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Chapter 7

A fallen star


Bruce’s voice came crackling through the radio. We had been dozing and jerked up in confusion, Ian grabbing the small black box.

‘Bruce, mate, where are you?’

‘I’m on the summit of the world.’ 

His voice came through strong and joyful. He sounded immensely proud of himself. Ian and I stared at each other in horror. I glanced at my watch - 5 p.m. My mind was swirling with questions. What was he doing on the summit? And why had it taken him so long?

‘I’m just so chuffed that I’ve finally made it,’ Bruce said. ‘It’s been a long time coming, mate, and I’ll be real careful on the way down.’

He said that the weather was benign and he was confident of the descent. We listened as he spoke to base camp, then to his girlfriend, Sue, in London. I wondered if I should get on the radio and congratulate him, but decided to wait. I’d give him an enormous hug when he got back to camp. I desperately wanted him back down. We had all done it and that was great. Now it was time to go home.

Bruce pulled his camera out of his rucksack. He hadn’t taken any photographs all day, but this was one scene that he was not going to miss. He pulled off his mitts, now wearing only his red inner gloves, so he could fiddle with the delicate camera controls. He fixed the camera to the top of his ice-axe and positioned it so he could see the summit tripod, the blaze of prayer flags, the pyramid that made up the highest snow in the world, and the curve of the horizon so far beyond and below. Once he was sure it was in place, he moved round to position himself next to the summit tripod. With a big grin, he pushed the button on his remote control. He’d done it!

Meanwhile, Ian and I gazed at each other in consternation. He was on the summit. I had assumed he had turned back long since and was on his way down to us. Thoughts of all we had achieved, all we had been through to achieve it, and all that Bruce was still going through, circled round my head  - visions of the steep snow slopes, the broken, rocky ledges, the narrow, curving ridge, and the small summit platform. Finally, I could stand the silence no longer.

‘Do you think he’s going to make it back to us?’ I said to Ian. 

He sought to reassure me. Bruce still had several hours of daylight, a full down suit, plenty of oxygen. He had sounded strong and confident. 

‘I guess so,’ I said. ‘It’s just having seen the bodies of Rob and Scott lying on the mountain and knowing that Bruce is out there on his own.’ I hesitated. ‘I guess this sounds silly to you after all your years in the army, but those are the first bodies I’ve ever seen.’

‘Yes, but they’re just bodies,’ Ian replied quietly.

They were just bodies and we needed now to concentrate on the living, not the dead. We didn’t have enough oxygen for the night, let alone to go back up the mountain for Bruce if we had to. I didn’t know if we had the strength to go back up the ridge, but I knew that we had no chance at all without oxygen. 

I decided to go out in search of unfinished bottles. It was not just the fear that we might need them, but it also provided something to do, an escape from the waiting.  Sitting in the tent with Ian was difficult. There was no more we could speculate about Bruce. Yet somehow we could not speak of the excitement of the summit, or of what the future held with Bruce out in the unknown. We were trapped in limbo.

I moved across the desolate col in the bitter cold of twilight, scrabbling through the piles of bottles left from teams in past decades, searching for the tell-tale orange of the Poisk bottles that fitted our systems. In the confusion of their retreat after the great storm, the other teams hadn’t taken down all their oxygen bottles. And once again there were a considerable number left by the IMAX team. Testing each bottle with my regulator, I finally found six with some oxygen left in them. 

I sat for a moment in the chilly night air, looking up at the sombre pyramid of Everest, a darker shadow against a dark sky. I wondered where on its great slopes one man was moving. I looked above it to the sky, clear and littered with brilliant stars. So beautiful but so unfeeling. Amid the gloom of worry, a brief flicker of pride shone out. We had done it! 

While looking up at the mountain, I radioed Philip to update him on conditions. He logged the call at 6.50 p.m. I could hear the worry in his voice. Unable to see the summit from base camp, he had no idea of what kind of weather Bruce was facing. 

