Life after Everest

Patrick Conroy posing during his assignment to cover South Africa's first ever Everest expedition in 1996. 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.

I landed in Johannesburg earlier than expected and realised whoever was collecting me from the airport would not have arrived yet. So I took up a chair in the arrival hall and sat dozing. It had been a long flight, and thankfully Marilyn had not cocked-up the return booking, thus sparing me another 27 hour layover in Singapore.

Then across the noisy terminal I noticed a group of familiar faces had gathered, eyes fixed on the sliding doors through which passengers were walking through intermittently.

My father was in the group. I was stunned, so many of my newsroom colleagues had come to greet me. There were about a dozen of them and Cecil Lyons, our marketing director, appeared to be the ring-leader. He was coaching everyone on what to cheer when I emerged through the doors.

I picked up my rucksack and approached them quietly from behind.

“Hi guys” I said softly “Surprise”.

They spun around startled to see me. Then I was swept up in hugs.

The welcome party then ushered me outside where the radio station’s limousine was parked. The sun had not risen yet but Cecil decided the arrival was cause for champagne.

A photograph of the moment survives in an old album I still have.

In the photograph from left to right are: Marc Friedman, Andrew M Bolton‘Boltosh’ Bolton, myself and Cecil Lyons about to open the champagne.

Behind us are Debbie Meyer, Michael Wood, Debora Patta is turned away from the camera obscuring Amy MacIver and Andrew Barnes. Sam Cowan is standing behind Cecil with my dad and 702’s political editor, Brett Hilton-Barber on the far right.

Debbie, Debora, Amy, Andrew Barnes and Cecil would all work with me in television many years later. Andrew Bolton would become a senior figure in the Australian broadcasting industry while Sam Cowan became a house-hold name as a radio and TV personality.

The limo then sped off with Cecil, Debora, my father and I inside. The rest followed in their own vehicles.

I was touched by the gesture and that so many of my colleagues had braved the earlier winter morning to welcome me home. In a short while I would be on air with John Robbie and Dan Moyane, dishing out the Everest rocks I had brought back.

I would, in a state of auto pilot, go over the facts of what had happened and share some of the insights of the trip. But I was unable to answer the biggest question. What did the Everest experience mean? What was the conclusion? I had no idea, I could not make sense of it, even to myself.

20 years later, and having shared over 50 000 words with you in this series, I am closer to an answer. In revisiting this backstory I have made peace with myself on a number of issues.

Firstly, I felt guilty for a long time for the bonds I formed with the climbing team on the mountain. It was frowned upon in journalistic circles. I had gotten “too close” Debora Patta would tell me, and “waved the flag for them”. And why did I not hold Ian Woodall accountable for Bruce Herrod’s death she wanted to know.

John Robbie recently put it to me that I had been suffering from a strain of Stockholm Syndrome at the time.

In truth, I was close to the team. I was embedded with them on the mountain and experienced the adventure and the tragedies as closely as they did. And I had to, I had no choice.

It is absurd, in hindsight, to have expected me to be neutral and distant. We were living in extreme conditions that either bond or break relationships, there is no impartial neutrality in these situations. This wasn’t a weekend camping trip. This was living on a glacier for a month at high altitude with climbers dying in record numbers. Devastated friends and team mates were constantly in your presence.

When lives were at risk I jumped in to help by manning the radio, ferrying supplies to other teams and giving comfort to those around me who were distressed and traumatised.

Journalists are not robots. And keeping a cool and critical distance would have alienated me completely. My criticism of Ken Vernon from the Sunday Times was that he constantly second guessed the decisions of the group as though he himself was an expert.

He moaned about the conditions of the lodges on the way up and the smell of his sleeping bag. He involved himself in petty interpersonal squabbles. That is not being an impartial and objective journalist – that’s being a real time mountaineering critic.

I did not play that role, and I am not ashamed of it either. I was an eyewitness to events and I got very close to the people involved. If they had allowed me through the Ice Fall during the rescue efforts I would have gone.

It was a completely immersive experience, and in 1996 the concept of embedded journalism was poorly understood or studied. I believe there is a place for this kind of work, and admittedly one does lose a sense of broad ‘long distance’ objectivity. The big picture stuff can get lost and there is the danger that as a journalist you cannot be critical at all.

