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Chapter 2

Trouble in paradise


Kathmandu was a vibrant city, an intoxicating mix of ancient temples and internet cafes. It held the lure of its past as a forbidden kingdom, but with all the excitement of a modern capital. The excitement of exploring this exotic metropolis held the tensions within the team at bay. However, Ian collapsed with nervous exhaustion almost as soon as he landed. Not all the equipment had arrived in Kathmandu, either. 

It was decided that the rest of us, led by Bruce, would begin the walk towards the mountain, taking the long route from Jiri. Ian would catch up with us, with the equipment, by helicopter. Separating Ian from the rest of the team proved unwise. In his absence he became the focus for all complaints and discontent. In addition on the walk-in we had two more people to contend with, who eventually made life unbearable. 

Charlotte Noble was a doctor and a top class marathon runner. She was very energetic, very competitive, on the edge of emaciated. She had been invited as expedition doctor, to be stationed at base camp. She was to prove an immediate liability.

Our first night on trek was spent at Shivalaya. Charlotte collapsed on a bed in the dormitory, shaking with cold. She was huddled in a foetal position, face pressed into the mattress. Half an hour later she was running around again, full of frenetic energy, pupils as wide as saucers. 

Within the first three days of the trek Charlotte had already received verbal warnings from Bruce. These were for holding up the team by consistently being late, for not checking on her patients regularly, for dispensing unnecessarily strong drugs, and for her dress. Padam Magar, our trek sirdar (chief of staff), had approached Bruce to say the staff were uncomfortable with her skimpy running shorts and sleeveless vests. They associated such dress with prostitutes. She was unmoved.

Charlotte was desperate to keep up with Andy and Hack, who often walked way out in front. This drive overcame all common sense. On 10 April we were to cross the Lamjura Pass. This snow-covered pass, reaching 3,500 metres, was the first big challenge of the walk-in. She, not seeing Andy and Hack’s rucksacks outside the lodge, assumed they had left without her. She haired off up the trail, alone, without warm clothing or any food, and without knowing where the team would stop for that night. We camped at Tragdobuk but there was no sign of her. We had a suspected sprained ankle in the group, and a porter with blood in his stools. Charlotte, who had become too cold when she had tried to wait for the group, had continued on to Junbesi. There she was found by some trekkers, disorientated, and taken to a lodge.

Bruce consulted with the other team members. He then issued a written warning to Charlotte, with Andy as witness. She had to agree to be present at all meals and in the evenings. Bruce took over control of the medications. On the 14th she again received a verbal warning from Bruce. She had gone for a run alone without telling anyone. In doing so she had missed breakfast, had not checked on her patients, and had held up the porters.

Four days later she visited the medical centre at Khunde. She asked for drugs in the name of the expedition, claiming we were short of medical supplies. Bruce subsequently returned these drugs. Bruce was by now at the end of his tether with her erratic and self-centred behaviour.

Another disastrous inclusion in the group came courtesy of South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper. The Sunday Times were one of 31 expedition sponsors, but had bought naming rights to the expedition. Control of the newspaper was at the time awkwardly split between Ken Owen and Brian Pottinger. Ken Owen was on leave pending retirement, but still interfered at will with the running of the newspaper. Moody and mercurial, famous for his controversial opinion pieces, he was a hard act to follow. Brian Pottinger was a pleasant man, editor-designate, trying to operate the newspaper around Ken Owen. They sent with us a photographer, Richard Storey, a pleasant, rather colourless individual. And, for reasons beyond comprehension, they sent as journalist Ken Vernon. 

Ken was a loud, overweight, middle-aged Australian. It became clear within the first 24 hours of walking that he was hopelessly unfit. It also became clear that he hated walking, hated staying in lodges, hated sharing dormitories, hated squat toilets, hated not being able to shower, hated the wilderness, hated mountains. Why he had accepted the assignment was inexplicable. He seemed to have done no research whatsoever on the Himalaya and have had no idea what it was going to be like to live at base camp for two months. He had no empathy for the mountains or for the challenge of climbing them. A worse choice could not be imagined.

