* 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 28: May 26th
There is a sound that will live with me forever. It is the empty and harrowing hiss of a silent radio. It is the sound of a missing climber. For hours that night Deshun, Philip and I sat beside the Base Camp receiver hoping the static of the airwaves would be pierced by Bruce Herrod’s voice.
We couldn’t sleep, even when it was our turn to do so. We replayed the events of the past 24 hours in our minds. Bruce had been last to leave camp and reported having a few problems.
Ian, Cathy and the three climbing Sherpa Pemba, Jangmu and Ang Dorje had made a quick ascent. It was a textbook climb to the summit.
Bruce Herrod was tall and heavily built. This may have made him slower above 8000 metres than his lighter companions who seemed to skip across the snow with ease while Bruce tended to trudge.
Even so, when the descending climbers met him just before the South Summit he was still doing an acceptable time. He had two hours to reach the peak before the 2pm cut-off time.
We guessed, incorrectly as it turned out, that Bruce may have stopped to take photographs as he was the official photographer of the expedition.
We jumped each time the static crackled on the radio, hoping it was Bruce announcing his safe return to Camp 4. But each time it was the haunting hiss playing its cruel jokes on.
Once again we would return to the conversation of what might be happening higher up.
Oxygen was going to be a problem. The team had just enough for the assault on the summit and their descent.
By now the oxygen Bruce was carrying with him would be depleted. He would be in the death zone without this vital gas unless he could get to the stash left behind for him near the South Summit.
After 18 hours of climbing the rest of the team were exhausted and running low on oxygen too. They burned more energy than if they had taken part in an ultra-marathon and they were still camped at an extreme altitude. It was critical they rest if there was any hope of searching for Bruce in the morning or descending safely.
Earlier Cathy left the tents in a desperate search for oxygen cylinders left behind by other expeditions. Testing each bottle with her regulator she eventually returns to camp with six tanks. It is not enough but will have to do.
By now it was around 2am. Philip had finally passed out from exhaustion and worry. Deshun tossed and turned in her sleeping bag while I held the radio in my hand listening to the never ending static on a silent mountain.
If Bruce was alive he would have had to bivouac in the snow, digging himself a snow cave and sheltering from the wind. It had been done on Everest before and he had good weather that night.
I pinned my hopes on him simply dropping his radio in a careless moment and this was why he was not updating us on his situation.
In the silence of the tent I recalled the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in the Andes in 1985. Simpson was a friend of Mal Duff who had mentioned their incredible story to me.
It went like this.
The two men were caught in bad weather high up in the Peruvian Andes when Simpson fell and broke his leg. Yates tried to save his friend by lowering him down sections of the mountain by rope.
That night the weather deteriorated while the two men were on an incredibly steep slope. Yates unknowingly lowered Simpson over a cliff. In the howling wind Yates could not hear his comrade’s desperate cries. He was dangling in mid-air and unable to reach the cliff face to secure himself. Below lay a vast expanse of darkness.
Yates could not understand why Simpson was continuing to pull on the rope and was not securing himself. Slowly Yates was being dragged down and would soon be unable to hold on any longer. Simpson was pulling Yates to his death.
So Yates did the only thing he could to avoid being killed. He cut the rope that attached the two men to each other.
Far below Simpson plunged down into the darkness. He smashed into the glacier below only to fall further into a crevasse where he came to rest on a small ledge, deep inside the glacier.
Yates dug a snow cave for shelter to survive the night.
At first light he climbed down and realised what had happened. He now knew why Simpson did not secure himself, and looking down expecting to see his body realised his climbing partner had been swallowed up by a near bottomless crevasse.
Yates was devastated. He had killed his best friend.
He descended the mountain and made it back to camp where a non-climbing friend was waiting for him. He broke the news of Simpson’s death.
But Joe Simpson was alive, lying on the ledge with shattered and broken bones.
It took all of Simpson’s strength to pull himself out of the crevasse using only his arms. He spent the next three days and nights inching himself forward on his belly towards their camp.
He had no idea if Yates and their friend would still be there. He had to keep going. If he missed them all his efforts would be in vein and he would die on the glacier from exposure.
Lying in his tent a mournful Yates was just hours away from leaving the camp. He would travel for several days before being able to reach a village with a telephone, where he would have to contact Simpson’s family.