What being embedded with a team gives you, however, is close quarter insights, nuance, emotional understanding and a better view of the overlooked complexities. I call this ‘short sighted objectivity’.

You cannot achieve this from a distance. The removed journalist demands simple answers to questions that require context and background understanding. And in 1996 702’s editorial management failed to see that.

So much about Everest is misunderstood, just like this personal experience. It is too big, unfathomably complex, so deeply personal and yet distant and indifferent.

702 had no idea of the situation I was in, and so could not understand how it felt to be there. Debora was not interested in a lengthy discussion around the context, nor once debated it with me. The message I got from her was ‘good job but you could have done a lot better and let it slip in the end’. She wanted both ‘long distance’ and ‘short sighted’ objectivity at the same time. An impossible task.

Exhausted and still struggling with the infections I wanted to take leave now that I was back. Patta refused. The story was not yet over because the team members had not arrived back in South Africa.

“Take two weeks after that,” she said.

There was no debrief, no private heart-to-heart, no interrogation of how I felt and sadly no post trauma counselling, which I would have been embarrassed to accept but probably needed.

Today I am angry at myself for not getting angry, for not erupting immediately in a blind fury – where was the unbridled rage when I needed it?

I wish I could have stated my case with as much conviction at the time. Yet, my guilt about how I had managed the story in the eyes of my bosses led to a silent shame that I carried for a long time.

Deflated I left the office. I had been at it for 41 days straight. Rest would have to wait and I stupidly soldiered on.

In today’s news environment the trade unions would be summoned, and a path beaten to the door of the Human Resources manager where grievance notifications against management would be filled out in triplicate. In 1996 things were different.

***

I also struggled to fit back into the newsroom. Every assignment I was sent on failed to live up to the excitement and prominence of Everest. I struggled to find the motivation to get excited about a trade agreement being signed or the umpteenth bank robbery in Johannesburg.

In later years I would see this happen again and again in newsrooms. Young reporters who are given the big stories too soon over estimate their ability and under estimate the importance of the daily grind.

It is a short route to being a prima donna.

The pace of radio news reporting is relentless. I would argue it is the most exhausting form of broadcasting in many respects. This is why so many radio reporters make excellent TV journalists.

As the Everest story died down I took my two weeks off. I returned as bone tired as when I left. I was burnt out.

Unsurprisingly, I resigned the following year. I packed up my rucksack again, and this time left for London. I decided to take a two years off to work and travel in Europe.

I came home and told my flat mate, Lara White, about my decision. She and I had been best friends since we met walking home from high school in 1988.

“I’m coming too” she said.

A few months later we flew out together.

I did odd jobs around the city, while Lara got modelling contracts. Many of my friends were taking advantage of the working holiday visa South Africans were able to use back then.

In February 1998 I applied to work for Contiki Tours and was accepted. I broke the news to Lara that I was leaving London. She had been working herself to death in London and wanted to go home.

She had done a shoot for British Telecoms, BT, a few weeks earlier. Within a month after her departure back to South Africa her image was plastered all across the United Kingdom. She was the face of BT and wasn’t there to see it.

Fortunately her decision to head home paid off. She met her future husband, Bruce, a few weeks later. A natural entrepreneur Lara started her own modelling business and has become a successful business woman.

Our families meet regularly and our children play together.

In 1998 I had gone from Everest radio reporter to cooking meals and cleaning chalets. Of course there were side bar perks which I will not go into because my mother is on Facebook. But it was a humbling experience that motivated me in the years to come.

It was during this time I was working in Switzerland that I got a call from Debbie Meyer at 702. A new television channel was launching in South Africa and would be called e.tv.

She suggested I come home because they were looking for reporters.

Even though two years had passed since the Everest expedition I decided not to apply and remain a back packing bum in Europe for a little while longer. I wasn’t ready to come back.

It is ironic, looking back on this telephone call from Debbie, I would later join e.tv in 2001, and by 2004 I was the company’s news editor working with my old boss Debora Patta who was the editor-in-chief.

