* In 1996, Patrick Conroy was sent to Nepal to report on South Africa's first Everest expedition. Twenty years later he reflects on this memorable assignment.
Day 25: May 23 1996
At midnight Goran Kropp, the IMAX team and Thierry Renaud with legendary Babu Chiri Sherpa all left Camp 4 for the summit. The winds had died down and it seemed Everest had relented and allowed safe passage to the top.
The South Africans were two-thousand metres lower down the mountain where Ian Woodall refused to give in to his chest infection. He was determined to ascend to Camp 3 again with his team. So pig-headed was the man that even he and influenza were on bad terms.
During the mid-morning Mal Duff and his Base Camp manager, Mike Burns, arrived to say goodbye. It had been a tough year on the mountain and Mal had called his climbers down just a few days ago and forsaking the mountain.
He would be back next year to try again. We gave him and Mike especially branded t-shirts of the first South African Everest Expedition.
Mal already had a beanie with our flag on it and Mike wanted one too. I took mine off and handed it to him.
“Aye,” he said in a thick Scottish accent, “you’re a good man”.
We all shook hands and waved them off. Philip, Deshun and I stood for what seemed an eternity watching their figures get smaller and smaller as they criss-crossed the glacier to make their way home.
Then they dropped out of site.
I wonder if Mal ever got to play his recording of Nelson Mandela’s telephone call. He did return the following year and sadly was found dead in his tent in Base Camp. Mal Duff was 44.
Suddenly the radio burst into life.
“Base Camp, it is Thierry! I speak to you from the summit of Everest. Over”
Deshun grabbed the receiver and replied.
“Well done Thierry! We are proud of you.” Philip and I were screaming for joy in the background and shouting our congratulations.
The plan was that we would call his wife in France and let her know he was on the top. If possible Thierry wanted to speak to her and his beloved son Rémi from the summit.
I dialled the number he had given us but the person on the other side spoke no English, even when I yelled; “Thierry! Summit! Everest!”
I suspect the woman was a housekeeper and thought I was a prank caller, so she hung up.
“Never-mind Thierry, I have my recording equipment here. We can tape a message for your family. Over”
“Ok, wee. Let’s do that” he said, and began his message for his family.
“I am on the summit of the world. I love you. I kiss you.”
It sounded like he was crying, and for several minutes he continued his emotional dialogue. I considered the fact that he was French and this could take a while. I glanced down at the tape to make sure there was enough.
Finally the moment I’d been waiting for.
“Rémi, I love you. I now place your umbilical cord in the snow”.
Again ‘umbilical’ came out ‘ohm-bee-leek-chord’. I giggled.
I imagined Thierry on the summit like a high priest before a sacrifice, holding the bottle containing the ‘ohm-bee-leek-chord’ above his head, surrounded by two bemused Sherpa. Then, slowly he lowered it down placing the bottle in the snow, proudly tapping it into place.
A few days later Thierry arrived in camp, and I played him the tape. He sat there silently, then said; “Sh*t!”
I was confused. The recording was very clear and captured the entire summit report, tears and afterbirth included.
He must have seen the concern on my face and then made his admission.
“My family does not speak English” he said sombrely.
In his excitement, and oxygen deprived state, Thierry had failed to speak in his native French. I turned my face away but could not help the laughter bubbling up and then roaring out of my mouth. As much as I tried I could not suppress it, as he looked mournfully at the cassette now in his hand. I wiped away tears.
Thierry sighed, tapped the cassette on his knee and pronounced philosophically; “Now, Rémi will just have to learn to speak it”.
He left the tent and allowed me to continue my incurable laughter as I repeated his message out loud in a fake French accent: “Ohm-bee-leek-chord” I repeated, “in ze snoh”.
Later that day we saw an unexpected sight. High over Base Camp, and close to where the ‘Deshun Avalanche’ took place was a paraglider. To be more precise it was one glider with a pilot and passenger strapped into the harnessing in front of him.
Fortunately nobody had been caught in yesterday’s dramatic avalanche. Now, trouble loomed once more.
What on earth were they doing here? There were no paragliding climbers in Base Camp, as far as we were aware.
I had done some paragliding as a student in KwaZulu Natal’s Drakensburg Mountains. (With - Chad Doyle, Paul Backhouse, Mark Warmington, and Claire Conroy) It is a wonderful sport but things can go wrong very quickly.
I could see that the glider was descending very quickly and wondered why the pilot was not hugging the cliff face to make the most of the upward draft of the wind.
Instead he and his passenger, dangling below the canopy, steered towards the Khumbu Ice Fall. This was a very dangerous move. Unless they landed on the actual path used by the climbers, they were at risk of being swallowed up by a giant crevasse or being trapped on an unreachable part of the ice fall.
The glider continued and then swerved left towards the very outer rim of the glacial valley we were in.
His descent continued at pace. Something was wrong, there was not enough control of the glider, from what we could see.
Then the inevitable. The couple crashed in glacier, tumbling over one another as above them the chute crumpled and slowly drifted down like a feather.
Philip grabbed a radio and dashed off. We could see the expeditions camped on the far side of the glacier leaping into action.
Within a few minutes the first responders reached the couple and the call for morphine went out almost immediately. This was not a good sign.
Deshun and I searched through our medical barrels but could not find any morphine. It must have been used by Ingrid Hunt and Caroline Mackenzie, the doctors who had set up a field hospital for the injured ten days ago.
Philip returned to say the two paragliders were married Russian couple, who spoke limited English. The husband had possible fractures to his arm but would be fine.
The concern was that his wife may have internal injuries. She was in a great deal of pain and it was unlikely a helicopter casevac (casualty evacuation) could be arranged at short notice.
If the Russian woman’s internal injuries were serious she could die in Base Camp overnight.
The next 24 hours would be critical.