Note: This is that earthquake story. I’ve been asked many times to tell it out loud. But that storytelling doesn’t seem to do it justice. I don’t want an ultra abbreviated account of such an intense event. Here are takes from both myself and Ryan, as taken from our journal entries. Again–apologies for the weird tense changes…but we kept it as written from our journals (for the most part).
April 23 (Ryan)
Woke up early and received confirmation that I was officially hired as a permanent park ranger at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. It was an inspiring and kind of charmed process that is a separate story to be told.
Today is a layover/rest day in Bimthang. Morning is clear, offering great glowing views of Manaslu, Himlung, and spectacular unnamed peaks that would easily be the highest in North America if transplanted.
After sleeping long and having a late breakfast, Sarah and I relax on a small ridge with books. I fly the kite on a glacial plain with ponies and a very excited dog watching the kite bob and weave. The afternoon brings clouds, sleet, and rain. We curl up inside with books and lots of ginger lemon tea.
April 24. Tilche. (Sarah)
We descended 4700 ft today starting in chilly Bimthang. Then we slowly followed pine and rhododendron forests in shades of pink, red, purple, and white. Last looks of the backside of windswept snowy Manaslu. From there over a tiny, but steep pass and into the familiar rainforest near the Dudh Khola river.
Fried macaroni with veggies and potato momos for lunch. We waited an hour and a half for the food, but it was delicious. Finally ended in Tilche and refused to stay in a dark, claustrophobic lodge after passing six bright & spacious lodges. Sune agreed the place was “no good” and we moved next door in a room overlooking the raging river. Electricity for a second night! Most useful for charging a camera!
Took a frigid sponge bath, but now able to just wear light layers and no down coat. Getting much warmer—even the afternoon rain was welcome.
Walking the streets of Tilche
We did meet a ER physician from the US and her husband in Bimthang. Forgot to write about that. They reported the younger Czech man (part of the Czech group with my Simon & Garfunkel in Czech man) had a tib-fib fracture on the way down from Samdo. Luckily the ER doc splinted the guy and a helicopter was contacted. But still feeling awful for the Czech group with their lack of luck!
Read a Buddha (I think) quote: “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are, otherwise you will miss most of your life.” Trying. Trying.
We walked past a man carrying a bag of clucking chickens.
In the Tilche guesthouse there was a beautiful little girl with (apparent) Down Syndrome and an orange hat.
There was an older man herding skinny cows. He appeared to have some type of neuromuscular disease.
How people survive.
We toasted for crossing the pass & Ryan’s new position in YNP. Weak beers & some whiskey for the guys. A treat from us.
Cheers in Tilche
April 24 (Ryan)
Time to leave Bimthang and the high alpine areas behind. Today our trek brings us from Bimthang at 12,300 feet to Tilche, a mere 8500 feet. During the descent, we walked through a very inspiring forest of gorgeous rhododendrons.
The trees are adorned first only in crimson, then pink is found, then a lighter pink, then white, and violet. Sarah and I delight and dally about the woods, snapping tons of pictures of flowering trees and towering peaks.
Oops…watermark over Ryan’s face. He looks happy in this picture. I promise.
After a (too) long lunch break at Sarti Khola, we cross a tiny ridge and head toward Gho. It begins to rain lightly as it has every afternoon since we crossed Larke Pass. What timing! Today the rain is not cold and oppressive, but warm and refreshing. We have reentered what is essentially a rain forest with bamboo, vines, orchids, moss, and marijuana greening everything.
We stop for the night in Tilche. An hour futher than our scheduled stop at Gho. After walking all the way through town, past 5-6 brand new lodges we come to the Apple Garden. It looks like a 3rd world Bates Motel. We look inside and it is dark, with glassless, barred windows. It is very dusty and the stairs are perilous. For the first time, we request a different lodge. We stay across the street in the brand new River View Inn. It’s very nice, and except for staying under the dining room (loud) we had a wonderful stay. The sign says “hot shower”. They all say that. All lies. Cold shower it is. At least the air is warm here.
