Chapter 9

The white wind

We walked up an eroded hillside, slipping on the moist earth. The road below us cut an ugly swathe through the drab brown mountains. The village of Puenta del Inca sprawled next to it, a scruffy collection of small buildings. It was a far cry from the magnificence of the Himalaya. Then we reached the mouth of a valley and turned into it. The path curved round a small lake, a turquoise jewel reflecting the cotton-wool clouds. A grass-clad corridor led towards an immense squat mountain, a magnificent presence. It brooded upon the earth like a vast cake, brown-sided and with a cover of icing on the top. This was Aconcagua, highest mountain in the Americas, and the start of our 1998 expedition programme. 

We were admittedly looking at the edge of the formidable south face, which was not a challenge we were about to tackle. I had heard it described as the equivalent of several Eiger north faces, piled one above the other. We were going to skirt round the side to reach the west slope of the mountain, a far gentler climb. 

This expedition was in some ways the equivalent of the Kilimanjaro trip in 1996. We had with us six South Africans, who were on the short-list for selection for the two open places on our Everest expedition. For Ian and me this was part of our build-up to Everest, as it was for Jan Horn, who was finally going to realise his dream. He had filmed the Kilimanjaro trip and the memorial trek in Nepal. Now he would be in charge of filming on Everest. I was the keen young thing who was going to have to get the high-altitude footage, under his direction. 

The initial hours of walking were lovely, up the lush valley floor, by the side of the pebble-filled river. Two dogs of medium size and indeterminate breed, one blonde, one brindled, had joined us. They gambolled up the valley, unconcerned by stiff boots, heavy packs or the growing altitude. 

Gradually, though, the grassy fields faded into the distance. Mammoth slopes of brown scree rose above us. Tottering pinnacles towered over that, with rock bands contorted into giant curves by ancient geological forces of unbelievable power. The sun was excluded from the valley. The wind began to rise and snow to fall. The air was icy cold, and getting progressively thinner. The first to succumb was Hennie van Heerden, the gentle giant. He was a massive man, a prison warder, friendly, talkative, sometimes too talkative. He had been radiating excitement ever since he had first heard that he had been selected. Now, battling with the altitude, he collapsed at camp, a fascinating shade of green. We bundled him into a sleeping bag and he lay, shivering and nauseous, unable to understand how his body, so tough in other conditions, could give in so easily here. 

The others must have seemed to him depressingly strong and healthy. Gareth Tennant sat next to him, trying to cheer Hennie up with his very different outlook on life. Tall and handsome, he was a life-saver and karate instructor. Steeped in a variety of eastern philosophies, his perspective on life was always unique. Scott Anderson came from the opposite end of the spectrum. He was a police officer, able, disciplined, conventional. However,  he had a yearning for adventure that had brought him to us. 

The next day was a long, long haul. Aconcagua ably demonstrated how fickle she could be. The morning walk was bathed with sunshine. We moved up a giant beach of white pebbles, a paved road leading into the heart of the massif. A shallow stream meandered across the plain. We stopped for lunch by a field of boulders, just where the plain ended and the steep walk began. In a matter of ten minutes the sun vanished. The wind was whipping round us, carrying the softly falling snowflakes. Cloud cascaded over the mountain peaks, and came swirling down the valley. Hoods went up, heads went down, and the walking took on a grim determination. Even the dogs stopped running around us, instead joining in the crocodile file to shelter their faces behind our legs. 

Of all of us, Jan was the least happy. He had recently freed himself from 25 years of service at South Africa’s national broadcaster, the SABC. His life had not been focused on this kind of activity. However, we had enough respect for his intelligence and balanced temperament to believe he was up to the challenge. The deal between Jan and me was that I would teach him how to climb, and he would teach me how to film. I was hooked from the first moment I picked up the video camera. It was taking photographs that moved, that created their own past as you recorded. Now part of the camera crew, I stayed well away from the selection process, leaving that to Ian. However, Jan was faring less well with the mountain challenge. Back problems combined with the lack of oxygen left him battling to walk. Eventually Ian was carrying Jan’s pack as well as his own. 

I had long since been handed the camera and told to get on with it. No one was in the mood to wait for me, let alone go back and repeat anything. Faces were drawn, hidden behind tightly closed hoods. Shoulders and rucksacks were covered in a lacework of snow. The final hill proved a testing challenge as the path zigzagged up the slope, slippery with melting snow. Base camp was lurking beneath a ceiling of cloud, the mountain hidden above us. All everyone wanted to do was sit down, get their boots off and get their hands round a coffee cup. Elation was deeply buried beneath the sheer relief of arrival. 

