimming ominously between us as our chairs joined the shaking — we were beyond grateful for the fortuitous, retrofitted iron girders encircling the courtyard, lining balconies and supporting a dozen Escher-esque staircases.

The minute-long trembler was eternity enough to register the alarm of people running into the streets outside; enough to calmly discuss whether we should join them or stay put, deciding that because it hadn't swayed, our reinforced building was likely fine. When the mayhem stopped, Ami, 20-something daughter of our congenial host, Prakash, raced upstairs to check that we were OK; we were, though she herself was terrified, shaking like a proverbial leaf — and with good reason. Once again, Nepal had suffered an aftershock to the devastating magnitude 7.9 earthquake of April 25, 2015 which, along with several powerful aftershocks, killed more than 9,000, injured 23,000, and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The epicentre of the 5.3 quake we experienced was less than 50 kilometres from where we sat, yet with months since an aftershock of any kind, it was both surprise and reminder that cleanup from the last — and preparations for the next — big one needed to continue. "[This] was powerful compared to previous aftershocks," said Lok Baniya Adhikari, director general of the National Seismological Center, referencing some 400 aftershocks of less than a 4.0 magnitude that rippled through here May to August, gradually dispersing tectonic energy from the April quake. Powerful enough, hoped some, to serve a purpose. "Post-quake reconstruction work has been left in limbo and people have started to forget what happened on April 25," Tribhuvan University engineering geologist Subodh Dhakal told newspapers, sounding a warning. "Let's hope this aftershock will bring the authorities to their senses."

It wouldn't, despite the enormous sum of international aid promised — and in some cases delivered — after the quake. But that story typifies impoverished, politically fraught, occasionally corrupt, overly bureaucratic countries that are just barely hanging on before disaster hits. Worse in this case, perhaps, was the fact that the only bright spot in Nepal's shaky (pun unintended) economy — tourism — had also suffered a major hit.

Shaking all over

The Sea to Sky corridor has long had a special relationship with Nepal. We are, after all, mountain brethren, among us many who've trekked, guided, and scaled the peaks of the Nepalese Himalaya, creating friends and lasting relationships with individuals and communities on the ground. We also count among our ranks folks who've worked in Nepal with educational, medical and cultural NGOs. Thus connected, empathy and consilience with those who dwell in lofty, dynamic places, means that when such regions face difficult circumstances, it speaks to our humanitarian souls.

As in the past, when disaster struck Nepal in April 2015, Sea to Sky schools and organizations were quick to gather funds and goods as part of the international-relief effort. For Asta's and my part, hearing that visitors were urgently needed to inject cash directly into the hands of those affected, we'd hastily changed plans for a fall trek in Bhutan, to one in Nepal, booking with a Nepal-based guiding company (most operating in the country are foreign), fortuitously finding one that was also donating a portion of its fees to earthquake relief. When, but an hour post-aftershock we'd handed a stack of cash to our guide Nowa, a young university student whose brother ran the agency, gratitude could be seen in the way he clutched the bills: where normally there'd be up to eight trekkers in his guided group, we and one other would be his only clients when we met the next day to begin the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC).

After Nowa departed to buy supplies, we'd gone for a final walk in Kathmandu. This part of town — old Patan — was hard hit by the April quake, and damaged buildings could be seen propped up by wooden beams affixed to the ground with rebar — often mid-street — awaiting repair or retrofitting. Patan is a great place to stroll, monument to the city's polytheistic history and resilience. As if that morning's aftershock never happened, a festival was in full swing, with colourful garlands and food offerings everywhere — the latter keeping street dogs and pigeons busy. Flower vendors strung marigolds among Mandela painters in Patan Durbar Square, a showcase for the true ravages of the April quake: several temples, some as old as 2,000 years, stood intact or propped up, while equally historic neighbours were but rubble and dust — some with debris stacked to the side, others where it had fallen in April. Other forces were also palpable: aggressive begging and price-gouging — born of a collision between flagging visitation, poverty, and a six-month fuel shortage created by regional bully India, unhappy with provisions for an Indian minority group in Nepal's new constitution. The fuel crisis that was hampering recovery efforts was adversely affecting everyone in some way. Lineups for petrol could last a week, and we witnessed morose scenes of people waiting and sleeping in or on cars, trucks, and motorbikes because they couldn't afford black-market gasoline. It was similar for heating and cooking fuels, albeit sadder given winter's descent and the indigence of those lining up. Effects for visitors were manifold: transportation fares had quadrupled; food and commodity prices were skyrocketing; international air carriers had suspended or re-jigged routes, and many internal flights were cancelled, including some to Lukla — world's most dangerous airport and gateway to Everest.

This was apparent next morning after our 30-minute flight into the heart of the Himalaya. Flights — once 50 per day — usually piled in and out of Lukla's tiny airport at 2,800 metres early before thermals began to build, in a daily shuffle of trekkers and guides and porters and more trekkers. But the place was sketchy and weather-dependent, and so cancelled flights were normal at the best of times; but the frustration of this new fuel-crisis-induced flight backlog could be seen in the ranks who'd been stuck there — who tried with shocking desperation to barge onto our plane before we'd even finished debarking, their baggage thrown in as fast as ours was pulled out.

