After the Shock: Walking the Everest Route

A week after Nepal’s devastating earthquake, international attention focused on Kathmandu and Everest Base Camp. But what about the villages in the Khumbu Valley that support commercial climbing on Everest?

By: David Morton       May 7, 2015      Outside Magazine

 April 25, I was sitting in the Thame valley in the kitchen of my friend Lhamu Chiki Sherpa, when suddenly she looked startled. I intuitively looked next to me at my friend Danuru Sherpa (a 16-time Everest summiter) to get a second read; he also was surprised. Lhamu Chiki darted out of the house, followed by Danuru. I quickly followed.

At first, I thought there had been a fire on the stove. As I left Lhamu Chiki’s home, I stumbled awkwardly and saw the corner of the building across from me start to crumble. That was the first moment I realized an earthquake had begun. Danuru began praying; Lhamu Chiki began crying and praying. I don’t know how to pray. The earthquake seemed to last forever. As it subsided, everyone in the village grabbed their cellphones and tried to call their loved ones, but no one could get through. I tried to call my wife. Lhamu Chiki received word that her sister had been killed, and we took off toward Thame Theng, a village just above Thame less than half a mile upvalley. The rest of the day was spent frantically checking on people amid the devastation of these villages.

Over the next several days, I passed down the valley from Thame to Namche Bazaar to Lukla, taking several days to walk the trails (there are no roads for vehicles) and talking to those who live in the area. The Khumbu region is composed of roughly a dozen small villages, each home to anywhere from a few dozen people to a few hundred. Namche Bazaar is the commercial and tourist hub and the geographic center of Khumbu, as the three major valleys above converge there.

Most villages have a school and a Buddhist temple or monastery. The people who live in the area historically have been subsistence farmers who tend fields of potatoes and green leaf vegetables and herd yaks, which often share the stone-and-timber homes that the Sherpa build on the sides of the valley. Many have also built teahouses and lodges that are popular with the trekkers and mountaineers, who use this as the only route to Everest Base Camp. For the past several years, the towns have had cell towers, which also provide Internet.  That’s important because, while much of the country’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, individuals were still able to use cellphones to communicate with each other, although the service was occasionally overwhelmed by traffic; in the middle of the period during the two earthquakes, service was next to impossible.

Many of the villages that mountaineers and climbers most often visit, like Pangboche and Dingboche, experienced little damage and few injuries. However, the valley's largest villages, Khumjung and Khunde, had a number of structures that were seriously affected, including the gomba (monastery) and the dental clinic.

The hardest-hit of the villages I saw were Thame and the smaller villages that surround it. Thame, a town of roughly 200 people, is home to famous climbing Sherpas like Tenzing Norgay and Apa Sherpa. The nearby villages of Samde, Thame Theng, Yelajung, and Taranga were all heavily affected—nearly all homes in those places and Thame were destroyed. Many of the teahouses, which cater to traveling trekkers and climbers and are the primary driver of the local economy, were also completely ruined. The ones that weren’t sustained extensive damage—collapsed ceilings, collapsed walls—and will need to be repaired, which could take a long while due to the limited availability of resources and stoneworkers.

  Photo: Lakpa Rita

Given the severity of the quake, it is remarkable to me that there were only a dozen or so injuries in the area—from significant contusions and lacerations to severe orthopedic injuries. Those will require ongoing attention, which will be difficult. To reach a doctor, injured individuals have to ride a horse or walk a day. There were also two deaths in the valley, raising the total number of deaths in the region to nearly 30. By my count, 17 of those occurred at Everest Base Camp. (Eleven of those were Nepalese.)

Because of the large number of expeditions that store equipment in the valley and the many workers who inherit old equipment from their employers, some shelter for those whose homes were destroyed was available almost immediately. Tents from recognizable expedition companies based in Nepal and overseas can now be seen dotting the landscape.

With a government that is ineffective in the best of times, no one in the Khumbu Valley is waiting for support, so the communities within the valley have tried to shift resources to those who most need it. In Namche, for example, the Namche Women’s Group collected money from those in the village and convinced the local food supplier to sell them provisions at a discount so that they could take them to Thame. Several Namche organizations banded together to gather blankets, food, utensils, and other items for the families in Thame who lost homes. Thame-born Lama Zopa Rinpoche, from the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, paid to have two helicopter loads of provisions, like shelter materials, food, and tarps, flown to Thame. As I left Lukla on Saturday, May 2, more heli loads were rumored to be on the way.

In general, the urgent problems in the valley seem to have been addressed. As those who have lost family members finish funeral proceedings, others have begun to rebuild their lodges. Many families rely on lodges and teahouses for income, so their construction will be a priority this summer. (Though the process may be slowed because many laborers in the area have returned to their own villages to take care of their own homes and families.)

Restoring Khumbu villages will take time, and much has been lost both in terms of property and character. The Khumbu Valley is the most well-known mountain area of Nepal; it will receive attention, aid, and assistance. That’s important. But there are many other mountain regions from which there has been very little news. They need attention as well, and they will definitely need assistance.