* In 1996 Patrick Conroy was sent to Nepal to cover South Africa's first Everest expedition. Twenty years to later he reflects on this memorable assignment.
Day 6: 3 May 1996
I continued to torture Mangal and Sherpa Tenzing by insisting on an early start for the village of Namche Bazaar. Both men obliged, smiling of course.
As I got our team off to a quick march we met up with a group of Australian hikers along the trail. Unlike us they were in no rush and were thoroughly enjoying their time in the mountains. We were still at relatively low altitude snaking our way along the valleys. It was warm and soon we were stripping down to our t-shirts, stowing our jackets in our rucksacks. Mangal was deliberately setting a slower pace so that we remained with the cheerful Australians. He also regularly urged me to drink water, which helps with the effects of altitude.
I’m grateful he did. The three Aussies introduced themselves as Gary, Liz and Cathy and chatting to them as we made our way towards Namche lightened the mood. The previous week had been a race against the clock. As soon as Cecil Lyons got the green light I had made sure I was on the first flight out of Johannesburg. I knew this was my chance and once the plane had taken off my employer could not change its mind.
In my haste to leave I had repeatedly harassed the news team’s secretary, Marilyn McLaren, to secure the earliest booking. Marilyn was a sweet elderly lady and prone to fluster. It was no wonder then that after two dozen phone calls she made one small error.
I discovered her oversight when landing in Singapore. According to Marilyn I had a three hour overlay before flying on to Kathmandu. I marched up to the ticket counter and confidently handed them my ticket. The woman behind the kiosk looked at it and handed it back. I was puzzled.
“I’m on the 2pm flight to Kathmandu” I said.
“Yes you are,” she replied sweetly, “the 2pm flight that leaves tomorrow.”
I studied the ticket more closely. Dear old Marilyn had muddled the dates.
“Isn’t there a flight today?” I begged.
“Yes, but its full sir. See you tomorrow”. Smile.
Luckily for Marilyn McLaren I would have nearly two months to calm down before seeing her again to discuss my 27-hour layover in Singapore airport.
For now this was all far from my mind as Mangal, Sherpa Tenzing, the Australian trio and I edged our way up the mountainsides.
This required crossing long suspension bridges over fast flowing glacial rivers. They were a milky blue colour, a sign that they were composed of the melted ice and snow from the mountains and glaciers looming large above us.
Mangal stopped. He pointed upwards and almost whispered “Everest”.
I could see the peak in the distance. We were still so far away that it actually looked smaller than the peaks surrounding us. I was struck by how far we still had to travel to get there. I was starting to question my decision to push as hard as possible to get there in seven days as opposed to nine or ten.
Ironically as I was staring at the distant summit one man was making his way down having failed to reach it. His name was Goran Kropp.
Kropp had been dubbed the Super Swede because he had cycled solo all the way from Sweden to Everest, a distance of over 13,000 kilometres.
Once on the mountain he intended to climb it without using fixed ropes, Sherpa guides or supplemental oxygen to help him breathe at high altitude.
When he finished the job Goran intended to cycle all the way home again.
Goran and his girlfriend Renata were camped next to the South African expedition at base camp. They would reach the summit together in 1999 as an engaged couple. They were on the way to becoming mountaineering royalty.
But on this day Goran had been forced down by deep snow.
I was being forced up by the Aussies who now felt we all thoroughly deserved a cold beer once we got to Namche.
Talk Radio 702 talks to Deshun Deysel at base camp. She says inquiries from South Africa (she doesn't say who) have resulted in the local Nepalese Ministry denying her the right to climb the mountain. 702 also confirms it doesn't know where young reporter Patrick Conroy is. Above is an audio clip of the morning show with John Robbie and Dan Moyane.