* 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 37 - 40: 4 - 7 June 1996
It was hard to believe that 32 days earlier I had been on a similar chopper flying in the opposite direction.
I had been so eager to get up to Base Camp to avoid missing out on a successful South African summit. I had pushed Mangal and Tenzing Sherpa hard and played the lottery with high altitude sickness.
I had never heard of Rob Hall, Scott Fischer, Makalu Gau, Andy Harris and the others. The laughs and the tears were all still to come. I was clean shaven and still a ‘snow virgin’.
Arriving in the Himalaya was the greatest day of my life.
Now we sat slumped in the netted seats of the chopper, exhausted, lost in our thoughts, weeks of facial hair on my face and the promise of a hotel bed just hours away. Faraway in New Zealand, America, England and India families were mourning those they would never see again.
It was hard to speak over the drone of the engine. I inquired of Ian how he managed to get us priority boarding out of Lukla. He did his best to explain but I only caught a few words, “old friend… and then… before leaving for Everest … when we got back … whisky…lodge owner”
I smiled, not quite understanding the full explanation but realised whisky may have been involved, unless he said ‘three weeks’. I gave Ian a thumbs up and reclined into my chopper seating.
At Kathmandu’s airport it took a few hours to organise our gear and get it transported to the hotel.
The management of Hotel Harati had prepared for our arrival with great pride.
Upon arrival staff greeted us with flowers and anointed us with red powdery paint on our foreheads. Prayers were said and petals strewn.
Then we were asked to pose for a photograph beneath a banner they had printed just for us.
The banner read: “Congratulation to South African Everest Expedition 1996 for successful summited to Mount Everest”.
Now, I have spent hundreds of nights in hotels over the years, but this was the most touching moment. I’ve asked for extra mushroom sauce or additional pillows from room service. Yet no customer care initiative has ever come close to this heart-warming and grammatically poor message.
I have not returned to Nepal since this adventure, but should I ever do so, Hotel Harati would be the only place I’d consider.
Cathy O’Dowd managed a smile in the photograph, the rest of us are overwhelmed and still expressing more exhaustion than gratitude.
There is something about hot running water we take for granted. I stood for almost 20 minutes just letting the shower rain down on me. I could confidently lather up without being interrupted by a German trekking party.
The sheets, despite the yellowish stains from steam irons and the odd hole, felt like the finest hand woven silk. The 15 year old mattress was like slumber on a cloud. How long I slept is unclear but it was in excess of 15 hours that first night.
But all was not well the next morning.
I was feeling terribly ill and my temperature would spike at regular intervals. Hoping it would pass I scribbled a message on the hotel stationary and staggered downstairs to fax it to South Africa confirming my arrival in Kathmandu. I was due to fly out early on June 6th and would arrive back in South Africa at 6am on the 7th.
“Could 702 please pick me up,” I wrote “I’ll give John and Dan their Everest rocks when I get in”.
The morning duo had been pestering me for rocks ever since I got into Base Camp. I vowed to do two things upon my return, bring them each an Everest rock and arrive unshaven in studio.
Then I wandered back to room 205 where I was violently ill.
The chronology of the next few days has been lost to the mists of time, the convulsions of nausea and opportunity to enjoy uninterrupted sleep between the peaks of the bacterial infection that had taken hold of my body.
Somewhere in the journey between Base Camp and Kathmandu a microscopic bug had made its way into my system. I suspect that it was the water of the Dhud Kosi River, which carried the human waste of the settlements above downward to the low lying areas. On the route I must have failed to property add enough iodine to the water I scooped up.
Doctors in South Africa were baffled by my condition and for three months afterward I would be sick every 72 hours, as regular as a Swiss clock. My weight dropped dramatically to 52 kilograms.
Back in Kathmandu I was shocked to hear that South Africa’s leading current affairs news show at the time, Carte Blanche, was flying out to meet the team in Nepal.
Now that I was in regular contact with Johannesburg it began to dawn on me just how prominent this news story had been in South Africa. For Carte Blanche to be jetting out was a big deal.
Their team of a producer, cameraman and popular TV anchor, Derek Watts, arrived a few days after we did.
(See attached photograph of us at dinner in Kathmandu)
Sean Wisedale was the camera operator for the crew. He was mesmerised by this story and would later climb Everest successfully himself.
Already the media glare of this story was taking its toll on Ian and Cathy, they reluctantly went along and gave interviews but it seemed to me that they just wanted to be left alone.
Then it came time to leave the team. I was booked on a flight out of Kathmandu on June 6th, I had arrived April 28th.
I was feeling ill and had taken a fist full of medicine to keep the infections at bay. Drowsily I took my seat and prepared for the connecting flight via Singapore.
So this is how my Everest adventure was to end.
I wave of depression hit me during these few hours. I cannot fully explain it to this day. The on-board movie was Adam Sandler’s ‘Happy Gilmore’, a comedy about an unlikely golfing hero.
Passengers around me howled with laughter. I sat there silently with my sunglasses on trying to keep tears, vomit and bowel under control.
Then the pilot’s voice boomed over the intercom.
“If you look out of your windows you will see Mount Everest rising above the clouds to your right” he stated proudly.
Passengers climbed over each other to get a look out of the windows to see the highest mountain on Earth. There were gasps, pointed fingers and photographs being taken.
I was seated on the right hand side of the aircraft two seats from the window.
I tilted my head slightly and shifted my eyes in the direction of Everest. There she was, the Summit and South Summit clearly visible.
Where others saw the world’s highest peak, I just considered who we had left up there. Could a powerful telescope reveal the whereabouts of Rob Hall, Doug Hansen, Scott Fischer, Andy Harris and of course, Bruce Herrod? What had happened to Bruce I thought. He was up there somewhere…
I looked at the summit for a few seconds, it was the last time I ever laid eyes on the mountain. Then I scornfully looked away.
The movie continued and the passengers roared with laughter again. Their brief Everest experience had lasted less than three minutes, and was already fading from memory.
The man next to me, in his early sixties, suddenly asked in an American accent, “Are you OK?”
My arms were folded firmly across my chest and from beneath my sunglasses a river of tears were streaming uncontrollably. I was almost unaware of my appearance.
“Just leave me alone” I said rudely. He recoiled slightly and then returned to his book.
To this day I feel regret for my cold words to this caring gentleman who clearly noticed I was upset. I wish I could take back what I said and thank him for seeing my pain. How would I ever explain it to him though?
On that flight I was angry. Who the hell did these passengers think they were laughing at the buffoon that was Adam Sandler in ‘Happy Gilmore’? Happy passengers, happy pilot and Happy Gilmore … F*** happiness!
I was in no mood for frivolity.