Chapter 8

The end of the beginning

The days of walking from base camp down to the nearest airstrip were a brief time of peace and relaxation, before we tackled the outside world once more. I walked slowly through the woods before Tengboche, savouring the sight of greenery and trees after so many days of rock and ice. The previous night I had lain rereading parts of my diary, including the section where I, sick with bronchitis, had walked back down to Namche Bazar to recover, while the rest of the team moved on up towards Lobuche.

I had written: ‘As I walked down I wondered how it would feel when I walked down that path for the last time. Would I bypass it altogether, choppered out ill or injured? Would I be elated with success, depressed by failure or by tragedy with one of the other members, just relieved to finally get out or sorry that it was all over?’

Now I had reached that point that I had once speculated about, walking down for the last time. I felt a funny combination of the elation of my personal success, and of Ian’s success, and the tragedy of losing Bruce. On top of it lay the whole emotional cocktail of the expedition experience. I passed, too, the various scenes of the squabbles among the team members. I was glad I had stuck it out. For all that had happened, I would rather have been part of it than be sulking back in South Africa. The knowledge I had gained about mountains, about people, about myself, was beyond price. 

The first focus of the walk-out was the little wooden bakery that nestled among the stone houses of Khumjung. The vision of freshly baked bread kept me powering up the steep hill of the Dudh Kosi valley. I managed to dispatch two croissants and three cinnamon buns before Ian and Philip arrived. They manfully took on the challenge of catching up with me, while we waited for Patrick and Deshun.  As we sat on the cushioned benches, the smell of fresh bread and roast coffee filling the small room, it was as if we were crossing through a door, from the rigours of expedition living to the comforts of modern conveniences.

The next lure was the helipad at Syangboche and the thought of being whisked away to the luxuries of Kathmandu, starting with the hot showers, followed by clean clothes and restaurants. We arrived to find the landing strip misted in and the IMAX team sitting sulking in the lodge. We waited for the rest of the afternoon, and the following morning. The clouds did not lift an inch. Nor did the faces of the IMAX crew. No amount of US dollars could buy a helicopter when the mountains were submersed in the monsoon clouds. 

We abandoned them to their weather watching and hared off down the trail towards the next landing strip, at Lukla. We arrived in pouring rain as darkness fell. Although not quite a Kathmandu restaurant, the lodge did offer a selection of meals on the menu. We swiftly put away double helpings of spaghetti carbonara before collapsing into bed. I only emerged from my room at 2 p.m. the next day. The others were doing little more, lying semi-horizontal on the benches of the lodge dining room.

Only now, when we had at last stopped moving, did I realise how deeply physically and mentally tired I was. We teased Patrick about having to walk the week to Jiri to catch a bus, because no more flights would be possible in the monsoon.  But in reality we would have sat out the monsoon waiting for a chopper, rather than take another step. In the end we had only to wait 24 hours.

We arrived in Kathmandu, a lean, sunburnt, weary crew. At the entrance to the hotel was a giant banner: ‘Congratulation (sic) to South African Everest Expedition 1996 for successful summited (sic) to Mount Everest. Hotel Harati and family.’ The owner and his family were waiting at the door with garlands of flowers. We each received a prayer scarf and the red mark on the forehead.

Once the welcome was over, we all made a wild rush for the showers. Between us, we used up most of the hotel’s hot water in the space of a few hours. The hot, clean liquid streamed over my head, through my hair, down my skin. I was washing away weeks of accumulated dirt, sweat, suntan lotion and mental stress.

Although expedition accounts often end at a point such as this, leaving the members to disappear happily into the sunset, life offers no such easy options. The ripples created by this expedition would continue to wash across the shores of my life for many months. Bruce left us an unhappy legacy in his family. His avoidance of confrontation with his loved ones was now to come back to haunt us. His girlfriend, Sue Thompson, spent several unpleasant days with us in Kathmandu. She was understandably devastated by his death. However, she was also eaten up with bitterness. I tried to tell her how much fun he had had in the last two months of his life. I tried to convey to her Bruce’s excitement and pride in reaching the summit. I might as well have been telling her he spent those last two months happily entwined in the arms of another woman.  Although she considered his decisions on the summit day to have been his responsibility, overall she felt that if he had not been on our expedition, he would still be alive. Therefore, we, and more specifically Ian, had killed him. In our own turmoil over his death, none of us had the patience to deal calmly with her emotional problems. Our parting was not cordial. 