‘Don’t worry, Phil. It’s completely clear and still. If there is any night to bivi on Everest, this is the night. And remember, Bruce might take all night, especially if he decides to bivi and climb on down in daylight.’

He agreed with me, and we discussed various possibilities with forced optimism. So we reassured each other, each hiding our own unease behind a brave facade.

I crawled back into the tent with my hoard of orange bottles. I settled down into my sleeping bag and pulled on the oxygen mask, which had transformed itself into a horrible alien object. Damp from the day of climbing and now having been dragged round the col for use testing the bottles, the damp had frozen, leaving a contraption of icy, hard leather, which irritated the skin on my face, already chaffed by hours of wearing. However, physical exhaustion overwhelmed the discomfort. I slept like the dead, without waking or dreaming.

I woke abruptly. It was light. I looked at my watch. It was 5 a.m.

No Bruce, no radio call.

He’s dead.

No, maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s still on his way down. Maybe he bivied and didn’t call. Maybe he’s nearly here.

But in the depths of my heart, after that long night with no communication, I knew he was dead.

I lay very still, feeling the blood thumping through my pulses. I glanced across at Ian, who was sleeping. I wondered if he had realised.

The radio crackled into life. Ian grabbed it. He was not asleep.

It was only Philip. He could bear the silence no longer. 

Soon after that a hand rattled the tent and a thermos flask of tea was thrust through the door.

‘We go down today. We must leave this morning,’ Ang Dorje announced firmly. Then he paused.

‘No Mr Bruce?’ he asked

‘No, no Mr Bruce,’ I replied.

He nodded impassively and withdrew.

I watched him go with mixed feelings. I was aware of the prosaic attitude of the Sherpas towards death and had discussed it before with Bruce. He admired their calm stoicism in the face of the inevitability of human mortality. However, I was still rather shaken to actually see their apparent disinterest.

I looked out of the tent door and up to the high slopes of Everest. I could see all the way up the slopes that had been so hard won the previous night, and then back up along the skyline ridge to the south summit. The face was dotted with tiny black specks of rock, contrasting sharply with the brightness of the shining snow and ice, but there was no movement. None of the tiny black specks stood up and began to stumble back down towards the South African camp. 

Ian suggested Bruce had probably bivied and wouldn’t start moving down until the sun caught him and warmed him up a bit. We looked at each other. We both remembered standing on that high ridge in the light of the rising sun 24 hours earlier and we both knew the sun caught that ridge very, very early.

‘Listen, Caths,’ Ian said quietly, ‘we need to think about our options of helping Bruce if he calls.’

‘Yes, I know,’ I replied.

  What were we to do it he called? If he was still moving, we could talk him down over the radio, we could go out and try and meet him on his way down. We would all be pretty slow, but both Jangbu and Pemba were strong climbers. In addition, we had Nawang. He had stayed back at camp 2, feeling ill, but had then climbed up to camp 4 to meet us as we descended.  He was fresh. But the Sherpas wanted to go down. And we had little oxygen left.

What if he called and said he could not go any further, as Rob Hall had done? Were we to listen to him die over the radio? Should we try to get to him and probably find him dead when we arrived? Or would we have to sit with him and watch him die, all the time wishing he’d hurry up while we still had some chance of getting ourselves down alive?

Did we have any chance of trying to drag a six foot massive male body back down the mountain? I doubted it.

What if some of us wanted to go and others thought it too dangerous? I wasn’t sure I had the strength to climb back up to the summit, and then still be of any practical help when I reached Bruce. So what if Ian wanted to go back up and I didn’t? How would we both live with those different choices? 

What about the Sherpas?  Would they be fearful of not being invited on future expeditions if they declined to go back up the mountain? If he called for help should any of us risk our lives knowing that there was very little chance of saving him? 

What would Bruce have wanted us to do? 

Eventually Ian turned to me and said he thought that the Sherpas and I should go down. He would stay on as long as he could. What little oxygen we had left would last longer that way. Neither Ang Dorje nor I were very happy with this. The four Sherpas were hell bent on starting back down. Yet for Bruce to finally crawl back into camp and find us all gone would be appalling. I slowly packed up the last of my personal kit. Worry for Bruce was now being subsumed by worry for Ian. Losing one was hard enough. I couldn’t bear to lose them both. 

