‘Run!’ How Metro Detroit woman survived Nepal earthquake
By Ellen Creager :: On Thursday, Katharine Atto of Farmington Hills was at work at the pharmacy at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak when for some reason, the lights flickered briefly in the building.
“I jumped up, and I was about to run,” she says. “Reacting to flickering lights, that is not like me. Apparently I do have some kind of post-traumatic thing that is making me edgy.”
No wonder. On April 24, Atto, 35, was on a trekking vacation in a remote village in Nepal when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook the mountainous nation, killing nearly 8,000 people.
It is a dire vacation she will never forget. She credits her Sherpa guide with saving her life.
When the earthquake hit April 24, Atto was having lunch with her guide, Kale, at the Good Luck Hotel high in the Himalayan village of Dingboche. Her boyfriend, Brian Whitmer of Pontiac, had taken ill with altitude sickness the day before and been airlifted down to Kathmandu, where he caught a flight back to the U.S., so she was on her own. At 14,800 feet elevation, Dingboche was en route to Mt. Everest Base Camp.
Then the shaking. “Run!” someone shouted. Everyone dashed out of the building to the hilly ground outside that was deeply shuddering, swaying village houses all around.
:: Local trekker survives earthquake. (Photo: Tribune News Service. Detroit Free Press)
Hiking down through ruined villages
The earthquake was the worst to hit Nepal in 80 years.
That first day, Atto was unhurt. Everyone in the village was alive. But with Internet and cell phone service wiped out, there was no way for Atto to alert her boyfriend or family back in Michigan that she was OK. She also did not know what had happened in other villages, or up on Everest, or down in Kathmandu.
The only thing to do was to try to get down alive. She and her guide spent one more night in Dingboche, where there were so many aftershocks her fitful sleep was “interspersed with panicked leaping to cower under the door frame to my room.”
The next day, they hiked down to the village of Pheriche, where injured and dead people were being helicoptered out. She was able to contact her family on Facebook via Wi-Fi. For the next three days, they trekked along damaged trails, over boulders and rockfalls, past villages where hotels and monasteries had collapsed, past tents with homeless families. Amid frightening aftershocks, she and Kale finally reached Lukla on April 28. The tiny airport was overwhelmed with desperate people trying to leave.
Katmandu earthquake: ‘Nightmare’ experts long saw coming
“You couldn’t even move. People were angry and upset,” Atto recalls. “My guide said, ‘We’re not getting out today.’ So I kind of walked around. I heard from one U.S. soldier that a guy had wanted to get off the mountain so badly he ran at a helicopter, got hit by the rotor blade and got killed. There was so much desperation.
“Still, I felt so safe compared to the people in Kathmandu. Up here on the mountain we had food and water and Internet access.”
: Katharine Atto of Farmington Hills, trekking with her boyfriend, Brian Whitmer of Pontiac, to Mt. Everest Base Camp, was shaken by the Nepal earthquake on April 24. This was damage in the village of Dingboche, where she was having lunch when the quake struck. (Photo: Katharine Atto)
The next day, her guide promised they were going to get off the mountain. She sat with her luggage at the airport from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. It didn’t look good.
“Then at 3 o’clock, my guide came back running,” Atto recalls. “He said, come on, and don’t stop running and don’t stop for anything. We raced through the airport. Nobody scanned or weighed our luggage. I didn’t even have a ticket in my hand,” she says. “We ran out the door and up the steps of the plane. The woman said, hurry, hurry and we ran in with all of our luggage. I asked Kale, how did you get us on the airplane? He just said he knew a lot of people.”
The tiny 14-passenger plane tilted and bucked as it took off in the thin air en route to Biratnagar Airport. Her luggage tipped in the aisle. Her heart pounded. The flight was choppy and nauseating.
“People said they thought we were going to die,” she says. “I wondered if the plane was too heavy or something.”
Still, they made it. And from Biratnagar, Atto’s guide somehow miraculously got them on a flight to Kathmandu.
But the ordeal was not over.
Local trekker survives earthquake. (Photo: Tribune News Service, Detroit Free Press)
Aftershocks in Kathmandu
By now, two weeks after the Nepal earthquake, emergency operations at the Kathmandu Airport are ongoing, with so many relief aircraft arriving there are cracks in the runway, according to news reports.
But as Atto arrived that night, the airport looked like a disorderly war zone: cargo planes, stretchers, military helicopters, emergency provisions piling up.
Kale stashed Atto with some friends of his overnight in the city, but they spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of a garden shed, too afraid to stay in the house. With good reason. That night, April 30, there were big aftershocks.
“The three of us jumped up and raced out the door,” she says. “That was the night I was most afraid, except for the first night. I was afraid I was going to get caught in an aftershock and get crushed by something.”
The next day, Atto finally got on her international flight home. She left behind her clothes and all medicine she’d brought. There was nothing more she could do there.
The United Nations has since reported that 8 million of Nepal’s 28 million people have been affected by the earthquake damage, with 519,000 houses destroyed.
“I have never returned from a trip and been so happy to be back in the United States,” Atto says. Now, looking at Nepal from thousands of miles away, she worries about the citizens and their fate. She worries about the future of Sherpas in Nepal, and the economic impact the disaster will have on their livelihood. She also worries about the constant pressures of tourism from the West that puts Sherpas in peril nearly every day of the trekking and climbing season on Everest.
Atto has always been an adventure traveler. She has hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru, and trekked to the top of mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. What are her plans for her next vacation?
“I am going to the beaches of Lake Michigan where I will not have a tsunami, where there won’t be an earthquake,” she says. “I don’t want to do anything dangerous, and I don’t want any more adventure.
“I’m sure in six months I’ll change my mind, but now I just want to go and relax somewhere that is safe.”
:: Katharine Atto of Farmington Hills trekking with her boyfriend Brian Whitmer of Pontiac to Mount Everest Base Camp, was shaken by the Nepal earthquake on April 24, 2015. This is the scene at the Lukla airport on April 29 as desperate people tried to fly out to safety. (Photo: Katharine Atto)
:: Katherine Atto and her guide made it down the mountain after the quake to the village of Pheriche, where they waited for a plane to Kathmandu. Here, injured people await transport in Pheriche along with the dead. (Photo: Katharine Atto)
:: Contact Ellen Creager: email@example.com. (Source: Detroit Free Press)