It was crazier than it should have been, but before long our packs were on our backs and along with Nowa and porter Norbu Sherpa, we'd exited Lukla's cobblestoned perimeter, spun a few mani prayer wheels for good luck, and hit the trail to Everest.

Taking a hit

The first part of the trail was a three-hour descent to the village of Phakding, largely spent navigating stone stairways while dodging animal supply trains through a string of verdant agricultural villages. Day 2 was a seven-hour haul to Namche Bazar, the Sherpa capital, following the scenic Dudh Kosi river on a trail that by mid-morning was busy with trekkers, animal trains and porters schlepping everything you could imagine in loads that you couldn't. The weather was lovely and trekking conditions perfect, though not knowing how many people usually made the journey this time of year, we were unaware of the increased space we were enjoying. That is, until we reached the entry to Sagarmatha National Park, where a wall chart at the office charting trekker numbers over the last decade showed the huge decline that occurred after April 2015, with average numbers dropping to some 30 per cent of normal.

The effects of this were clear even within our little group: not only to Nowa's family trekking business, but to Norbu Sherpa, who lived in a hard-hit valley northeast of Kathmandu, and saw his house destroyed. With his wife and newborn now living in a temporary structure, Norbu hoped to rebuild quickly, and was making his fourth back-to-back climb that season to EBC. (No matter how good you were at this job, wear and tear on a body of that much elevation gain and loss was intense, and he'd later back out of a fifth trip because of shoulder problems — hopefully encouraged by the fat tip we gave him). The picture was the same across most of Sindhupalchok — hardest-hit of Nepal's 75 districts — where the quake and its succession of powerful aftershocks destroyed over 90 per cent of homes. Countrywide, nearly 650,000 families were displaced from their communities to relief camps. In the north, huge landslides left remote alpine villages all but cut off, accessible only by helicopter.

And there were other quake issues, as I'd learned from an old friend, Dr. Isaac I. Bogoch, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a tropical-disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital. In addition to those duties, Bogoch was part of an international research group that tracked and modelled emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases influenced by human migration, socioeconomic, and agricultural patterns, as well as climate and ecological trajectories. Globalization and accelerated rates of air travel were at the root of the problems they were seeing — and anticipating — and his group had been instrumental in modelling and understanding the West Africa Ebola outbreak, as well as the mosquito-borne spread of Chikungunya and Zika viruses into the Americas. As Bogoch explained, however, an equally powerful driver of disease emergence was natural disaster.

When I visited his sparse office at Toronto General Hospital in August 2015 he had just returned from Nepal where he'd been setting up outbreak teams. Maps are a primary tool of medical geography modellers, and Bogoch quickly pulled one up that depicted various recent outbreaks for long-simmering endemic diseases such as typhoid and cholera, coloured blots arranged like the spokes of a wheel along roads running from Kathmandu. "Earthquakes destroy or disrupt both clean water and sanitation infrastructure, so in a place like Nepal where those things are already limited you expect to have problems," he said.

Major earthquakes not only prepared the ground for re-emergence of latent indigenous pathogens, but for the sowing of invasive infectious diseases from elsewhere — as happened after Haiti's powerful January 2010 earthquake devastated the country's south, including the capital Port-au-Prince. In this telling example, an ongoing cholera epidemic that first appeared 10 months after the quake, had, by August 2015, killed 9,000 and infected some 800,000. Although the vast majority were in-country, disease inevitably spread to Haiti's neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, and leapt to Cuba and Venezuela. Ironically, the disease was vectored to post-earthquake Haiti by a UN contingent of peacekeepers from a country where cholera was latent, widespread, and quick to break out when opportunity presented: Nepal.

Fortunately, cholera outbreaks after Nepal's own quake were localized and contained by fast-acting medical teams like Bogoch's, a model of successful disaster relief. Unfortunately, there'd been little other good news: a year after the devastating quake there was virtually no sign of any rebuilding.

Money for nothing

After the park entrance we crisscrossed the river, ascending switchbacks to a high suspension bridge and a 600-metre vertical shot up to Namche, set in an alpine aerie at 3,440m. A third of the way up, where a Tibetan woman sat beneath pines on a blanket selling green oranges, we caught our first mesmerizing glimpse of Everest through the trees. After an acclimatization day in Namche, where the only quake damage seemed to be a cracked Buddhist stupa outside town, we started the long trek to Tengboche along a wide track contouring a deep gorge. An abundance of mani walls and stupas occupied every eminence — the deep roots of Tibetan Buddhism written large on the landscape. After the first sight of Ama Dablam's spectacular 6,812m spire, we descended to the tea shacks of Phungi Thanka, where farms and houses were heavily damaged in the quake. A subsequent two-hour ascent to Tengboche slowly revealed the stunning alpine amphitheatre between Kangtega (6,585m) and sacred Thamserku (6,608m), a mountain whose tempting, precipitously fluted face was closed to climbing.

