The Deadly Earthquake of Nepal and How this Type 1 Survived Everest
Before midday, April 25, 2015, on the tallest mountain of the world, it was quiet and overcast, snow layering atop of icy ridges. The weather had halted all climbs, the snowfall obscuring the pass. Apart from a couple of altitude sick climbers who’d stopped at Base Camp the night before, and then descended on foot, there was little movement on the mountain. Just a year prior, almost to date, an ice release killed 16 climbers on Everest — it’d been the deadliest incident in the mountain’s history. What would happen in the matter of minutes would be the worst disaster to hit Everest yet.
Quartz journalist Svati Narula, who also has Type 1 diabetes, was at Base Camp that day finishing emails and thinking about what to have for lunch. She’d come to the mountain, not as a climber, but hired to document communications and run social media outreach for seasoned climber and filmmaker David Breashears. Although she’d been scared ascending to her new office at Base Camp, things had so far gone well for the few weeks she’d been there. At the age of 23, she was in shape and had packed plenty of diabetes supplies.
Svati had read about the Himalayas extensively and was drawn to covering outdoor sports; however, she’d never imagined actually being at the foot of Everest, 17,500 feet (5,300 meters) above sea level where taking a breath only gives you half the oxygen your body is used to getting. Her endocrinologist had flat out said that she shouldn’t go. You won’t be able to manage your blood sugars, she’d been warned. Besides, a CGM is only approved for 10,000 feet and Base Camp, her new office for the next 6-8 weeks, was nearly double that. She hadn’t needed to convince her endo — she was going regardless of warnings, not wanting to miss an opportunity of a lifetime to cover the famous documentarian’s work — what was more difficult was convincing her mother.
While her employer was aware of her condition, he didn’t think it prevented her from doing her job or awarded any special treatment. She was in charge of her diabetes management. “He [Breashears] can’t be responsible for my diabetes, I told my mom,” says Svati. “She kept wanting to tell him everything about managing Type 1 diabetes. As far as I was concerned, of course he needed to know that I had it, but he couldn’t be expected to take care of me — I already felt like a burden by not being a climber, let alone having never been to the country.”
With a little over a month to prepare, Svati exercised regularly to be strong enough for the rigorous 9-day hike to Base Camp. She found a sublet for her New York city apartment and convinced — not without difficulty — her insurance company to ship her an extra three months’ worth of diabetes supplies. In the end, for what was meant to be a two month stay in Nepal, she arranged for access to six months of supplies. “I needed to take 2 or 3 times more of my normal supplies, 2 Dexcoms, and a back up pump. If the pump didn’t work, I needed enough syringes and enough long acting insulin to maintain my diabetes. I had to prepare for insulin bottles breaking or freezing along the way; I had to prepare for everything,” she explains.
Surreptitiously, she’d met two avid climbers with Type 1 at a Friends for Life conference several years prior. She called them up in March, asking for any Type 1 advice they could give to someone who hadn’t climbed the Empire State building let alone the tallest mountain in the world. Sebastian Sasseville and Will Cross, encouraged her to take the job and filled her with more confidence than anyone; however, the two climbers gave very different dosing recommendations. In the end, she knew she had to listen to her body and do what worked for her individually. “My major concerns were the length of time on the mountain,” she says, “how my body would react and how secure my supplies would be.” But what would happen on the quiet Saturday in April was like nothing she could have imagined or ever truly prepared for.
At 11:56 a.m. NST an earthquake with a 7.8 magnitude broke open Nepal, its epicenter east of Lamjung District at Barpak, Gorkha. Svati stopped typing on her laptop and exited her employer’s tent. Breashears was somewhere up the mountain at either Camp I or II. The quake lasted nearly a minute and when it was done, it had killed nearly 9,000 people. At the time, the threat of an avalanche was far from the journalist’s mind. Outside the tent, she turned to two men nearby. “Earthquake?” she’d asked.
What Svati saw next she describes as a tsunami tearing down the mountain side. The two men broke into a run and she followed suit. Then, moments later, a deadly wind blast of snow — the avalanche that would claim 21 climbers’ lives before the end of the day. She describes thinking of National Geographic and recalling advice to stay upright, keep her arms out and her hands cupped around her face for better breathing after being trapped in the drift. When it stopped and the snow settled, she found that she wasn’t submerged but able to stand.
Base Camp had been destroyed, save the small white Everest ER tent with its red cross. The next 12 hours, before she and a handful of others would be life flighted out by helicopter, were spent in a confusion of triage and fear of more avalanches caused by the quake’s aftershocks. In the end, her employer, Breashears, survived, but several acquaintances and friends she met along the way had perished. When I ask Svati what worried her most in terms of her diabetes care, she says, “I wasn’t worried about my diabetes; I was worried about dying in an avalanche.”
She goes on to say that also may have been because she had a good site, a pump and enough insulin for the next 24 hours. “My tent was destroyed, buried under ice and snow, but fortunately almost all of my supplies survived in its packaging.” She explains, “I kept my supplies in a bunch of different places. On me or elsewhere. So if anything fell or got lost, I had some. Some insulin was kept in insulated thermoses, designed to maintain temperatures. Some in my jacket, inside my breast pocket. The rest left in a lunchbox in my tent, in my sleeping bag.”
“What about your blood sugars?” I wonder. “Did they spike with the adrenaline from the trauma?”
“I didn’t really check my blood sugars at all that day, because I had the Dexcom on me and I was too distracted, focused on other things. I wasn’t feeling low and I also had my pump on me,” she says. “My blood sugars were good enough.”
She’s still seeing a therapist for the PTSD that she experienced after coming home, but she still remembers Nepal with nostalgia and would go back if she ever had the chance. “I think writing about it really helped too, being able to tell that story and share it with others,” she says. “I didn’t know how much that would help. I was able to sort of close a chapter in my life and not think about it as much.”
“If someone else with Type 1 was embarking on a trip like Everest, what would you tell them?” I ask.
“The reason diabetes wasn’t a huge crisis for me when this bad thing happened at Base Camp was because I’d prepared so much and worried so much beforehand. If I hadn’t prepared as extensively, maybe there would have been surprises that put my care in danger. If you prepare properly, you can survive anything and do anything with this condition.”
Read Svati Narula’s I Survived the Deadliest Day in Everest’s History, and I’m still Surviving It.