Bruce had made the problem worse by not telling his family that he was going to climb Everest. The rest of us had been in regular contact with our relatives via satellite phone. However, Bruce’s family was not a close one. Sue only finally told his mother a few days before he reached the summit. Having been given no preparation for the concept of tackling Everest, they were completely bewildered by the whole affair. His financial affairs were not in order, either, which led to squabbling over money. It was all a rather sad end to a lovely life. 

Back in South Africa, there was something of a media war going on about whether or not Ian should have let Bruce climb on. Unsurprisingly, it was headed by the Sunday Times. There was little attempt made to contact us in Kathmandu to discuss the matter. It was seemingly much more satisfying to speculate wildly in our absence. In these circumstances, the first fax to come through from a newspaper back home was read with some interest. 

The Star newspaper of Johannesburg prided itself on providing quality journalism. In the midst of the triumph and tragedy, the success and death, the on-going controversy, their journalists had one burning question on their minds.

‘Is it true that you are romantically involved with Ian Woodall?’ 

However, there was not going to be any wildly romantic homecoming. Although the attraction between Ian and I was still strong, it was buried beneath the pressures of the expedition aftermath. We did want to continue climbing together. I liked Ian’s style, the way he climbed, the way he organised, the way he interacted with the Sherpas. I respected his intense drive, and constant barrage of new ideas. Phrases like ‘it’s never been done like that before’ and ‘if that idea was going to work someone else would have done it already’ simply didn’t exist in his universe. He had a confidence I admired, and an arrogance I disliked. He drove me crazy at times, but life was more interesting with him around. We were exploring the possibilities of setting up a small company, something through which we could channel any proceeds that came from this expedition, and which we could use in the organisation and funding of future expeditions. 

It was a considerable undertaking, a departure in a whole new direction for both of us. To lumber the fledgling partnership with the emotional swings of a love affair was too risky. We backed off from one another. 

One television programme did finally get their act together to fly out a crew to interview us in Kathmandu. The best bit of their trip was being flown back to base camp in a helicopter. As the chopper swung up the narrow Himalayan valleys, I began to see, for the first time, how all the valleys I had toiled up fitted together. We flew so low I could see the footpaths I had walked on. We covered a day stage in a matter of four or five minutes, which was both exhilarating and depressing. 

Base camp was a truly bleak place. There were no signs left of the teams that had been living there. It was a desert of rock and ice, without colour, without life. The mountain above was wreathed in leaden monsoon cloud. I was sure then that I would never be coming back to Everest. 

The worst of the television crew’s trip was my growing realisation of how tricky it was going to be to convey to people the reality of Everest. I found it immensely difficult to put into words what it had been like, physically, emotionally, to be so high on the mountain, to be so close to the edge of life.

I was only just beginning to learn what it would mean to have a ‘public image’. I had not yet fully appreciated that there were thousands of people out there, whom I had never met, who now had opinions on my character and my choices. In the television programme that was subsequently produced, I was criticised for smiling when I talked about Bruce. Smiling made sense to me. I had liked him, a lot. Apparently, I should have been in tears. That I wasn’t proved I was callous. 

I learnt a lot in the subsequent months about dealing with the media. Much of it was disillusioning. I had trained as a journalist, and had lectured to trainee journalists. I had never worked in the industry. There is an idealism about student journalists, a conviction that they are entering a profession that has more meaning to it than being an accountant. The reality of the profession was rather more sordid than that. From a small section of the media fraternity came heavily biased reporting, putting paid to any notion of ‘objectivity’ as a journalistic standard. Dealing with straight lies from journalists who were trying to prove an angle was illuminating. However, most were simply poor at their jobs. They had done no research on the subject, their writing was sloppy, their facts seldom thoroughly checked. Research generally meant copying what fellow journalists had written before them. Thus the same errors were endlessly repeated.