Our group of six was beginning to get used to my pushing a camera up their nostrils at every vulnerable moment. Asked how he was doing, Trevor Johnston simply stared at me, goggle-eyed, beyond coherent speech. Trevor was a school teacher. He was a laid-back guy, with an appalling sense of humour that he shared with Ian. One of the highlights of Trevor’s trip was finding that the dreaded Ian Woodall liked his jokes. 

Marlie Malan, a blonde, petite policewoman, looked at my camera and came out with some language that startled the men. She was the only woman in the group. This time Ian had opened selection to anyone interested, and had been overwhelmed by male replies. Marlie was very self-contained, highly competent, always pleasant, but showed very little emotion.

Only Andre le Roux, deeply determined to go on, played down the day’s exertion. He was a Methodist minister and embodied a strange package of contradictions. He was thoughtful, introspective, considerate, yet highly ambitious and driven. 

The group had some obvious lines of fracture. Gareth the dreamer, Andre the minister and Trevor the teacher stood opposed to the three of military background, trained in discipline, obedience to orders, use of force. Andre had been a conscientious objector during the years of compulsory military service in South Africa. Trevor had fought off the police during student protests in the depths of the apartheid eighties. But the six did not split. The individuals were each too idiosyncratic to be subservient to their career choices. Although a certain caution remained, the overall level of group harmony was higher than with my group on Kilimanjaro.

It was curious for me to be on the other side of the fence. In 1996 I had been on the inside, part of the selection. Now I was on the outside, watching others go through the same ordeal. I had a much better understanding now of what Ian was looking for. It was a kind of indefinable mental quality. Levels of experience, physical fitness and strength, all these mattered. But there was needed something more, a mental toughness, a strange combination of drive and patience, a passion for wild places. It was easier to recognise than to describe. 

We started up the rock slope that led to camp 1, at 5,200 metres. It was nothing more than a slog, an endless series of zigzags. A network of paths criss-crossed up the loose slope. Base camp sheltered in the valley head below us. A scattering of snow-capped mountains spread out to the west. Aconcagua is a deceptive mountain. It presents no technical difficulties on the normal route. In good weather, altitude is the only danger. Sometimes it is no more than a long walk up a gigantic scree slope. It has been said you can drive a mule up Aconcagua. As we walked up the slope we passed the skeleton of a mule. The dog that was accompanying us abandoned us for the pleasure of gnawing on the mule’s thigh bone. Higher up we were passed by a team bringing down a body. Eight people were killed on Aconcagua in the 1997/98 season. Judging mountains purely on technical difficulty is a dangerous thing to do. Mountaineering requires a far broader range of knowledge than simply rock gymnastics.

One of the most beautiful, most chilling sights on Aconcagua is a crystal disc of cloud moving in towards the summit. It is the notorious ‘white wind’ - harbinger of filthy weather. Within days of our arrival, the cloud was coming from the west. We were on Aconcagua at the tail-end of a season of particularly unstable weather. The Argentinean guides we were with said they had never seen the windows of good weather so short. We were racing against time, against the gradual onset of a natural force a million times more powerful than we were.

The time on the mountain was beginning to take its toll on our little group. Scott, an avid reader of adventure stories, was beginning to feel that adventure went down better on the pages of a book, when he was comfortably seated in an armchair with a cup of hot coffee. All the endless little discomforts that never get written about, being simply too boring - but which in fact fill up the majority of your hours in the wild - were eating away at him.

Gareth was also not feeling at one with the mountains. He was a son of the beach and the surf. He responded to the call of the sea waves, the powerful, fluid, ever-changing ocean. He found the cold, the starkness, the barrenness of the high mountains too foreign. It was as arid to him spiritually as it was visually. 

Hennie was continually frustrated by his body. It simply could not keep up with his level of expectation. The other three were faring better. For Marlie this was just another challenge to be overcome, like any of the courses she had completed in her police training. She had the strength and the determination, but the passion seemed lacking. 

Trevor and Andre were loving the experience, despite all the hardships. Trevor was slow to acclimatise and this is always demoralising. Nevertheless, he felt at home in the mountains, fulfilled just in being there, however high or low he might be on the slopes. Andre was coping well, enjoying the environment and thriving on the challenge. Where Trevor expressed his ups and downs, Andre always put a brave face on things. 