On the way into town, we passed a man with a large load. It is a huge bag of chickens. Little chicken heads poking out of tiny holes. They looked confused. Me too.
April 25 Tal (Sarah)
We started out in Tilche in a cloudy, light drizzle and jungle landscape. We walked through Darapani where the trail splits to the Annapurna Circuit. I was jealous of not going on that trek too since several folks we met combined Manaslu & Annapurna treks.
Beautiful house in Darapani.
There are rough, muddy dirt roads and 4WD jeeps. Walking on the road is better than a harrowing jeep ride and it won’t be far before another trail.
Darapani. First vehicle sighting for three-ish weeks.
We were so elated about crossing the pass, but we are concerned that Tal is too short a distance to walk. We might be “bored.”
We crossed a bridge away from the road and to the trail. The steep cliff path had been dynamited to make a trail. The trail hovers over the river again. Ryan, Sune, and myself continued on this path. Padum & Khadga were somewhere behind us. Jen and Rajbir were farther behind. We weren’t concerned about staying at the same pace. There was no need to stick together at this point.
Ryan crossing the suspension bridge. You can see the trail on the other side.
We could see Tal not far ahead—below the trail and at level with the river. I was ahead in the group and was starting to take a picture of Tal. Suddenly we heard “gunshots” and I was confused. I looked around. Rocks started coming down from the side of the mountain to the trail. Ryan yelled “Run!” and I was already rushing his way. He and Sune were under a sort of overhang—of rock—but our best option.
The entire earth was shaking. Imagine the room you are sitting in suddenly being out-of-focus and bouncing like a home video…and you are also bouncing violently without control. Sune yelled, “Oh my god. Oh my god. What is going on?!” It took us all a few moments to realize this was certainly an earthquake.
The trail was narrow & the three of us were huddled together—pressing against the rock and dirt as far from the edge as possible. Over the edge was a steep drop-off down to the furiously strong river. The mountain was crumbling and huge boulders flew down over our heads and crashed in the river. Smaller rocks continued “popping” like bullets and larger boulders landed with a CRASH as the river swallowed them whole.
The overhang was our saving grace, since the mountain & trail were so steep. The rocks were close, but nothing hit us.
Part of me was sure the entire trail would crumble beneath our feet and the water would engulf us too. The other part kept saying: Be over. Be over. Be over. Even in that moment I realized the extent of the earth’s power. The avalanche days before made me feel small. But this? This made me infinitesimal.
The actual quake likely only lasted a minute or two. But the shaking had let loose rockslides, and so the activity persisted. Then there was a thunderous calm.
We waited for what seemed like hours—all of us repeating “Oh my…What? Holy shit. Holy shit.” Realistically, the wait was only 10 minutes and we started yelling to Padum behind us. He peeked out from behind a turn in the trail and ran towards us.
He and Sune were speaking excitedly in Nepali and Padum showed him a bleeding finger. The cut was superficial—likely from a falling pebble. Normally I would have just offered him a Band-Aid, but Ryan took out the entire first-aid kit. We were totally serious and focused on this minor cut on a finger. We needed some sort of task in the moment to distract us. This finger-cut moment was hilarious later on.
After the finger was quickly bandaged, we decided to run. We knew aftershocks were coming and this spot was not exactly safe. We needed to get to the village, which was on a flat surface and farther away from the mountain cliffs.
We ran from “safe spot” to “safe spot” (similar semi-solid rock overhangs) until we arrived in Tal. Padum was running with a 60 lb. pack. We ran past craters in the dirt from boulders hitting. We took a few pictures while running.
A massive chunk of earth fell from above a waterfall—turning the water a muddy brown. It also broke some main piping and electrical lines to the village.
See that massive chunk of rock missing? That was the one that crashed down & broke the piping & electrical lines.
Everyone in the village was outside moving & speaking with high adrenaline. We arrived at the village out of breath and relieved. We were standing near a low rock wall lining both sides of the trail. Ryan was leaning against the wall and suddenly it began to fall apart. We jumped over the wall after another period of disorientation and ran into a small field near the river.
