A New Documentary Looks at Everest in the Wake of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake

An injured person is carried by rescue members to be airlifted by rescue helicopter at Everest Base Camp on April 26, 2015, a day after an avalanche triggered by an earthquake devastated the camp. Credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty Images

It was reportedly Joseph Stalin who made the observation: One death is a tragedy, one million a statistic. The 2015 Nepal earthquake took over 9,000 lives, injured upwards of 23,000, and damaged or destroyed over 600,000 structures. It measured a magnitude of 7.8 out of 10 on the Richter scale. The numbers paint an ugly picture, but seeing it is another matter entirely. In Nightmare on Everest, a documentary made with footage and narration from survivors, we are reminded of the human element behind the statistics.

The hour-long program, airing tonight on the Smithsonian Channel, weaves a handful of storylines of trekkers who were in north-central Nepal on April 25, 2015. It focuses on two of the worst hit zones: Everest, where hundreds were overrun by a series of quake-triggered avalanches, and Langtang, a remote valley surrounded by 20,000-foot peaks that was ravaged by avalanches and landslides. Several of the trekkers were recording video footage before the quake struck, as tourists are wont to do in the Himalayas, and their footage captures the sudden, staggering, bewildering drama of an earthquake at the top of the world.

The initial quake struck just before noon. Michele Battelli, an Italian climber, was inside his tent then, resting after reaching Everest base camp. There was a great roar, “as if the ice was splitting underneath our tent,” he recalled. We see him and others emerge from their tents in confusion. Moments later the whole camp is engulfed by a cloud of raging white. “It was like stepping out of a highway into a fog bank and hearing trucks roaring at you from several directions but you don’t know which way to run,” recounted one American mountaineer. Nineteen climbers died on Everest that day.

In Langtang, nearly one hundred miles east, we see a young European couple out on a hike have to dash behind a tree as dirt and rocks tumble from above. What wasn’t destroyed by the quake and aftershocks in Langtang was wiped out by this mass of debris. The program then follows the ensuing rescue efforts in the valley, where people were trapped for days awaiting rescue helicopters. Over 300 people perished there.

“That kind of terror, the effect of surviving such an immense event, and all the surrounding trauma over the following days that I was trapped in the valley... it changes you,” Athena Zelandonii, an Australian photojournalist and trekker who was in Langtang, told us.

“It's barely possible to go a day without a reverberation or an echo of those days reaching out to touch my life as I live it now, two years on.”

Nightmare on Everest premiers tonight on the Smithsonian Channel at 9 p.m. EST.