Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

The team on their return to Kathmandu

Members of the 1996 1st South African Everest team at the hotel in Kathmandu immediately after their return from Everest: l-r Patrick Conroy - Radio 702 reporter, Philip Woodall - base camp manager and technician, Cathy O'Dowd - climber, Ian Woodall - team leader and climber, Deshun Deysel - climber.

The First South African Everest Expedition was the first South African team to attempt Everest. Up until the fall of apartheid South Africans had not been able to get a permit for Everest. They were to climb the classic South Col route, by which the first ascent of the mountain was made in 1953.

The idea of the expedition was thought up by Ian Woodall, who became expedition leader. He raised the money to pay for the project and then invited as team members: British climber and photographer Bruce Herrod, Andy de Klerk, Ed February and Andy Hackland. Charlotte Noble was team doctor, Philip Woodall base camp manager. Then, through a selection process I joined the team, along with Deshun Deysel. President Nelson Mandela was patron of the expedition.

It was never a happy team and conflict between team members sprung up within days. During the walk-in Ian fired Charlotte Noble for irresponsible behaviour and Andy de Klerk, Ed February and Andy Hackland resigned and went home. My understanding of what was going on in those troubled early days is given in chapter 2 of my book Just for the love of it.

The remaining team arrived at base camp (5200m) on 6 April 1996. There we were joined by sirdar Ang Dorje Sherpa, climbing sherpas Pemba Sherpa, Jangmu Sherpa and Nawang Sherpa, camp 2 cook Ang Sirke, base camp manager Shankar and base camp cook Ang Mu.

The puja ceremony was held on the 10th. The Sherpas took their first day of climbing the next day, while Bruce, Ian and I headed into the icefall the day after. Deshun was to be in base camp for another three weeks due to permit problems. No one slept at camp 1 (6100m). Bruce and Ian stayed at camp 2 (6500m) on the 19th, 20th and 21st and I went up on the 22nd and 23rd. The three of us moved up back to camp 2 on the 29th and did a day trip to camp 3 (7400m) on May 1. By the 3rd we were ready to move to camp 4 (7980m) and make a bid for the top. However, poor conditions kept us in camp 2.

We moved to camp 3 on the 7th and then spent the 8th there due to high winds. On that day Radio 702 reporter Patrick Conroy arrived at base camp. On the 9th we moved to camp 4, along with the four climbing Sherpas. Due to poor weather and tiredness we chose not to go that night. The next afternoon a storm hit, the famous 1996 storm in which the teams of Rob Hall, Scott Fischer and Makalu Gau were caught. We spent the nights of the 10th and 11th at camp 4 and then bailed out for base camp, arriving on the 13th.

We decided to try again and returned to camp 2 on the 18th, this time with Deshun. She was battling with altitude and chose to descend on the 22nd. On the 19th we received an unexpected telephone call from President Mandela to wish us luck in our attempt. We spent the night of the 20th at camp 3 but then retreated to camp 2 in the face of high winds. On the 23rd we were back at camp 3 and on the 24th we reached camp 4. At this point we were the last team on the mountain.

At midnight six of us left for the summit, myself, Ian, Bruce, Ang Dorje, Pemba and Jangmu. Nawang had stayed at camp 2 due to illness. Conditions were perfect, warm and still. Climbing solo, we spread out. Ian summitted at 09.50 with Pemba a few minutes behind him. I joined them at 10.20 and spent 15 minutes on top. As we descended we passed Ang Dorje and Jangmu. They reached the top at 10.55 and then caught us up as we descended. We met Bruce at noon, just below the south summit, still climbing up. We asked him to descend with us and he refused. Taking a radio and our extra oxygen, he continued upward. We were back at camp 4 by 16.00. At 17.00 Bruce radioed us from the summit, sounding strong and happy. We never heard from him again.

One by one we left camp 4 the next morning, Ian leaving last at 14.30 when the oxygen ran out. Bruce was declared missing, presumed dead. The following day we reached base camp.

We left base camp on May 30.

A year later a team from Indonesia found Bruce sitting on the ridge just below the Hillary Step. At the same time some of the team went back to build a memorial for him in the shadow of Everest.

We still have no idea what happened to him.

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