After the first aftershock we could see Khadga running along the trail with a group of porters. Later we found out he had stayed in a tiny village (maybe one or two huts) for shelter before starting to run to Tal. His eyes were wide as he spoke rapid Nepali to Sune.
I was just sitting in the field. It had rained in Tal that morning and my pants were muddy. I felt waves of vibration underneath as though it was now impossible for the earth to stop moving. We were sitting in that field for a long time & I even lost count of the number of small to medium aftershocks. The space between did not seem to hold still. Everything vibrates underfoot and it fills the entire body with uncanny pulsation from toes to head.
The waiting field of aftershocks.
We were incredibly concerned about Jen and Rajbir. We decided they were far enough back that they had not crossed the suspension bridge to the trail. We expected them to be on the road, which would be a safer spot during the quake. There was more space and potentially more shelter.
We scanned the road with Ryan’s binoculars. Finally we saw Rajbir’s orange backpack raincover and Jen’s straw sunhat. When I saw that sunhat I could finally breathe. We yelped with joy and pointlessly tried yelling at them across the river. Of course they could not hear us. There were many people on the road moving with grand purpose towards a wider bridge to Tal.
At some point we left the field and decided to walk through Tal to meet Jen & Rajbir. Tal was a decent sized town and everyone was out. One stone house was completely ruined, but many of the buildings looked only slightly damaged.
We expected injuries—at least some head injuries or broken bones. There was nothing but minor cuts and bruises and a generally panicky air. We were almost looking for injuries. We did not want them, but we wanted to suddenly be of use in the situation.
At some point we met a man from Montana who owned a trekking company. He had been sitting outside his guest lodge drinking tea and acted nonchalant.
We found Jen & Rajbir. Jen was mostly quiet, but less startled. She had been with a group of Japanese elders, and their calmness & earthquake experience seemed contagious for her.
We found a guest lodge that was in a one-story building. There weren’t any potential dangers directly above and the place seemed safer than anything else.
Then we were offered tea. Naturally.
So we ordered a surreal lunch of spaghetti noodles and cornbread. We drank our ginger lemon honey tea and wondered if the whole thing was only make-believe. A few local soldiers walked through the village to inspect damage. Apparently the road was closed due to landslides and five cows were killed in a slide. Cows are sacred in Hindu culture, so this was significant. We heard of no people being hit by rocks on the trail. Darapani—which we had walked through less than an hour before the quake—had suffered substantial damage. The school was gone. Thank goodness it was Saturday! Thank goodness we did not stay in Darapani as planned!
Rajbir immediately connected with his wife in Kathmandu. The initial report was that “some buildings collapsed and some people were killed.” This was only hours after the quake & information was scarce. Nobody had cell reception due to electrical lines/cell towers being crushed by rocks. Rajbir was only able to make the call with the satellite phone. He was also trying to connect with Jwalant—the owner of Crystal Mountain Treks.
We debated contacting our families. We decided that my dad would find out about any earthquake in Nepal—no matter how small. We also decided that earthquake was not small, even if it was only felt locally. I woke my parents up (before they had seen the news), said something like, “Hey. I think there was an earthquake. I think it was big. We are okay. Please call Jeff (Jen’s partner) and Cindy (Ryan’s mom). Don’t know when I can contact you again. Love you. Gotta go.” Click.
The river is flooded a bit due to all of the boulders falling into it. Then it started to pour rain and winds gusted to add to the drama. We saw goats lining into their shelters. Aftershocks continued. We ate dinner by candlelight in the dark dining hall and had to run outside twice during dinner due to the shocks.
This guesthouse is the nicest we have stayed at—with a sit-down toilet inside the room. No frigid trips to the outhouse!
I dreamed of the entire earth disintegrating and the guest lodge flooding from the river.
April 25 EARTHQUAKE! (Ryan)
I thought today would be a short entry. We woke in Tilche to warm rain and trekked first to Darhapani (tap water) at the confluence of the Dudh Khola (milk river) and the next river, Marsyangi Nadi. It is also the confluence of the Manaslu circuit with the Annapurna Circuit trek. There is a noticeable uptick in infrastructure, services, and tourists.