We didn’t talk. There was nothing to say. 

The Sherpas came over to take their leave.

‘No go up, Bara Sahib,’ pleaded Pemba on the verge of tears.

They walked away. Finally my pack was loaded, my boots were on, there were no more excuses not to go.

Ian reached across and gently brushed me on the nose. I flashed a brief smile in return. Our eyes were fixed together in the moment, passing lifetimes of information and feelings between us. 

‘Be safe, youth.’

‘You too, Ian.’

Without looking back I shouldered my rucksack and strode off towards the top of the fixed ropes.

My last image as I left the tent was of Ian lying on his side, staring unmoving through the tent door at the slope above us. It tore my heart to see him sitting so still, so small. I knew he was waiting for one of the black specks to stand up and begin a slow progress downhill. But they never did. They were only rocks, inanimate and immobile. There was nothing he could do but wait, and the longer he waited, the less chance there was of Bruce returning. It seemed such a waste that everything he had put into the expedition should end like this, that his friend should be out there dead or dying and that we should be totally helpless.

‘Damn you!’ I shouted suddenly, violently, not sure if I was addressing the mountain or Bruce.

‘Damn you for killing him, damn you, Bruce, for not coming back. Don’t do this to us. Don’t be dead. Come back, for heaven’s sake come back.’

The mountain loomed over me in impassive silence, its vast bulk beyond all understanding of small human miseries.

I walked on, waves of anger and despair rolling over me. My worry for Bruce was overwhelmed now by worry for Ian, waiting alone. I could believe Bruce was safe, enjoying the adventure of whatever comes next in the universe. We were still so vulnerable, ants on the side of this mountain.

By the time I reached the top of the Geneva Spur I was calmer. I turned for what would be the final view of the summit pyramid, the most magnificent tombstone in the world.

I then dropped over the edge and began to move down towards the Lhotse face.

As I climbed alone down the mountain, I was glad of the hours of solitude in which to try and absorb the enormity of what had happened, before returning to the agonised concern of those who waited at the mountain’s foot. As I moved, I replayed through my mind all that happened. I analysed our decisions again and again, and I couldn’t find it in myself to think that, knowing what we did when we did, we would have decided differently. I discovered that it was difficult to climb downwards with your eyes full of tears - the blurred vision interfered with placing your feet. Already the pragmatism of living was taking over from the seemingly insurmountable trauma of Bruce’s death.

I reached camp 3 by 11:30 a.m. and slumped down next to the tiny snow patch that had once held our tent. The Sherpas had taken it with them. My knees were killing me. I pulled out the radio to call Ian. I could hear from the tension in his voice that he had hoped the call might be from someone else. 

‘Is there ... any sign of anything on the mountain?’ I asked tentatively.

 ‘No, love, there’s nothing,’ he replied.

We had agreed that, if nothing changed, he would make an official announcement at noon. I put the radio on standby and waited for it, staring down the western cwm and out to the distant peaks to the west. A little after noon, Ian’s voice came over the radio.

‘The First South African Everest Expedition regretfully announces that team member Bruce Herrod has been missing on Mount Everest between the summit and the south col for a period of 19 hours, from 17:00 on 25/05/96 to 12:00 on 26/05/96.’

I turned the radio off and sat alone on the vast expanse of mountain and cried. My feelings swung between a certain acceptance of Bruce’s choices, of the risks of mountaineering, and overwhelming pain and sorrow that he wasn’t coming back. I ran through it all over again. It was, I realised, a catch-22 situation. I really felt that in Bruce I had found a friend for life. I admired his confidence and determination. Yet I knew it was that determination that had kept him going late in the day, and slowly. To wish him to have turned round was to wish him to have been another person. Yet it was the person he was that I liked so much. 

I had no answers.

But now descending safely had to claim all my attention.