Then he heard a muffled scream. A weak and croaky voice was calling him.
It was Joe Simpson, broken and battered but alive. He was back from the dead.
Slowly it became light outside. Philip, Deshun and I sat there silently.
Then Philip put a call through to Camp 4.
(Radio call audio below)
Philip: “Morning Ian, its twenty five past five. Any sign of Bruce yet. Over.”
Ian: “No, negative … (inaudible) … I had the radio on all the time. I don’t understand why he hasn’t called. Over”
Philip: “Ja, me neither. Perhaps it is time to put contingency plans into action, Ian”.
Ian: “Well yeah, there isn’t a hell of a lot we can do other than look for him. Over”
Philip: “Yeah ten-four. Its 12 hours since he left the summit. Do you want to give him another half an hour?”
Ian: “We’ll give it … (inaudible) … our opportunities here to go out and look for him. But, um, a night out is not the end of the world for him but what I don’t understand is why he didn’t just call and tell us. Over”
Philip: “Yeah, ten-four, I don’t understand either. Um, if you look outside this morning the weather is changing. It is very wispy and looks a bit snowy. Over”
Ian: “OK, just checking on that now. Over”
Philip: “OK, I’ll standby and wait for your call”
Another hour passed. Ian and Cathy had been studying the slope leading up to the South Summit for any sign of movement. There was nothing.
(Radio call audio below)
Philip: “Camp 4. Camp 4. Base Camp. Go”.
Ian: “Hello Philip. How strong is the signal? Over”
Philip: “Signal is about one over five. I do copy. Over”
Ian: “OK, if you copy we can go with this. Um, (coughs) … the situation up here is relatively precarious as you can imagine. Over”
Philip: “Ten-four. Copy”
Ian: “OK, the scenario is that Bruce has done 12 hours almost exactly since he was on the summit. Over”
Philip: “Ten-four Ian, um, we copied him leaving the summit at twenty five past five. He has had nearly 13 hours. Over”
Ian: “OK, Roger that. (Coughs) He can easily make it down in 12 hours if he keeps going. So one has to assume that he actually had to bivi (bivouac). Over”
Philip: “Ten-four. Copy”.
Ian: “OK. I have no problem with that. He is strong, he’s got a full down suit. Conditions are not that bad, so if he has bivied he should be in good shape. Over”
Philip: “Ten-four Ian. Copy. Temperature didn’t drop too low last night. The weather down here looks like its closing in a bit though. Over”
Ian: “Yes, no. If he did bivi (coughs) then he will be waiting for the sun, or what is left of it, to arrive before he starts moving. Over”.
Philip: “Ten-four. Copy that. That makes a lot of sense”
Ian: “OK. The one thing I don’t understand is why he’s got no comms. Obviously the radios have been very reliable. It is possible that this once he’s got one that doesn’t work. Over”
Philip: “Ten-four, that had crossed my mind. It’s unlikely that that is the case. We did wait a long time yesterday for him to call before he reached the summit we were getting very
worried then. He may be in the same situation, he may just laid down for a sleep. Over”.
Ian: “Sorry Philip, say again. I missed that. Over”
Philip: “Ian, I say the radio problem is highly unlikely, the… we’ve had very good use out of these radios. I think he just didn’t call. Over”
Ian: “Negative. If he was going to bivi he would have unquestionably called. It is possible that he just put it down and forgot to pick it up. Over”
Philip: “Ja, that’s ten-four. Maybe he hasn’t got it with him anymore”
Ian: “OK. As for as here (Camp 4) is concerned, um, obviously I have got four people here, not including myself, who went to the summit yesterday. And we really going to have to clear the mountain, not only of people but of equipment… roger so far? Over”
Philip: “Roger so far”
Ian: “Also the weather is not looking at all pleasing. So they are, to start off with anyway, my first priority. Over”.
Philip: “Ten-four. Copy”
Ian: “I have spoken to the Sherpas this morning they are really desperate, desperate to go down. So what I’m going to do is clear the mountain up here at Camp 4, which will include all the Sherpas and Cathy. Roger so far? Over”
Philip: “Roger so far. Cathy and all the Sherpas to clear the mountain.”
