Two years ago, a group from Southern California headed to Nepal, the gateway to the Himalayas. The group included Kat Heldman, her husband Kevin Krogh, party leader Oscar Olea, and ER nurse Brigida Martinez. They planned to climb a little-known peak called Gangchempo.
They flew into Kathmandu and headed into the mountains. “We were supposed to be there for a month. We were hiking from one small village to the next. These villages do not have roads. They have trails. … We would slowly acclimate until we got to our base camp,” said Kat Heldman.
They were relaxing for lunch at one tea house when things took a turn. “It just sounded like 20 people with boots on running on the second floor, and it was this incredibly loud noise,” said Kat. The sherpa with them yelled, “Earthquake! Run!”
Meanwhile, Brigida was in the bathroom. “I opened the door to the restroom, and everything started – just like this jolting, jarring – it was crazy. I put my hand up to just kind of stabilize myself in the doorway. … The bathroom is like right at the stairway, and I walked to the stairway to go down, and I looked. The walls were built out of these giant gray boulders, and they were just tumbling down into the stairway, and I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I’m like if I get buried, I’m gonna try to stay conscious.”
Brigida eventually made it out. “I ran so fast, and I could barely breathe. But just as I was catching my breath, I heard them say, ‘avalanche!’ … I looked up, and there was this giant speeding cloud of gray and white and blackness, and it was just like coming over this ridge toward us. I just ran in the opposite direction.”
Everybody ran. After a while, things got quiet. “And then the thing I remember really vividly was the wailing. … There was snow everywhere. I just remember looking at the snow, and there were blood droplets all over the snow,” said Kat.
She ran to the tea house and saw her crew there. “It was just really strange, apocalyptic sort of surreal experience to go from what it had been a minute before to what it was now. It was like this half-gone building,” Kat said.
Inside, there was a boy with broken legs and swollen, bruised thighs. “It’s one thing to be a nurse when you have all these resources and supplies and other people there in a hospital, and you’re like, ‘Okay I know exactly what to do.’ But there really isn’t a lot of nursing experience I had that prepared me for this,” said Brigida.
One of their porters were buried in snow for a while. Another had spinal injuries.
“We had no idea that 9,000 people had died in the country. We had no idea what the magnitude of what had just occurred because we didn’t have any contact with the outside world,” said Kat.
Kat and her crew got carried out by helicopter days later. “All you could see of what used to be a town with probably 80 buildings was a flat piece of mud,” she described.
Kat was planing to go back the following year. “Last minute, I couldn’t do it. … Honestly the last two years, I have definitely struggled with PTSD, but it’s getting much better, and I feel like I’m finally starting to heal from that experience. So Oscar and I we’re planning a trip there in 2018.”