A Little Bit Higher

I was in Nepal, trekking with my friends, when the Earth shook.

Here’s what happened.

I think that night was one of the few times I was in a dark room with loud music and all sorts of lights going crazy that I was absolutely sober. There were a bunch of German guys at the bar poking fun at one another and gesticulating wildly while trying to tell their stories to another American bunch, which seemed to be not as roaring drunk. The Slovenian couple we had met a few days ago on the trek were drawing something with a marker on the graffiti wall that covered half the pub.

Dario, the soft spoken middle aged Italian man stood next to me with a can of “Everest” beer in his hand, watching a young couple play some pool.

“She’s so good that she is embarrassing him, you know!”

That was the first time he had raised his voice in the last one day that I had known him, but it was only so that I could hear him above the ridiculously loud music. Of course, I wasn’t paying any attention to the pool table at all. I think he caught that.

“I know what you’re thinking, my friend.” He scarcely called me by my name. Advait was way too hard for him to remember.

“What’s that, Dario?”

“If somebody looked at all of us in this place, they would never believe that we are stuck here because of an earthquake and waiting to get out, no?”

True that, my friend.

Needless to say I didn’t spend much time there that night, leaving after a few minutes of wondering what exactly on earth was going on around me.

The downward sloping runway at Lukla. Heartstopping, yet breathtaking

It was the third day of waiting patiently at Lukla. It’s one of the most dangerous airports in the world, if not the most. At the end of the upward-sloping runway is a vertical wall. Every time a flight landed or took off, people whipped out their camera phones or simply stared. Sometimes it meant they were now higher on the waitlist of passengers in line for a flight, and if not, the very fact that a plane could land on that runway was surprising enough. The weather had been terrible. At times like this it’s hard to romanticise being in the clouds when zero visibility means planes can’t fly in and out. For three days straight, we’d packed our bags in the mornings after heavy breakfast, walked to the airport and waited till evening to get on one of the few planes that flew to Kathmandu, albeit in vain.

When we’d come back to the lodge, Ashish, the plump and jovial cook would cheer us up with some hot tea. We’d sit around, talk to the owner of the lodge about the weather forecast for the next day, try to figure out what our chances were of being able to catch a flight back. In some time, we’d usually end up playing a game of cricket or football with all of them, and be in good spirits by dinner time.

Cricket with the Nepalese All-Stars

Of course, all we could hear when we’d walk around town was someone asking someone else, “Where were you when the earthquake happened?” or, “Did you feel the one today?” That was how everybody got talking to everybody else. Every single person in the town had an earthquake story, and everybody described their sensations in the same way.

The ground under our feet is one thing we take for granted as being constant and steady. We look up and see clouds in the sky move, we look around and see everything that surrounds us move or change, but not the ground. And yet, when the mountain you’re on starts shaking like you’re in a little canoe caught in waves, your mind starts playing tricks on you. You scarcely believe that two houses in the settlement you were walking towards, just caved in before your eyes. The sound the earth makes when it shakes like that can only be described as big, the kind of base sound that usually accompanies the protagonist in an action film turning around and giving the camera an expression of horror at what he or she has seen.

For a while it seems unreal; like a giant, extended hallucination. You feel disoriented for days afterward. Combined with the paranoia and rumours of expected aftershocks, you begin to imagine all the while that the earth under you is dancing, or floating. You sleep with your shoes on and the door open, ready to dart out at the slightest hint of a tremor, or even when you simply hear loud voices outside. You load up on caffeine through the night because you’re too afraid to fall asleep. You play games and tell stories to each other and the new people you’ve just met to keep each other up. The lack of sleep combined with the thin air makes you laugh for absurd amounts of time, till you go silent for hours on end, and this goes on for days. At times when you’re feeling tense you get annoyed with your weary companions who refuse to dart out when you suspect there might have been a minor aftershock. Other times you try and keep the mood light after a minor tremor and say, “Is that the best you’ve got?” and laugh with your friends, old and new.