Perhaps most frustrating was the ingrained need of journalists to simplify life into easily understandable stereotypes. At first I was greeted as a kind of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, the girl from nowhere who climbed the highest mountain in the world. When it became clear I was not a sweet malleable soul who was going to weep on some reporter’s shoulder and give her the inside story on how I climbed Everest despite that devil-incarnate Ian Woodall, things changed. Then I was a callous bitch, stepping over bodies in search of personal glory. There was no room to be just an ordinary person, with good and bad sides, complex, nuanced, human. 

The reactions I encountered from the general public on my return to South Africa varied wildly. There was the woman who cornered me at an outdoor show, and told me that there was life out there, beyond our planet, and the mission of the human race was to make contact with them. By my ascent of Everest I had proved I was the one destined to lead this God-ordained mission. 

Then there was the internet site that gave a long list of reasons why our summit photograph was faked. It started with the fact that we were wearing fleece jackets and ‘everyone’ knew the summit of Everest was too cold to survive in just fleece.

Most people were more sensibly somewhere in the middle. Many were proud of the achievement and admired our endeavour; many were bewildered by Bruce’s death. With little mountaineering history in South Africa, certainly when compared with a country like Britain, for many people this was their first encounter with mountain climbing as a sport. However, great though the hullabaloo was, it had to be kept in perspective. Ours is a country where the national rugby coach gets death threats if he fires a popular captain. We didn’t even merit hate mail. 

We weren’t the only team, or the only country, to be facing up to the new-found public interest in Everest. The 1996 season embedded Everest firmly in the consciousness of the general public, for better or for worse. Several things happened at once to create that situation. For the first time the Nepalese government had allowed a large number of teams onto the classic south col route. As most teams have some kind of sponsorship, or coverage in their home countries, there was considerable media access to base camp. For the first time, teams were running websites about their expeditions, with updates every few days. The public was able to follow an expedition as it unfolded. 

And then, in the middle of all this, a journalist walked straight into a sensational story. Commissioned by Outside magazine to write an article critical of commercial expeditions on Everest, Jon Krakauer was a member of Rob Hall’s team. The team contained everyone from a postman to a New York socialite. Then the killer storm hit. Jon Krakauer was in the middle of it. Three guides died, two famous ones, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Two clients died. He survived, as did others. He wrote a best-selling book, generally blaming everyone involved. Having done little himself to help, he nevertheless criticised Anatoli Boukreev, an immensely experienced Russian guide on Scott’s team, who had rescued three people. Anatoli bit back with his own book, and was then killed climbing on Annapurna. The American television talk shows were packed with journalists and with survivors. Discussion forums sprung up on the web, filled with speculation by people who knew very little about it all. It began to rival the assassination of JF Kennedy for conspiracy theories. Everest had become a spectator sport.

As climbers we certainly bear some responsibility for that. We were not the only team to have invited the media in to record the expedition. Not surprisingly, it all gets more interesting to outsiders when things go wrong. It is like watching Grand Prix racing for the crashes. However, given the expense of climbing Everest, an expense largely imposed in the form of permit fees by the controlling governments, sponsorship is inevitable and that means media. Even when climbers have bought places on commercial expeditions, they have normally raised sponsorship to do so. Perhaps all we can ask is for a greater degree of research, and of accuracy of reporting, from the watching media. 

The next year was one of change and opportunity. Although it proved difficult to concentrate on something that had suddenly become so much in my past, I did the final corrections on my thesis and was awarded my degree. I moved back to Johannesburg, where Ian and I set up a base for our new company. We called it Free To Decide, from a song by the Cranberries. The song had become something of a theme song for the expedition, expressing what we felt we had taken away from the whole experience. We wanted, for better or for worse, to carve out our own destinies. In the course of this year, Clare Ellis, a tough, talented, and above all sensible woman, joined us in the business. She had no pretensions to climbing mountains, and was to become the rock of common sense on which our wilder plans would be founded.