Although we were supposed to stay in Dharapani, we decided the night before to continue to Tal, 2 hours ahead. We walk awhile on a road fit for a few jeeps, but mostly foot traffic before crossing a well-dented-by-rockfall suspension bridge to the east side of the river.
We were five minutes out of Tal, within sight of this pleasant village with two majestic waterfalls gracing the cliffs in the center of town when the earth began to shake.
I don’t think any of us fully realized what all was happening at first. I certainly didn’t. I vaguely realized the ground was quaking and then, around a corner, I saw a massive brown plume of dust from a great rockfall. Then I saw great boulders falling behind us, then all around. Frantically, I searched for a safe place to hug the wall and avoid the falling rock. Sune, Sarah, and I huddled together under a small cliff and proceeded to wait.
Then next few minutes were amongst the most terrifying of my life. Rocks of all sizes were careening down all around us. An enormous boulder, maybe 4-5 feet in diameter plunged past us into the river hitting like a bomb and sending up a huge plume of water. Smaller rocks whiz past our heads like bullets and hit the water with a sound like gunshots.
When it was safe, Ryan stepped away from our shelter for 10 seconds and immediately came back over.
When at last the maelstrom had ended, we sat and waited for any straggling rocks or aftershocks. After maybe 15 minutes, joined by Podham who was not far behind, we ran from “safe” overhanging cliff to cliff until we reached Tal, which is situated on a bit of flat floodplain, away from the steep cliffs. Along the way, the trail was pock-marked with craters where rocks had impacted and bounced. A waterfall was brown with dirt where a massive slab had broken off, severing the town’s water and electricity conduits.
It looked like this…everywhere.
In the relative safety of Tal, we gathered our wits and began to worry about Kadga, Rajbir, and Jennifer, all of whom were behind us. An aftershock shook the stone wall we were sitting on out from under us and we fled across a potato field to the river’s edge. Another weaker aftershock triggers a dusty rockfall across the river on the road.
Eventually, I spy Rajbir and Jennifer with the binoculars, walking briskly with a large group on the road. A few minutes later, I see Kahdga, still hauling our bags, sprinting from safe cliff to safe cliff, as we had done. We later learn that he was in a small village of houses on another flood plain further up river during the quake. Jen and Rajbir had yet to reach the suspension bridge and were on the less steep terrain along the road.
Eventually we reunite in Tal. Many stone walls and some stone buildings are damaged. One family’s dwelling is partially caved in. They seem ok physically though.
We eventually learn that the earthquake affected Kathmandu also. The news is broken and secondhand, but several buildings were damaged or collapsed and a number (unknown how many) of people had died. Rajbir gets briefly through to his wife and learns his family is ok. The phone network is unreliable, perhaps overwhelmed or knocked out.
A police officer informs us that no one between here and Daraphani was killed, but 5 cows had died. Beyond that no news. Who knows the scope or epicenter of the quake.
We sit now at our hotel, which serves a delicious pumpkin potato bean and vegetable curry with corn bread. We will have to find out the scope gradually and hope we are able to get safely home.
The mountains, which I had gazed at with awe, wonder, and love, I now glance up at with fear and uncertainty, reminded as I am with each rumble or tremor of the awesome and unimaginably humbling power of the earth.
Even hours later, I still feel the tingle of fear. Fear is experienced inversely proportionally to the level of knowing. An earthquake is largely unknowable, unpredictable, and without thought. Malicious or other. And it can possess a power felt across an entire nation. I feel no shame in being afraid now, but I do feel afraid.
Ghermu April 26 (Sarah)
Apparently there were three large aftershocks over night (according to Rajbir). Ryan felt the one at 5 am. I only woke up to a gigantic spider that I could actually HEAR walking across the ceiling. I wasn’t sure if I preferred being awoken to aftershocks or audibly crawling spiders.
