Two local women tell their story of living through one of Nepal’s greatest tragedies
Jeannie DeBari and Doreen Richmond were nearing the end of the trip of a lifetime, trekking through the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the region. Though isolated at the time, they soon learned of the widespread devastation the earthquake had caused. The April 2015 earthquake killed more than 9,000 people, injured more than 23,000 people and destroyed large numbers of irreplaceable cultural and religious monuments.
Six months after coming home, DeBari and Richmond shared their side of the story with MBE.
Mount Baker Experience (MBE): Why were you in Nepal, who were you with and where were you trekking? How long were you planning on being there?
Jeannie Debari (JD): I have wanted to go to Nepal since I was 18 years old. Of course, life got in the way: family, our Glacier restaurant Milano’s, etc. This year, two friends were going. They had been there before and were open to me coming along. Jim and Doreen from Lummi Island have been my friends for 30 years. We did the ski patrol together at Mt. Baker for 25 years.
I was psyched to go, but definitely a little nervous. We were going to check out a new area where not many people travel. It is in the far east near the border of Sikkim in India. We would go to the base camp of Kanchenjunga and over a high pass to the base camp of Makalu. We saw eight Westerners the whole trip. We planned to trek for 45 days. I was stoked!
MBE: Where were you when the earthquake hit? Can you describe that moment?
JD: We had been trekking for a few weeks and it was incredible. It was beyond my expectations (and I had just been on Denali the year before with my kids). The people, the smiles, the simplicity and, of course, the mountains. We were at Lumba Sumba pass at 5,200 meters when the earthquake happened.
It is a really remote area, maybe 5 miles from the Tibetan border. We knew we had at least three days of traveling without seeing any villages. We were camping at night and totally self-supported.
It was about 2 in the afternoon and we were setting up camp. We were a group of six people: the three of us, two porters and our guide. I was outside cooking on the stove when the dome tent hit me in the head. The whole earth moved.
I looked up and saw the guides running. I did not quite understand at first, never having been in an earthquake, but saw the look on their faces and realized what was going on. They were scared. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
After a minute, we got together and talked about the earthquake that happened. The main reaction was, “Holy shit!”
MBE: What did you do immediately after the earthquake struck?
JD: We checked out the immediate area and figured out that we were in a safe zone if more tremors were to happen. We talked about where we were going the next day and wondered if we would even see anyone.
MBE: Tell us about the next few days. What stands out in your mind?
JD: We had no clue as to what had happened in the rest of Nepal. It was all we could do to climb the pass and deal with the elevation and weather. We were camping in these yak camps, and there was no outside information. So, we were enjoying our trek.
MBE: People back home didn’t hear from you right away. When were you finally able to contact family to let them know you were safe?
JD: After another four days of trekking, we arrived to the town of Hatiya. We met this traveler from Pokahara and he said, “Did you feel the earthquake?”
“Do you know what happened?”
“Katmandu is destroyed, and the Kombu, and the Langtang.”
My reaction was, “Holy shit, I have to call home.”
There were no phones in the town, but he had a cell phone and offered it to us for a quick call. First, I called my mom who is 93 years old. She freaked out. Everybody was worried about us. My son was talking to The North Face athletes trying to find out if anyone was in the area and what was going on. The newspaper was saying we were lost. The conversation was short and sweet, but word got out that we were OK and doing fine.
We had four more days of trekking before we could get to the road to get back to Katmandu. We told the family we would be in touch then.
The next day, the whole mountainside came down on the trail in front of us. If we had been an hour earlier we would have been caught. We had to climb about two hours extra to get around it.
That’s when it started hitting me – reality struck. I made it back to Kathmandu. I was scared to be in the city with the aftershocks. Luckily, I got to the airport and they let me fly on standby back to Vancouver. My son Lucas picked me up. He had newspapers from Bellingham and stories to tell about us being missing.
I knew nothing. I got on the Internet and couldn’t believe it. Everybody was so worried and we were in heaven, hiking in the most beautiful mountains in the world, oblivious to all of it.
Doreen Richmond (DR): My 83-year-old mother in New York was hysterically crying when she heard from me, and my brother was telling me we were all over Facebook. We realized then it was a much bigger deal than we thought. Our guide Lokpa’s family was living in a tent in Kathmandu and one of our porters, Ram, didn’t know what was up with his family. We encouraged Lokpa and Ram to go back to Kathmandu to be with their families, even though they felt obligated to stay with us.
Jeannie decided to go home too, and Jim and I decided to continue on and walk from Tumlingar towards Everest Base Camp with Mingma, our porter. His parents lived in Cheram and we would go see them. We were psyched – he told us about the great dal bhat and chang (millet wine) his mom made.
We got to Cheram and saw his parents working in the field when the second earthquake hit on May 13. It was really strong and we all fell to the ground. We watched Mingma’s house sway back and forth while his mother knelt down and prayed. The aftershocks were so strong that we slept in the bamboo potato shed the next two days. Mingma and his parents slept on the floor and we were on the table. It was surreal, but the house survived and nobody was hurt, so after two days we continued on towards Lukla. From that point on we started seeing more and more destruction and people living in tents. Everything was destroyed and there were no Westerners around. That trail gets 70,000 people passing through each year, and we were the only ones trekking.
We went a little farther than Pangboche but then decided to turn back. It was too depressing. We trekked back to Salleri and then took a jeep ride back to Kathmandu. It was a ride from Hell – the scariest part of the trip.
When we got back to Kathmandu it was more than a month after the first earthquake and there was still a lot of destruction everywhere. We wound up helping out doing relief work with an NGO we hooked up with. It felt good to do something. It was a crazy time, and still is, over there.
MBE: Did the experience of living through that event change you in any way?
JD: First of all, the experience of being where I was has had a huge impact on my life. It has changed the way I think and see the world. Those people are so beautiful and real, and coming home to all the love of the people who care for me was overwhelming. I am humbled, and after seeing the Nepalese people losing so much, it makes me appreciate how great my life is and what a great place I live in. All I know is I want to go back!
DR: It made me appreciate life more. When I saw how much destruction there was and how much people lost and how many lives were lost or changed, I really realized how precious life is and how it can change in an instant. Coming home, I was taken aback by how much love and support the community has shown us, and how much we were loved and appreciated. It made me want to try to continue to live up to that image and made me really appreciate and love the community I live in.
MBE: It’s been about six months since the earthquake. Do you know how Nepal’s ?recovery efforts are going?
DR: I have heard that things are not going very well at all due to many different factors. There are issues of corruption within the government, with supplies being blocked or stalled, money not getting to the people it was promised to, and problems due to the adoption of the new constitution. Some of the problems have resulted in disputes between Nepal and India, with border blockades for fuel and food.
MBE: How can people help?
DR: If people want to send money, they should send it directly with people who are going over there to help. That will ensure the money will get to the people it is intended for. Or else they should be sure the organizations they are donating to will use 100 percent of those donations towards rebuilding efforts or helping out the Nepalese people in other ways.
We have raised over $6,600 so far from the Lummi Island community and are supporting schools and rebuilding efforts in Nepal in different areas. If anyone wants to donate, I will be going back at the end of November and will be taking donations to support schools in the lower Everest region in conjunction with REED (Rural Education and Environmental Development), an organization of the Australian Himalayan Association with whom I’ll be volunteering. Inquiries about donating can be sent to me via firstname.lastname@example.org. x