During that year I got to meet many groups of South African society, talking to them about Everest. I received many letters from school children. The worst came from girls in early primary school, saying they were so impressed that a woman could do such a thing. It depressed me that girls so young should already have such fixed ideas about what women could and could not do with their lives. I wanted to shake them and tell them they could strive for anything they wanted. That is not the same as saying they could achieve anything they wanted. Saying that is simply motivational ‘rah-rah’, uplifting for a few hours and depressing the next morning when you realise life is full of the same old obstacles. However, there is no doubt that we can achieve far more than we allow ourselves to dream of. The barriers we encounter in realising our potential are, more often than not, self-imposed. If we start by removing those, we find far fewer real barriers than we had expected. 

What I enjoyed more was talking to teenage boys. I liked rattling the cages of their adolescent chauvinism, and challenging them to explain to me why chasing a ball round a rugby field was a completely logical activity while climbing mountains was madness. 

I spoke to deprived children from the townships, as well as to captains of industry. Everywhere there was a fascination with the challenge of the mountain, and a general assumption that I was a nice girl, but crazy. I loved telling the story, showing the photographs. I cut my teeth lecturing the history of the South African media to bored 18-year-olds. Anything was easier than that and my confidence grew in leaps and bounds. 

I was learning, too, that to strive to please everyone, all the time, was to be a doormat. And people would still complain about the quality of the doormat. The quiet schoolgirl who only wanted to do as she was told was beginning to get a bit of attitude. There was too much potential to life to be wasting time trying to be everything to everybody. 

Ian and I began to write a book together about the 1996 expedition. It proved a testing task, merging my creativity with his. However, our egos only clashed occasionally. In many ways it proved a therapeutic activity. In the turmoil of Bruce’s death, much of the joy of the earlier days on the expedition had become submerged. In writing about those days, I rediscovered the excitement, the pleasure of the mountain. Plans for future trips began to emerge.

However, there was one thing to be done first. Knowing there would never be a grave, we wanted to build a memorial for Bruce in the shadow of Everest. We returned to Nepal in April of 1997 with a mixed group. Some were members of our families who wanted to finally see this famous mountain that had cast such a deep shadow over their lives for the past 18 months. Also with us was a group of boys from a Pretoria school. One had knocked his head in a rugby match the week before we left South Africa. The medics, checking for signs of concussion, asked him what he would be doing the following weekend. On being told he was going to Mount Everest, they promptly shipped him off to hospital. The final member of the group was Jan Horn, the film director who had been with us on Kilimanjaro. He had not been able to film the actual expedition and had jumped at this chance to get into the mountains and see a little of what we had been through.

It was a strange trip. In some ways it was hard. In a sense we were on our way to a funeral. We were also retracing the steps of what had been an emotionally laden experience. In other ways it was great fun. We were simply there to walk, without the pressure of a massive mountain challenge looming at the end of the trek. The boys ranged in age from 12 to 16. Some had never left South Africa before. On the flight out the film Daylight was playing. One line ran: ‘my son went on trek to Nepal and died of fever’. Eight pairs of young eyes turned to stare in trepidation at Ian. 

To see Nepal through their eyes was fascinating, the excitement and apprehension of the unknown being very fresh with them. They assumed the hills round Kathmandu were the Himalaya and wanted to know where the snow was. They ran round the hotel dressed up in their thermal underwear and down jackets, demanding to know why it wasn’t cold. However, as we began to move up into the true mountains, their eyes got larger and the talk got smaller. 

We walked up to Namche Bazar and on to Tengboche in cloud. The next morning dawned completely clear, to reveal the Everest massif sitting huge on the horizon, heavy with snow. The cameras went crazy. 

I found it strange looking up at the mountain. I had no sense of having ‘conquered’ it, even of having climbed to its summit. It felt like a dream, or a book I had read a long time ago. It was such an impersonal lump of rock, around which such a broth of human emotions boiled. 

