Psychology graduate Danielle Banks ’14 was hiking on Nepal’s Mount Everest when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the country, forcing her to descend on foot to a local hospital for air evacuation.
I didn’t even feel the ground shake at first. Everything happened so quickly. I thought the snow consuming our lodge in the village of Gorak Shep, Nepal, near Everest Base Camp, was just a
small avalanche. It wasn’t until everyone frantically ran outside that I realized it was an earthquake.
How did I find myself in Nepal in April 2015, witnessing the devastating effects of an earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000?
The story begins with my Texas A&M University experience.
During my undergraduate days, Texas A&M was a home away from home where my worldview broadened. As my professors and classmates reinforced or challenged concepts I learned during adolescence, I developed a finer sense of independence. College extended my group of friends beyond the boundaries of my hometown of Allen, Texas, and a five-month study abroad in Viña del Mar, Chile, during my senior year was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my undergraduate career.
The time I spent walking the streets of Valparaíso, Chile, conversing with locals, combing through museums, skiing the Andes Mountains, trekking through Patagonia and gazing upon the Atacama Desert made me fall so deeply in love with learning about new cultures that I knew this would be the first of many international adventures.
After returning to Aggieland, I tailored my courses to match my newfound interest in globalization and its enormous impact on society, refining my curiosities to range from human rights in developing countries to environmental issues. I finished my last semester and graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
With a plan to turn my education into action after graduation, I boarded a plane to Nepal. During my two-month stay, I volunteered with Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (SASANE), a women’s anti-human trafficking organization that supports and empowers human trafficking survivors in Nepal by training them as paralegals. The majority of my office time at SASANE was spent writing a grant for the United Nations Women Fund for Gender Equality and assisting with English lessons for survivors. In a short period, I absorbed a great deal about specific human rights issues that flood Nepal and bleed through Asia.
Danielle Banks ’14 left Everest’s Base Camp only two hours before an avalanche caused by the earthquake killed 20 people.
After I finished my work with SASANE, I planned to stay an extra five weeks to see the Himalayas before returning home. I set out for a 10-day trek to Mount Everest with my friend Olivia.
Eight days into the trek, on April 25, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook the country. The night before, Olivia and I had been at Everest Base Camp, where she was treated for acute mountain sickness. Unable to get helicoptered out due to heavy wind and snow, we descended two hours to the village Gorak Shep, arriving just when the earthquake hit. We later learned that an avalanche destroyed Everest Base Camp, killing 20 people in its wake.
After the immediate shock of everything, Olivia and I made the bold but necessary decision to maintain our itinerary and risk the possibility of an aftershock while descending to the small village Pheriche, where we had planned (before the earthquake) to be helicopter evacuated. However, we heard news along the way that Pheriche was reduced to rubble, forcing us to reroute to the next hospital location in Namche Bazaar.
We set out the following day and hiked nearly 11 hours to Khumjung, where we stumbled upon a lodge that had set up camping quarters outside. By this point, I hadn’t had cellular signal for nearly two days. The last text I had sent my mother read, “I just experienced my first avalanche.” Attaining a fuzzy signal in Khumjung, my phone flooded with texts from family and friends concerned about my safety. I updated my Mom and tasked her with updating everyone else; I was too overwhelmed to handle anyone else’s emotions.
Kathmandu, the capital and largest municipality of Nepal, was hit especially hard by the April 2015 earthquake, which killed more than 9,000 people and injured 23,000 more.
The next morning we arrived to the hospital in Namche Bazaar, where an air evacuation helicopter took us first to Lukla, then to the American Embassy in Kathmandu. We sat in Lukla for hours watching helicopter after helicopter carry down the victims of Mother Nature. It was the most morbid scene I’ve witnessed in my life.
We heard rumors on the trails of how badly Kathmandu was hit, but nothing prepared me for an aerial view of the devastation. The streets that once were vibrant and bursting with the noise of horns, barking stray dogs and street vendors were now dead silent. The place I had called home for two months was reduced to rubble, and I couldn’t help but feel like a part of me was, too. During my time at the embassy, I began to regret that I had the opportunity to run away from the reality of this disaster while others were enduring hardship, loss, chaos and an uncertain future. Nepal introduced me to many things, but the concept of privilege is one I will forever carry with me.
I’ve been back in the U.S. since May 3, embarking on a career in international development, preparing graduate school applications and spending weekends with family and friends. However, part of me will forever be in Nepal, bound equally to memories of beauty and devastation, wonder and tragedy, and survival and death.
My heart will never fully be home again.