By: Anna Callaghan May 12, 2015 Outside Magazine
Nearly two weeks after the devastating earthquake in Nepal, Outside spoke to Lakpa Rita, head Sherpa for Alpine Ascents International, as he stood on a windy hillside above his hometown of Thame. The Thame Valley, located in the greater Khumbu Valley, is home to many Sherpa who have been integral to the commercial climbing industry, from high-profile climbers like Tenzing Norgay and Lakpa Rita (who has summited Everest 17 times), to dozens of the Sherpas who work in support roles at Base Camp and above the Icefall. Many homes in Thame were destroyed in the April 25 earthquake—it was the hardest hit of the villages in the Khumbu Valley. Initial reports following the May 12, 7.3 magnitude earthquake indicate that every structure in Thame has now sustained severe damage; Lakpa Rita has confirmed that he and his family are safe.
When the April 25 avalanche happened, I was in Base Camp. Some of my team members were at Camp 1. A huge ice block came from right below the summit of Pumori; it cracked the whole ridge and then it collapsed. It was a huge, huge avalanche and the center of Base Camp was completely destroyed. As soon as the avalanche and wind stopped, I radioed my team and found out they were safe.
Then I started down to the tents in the center of camp. The debris buried a lot of the people. Some were already passed away by the time we got there. We rescued so many people. We worked with doctors from the Himalayan Rescue Association to set up a clinic at the IMG camp and we provided oxygen for those who were seriously injured. It wasn’t a great day to fly a heli because no one could land. I know that at least one guy didn’t survive that night. The next morning, around 11, it started getting better for helis so we were able to transport people down the valley. We didn’t have enough medical supplies at Base Camp so we sent a lot of people down. Then we started to collect the dead bodies. The next day we had a heli to bring people down from the upper mountain.
It was scary. I have never seen a huge avalanche like that in my life. When the earthquake came, it just got stronger and stronger. We heard this noise all the way around Base Camp, like someone detonating dynamite. Then the avalanche was everywhere. I decided to stay in my communication tent. I was very lucky.
My camp was very lucky. We didn’t get blasted by the avalanche, we just got some strong winds. We didn’t get hit by debris because we were all the way at the top, at the very upper part of the camp. The center of Base Camp was destroyed. Almost everything was blown away.
After the avalanche, some of my Sherpa got word from home that Thame got hit badly, that people didn’t have shelter and only one or two houses were in good shape. My brother [another prominent Sherpa, Kami Rita] was with me at Base Camp and he is fine. I learned my sister was all right. Unfortunately I couldn’t call my parents, and they thought my parents were dead. [Ed note: That proved to be false, Lakpa Rita’s parents are fine.] I wanted to get my Sherpa back home to their family, but I had to get everyone down from the mountain safely first. As soon as I got all the team members back from Camp I, I let all my Sherpas go home and help their families. On our expedition, 13 out of 19 Sherpa from Thame, and all except for two were from the Thame valley.
I stayed behind for two days to wait to see if my team would decide to climb, but they decided to go home. I flew from Base Camp to Lukla and then I was supposed to fly via heli to Thame, but because of the weather we had to wait one day. I have been here in Thame since then. People from Thame Valley are very lucky, only two people were killed and a few were injured but not very badly, though there is one lady in critical condition.
There are many people living in the Thame Valley. In one part, 46 houses were damaged or completely destroyed and all the families are living in tents. In upper Thame, 49 houses were destroyed. Nearby, in Thamo and by the monastery, another 30-40 were destroyed. In total about 150 homes. So about 90 percent of homes in the Thame Valley are totally destroyed. Many other houses are cracked and it’s pretty scary to live in them.
I believe about 400-500 people are living in the valley, somewhere around that. Most of the houses are made of stone and wood, with a wooden door and stone walls. Some houses have a stone roof and some have a metal roof. The worst case scenario are the house with the metal roofs. The walls are gone but the metal is still attached, so it’s pretty scary to take down. The stone roofs are very heavy so they collapsed completely and broke the lumber down to the ground. Most of the stone roof houses came all the way down and destroyed everything inside the house. That’s much easier to clean up, but a lot of people’s possessions were ruined and are no longer usable. The school was destroyed and the monastery has a big crack in it. The crack is not a major problem but in front of the monastery where the monks perform a dance once a year has a big crack and is now unable to be used.
There are 120 tarps that were donated by Sherpa Adventure Gear and are at Lukla right now. I think it will take about three days to get them to Thame, but transportation is hard right now. I am trying to figure out how to get them here by helicopter. At the moment I’m trying to figure out how to get supplies and a tarp to every single family so they have some kind of emergency shelter.
In terms of food, I think everyone has enough to eat right now. In terms of rebuilding, it’s a mess right now. People are trying to get things out that are buried, and they’re trying to clean up and trying to get rations out. Hopefully in a month or two they might be able to get some people to come help rebuild. The people in this valley don’t know how to build these house and need to hire a carpenter to help, but help is scarce right now. People are cooking underneath the tarp and sleeping under it if they don’t have a tent. Some are using their metal roof, if they can, to block wind and cook underneath.
There’s no place for people to go. They can’t leave. They don’t have enough money. They have to stay here. They have enough food for a while and are trying to clean up and hope to rebuild. The roads in the valley seem okay but it’s hard to get porters and get stuff here. Even though you have to wait for days, the best way may be by helicopter. It’s expensive, but it may be the only option.
We need support from all around the world to rebuild our village and the valley. Right now there’s not much more that people can do. People are all living outside. People are staying positive. But they need help to rebuild. I’ve been working with the AAI Sherpa Education Fund and I also work with the Thame Heritage Fund and am trying to raise funds to help with that.