No one was camped at our old base camp and the only way we found the site was by placing it against landmarks on the horizon. We walked slowly up the glacier, watching the surrounding mountains, until suddenly the panorama slid into the old, so familiar formation that we had seen each day from our base camp mess tent. The site was no more than a pile of rocky rubble.

In the distance were the tents of other expeditions. Both Mal Duff and Henry Todd were back with expeditions, and there were a few climbers who had not reached the summit in 1996 and were trying again, including Neil Laughton. 

Ian’s sister and brother-in-law were both eager to see base camp, to experience in reality what they had listened to so closely over the radio. However, we found it impossible to give them that. It was the site but not the ‘base camp’ that had been ours. It was another year, another group of climbers, another challenge. Our year had been and gone, and all that was left were photographs and memories.

We built a stone memorial on top of a grassy knoll, just beyond Gorak Shep. It stood in the middle of a giant horseshoe of mountains dominated by Nuptse and Everest, and broken only by the Khumbu glacier as it swept down and away from the icefall. For two days, two stone masons had sat on that hilltop, with chisels and hammers, cutting the nearby rocks into smooth squares that could be stacked on top of one another. Set into the side that looked out onto Everest were photographs of Bruce and a stone carved in his memory. The stone had been carried for four days up the trail.

A lama came from the Tengboche monastery to perform Buddhist rites. He sat cross-legged on the icy grass, his port-red robes arranged decorously over his grey and red padded mountaineering jacket. From beneath the robes, thick, woolly socks and leather boots protruded.

Spread out in front of him, were the implements of his craft - the metal bell, the incense sticks, the bowls of rice and oil. He read from complex papers covered in Sanskrit script, the words running into each other as his voice rose and sank in an endless plainsong chant. Hidden in the words was an understanding of life, death and the Himalaya that was far beyond us mere Westerners. It was an understanding that Bruce had sought to comprehend during his many trips to Nepal. 

We sat bundled up in our giant, blue down jackets and black fleecy salopettes, in woolly hats and gloves. Sherpas who had known Bruce, and who had made the pilgrimage to join this memorial, stood silently around us. A bitter wind swept up the valley, swirling round the stone memorial, penetrating every chink of our clothing. A weak sun shone down, illuminating the scene but providing no warmth. 

Slowly, wispy clouds crept up the valley and the peaks around them gradually vanished behind misty veils. Even the lama began to feel the chill and hurried through the remainder of the ceremony so that he could retreat to the warmth of the smoky lodge in Gorak Shep. 

It struck me that the ceremony would have appealed to Bruce’s sense of humour, all of us standing around, freezing our butts off, listening to a whole lot of chanting we didn’t understand. 

 The following day the wind had died, the clouds gone. The sun shone down on the small hilltop with welcome warmth. The great sweeps of Nuptse gleamed as if made of burnished silver, while their knife-like edges glinted gold in the sunlight. Lesser mountains ran round them in a huge circle, sparkling in the crystalline air. The sky swept over the mountains in a monumental blue arc.

We returned to the memorial to perform our own ceremony, spoken in the language we understood. The tension was palpable. Suffering and success seemed so inextricably interlinked in all we had done. When it came to my turn to speak, I began to recite from memory a poem written by another climber for another climber, somewhere else in the world. But the sentiments remained the same.

I would give all the world to have you back,

Remember you not in a photograph,

But in your smiling eyes and wild ideal.

And yet I would not pay a price too high:

I would not dream of asking you to change.

I first saw the poem stuck to the wall of London flat, a flat I was sharing with three other mountaineers. Two years later, one of them found the bodies of the other two lying, still, at the foot of a great ice-face in Peru. I had turned to the poem then to give voice to the complexity of my feelings about death in the mountains, just as I did now ...

If you were with me now, I would still help,

Encourage you to reach for the mountain tops,

 Would watch you strive for where you should not go.

And you would go again and die again,

And I would cry - cry how much more

If you should ever cease to be yourself.

Ian’s voice filled the ensuing silence. For a man so self-contained, he expressed his pain with a raw honesty that, for the first time that day, reduced me to tears.

For taking in the rain when I’m feeling so dry,

For giving me the answers when I’m asking you why,

And my-oh-my, for that I thank you.

