Thousands of people in rural communities across Nepal's vast mountainous regions are without shelter, food, and clean water—and, even worse, are completely cut off from the rest of the world—in the wake of Saturday's earthquake.
While reports documenting the destruction have come mainly from the capital Kathmandu, where hundreds of structures were demolished, and from Mount Everest, where an avalanche triggered by the quake killed at least 21 people in Base Camp, attempts to contact mountain villages in many regions has been met with ominous silence.
The road network that connects the Kathmandu Valley—home to approximately 2.5 million people—to rural Nepal is poorly maintained and unreliable even under normal circumstances. With cell networks down and roads and trails severed by myriad landslides, confirmed information from remote areas is proving difficult to come by.
The few reports coming from the rural areas paint a grim picture of widespread destruction.
“The real story is in the hills,” says American Ben Ayers, Country Director for the Dzi Foundation and a longtime resident of Nepal. “There were many huge, huge landslides, and the death tolls are going to go way up.”
American alpinist Colin Haley, who was camped a half hour up valley from the village at the time of the earthquake, reported that “the dead now outnumber the living” in the valley.
“We saw some villages completely washed away by landslides, while some others looked like deserts due to landslides,” Captain Bibek Khadka, a pilot for a private helicopter company based in Kathmandu, told the Annapurna Post. Khadkha has been flying rescue missions since earthquake happened.
Langtang Among the Hardest Hit
Langtang, a mountain region just north of Kathmandu and approximately 50 miles from the epicenter of the quake, may have been among the hardest hit villages.
“#Langtang needs strong search and rescue capacity urgently!” tweeted Prince Mathew, a doctor based in Delhi with the group Doctors Without Borders, after completing an aerial survey of the destruction on Monday. “Sadly not smthng we hv [sic] expertise or eqpt for,” he wrote.
“Langtang Village was completely destroyed,” reported Ian Wall, a British aid worker and trekking guide living in Kathmandu in a message over social media.. “All lodges destroyed, at least 12 trekkers gone and many Nepalis…”
Wall stressed that news from much of the countryside at this point was hearsay, but he expects extensive destruction. More alarming was the fact that many settlements had not been heard from at all. Wall mentioned several villages in the Gauri Shankar region east of Langtang, where his wife, a Nepali citizen, is from.
“We have had no contact… since the earthquake last Saturday, 25th April," he wrote. "We contacted the local administration to ask for assistance in getting through to the communities for an assessment, their response ..'It's too far away.',” he wrote.
“Roads into Kathmandu are havoc,” he added.
Widespread Destruction yet Resiliency in Sherpa Communities
Farther away from the epicenter, in the popular trekking villages of the Khumbu Valley below Mount Everest, peak tourist season was just beginning when the earthquake hit, likely ending the lucrative climbing season for the second year in a row. Although the historic heartland of the Sherpa people fared far better than other regions, many homes were destroyed there as well.
“Everything just started moving—like a slinky,” said Ayers, who was in the village of Chaurikharka when the earthquake hit. “Everything around us was collapsing and tumbling down. It’s really impossible to describe.” Ayers, who was having coffee with some Nepali friends, ran outside with his hosts when the quake struck.
“The community just ended up standing out there in the rain, just in shock… Just f—king standing there,” he said.
Dave Morton, an American climber and co-founder of the Juniper Fund, was eating lunch in the village of Thame when the earthquake struck. “I was having lunch with Danuru and Lhamu Chhiki,” he said via satellite phone. “They had absolute panic in their faces. At first I thought the kitchen had caught on fire... they bolted, and I followed them outside.”
“Lhamu Chikki was just hanging on me, crying. I kept saying it was going to be all right, then I started seeing the building corners falling off, mud popping out of the masonry,” Morton said.
It’s difficult to assess the extent of the damage in the Khumbu. In Thame, which appears to be one of the worst hit villages, Morton estimated that nearly 100 percent of the structures were destroyed. “Looking out, metal roofs are still up, but all interior walls are out,” he said. “I’m shocked that nobody was killed here.”
Two elderly Sherpani women did die in subsidiary villages just up valley from Thame, Morton reported.
Ayers described the damage as “variable,” noting that in Chaurikharka, buildings buckled and collapsed, but in neighboring Chheplung—a village only a 20-minute walk away—destruction appeared to be slight.
“Some towns are built on mud, others on bedrock, I guess,” Ayers said.
Other Khumbu villages reportedly hit hard include Khumjung, one of the traditional homes of Everest Sherpas. Meanwhile, hundreds of people are said to have vacated Namche, the commercial and travel center of the Khumbu, seeking safer terrain. Namche is located in a steep bowl at 11,000 feet (3,350 meters).
As dozens of aftershocks continue to wreck the region, the danger posed by destabilized structures is significant, and will certainly contribute to slower moving humanitarian problems that will develop in the days and weeks to come.
In the Kathmandu Valley, the government has identified 16 open spaces where temporary camps are being established and is requesting huge numbers of tents and blankets for displaced peoples. Such camps are often breeding ground for illness and disease, if basic things like clean drinking water and proper sanitation services are in scant supply. In the villages, communities are coming together to aid each other as they construct temporary shelters and care for one another with far less support from their government.
“Nobody wants to go back to their homes,’ Morton said. “Everyone’s moved away from the village and is camping in tents.”
“What everyone is worried about is the elders…where do they go?” Morton asked.
Freddie Wilkinson is a writer and climber based in New Hampshire.