Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

The following article was written in response to criticism that I had not covered the death of Bruce Herrod (on our 1996 Everest expedition) in the article that was published in the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) Journal 1996.

I have had many times to try and explain how mountaineers can accept the possibility of their own death and the death of their companions in the process of their ‘sport’, yet still hold life to be precious and meaningful. This article tried to address these issues. It was also going into battle against those I felt dispensed criticism unfounded in experience, and tried to judge Everest climbing by their own hill-walking standards.

For another explanation on risk-taking in mountains, try Mike Thexton’s poem.


Claude, I am glad you enjoyed my article. I wanted to share what was for me a very personal and important experience. But, as you point out, the spectre of death still hangs over the Everest 1996 experience. It always will. How do I, you, those involved, those spectating, face up to it?

Why was Bruce’s death not included in my article? It is set out in detail, hour by hour, and emotion by emotion, in the book I co-wrote with Ian Woodall. If you want to know about prices paid, about whether it was worth it, and about what happened, it is all there. The radio conversations are exact transcripts of tapes made at basecamp while it was all happening. All we know of Bruce’s choices and feelings is there. In the public arena.

As the only member of the MCSA to actually make it onto the mountain, I offered my story to the MCSA Journal. The club gave neither sanction nor finance to the expedition. I do not believe the expedition to be accountable to the club’s 4 000 members.

Everest 1996 has brought to the surface issues that underpin all adventure activities, but that, because of the potentially fatal consequences, we often avoid discussing. That each of us, and everyone we know, will die is the only complete certainty of our existence. We make choices throughout our lives, balancing out quality and quantity of existence. Why do we, members of this club, venture into the mountains? Presumably we find there something life-affirming, that gives us far more than we risk in the venture.

I make no claim to have the right answers to questions of risk and responsibility. I would argue no such answers exist. But I can offer you my understanding, born of close association with high risk and death in the mountains. I was on the South side of Everest in 1996. Eleven people died, including one of my team, Bruce. I was on the North side of Everest in 1998. Four people died, including one woman who we, together with an Uzbeck team, tried to save, and failed to.

There is no set line, dividing the acceptable from the suicidal. We each create a line for ourselves. To the average man walking his dog along the beachfront, clinging to vertical rockfaces by fingers and toes is a highly dubious activity, both pointless and dangerous. To the rockclimber, however, the situation is both challenging and enjoyable. It is not completely safe. Experienced South African rock climbers have been killed (Gill Graafland and Erwin Muller). But that small degree of risk is an acceptable price for that experience.

In taking on a challenge like Everest, I assess the danger and do what I can to minimise it. I set limits that I do not go beyond. Climbing well above 8000 metres without supplementary oxygen is one risk I choose not to take. Others take it. For them their personal balance of risk and reward is different. And I do not believe that, because I would not do it myself, I am in any position to condemn their choice, whether or not it works out.

The ‘usual tenets of safe and responsible mountaineering’, what are they? Guidelines, but no more. There are practises that may increase safety, and climbers may choose to adopt them. But if you stick to the guidelines for responsible trad climbing, you will make little headway on an A4 aid routes.
You don’t climb mountains alone’ is the battle cry. Well, on Everest you do. In 1996 I was in one of 13 teams, in 1998 in one of 17 teams on the mountain. A lot of climbers, and most of them move alone up and down the mountain. Safety procedures, levels of risk, climbing styles differ widely from team to team. In the end decisions rest simply with individuals or in agreements within teams.

We still suffer in this country from our years of isolation, and our relative inexperience in world-wide mountaineering. Current mountaineering practises are found, not by discussions at UIAA seminars, but by getting out into the mountains, with other people who are facing up to similar challenges. Every person on earth is entitled to their opinion. The irresponsibility is when opinions are disseminated with a voice of authority that disguises the degree of inexperience behind them.

Claude, you say ‘leaders’ are responsible for bringing their teams home safely. Are they? The best way to do that would be not to venture over 8000 metres in the first place, (not that mountains lower than that are not substantially risky as well). If you look at the percentages of deaths against attempts on Everest, it has fallen over the decades. But every season climbers die, from a myriad of causes, exhaustion, altitude, avalanche, falling. And it is not just the less experienced who die.

In May 1998 Frankie Arsentev, climbing with her husband Sergey, became the third woman ever to reach the summit of Everest without oxygen. She collapsed on the descent, at 8 600 metres. She survived for two nights and two days before passing away. Other teams tried to offer assistance, including ourselves. She was completely immobile and we could not carry her. Sergey, who had already summitted twice without oxygen, had disappeared. He has yet to be found.

The two of them climbed as a pair, no sherpas, no team mates, no backup, no oxygen. The ultimate challenge, or just appallingly irresponsible? If they’d lived, it would have been a superb achievement. But they didn’t. What becomes of the achievement then? And whose to blame for it all? We seem to have difficulty with the concept that no one may be to blame. They made their choices and those choices didn’t work out as planned.

The day after Frankie died Mark Jennings reached the summit, on oxygen. He descended to high camp (8 300 metres), slept on oxygen and continued down the next morning, on oxygen. His sherpa left the camp half an hour after him and found him sitting, clipped to the fixed rope, oxygen still pumping – dead. Why? No one knows.

He would have been just another one of over 50 to summit that year from the North. No particular hero back home, except in his personal circle. His choice didn’t work out either. His wife and children have to pay the price for that. But what does it mean to the rest of us, except to serve as a warning that this is a serious business. There are no ‘yak routes’ on the world’s great mountains.

To those who have never been there, the extremes of the environment can be hard to comprehend. The South African press described the dying Frankie as an ‘injured hiker’, shades of a broken ankle in the Magaliesberg. Where was the ‘rescue’ for her?

In the world’s remote corners there are no rescue teams, no helicopters, no telephones. A climber is dependent solely on him or herself and his or her team mates. And once he or she becomes immobile, by and large it’s over. Even the most horrifically injured in the great storm of 1996, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau, had to walk themselves down from 8000 metres to 6000 metres, where a helicopter could reach them.

Within a group of climbers who have chosen to tackle a challenge on the level of Everest, no one can be held accountable for the others. Each step higher is a personal choice and a personal responsibility. We need to be very clear about that before we venture out. As mountaineering becomes more of a spectator sport, due to websites and satellite telephones, we will increasingly have to answer questions about choices and responsibilities to a curious, largely ill-informed audience.

Whose choice is risk in the end? Is it not that of the person who goes out to do it? We live in a blame society, which demands explanations and accountability, finding scapegoats if necessary. If I walk on the narrow edges of life, I do it because I choose to. If that edge breaks under me, I accept that as a consequence of my choice. I cannot blame others for what happened. Nor do I expect that those who accompany me on that edge, if they do, should carry blame for my decisions. I make a choice and I live or die by it. Death is not the intention, but is accepted as being a possibility, given the risk of the activity. Don’t pillory my companions for my choices. I am simply glad they were there to accompany me as far as they could.

This article was published in edited form in the MCSA Journal 1997.

Leave a Reply