Aidan Anderson

Teens home after week in earthquake-torn Nepal

After being stranded in remote village following 7.8-magnitude quake, friends' odyssey ends with return to Campbell River

Aidan Anderson and Tyler Kelly got the first inkling their idyllic trip to the base of Mount Everest had taken a bad turn when the mountain around them began to disintegrate.

The lifelong friends, soccer teammates and 2014 Carihi graduates were hiking a trail linking two remote Nepalese villages last Saturday morning when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck, wreaking disaster on the small mountain country.

“Aidan said they were on the hardest part of the trail that day, near the edge of a cliff,” his mother, Denise Henley, said. “First they felt the ground shaking, and then they heard a loud thunder. Then the cliff edge in front of them, he said, just exploded.”

“Tyler said they were about 700 metres up and they had avalanches coming down all around them,” added Shari Jensen, Kelly’s mother.

In the company of two other hikers and a local Sherpa guide, Anderson and Kelly completed their trek from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, the final jumping off point for climbers bound for the world’s tallest mountain. And there, in a village without a road or functioning airstrip, they were stranded, battling illness, uncertainty and dwindling resources until finally hiking the 10 hours back to Lukla and its tiny airstrip Friday.

From there, they managed to catch a flight to the capitol city of Kathmandu and flew from Kathmandu to Vancouver on Sunday, setting up an emotional reunion with their families.

But until hearing their sons had arrived in Lukla, Jensen and Henley spent a nerve-wracking week marked by uncertainty, conflicting information and roller-coaster emotions.

The two women sat together at Henley’s dining room table Wednesday, monitoring a computer and two cell phones for updates on their sons’ status. With occasional nervous laughter and a few tears, they recounted their sons’ tale, often completing each others’ sentences.

The young men’s trip began in New Zealand in January, when Anderson joined Kelly following the latter’s stay there for a family reunion marking his grandmother’s 90th birthday.

The pair went on to tour Thailand and Malaysia before flying into Kathmandu April 19 to begin a trek to visit the base camp used by climbers ascending Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.

Just hours before the huge quake struck at about 11:30 a.m. local time, Anderson and Kelly had taken a flight from Kathmandu, to Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary airport, named for the first man to climb Everest and his local Sherpa guide.

Placed with their own guide in a group with two young Norwegian women, the pair set out on the daylong hike to Namche, in the north of the country east of Kathmandu.

They were still on that trail when the earthquake struck releasing a series of avalanches that, higher up on Everest, took the lives of 27 climbers in the most deadly day in the mountain’s history.

The quake, which has claimed at least 6,000 lives with hundreds more unaccounted for, struck late Friday night, April 24, Campbell River time. Henley learned the news when she awoke early Saturday morning to get ready for her job at Yucalta Lodge and promptly called Jensen.

The two women wouldn’t learn their sons were safe until 13 hours later.

“My stomach’s still in knots,” Jensen said of the wait.

“It was awful. I was at work and just compartmentalized,” said Henley. “I told my co-workers, ‘Don’t turn on the TV, not on any channels that have the news.’”

At about 8 p.m. local time, Henley checked Facebook to find Anderson had logged in as “safe” on a page set up for the Nepal earthquake.

“Facebook apparently set that up, where they can have an area marked as a danger zone,” Henley said. “If you log in from that spot, it shows you’re in a danger zone. At 8:13 p.m., he marked himself as safe.

“That’s what Tyler did, too.”

Facebook Messenger has become the families’ go-to source of communication, with cell phone coverage lacking in Namche. In the earliest communication, the teens tell their mothers they’re going to go ahead and continue their trek from Namche toward the base camp, since the trail back to Lukla and its airport was closed immediately following the quake.

But at this end, the mothers had learned from guiding companies and government aid officials that the area remained unstable and at risk of aftershocks. If the teens were in a safe area, they should hunker down until an evacuation could be scheduled.

“So we’re telling them, no, don’t move, because it’s just too crazy in Lukla,” Henley said.

