* 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 12: 9 May 1996
I had been in basecamp less than 24 hours and was up early to prepare for the morning crossings into John Robbie and Dan Moyane’s breakfast show. I had made it through the night with interrupted sleep as a result of the high altitude headache I was suffering from. The team’s basecamp cook Ang Mu brought me a steaming cup of tea. He also appeared to be afflicted with a permanent smile.
Higher up on the mountain the climbing team of Ian, Cathy and Bruce were preparing to move up from Camp 3 to Camp 4. At midnight they would go for the summit. I cheerfully told John and Dan about the upcoming attempt. I was very pleased with myself for getting here just a day before the final assault. I even dared to think to myself that I could be on a flight out of Kathmandu within the next ten days. This was going to be easy, almost too easy.
The mountain had other plans for us all.
As I basked in the morning sun multiple teams were in fact preparing for their push to Camp 4 and summit bid at midnight. Hall and Fischer had wanted the mountain clear of other teams ahead of their push to the top. Clearly that was not going to happen. The Yugoslav team were already on their way to the top having left the South Col last night.
Also moving up were the South Africans and Taiwanese.
If Hall and Fischer were angry that their plea for a clear mountain was being ignored they did not show it. Everyone was just going to have to get along up there, I thought.
The climbers all wanted to be in Camp 4 as soon as possible so that they could rest. At midnight they would leave their tents and climb upwards towards the South Summit of Everest. Each climber would have a head torch to follow the trail left by the climbing Sherpa and guides.
They would be the first to see the sun rise and had until around midday to reach the mountains lower South Summit. This would leave them enough time to cross the treacherous South-East Ridge, ascend the vertical rock face called the ‘Hillary Step’ and then push on towards the true summit before 2pm. This was the self-imposed cut-off time to turn around if you had not made it to the peak. To deviate from the plan increased the risk of death at high altitude.
Years later this same protocol was drummed into my wife, Ilona Conroy, and I when we were qualifying as advanced scuba divers. “The only difference between climbing and diving”, joked our instructor, “is that you head in the opposite direction.”
He was an ex-military diving instructor in the South African Navy and strictly enforced the rule ‘Plan the dive. Dive the plan’. No deviation was allowed. If something went wrong you were expected to abort the dive immediately.
The theory is sound but it is the strict adherence to the small things that matter. We expect danger to be clear and present, giving us advance notice of what might happen and giving us the opportunity to calmly react. In truth small and seemingly inconsequential events quietly unfold until it is too late. And sometimes you just make one small and catastrophic error.
That morning a Taiwanese climber, Chen Yu-Nan, emerged from his tent on the Lhotse face. The sun would have been warming his body after a cold night on the steep slope. I imagine he may have yawned and stretched taking in the view of the Western Cwm spread out below him. The mountains would have been glistening gold and orange.
I hope he was able to admire the sight before him because seconds later he would be tumbling down the face.
Chen failed to clip into the fixed ropes and was not wearing his crampons. His foot slipped on the ice and that slight loss of balance on a 40 degree slope was fatal. He could not regain himself and within seconds he was plummeting down the Lhotse face at incredible speed.
His body bounced and rolled down the slope before plummeting into a crevasse. It had arrested his fall and stopped him from plunging the full 600 metres down the face.
His Sherpa descended rapidly to reach him and hauled Chen out of the crevasse. Incredibly they got him back up into Camp 3. It seemed like a lucky escape.
Chen would remain in his tent to recover while his team leader, Makalu Gau, would continue. But Chen’s injuries were serious. The fall had most likely burst internal organs and he was in a serious medical condition. Members of the IMAX team came to his aid. Despite their efforts he died hours later, the first casualty of the Everest climbing season in 1996.
IMAX leader David Breashears radioed Gau, who had arrived at Camp 4, and broke the sad news to him. Jon Krakauer reports Gau’s response to be “OK. Thank you for the information”.
Breashears was stunned. Gau showed no emotion and said he would continue to the summit regardless.
At basecamp Philip Woodall made his way over to the Taiwanese expedition tents to express our team’s condolences. He returned saying they were committed to the summit and wanted to honour Chen. They stoically contained their sadness and readied themselves to the task.
By now over 30 climbers and accompanying Sherpa were making their way to Camp 4 to roll the dice on a summit bid. Some of these included the following individuals:
Rob Hall (Leader, New Zealand), Mike Groome (Guide, Australia), Andy Harris (Guide, New Zealand), Doug Hansen (client, USA), Dr Seaborn ‘Beck’ Weathers (client, USA), Yasuka Namba (client, Japan), Jon Krakauer (client/journalist, USA).
Scott Fischer (Leader, USA), Anatoli Boukreev (Guide, Russia), Neil Beidleman (Guide, USA), Sandy Hill Pittman (client, USA), Charlotte Fox (client, USA), Martin Adams (client, USA).
Makalu Gau (Leader, Taiwan).
Ian Woodall (Leader, South Africa/UK), Bruce Herrod (Photographer, UK), Cathy O’Down (South Africa).
A few hours passed and it began to dawn on Philip that the South African team had not radioed in their progress since leaving Camp 3. Concerned he tried to reach them. There was no reply. Again and again he radioed but there was no reply.
This was very unusual. Basecamp had a very powerful antenna and transmitter. It was highly unlikely that the team could not get through. Furthermore why were all their radios silent?
