The day the mountain moved: Four locals survived Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake
Four Steamboat locals were on or near Mount Everest when the earth began to shake
April 16, 2016
Steamboat Springs — It didn't start to sink in — to really soak into her soul — until she was days removed from what happened and largely clear of the danger.
Steamboat Springs mountain climber Kim Hess had envisioned her return to base camp at Mount Everest similarly to the way she envisioned reaching the summit. Those two moments live in her dreams, one just as important as the other, because, as she'd already learned through one excruciating accident, a climb isn't over until you've gone all the way up, then come all the way back down.
So when she returned for the final time to base camp at Mount Everest on April 28, 2015, two or three weeks before she'd hoped, it meant something more than being a waypoint on the long journey home.
And there, amid the destruction of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that had destroyed the camp and devastated the country, she wept.
She cried for everything, for the wreckage that surrounded her and those who'd died in it, 24 climbers and their team members there and elsewhere on the mountain who'd been swept away in a moment.
She cried for the destruction in Nepal, the nation she'd come so quickly to love on her first visit, where more than 8,000 died, and she cried for herself — at the thought of coming so close to realizing her dream, at the thought of returning to base camp for the final time having not taken those final steps to Everest's summit and at the thought of all the sacrifices made to get that opportunity.
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Hess has always been an adventurer, saving every penny to travel the world, but she hasn't always been a climber. She only seriously picked up the sport after her brother suggested, midway through a boozy family home-for-Christmas dinner, that they try to climb the seven summits, which consist of the highest peaks on each continent.
But the dream had overcome her and pushed her in so many ways and up so many slopes. She'd learned along the way about her finer points — she's tougher than she initially expected, and, "a pretty good dreamer" — and otherwise — "I take stubborn to a whole new level."
And, she had learned about crying, something which, growing up with three older brothers, she'd always desperately tried to avoid.
"I've learned to let my guard down and just feel things," she said. "It's OK to cry, to be upset and kick things."
So, she cried, soaking a base camp rock as the frustration and tragedy of the trip drained out of her.
That's how she dealt with it, with the fact that, as Everest shook — a heart-stopping 90-second rumble on a dismally cloudy, no-visibility day — she stood high on the mountain in just long underwear and socks, alert but confused, listening as avalanches crashed around her and waiting for death to come charging out of the mist.
That's how she dealt with the fact that she'd lived and others had died, and despite the close call, she knew she'd be back.
The rarest feeling
The 2015 Nepal earthquake, so powerful it left Mount Everest moved by 1.2 inches, struck just after noon on April 25. It sent snow hurtling toward Hess's location: Camp 2, at 21,500 feet on the southern slopes of Mount Everest.
She initially didn't know what was happening, and about 20 miles to the northwest, just across the Chinese border in Tibet, expedition guide Chhiring Dorje Sherpa shared her confusion.
It's not as simple as saying mountains don't scare Dorje, an elite Nepalese climber who made Steamboat Springs his home four years ago.
"Skis," he said, "they look very dangerous. Skiing is very scary!"
More serious events have sent shivers up his spine, too. He was a central character in one of mountaineering's deadliest days, in 2008 on K2 in Pakistan, when 11 died. He miraculously saved a fellow Sherpa that day by downclimbing an icy wall with one ice ax, his injured countryman hanging from his back.
Dorje said visions of his long-deceased mother and his far-off wife appeared to him as he fought for his life that day, and, yes, he was scared.
Most of the time, however, he's as comfortable on a Himalayan mountain as many might be on a couch.
He's summited Mount Everest a dozen times and reached the tops of most of the world's other 14 8,000-meter peaks. He frequently racks up more than one summit per trip, as well, touching the tip of Everest, for instance, three times in 2007 alone.
"May 2, May 15 and May 16," he said, speaking in Steamboat early this spring before departing for yet another climbing season.
He was hoping to knock off two summits during the 2015 climbing season. The final target would be Everest, climbing up the north side from Tibet, opposite of Hess's intended route. First, though, Dorje was guiding up Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-tallest mountain at 26,906 feet.
At noon April 25, lunch was finished, and he had just sat down to coffee with his team in the mountain's advanced base camp, at about 18,000 feet.
Then, the earth moved.
"It was like the whole world was shaking," Dorje said. "I said, 'What is this?' We had a kitchen boy who looked very bad and says, 'Earthquake!'
That rarest of mountain emotions set upon him.
"So scary," he said.
Avalanches tore off Cho Oyu's broad shoulders and swept toward the camp faster than the team could react.
None of those slides made it, however, the largest stalling out about 250 yards short. Their camp had proven one of the safest spots on the mountain. They were scheduled to depart for a higher, more dangerous, camp at dawn.