Then, on April 29, she received a message from her daughter forwarding information from SOS International that Canadian Forces C-17 transport planes were evacuating Canadian citizens from Kathmandu to New Delhi, India. All citizens in remote areas were advised to make their way to Kathmandu for these flights, as no evacuation missions from the remote areas were planned.

“So they’re telling us that now, when previously they told us to tell them, ‘Stay where you are,’” said Henley. “And now their health has deteriorated to the point they can’t walk out any more.”

At roughly the same time the hikers got word they should make their way back to Lukla for a flight to Kathmandu, and that the trail was reopened — albeit in a deteriorated condition — Anderson’s health took a dramatic downturn.

“Aidan hasn’t told me, because he knows it will upset me,” Henley said Wednesday. “But he talked to his sister (Tuesday) night and said he has a real bad headache, he feels like crap, can’t get out of bed and he’s nauseous. They can’t walk out.”

The women have ruled out altitude sickness — “They’re not up high enough,” said Jensen — and Henley wondered if it was a food or water illness.

A potential grueling, multi-day hike was also problematic because there is no food, water or aid along the way. Namche was initially well-equipped with food, as the Everest climbing season had just begun. But after the quake hundreds of climbers descended from base camp back into the village, straining its resources even as supply lines were cut off.

“Aidan said the ATM machines are out of money,” Henley said. “He says, ‘Some hotels will give me cash on the Visa card, but it costs 10 per cent,’”

“We told them, just do it,” Jensen said. “Whatever it takes.”

On April 30 the Canadian consulate emailed citizens stranded in the country that a second C-17 transport was en route to Kathmandu and that those who wished to be evacuated should make their way to the capitol. Anderson replied to the email, writing, “Myself and my friend are very interested in being evacuated. We are currently in Namche Bazaar.”

SOS International replied, “For now, the only evacuation option is out of Kathmandu to New Delhi. While poor road conditions are impeding access to some remote areas outside Kathmandu, we are planning outreach operations by tracking and mapping the locations of stranded Canadians, many of them in remote areas. We are working with partners to secure means of transportation from these locations.

With Anderson’s health showing signs of improvement,  the teens elected not to wait for that help, particularly as there is no road out of Namche. They instead planned to attempt the hike beginning last night, Campbell River time, to Lukla, where people are being flown out to Kathmandu on a first-come, first-served basis.

Their Norwegian companions and their guide departed Wednesday while Anderson was ill, so the teens embarked on their own.

“They feel there is no other option,” Henley said Thursday.

After 10 hours out of contact on the debris-strewn trail, the teens used Facebook Messenger to notify their mothers they’d arrived in Lukla at 6:21 this morning.

“I’ve never appreciated social media as much as I do now,” said Henley. “And it’s because of social media that we’re able to hear they’re alive and that we’re able to message with them.”

Every government and aid agency the mothers called during the week told them their information would be forwarded to the Canadian Consulate in Nepal. But Jensen said she learned Canada doesn’t have a “real” consulate in the country.

“It’s one guy and he works out of his house,” she said. “All these emails are going to this one guy.”

They also contacted the constituency office of North Island MP John Duncan, and considered calling both the American and New Zealand embassies. Kelly is a dual citizen traveling with both Canadian and New Zealand passports.

After hearing a story on CBC Almanac about a woman whose husband was flown by helicopter to Kathmandu from Lukla, Jensen actually coaxed the woman’s number from CBC producers and made contact with her.

“I think I might email that lady and find out where the helicopter came from,” Jensen said.

“I’d be willing to mortgage this house,” Henley added.

Those efforts are no longer needed now that the men have reached an airport from which they can depart the country. But their mothers look forward to having a lot of questions answered when Anderson and Kelly return home next week.

“One thing we haven’t found out is, who are the two Norwegian girls?” Henley said.

Jensen nodded in commiseration.

“They still won’t give us their names, will they?”