3 Life lessons I learned as an earthquake survivor
Congnitive biases, human nature and the meaning of luck
Survivor is actually quite a big word. On the 25th of April, I happened to be in Nepal fulfilling my quarter-life-crisis-pre-MBA dream of walking the Great Himalaya Trail. I started my journey in the Far East of Nepal on the 17th, and almost made it to the pass between Makalu and Solo Khumbu before turning back. When the first earthquake hit, I was sitting on a bamboo terrace of a village house having lunch. Ironically, other than the shaking roof of the terrace and the panic call from my parents, I didn’t even know anything was wrong until much later. The flatlands of Makalu didn’t get a lot of destruction and for the local people it was business as usual, so I kept going for another 2 days before turning back. In the absence of phone signal and electricity to charge my satellite messenger, the information vacuum fed my desire to finish the trek at any cost. I finally turned back on the 27th of April, having almost reached Salpa Pass where the aftershocks and a landslide have destroyed most of the houses higher up on the mountain. I was blessed to escape this horrible situation alive and healthy. Below are my observations about my own and other people’s reactions in crisis situations and panic that followed after the 25th of April.
In a crisis situation almost everyone’s judgement is flawed
Having been obsessed with the idea of Everest for a while, I dove into books about exploring remote corners of the world and, especially, mountaineering. Jon Krakauer’s masterpiece about the ’96 disaster Into Thin Air stood out from the rest for its somberness and the exact account of what goes on in the brain of an otherwise highly rational overachiever when it comes to challenges. You would think that every person who steps foot in the Himalayas is informed about the dangers of unpredictable mountain climate and natural disasters. We all read the books and we all know the statistics. We have cut-off times, clear rules to follow and pledges to our loved ones never to take risks. We also hire guides and porters as a precautionary measure and obsess about weather forecasts. In reality, all this prep work and expensive equipment give a false sense of security. I went on the GHT as prepared as I could ever be, and I knew that I would never push myself past the point where the risk-reward ratio was no longer in my favor. Yet, when the earthquake hit, I spent 30 minutes of invaluable phone signal time convincing my parents that “it doesn’t make sense to go back to Kathmandu if there is an earthquake there becasue here all is fine” rather than asking questions about what is being factually reported about the earthquake. I called the agency that organized my trek with no other intention than to get reassurance that continuing the trek was ok, and I set off. Shortly afterward, I lost phone signal and the battery on my satellite messenger was running critically low. The following morning, I knew something bad had happened because over a 1,000 people were reported dead on the local radio and my mom sent me several “come the fuck home” texts through the satellite messenger. But I kept going. The only thought in my head that day was that I have never quit anything I set out to do and I am not going to now. In the evening I reached Salpa Phedi which is the last village on the way to a very difficult mountain pass. I went to bed early to get ready for a long day of walking and slept through the 5 am aftershock wake up call. My guide didn’t communicate anything about the severity of the situation and intended to keep going. It is very hard to admit, but I would very likely have kept walking if I hadn’t met Tim and Benny this morning who convinced me that going ahead was not a good idea. At this point, over 2,000 people were reported dead and the strength of the earthquake was estimated at 7.8. There was a landslide on the mountain about 200m away from where I was sleeping that completely flattened several houses. All major embassies were assembling their citizens in safety camps for immediate evacuation as soon as planes could land in Kathmandu. The city itself was left without water or electricity supply. All these were facts that I first chose to ignore, thinking about the money I spent on the trip and the fact that it will be a while before I can have a 4 months vacation again instead … This is excatly how people die on Everest. Is there a cure? I would very much like to know.
People are prone to panic, and other people feed on that panic
After making the decision to turn back I had to walk close to 30 miles in one day to get to Tumlingtar which hosts a local airport and other amenities that I haven’t seen since leaving Kathmandu, such as lukewarm shower and chocolate. Shortly prior to my triumphant arrival there was an aftershock in Tumlingtar and several people opted for sleeping on the ground outside rather than under the concrete roof of a hotel. Other than this minor inconvenience (which was not really an inconvenience considering that I have been sleeping in village houses for the most part), the food was great, there was electricity, phone signal and even wi fi. I spent the first couple of hours on the phone with my parents and replying to “are you alive” messages on Facebook. At this point, all guesthouses in Kathmandu were closed and most tourists camped near their embassies. Chaos reigned over the Tribhuvan airport and most international flights got cancelled. When I got to Kathmandu on the 29th, tourists were sleeping in tents in front of the airport.