Chased by oncoming bad weather, we were pushing hard up the mountain. Those acclimatising slowly had to fall by the wayside. When we reached camp 2, at 5,800 metres, the team was down to Ian and myself, the Argentinean guides, Andre and Marlie. It was a beautiful evening, clear blue skies above us but lines of high cloud to the west. We had a magnificent view from camp, across dozens of lines of mountains, like an ocean of umber waves with white caps. Andre and I ignored the bitter cold to stand at the rock edge, watching the sun sink into the cloud, into a fusion of gold and pink and purple. Everyone was keyed up for the next day, an early start and a long climb to reach the summit.

By the early hours of the following morning our tiny tent was rocking like a ship at sea, battered by brutal winds. At 5 a.m. I propped a head torch on Ian’s sleeping bag and pointed the camera at him. His voice barely cut through the shrieking wind. This was no weather in which to climb another 1,100 metres. We had to retreat.

The guides fought to take the tents down while we packed up the kit in a low wooden shelter, rather like a dog kennel, that stood nearby. There was little talk as chilled fingers battled with crampon clips. The winds swept randomly across the slopes, creating mini whirlwinds of snow. Lead grey cloud hovered just above our heads. The white wind was in the process of enveloping the mountain. We escaped below it for a few hours but it followed us down. Base camp was still calm when we reached it in the late afternoon, but that night the snow began to fall. We toasted the end of the expedition with champagne in plastic glasses. The noise of our celebration was deadened by the white silence outside. The snow was falling noiselessly, relentlessly.

Thirty-six hours later it was still falling. We had to make a move for the road head before we got snowed in. We were the last team of the season and the guides remained behind to sit out the storm and then take down base camp. 

We walked out accompanied by a junior guide. He was soon lost and inadvertently brought us down into the steep river valley, rather than staying on the higher slopes. All trails and most landmarks had long since disappeared beneath a blanket of snow. Cloud sulked just above our heads, obscuring the peaks. We were being forced down an ever-narrowing valley. The apprentices were cold, tired and nervous. Scott was particularly tense. Only Andre still managed a lop-sided smile. Of the two dogs that had accompanied us, one had chosen the safety of base camp. The other remained with us and provided a surreal element in the drama. 

I was filming as we walked. I needed to be able to move through the group, pass to the front and then drop back. It required a delicate judgement. Ian was focused on trying to work out where we were, and where to go. Everyone else was staring down at their feet, drawn in to themselves. Only the dog seemed happy to frolic through the snow. Just as a scene I was filming was beginning to give a real survival feel, the dog would trot past, happily unconcerned, popping the bubble. At times I wondered if he would suddenly move to the front and take the lead, bringing us safely through the storm, Lassie style.

In fact we simply had to jump the river and work our way diagonally up the opposite slope to regain the trail. We walked out to the road head in one long, long day, only emerging from the snow as we entered the last grassy valley. 

It was a very grateful group that finally stumbled into the alpine lodge at Puenta del Inca. First on the itinerary were beers and cokes, poured down parched throats. Then came hot showers, and clean, or cleanish, clothes. That was followed by a serious tuck-in at the dinner table, roast chicken, vegetables, bread. We left nothing to be returned to the kitchen. 

At last attention refocused on the question of who would go on to Everest. And who still wanted to go on. Marlie, Andre and Trevor had stood out over the others, as much mentally as physically. However, the passion for the project was strongest with the two men. Ian selected Andre and Trevor. 

There were congratulations for those two, disappointment among the others. It was difficult for them to just go home, to resume everyday routine, while the rest of us headed off to climb the highest mountain in the world. The apprenticeship scheme was meant to offer a life-changing experience, a chance to try something outrageously different. However, change and challenge could be as disruptive as they could be fulfilling. Nevertheless, as had happened with the women in 1996, several of the group took on their own challenges in subsequent years, or changed the directions of their lives. 

The rest of February and early March were filled with expedition preparation. The Tibet base camp of Everest was even more remote than the Nepal one. In Nepal there were a number of villages within a few days walk of base camp and limited replenishment of supplies was possible. In Tibet we would have to be totally self-sufficient. The one advantage, though, was that we could drive trucks in to base camp. Apart from the question of airfreight, weight and size was not an issue. Detailed daily menus had to be written out, exact food quantities determined. To avoid what had happened in 1996, all equipment was brought into South Africa first, with the exception of the oxygen bottles. 

The team that finally assembled in Kathmandu consisted of Ian, myself, Jan, Trevor and Andre, all fresh from Aconcagua. We were joined by Martin Brasg who was to be our base camp manager. He was a computer geek, more used to air-conditioned offices than mountains, but with a taste for adventure. Short, plump, dark-haired, he had a cheerful attitude to life that left him seldom upset by difficulties. Indeed, at times, he seemed so happily oblivious to difficulties that the rest of us wanted to scream.