In 2008 we launched South Africa’s first 24hour news channel. The following year, 2009, Patta was given an ultimatum by senior management: Choose between a career in management or a career on TV. She chose the latter and I was promoted to be her boss.

Our relationship was strained from this point and did not survive ultimately. She resigned in 2013.

In 2009, the same year I took over the management of e.tv’s news company, e.Sat TV, I launched the pan African news service with Chris Maroleng. In 2010 I launched our Afrikaans news service with the assistance of Paul Dunn.

2011 was a quiet year, but in 2012 we launched our news website enca.com with Tim Spira.

I had gone from being a journalist to a manager, and ultimately the Managing Director of the news company.

In 2016 I took up the post of Managing Director of Platco Digital, a company within the media stable of eNCA and e.tv. It is a far cry from where I imagined myself in 1996.


***

The Bruce Herrod Mystery is Solved.

Less than two months after Bruce Herrod disappeared his fiancé sent me a fax. It read:

“Sorry we never managed to speak apart from on that horrible Saturday, but I’m sure you realise that Bruce valued your company and felt you did a very good job.

Last Sunday Laura Rabhan (NBC Dateline Producer) gave me a copy of your diary extracts. Thank you. It is hard to describe, but when you can’t have the real thing back, you find yourself hungry for words, objects or anything that gives you a more immediate sense of what went on immediately before the world fell apart.”

She continued, “He literally gave his soul to this expedition”

Sue was angry and blamed Ian Woodall.

“Some days are still truly appalling. Organising a memorial exhibition/reception seems bizarre and unfair, when a wedding reception would have been more fun, but it has to be done and I’m sure it will be a great occasion” wrote Sue.

Sue now blamed Ian for Bruce’s death. I understood her pain, but not her explanation. Bruce had elected to go for the summit at his own free will.

In late 1997 a few 702 colleagues and I went out drinking on a Saturday night. As I recall I was with my girlfriend at the time, Chantal Rutter, Lynne O’Connor, Kalay Maistry and Donald Chauke. I was driving and pulled up at a traffic light.

A newspaper vendor pressed a copy of the Sunday Times against my window. Looking back at me was Bruce Herrod.

I went into shock. It was a photo of him on the Summit!

A few weeks earlier an American climber, Pete Athans, came across a body at the base of the Hillary Step. The climber was tangled in the fixed ropes and had clearly fallen from the top of the Step to the base.

An inspection of the body revealed a traumatic head injury which would almost certainly have killed the man on impact.

Athans studied the gear and the appearance of the frozen climber and recognised him immediately. It was Bruce Herrod, they had met on the mountain in 1996.

Athans reached into Bruce’s rucksack and retrieved his camera. Then he cut the ropes holding Bruce in place on the Hillary Step and let his body plunge down the face into Nepal. It is how mountaineers are buried at this extreme altitude.

Weeks later the camera was delivered to Sue Thompson in London. She walked down High Street Kensington and handed the camera to a man behind the kiosk.

“I need you to develop the film inside this camera. The man who took the pictures paid with his life to do so. Don’t screw this up!”

As it turned out the man behind the kiosk was a South African and he dutifully took the camera and oversaw the development.

There were only three pictures on the spool, all of Bruce Herrod smiling into the camera on the summit of Everest, his South African beanie proudly displayed.

Ian had been correct after all. Bruce had fallen to his death and it had happened at the Hillary Step. Within an hour of speaking to us from the Summit he was dead. Our radio calls and vigil at Camp 4 had all been in vain. Bruce Herrod had clipped into the ropes at the top of the Hillary Step and attempted to descend. Exhausted and lacking enough oxygen, he fell backwards, smashing his skull on the rocks below.

For him the sun had not yet set, but his life was over.

His comrades watched the South Summit relentlessly, hoping he would appear. He never did and now we know why.

Was Ian responsible? No.

Ian Woodall did not kill Bruce Herrod. He gave him the freedom to choose his own fate. I would want the freedom to do the same.

Bruce’s final photograph hangs in my office today. It will never be taken down and will move with me throughout my life.

I’m six years older now than Bruce was when he died. He remains a mentor to me - GET out of your comfort zone and dare to live.

The End.

eNCA

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