It has been almost 20 years since South Africa’s first attempt to climb Mount Everest ended in a successful summit – but with one climber left for dead and the other two regarded as pariahs by the international climbing community.
The 1996 Sunday Times Everest Expedition was touted as a symbol of non-racial unity and achievement for the new South Africa, but when it was revealed that the British-born leader of the expedition had vastly exaggerated his military and climbing achievements, the team fractured.
Four of the country’s top climbers resigned from the expedition in disgust before the expedition reached Everest base camp, while the antics of the expedition leader, Ian Woodall, made the team a focus of derision by other climbers on the mountain.
The expedition left a deep scar on the psyche of South African climbing that took years to heal, but now that scab is about to be ripped off once again by a new book and movie – both out this month.
The new blockbuster movie Everest focuses on the life and death drama of mountaineers caught in the grip of a massive storm that struck Mt Everest on May 10, 1996, sweeping up the lives eight climbers in its terrifying jaws.
The movie depicts Woodall and the South African team as inept and arrogant in equal measure.
More telling is a new eBook published on Amazon by former Sunday Times journalist Ken Vernon, who accompanied the team. Everest ’96 delves deeply into the guts of the Sunday Times Expedition in a forensic examination that uncovers new facts about what he calls a ‘dysfunctional expedition with a delusional leader’.
He writes: “The highest mountain on the planet brings out the best in people – and the worst.” We usually only hear about the best – about the bravery, the courage and the sacrifice of mountaineers who risk life and limb to achieve excellence for themselves and others. But there are other mountaineers – the charlatans, the conmen, the bullies, the petty-minded and narcissistic – who prefer to sacrifice others to their obsession to reach the top of Mt. Everest.”
The book casts new light on many of the enduring questions surrounding the expedition, including the death of Bruce Herrod, whose body was found hanging in ropes on the deadly Hillary Step a year after going missing after Woodall allowed him to continue climbing to the top far too late in the day.
It details how a ‘competition’ to find a South African woman to climb Everest degenerated into a farce when the name of the sole black contestant was left off the crucial climbing permit in favour of the only white woman contestant – Cathy O’Dowd – who Woodall later married after the pair became romantically involved while the ‘competition’ was still under way.
The patron of the Sunday Times Expedition was then President Nelson Mandela. In the aftermath of the scandals involving Woodall many have questioned why Mandela continued to support the team, especially given that two of the three climbers in the so-called South African team were British. The book reveals previously unknown links between Nelson Mandela and the O’Dowd family that could answer that question.
Vernon describes Everest ’96 as a ‘major rewrite and update’ of his earlier book on the expedition titled Ascent and Dissent.
“This book goes much, much further in digging out facts about the fantasies Woodall made up that led to him being labelled the ‘Walter Mitty of Everest’, said Vernon.
This book is a must for anyone even vaguely contemplating joining an expedition to Everest, or indeed any expedition.
Click below to purchase the book…
Extracts from the Everest ’96 Book:
On Mandela’s support for Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd.
In his biography Long Walk to Freedom Mandela recalls that in 1943, when still in the early stages of his politicisation and radicalization, he enrolled at the ‘white’ University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. While there he made many life-long friendships that would come to his aid later, in particular one Tony O’Dowd.
“I befriended Tony O’Dowd and Harold Wolpe, who were political radicals and members of the Communist Party,” he wrote. The Tony O’Dowd mentioned was Cathy O’Dowd’s uncle, brother of her father, Michael O’Dowd. In 1956 Mandela and 155 other South Africans of all races were arrested and charged with treason in a massive show trial designed to cut the head of the growing black resistance movement.
Tony O’Dowd was one of the members of a brilliant defence team which secured acquittals for all the accused. He went on to live in Britain where he became treasurer for the Anti Apartheid Movement.
Cathy’s father Michael O’Dowd would also have been known to Mandela for some time, not only because he was the brother of Tony and not only because he was a member of the board of the richest and most powerful corporation in the land.
Michael O’Dowd was also the author of an influential book on the political economy of South Africa Mandela would have been familiar with, even if he had not immediately made the connection between the author and the young lady on Mount Everest.
