Nepal earthquake: Tahoe-led trekking group was on Mount Everest when everything ‘happened so quickly’
About Tusker Trail Adventures
Founded in 1977, Incline Village-based Tusker Trail Adventures is a premier adventure travel company that runs guided treks to Everest Base Camp in Napel, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, and a multi-adventure trek in Iceland, among others. Visit tusker.com to learn more.
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — In a mountain setting, a fast-approaching powder cloud comes into view within moments of the ground shaking intensely, heading directly toward you.
That was the sight Tusker Trail Adventures guide Melissa “Mel” Kaida, her two fellow guides and their 14-member trekking group witnessed on their way to Everest Base Camp shortly after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck on April 25 in the Nepalese village of Barpak, triggering an avalanche on the mountain.
“It happened so quickly that there wasn’t much time to try to decide anything,” Kaida said Monday from the safety of Tusker’s Incline Village office. “It was just like, ‘OK everyone needs to get inside.’ We were just really fortunate that it had dissipated by the time it got to (us).
“… (The) huge force of wind that comes before any avalanche … that’s what hit where we were.”
The local group rode out the ensuing wind gust inside a lodging establishment in Gorak Shep, a small village about a two-hour trek from Everest Base Camp.
No one in the group was hurt.
If a few things had gone slightly differently earlier that day, though, it may have been a different story.
Small setbacks — such as the trekkers taking a bit longer to prepare their packs that morning, and recent snowfall slowing the hiking pace — delayed the group from reaching Base Camp at their intended time, right around when the earthquake hit minutes before noon.
“There was something that was forcing us not to be there that day, and it was a bunch of these little things that kept delaying us and delaying us,” said Kaida, 33, assistant operations director for North America with Tusker Trail Adventures. “If we were there, we would have had injuries, and we would have had some people hurt for sure.”
An avalanche originating from Mount Pumori, which sits about eight kilometers west of Mount Everest, swept through Base Camp, reportedly killing at least 19 people and injuring more than 100 others.
Word reached the group that Base Camp got hit, but the extent of damage and the death toll remained unclear, Kaida said, due to varying second- and third-person accounts of the situation.
Rather than following the original itinerary of traveling to Base Camp, the group remained in Gorak Shep that day and night before hiking back down Khumba Valley.
“Once I knew that everybody was safe, it was just a matter of ‘OK, what’s our plan to get people out of here safely as possible?’” said Kaida, who lives in Truckee.
‘MOMENT BY MOMENT’
On the other side of the world, in Incline Village, Tusker Trail Adventures co-owner Amy Frank and staff members worked around the clock on evacuation arrangements.
Ultimately, Tusker was able to secure a helicopter through its partner, Ripcord Travel Protection, which specializes in evacuations and extractions from remote areas, and new commercial flights for the group out of Kathmandu Airport, located in Nepal’s capital.
Yet, obstacles such as weather, timing and potential government decisions regarding outbound flights still lay ahead.
“It was moment by moment,” said Andrew Springsteel, Tusker’s operations director for North America, describing the evacuation effort. “… Every step along the way (was) just, ‘wait on the edge of your seat to see what happens.’”
On April 29, fours days after the quake and avalanche, the trekking group met the helicopter at Syangboche Airstrip in Khumba Valley.
As the helicopter flew directly into Kathmandu Airport, Kaida could see the devastation the earthquake wrought.
“Some places looked like nothing had hit them at all, and others were completely destroyed,” she said. “The most prominent thing I think was all the tents that we saw, and I think that’s because most people who had survived didn’t want to sleep in the buildings. So any big open space in the city was all tent cities.
“It was kind of a wake-up call for us because we had just been trekking. We hadn’t seen as much of that what the earthquake had caused, the devastation until we really got into Kathmandu.”
‘NOBODY WILL EVER FORGET’
The death toll from the earthquake, also known as the Gorkha quake, reportedly stands at more than 7,300, which is expected to rise, with 14,122 people injured and a reconstruction cost estimate of more than $5 billion.
From Kathmandu, the group, on three separate flights, flew to India, where each member picked up connecting flights to return home to the United States or their intended destination after the trip.
“It’s like having all your little chicks back in the coop, having everyone get home safe,” said Springsteel, 39, who lives in Incline Village. “It’s the big thing that’s on your mind … That’s what you’re shooting for, so for everyone to be back, it’s big.”
Kaida landed in Reno-Tahoe International Airport Friday night, one of the last members of the group to arrive home, and was greeted by friends and family.
“… It’s a trip nobody will ever forget, and I think it brought our group closer because we all experienced this together,” she said.
The American Red Cross is committing $1,000,000 and mobilizing disaster specialists to help provide emergency humanitarian assistance to the victims and survivors in Nepal. Visit redcross.org to learn more.