Unfortunately his ineptitude was accompanied by a huge dose of ego. When still in South Africa Ken wrote to Brian Pottinger to ask why he had not been included on the climbing permit. His goal was to interview the climbers on the summit in person. He asked that if any of the climbers dropped out, he be first choice to replace them. Now he was buckling under the pressure of walking through the lowlands of Nepal. He was not going to admit he was not capable and ask to be replaced. Nevertheless, he was not beyond looking for some other way out of the situation.

Ken enjoyed the sound of his own voice, and his favourite recreational activity was picking a fight. He would home in on someone at the end of a long day and start trying to score points off him or her. He was both a chauvinist and racist, and the experience was a trying one. I found the only way I could shut him up was to be deliberately, bluntly rude to him. I hated the whole procedure and avoided him when I could. 

To top it all he turned out to be a very poor journalist. Within two weeks of the team leaving South Africa Brian Pottinger had sent a letter to Ken saying that his reporting had been ‘disjointed, shallow, dial-a-quote and utterly, utterly unsubstantial’. He also wrote to Ian asking if Ken should be replaced and saying that he had a substitute on stand-by.

With Charlotte and Ken added to the already tense situation among the climbing members, the team was doomed from the outset. The first confrontation came when we reached the market town of Namche Bazar. The town filled a semi-circle of land, in a bizarre indentation into the precipitous mountain slope. It was a long haul up from the riverbed to the town. Namche Bazar was high enough to give us our first encounter with altitude sickness, so we were to pass several days there, beginning our acclimatisation. Ken had bailed out at the previous town, Lukla, claiming exhaustion He had chartered a helicopter to fly him up to Namche Bazar, to escape climbing the hill.

We were staying in the Panorama Lodge, situated high up on the east side of the bowl. The dining area was a lovely wood-panelled room, set round a wood stove, with windows on three sides. I was perched on a window seat, reading a book. The others were arriving one by one to settle down for dinner. Charlotte sat down next to Deshun. 

‘Deshun, you’ve got my jacket on,’ she exclaimed.

‘I am sorry, it was a mistake.’ The two jackets were identical and Deshun had got them muddled up before.

‘It’s the Soweto Syndrome,’ Ken said sarcastically, in general comment. Deshun turned on him, speechless, taken aback by the casual racism of the remark. ‘Oh, Deshun is upset with me,’ he announced to all of us. ‘I am sorry.’ The sarcasm was dripping.

Deshun rose abruptly and left the room. Bruce found her lying in the darkness of her tent, in tears. Bruce then pulled Ken to one side and told him he had had a number of complaints since Ken had rejoined the group that morning. The team found him contemptuous of necessary disciplines, seriously under-informed about mountaineering and felt that he was producing some embarrassingly silly news reports. They found him a divisive influence, critical of people behind their backs and needling people to criticise each other, Ken himself and his newspaper. Bruce said that Ken’s reporting was felt to grow out of such material.

This was the third time that Bruce had had to ask Ken to tone down his behaviour because it was upsetting team members. Ken’s reply was that if Bruce was going to take any action against him he had ‘better have all his ducks in a row’. 

The following morning at breakfast Ken stood up and declared that he wanted to discuss the alleged unhappiness of the team. He slapped a recorder down on the table and said he would be taping the session. The atmosphere of intimidation was strong. He offered to leave the expedition if we wanted him to. He then asked each of us, one by one, if we had a problem with him. He chose his order well, starting with Andy, then Hack and then Ed. They all said ‘no’. Bruce said ‘no comment’. He then asked me. 

By then I was furious. Ken had chosen the question to polarise the issue. He would take a ‘no’ answer to mean that we didn’t object to his attitude in any way. Behind Ken’s back the others had been appallingly rude about him. Ed could be bitingly funny in his comments, but in essence they were exceedingly nasty. The ‘no’ answers were a cop-out, and they served to isolate Bruce, the only one with the courage to stand up to Ken to his face. 

I looked Ken in the eye and said I did have a problem with his attitude. And so did the others, whatever they said. Deshun supported me. Ken’s solid front seemed then to crumble and he retreated to leave us to discuss the matter. An awkward discussion followed. The grudging agreement that emerged from the men was that Ken would be asked to tone down his behaviour as the ‘weaker characters’ found him difficult to deal with. Deshun and I were being ever further side-lined.

Neither Deshun nor I found the men easy to get on with, except for Philip and Bruce. Ed, Andy and Hack ignored Deshun completely. I occasionally merited the time of day as the lesser of two evils. I was becoming increasingly depressed at the thought of tackling a mountain as challenging as Everest in such unhappy company. 

Bruce received little joy from them either as he battled to take the portfolio of sponsors’ photographs. They seemed to feel their mere presence should be enough to satisfy the sponsors, and that they did not need to contribute in any way. It drove Bruce crazy. He said to me that he had joined the expedition with the attitude of asking what he could do for the expedition, not what it could do for him. 

Meanwhile the myth of Ian as the monster leader was intensifying. The next day Ken was furious, claiming that his copy had not got through to the newspaper and that instead there had been an article extensively quoting Ian criticising the ‘headbangers’ (Bruce’s term for the three men and Charlotte) for going out in front and Ken for staying in Lukla.

‘If I haven’t hit Ian by the end of this expedition, he’ll be lucky,’ fumed Andy. 

None of us had the article to read. When I finally saw it months later it bore little resemblance to Ken’s claims, but by then it was far too late. Increasingly bizarre rumours were doing the rounds. There were suggestions that the equipment Ian was supposedly waiting for did not exist, that he had not bought it. There were implications that he had appropriated the money for himself. 

On 22 April we tackled a steep climb up the wooded slope towards the monastery at Tengboche. It was a steep, zigzagging trail, alternating between slippery mud and treacherous ice. We had now been joined by a group of trekkers from South Africa.

Having seen that all the trekkers were safely at the lodge, Bruce looked around for Charlotte. He discovered that she had left, alone, to run back down to Namche Bazar. She was dressed only in her running clothes, carrying no equipment. Snow was now falling steadily. Bruce imagined her slipping on the snowy trail, lying somewhere in the woods, rapidly succumbing to hypothermia. 

In the middle of the night I woke up, hearing voices in the lodge. I found Bruce and Philip and a gigantic, mostly empty bottle of White Horse whiskey. Bruce told me he had dismissed Charlotte at 9pm. He had apparently been drinking ever since. He had had enough of her erratic behaviour which endangered not only herself, but also the patients she left behind and the people who might have to rescue her. Ed had supported him, Andy was unhappy, Hack indecisive. 

The next morning we woke to a world of white, the mountain slopes, trees, and monastery all being covered with snow. Charlotte, in tears, was slowly packing her things. My sympathy was at a low ebb. I felt that if she wanted to do her own thing, she should be paying her own way. In joining this expedition she had accepted a specific brief which she had failed to live up to. I chatted to Ed, who said he thought that she should go, that he didn’t trust her at all. He believed Andy and Hack were simply angry because ‘they are losing their plaything’. 

 ‘I feel as though a huge black cloud is lifting off me,’ said Bruce, as he watched her leave. Andy accompanied her. Rumour had it that Andy had been saying ‘if Charlotte leaves, I leave’. His close support of Charlotte came as something of a surprise to those of us outside their magic circle. Earlier in the trip he had been more clearly critical of her irresponsible behaviour. It was some time yet before we fully appreciated the intimacy of their growing friendship. This intimacy was all the more surprising as Andy was married. 

