* 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.
Days 34 - 36: 1 - 3 June 1996
In Namche the night before I was shocked to find that the lodge owner was a friend of Bruce Herrod’s. We arrived in the dark having made the steep trek down from Syanboche.
Ian broke the news to him. The man was visibly shaken and tears welled up in his eyes. He walked into the kitchen and informed his wife in Nepalese of Bruce’s death. Her reaction was much the same.
I had no idea how close Bruce was to this family.
We were immediately treated like family, and given pride of place in their home. We sat in a semi-circle, legs folded on the floor. The couple brought out silk scarves and placed one around the neck of each one of us.
We were given small bowls containing rakshi, a homebrewed alcoholic spirit made from rice. Tears flowed down the faces of the couple. News of Bruce’s death had clearly come as a terrible shock.
Despite their grief the husband and wife relegated their sadness to honour us. They made us feel like we had suffered a greater loss than they. It was a humble and touching gesture and I felt unworthy of his honour. They knew him better than I, and yet here I was being treated as if I was Bruce’s brother.
Buddhist prayers and songs hung in the air as we bowed our heads and honoured Herrod.
Then we were served dinner, the husband and wife continuing their gentle and kind treatment of us while struggling with their own sadness. Bruce had clearly meant a great deal to them.
Ian spent about an hour talking with them privately while we were allocated beds to sleep for the night. The day had begun in Pheriche with Deshun and I getting lost in the mist and rain before finding the trail again. Within seconds of slipping into my sleeping bag I was fast asleep.
June 1st 1996
Our guests watched us as we left Namche and headed down the trail, still visibly saddened by the news we had brought them.
It was not very long before Ian, Cathy and Philip set the pace again and disappeared into the distance. My knees soon stiffened up and I was in absolute agony. I resorted to walking down the slopes backwards to take the strain off my joints. My right knee in particular was extremely painful.
I had no hiking poles and so experimented with various sticks I found along the trail. Deshun stuck with me, encouraging me and taking my mind off the pain with her chatter.
By dusk we had passed through Phakding where a month earlier I had forced Mangal and Tenzing Sherpa to spend our first night in the Himalaya.
I desperately wanted to spend the night there but our group had already passed through on their way to Lukla. There was nothing to do but press on. We had been hiking for nine hours slowed down by my ailing knees.
We came across a Sherpa heading in the opposite direction. I asked him how far it was to Lukla. He glanced at me, then his eyes scanned me from head to toe.
“Me, three cigarettes. You… whole pack”
As I have mentioned before distance in the mountains is measured in time, not distance, and this fellow was using tobacco as his yardstick.
I’m not a smoker and so pressed on unsure of what his answer truly meant. It sounded daunting.
Darkness fell and so did the rain. At around 8pm we staggered into Lukla, wet, tired and in agony.
This time Ian was less indifferent. I looked worried that we were arriving after dark and was relieved to see us. He delivered two hot bowls of soup before us.
“Have this first to warm up” he said “then make sure you get into dry clothes”.
June 2nd 1996
Bad weather had moved into the Himalaya. We had been hit by the early monsoon season and it appeared we would be unable to get a flight out of Lukla anytime soon.
The village was filling up with trekkers trying to get out of the mountains.
The choppers that could get through in the bad weather would only be able to transport a fraction of the foreigners out. We faced the prospect of having to hike another five days down the mountains in order to get road transport to Kathmandu.
I could think of no worse punishment than another five days struggling downhill in the rain. Unbeknown to me Ian had already conjured up a plan.
June 3rd 1996.
We were dozing in our sleeping bags when the sound of rotor blades filled the air.
“Choppers are getting through” shrieked Deshun.
We quickly stuffed our gear into our rucksacks and scrambled outside towards the airfield.
My heart sank. Already a queue of more than 100 trekkers had gathered to board the chopper. An entire squadron would have to get through if we were to be airlifted out of here.
I had just resigned myself to the five day hike when I noticed the Lukla lodge owner talking to the pilot.
A few moments later he walked away and yelled up the queue, “South Africans! South Africans?”
We raised our hands and he gestured that we should approach.
We shouldered our packs and sped past the German, Swiss, French and American trekkers lined-up in civilised fashion, all eyeing us with suspicion.
Then, dashing the hopes of the developed world, the lodge owner smiled and indicated we should board the chopper. The downwash 'whoosh' of the rotor blades drowned out the protests.
“Take it up with the Security Council” I gleamed.
Then, minutes later we were airborne and looking down on the slowly vanishing village.