For taking in the sun when I’m feeling so cold,

For giving me a chance when my body is old,

And don’t you know, for that I need you.

Oh! but most of all, for crying out loud, for that I miss you.

Oh! but most of all, for crying out loud, for that I love you.

Back in Kathmandu we heard of a rumour that was running on the internet. An Indonesian team had become the first climbers to reach the summit from the south side since we had done it 11 months previously and they were said to have come upon Bruce’s body. We found it difficult to believe. We had always thought his radio silence probably indicated a fall. And even if he had died on the ridge, we couldn’t see why the winds of the monsoon, or of winter, had not dislodged the body. We wondered if they might have mistaken Rob Hall for Bruce.

As soon as the Indonesians returned to Kathmandu, we arranged to speak to Apa Sherpa, the Indonesian’s sirdar. A highly experienced mountaineer, he had just reached the summit of Everest for the eighth time. We walked in tense silence through the crowded Kathmandu streets towards his hotel. The hubbub of Nepal’s capital city rose all around us, as we dodged rickshaws, cars, cows and people. The streets were filled with the dense smells of food, dust and animals. The heat of approaching summer beat down on the urban chaos. We saw none of it. 

We found Apa in the lobby of the team’s hotel, surrounded by piles of equipment just ferried back from the mountain. Seated together on the shabby lobby lounge suite, Ian asked him to take us through his summit day, from the south col to where he thought Bruce’s body might be. Apa Sherpa described how he had come over the south summit. He had expected to see Rob Hall’s body, but it was covered over with snow. He had then started to climb along the ridge towards Hillary Step. It was very narrow, very dangerous. At the foot of the step he saw a man sitting. He wore a blue down suit and a red rucksack.

We had our answer. It had to be Bruce. 

Apa said he was clipped on to one of the fixed ropes on the Hillary Step with a jumar and that his face was mostly covered by the oxygen mask. There were no other signs of what had gone wrong.

So we still had no answers, just a whole lot more unanswered questions. Why hadn’t he called us on the radio? Why had he stopped there? We were going to have to learn to live with that. At least we now knew where he was. We were not going to have to deal with unconfirmed sightings every few years, as happens with some mountaineers who go missing.

It was a low moment in the assessment of our mountaineering future, particularly for Ian. When Bruce and he had stumbled onto the south col in the middle of that mini-storm on 9 May 1996, he had taken shelter with Scott Fischer and his sirdar, Lobsang Sherpa. Bruce had sheltered with Rob Hall and one of his guides, Andy Harris. A year later, of those six climbers, Ian was the only one left alive. Rob Hall, Andy Harris and Scott Fischer had died in the great storm. Lobsang Sherpa had been killed in an avalanche while climbing above Everest’s camp 3 in the autumn season of 1996.

To make matters worse, news had come down from base camp that Mal Duff was dead. He had passed away in his sleep in his base camp tent. Mal had started Ian on his expedition career. In the space of a year Ian had lost his two closest friends. He felt it was time to take stock, to ask if continuing to do this was the right choice.

It was a choice we had to face up to rapidly. We had been spending time in Kathmandu chasing permits for other mountains, for future projects. However, no challenge came without risk.

I tried to work through the muddle of my own feelings on the subject. Presumably we would all in the end reach our own limit, decide we had had enough. I have never been able to come up with a pat answer to the question ‘why do you do it?’ The famous way of avoiding the subject is to trot out the answer attributed to George Mallory: ‘Because it’s there’. I think it is more like ‘because we’re here’. It is part of a drive, in whatever form, to challenge our limits, to try to express the infinite potential we carry within us. That drive is part of what it means to be human and everyone is free to decide what risks are worth it for them.

The last twist in Bruce’s tale came a few weeks later. A British team retrieved his camera from his rucksack and gave the film to Sue Thompson. It turned out to contain only a few shots, all the same scene, a self-portrait taken on the summit.

