by James Warren
NBC’s “Dateline” will air a Sunday special, “Avalanche,” on Mt. Everest and the earthquake in April that killed more than 8,000 people. Veteran correspondent Richard Engel interviewed survivors, including climbers, guides and Sherpas, who share their accounts of their agonizing attempts to survive.
The show airs at 7 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) and includes previously unseen video of the earthquake, including some shot by a hiker at Everest Base camp.
I asked Engel about Nepal, the quake and media coverage. When he mentions “Everest base camp,” he’s referring to one of two campsites on opposite sides of the mountain (one in Nepal, one in Tibet), with the Nepalese camp at an altitude of more than 17,000 feet. It’s used by climbers as they go up and down the mountain.
What did you find and what is the Everest special all about?
When we initially went up the Kumbu Valley toward Everest base camp we didn’t really know what we would find. A couple of photographers had been there when the avalanche hit, and the climbers themselves were sending pictures and video on social media, but no reporters had gone up there so we didn’t have any idea of the extent of the damage.
What we found out was that the earthquake shook loose giant chunks of ice off the peak of a mountain called Pumori, that stands across from Everest and, when these huge ice sheets came crashing down, they sent a deadly shock wave that obliterated the central part of base camp. It killed 19 people and injured about 70 others. Only once I was standing there amid the debris did I really understand that this avalanche didn’t bury base camp under snow. It sent down a wave of ice, dirt and snow that was moving so fast that it literally blew away everything in its path.
Then we met Garrett Madison and his team who quickly became the focus of our story. Garrett is a very experienced mountain guide. He and his climbers were making their way up to the mountain when the avalanche hit. They felt the glacier rocking and then they saw the avalanche come down and were covered in the ice and snow and dust particles that it kicked up. What they didn’t know at the time was that the avalanche killed their team “doc,” Eve Girawong. It also injured two other team members including Michael Churton, a filmmaker who was documenting the expedition. Michael captured the moment when the avalanche hit and we licensed his video which is very powerful.
Our documentary follows what happens as the climbers are divided, some at base camp, others high on the mountains, both dealing with a life and death crisis. The team members at base camp were hit by the avalanche. The climbers above had suddenly found themselves trapped and one of them, Randall Ercanbrac, got very sick. Randall is a tough 59-year-old cherry farmer from Utah with a pirate beard and a never-quit attitude but he had bad case of HAPE, a potentially lethal lung condition caused by the altitude. Randall’s daughter, Haley, a serious climber who was hoping to break the world record for women on the seven highest summits in the world, spent a night by her father’s side, unsure if he would survive till morning.
I think viewers are going to really get the sense of what the climbers went through in the dramatic hours after this major avalanche.
Were there any obstacles? What will we be seeing and why is it important that we care? Why should we watch?
We arrived in Nepal about 16 hours after the earthquake hit. While we were waiting at passport control, a powerful aftershock rolled though and the official who had my passport left his desk and ran out of the building, worried that the terminal could collapse. That was our welcome to Nepal.
We drove out of the airport and found the whole population of Kathmandu living out on the streets. Everyone was worried about aftershocks so they camped out in parks, parking lots, outside government buildings. What was most amazing was that there was, as far as we could see, no panic and no violence, just a real determination to survive.
By the middle of the first week, NBC News had three full teams on the ground, covering the aftermath. So we were able to leave Kathmandu and try to make it to base camp. Getting there is complicated – you have to take a flight to a place called Lukla, where the airport has been called “the most dangerous in the world.” It’s a very, very short airstrip. From there, climbers usually walk up very slowly to let their bodies adjust to the altitude but we obviously didn’t have the time. It takes about nine days to walk up to base camp. We were lucky and managed to jump on choppers that were involved in the rescue effort. They were bringing survivors off the mountains and travelling back up empty, so we hitched a ride.
The avalanche on base camp is not the main story in Nepal. The main story is that one of the poorest nations in the world has just suffered a terrible natural disaster that it does not have the resources to recover from on its own. But what makes the avalanche story so compelling is that it is a disaster within a disaster. Base camp is basically deserted most of the year. But the avalanche hit during climbing season, when hundreds of climbers and support staff and trekkers were living there. What happens is that in early April the Sherpas come and construct this elaborate tent city with power and heating and medical facilities and kitchens. They even have massage tents and barber tents. Base camp was packed when the avalanche hit. It was the worst moment for this very specific event to happen. If it happened anywhere else in the high Himalayas or at any other time but in late spring, we would never have even known it happened. But, because it hit when and where it did, 19 people were killed including four Americans.
What’s your take on the general media coverage of the story itself and the aftermath and reconstruction?
I think the earthquake got a lot of coverage right after it happened. All the American networks got there eventually, along with many other outlets. But reporting the story was tough because Nepal is uniquely hard to get around, which meant that getting beyond Kathmandu was a serious logistical challenge. It’s an incredibly poor country with very bad infrastructure and the topography makes it very hard to reach the remote villages where some of the worst damage happened. So, in the initial wave, most of the coverage was focused on Kathmandu, which is a sprawling city with bad building codes and way too many scooters, much like many cities in that part of the world.
The other thing about this tragedy is that the long-term damage goes far beyond the lives that were lost or the buildings that were damaged. Because Nepal is so poor and badly governed, it just can’t afford to rebuild what was lost. The result is a slow-motion disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal are now homeless and living in all kinds of makeshift shelters. They have limited access to toilets, fresh water or clean food and, to make things worse, rainy season is underway. The problem is that slow-motion disasters are much harder to cover than the original, violent, earthquake.
If it were up to us reporters, we would stay and keep covering the story long after the rescue effort gave way to a reconstruction effort for which the outside world is only providing limited assistance. In fact, I think we should be covering the politics in Nepal, the regional issues with Tibet and China and the economic and environmental developments in one of the most diverse and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. But the sad truth is that the news organizations have limited budgets and limited space, so most reporters were pulled out of Nepal about a week after the earthquake. I’m proud to say that NBC kept a presence there long after everyone else left town, so my colleague Katy Tur was there after the deadly aftershock on May 12.
Have the media, who were there initially, generally pulled up stakes?
Yes. Most of the reporters who went there to cover the quake have left.
Who is there covering it? I don’t see a lot of stuff. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush but also don’t want to give folks a pass for splitting pretty quickly.
There has been some episodic coverage, but not much. I hope our documentary revives interest in this amazing story, wonderful country and horrible tragedy.
Poynter.org, 25 June 2015