Three weeks ago, the photographer Giles Price was on Mount Everest, taking pictures of climbers and their camps — the provisional little tent cities that sprout on that brutal frontier for several weeks every year, during climbing season, and then disappear. These settlements are determined but fragile, heroic but also insignificant — a bunch of colorful little spots on a very large mountain, like splattered paint. Photographed from a helicopter overhead, Price says, the tents “very much start to look like mankind’s footprint on another planet.”
Price was back in Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, asking for the check at lunch, when the first temblor hit on April 25. For a second, no one seemed sure what was happening; your imagination has to do a lot of work before you can accept that the ground is actually convulsing beneath you. But the shock had a magnitude of 7.8. People caught on quickly.
Avalanches on Everest, triggered by the quake, killed at least 18 people, some of them Sherpas hired as guides. But the most crushing stories of devastation continue to come from Nepal’s remote villages, many of which were initially cut off from aid by landslides. The accounts hint at the trauma of seeing an environment mostly taken for granted as stable and secure suddenly disintegrate. There was the house that fell on a little girl who had just walked inside to fetch water. There was the nursing mother who looked up and saw the unthinkable: “The hills all came down.”
Price photographed Katmandu the morning after the earthquake, assisted by a local reporter named Pradeep Bashyal, who had been with him on Everest. The city is home to more than a million people, and crowds of them had hastily relocated to its open spaces. The quake leveled several centuries-old World Heritage Sites, but many of Katmandu’s modern buildings fared comparatively well. Still, the fear of aftershocks was all-consuming — and warranted. The two tectonic plates whose movement caused the disaster were still lurching and fidgeting, trying to get comfortable again. Within days, there would be 60 more quakes of magnitude 4.1 or greater, and scientists project that this residual shaking could continue for years. “Unfortunately, this is simply what earthquakes do,” one geologist told NPR.
Price didn’t intend for his two sets of pictures to go together, but somehow they do. Or at least they grind against each other evocatively, like jagged plates, and never exactly settle. In some, people have trekked far outside the stability of civilization to confront the extremity of nature — as hired guides, or voluntarily, for pleasure and at no small expense. Others show people with comparatively little, who had that stability heaved up from underneath them. Here are people daring to live on a mountain. And here is a mountain of debris, where a moment ago people had dared to live.
A week after the quake, at least 16 tent cities had been established around Katmandu. Many of the people living in them were not technically homeless: Their homes were still standing. But they were choosing to sleep outside, because they didn’t trust buildings anymore, because they understood that nature is dispassionate and embedded with violence and risk — not just 17,000 feet up a mountain, but right under our feet — and that we are the little people camped on it, facing uphill.