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Rebuilding Nepal

A journey of recovery following the devastating 2015 earthquake

A helicopter view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest.

At 11:56 a.m., on April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 9,000, injuring an estimated 23,000 and displacing more than 450,000 people. It was the worst natural disaster to strike the landlocked nation of 27 million since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. Six months later, I traveled to Nepal to document its recovery efforts, focusing on the Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas.

As I’m based in Los Angeles, the Himalaya section of the assignment meant digging deep into the closet for my cold weather kit. I emerged decked head to foot in The North Face gear, including thin, touchscreen-sensitive gloves.

Upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport, my bags and I were hustled through Customs by a Dharma Adventures representative—it’s always a great idea to have a local “fixer” on the ground—then transferred to Dwarika’sHotel, my base for the Kathmandu Valley segment of my assignment.

According to UNESCO, more than 30 monuments in the Kathmandu Valley collapsed and 120 incurred significant damage in the initial quake and its aftershocks. This is in addition to the thousands of destroyed monasteries, shrines, office buildings, apartment complexes and private homes that didn’t escape the wrath of one of nature’s most terrifying phenomena.

Drones have been used to fly over Nepal’s cultural heritage sites, providing images of the damage to assist in the reconstruction efforts, which are now in full swing. In addition to focusing my cameras and efforts on documenting the physical damage in places such as Swayambhunath, the Durbar squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan, I did a number of portraits—both environmental and “the eyes are the window to the soul” style—of people I encountered along the way.

Continuing with the idea of putting a human face on post-earthquake Nepal, I documented Camp Hope, set up by the family-run Dwarika’s Group of hotels and resorts as part of their contribution to the recovery efforts in their country. Camp Hope is a tented village in the heart of the capital for more than 300 refugees from Sindhupalchowk, a region that lost almost 90% of its homes. Ambica Shrestha, whose late husband Dwarika founded the first hotel in the chain, explained that they’re currently doing feasibility studies in and around Sindhupalchowk in order to construct new homes for the refugees after the monsoon season.

The cremation ghats of Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River were in constant use in the days following the massive earthquake in a country that’s more than 80 percent Hindu.

To begin the second part of my assignment—exploring sections of the Everest trek—I flew from Kathmandu into the Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla (9,318 feet) with a small group of fellow journalists. The airport is considered one of the most technically challenging in the world for pilots, due to its short runway at a severe incline that ends with a cliff. I used my GoPro HERO4 mounted on a GoPro 3-Way arm to document the dramatic approach and landing.

I assembled my trekking poles, which fold into three sections for ease of transportation, and headed to the town of Monjo (9,301 feet), our group’s home for the night. On the way, we passed Buddhist chortens, mani stones, prayer wheels, and a surprising number of tea houses and well-stocked stores.

Day two on the trail brought us into Sagarmatha National Park, established in 1976 to protect the area surrounding Mount Everest. We crossed the route’s highest swinging bridge over the Dudh Kosi River, then made a steady climb up to Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet), the Khumbu’s largest town. Typically, trekkers to Everest Base Camp and those attempting ascents there or on other mountains will take an extra day for acclimatization in this central hub. They then trek another two days to Dingboche (13,980 feet) for another day of acclimatization, then two more days on the trail to Everest Base Camp (17,598 feet).

Children pass a Buddhist stupa on the trail between Namche Bazaar and Khumjung in the Himalayas.

Instead, we left the following morning to inspect the heavily damaged village of Khumjung (12,401 feet), on the way encountering spectacular views of Thamserku, Kangtega, Tawoche, Lhotse, Everest and 22,349-foot Ama Dablam, crowned with one of the most beautiful peaks on earth. In the late afternoon under a light snowfall, we descended to the Everest Summit Lodge of Tashinga (11,300 feet). The original 20-room lodge was destroyed by the earthquake, but already has been rebuilt with 10 rooms.

The next morning, we trudged our way through a heavy snowfall up to the famous monastery at Tengboche. Everest climbers stop here to light candles and seek blessings for safe mountaineering. It doesn’t always work, unfortunately.

Just before leaving home, I had watched Hollywood’s latest account of the events that took place on Everest in May 1996, which resulted in the deaths of eight climbers. The April 25 earthquake eclipsed that number by triggering an avalanche on Pumori that swept through the South Base Camp, killing 19, making that day the deadliest in Everest’s history. Just over a year earlier, on April 18, 2014, an avalanche near base camp killed 16 Nepali guides.

Sherpa lives have really been affected, because most are involved in tourism directly or indirectly.

My group’s Himalayan guide, Maya Sherpa, is the only Nepali woman alive today who has summited Everest from both the south (Nepali side) and the north (Tibetan side). Pemba Doma Sherpa, with whom she shared that distinction, died in 2007.

“I met her on Cho Oyu in 2004,” explains Maya over a cup of steaming masala chiya, a spicy, milky black tea. “She was a good lady. When I was on the north side of Everest, she was on Lhotse when she fell to her death after making it to the summit.”

Maya also has summited K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, but it’s considered much more dangerous than Everest, with roughly one person dying for every four who make it to the summit.

A woman carries a load of leaves in a doko (an oversized basket) in the Himalayan village of Pangboche.

Maya happened to be in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake, while her husband, fellow climber and guide Arnold Coster, was on Everest. “I knew that day many friends were going to climb the icefall there,” she recalls. “That’s the worst place to be in an earthquake. They were very lucky nothing happened in the icefall, but the people at Everest Base Camp weren’t so lucky. They were hit by an avalanche. Many people died. My husband, who’s from the Netherlands, was there leading an expedition. He and the people he was with were fine. Others were not.”

In the months following the earthquake, Maya and her husband gathered $30,000 from their friends and sponsors around the world to support earthquake victims, but the crisis continues.

“Sherpa lives have really been affected, because most are involved in tourism directly or indirectly,” Maya explains. “You have seen in the Khumbu area that there’s 60 percent less tourists. That means lots of Sherpas have no jobs this year. Many trekking trail hotels are empty. They have spent lots of money to rebuild the hotels, but have no business. Some trekking trails were damaged by the earthquake, like the ones in the Manaslu and Langtang areas, which will take a few years to rebuild, but there are so many other places in Nepal around Everest, Annapurna, Makalu and Kangchenjunga where people are still afraid to come because of all the bad news they have heard. A lot of the negative news isn’t true. Trekking in the Himalayas as you’re experiencing is very safe, and we Nepalis are waiting to welcome visitors.”

After spending a final night in the Himalayas at the Everest Summit Lodge at Pangboche (13,074 feet), I boarded a helicopter to get an overview of the Everest region before flying back to Kathmandu. Since there was no room to be pulling equipment in and out of my camera bag during the flight, I slung a camera body with a 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 over one shoulder and a second camera body with a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 over the other. In this type of shooting situation, I switch from my usual aperture-priority mode to shutter-priority, with 1/2000 as my go-to shutter speed, since the vibration of the helicopter can cause camera shake.

Back at the airport in Kathmandu, I bade namaste to my guides from Dharma Adventures, knowing that while Nepal still has many earthquake-related issues to deal with, the country is well on the way to recovery.

Mark Edward Harris’ Nepal Gear

Nikon D800
Nikon D810
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight
Gary Fong Lightsphere
GoPro HERO4 Black
Gura Gear Bataflae 18L backpack
Black Diamond Distance FLZ trekking poles

See more of Mark Edward Harris’ work at and on Instagram @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto.