Jun 10, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE: When International Headlines Disappear

The seismic shifts have subsided, the number of deaths and casualties have plateaued, and international headlines have all but disappeared.... Sadly, the aftermath of the earthquake and over 300 aftershocks as felt by over ¼ of Nepal’s population of 28-million remains a startling reality. The new challenges are both violent and silent and will ultimately affect most vulnerable populations including 1.7 million children, newborns and an estimated 160,000 pregnant women in the affected areas.

Leaving the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu on the 31st of May I looked out the taxi window and began a long journey of starting to work my way through a complex set of emotions. Orange and blue tarps still scattered like patchwork along the streets; mothers crawling out of their tents with crying hungry children in their wake, men sweeping the dusty streets in the early morning light. How lucky (?) I was to be able to just ‘leave’ and return to the UK when so many millions of people have no choice but to face a harsh reality.

The harsh reality is the problems that remain in Nepal which run deeper than the jagged cracks in the walls and far beyond the rubble which still litters the streets in Kathmandu and many rural villages. Whilst there has been much talk about ‘the resilience of the Nepali people’ over the past six weeks, longer term challenges remain that will put this Nepali resilience to the test. Thousands of people continue to eke out their daily lives in extreme poverty under tarps and in tents, fearing more aftershocks and living in frightened anticipation of the next ‘big one’.  In the mud and damp under these tents and tarps, malnutrition, gastrointestinal diseases and the threat of water-borne diseases run rife. Driving past one of Kathmandu’s many humid, steaming ‘tent cities’ and inhaling the humid stench of human waste is proof of this.

For many people each new tectonic twitch heightens the instability and uncertainty. Just last week a 4.4-magnitude tremor shook parts of Kathmandu, sending the birds screeching into the air and the children screaming into the cover of their tarpaulin camps. It was yet another unnecessary reminder of what had happened – and what may yet lie ahead.

There's also the ‘invisible’ silent aftermath - the earthquake’s impact on mental health. Mental health experts say those most vulnerable to developing prolonged mental health conditions are children, the disabled, and the elderly. Sadly, many of these people don’t have access to councillors or professionals to help cope with mental stress and grief. There are countless stories of men, women and children who become paralysed with fear at the sound of loud noises, become overwhelmed by crowds, fear enclosed places, and have a constant ‘earthquake hangover’ – the feeling that the ground is perpetually moving, a temporary inner-ear reaction to the earthquake and constant aftershocks.

The monsoon has started with a vengeance with torrential rains, thunder, lightning and hail. In just four months, between June - September, 85% of Nepal’s annual precipitation of 1,500-3,000mm will fall. Last week in a precursor to the monsoon I watched as the sky grew dark and rolled thick with thunder and lightning. With each almighty crack the building shook from above whilst the aftershocks rumbled the earth from below. I felt well and truly put in my place, with an all too familiar ‘earthquake adrenaline’ pulsing through my veins. The wind began to pick up and across the horizon a flurry of destroyed orange, yellow and blue tents and tarps could be seen flying through the sky. And this was just the beginning. I can’t even begin to imagine the terror of children and families cowering from the elements as their flimsy shelters were ripped from their frames.

The monsoon rains will trigger devastating landslides. Whilst the mountains tremble their slopes become increasingly unstable – all that is needed is water and gravity to complete the vicious cycle. From my brief visit to the Khumbu in mid-May it was clear that the instability of the slopes and the crumbling, deteriorating mountain trails would be hard-hit by the monsoon rains.  Even sections of the well-trodden ‘Everest trail’ such as after Phakding bore visible evidence of instability and landslides. Many relief efforts to hard-hit and remote districts such as Ghorka, Sindhupalchok and Langtang have been thwarted by unstable slopes and devastating landslides. Additionally, the monsoon will also force the country’s few helicopters to be grounded – slowing down the delivery of much needed aid to the vulnerable.

In the departures lounge at the airport I saw another national headline highlighting an issue that stopped me in my tracks – the trafficking of women and children. Tens of thousands of young women from regions devastated by the earthquake in Nepal are being targeted by human traffickers supplying a network of brothels across south Asia. Many children are being picked up and taken abroad by traffickers posing as relief workers. Many ‘tent cities’ are now guarded by police offers stopping any children accompanied by an adult. Over the past few weeks I feel as though I’ve seen humanity at its best – people stepping in, risking their lives, helping those in need… but then I see headlines like this. How can some people be so heartless?

I’ve been back home for over a week now. It’s strange – whilst in Nepal I’d been so immersed in the earthquake relief efforts, the continuous aftershocks, seeing destroyed buildings and the headlines in the local papers, that I hadn’t really imagined or considered life ‘outside’ of the ‘earthquake bubble’. I knew that it would be a shock to reintegrate into ‘normal life’ but I hadn’t really reflected on what aspect would be the most difficult.

I think it’s a feeling of helplessness and trying to balance between getting back into my original, usual ‘work-life routine’ and integrating the experiences of the past 2 months whilst ensuring that, like the international headlines, my efforts don’t taper off and disappear. I guess this is part of defining my ‘new normal’. All the while my Facebook newsfeed remains full of stories and images of friends on the ground in Nepal building temporary shelters like the earthbag homes, distributing tents and tarps, building schools, distributing food and medical supplies and preparing for the monsoon rains. It’s hard to be here because I know how valuable an extra set of hands can be there. Having said that, I also know how many more funds are required and how much continued awareness is needed to support these efforts to help the vulnerable prepare for an uncertain future – their ‘new normal’.