The cloud did not lift for long. Later that afternoon Charlotte reappeared. She and Andy had met Ian on the trail and had pleaded her case. With Ian arrived much of the technical climbing equipment needed for the mountain. North Face, Lowe, Asolo, Rab, some of the best kit in the world in terms of down clothing, Goretex clothing and climbing boots emerged from the barrels. The rumours went up in smoke and the atmosphere that night was calm and friendly. It struck me as a case of ‘boys with toys’. The real issues remained to be addressed. 

After breakfast we met to discuss Charlotte. She was in tears, admitting she had been irresponsible, promising it would not happen again. Bruce had to prompt her to tell us what she had told him. She had gone to Namche Bazar to phone a potential sponsor. She wanted to be a climber, on the team. She had been discussing the possibility with Andy and Hack for days. When asked by Ian why neither he nor Bruce had been told about any of this, she said they had never quite got around to it. She added that she didn’t want to appear to be threatening Deshun and myself.

That struck me as odd. She would only appear to be threatening us if she had set her sights on the vacant sixth place on the permit. Ian was happy to consider her idea. However, she would have to decide immediately whether she wanted to be a doctor or a climber. To get her on the permit both she and he would have to return immediately to Kathmandu to approach the ministry for another place, to organise the transfer of the money, and to attempt to kit her out for high altitude climbing. 

Charlotte continued to dither. It was becoming clear that she and her cronies had little concept of what was involved in getting her onto the team. They seemed to think they just had to write her name on some piece of paper, and that more kit would fall out of the sky, the way things had happened for them. 

Charlotte vacillated indecisively for the next 24 hours. Eventually told Ian she would stay on as doctor. He made it clear she would have to consult with him on all medical treatments. A crisis had been averted, but it did not feel as if it had been effectively solved. A sense of doom seemed to hang over the group.

Perhaps it was just the way I felt. I was feeling increasingly sick and totally exhausted. By the time I reached the next stop, Pheriche, I realised that I had bronchitis. The next day I remained at Pheriche, with Ken and Bruce, who were also feeling under the weather. When Deshun came to say goodbye to me, before going on with the rest of the group, she was on the edge of tears, so psyched-out was she by the hostile attitude of the men. 

In the late afternoon Bruce went to check on one of the Sherpani porters. She had kerosene burns on her back. He found her with a fellow Sherpani, Nimi, who was lying in the tent semi-comatose. Without immediate aid, Nimi was likely to be dead by morning.

Bruce rushed her to the first aid post, where the doctors put her straight into a Gamow Bag, fearing she was suffering from high altitude cerebral oedema - water on the brain. The Gamow Bag, like an inflated body bag in appearance, could be pumped up to increase the air pressure. As descent is the only cure for altitude sickness, the bag was the only short-term treatment alternative. 

Once Nimi was in the bag, Bruce began to interrogate her friend. That morning Charlotte had given the girl a course of pills for the burns. Charlotte had left them with the 17-year-old mail runner, Khum, telling him to dispense the pills every six hours to the girl. She had told no one else. Ian had then asked Khum to help with the load carrying. He had agreed and handed the pills to the girl. The girl, seeing Nimi getting sick, had passed the pills on to her. No one knew where the pills were now. Bruce and the doctors were faced with the horrible prospect that Nimi’s state was the result, not of altitude, but of anything from drug overdose to allergic reaction. 

It was finally determined that she had a combination of hypoglycaemia and cerebral oedema. She was kept in the bag until midnight, checked every half hour until dawn and then loaded onto the back of a porter, and carried back down to Syangboche. Bruce wrote a note to Ian telling him all that had happened, and sent it up the trail by runner. 

I left that morning to move back down to Namche Bazar, in the hope of recovering from my bronchitis faster at the lower altitude. Ken came with me. Ian dashed back to Pheriche to check out the situation. As expedition leader, he would be held legally responsible if something happened to his Nepalese staff. 

The rest of the team followed him back down. On the morning of 28 April he fired Charlotte. Andy announced that if she went, he went. Ed and Hack followed his lead. They had no intention of attempting Everest if they were not clipped onto the back of Andy’s jacket. Ian accepted their resignations. An impasse had been reached.

I was standing outside the lodge when the rest of the team returned to Namche Bazar, one by one. Ed told me briefly what had happened. 

‘What do you think this means for the chances of those who stay?’ I asked Bruce. 

‘I think it almost certainly improves them,’ he replied. ‘It gives us as individuals a better chance of going for the summit. And quite frankly, even if none of us get to the top, we are going to have a lot more fun trying this way.’

Both Deshun and I were put under subtle pressure to leave. It was suggested that if we left, Ian and his expedition would be finally destroyed. It was implied that we would put our lives in danger if we chose to stay with the ‘maniac’ Woodall. 

I couldn’t see it. Admittedly I was not present at the final confrontation, but I had not seen Ian do anything in the three months I had known him that I considered dangerous or reckless. I felt that if I was in trouble on a mountain, I could trust both Ian and Bruce to help. I did not feel that way about Andy, Hack or Ed. And as for Charlotte, she was orbiting in a different solar system. 

‘Well?’ Ian said. ‘I’d like you to stay, if you want to.’

I grinned. ‘Oh I’m staying. You can’t get rid of me that easily.’

Andy tossed Ian a letter laying out their demands for their continued participation in the team. They claimed they had realised it would be ‘life-threatening’ to climb under Ian’s leadership. Ian was to surrender leadership to Ed, Andy and Hack, jointly. For all the rest of us, these terms were intolerable. We had as little trust in the three of them as they claimed to have in Ian. The parting of the ways was inevitable.

Ian sent the resignations of the three men back to Kathmandu so that they could be removed from the permit. With no way of knowing what the three would go off and do, Ian would not risk being held responsible for their actions. As far as Deshun and I were concerned, Ian and Bruce felt I had the best chance on Everest, so I had the sixth place on the permit. However, he asked if Deshun’s name could be substituted for one of the three who had resigned.

The next morning another chopper came in from Kathmandu. It brought with it 15 barrels of equipment. When it left it took both Ken and Richard from the Sunday Times. Neither explained why they were leaving or when, or if, they would be coming back. For the moment Bruce and I took over the task of sending photographs and copy to the newspaper. 

We now met Ang Dorje, the climbing Sherpa who would be our sirdar on the expedition. With a wicked twinkle in his eye, a ready fund of humour, and a head of thick, black, wavy hair, he looked more like a candidate for Playboy of the Western World than a high-altitude mountaineer. We began to sort the barrels on the basis of weight - too heavy to be chocolate, too light to be chocolate. At last we found them, four barrels full to the brim with the finest Nestle and Cadbury could produce. We then sorted through piles of ropes, climbing hardware, batteries and yet more food. This equipment was loaded onto zopkioks, the sturdy yak / cow crossbreeds used for transport in a land that has no roads. We eventually had three pack trains in motion on the way up to base camp - 28 zopkioks in all. 

Walking back up the trail was a pleasure. An incredible sense of lightness seemed to have come over the expedition since the three men, the doctor and the journalists had left. There was an ease, an enjoyment among those of us left that we had not felt since the expedition began. At Lobuche a runner came up the trail with a letter. It turned out to be a fax from Brian Pottinger. In his letter, in which he asked for information on what was happening with the team, he included a message from President Nelson Mandela ‘When I met the team I warned them it would not be easy and there would be set-backs. This has now happened. I call upon all members to try and settle the matter. This expedition is very important. It is important for South Africa. Our young sports people are reaching for the stars. I wish the team well.’

That was easily answered. The three men had made it clear in their letter that they would only return if Ian stepped down as leader and they took over. None of the rest of us could accept that. We had each made a strong personal commitment in choosing to stay. Now it was time to fulfil that commitment. We turned our attention towards Everest.

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