* 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 11: 8 May 1996
Diary entry: ‘In heavy mist we set off for basecamp. I was still unaffected by altitude despite being at 4 900m above sea-level. The journey was pretty easy going until we had to cross the Everest (Khumbu) glacier. This consists of millions of tons of ice and rock slowly moving down towards the valley. Huge pyramids of ice rose up above us and rivers of ice and melting snow crisscrossed the glacier.
As we slowly made our way through we found ourselves cut off on all sides by these strong flowing rivers. We searched and searched for a way to get back onto solid ground and also find the trail leading to basecamp.
For an hour we still seemed trapped as we winded our way through the ice. Finally we spotted a huge boulder sandwiched between our icy island and firmer ground on the other side. But the ice propping up the rock was melting rapidly and it would not be long before it plunged down into the freezing water below. Wasting no time we dashed across one by one. I took a photo of Tenzing scooting across. After about half an hour we found the trail again.
Looking back 20 years later what surprised me about the Khumbu glacier was my perception of what to expect. It looked like solid terrain from a distance until one realised that you were standing on top of an ice layer up to a kilometre thick. The icy surface was covered in a dusting of gravel and rock giving it the appearance of solid ground. It was not uncommon for those crossing the moraine to slip and fall into a crevasse and drown.
Back on the trail we snaked our way across the glacier in a general direction we hoped was basecamp. Mangal and I had to keep our eyes on the peaks around us because the undulating surface of the glacier meant that you could not see more than 20 or 30 metres in front of you. I found myself for the first time on this journey suggesting the direction we should follow to Mangal. Usually he was ten paces ahead of me. Now I was close behind him almost stepping on his heels. Mangal was struggling.
Again the trail went cold. We stopped for a moment and the three of us took a few minutes to rest and drink water. I glanced around and tried to get a sense in which direction basecamp lay. I saw an ice mound and decided to climb it to get a vantage point.
So I scrambled up and peered into the distance. About 500m away I saw green and blue tents with a large mast and South African flagging flapping in the wind. We were so close to our final destination but the treachery of the maze we were in meant we could have spent hours walking past our camp without know it. This was no place to be caught in the open.
About an hour later we wandered into camp. I could hear voices coming from a big blue mess tent. I peered into it and said, “Hi, I’m Patrick Conroy reporting for duty.” Inside sat Ian Woodall’s brother, Philip, his father, Ken, and the beaming face of Deshun Deysel welcomed me with warmth and surprise.
“Where are they?” I asked nervously.
Over a hot mug of tea Philip told me that the climbing party of Ian, Bruce and Cathy were making their way to Camp 4. I had made it with less than 48 hours to spare before the first South African summit bid. The journey from Lukla to basecamp should have taken nine to ten days. We did it in seven, but at a cost. Mangal was not coping. Coming from the low country he had pushed himself to the limit and knew it.
With a few hours of day light left he and Tenzing Sherpa decided to descend back down the valley to a village we had passed through, Gorak Shep. It is located on a frozen lake bed and sits at just over 5 000m. I gave Mangal all the money left in my backpack. I would not need it now that I was at a fully stocked basecamp.
“See you in Kathmandu in a few weeks,” I said. “Look after him Tenzing. Stay in a good lodge and eat the best food”.
Tenzing was in excellent shape and despite his diminutive stature I had faith in him getting Mangal down the glacier to a lower altitude. He nodded knowingly at my instructions. We shook hands and the two men slowly disappeared back into the glacial maze. I never laid eyes on them again.
Within 20 minutes Philip fired up the generator which powered the satellite telephone. I had not made contact with the newsroom for over a week and no-one knew where I was. I got through without difficulty and proudly announced I had reached basecamp in seven days instead of nine or ten. As I recall Amy MacIver answered the phone and relayed the message to news editor Debora Patta.
Patta didn’t bother to come to the phone. Instead she instructed Amy to tell me to file at least three reports for the next 24 hours.
“What’s happening back there?” I asked.
“Not sure” said Amy who had just joined the team after an internship.
I figured my editor would call or brief me later on news of the Sunday Times fallout. I dutifully filed three reports updating 702 on the expedition’s progress and my journey to basecamp. Patta never called back, and throughout the expedition failed to even make contact to give me feedback or direction. My only source of information from the outside world was from the on air talk show hosts who relayed critical information to me during our live crossings, notably John Robbie, Dan Moyane, Jenny Crwys-Williams, the late Dennis Smith and John Berks.
Other than their on-air feedback I was flying blind. Patta wanted regular reports but knew nothing about the conditions I was in, nor did she bother to call and find out. It was a spectacular failure of editorial leadership that I would learn a great deal from. Ken Owen may have been brash and aggressive, but he backed his team and understood the situation they found themselves in. I was on my own editorially.
Deshun Deysel and Philip Woodall were extremely kind and made sure I was taking in plenty of fluids. I had developed a high altitude headache and was instructed to sleep sitting up in my tent. Philip gave me a walkie-talkie radio should my condition worsen during the night. I had been allocated an A-frame tent situated between Deshun, Philip and Bruce Herrod who was higher up the mountain.
I took some time to map the lay-out of the camp and sketched it in my diary. (See attached)
At around 7pm I did a live crossing to Dennis Smith. His producer was the brilliant Angela McClelland.
Dennis was an irreverent soul with a wicked sense of humour.
I then mentioned to him how social the Himalayans were and that there were plenty of young ladies trekking between the peaks. He responded by telling me that South Africa had a new Constitution and that he hoped I could somehow turn this in an opportunity to find a girlfriend in the Himalayas. This is where the jokes would stop, sadly.
Shortly afterwards I settled into my new home for the next few weeks and laid out my gear. Little did I know that the next 48 hours would be the deadliest in Everest’s history to-date. Despite having my own tent I was to spend the next few days sleeping in the communications tent with Deshun and Philip taking turns to man the radio and relay critical information between the various expeditions trapped on the mountain.