In Tumlingtar I made the decision to stay and not to rush getting back to Kathmandu until I could make sure that I would be able to fly out on the same day. Tumlingtar was mostly sheltered from destruction. There was an abundance of guesthouses, water, hot food and even chocolate. On the other hand, the situation in Kathmandu was dire. However, there were several groups of tourists desperate to get to Kathmandu. When Yeti Air cancelled their local flights, they bought tickets for the Buddha Air flight. When this flight got cancelled too, they embarked on a 22 hour jeep ride on partly broken roads back to Kathmandu, after 5 days of waiting for the local airport to re-open. Others were calling helicopters, trying to get to Kathmandu at any cost (none came). For some reason, everyone was certain that their international flight in particular will be able to take off, while all others were cancelled. To me, going to Kathmandu seemed like a gamble with an uncertain pay-off and big downside. Why not waiting a couple of days in order to fly home safely when the dust settles? Panic, overreaction, and those 300 work emails waiting for a response.
Meanwhile, all sort of groups were being formed on social networks, with the aim to “help” Western tourists get back home. There was even a guy especially looking to help Russians who were still in Nepal. Having found out about my existence, he posted that “a Russian citizen in the Makalu region needs help”. Thank you very much, but, at that point, I was sitting in the garden of a very nice house, sipping cold beer in great company. Trust me, I was the last person who needed help. The people who did need help were all those living in villages outside of Kathmandu whose houses were destroyed. However, their tragedy won’t attract as much attention as “rescuing” a Westerner. All sorts of people outside of Nepal posted in those groups, attracted by the drama and trying to get a piece of the action. As a result, the extent of the tourist suffering was vastly exaggerated. As much as it is admirable that so many people want to help, how much help is a Facebook post? This begs the question… why do people like drama so much? And how much of what we are shown by the mainstream media are facts and how much is someone else’s biased account of the facts?
Luck does exist
My personal philosophy is grounded on the premise that everyone makes their own luck. When people told me that I was lucky to get the jobs I had or the business school offers , I always brushed them off with a cold “the harder I work, the luckier I get”. I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography from cover to cover and aggressively used his life story as my main argument in favor of hard work versus luck as the main driver of success in life. Arnold absolutely killed it in 4 different fields — can’t get that lucky several times!
Looking back at the events leading up to and following the earthquake, I am starting to realise how many things were entirely outside of my control. Yet at every juncture, I was dealt the best possible hand. When the earthquake hit, I was far enough from the epicenter (which was on my itinerary one month down the line), sitting in a house built from bamboo. Because the area between Tumlingtar and Salpa Phedi is not much higher than sealevel, the damage was minimal for a 7.8 earthquake. Even if the bamboo house did collapse, I would have survived it just fine. In a casual absence of phone signal I got a chance to tell my family that I was ok and kept going. During one of the aftershocks I happened to be sleeping in a village 200m away from a landslide that destroyed several houses. Then, cut off from communicating with the wolrd (which is one of the main reasons one goes hiking in remote areas), I serendipiosly met Australian mountain bikers who gave me an accurate account of what was going on and convinced me to turn back. In Taplejung, the last aftershock, which caused minor cracks in the walls of several houses, happened 2 hours before I got into town. I was able to fly out of Tumplingtar of the first Yeti Air flight after less than 48 hours of waiting, while others waited for 5 days before jumping on a bus. Once in Kathmandu, I managed to book myself a flight to Abu Dhabi, leaving on the same day (and it was reasonably priced considering the situation), while people were camping in front of the airport. If things went differently, I may have been one of the over 8,000 victims. Considering the fact that most trekkers start the Great Himalaya Trail in March to escape the monsoon season, I would have been within within 20km of the epicenter had I started walking in early spring as recommended (the timing of round 2 MBA admissions and 4 week notice period in Europe to the rescue).
Luck matters much more in life than I could ever think, and I am one very lucky monster.