The connections make a compelling case to suggest that perhaps the main reason Mandela decided to support the Woodall team was that an important member of the team – and perhaps the only South African member remaining on the team – was not only the niece of his old friend and political ally, but also the daughter of one of the most powerful businessmen in the country.
Ian Woodall became infamous when he was pilloried by Jon Krakauer, author of the best-selling Into Thin Air, for refusing to lend his radio – the only working radio on the South Col at the time of the killer storm of May 10-11 – to those organising rescue efforts.
Despite this telling indictment, Vernon writes that Woodall has since contrived in books and on the international speaking circuit to cast his actions on the South Col in a heroic light.
In Everest ’96 Vernon tracks down two people who were on the mountain at the time whose accounts have never been told before. Both say they also asked Woodall to make his radio available but he refused.
Neil Laughton, a British SAS officer who was on the South Col on May 10-11 as part of a commercial expedition organised by Everest veteran Henry Todd, says he personally went to Woodall’s tent on the South Col to ask Woodall to lend his radio to the rescue efforts but was rebuffed.
“Anatoli Boukreev poked his head into our tent and explained in his Russian accent what had happened the day before and what he believed to be the current situation.
“I got kitted up and went round the various tents and was surprised to find many empty. However, I came across the South African team tent with Ian Woodall, Cathy (O’Dowd) and Bruce (Herrod) whom we had met in Kathmandu and at Base Camp.
“I specifically asked this question into the tent whilst squatting outside: “Can I borrow your radio to help with the rescue effort?” There was a fraction of a pause before Ian stated bluntly: “No, we need it for our summit bid.”
“My question and his response are absolutely word for word.
“Surprised at this retort for the selfish connotations but also because I was fairly certain there would be no further ascents due to the continuing poor weather (continuing high winds) and because of the severity of the human drama, I walked away without saying another word.”
Vernon quotes Helen Wilton, Rob Hall’s base camp manager, who until now has remained silent on most aspects of the deadly storm of May 10-11. Wilton’s memory, backed up by a detailed logbook, corroborates both Krakauer’s and Laughton’s accusations against Woodall.
“My radio encounter with Woodall came after I received radio calls from a distressed Rob Hall late in the afternoon on 10 May, initially at 4.15pm, asking for more oxygen for someone (Doug Hansen) at the top of the Hillary Step.
“At 4.30pm the calls became more urgent and I realised after our Base Camp Sherpas tried to contact them that we had no communication with our Sherpas on the Col who were waiting for the climbers to arrive back from their summit attempt.
“It was imperative that a message reach Rob to tell him there was oxygen waiting for him in a cache at the South Summit.”
Wilton said that radio transmission between summit and Base Camp was so broken the team had to rely on relayed messages from Guy Cotter on nearby Mt. Pumori.
“Between 4.30pm and 5pm I ran down the glacier to the South African camp with the NZ Base Camp Sirdar, Ang Tshering – a distance of about half a mile.
“It was during this run through the rocks that I noticed for the first time the abrupt change in the weather, from 3pm sun and white cumulus clouds, to a sky full of dark, low cumulonimbus, being driven by a strong wind.
“We were taken into the main tent and were joined by Philip the Base Camp manager who I was told was Woodall’s brother. He listened to me carefully and made a call to Woodall at the South Col. I took the radio from Philip and said “This is a matter of life and death – I need you to take a radio to the NZ camp so that we (actually Ang Tshering) can speak to our Sherpas.”
“He said arrogantly: ‘I’ll have to think about that for 15 minutes’.
“I was appalled that he sounded far from willing to help. I would have expected something like a description of the current conditions on the col and that he might be a few minutes getting ready to go out. But it was like talking to a stone wall.
“He wasn’t even prepared to listen to whatever else I had to say. I handed the radio back to Philip who looked a bit embarrassed and muttered he was sorry.
“I said to him ‘I haven’t got time for this’ and left with Ang Tshering to get back to our radio. I was desperate as I knew these minutes would be counting for Rob and Doug”.
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