As concern mounted a large man in a red down suit approached our camp. He had a grim expression and carried a portable radio in his hand. He introduced himself as Ivan the basecamp manager for the Yugoslav team. He brought sombre news.
“I cannot reach my team. Three climbers and one Sherpa,” he reported.
“Neither can we” said Philip.
“They turned back before the summit,” Ivan explained, “because of a storm. The last time I reached them they were crawling on their hands and knees because of the strong winds.”
The Yugoslav was close to tears now and bravely tried to withhold his emotions. His news was ominous. This may explain why the South African climbers were also failing to make radio contact.
I looked up in the direction of the Western Cwm. There was cloud high up on the mountain and we could not see the Lhotse face. We urgently needed to know if the other expeditions had any information. Rob Hall, Scott Fischer and the Imax team had all set up camp on the farthest side of basecamp, closer to the ice fall. It would take about 20 minutes for Deshun and I to make our way over to them. We grabbed a walkie-talkie and set off.
Ivan and Philip remained behind to try and reach the missing teams from the powerful base radio system in the South African camp.
As we approached we could see the concerned looks on the faces of the New Zealanders and Americans. Deshun introduced me to Helen Wilton, Rob Hall’s base camp manager. I guessed she was in her mid-thirties with dark hair and a friendly Kiwi accent.
Helen confirmed our fears that a storm had hit the mountain but said most of her team were already in their tents at Camp 4.
“Hold on a minute, I’ll quickly radio Rob.”
I noted that she picked up a hand held radio and walked away from their mess tent towards a small rock. She stood on top of it and called the New Zealand expedition leader. For a few minutes Helen struggled to reach him. Somebody was responding to the call but the signal was too weak for it to be audible. Helen held the radio high above her head hoping it would receive the transmission.
This moment stood out for me because I had assumed that Hall’s team had a powerful basecamp radio like the South Africans. Why was she using a handheld device? I felt it impolite to inquire and so I let the thought slip away.
Some moments later the radio Helen was holding crackled into life. It was Rob Hall and the two could now hear each other, although the signal was weak. Helen asked if he knew the whereabouts of the South African team.
Below is the actual radio crossing from Rob Hall, which I will also transcribe because of the poor audio quality.
It was the first time I had ever heard the voice of this climbing legend. I was impressed by his communication skills. Experienced radio operators know to repeat their message twice and to confirm what message they had understood they had received. This helps to eliminate communication errors and misunderstandings as will become evident in later radio call recordings.
Here is a transcript of the radio call:
Rob Hall: “I can confirm that three South African packs arrived on South Col. To the best of our knowledge they are not in the best condition. They are not in the best condition but are OK. Are OK and on South Col.”
As it turned out the South Africans were among the last to leave Camp 3 and had joined the back of the queue of climbers making their way up into the death zone.
In her book, ‘Free to Decide’ which she co-authored with Ian Woodall, Cathy O’Dowd recalls the events of that morning. She had pushed ahead of Ian and Bruce and was climbing behind Scott Fischer as they ascended. Those who knew Fischer described him as an extremely like-able man. He should no ill feeling about sharing the mountain with the other teams and turned around smiling to photograph Cathy making her way up behind him.
With the Western Cwn spread out below her Cathy knows immediately the photograph will be impressive.
As they closed in on the South Col the wind began to pick up badly. The South African tents had been pitched by the climbing Sherpa on the farthest end of the camp, closest to the summit route. Cathy dived into one as the weather truly turned.
Below Ian and Bruce were in dangerous situation climbing upwards into with wind and snow. Ian wrote: “Bruce shows a thumbs-up sign over his shoulder and leads off slowly into the teeth of the storm, and into serious trouble. The route to Camp 4 and safety is a very narrow one. A slight mistake in any direction could plunge us down the icy south pillar of Everest, but we must keep moving no matter how poor the visibility, because to stop is to die.”
The two men continued to battle the conditions making their way ever higher into the storm. Both were suffering from exhaustion and the exposure was taking its toll. Bruce was starting to struggle and on more than one occasion dropped to his hands and knees.
Ian recalls that when he clipped Bruce’s harness to his to avoid them being separated in the whiteout Bruce still had the energy to joke, “We have to stop meeting like this”.
They fought on and eventually came across a number of yellow tents on the Col. These were not the South African tents but they would have to do. Ian shoved Bruce into one of them where Rob Hall’s guide, Andy Harris, and three clients were resting. Harris was a New Zealander with a powerful build suited to rugby. Harris grabbed Bruce while Ian dived into a nearby tent where he found Scott Fischer.
To their credit both Harris and Fischer took excellent care of the two climbers as if they were members of their own team. Both Ian and Bruce would later recall how grateful they were to these men for saving their lives. It had been a close call and it was miraculous this storm had not killed anyone, although the Yugoslavs were still missing.
Huddled together in the communications tent as basecamp Philip, Deshun, Ivan and I sat nervously around the radio.
My first full day in basecamp had been a reality check for me. One person was dead, four were missing and the South Africans had narrowly escaped a storm in the death zone.
Ian and Bruce had made it to the South African tents on the Col after a few hours recovering in the tents of Harris and Fischer. The weather had died down allowing them to make their way across the Col to where Cathy was anxiously waiting for them.
At 11 pm the Yugoslav climbers and Sherpa staggered into camp. They had been climbing for 24 hours and were very lucky to have survived. Ivan’s shoulders heaved as he sobbed with relief. For many hours he feared his friends had perished.
It was almost midnight and very soon a decision would have to be made. Who was going for the summit?