THE amazing story of a Freo man’s terrifying fall in the Himalayas and his attempt to honour those who helped him survive almost came to a catastrophic end in flood-ravaged Mullumbimby earlier this year.
But now a group of Fremantle musicians have stepped in to get James Spence’s initiatiative Freedom Through Education Nepal back on track with a fundraiser at the Fibonacci Centre on Blinco Street on Saturday October 1 from 6.30-10pm.
Mr Spence’s near-death experience in Nepal was more than 20 years ago while on an “acclimatisation” exercise with a professional climber.
“We got into a tricky situation while I was in the lead,” he said.
“We had an overhang and I couldn’t find a foothold … and then the rock I was hanging onto broke and that was it.”
He fell almost 10 metres and landed on a steep slope of loose rock, known as scree. It didn’t kill him, but the danger wasn’t over.
“I slid backwards on my stomach and I was just dig, dig, dig, dig, trying to get my fingers in, but I just kept bouncing off.
“I don’t know how far; it may have been 100 metres or more and then I hit a pile of rocks with my left leg.”
The rocks broke his fall, but also ruptured his achilles tendon, so he hung on until his companion was able to make his way down using his ice axe and they carefully slid the rest of the way down the slope.
“So the rocks were like a divine intervention because I wouldn’t have survived the rest of the fall .. I would have shredded.”
Six hours later he limped into the nearest village before being put onto a donkey and taken to a Tibetan refugee camp.
“So they looked after me for the next two weeks, and because of their compassion and the way they looked after me that saved my leg,” he said, noting they’d pack his swollen leg with ice each day.
The local police officer didn’t have much good news about getting help, as there was no radio and no way to tell if the next plane would come the following day or months later.
The only alternative was a week-long, agonising trip aboard a donkey, so Mr Spence decided to sweat it out in the camp.
Almost three weeks later the plane arrived and took him to Kathmandu, which was followed by a 12-hour bus ride to Patna so he could finally get medical help.
Although that leg has never fully recovered, Mr Spence hasn’t let it curb his passion for the Himalayas and he’s been back on three climbing trips.
“But in 2013 on one of my trips up there, I met a bunch of kids who were working on the street.
“I came out of some place in the evening and I was walking down Z Street and I saw smoke at the end of the street and I saw people standing around what I thought was a barrel,” Mr Spence said.
“It’s about four in the morning and I went down there all rugged up and there’s a bunch of kids standing there with t-shirts, shorts and thongs, because that’s all they’ve got and they were burning plastics bags to keep warm.”
He tried to warn them about the toxic smoke they were breathing before realising it was futile as it was their only option to stay warm, but was so disturbed by what he’d seen he couldn’t sleep that night.
Next day he bought blankets at a market and returned, only to find their numbers had swelled. Knowing he couldn’t provide everyone with blankets, he started providing food.
Eventually he returned to Australia, but on hearing of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, killing 9,000 people, he sold his car and flew back.
Finding the boys were safe, he volunteered to help building emergency shelters, but with a couple of weeks left before flying out he reconnected with the boys and offered a place in school for those who were interested.
“One day, two weeks later, the head boy came to me and said ‘James, we have made a decision. We are too old to go to school, but can you put our younger brothers and sisters and friends in school’.”
“The oldest boy was 13, the youngest was 8.”
Mr Spence met their families, some living in underground shelters, and came to see the discrimination they faced, as they were from the Dalit caste in India, sometimes referred to as “untouchables” and a number of schools wouldn’t accept them.
He found places for seven kids and paid the tuition fees, but on his return to Australia realised he nedded more funds to keep them in school for the following years.
“I started a tiny store in the Melville markets, my first attempt to raise funds rather than paying straight out of my pocket.”
Selling clothes donated by his family saw money trickle in, but a couple of months later local alternative health worker and didgeridoo player Julian Silburn noticed the stall and offered to run a fundraiser at a local yoga centre.
While flying back to Nepal a couple of weeks later, he received word the fundraiser had pulled in $3000; it was more than expected so he put more kids in school.
With a paid staffer now in Nepal, Mr Spence moved to Mullumbimby where he continued to top up the fund’s from his own wages – until the floods hit NSW in late February this year.
“We got washed away by the river and grabbed hold of a tree and we had to tie a piece rope around me and two other people and hang onto this tree for three and a half hours at 2am in the morning. We were in a paddock and the reiver breached the banks of the river and came roaring over – the water rose nine metres to get to us.”
Having lost everything, including his tools, Mr Spence was living in a tent until recently returning to Fremantle. But with no income and just surviving proving costly, he’s not had a chance to raise funds for his Nepal project and its bank balance is down to just $1.
When Mr Silburn and local musical legend Kavisha Mazzella heard of the situation, they pulled together the Fib fundraiser Empty Sky, which will feature sacred songs and chants from the Heartplace Choir as well as performances from Dave Johnson and Christine Jarowszewski.
Mr Spence says now he’s back on solid ground he hopes to get Freedom Through Education Nepal officially registered, but for now raising enough money to keep 31 kids in school is the priority.
Tickets to Empty Sky Cosmic Cabaret are $32 through Eventbrite or $40 on the door.
by STEVE GRANT