I clipped my safety sling to the fixed rope, just below an ice screw anchor point, and eased my weight on to it. The screw wobbled alarmingly. With the ever-rising temperatures, the surface layer of ice was melting and the anchors securing the fixed ropes were coming loose.

Just when I wanted nothing more than to put my mind in neutral and slide on down to rest and safety, I had to check each point, to remain totally alert, never trusting the ropes fully. The glacier back to camp 2 had stretched out yet again, but at last our two black tents came into sight. I slung my rucksack down outside my tent and sat on it, staring unseeingly at the black rocks in front of my boots.

The radio crackled to life with Ian’s voice. He was going to start coming down. It turned out that the bottles I had so painstakingly searched out the previous night might have fitted my regulator, but they didn’t fit his. He was out of oxygen. Without supplementary oxygen he could not safely stay on at such high altitudes. It was time to go. He was back at camp 2 by nightfall.

The night before we had slept from sheer exhaustion but now our emotions had had time to brew. I had moved into Ian’s tent, in Bruce’s place. As we lay next to each other in the dark, we talked softly. 

‘This probably sounds chauvinistic, although it isn’t meant to be,’ said Ian. ‘But in the end a man had to be allowed to make a man’s decision, because if he isn’t, then he isn’t a man. And Bruce made his decision.’

I smiled. I knew what he meant, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it like that.

‘Thinking about the summit, my one miscalculation was to assume we would all reach the summit together, or that I’d be the back marker,’ said Ian.

As the hours wore on sleep still eluded me. We were only 36 hours away from the summit that all six had reached, one by one. And only a day away from the base where we would have to rejoin a world filled with other people. I felt sick and restless, and battled to breathe. Initially, Ian tried to comfort me, but I could feel his restlessness and then irritation at my continued movement.

‘Get angry,’ he told me. ‘Channel your pain into anger.’

‘No,’ I replied, horrified at the thought. I saw anger as destructive. 

‘Well, for God’s sake, don’t get all girlie on me,’ he said. ‘Not yet. We’re not off the mountain yet.’

‘Sod off, Ian.’

I immediately got angry, with him. Who was he to assume that ‘girlie’ emotions were weak? That if I didn’t suppress them I might not be able to get myself off the mountain safely? Was his bottled-up anger and hurt and fear a better, stronger way of coping?

How could he be both so compassionate and so chauvinistic? As we lay together in the tent I felt so far away from him and his understandings of this mountain, as if we really did originate from different planets. But it worked. In my anger with him, my distress eased and sleep eventually came.

The western cwm had changed dramatically with the rising temperatures and had many more crevasses. This time there was no stopping to gaze at the beautiful scenery. I moved on as quickly as possible. This time it was really over, and it was time to get on home.

The icefall was melting around us, becoming ever more unstable. However, the gigantic overhang of blue ice still stood. We worked our way past it as quickly as exhaustion would allow. Many things had collapsed around it, but this edifice still stood. In the end, the mountain was beyond the prediction of the humans that trod upon it.

We walked on together, over the endless glacier.  In the distance, I saw our camp, with the South African flag hanging at half-mast. Philip, who had been sitting on a rock for hours waiting for us, walked towards us. I saw the concern in his eyes as he took in our emaciated figures and exhausted faces.

He hugged me and shook Ian’s hand. We walked on together in silence. All the staff had come out to greet us. They stood around awkwardly, not sure whether to offer congratulations or commiserations. Everyone desperately wanted to know all that had transpired in the last 72 hours. How could we explain it all, to people who had never been there? Words became inadequate. 

The silence was broken by a cannon-like crack followed by the swelling roar of an avalanche. An enormous piece of serac was crashing down towards the glacier. I grabbed my camera and finally managed to photograph an avalanche in action. I thought with a smile of Bruce, who had tried so often to capture the avalanches around base camp but, because he’d always had to dive into his tent to find his Canon, had never succeeded. Now I had it, and I would never be able to show him.

‘Well, I guess that’s the mountain declaring that Everest is now officially closed,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Ian replied. ‘The last man is off the mountain and it’s time to go home.’

 I disappeared into my tent for a total wash, or the best that could be done with a bowl of lukewarm water and a flannel. I peeled off layer after layer of clothing that had not been removed in weeks, to discover the strange phenomenon of a body beneath. My hands were the colour of ochre, my forearms little lighter, while the rest of my body was so white it resembled a grub reluctantly dragged to the surface. Everything was so thin. My skin was stretched as tight as a drum top across my ribs. My forearms were stick bundles of sinew and muscle. I felt as if every bone was filled with lead, every muscle reduced to cotton wool. But at last, it was over.

Over but not gone. That night I slid awake to find myself wrapped up in a knot in my sleeping bag, sweating from the unaccustomed heat of base camp. Tangled wisps from some incredibly complicated dream about what had happened on the mountain still hovered in my mind. All I knew was that the dream had it all wrong. That wasn’t the way it had happened. Even as I was dreaming I knew it was wrong but found myself powerless to stop the dream, unable to pinpoint the problem, powerless to explain ...

Yet it was still far better to be on the mountain sharing the experience to the full than to be stuck at home, waiting. Our pain was not for the person we had lost, but for ourselves, left to live our lives without him.

The next few days were depressing, as we prepared to leave. It was like being the last people at a party, surrounded by empty beer cans and dirty plates. The music and laughter had left with the guests and there was nothing to do but start clearing up the mess.

Base camp had changed dramatically. The glacier surface was melting and the tents now stood on ice pedestals, like strange mushroom houses. Avalanche and rock-fall became ever more common. Giant boulders left teetering on narrow stems of ice crashed down one by one. Even the tents began to become lopsided as the ice beneath them melted. It felt like still living in a house when the demolition squad had already started work.

Life moved on. As each climber got a chance to shrug off his climbing clothing and clean up a little, new people emerged. A wash altered Ang Dorje’s matted mass of black hair to a chaos of curls, which, combined with some clean clothing, transformed him from the hard-man sirdar to the urban playboy. His teenage son had walked up to base camp to meet his old man. The son was the mirror image of his handsome father, and clearly soon to be something of a heartbreaker in the villages. Now he was enjoying the reflected glory and fame of his dad, telling everyone he met that his father had just reached the summit of Everest. 

Pemba walked round camp sparkling clean and shirtless, enjoying the sun on his skin. The months on the mountain had left him with a lean, muscled torso. Various local women had arrived at the camp to help carry loads down the trail and to bargain for expedition leftovers. They were clearly impressed. Of all the Sherpas, the change in him was the greatest. A shy young man on his arrival at base camp, cautious in the company of Westerners, his confidence had grown in leaps and bounds as he progressed up the mountain. Returning now with the summit tucked under his belt, he had the air of a seasoned mountaineer.

However, we could not stay within the confines of our little group forever. From the moment of the official announcement all contact with the press had been stopped. We had been able to take some time to come to terms ourselves with all that had happened, without having to display our grief and justify our decisions to the world at large. Nevertheless, the world at large was waiting impatiently. Speculation was rife and South Africa was suddenly full of instant experts, sitting comfortably in their armchairs and air-conditioned offices, each with their own opinion to put forward.

Chris Bonnington, who had led five Everest expeditions, and had reached the summit once, said we should not accept any feelings of guilt, that Bruce was determined to climb to the summit. ‘It was a risk he took. I mean, he obviously pushed it to the limit. I suspect he pushed a lot, lot further than was wise. And he paid the price.’

Bruce’s girlfriend, Sue, described Bruce as, ‘an extremely sensible person. Which, I can understand, may make many people wonder why he went for the summit so late in the day. As I say, I have no answer to that apart from the fact that he clearly thought he could do it. And when I spoke to him on the summit he believed he could get down.’ The news quoted her as saying that the leadership abilities of Ian were not in question, and that Bruce had been fully behind him.

I was the first of the team to speak to Radio 702. My innate instinct, not discussed with the others, was to defend Bruce and his decision. He was not there to do it for himself, so we, as his friends, did it for him. I did not discuss my and Ian’s misgivings about Bruce’s choice, and Ian’s attempt to get Bruce to turn round. Ian was to do the same. We could have saved ourselves a lot of criticism if we had dumped all responsibility on Bruce’s absent shoulders, claiming he had gone on despite our attempts to persuade him otherwise. However, we had stood by each other for too long by now to take any easy escapes.

The presenter asked his final question: ‘Cathy, there is no doubt that you’ve made history by becoming the first woman on Everest from South Africa, and Africa. Will you do it again?’

My answer was categorical: ‘No, never! There’s no way. I’m never coming back.’

I told him that I had had some of the best days of my life up on the mountain with Ian and Bruce, but that I wouldn’t be coming back to Everest again. I thought then that the Everest saga was reaching the end of its place in my life. I had no inkling that I was barely finishing the first act.

When Ian went onto the radio, the talk was of Bruce once again. As I had, Ian defended Bruce’s decision to the hilt. 

‘The Mountain Club of South Africa, according to the newspapers today, are very, very critical of the decision to let Bruce climb alone,’ the presenter said. They were saying it was very unfortunate that Ian had not tried to dissuade Bruce from going for the summit.

Ian’s anger was clearly rising, but he managed to contain himself.

‘Well, quite frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, the Mountain Club of South Africa could not organise a piss-up in a brewery. They have never been to Everest. Not a single member of their club has been to Everest. They have no idea what they are talking about.’

Once more he defended Bruce’s right to make his own decisions and maintained that those who sat 11,000 miles away, with little relevant experience, had no right to tell a mountaineer what he might or might not do.

I, the only one on the team to be a member of the Mountain Club, listened with some amusement. I could imagine the big fish in South Africa’s small puddle wedged comfortably into their armchairs pontificating on issues of which they had little knowledge and no personal experience.

The interview over, Ian turned on me, his face dark red with anger, going on about ‘your mates in the MCSA.’ What do you mean, my mates, I thought. All I was was a member. How could he suddenly lump me in with those guys? Bruce was my friend too.

Tempted though I was to yell back at him I simply walked past him in silence. I followed the uneven path back to my tent, to find that in my absence the Sherpas had taken down Bruce’s tent which had stood next to mine. All that remained was a flat rock platform. I stood in the middle of it shaking with anger. Part of me wanted to go back and tell Ian it wasn’t fair, but I knew that our mutual stress would end up in an argument. Of all people, he wasn’t the one I wished to be fighting with.

About an hour later, Ian crouched down at the door of my tent, shoulders slumped, looking deadly tired. 

‘I’m sorry, Caths. But after months of criticism to be told I am responsible for the death of my best friend is just too much. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.’

I could see the misery written in his face. We looked at each other with exhausted eyes, and sat together in silence for a few minutes.

On 30 May, we left base camp for the last time to go down now, rather than up. Once past the end of Khumbu glacier I pulled ahead, finding joyful release in stretching my legs. My muscles moved with such ease, with the fluidity of many days in the mountains. The air was getting thicker with each step, until it was like breathing soup. Fit and acclimatised, I felt like a sports car in fifth gear, just cruising. I felt so light. Physically, to walk without the weight of mountaineering boots and crampons, without the constricting bulk of heavy clothing, without soft snow and heavy rucksack, meant I felt as if I were floating down the trail. And mentally, I had not realised how much of a burden had been lifted from me by the culmination of the expedition. I felt weightless in spirit.

I walked swiftly down the slopes towards Pheriche. A stream ran across the valley floor, the icy clear water meandering between verdant grass tufts. Silky black yaks grazed on the rich foliage. On either side of the green valley great hillsides rose, a thousand shades of brown. Several giant ice peaks dominated the horizon in front of me, immense silver ridges rising up to impossibly small summits. They were partially veiled in mist, mysterious, ethereal beings from another world.

It was all so beautiful and I felt absorbed by all of it. I felt high on being alive. 

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