Kathmandu was as chaotic, dirty, vibrant, exotic and overwhelming as ever. The dusty streets held an inextricable tangle of cars, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and trucks. Right of way was an alien concept. Through all the chaos walked the sacred cows. Protected from slaughter under the Hindu faith, they wandered the city at will. They were always rake thin and probably thought there was some advantages to being a secular cow being fattened up for the kill instead. Mountaineers, hippies and tourists mingled with scabby dogs, Sherpas, sari-clad Hindus and Nepalese businessmen. Goods streamed into Kathmandu from all over south-east Asia. It was a shopping paradise for carpets, clothing, jewellery, books, trinkets and outdoor kit. Although it was a city founded on trade, it was steeped in religion. Every street had its little Hindu shrine, meticulously anointed each morning by passers-by, even if the dogs did use them as places to sleep undisturbed. An accidental turning into some shabby back alley would reveal the entrance to a square built around a stupa - the magnificent white circular mounds that stood with the eyes of Buddha peering, ever watchful, from their towers. 

The excitement of the shopping and the sightseeing carried the team through the first week. However, once all permits and equipment had been organised, we began to get restless. Unfortunately, the news came through that the pass through the Himalaya, which we would be driving up, was closed by avalanche. A few teams had got through into Tibet before the snow slide, but many, we included, were now stuck, waiting day by day for news of the state of the road. Everyone was getting increasingly edgy with the delay. It was becoming clear that patience was not a strong feature in the makeup of our team members. 

At last word came that the road should be cleared within a few days. On the morning of 11 April we left Kathmandu with a massive truck filled with equipment and a bus filled with climbers and Sherpas. We were joined once again by Pemba and Jangbu. Pemba was far more mature than when I had first met him in 1996. He had reached the summit of Everest again in 1997, and was now a highly sought-after climber. Jangbu, too, had moved on in life. He had been climbing on Shishapangma, in Tibet, in 1997 and had met a woman there who lived in Nylam. Now the draw of love was beginning to test his commitment as a lama, lamas being traditionally unmarried. Nawang was with us as well, once more as a support climber. Nawang had developed an unfortunate liking for the bottle, and was being closely watched by older brother Pemba. 

Being a big team, we had brought in several more people. Lhakpa Gelu, Jangbu’s brother, was a summit climber. He had the same smooth features and calm face as Jangbu, but was very different in character. He spoke excellent English and had climbed Everest four times already, from both north and south. He had considerable confidence and enjoyed interacting with the foreigners. 

Keeping it a family affair, we also had the younger brother of Pemba and Nawang, Phuri. Although also a competent climber, he was on our team as advanced base camp (ABC) cook. He had a grin like Pemba’s, only more so and collapsed into giggles at regular intervals. Finally we had Padam Magar and Mangal Tamil to man base camp. Both were trek leaders by profession and had worked with Ian before. They were overqualified to be running base camp but the prestige of being part of an Everest expedition made up for that. 

Padam and Mangal had never left Nepal. Pemba, Nawang and Phuri had not climbed on the north side of Everest before. Jangbu was going to get to see his loved one as we passed through Nylam. Andre and Trevor were new to the Himalaya. I had never been into Tibet. Everyone was excited as the bus finally approached the border with Tibet. 

The road that runs through from the northern border of Nepal up to the plateau of Tibet is a masterpiece of Chinese determination. The pass runs right through the Himalaya, gaining 3,000 metres in altitude in under 25 kilometres of road. However, nothing can protect the road from the catastrophic erosion, which the Himalaya undergo from year to year. The Himalaya is the youngest of the world’s great ranges, and is still rising as the Indian continental plate grinds relentlessly up against the Asian plate. The mountains are steep-sided and unstable, cut through by immensely deep river gorges. Our road ran up the side of one such gorge. We were rapidly to discover that driving to Everest was not the easy prospect that it sounded.

Things went well for all of 500 metres. We walked across the great concrete span that bridges the river, the Friendship Bridge built by the Chinese. The transition from the shabby mountain huts of the Nepalese border guards to the massive concrete monoliths of the Chinese symbolised our move into a new country. All the expedition goods and people were reloaded into vehicles and we began to make our way up the steep zigzags of no-man’s land, towards the official Tibetan border.  Soon we found that two bends of the road had disappeared beneath a massive landslide. An entire section of mountainside had gone belly-up. Men with spades were working to clear it. They looked to be some while, a week or three. 