The walk on the road was the worst. We could not go on the trail, since the trail beyond Tal was wiped out by a rockslide. The road was hot and open and too quiet. Sune contacted home and found that his village was destroyed. 200 homes were simply gone and at least a few people had died. His mother was okay, but his home was no longer.
Took this picture of Sune on the phone. And then we heard the sad news.
We did not speak. We marched silently for over 2.5 hours in the boiling sunlight. A man passed us and he had been walking since 11 pm and had not stopped by midday. He was going to his family in Kathmandu. He could not contact them any other way.
The road of doom.
There were boulders in the road everywhere and small craters where they fell. There was another boulder the size of a family dining room table—similar to some that had fallen over our heads the previous day. We finally stopped in Jagat for lunch. The guys wanted to listen to a radio broadcast updating us on the earthquake.
At this point we knew nothing about magnitude or damage except what we had heard by mouth.
We were in Jagat for a very long time. There was no rush but we were anxious. Jagat is a large, but narrow town nestled below more cliffs.
We put on our backpacks and started to walk. There was another incredible aftershock (6.7 magnitude) and people started running everywhere in the streets. More huge rocks dropped down from a cliff with a BANG. Later someone told us this aftershock was actually considered its own earthquake.
We ran with all the Nepalis to the side of town near the river (now on the opposite side since we crossed the bridge at Tal). There was not much space for safety. But everyone sat down with few words. We sat for over 30 minutes but nothing else happened.
Jen waiting. The children I describe below are actually in this image.
I watched this little girl carrying a child on her back. She was close to a house. I wanted to scream at them to get away from the house. The house was fine.
Rajbir was considering staying in Jagat and taking a vehicle the next day. We argued that nowhere in Jagat was necessarily safe. A vehicle sounded positively terrifying. I said no. I would be trapped inside a jeep if rocks came collapsing down. I would rather be outside where I could run. Besides—walking would be faster on that road. He agreed.
Just an idea of why we preferred walking.
So we continued a fast and hard march forward. We were pouring sweat and jumping at the sounds of a rare jeep or motorcycle motor. If the birds were too quiet we were suspicious. If the birds were too loud we were suspicious. There were waterfalls everywhere. Now the birds sound like whizzing rock bullets.
The whole earth is alarming and mighty.
We arrived in Ghermu after a quick, steep, hurried hill (one part crumbled from a rockslide). There was no place for shelter on that hill. We had to keep moving frantically.
Except I needed to take this picture. On the way to Ghermu.
Ghermu was up on a hill and many trekkers and Nepalis alike were hiking here for shelter. We met a foreign woman who told us news. The earthquake was a magnitude 7.8 and was felt in Tibet and New Delhi, India. Gorkha area was apparently the epicenter.
Gorkha area is where we trekked through until we crossed Larke Pass. It was just over the mountains. The epicenter was Laprak. Very close to Singla—Sune’s village.
We heard 350 people were confirmed dead. Then we heard that the death toll might reach 10,000.
There are aftershocks 48-72 hours after the main quake. People are sleeping outside under tarps and some are just sitting outside in the fields during the day.
The body is in a constant state of adrenaline/fight or flight. Moving fast feels better than sitting quiet.
It is strange to order food and take a shower. I needed to wash away a week of sweat and a day of fear.
More GI issues.
The (hopeful) privilege of escape. Ghalegaun will not be possible for us. Jen can go because she will stay for an extra week or more. Ryan and I can’t justify going for a day or two, even though Ghalegaun is apparently safe.
We can’t do that to the guides. Rajbir argued with us, saying, “We are fine. Our families are fine. Sune will go to his village, but we can come with you. No problem.” We stressed that it is a problem, and even though everyone is physically safe, we are sure that Rajbir, Khadga, and Padum’s families need to see them now. Our trek is no longer the priority.
They finally agreed. We gave them almost all the rest of our money as a tip and some solar-powered lights. We gave Sune an envelope that said “Singla” and we were honored to be the first to donate to his village. They were so gracious. They were also so professional through the whole mess.
We met a guy whose porter dropped his bag and left him. He also had rocks falling down over on him during an aftershock as his porter ran away. We would certainly not blame any of the guys for dropping our crap and leaving us the same way. But they didn’t.