It was a beautiful photograph. Bruce’s face grinned out at us, still in his green South African beanie and his blue down jacket. His face was split in a smile, his eyes screwed up as they always were when he was happy. The joy of his spirit shone through as brightly as ever. Next to him were a metal tripod and a blaze of Buddhist prayer flags. Behind and far below him was a curving horizon. 

Maybe it was worth it after all. ‘So chuffed’ was how he had put it on the radio to us. And ‘a long time coming’. He looked fit and happy and proud. My only lasting regret was that I hadn’t told him over the radio how proud I was of him. 

Maybe the answer to why we did these things was simpler than all the in-depth explanations, the esoteric justifications. Maybe we just did it for the love of it.

The love of mountains wasn’t the only thing we had rediscovered in Kathmandu. The attraction between Ian and myself had never died out completely. We were finally safely beyond the stresses of the 1996 expedition, more confident in where we wanted to go with our futures. We gave up trying to ignore the obvious and began to move tentatively down the path of romantic involvement. The media interest in us had not died completely and we kept it all very quiet.

The question was now looming of what we did next. We felt we had now put Everest to bed. It was time to move on. The mountain that shimmered all the while in the far distance was K2, the world’s second highest peak, in Pakistan. It is a far harder challenge than Everest, in all respects – technical difficulty, weather, logistics. However, it is an incredibly beautiful mountain, a pyramid of ice in the heart of the Karakorum range. It is an alluring challenge. 

If we were to do that at some time in the future, we needed to gain more high-altitude experience. We tossed around all sorts of ideas - mountains in Pakistan, in Nepal, in Tibet. We would decide on one for a while, and then would start considering other plans again. At the heart of the problem was the need to pay for the expedition. Nothing was cheap, and the steady decline of our currency did not help the situation. 

Trying to raise money for mountaineering in South Africa is not easy. We have a meagre mountaineering history and it is not a well-known activity among the public. If you mention the likes of Kangchenjunga or Makalu, you might as well be talking about a brand of Japanese car, or the new strain of Asian flu. One day we hoped to be free of the need to use sponsorship money to pay for big mountains, but we weren’t there yet. 

Of course, Everest was very well known, and the fascination with it continued. But there was no point in going back to Everest. Or was there?

There was one possibility, which became increasingly interesting. Everest is a three-sided pyramid. We had climbed it from the south side, the side that rose out of Nepal. We had ended up on the south-east ridge. This was the route by which the mountain had been first climbed, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953. It was considered to be the most straightforward route on the mountain.

However, there was another famous route, rising out of Tibet to find a way up the north side of the pyramid. This was the route, pioneered by the British in the early twenties, on which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were famously lost in 1924. They were last seen on their way up, a few hundred metres below the summit. The mystery had always been whether they had reached the summit before they were killed. If they had indeed done so, they would have made the first ascent, 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing. The first officially confirmed ascent of the route was by the Chinese in 1960.They followed the north ridge, cut across the north face and finally ended up on the north-east ridge. It is a steep climb, very exposed to wind, with rock difficulties on the final ridge. It is a more challenging route than the south, climbed less often. 

It is so different from the south side that it may have well be the slopes of a different mountain altogether. Or that was how the justification began to run as Everest sidled quietly into our field of view. 

There was no great decision to return to Everest, no driving ambition to climb it again. I just wanted to go climbing, to gain more high-altitude experience, to get back to the Himalaya. This was the solution that presented itself. Not surprisingly, raising a lot of money for Everest proved easier than raising a smaller amount for a less well-known mountain. However, it is never easy. It took us six months of work, and many, many closed doors, before we finally reached our budget. Big expeditions are in fact made up of two mountains, set back-to-back. You have made the summit of the first mountain when you step on the plane that will take you to the foot of the second one. It is as much of a challenge to climb the first one, and in some ways far more work. 

I was busy finishing the book while Clare and Ian knocked on doors, looking for money. More than once I felt ready to pull the plug on the whole plan. However, Ian ploughed on with his characteristic determination. His persistence was finally rewarded. We had the money not just to climb the mountain but to offer two sponsored places on the team and to run a selection expedition to Aconcagua. 

We were off to Everest, once again. 


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