Beyond continued fundraising efforts organised from the UK and Canada, I plan to return to Nepal in the Autumn to continue to help with the rebuilding efforts. Next Spring I will return and continue my expedition on Shishapangma and Cho Oyu. They’re small contributions – mere drops in the ocean – to helping solve the wider problems but do make a difference.  As the saying goes, I believe it was Mother Theresa who said it, whatever you can give, no matter how small will be of great benefit. We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.


Thank you for your continued contributions and donations to the Paldorje Education Foundation - Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund. Whilst the Nepal earthquake headlines may no longer dominate the front pages of international media, the impacts here remain real and omni present. Please continue to donate, to spread the word and give what you can.

Jun 1, 2015

The Nepali Times Article: When The Mountain Moved

Copy of the article which appeared in The Nepali Times, 1 June, 2015

Lhakpa Wongchu Sherpa and I set out from Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp on 25 April in heavy snow, limited visibility, and a gentle breeze that left the long string of prayer flags blowing gently in the wind. Despite the weather, we felt warm and safe in the mountains as we began to make our way up to Depot Camp at 5800m.
It was a long, slow plod over a maze of rock, mud and snow with limited opportunity to appreciate the mighty mountain vistas hidden in the mist. We’d only been teased with fleeting views of this 8025m summit, the 14th highest in the world.
I had been planning this ‘Himalayan Double Header’ expedition for six months: climb Shishapangma from early April to mid-May and then travel overland to climb the 6th highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu for a mid-late May summit. If successful I would be the first woman in 23 years to have done so and the 2nd woman ever.
When we reached the Depot Camp, I sat reflecting on my passion for mountaineering. Mountains provide context, they are humbling and make you realise there are forces in nature that will never be harnessed, that won't bend to our schedules. Rather, we bend to theirs. Coming from a consulting job that demands structure and planning, I find this lack of ‘control’ in mountaineering an opportunity for reckless mental and physical creativity liberating.
I was tired but content. I took a sip of water and looked down at my watch. 11.55am. My ears picked up a faint, deep rumbling sound that broke the silence and sparked an almost animal-like instinct. Something wasn't right. The rumbling continued, louder and louder.
My initial instinct was that this was an avalanche, but where was it coming from? We were literally surrounded by mountains on all sides and had zero visibility. The ground then began to shift back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement. Earthquake.
Lhakpa shouted over the roaring sound of falling rock and ice. Through the mist we tried desperately to establish the direction from which the avalanche would come. We huddled next to a rock, our eyes darting in all directions, hugging each other, terrified, praying that the rumbling and shaking would stop.
In what felt like an eternity, the seismic shifts beneath our feet finally subsided. As we fearfully made our way back to Advanced Base Camp, we noticed the impact of the quake and the avalanches of snow and rock it had released. There were fresh cracks in the ground, loose boulders dislodged, cracked ice in the lakes. Almost eerily, the snow stopped and the cloud lifted, and rather than a scene of destruction and devastation, the mountain vista stretched out before us seemed almost beautiful, natural and strangely rebalanced.
Back in Advanced Base Camp we learned that the earthquake had been widespread but were limited to the details by an almost complete lack of communications. It wasn’t until our evacuation from the mountain and arrival back in Kathmandu on 5 May that I began to realise the full scale of the disaster. I’d only heard about the tragedy on Everest but hadn’t prepared myself for the bigger picture. It was overwhelming, at a scale unprecedented to my senses and any previous frames of reference.
My first day back in Kathmandu was an emotional roller coaster walking through the rubble and dust of the once familiar streets and past ancient monuments. Concerned for my wellbeing, family and friends demanded I return home. But going home would mean turning my back on a country that had been so incredibly generous to me since my first visit 15 years ago. I knew I had skills that would be helpful in mobilising the aid required to provide relief and support the rebuilding of the country. I decided to stay and help my friend Tashi Sherpa of Sherpa Adventure Gear and his team raise funds for earthquake relief through the Sherpa Adventure Gear Paldorje Education Foundation and provide assistance with the distribution of aid to those most in need.
On 12 May I was in Kathmandu assisting with this relief work when the second earthquake struck with a magnitude 7.3. Being on a mountain for the first earthquake and in a city for the second was equally terrifying. This time the danger wasn’t avalanches coming down, it was the buildings.
On the ground relief work has opened my eyes to the scale of the disaster: many villages still look like a war zone. Buildings tilt at vertiginous angles, a door or window visible through a twisted mess of corrugated iron. Brown dust drifts over the disintegrated remains of once proud homes.
I’ve since travelled and distributed relief to areas that I didn’t even know existed, unpronounceable place names on a map are now personified by images of rubble and the outstretched arms of the vulnerable. This week, we distributed relief to a community in Dolakha. Last week I travelled to the Khumbu to deliver financial aid to 234 families in Thame, and delivered aid to survivors of the Langtang tragedy now living at the Yellow Gompa in Kathmandu. Over the past month we’ve distributed over a thousand tents and tarps, thousands of kg of food, and provided extensive financial support. I’ve seen more of the country and met more incredibly inspiring, resilient people than I’ve ever thought possible.
Amid the long, deep cracks and between the rubble, I’ve also found something to be positive about for the longer-term future of the country. This is the initiative and energy of Nepal’s youth which is rapidly gaining momentum: a groundswell which will bring greater and longer-lasting change than the devastating earthquakes.
Sometimes I forget that I originally came to Nepal in early April to climb mountains. Little did I know that when I arrived that these mountains would be more proverbial than real. The people that I've met, the things I've seen and the lessons learned have been more impactful than any summit I've ever attempted, stood on or dreamed about.