They had been lucky, but that didn't settle their nerves.
Aftershocks continued to shake the region, and each one meant more avalanches. Dorje's climbers tucked into their tents that night prepared for disaster, wearing their down climbing suits and with their boots already on, closing their eyes but all waiting for morning.
"There was big rock everywhere," Dorje said. "We could not sleep. We were at the ready."
They abandoned the expedition the next day and began to hear more about the terrible toll the quake had taken around the region.
For Dorje, morning was just the start of a long, personal effort to help his country recover from the disaster.
For Hess, 31, Everest was always a dream more than destiny.
That changed as she embarked on the quest to climb the seven summits with her brother, Steven Hess.
They're more than halfway through.
Their first was Aconcagua, a 22,838-foot peak in Argentina that reigns as the world's tallest outside the Himalaya. That trip offered some harbingers; a team was caught in a storm near the summit 12 hours before the Hess siblings climbed. Four died. The Hesses had no such problems, however.
They ticked off Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, and Mount Elbrus, in Russia, both in 2012. Neither proved particularly difficult. Kilimanjaro is more hike than climb, and Elbrus has a chairlift that takes climbers partway up the mountain.
Denali, in Alaska, taught more lessons in 2013.
The team reached the summit without issue and made it back to their camp that night. Everyone turned in to sleep, but Kim Hess stayed awake and marveled at the sky, the full moon on one side and the setting sun on the other.
"I just looked back and forth, back and forth," she said. "I thought, 'Where do I look? This is the greatest thing I'll ever see!'"
The next day, on the way down, a patch of snow gave way under her feet. Her hand caught in the rope she was attached to as she fell and her arm snapped immediately.
She called for an emergency rescue from a lower camp and had to fly back to Denver before seeing a hand specialist for surgery almost a week after the accident.
"I thought I was invincible until Denali," she said. "That was a good reality check."
She was under no such assumptions of invincibility April 25 at Camp 2 on Mount Everest, when the world was crashing around her.
Her brother couldn't make the trip for Everest, but Kim decided to go anyway, joining a team from Washington-based company International Mountain Guides. Up until the moment the earth began to shake, it had met her expectations.
The Khumbu Ice Fall — a daunting part of the trail and site of a 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa guides and ended the climbing season — appropriately intimidated Hess, but she also found climbing through it fun.
"You get in there, and it kind of feels like a video game," she said. "It feels so cool, and it's majestic and glorious and terrifying all at the same time."
Acclimatization efforts sent the team up the mountain April 23, to spend two nights in Camp 1. They woke up early on the morning of the 25th to push on to Camp 2 for several more nights soaking in the thin air in one of the mountain's last generally safe spots.
Given the low, tight cloud cover, there was little to see when they arrived just before noon, and Hess and her tent mate hunkered down to unpack and decompress.
Then, the quake hit.
"The ground just started violently shaking. I thought, 'Our tent going to implode into this glacier,'" Hess said. "I jumped out of the tent, no shoes, just in my long underwear, barefoot.
"You could just hear a rumble in this amphitheater we were sitting in. The ground stopped shaking, but the noise was just somewhat terrifying, because you didn't know where it was coming from."
Avalanches crashed around the camp, and Hess could only listen.
"Where we were sitting under almost 360 degrees of just thousands of thousands of feet of stuff that can fall and crumble and crush you, and we didn't know where it was coming from," she said. "The problem with not knowing where an avalanche is coming from is you don't know where to hide."
Finally, something did come through the soup that surrounded her: a thick, billowing cloud of powder that coated everything in snow, the last breath of one nearby avalanche.
When falls did abate, the radios sprang to life.
Camp 2 might have been spared, but base camp, theoretically the safest place on the mountain, had been ravaged by one massive avalanche that killed 19.
Like Dorje and his team, the IMG climbers prepared for more trouble and dressed in their down suits. The route through the Khumbu, tenuous on its best day, was destroyed, so there was nowhere to climb and little to do.
Hess and about 70 other climbers stranded with her at Camp 2 began the next phase of their attempt to climb Mount Everest: a three-day wait to be rescued.
About 25 miles from Everest, the opposite direction for Dorje and Cho Oyu, another pair of Steamboat Springs adventurers were, like everyone, initially confused and shocked as the earthquake struck.
Tim and Janet Borden have taken plenty of adventurous vacations, together and with other members of their family. Tim and his son had motorcycled across the Sahara desert on one trip and around Australia on another. Another trip took them across an active war zone, in Serbia and Croatia.
They'd never experienced anything like an earthquake, however.
Their vacation had already consisted of trekking in the Annapurna Mountain Range and touring the many temples of Kathmandu, and they were hoping to wrap it all up with a hike to get a glimpse of Everest, from Namche Bazaar, the last major village on the route to the mountain.