Tengboche's setting is one of the most beautiful in the Himalaya, and you cannot pass without wanting to visit its venerable monastery. Built in 1913, destroyed by a 1934 earthquake, rebuilt, lost to fire in 1989, and rebuilt again, it's famous in climbing lore for the blessings offered expeditions. Trekkers gathered outside the main door until a shuttered window opened above at 3 p.m., and a monk trumpeted the call to prayers with a giant conch shell. Inside, across a courtyard, we removed boots to lean against cold stone and listen to monks chant sutras — sounds that braided like rope in the frigid, incense-filled air. We sat on toques with coats wrapped around bare feet, watching candles flicker and scanning walls painted with Buddhist scenes, illuminated by cylinders of sunlight sloping in from narrow windows. Inside our heads, each found their own meaning, but I couldn't help think of the challenges facing the country.

All told, economic impact of the quake was estimated to be around $7 billion. The good news was that international donors stepped up to aid a country whose per-capita income was already lower than poverty-stricken African nations like Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. At a June 2015 conference in Kathmandu, US$4.1 billion was pledged by donors such as the United States, European Union and World Bank — far more than anticipated. The bad news was that despite such largesse, six months on — indeed another six after we would leave — not a single home had been rebuilt with the help of the Nepalese government. It took nine months to even set up a body to take charge of recovery — the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). And, once operational, the NRA achieved so little that out of frustration British officials started spending aid money directly, focusing on longer-term recovery by supporting rubble clearance and restoring vital infrastructure such as health services and police stations. Little was accomplished over winter 2015-16, in part due to the fuel shortage, and by spring 2016, tens of thousands of Nepalis were facing a second monsoon season in temporary shelters.

Everest emptied

Next morning, ice crisscrossed the trail as we descended through magical rhododendron forest before climbing again toward Shomare. Later, when the trails to Everest diverged into two routes like the rivers they followed, we choose the passage to 4,300m Dingboche, a town of low buildings and stone corrals where we took another acclimatization day. Two days later we had started the last long climb from Dhukla. Despite beauty that made you gasp, altitude and the inevitable illnesses of trekking made it feel like a chore, and misery made me wonder why we'd chosen this trek instead of an easier one. But I knew the answer.

A few months after the quake, Nepal's tour operators had criticized a hastily released government report declaring one of the country's most popular trekking circuits safe. Funded by the U.K. and conducted by California-based structural-engineering firm Miyamoto, the report suggested Nepal's other big trek — the popular Annapurna circuit — wasn't as badly damaged as initially feared, and few trails in the area needed repairs. The government naturally welcomed the conclusions. Trekking companies, however, were less enthusiastic, saying they weren't consulted despite intimate familiarity with and practical knowledge of the region. "Such assessments need to have the involvement of stakeholders like us to have any credibility," Ramesh Dhamala, president of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal, told the BBC. These criticisms had landed just over a month after UN officials voiced fears over the safety of quake-damaged World Heritage Sites reopened by the Nepalese government, no doubt in desperation after 17,000 fewer tourists visited Nepal over the period May to July 2015 compared to the same period the previous year.

We struggled up and over 4,830m Thokla Pass, where a stone gate strung in prayer flags revealed an area constellated with solemn memorials to those who'd died on Everest. On we pressed, angling down to the Khumbu Valley. In the distance a yak train moved beside the river between enormous moraines, Pumori's pyramidal peak floating above. Soon we reached Lobuche, a clutch of crumbling guesthouses huddled beneath Nuptse's sheer south face. In the courtyard of one, parabolic sun-dishes boiled huge kettles of water. A sign inside, reminding trekkers that staff did their best at 5,000m without electricity or running water, made me think about the huge areas of the country that were currently similarly coping.

Next morning, wearing everything we owned, we followed what was left of the Khumbu Glacier, broken and buried in the rubble it once carried. After only a few hours, tiny Gorak Shep appeared, two lodges beside a dried lake bottom — the former Everest base camp from Ed Hilary's days. Usually full of trekkers, in November 2015 Gorak Shep was but half full. Though only 10:30 a.m., we rested and ate. Afterward, I elected to climb Kalla Pathar hill with Nowa, while Asta and Norbu Sherpa undertook the 5-km EBC walk. "Hill" was a misnomer for the steep and relentless two-hour climb to a dizzying 5,550m, where it was windy and cold to boot. But the views are spectacular — Nuptse, Lhotse and the dark wedge we'd come to see, Everest, offering fleeting glimpses as weather swirled the summit.

Below, at EBC, black dots swarmed the dwindling Khumbu ice and I wondered what Asta and Norbu were seeing in the abandoned site. Even here you couldn't avoid the April earthquake, as EBC, normally hosting expeditions right now, was empty, the mountain still closed to climbing after 24 died in a deadly avalanche unleashed by the quake from the slopes of Pumori. We'd spend only 10 minutes atop Kalla Pathar as Nowa was miserable with altitude. Though it took but an hour to descend I was wiped, any feeling of accomplishment bittersweet and melancholic. Sure we'd struggled some to behold our mute goal, but it was clearly nothing compared to the hardships faced by the people of Nepal.

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