We also met a sweet French couple that hadn’t even felt the quake since they were on a bus. Ha! True. Any bus ride in Nepal feels a bit similar to an earthquake. They had no idea of the extent until we told them about the 7.8 magnitude and let them borrow the sat phone to leave a quick voicemail for their parents. They promptly decided continuing a trek would be a terrible idea.
April 26 (Ryan)
Awakening in Tal, we deal with the aftermath.
I am shaken awake from a deep sleep by an aftershock at 0500. Rajbir says he felt 2 more in the night. I slept through them.
The trail beyond Tal. Good thing we weren’t here!
We press on towards Jagat at a deathmarch pace. Always we are thinking of where I must go should a tremor occur. Signs and reminders are everywhere: fresh slides are abundant and the road we walk on is littered with boulders.
Sune finally finds a signal and is able to reach his family. Singla is near the epicenter. Although his family is unharmed, the village of 200 houses has only three remaining intact.
Sarah was able to tell her parents last night that we were ok. They will email/call my and Jen’s people.
We reach Jagat an hour and a half ahead of schedule. We are seated at a very nice restaurant and lodge. The locals huddle around a scratchy radio hoping for news. It feels odd to order lunch.
The nervous giggles and euphoria of survival have faded. Today is the hangover as we remember that many are dead and many more must rebuild their lives. We march, sit, and eat in near silence. This morning’s report has a death toll at 1050 in Kathmandu, more across the country. Those preliminary numbers only rise.
After lunch, as we are preparing to depart, an aftershock reminds us that we have not yet survived. A huge boulder crashes down a hill toward town. Were there any buildings that it hit? People? We wait in a small back yard away from slopes and buildings with half the village. Then we push ahead. (We later learn that this particular aftershock was considered a second earthquake of magnitude 6.7)
Fear remains pervasive. Not the fear felt during the earthquake, but a worrying, paranoid, hyper alert fear. It eats at me within. Every pedestrian sound is scary. A jeep sounds like an earthquake. A gust of wind sounds like an earthquake. The rushing river below sounds like an earthquake. A boy adjusting an antenna sounds like an earthquake.
We enter a couple of villages reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse film. They are abandoned. Only dogs, goats, and chickens remain. Yesterday I wrote that fear was inversely proportional to understanding. But not this worry-fear. For the ignorant dogs, that the earth is currently still seems to them a sign that it is safe to play, wrestle, happily wag their tails. For me, I understand there is still reason to fear. The villagers also understand. The doors are shut and locked, chairs flipped up on tables. The retreat was an orderly one. No zombies.
We arrive at last in Ghermu, A village across the river on elevated, terraced hills. Many others seek refuge in this relatively flatish place. Another traveller tells us that they learned from home that the earthquake was 7.8 magnitude. Huge. The largest since the great quake of ’34 that leveled much of Kathmandu. Always more info on the outside of an incident than living it. So strange to be living it. Some estimate 10,000 or more dead across the country. Epicenter near Gorkha, a big city.
Many of the trekkers we meet are starting out on the Annapurna circuit. They must decide to go on, or return and face away from the destruction. Their guides may not wish to go on. Will they compel them? Would I go on? I’m glad I don’t have to make such a decision. I like to think I would turn back, send my Nepali folks back to their families. But I cannot un-have the harrowing experience of yesterday which colors my view. And I have already seen the mountains I so longed to see. The others have had the experience of neither satisfaction, nor terror, and many will press on no doubt. Maybe Kathmandu will be no better, but I am content in knowing we are doing right by our Nepali family. Jen will go on to Ghale Gaun, we will accompany the others to Kathmandu.
Every rock not embedded in the road is fascinating. I want to know its story. I ask each one with my eyes, “how come you here, rock? Did you fall in the earthquake? Or is this your home? Perhaps you fell during the last great quake and have liked this spot enough to stay.”
To be continued…
(Featured image by Ryan. Wall crumbling from aftershock in Tal).