Ian: “Ja, they will go all the way down to Camp 2 clearing (Camp) 3 as they go. Yesterday evening Cathy went all around the dump heaps and we managed, or she managed to put together about two bottles of oxygen. Over”
(Note* Cathy had reported collecting six bottles, these would have been distributed among the five climbers in Camp 4. Ian, I assume, means only two are left)
Philip: “OK. I copy two oxygens”.
Ian: “That’s another reason we have to get everybody off the Col. Obviously six people and two bottles of oxygen don’t go to… to well. Over”
Ian’s calculation assumes Bruce Herrod is still alive and must be accounted for in the oxygen supply.
Philip: “OK. I copy that you’ve only got two bottles of oxygen at …on the South Col. Over”.
Ian: “Roger. If Bruce did bivi, or we need to give him time …so what we’ll do is we’ll clear the mountain. I will stay behind in our one good tent”
Cathy was not happy to leave Ian behind. She, Ian and Bruce had formed a very close bond on the mountain.
The Sherpas were more calculating. If Bruce had not made it over the summit ridge then there was very little chance he would ever make it to Camp 4. The best thing to do, in their minds, was to descend. So they geared up and swept Cathy away with them down the Lhotse Face.
She later wrote in Free to Decide: “My last image as I left the tent was of Ian lying on his side, staring un-moving through the tent door at the slope above us. It tore my heart to see him sitting so still, so small. I know he is waiting for one of the black specks to stand up and begin a slow progress downhill. But they never do. They are only rocks, inanimate and immobile.”
By midday the descending party arrived safely in the Western Cwm.
Ian kept his vigil on the South Col. Two of the bottles Cathy found are with him for when his own supply runs out.
Around this time Ian and Philip speak privately on the radio.
A short while later I am given a note dictated to Philip by his brother in Camp 4. It reads:
“The First South African Everest Expedition regretfully announces that team member Bruce Herrod has been missing on Mount Everest between the summit and the South Col for a period of 19 hours, from 17h00 on 25/05/96 to 12h00 on 26/06/96. Ian Woodall will remain on the South Col for 24 hours, pending Bruce Herrod’s possible return. No further communications will be given.”
Philip then notified the British and Nepalese authorities that Bruce was missing and presumed dead on Everest.
Then he had to pick up the phone and break the news to Sue that her fiancé would not be coming back. He held his emotions as best he could and then walked away from camp with tears streaming down his face.
Then it was my turn. I picked up the satellite phone and called the 702 newsroom. I asked them to record the message I was about to read.
I read the first few lines and then stumbled over my words. I tried again, but once more I could not get through the message. Words turned into silent sobs.
I tried again, but failed. Deshun placed an arm around me and that is when the dam wall broke. The sobs would not be held back.
“Call me back in a few minutes” I told the producer. I stepped outside the tent and took a few deep breaths. Philip and I hugged our shoulders shaking in communal sorrow.
Then I straightened up and went back to the phone and dialled the newsroom again.
This time I delivered the message to the producer without fumbling.
My tears a few moments earlier had obviously caused some concern in the newsroom, and now my editor came on the line.
“Are you okay?” Debora Patta asked.
“Am I okay?” I thought to myself. I was exhausted, I was crying and I was angry. She had displayed silent indifference to my plight on the mountain and now she wanted to know how I was. I was furious but remained silent.
“If you want to talk just call”
“I’d rather not” I said firmly.
I’d get through this on my own, I’d managed this far hadn’t I? Helicopter trips, hiking through the Himalaya, altitude, storms and emergencies. What point was there to editorial therapy this late in the game?
I stormed out of the tent and walked over toward the large boulder I had used as inadequate cover for my glacial washes.
Slumped against the rock I cried like a child with my head buried in my hands. The sobs came in waves.
I wept for Bruce, I wept for Sue, I wept for the climbers who died in the storm, I wept for the families they left behind.
It didn’t stop there. I wept for the lack of sleep and for the intolerable yak and apple soup served up in Mal Duff’s mess tent.
Even that stupid red generator that refused to work when we most needed it was allocated a sniff.
It just all come out.
I don’t know how long I was there, but after some time I got up and settled down in my tent. I picked up my diary and scribbled down the notes for that day. It was my last diary entry of the expedition.
After that I didn’t have the will to continue writing down my experiences.