Everest '96: Avalanche!


On day 24 of the South African expedition to Everest, an avalanche rolls through their base camp.

* In 1996, Patrick Conroy was sent to Nepal to report on South Africa&39;s first Everest expedition. Twenty years later he reflects on this memorable assignment.

Day 24: 21 May 1996

Once again the day started with crossings into Dan and John’s morning show. They have really made the coverage come alive and my reporting appear better than it really is.

Philip also took matters into his own hands last night to lift morale in camp. It was time to eat “hill food” he said.

This is a meal that has been stored in a foiled pack which has been blasted with radiation to keep it from spoiling. You simply place the back in hot water to heat it up, snip it open, and the contents are as fresh as they were the day it got nuked.

Hill food was strictly reserved for the climbers, but in our private Base Camp rebellion Philip decided he wanted pork sausages, which he fried up with eggs. It made a welcome relief from the endless meals of rice and potato.

I had given up eating meat on this trip to minimise the risk of food poisoning.

The kitchen staff had carved up a yak which had died in Base Camp. I suspect from old age and exhaustion.

I say the cooks ‘carved’ up the yak, when in fact they actually hacked away at the dead hairy beast with large knives and machetes.

Slowly bits of meat were lobbed off in chunks to be carried away to the various expeditions where the cooks would attempt to turn it into a cordon bleu meal.

It rarely turned out that way. Over lunch in Mal Duff’s camp one afternoon we were presented with a bowl of boiling water that contained blocks of yak meat and bits of apple.

Mal stirred it with his spoon and politely asked what it was.

“Yak and apple soup” we were told by the friendly youth manning the kitchen that day.

“Yes…” said Mal still inspecting the chunks of meat and apple floating in the steaming water, “you could call it that, possibly.”
He looked up with a smile at us.

“Guests first” he said laughing loudly.

Deshun arrived back in Base Camp having made it through the Ice Fall without incident.

The drop in altitude meant she was getting more oxygen and was feeling stronger, but she was visibly disappointed her climb was over.



After unloading her gear we found a spot out the outskirts of our camp and had a private chat. The incident with Bruce still bugged her. It seemed to me she felt guilty at letting the team down by not being able to keep up. Bruce may have been out of line expecting her to cope at the higher elevation that she has never been to before.

I hoped they would clear the air when he came down.

As we were talking I took a photo of Deshun sitting on a rock when suddenly a loud crack ripped through the air over Base Camp.
We spun round to see the beginning of an avalanche coming down the face of Nuptse, a 7861m peak that overlooked the glacier.

An enormous section of ice the size of a few city blocks had broken off the very top of the mountain and were now crashing down the face.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of ice and rock were falling towards the glacier which was over two kilometres lower than Nuptse’s upper slopes.

I snapped three photographs on my camera. Once again the Himalaya plays tricks on the eye. What appears to be an icy waterfall coming down the mountain is in fact a deadly avalanche two kilometres high and at least a kilometre wide.




Anyone it its path would have been killed. Seeing the avalanche made me realise that on this scale you don’t just get buried by the debris, bodies are ripped apart by ice and rock as though slicing through them like giant knives.

Then, over the next 20 000 years the glacier would take over and slowly grind down whatever remained into a cold icy powder.

On this occasion it was possible trekkers may have been in the vicinity but we had no way of knowing.

As the rumble of the avalanche died down the air over Base Camp was covered in a fine mist of ice particles thrown up by the avalanche smashing into the glacier.

We ran to a high ridge and looked down at the scene to see if anyone had been caught in the downfall or ricocheting shrapnel that resulted from the impact.


Day 23: One woman down

Day 22: Expect the unexpected