Everyone and everything was unloaded. A swarm of locals appeared out of the surrounding forest, offering to porter our goods. An Uzbekistan Everest team was dumped on the road behind us. A chaos of people and goods soon followed. Padam and Mangal guarded our goods meticulously, issuing tickets to porters who began carrying our kit up the steep footpaths that shortcut from one level of the road to the next. Little boys, who stood barely higher than my rucksack, ran around us, desperate to help. Eventually Padam found them small loads commensurate to their size, and they set off up the hill like rabbits. We staggered up after them. Even carrying next to nothing, we could barely keep up. 

Once through the second border we checked into a hotel. This was our first encounter with the strange world of pseudo-Chinese Tibet. Tibet has been unhappily under Chinese occupation since the 1950s. A gigantic gold sign proclaimed our hotel to be an official tourist hotel. A vast foyer was floored with marble. The gilded reception desk was backed with clocks giving times in a dozen different countries. 

Once we entered the rooms, we were in a different world. They looked as if someone had read a manual about what a hotel was, without understanding what it meant. In the bathroom was the usual complimentary foambath, in a drab grey box. There just wasn’t a bath. In the bedroom a television faced the beds. Loose wires hung out from the back of it. It couldn’t be plugged in. The beds were meticulously made but the mattresses were as lumpy as a rock garden. We left with relief the next morning. 

The road now ran up the side of the valley, just one truck wide. A sheer drop fell away on one side, a cliff rose on the other. When we reached the site of the avalanche, queues of trucks were waiting on either side. A slot had been dug into the snowy mass. We were rubbing against the icy walls as we inched our way through, walls that towered above us, over 30 feet high. 

The final challenge of the day was another landslide, roughly cleared away. The road surface was uneven, tilting at an alarming angle towards the drop. Each section of slide entailed a long wait for our turn to cross. The air was icy cold, and getting thin. We all huddled quietly in the back of the truck, tired, bruised, cold, dusty. The day seemed to have gone on for rather too long.

We spent that night and the next at Nylam, a desolate frontier town on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. We needed to spend time there to acclimatise but there was little to do. We weren’t the only expedition that had been held up by the road closure, and there were several expeditions in town. Most notable was a commercial team led by Russell Brice. Russell’s reputation preceded him. He had done some intensely difficult climbing on Everest in the 1980s, before going into commercial guiding full-time, specialising in the north side of Everest. He was the most experienced climber on the north side of the mountain. A tall, quiet man, with a laconic New Zealand accent, he was friendly to us, but looked on our motley crew with some scepticism.

‘Climbing the south side of Everest is all very well,’ he said to me. ‘Don’t expect that because you could do that, you will manage the north. It’s a different challenge altogether.’

After Nylam we transferred to Land Cruisers and the travelling became easier. We had one more bad night, in concrete barracks at Xegar. Some expeditions elected to spend two nights there, for acclimatisation. When we came down to breakfast and found a grey goo, masquerading as porridge, accompanied by the previous night’s cabbage, reheated, we decided to risk the headaches and press on to base camp. 

We had had a glimpse of Everest on the horizon, a deep blue pyramid streaked with white. Now it had disappeared. We turned south and began to drive straight towards the Himalaya. The vehicles wound slowly up a barren hillside. The plains of Tibet receded below us, a vast mass of subtle gradations of brown. At last we crested the hill, to stand on the top of the pass, the Pang La. A blue triangle was visible pasted against a white sky, just like a child’s drawing. It was clearly the highest mountain of the range. However, the entire bottom half was still hidden was from us. Its true scale had not yet been revealed. We stood on the pass, shaking from the bitter wind, snapping photographs. The excitement was electric. 

As we descended into the undulating lands that lay before Everest, the mood calmed. We still had hours of driving, following riverbeds that wove through the many hills. We passed small settlements of fort-like buildings that looked as if they had risen from the earth itself. In fact they had. They were built with bricks made of local clay, dried in the sun. If left untended for a season or two, the buildings would simply sink back into the ground from which they had come. 

At last we turned into a massive valley. It ran directly south, wide and proud, until stopped by a gigantic wall. Everest was back, with a vengeance. The north face stood nearly four kilometres high, a vast bulwark of black rock, covered in part by snow. In the weeks leading up to this point there had been a lot of talk about Everest and how people thought they would manage on it. Now, faced with magnitude of the reality, silence prevailed. We had arrived.


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