* 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 10: 7 May 1996
I lay shivering in my sleeping bag. It must have been about 4am and the wind outside pounded our tiny lodge in the Pheriche valley. The building was made of stone and just enough mortar to keep the walls from collapsing. It did not stop the wind from finding hundreds of cracks and holes through which it blew, creating the sound of a thousand flutists all warming up ahead of a concert with no regard to harmony. James Galway would have been appalled.
Mangal’s loud snoring was keeping me awake. More than once during the night I had called out to him in the hope he would stop. I could not recall him snoring before on this trip and wondered why it was occurring now. Perhaps he did snore but I had not noticed or was it the altitude? Surely the thin air would leave him gasping for breath, which I would have preferred, rather than emitting a series of deep snorts that made the air vibrate. My irritation grew – tone deaf flutists and now a trombone was added to the cacophony. I buried myself deeper into the sleeping bag.
Pheriche was turning out to be everything I had been warned about and worse.
Why they even called it a village was puzzling. It was more like a small camp of stone and wood that clung to the valley floor as the wind poured down from the peaks above creating a wind tunnel effect. Perhaps the other houses had been blown away or abandoned, I pondered, also thinking to myself the Nepalese needed to get their village classification system in order.
Surely there was a numerical bar that had to be surpassed in order to be called a village instead of just a windswept sh*t hole.
From my self-righteous sleeping bag I imagined briefly that I was a Nepalese government official turning the mayor of Pheriche away with a scornful wave of my hand. Village application rejected.
The trombone and flutists increased the volume at this moment.
So I switched from town-planning to aeronautics.
Why, I grumpily wondered, would companies spend millions of dollars building wind tunnels in hangers when they could just come here? It must be the food that kept them away I concluded. Last night’s rice and potato dish was at least nourishing - in a crunchy soil flavoured kind of way. I only discovered after our dinner that the lodge owner’s vegetable patch lay on the bank of a small hill upon which rested a communal latrine. I skipped breakfast.
A few hours later we emerged into the wind. Mangal, who was guide by day and brass instrument player by night, was in a light and cheerful mood. A good night’s sleep will do that to you.
I was in no mood to talk but that didn’t stop him from taking a photograph of me anyway.
We marched on in silence before turning to the right and heading up a steep mountain slope. It looked to be hundreds of metres high and for several hours we simply plodded upward in a zigzag motion to negate the gradient.
As we climbed in altitude I turned around and was shocked to see how far we had come. For the first time on this journey I was looking down on snow covering the valley walls below us. Nature must have been reading my mind because at that moment a cloud drifted into view. It was at eye level.
A few hours later we arrived in the village of Leboche where there were fewer buildings than Pheriche. From memory there could not have been more than three to four structures one of which was a wooden barn with panels missing. It looked like a harmonica and I knew the musical torture would continue for another night.
Inside were about a dozen bunks that we shared with a group of Australian trekkers. Their group was a jolly one and they made the Leboche experience better than it would have been. Two of their team members were in the Australian Army and were used to these conditions and laughed off the discomfort and irritation.
“Sure it’s cold and windy,” said the one, “and the food is crap. We also have one member on our team who won’t stop moaning. We have given her the nickname ‘Festering Fog Horn’”. They laughed at their own joke and continued.
“But look where we are. Worse places to be mate! Like behind a desk.”
These two were the perfect antidote for the past 24 hours of irritation and frustration. I liked their attitude and quietly scolded myself for the negativity.
Tomorrow we cross the Khumbu Glacier for basecamp and I would lay eyes on the South African expedition, or what was left of it, for the first time.