Everest '96: Ian Woodall under the microscope

I took a few photographs of a trail of heavily laden yaks leaving camp. Another shows the glacier where once there had been a small city of tents now empty. Photo: eNCA / Patrick Conroy

* 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.

Day 31: 29 May 1996

Tonight would be our last on the Khumbu Glacier. Around us the camp was slowly being dismantled ahead of our trek back down through the mountains.

The comms tent would be left intact for a few more hours so that Ian could cross to 702 and give his account of what happened.

We spent the early morning hours preparing our own gear and packing up. My large rucksack which Sherpa Tenzing had brought up the mountain would be strapped to a yak.

Everything I would need on the way down would have to be carried in my day-pack.

I asked the kitchen staff for another bowl of hot water and washed the socks and underwear I would need on the way down. Base Camp was heating up and I was confident the clothing would dry in time for our departure the next day.

Previous laundry attempts had yielded mixed results. Initially I failed to rinse out enough water from my socks and long-johns. As a result the water froze turning the garments into a stiff and unwearable popsicles.

Now I would make the most of the sunshine, rinse them out thoroughly and reposition them regularly to avoid the icy rigor mortis from setting in.

Around us on the glacier the surface was visibly melting and rocks which were perched on the ice regularly slipped off and tumbled down the undulating slopes we lived on.

Crevasses were opening up and a large pool of water had emerged close to Deshun’s tent. It was a clear message that we were no longer welcome. Time to go.

Another concern was the approaching monsoon season. Heavy rains would soon hit the region which was prone to flooding. We did not want to get caught in these torrential downfalls.

A grim task also awaited Ian in Base Camp. He had taken it upon himself to pack up Bruce’s tent and belongings.

One image will always stay with me. As the team members settled into their tents at night the various lamps and torches would cause the tents to glow like fire flies. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the yellow, green and blue glow on the fluorescent snow. Bruce had been a neighbour to Deshun and my tents. Now his remained dark while those around his were illuminated.

Shortly before midday Ian sat down to talk to John Robbie and Dan Moyane on 702. Listening to that recording many, many years later I am struck at how softly spoken and polite Ian seems, until John asks him about the Mountain Club of South Africa.

Courtesy: 702

For the record, I don’t fault Ian for his decisions on the Summit Day. I didn’t then and I still don’t. As Duncan Elliott said, just a few days before, this was a text book ascent.

On Everest you are on your own the moment you enter the death zone.

The Himalayas are no place for those who want to be pampered.

Ian urged Bruce to descend but respected his decision to let him climb on. Had I been in Ian’s place at the same moment I too would have let him continue.

Ian also prophetically predicts that Bruce Herrod fell to his death, and he specifically suspects the Hillary Step was where he was killed. More than a year later this would prove to be correct.

Ian’s faults lay elsewhere. But on Everest he was clear headed and made excellent mountaineering decisions void of emotion and sentiment. He was a superb strategist and excellent at the logistical preparation for the expedition.

But he was not a team player beyond his own group. He lacked the emotional intelligence of cooperation and negotiation with strangers, and his sharp mind was just as quick to insult or alienate others in a confrontation.

And then there is allegation Woodall refused to share his radio with the international teams caught in the storm on May 10th and 11th.

To this day I do not fully understand the incident. It requires re-examination.

Jon Krakauer’s version is too vague and it is hearsay. Woodall’s account seems too reactive to the claims levelled against him, and his star witness, Mal Duff, was dead by the time they published. Opposing lawyers would have called this a suitable convenience for Ian.

However in undergoing this cathartic Everest memoir I stumbled upon one radio crossing which for me sheds light on what may have occurred.

In the audio you are about to hear Ian and his brother Philip are talking during the storm. Philip is not in the South African Base Camp but with Rob Hall’s crew where desperate attempts at a rescue efforts were being co-ordinated.

In case you get the sense that these rescue efforts were thought through, rational and coordinated then you are wrong. This was a desperate attempt by amateurs to bring strangers together in the middle of a blizzard. There was no centralised leadership, radio communications had been lost with almost all of the missing climbers and the expedition leaders of the three missing teams were all – MISSING.

And preceding the storm the large commercial expeditions of Rob Hall and Scott Fischer had made it clear they did not want smaller teams or novices on the mountain should they be inconvenienced by a rescue effort.

I consider this point important because the attitude towards the South Africans shifted from “We don’t want to be denied the summit because we had to rescue you” to “We are in trouble play by our rules”.

Both Bruce and Ian left their tents that night to search for missing climbers and relay messages. Radio traffic already covered in this story confirms this.

Also clear, and confirmed in Krakauer’s account, is that the South African expedition had a powerful Base Camp radio set-up that was superior to any other expedition.

Time and time again the hand held radios failed, requiring messages to be relayed through the South African base.

This facility does not appear to have been properly understood or utilised during the crisis. Instead Hall’s team sticks to its own inferior radio system, including relaying messages between Rob Hall and his fellow guide Guy Cotter, who was on another peak nearby called Pumori.

You are about to hear three minutes of radio traffic between Ian Woodall and his brother Philip. Deshun and I are in our Base Camp, and thanks to the powerful base station we can overhear the communication crystal clearly.

Deshun and I are not fully focused on the radio comms and we speak over Ian and Philip’s voices, which is extremely annoying for any kind of forensic investigation 20 years later.

This radio conversation is not dissimilar to Ian Woodall’s version of what happened in his book, except that he is talking to his own brother and they refer to Henry Todd and not Mal Duff.

It total we were on the radios for well over 48 hours, that's 2,880 minutes, before anyone had a clue of what had just happened. Even today the events cannot be properly pieced together. So these three minutes were overlooked, forgotten and muddled in with all the other radio comms that took place during the 1996 tragedy.

