Nepal quake survivor from Cowichan feels ‘lucky’

All things considered, the cough Nick Versteeg is still coping with, days after his return from Nepal, is pretty minor.

Known as the Khumbu Cough, it afflicts everyone who visits the Mount Everest Base Camp.

"You get small particles of sand in your lungs," the celebrated Cowichan Bay filmmaker explained on Monday, three days after he got back to Canada on May 1. "Everybody deals with it. The coughing is incredible. I’ve been coughing more or less the last 14 days."

After surviving the magnitude-7.8 earthquake on April 25 that killed more than 7,600 people, Versteeg will take the cough.

"It’s better than being hit by massive rocks," he said.

When the devastating earthquake struck, Versteeg and his trekking companion had just returned to Namche Bazaar – the hub for Everest exploration – from Base Camp, and were waiting to rejoin the Seattlebased dentist that Versteeg had been filming on behalf of Rotary International as the dentist did volunteer work among the Sherpas and their families.

They were staying in a lodge in Namche, which provided food and shelter, with no extravagances, and constructed, like most buildings in the village, out of large stones – not bricks or cinderblocks – and no cement. "You have to envision, it’s not a hotel," Versteeg said.

"It’s very simple; super basic." Versteeg and his friend had just ordered lunch, and managed to convince the Australian fellow whose bedroom was next to Versteeg’s (and who had been up all night with the Khumbu Cough) to join them rather than head to his room for a nap.

Then the earthquake hit. They all ran outside, feeling the ground shake beneath them while the building in front of them swayed left and right and cracks appeared.

"I had never been in a 7.8 earthquake before," Versteeg noted.

After a major aftershock struck about an hour later, and after the Nepalese paramilitary police had arrived to take control of the situation, they returned to the lodge, where the wall they had been sitting beside had fallen inwards, and the Australian man’s bedroom was destroyed.

"Where we had been sitting, the whole ceiling had come down," Versteeg said. "I felt incredibly lucky."

Fortunately, Versteeg was able to recover his equipment, including six weeks of film footage, which was dusty, but not damaged.

Despite what they were going through, the Nepalese people did their best to take care of the many international visitors who were trapped by the quake.

"The people from Namche were fantastic," Versteeg said. "There were hundreds of trekkers from all over the place who didn’t know what to do."

After another night of aftershocks, the police moved everyone from the village to a camp at the top of a nearby mountain. Around that same time, Versteeg and his friend were reunited with the Seattle dentist and his guide. The guide was eventually able to arrange for a helicopter ride to Lukla, where the nearest airport to Namche Bazaar is located. They waited there a couple of days before they could fly to Kathmandu.

The capital and largest city in Nepal, Kathmandu was just 80 kilometres from the earthquake’s epicentre, and sustained significant damage, particularly in older parts of the 3,000-year-old city.

"The situation was pretty grave, but I was surprised by how much was still standing," Versteeg said.

Versteeg and his companions stayed in a hotel that remained intact with some structural damage, and where all the staff had been laid off as tourists fled the country. While they were eating a breakfast of boiled eggs, white bread and tea, a couple came in – Versteeg doesn’t know if they were English or American – expecting the hotel’s usual spread and taken aback by what they considered "camping." That was the only time Versteeg lost his composure.

"I lost it," he admitted. "There were 5,000 people dead. I found it incredibly rude. That was the only negative thing."

It wasn’t easy to leave Kathmandu, and Versteeg spent a day at the airport before he was able to get a flight out. There, he was able to watch the international aid efforts in action.

"There were huge planes coming in – Russian, Chinese, Turkish – and all the unloading was done by hand, which would take a couple of hours," he recalled. "And everything was stocked on the side of the runway. What we felt they need is people with forklifts and trucks."

Eventually, Versteeg flew from Kathmandu to Delhi, beginning his journey home. It was 41 hours before he made it to Vancouver for a "tearful reunion" with his wife, Elly Driessen, and her sister. "That was a minor inconvenience after what we went through," he said.

Versteeg had already planned a showing of his two latest productions, 71 Years (about a Second World War-era military flight that crashed on Vancouver Island and wasn’t discovered until 2013) and One Man’s Dream (about the creation of the Malahat Highway) at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre on June 3. That will still go ahead, but now all the profits will go to the Nepalese village of Khumjung, where Versteeg filmed the Seattle dentist in action, and which has been completely destroyed. Versteeg is also planning to put together a short film about his earthquake experience for that event.

"A couple of thousand dollars would go a long way in helping these people out," he said.