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Hill-Climbing Staffer Reflects on Nepal Earthquake

Mueller poses at Everest Base Camp. (Courtesy Gillian Mueller)
Mueller poses at Everest Base Camp. (Courtesy Gillian Mueller)

During a recent congressional recess, Gillian Mueller visited ancient temples in Nepal. Nine days later, the temples were rubble.  

“We were walking around Durbar Square in Kathmandu, which is one of the places that had the most destruction,” Mueller said. “Temples that we were standing on and looking at are crumbled right now. So it’s a little surreal to think about that.” Mueller is a senior policy adviser on health and social policy for Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. During the Easter recess, just days before a major earthquake struck, she traveled to Nepal to trek to the base camp at Mount Everest.  

On April 25, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Nepalese capital, claiming more than 8,000 lives, injuring nearly 20,000 and damaging roughly 10 percent of Nepal’s homes. On Tuesday, another quake hit — a 7.3 magnitude tremor near the town of Namche Bazaar, where Mueller spent three nights. Early reports indicate the earthquake killed dozens and injured around 1,000 people.  

Mueller was back in the United States when she learned about the April disaster, and her first thought was of the Mountain Madness team that led her, another American and two Canadians to base camp. She reached out to contacts in Nepal and quickly learned everyone was safe.  

One of Mueller’s guides, Deana Zabaldo, an American who first went to Nepal with the Peace Corps, started a Go Fund Me page to rebuild homes damaged in the earthquake.  

“Our lead Sherpa on the trip, he’s living in a tent now because his house isn’t stable enough to be in,” Mueller said. “Which is, again, why I’m so thrilled that our guide is rebuilding because there’s so many places to give to right now but this one, it’s directly going back to people.”  

Mueller said the Sherpas, the native mountain dwellers skilled in climbing, helped make the 13-day trek to base camp possible, as certain types of food and drink become essential to acclimating to the thinner air.  

“We could never do these things without the staff over there, the local staff, the Sherpas and the people who help,” Mueller told CQ Roll Call. “They cook, they provide us the food, they keep us safe, they take care of us.”  

Mueller said her guide also floated the idea of having a “rebuilding trip,” so Mueller might return to Nepal if it coincides with another recess.  

She doesn’t have any anxiety about returning for future treks.  

“No,” she said without hesitation when asked if the earthquake and subsequent avalanche gave her pause. “If I wanted to live my life by being nervous about things like that, I wouldn’t go to most of the places that I go to. Something can always happen, but it can happen here too.”  

The 40-year-old from Port Washington, N.Y., has traveled to Egypt, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Jordan and India.  

“I always try once a year to go to some place interesting,” she said.  

She got her first taste of a mountain trek in 2013, when she climbed Kilimanjaro. Hoping to make a similar trip, she signed up for the Everest base camp trek, which does not require more advanced climbing skills.  

“I like the challenge,” Mueller said. “And I just, I enjoy being out there.” She said the vantage from a trek is like no other. “It’s great scenery all day. You walk around and you see mountains all around you.”  

But Mueller almost did not have the opportunity to make these treks, let alone walk. She was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and she was not expected to be more than 4 feet tall.  

When she was a teenager, she was the first North American to undergo extended limb-lengthening surgeries to make her taller, though some warned the surgery could threaten her ability to walk.  

“My orthopedic surgeon, who I still keep in touch with, loves it that I go climb mountains,” Mueller said. “It’s like, not only is she not crippled, she’s doing things like this.”  

Mueller said she had her surgeries around the time of the 25th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so there was no shortage of documentaries for her to watch as she recovered. “I watched them because I was bored by regular TV,” she said. “And I was drawn to his idea of public service and grace under pressure.”  

After graduating from Trinity College in 1997, she landed a job working for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del. She then interned for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and discovered she wanted to pursue health policy. After a stint in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office, Mueller pursued a masters degree in health and social policy at Johns Hopkins University. She then returned to the Hill to work for Casey.  

“I always knew this is what I wanted to do,” Mueller said of public service. But she also relishes the opportunity to descend Capitol Hill and explore far-off places.  

“My office has always been very supportive of me and doing these things. Though my chief of staff did ask me after the earthquake happened if I’m ready to start taking up golf now,” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”  

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