While it does not fully answer the question about the radio incident, it does give some insight into the confusion, the disarray and rudderless rescue efforts during this critical time.


TRANSCRIPT:

Ian: “Read you loud and clear. Go. Over”

Philip: “Ian, we have contact with Henry Todd who is not in Camp 4, his climbers and Sherpas are in Camp 4. Would it be possible for you to take our radio to his Sherpas because he has lost radio contact with his Sherpas? Over”

Ian: “Philip I received none of that. I say again, I heard none of that. Over”

Deshun then comments in to me in Base Camp: “It is just so amazing. While everybody is trying to make decisions here Doug is probably dying and breathing out his last breath of oxygen”

Philip: “Camp 4 did you copy?”

Patrick to Deshun: “The thing is if he is dying now…”

Ian: “Philip I’m reading you very badly. One from of ten. Over”

Then Ian again.

Ian: “Phil was that you? Over”

Philip: “It’s me speaking. Over”

Deshun then comments on their failure to confirm their radio call signs: “Who is me?”

She is correct. In an emergency who is talking is just as important as what they are saying. This is a rare lapse between the Woodall brothers who approached radio communications with military standards.

Ian: “The situation up here is a bit difficult, we’ve got driving snow…visibility about ten metres….have you managed to arrange anything yet (rescue). Over”

Philip: “Negative, Ian. What we are trying to do is use our radios as a relay from Henry Todd at Camp 2 to his Sherpas at Camp 4. Over.”

Ian: “Yeah, that’s not a problem because I am actually sitting with Neil and his Sherpas and they are in about the same state as I am. Over”

Deshun: “Shit!”

(Ian’s reference to Neil refers to Neil Laughton, a member of Henry Todd’s team. They had made their way up to Camp 4 that night planning to head to the summit the next day.

Unlike the climbers battling to get down to safety, they were fighting for their lives to get up to safety in Camp 4)

Philip: “OK, standby. We will try to relay from Henry at Camp 2. Standby please.”

Unknown voice (either Ian or Philip) says: “Who is calling? Over”

Philip: “Camp 4. Base calling. Over”

Ian: “This is Camp 4. Go. Over”

Philip: “Ian, is it possible to get one of Henry Todd’s Sherpas to go across to Scott Fischer’s camp and tell them to turn their radios on please?”

Ian: “Yeah… Philip, I’m nearest the door, I’ll go. Do we know whether Rob Hall has any Sherpas at the South Col in reserve? Over”

Philip: “Negative. Negative. They’re on their way down, we can’t speak to them. Over”

Deshun: “Oh God…”

Ian: “OK, so all we can speak to at the moment is Rob Hall’s Base Camp manager (Helen Wilton) and Rob Hall himself? Is that correct? Over”

Philip: “We can speak to Rob Hall through a guy at Pumori. Over”

Deshun: “Oh yes, there is the guy on Pumori with the telescope but I’m sure he can’t see much…”

Ian: “I’ll go try find Rob Halls camp and see if we can get radio comms. It’ll take me a little while, but we’ll have to go on standby. Over”

Philip: “Ten-four … (then realising Ian’s error in mistaking Rob Hall for Scott Fischer) Negative. Negative. Scott Fischer’s camp! Over”

Ian: “Say again. I missed all that. Over”

Here my radio recording stops. I must have stopped the tape at the time thinking this jabbering on the airwaves was unimportant.

Whether this has any bearing on the claims about Ian refusing to give up is radio or not is debatable.

What the radio traffic does confirm is that Rob Hall’s own camp had lost contact with their leader and were relaying messages via Pumori.

Why was the instruction not given to all teams to switch to a common frequency? I can only assume the lack of leadership in Base Camp, and the chaos of that night, meant that nobody considered it an option.

Also, it confirms Ian left the South African tents to find survivors. He is with Henry Todd’s expedition at the time and volunteers to find Rob Hall’s team, when in fact Philip wanted him to find Scott Fischer’s group.

Krakauer’s snide remark that some climbers were too afraid to leave their tents during the rescue clearly lacks evidence, and worse – research.

Then on page 226 of my copy of Krakauer’s book ‘Into Thin Air’ he states Hall’s guide, Andy Harris, incorrectly informed his teammates that all the oxygen tanks below the South Summit were empty.

The following passage speaks directly to the quality of radio communications in the Hall camp:

“Groom (Halls second guide) heard the conversation between Harris and Hall on his radio as he was descending the South East Ridge with Yasuko Namba, just above the Balcony. He tried to call Hall to correct the misinformation and let him know that there were in fact full oxygen canisters waiting for him at the South Summit, but, Groom explains “my radio was malfunctioning. I was able to receive most calls (he assumes), but my outgoing calls could rarely be heard by anyone.”

Meanwhile Hall could only talk to his own Base Camp via Guy Cotter on Pumori.

Now put yourself into the position of someone with clear comms to Base Camp and even the rescue coordination efforts. Lives are at risk so think carefully. Do you sacrifice a radio to the chaos and communication mess that bedevilled the established expeditions? Or do you maintain a clear line of comms between Camp 4 and Base Camp?

I cannot understand the logic of the radio request in the first place, regardless of when it was made. Simply put the big expeditions relied on the prowess of their leaders to achieve success and safety – and when that failed they were all at sea during the rescue. Arrogance, confusion, desperation and possibly even ego, meant their thinking was narrow when viable alternatives were right in front of them.

To simply say the South Africans would not share during a time of crisis is both lazy and, even worse, disingenuous. If taking Ian’s radio would have saved lives my challenge to Krakauer and company is this: prove your case.

Sure, 20 years have passed, but there is no statute of limitations on high altitude slander. So, again, prove your case…


 

Day 30: Tears and cake

Day 29: 'Radio Silence'

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