The beautiful Dudh Kosi river valley

The Everest Base Camp trek is the busiest trek in the world, and we were attempting it during its busiest season. In the months of April and May every year, thousands of trekkers fly in from around the world to Kathmandu, and take the nerve wrecking flight to Lukla, and begin the walk up along the banks of the beautiful Dudh Kosi river to the get to what I like to call the bottom of the top of the world. I realised how much of a cult status the mountain had acquired over the years only once I was on the trail. Every single cafe and lodge along the way had all its walls littered with posters of some of the most famous climbers and sherpas, with some quotes and some autographed equipment as well. The underlying question everybody sized each other on was simple, ‘How high have you gone?’

Every tea house had its altitude down to the nearest metre alongside its name. And of course you could just tell when the person who entered a room full of trekkers was actually a climber; ‘expeditioners’, we called them. Needless to say they commanded a lot of respect from all of us casual trekkers, but if they looked down on trekkers and the commercialisation of the entire route to base camp, one couldn’t blame them. It was literally possible to sip on a can of Everest beer at Everest lodge while reading one of the many books on Mount Everest in nearly all of the villages on the way up; all of this before you could even catch a glimpse of this mountain. Funnily enough it felt a little like most religious towns in India that spring up around famous temples and commercialise the whole place. This was a trek on which you had a guide and the option of having a porter carry most of your stuff.

And of course, being wonderful Nepalis, they’d always smile. When the quake hit, our guide Sagar didn’t know where his father was for a whole day. Yet his first concern was to take care of the four of us and bring us to safety. He’d only tell us about his family when we made it a point to ask.

“My mother… she alive and good… she survive, but house completely go… but, is okay because we can build house again, but life once go, we cannot build again.”

And he’d be quiet just a moment or two, before smiling again and asking us if we needed anything to eat or drink.

On the walk to the airport at Lukla there was a small wall, on which people had put up names of those who were missing, along with their own contact information, and where they were last seen. For the days that we were stranded there, we noticed the list got consistently longer, as more and more people came down from various the various stages of the trek and flooded Lukla.

Cracks all along the trail

We were one of those people. having come down ourselves from around 4000m the day after the first quake struck. That was a different experience, however, from this. Every single house we saw on the way down had sustained major damage. Sections of the trail had simply collapsed or been destroyed. People had deserted entire villages and run away. People who had to stop for some reason or another were camping outside in tents, wary of being near any kind of structure that could collapse should the ground shake again.

And shake again, it did.

I remember hearing that ominous huge sound before I could see or feel anything. We were walking past the deserted and battered village of Jorshalle. As soon as the sound came, the three of us just looked up and saw massive boulders rolling down the side of the hill directly towards us. And as they rolled we just watched them, rooted to the ground like every road-crossing pedestrian who’s caught in the path of an oncoming vehicle. I remember laughing about this with Yash, Kinjal and Vinay, my three companions, that the first thought to strike the all of us as we saw the falling rocks was, “Can I dodge these?” But our little Flappy Bird inspired fantasy was cut short by a Nepali man who was a few metres behind us on the same path, who simply yelled, “RUN!”, and run we did.
We hadn’t bargained for another day of earthquakes and aftershocks. In fact we hadn’t even considered the possibility that they would return to continue wreaking havoc on the trail. In our heads, by turning back around at the village of Namche, we were only going to safer ground. After the second earthquake we waited for Sagar to catch up. (He was only behind us because he was willing our fourth companion Vinay on, who was having some trouble with a shoe bite.)

After that, every little dash needed to be calculated on how risky it would be, whether the path could hold all of us walking on it simultaneously or we needed to stick to a single file and walk slowly. I remember the scariest part of it being when we actually stopped and looked up at the hill we were supposed to ascend to get past Benkar. The tremors had literally cracked open the rock face vertically. Looking at it we knew that one small tremor more, and it could come crashing down on the path, the same path that we had to walk on.