They flew into Lukla, a small village with the only airport serving the region, and had begun to make their way up the valley toward the mountain.
They were relaxing in a lodge, waiting on lunch.
"Everything started moving," Tim said. "The pictures on the walls were rocking, and the dust and rock started coming down from the ceiling."
They rushed out of their ground-floor room as the shaking continued. Rocks rained down from the top of the structure, and they ran into the building's courtyard, quickly joined by other guests, then their Nepalese guide.
It was dramatic, he said, but not exactly devastating, and once the quake stopped, they weren't sure whether they'd lived through an international disaster or simply collected another captivating travel story.
"We didn't have any clue of the magnitude of the problem," Borden said.
It didn't really sink in until they were back home in Steamboat Springs just how lucky they'd been in almost every regard.
Their room wasn't even damaged very severely, and they spent the ensuing night there, albeit with the window open, in case they needed to make a quick escape.
Some at the lodge rushed back to Lukla, hoping to catch a plane, but the Bordens continued toward Namche Bazaar and eventually got that look at Everest.
It was nearly a week later when they finally got back to Lukla, and there, they entered chaos.
Crowds of trekkers, climbers and other tourists were eager to flee the region. Those who'd had their flights cancelled — a regular occurrence at one of the world's most dangerous airports — simply had to wait. Many of the same people the Bordens had shared the lodge with when the earthquake struck were now still waiting, nearly a week later.
"It was really pandemonium," Tim said.
There, they got lucky again. Their flight was one of the few that came in on time, their seats open and waiting for them. They got a ride out, after police had to physically remove two stowaways who'd muscled their way on board.
When they got back to Kathmandu, they found an entirely different city than they'd left.
A 60-foot tower they'd climbed days before was now a 10-foot pile of rubble and the site where many tourists — simply following the Bordens' footsteps — had died.
"We saw the devastation and all the buildings that had come down with people still in them," Tim said. "It was just horrific, and we realized our room could have come down, or a rock could have hit us, and it started sinking in how lucky we were.
"We felt very fortunate, very lucky."
As much devastation as there was in the city, many areas and buildings survived intact, including the hotel they'd already booked. It remained well appointed, with food and water. The only noticeable damage was a crack in the swimming pool.
They caught their flight several days later and returned to the United States.
"It was a great adventure for us, and tragic," Tim said. "It was a horrible event, and they won't recover for many years. I don't mean to be cavalier, but it didn't impact us very directly. We were quite fortunate."
Even after surviving the quake, the journey wasn't nearly over for either Hess or Dorje.
Hess and her team eventually climbed down to Camp 1, then were airlifted via helicopter to base camp. Considering the mess waiting at Lukla and the supplies and equipment they had, they opted to hike out of the region rather then fly. They stopped along the way to help clean up damage in the villages where some of their Sherpa guides lived.
Dorje, meanwhile, flew back to Kathmandu, then began to coordinate relief efforts in his own home village, Rolwaling, up another mountain valley.
The timing of the quake helped prevent any deaths in the town. Most people were out of their houses, working, but many of their homes were destroyed.
Donations helped Dorje charter a helicopter — $2,000 an hour — to deliver donated sleeping bags and coats.
He traveled back to the region in the fall to help rebuild houses there and this season is back on Cho Oyu, hoping to summit it before heading over to the north side of Everest to attempt his 13th summit.
"Not so scary," he said, assessing the new season. "I know every place climbing."
The Bordens, too, hope to return some day soon, and Hess is already there, having traveled back to Nepal in late March to take another crack at Everest.
She had almost immediately resolved to return, before she even left Camp 2.
"'If this is it, I'll see you next year, right back here to do it again,'" she said, recounting her conversations from before the climb was officially waved off.
Her Everest window is not open forever. The process is just too time consuming, too difficult and too expensive.
"I put my career, my love life, my financial stability, really every aspect of my life, I put on hold for this," she said. "I've just got to get it done."
"Hopefully, in a couple of years, I'll be in a different place in my life and not running around the world like a crazy person."
Preparing for Everest has meant intense workouts, three times a week at Manic Training, then whatever else is possible, be it a long bike ride or an early morning climb up the ski mountain.
She worked three jobs, renting skis at Fleischer Sports by day and bartending at Back Door Burger by night. She picked up whatever odd tasks someone could pitch her and even took on babysitting shifts.
She skipped nights out with the girls and weekend trips to visit friends.
She did it all in an effort to get back to Everest, to the site of so much tragedy and that tear-stained rock.
She did it all to know that, the next time she comes down through Mount Everest's base camp for the final time, she'll have done everything in her power to have reached the summit.
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