The first images were of Colorado climbers who survived the quake and disaster at Everest Base Camp. But the ongoing story—the one that really matters—is how those climbers have rallied to rebuild alongside the people of Nepal whose lives came crashing down in the disaster.
When the ground first began to shake on Saturday April 28, in the Gorkha district, most of the people of Nepal did not think much of it. Due to the country’s location near the collision point for the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, there are plenty of tremors here—think about the attitude of Americans who live on the San Andreas Fault. But when approximately twenty-seconds into this quake, the intensity ramped up radically, and buildings began to tumble like half-stacked Jenga play pieces, everyone knew that this one was different.
Matt Moniz and over a dozen other Rocky Mountain residents who were in or around Mount Everest Base Camp sure felt it. The American climbers suddenly found themselves in the midst of tragedy that soon would be on the front page of newspapers across the world—and their dedication to what came next would go far beyond climbing. No one will stand on top of Everest for the first time in 41 years, but the climbing community’s connection to the country of Nepal has never been stronger.
“I was awakened by my phone ringing, and when I looked at the caller ID I saw it was a Nepal number,” says Karma Sherpa, Louisville resident, and owner of Sherpa Mountain Adventures. “It was from one of my employees in Kathmandu recounting the immense damage. That was the beginning of an incredibly long stretch of 18-hour days.”
Karma was just one of the approximately 3,000 Nepalese immigrants that make Colorado home who received similar calls that day. As they worried about their families and friends, there was one burning question at the forefront of everyone’s mind. What could they do to help?
It’s easy to see why so many Nepalese relocate to Colorado. Both places root themselves in the mountains—they attract climbers, trekkers, and holiday visitors from across the globe annually to explore hidden valleys, climb epic peaks, and bask in the alpine beauty. Tourism is a strong economic engine to both: In Nepal, it brings in approximately $429 million in revenue annually (4 percent of the GDP); while in Colorado it brought in $17.3 billion in 2013 (over 5 percent of GDP).
But that is where the similarities end. With only 56,136 square miles of landlocked earth—roughly the size of Tennessee—Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Only half of the almost 31 million residents are literate, and many are spread out across some of the most remote mountainous regions on the planet. The government is notoriously corrupt, and slow to react to emergencies. So when the buildings started to topple, first on April 28th and then again on May 12th, those Coloradans with firsthand knowledge of the country knew just how tough the task facing these resilient people over the coming months, and years, was going to be. They sprang into action.
“We work in the Gorkha district which was very close to the epicenter of the first quake, so we were able to assist immediately,” says Josh Duncan, Parker resident, and U.S.A National Director for Mountain Child, a non profit dedicated to helping children in some of the poorest and most distant sections of Nepal. “Due to the massive damage we saw where village after village had lost 90 to 100 percent of their homes, we immediately started working to help provide shelter. With the upcoming monsoon season it was crucial to get roofs over their heads.”
Part of the problem is that so many buildings—homes, schools, and monasteries—are not built to earthquake-proof standards. A farmer living at 16,000 feet needs to get a shelter over his family’s head. Four walls and a roof will do.
“I grew up in the village of Khumjung and was lucky enough attend the Hillary school which allowed me to make my way to Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania. But I am still in constant contact with my family back home,” says Karsang Sherpa, Vice President at Tralee Capital Partners in Denver. “Over 95 percent of the homes in my village are damaged and over 80 percent of the homes in the Everest region need work. I have sent thousands of dollars of my own money to family to survive. Everyone I know has been impacted, I lost an uncle and a cousin. The people of Nepal need help.”
But not all is lost. While the damage from both quakes and subsequent aftershocks is substantial, it certainly is not insurmountable.
“The Nepalese people are some of the most resilient I have ever seen. They were rebuilding homes and tea houses as we were hiking out from Everest Base Camp,” says Fort Collins-based mountaineer and Alzheimer’s advocate Alan Arnette. “They don’t sit back and wait for help, but instead put a smile on their faces and get to work. Over the last century they have had six quakes over magnitude seven. This is nothing new to them.”
Colorado, with it’s 53 peaks over 14,000 feet and untold other crags, attracts alpinists the way the Florida Keys attracts fishermen—they come for the fun and find they never want to leave. As a result, Colorado is home to the Access Fund, the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club. Every year the Centennial State sends a healthy contingent of climbers to the Himalayas to attempt to summit its famous peaks. At 17 years old, Boulder climber Matt Moniz was one of the youngest mountaineers in base camp when the avalanche hit and he spent the next few days assisting in rescue efforts, But instead of coming home after the slide, he did something out of the ordinary—he stayed.
“I decided that I could do something significant to help these people I love so much. So I talked with my guides, the Benegas brothers [Damian and Willie], and my father [Mike] back home, and we arranged a fundraiser in Zurich,” says Moniz. “We were able to raise close to $100,000 that we then took back to Nepal. Instead of putting the money into a few hands to disperse, we hired hundreds of porters to ferry supplies into remote villages. They rebuilt trails and helped the local teahouses by spending much needed cash there. It felt great to help. I may not have summited Everest, but I think this experience will always mean more to me.”
So as Nepal digs out and rebuilds, what are the next steps, and why should relief efforts so far from home top the minds of Coloradans? The connection between the two places has made many Nepalese more than just transplants here. The communities are linked. “I, like most of my people, dreamed of living in Colorado. The mountains and people remind me so much of my homeland,” said Karsang Sherpa. “We share a lot of the same priorities—love of open spaces, getting out into the beauty of the wilderness, and a sense of adventure.”
That connection goes both ways. The dZi Foundation, headquartered in Ridgway, has been on the ground helping the Nepalese people since 1998. Founded by mountaineers Jim Nowak, and Kim Reynolds, it serves over 30,000 people by helping build, and repair basic infrastructure in remote villages—the places and people that need the most help right now.
“Little did we know that we had been spending the last 17 years prepping for this calamity, we have the team in place to make immediate impacts,” said Nowak. “Right now we are focused on rebuilding over thirty-one remote schools.”
One of the best ways to help is by planning a trip to Nepal. The Nepalese don’t want visitors to avoid the area due to the earthquake and more importantly they need the tourist dollars to keep flowing in—it is crucial to their survival. Nepal is quite possibly one of the most beautiful places in the planet, and deserves a spot on most Coloradans’ bucket lists. By simply visiting the country, tourists can help with the recovery. A bit of good news on that front is that most of the major trekking loops, including Everest, Annapurna and Manaslu, are in decent shape, and they should be ready for the fall season once the monsoons have receded. Most major tour operations are offering discounted trips for this fall and next spring.
“The most important thing anyone can do is head over for a trek or visit,” said Karma Sherpa. “The money they spend could mean the difference between a comfortable winter, or one spent struggling to survive for my countrymen.”
—Hudson Lindenberger is the author of the Elevation Outdoors.com Liquid Gear column and a frequent contributor to Men’s Journal.
WANT TO HELP? Donate to these organizations with local ties and you can feel better knowing that your contributions are going directly to relief efforts on the ground: The dZi Foundation, Mountain Child, Sherpa Mountain Adventures , Sherpa Adventure Gear , Embolden Alliances , The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation,Pemba Sherpa’s You Caring Page.