Sagar simply looked at the four of us and asked, “Can you run?”

We passed one landslide after another

There was no choice. Yash recounted later that he felt, on that particular run, that his heart was going to explode, partly from the running and partly because he was just that scared. For the number of people we had seen walking down the trail while we were ascending, this time they all seemed to be heading only in one direction. Ever since the first quake, we had heard all kinds of rumours of the number of casualties in and around the route for the base camp trek. Stories of dead climbers, injured climbers, missing persons etc. raged on around us. Every fifteen minutes one could hear a helicopter fly overhead.

“Rescue at base camps and upper camps!” a very breathless Sagar explained while pushing us on.

Of course when we got to Lukla, and on all our trips to the airport, when we could actually see the stretchers and makeshift body-bags coming in and being unloaded from the small helicopters, the whole thing just became a little more real. It was the same kind of effect that putting on the news channel at the lodge’s restaurant had on us. When hundreds of images of Kathmandu being ravaged flashed across the screen there was only one thought that kept striking like a church bell in our head.

We were there. We felt this. We felt the same force that did all this and killed all these people…

But we needed to get to Kathmandu, simply because it was one step closer to home. People at the airport who were in the hope of being one of the lucky few to catch a flight, stocked their bags with biscuits, chocolates and energy bars because nobody knew what Kathmandu was going to be like. There were horror stories floating around of there being no food or water there. It was the general plan to not leave the airport once we got there.

“Dude, Kathmandu is stinking of dead bodies. There are reports of looting happening here because of the shortage of supplies,” our news reporter friend in Kathmandu told us.

The locals feeding the hungry at Lukla

I’d look around at Sagar, still smiling in spite of barely hearing from his father aside from the fact that he was safe, over a very bad telephone line. Ashish who would always offer us a cup of his favourite black tea whenever he felt the mood getting glum, and his ten year old brother Dilkrishna, who’d occasionally just walk up to us, look at what we were doing and run away shyly if we chose to talk to him. What a beautiful people.

And then the chopper came. Lukla isn’t a very large place, and when the Indian Air Force Helicopter landed, the whole town could hear it. As far as ‘helis’ go, it was impressive indeed. Indians in the whole town gathered their bags, pushed past the omnipresent camera junkies in the middle of their recording and made for the airport. All of us thought the same thing, ‘They came for us, we’re safe!’

The Indian Air Force rescue operation

Life for everyone in the town had been very simple up until that point. The main aim was to get home safe, sound, and uninjured. This required a number of steps. The first was to get to Lukla from wherever we were on the trail. The second was to find a way out of Lukla, getting oneself a seat on a plane to Kathmandu. This involved trying to figure out when to approach the airline office for a waitlist number, and sometimes simply being at the right place at the right time. Once in Kathmandu, find your embassy and go to them. Hope that they will take care of you and get you on a flight home or somewhere in your country. Once there, just run home and breathe easy. Only after all this was done, and you were sitting at home with your friends or family, could you afford to let it sink in and actually realise the emotions that you had been put through over the last few days.

For some of the people however, that time came a little earlier, while we were still in the IAF rescue helicopter. Many men and women cried, and the captain kept comforting and reassuring them that they were going to be safe. They let the tears flow, and even through the deafening noise of the rotor blades just a few feet from where we were sitting, slept as their bodies released the tension of the last few days. That wasn’t the way it worked for me though. We were on our way home, but looking out the circular windows of the helicopter, I knew my heart and head were not going to leave Nepal for a long time. Perhaps it was a bit of what people call mountain madness. We sit in cubicles or enclosed rooms a few feet long and a few feet wide, and when we see such vastness, entire mountains and valleys in front of us and not in a wallpaper on our screens, it changes us. Some people are addicted to the feeling; they simply need to climb.

For others, we’re merely happy to have felt it and known that there are places that can do this to you.

Thank you, Nepal.

I will pray for you every single day.

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