When Phil Everest stepped onto the plane to fly home from Nepal two years ago after a trekking adventure a return trip was not top of his priorities. Running a 280ha dairy operation brings plenty of demands and little time off, and he had other places in the world he was as keen to visit, when time permitted.
But the earthquake that struck while he and his group were literally in the air changed his plans.
The Nepal quake that April killed 9,000 people and wreaked havoc in a country that never had a lot of wealth to begin with. For Phil and his travelling companions the knowledge that the porters who had faithfully guided them on their trek to Everest base camp were in the midst of this disaster was too great to ignore.
“They were from the village of Khari Kholawhere three of the five main buildings at their monastery had been really hammered.”
The seven male members of the initial trekking group decided to band together and return to the village on a rebuilding mission. They also hoped to bring some new ideas on construction to the earthquake prone region that locals could easily adopt in future projects.
Phil says the support from Canterbury businesses to fulfil equipment needs was overwhelming. This included supplies from Ruralco where he has been an ATS Shareholder for many years. Ruralco suppliers including Skellerup provided boots, socks and leather gloves that proved invaluable for building site protection and Blacklow’s for engineering supplies.
And the group was not short on skills to help a devastated community. Phil and a pig farmer bought a practical approach, a couple of Air New Zealand aircraft engineers helped with equipment assembly, while a quantity surveyor and project manager helped with the work process in a demanding higher altitude third world environment.
“A key part of what we wanted to do involved using stone filled gabian baskets for construction. These had proven to work after the quake in Haiti, and there is no shortage of rocks in Nepal.”
On arrival, the men got busy rebuilding the village monastery, completely reworking traditional building design by constructing a concrete pad floor complete with reinforcing steel, something locals had never seen before.
Wooden trusses were provided from pit sawn timber, and its varying interpretations of “4*2” made for some adaptive carpentry techniques.
“You soon learned to work with what you had given, and make the most of it.”
Six locals provided manpower to assist the seven Kiwis in work that cracked off at 5.30am and went to dark at 6.00pm for three weeks.
Armed with 200kg of gear that included wheel barrows, a concrete mixer and power tools the group had an array of equipment foreign to the villagers, and all was gratefully accepted when left with them on completion of the job.
Phil says the wheel barrows in particular were a huge hit with the adults and children alike. While the men enjoyed how easy it made their jobs, their children like children everywhere were ever keen for joy rides in the barrows around the building site.
The concrete mixer was a vast improvement from making mortar on the ground, and it worked well until the electricity faded at the end of the day.
The crew were warmly welcomed by villagers, having three cooked meals a day turned out on a simple kerosene stove.
“That included a delicious rice porridge none of us had had before then.”
They also soon appreciated how deep the ties were between the two countries, thanks to Sir Edmund Hillary’s untiring work in the Himalayan communities.
“We visited Sir Ed’s hospitals and schools during our last visit to Everest Base Camp. We had a doctor accompany us too from NZ who had worked in Ed’s hospital and came with a pack load of medications. The communities rely upon farming and portering for trekkers, so there were strong links to the climbing community in NZ there too.”
All the children’s schools had not only text books but exercise books supplied through Sir Edmund’s Himalayan Trust, and New Zealand features in all the classes’ geography lessons.
After three weeks, the men had rebuilt the monastery, finishing up all but the final roofing which they learned had been completed shortly after their arrival back home in late April.
The night before they returned home the men were treated to the “full royal” reception, with a feast and party involving much singing and celebration from a village happy to see a key part of its village restored.
Phil acknowledges the irony that only through the earthquake’s destruction were they able to witness a part of Nepalese life that a typical trekker would never have experienced.
“We were all given many scarves in thanks, and were told the reception we got was only for very special occasions, we were the ones who felt lucky.”
Phil also quickly acknowledges the ironic link between his surname and his recently completed mission to Nepal.
“It was not lost on the Nepalese either, they thought it was a real laugh to have the surname I did, and wanted to check out my passport to see if it really was true.”
For Phil, the earthquake and restoration visit two years later had also bought another tie to the country.
A Nepalese guide who took the group on their first visit now works for Phil on his Flemington dairy farm.
After six treks to the summit of Everest and working in stressful rescue circumstances pulling his countrymen from an avalanche in 2014, Kaji Sherpahad decided he was done with mountaineering.
“He came over just after the quake, when I told him if he was ever in New Zealand to drop in. He did, and he ended up working for us. He is very conscientious and an excellent stockman.”
It was Kaji who managed to pull a lot of the logistics together for the group’s restoration visit this year.
Phil says it would be good to return and see their work completed, but farm demands and the time involved make it a tough mission to re-visit.
“We were happy to do what we did for the people there. It was simply not an option to hop on the plane after the quake and not feel we should do something for those people – they are very welcoming and generous, despite having few material things themselves.”