Tomorrow morning, I interview mountaineer Cathy O’Dowd and, as I type today’s blog, I have no idea who I will be speaking with: a ‘sociopathic narcissist’, a ‘delusional fraud’, an ‘arrogant, cold-hearted & evil woman’? Or, a misunderstood revered and accomplished climber?; the first woman to climb both sides of Everest; the ideal inspirational speaker and Off the Ropes podcast guest? If the swathe of vitriolic comments online are to be believed, it sounds like I’ll be speaking with the devil incarnate! Or will I?
On 25th May 1996, Cathy became the first South African woman to summit Everest; a particular striking achievement, considering two weeks earlier, eight climbers died in horrific storms; their stories immortalised by the 2015 Universal Pictures film, ‘Everest’, and in numerous books and documentaries, most notable, John Krakaur’s, ‘Into Thin Air’. To say the 1996 expeditions were controversial would be a colossal understatement.
Cathy and team-mate (future husband) Ian Woodall are not conveyed positively online. Accused of being ‘arrogant’, ‘selfish’ and ‘cowardly’, especially with regard to their apparent refusal to lend anyone their radio when rescue attempts were being considered, the finger of blame is also firmly pointed in their direction for the death of British team-mate Bruce Herrod. Apparently, Bruce was delayed joining their summit attempt, as he needed to fix his head torch. Cathy and Ian seized the perfect weather window to make their historic ascent, minus team member Bruce. They later passed him as they were descending. And this is where the story gets murky. As you may or may not know, the summit of Everest is not an ‘open all hours’ destination. It is a widely accepted and generally upheld rule that you cannot be on top of the world past 2pm. Any later and you risk descending in the dark, seriously upping your risk of death, not only due to poor visibility but also staggeringly low, unsurvivable temperatures. Bruce reached the summit at 5pm. A night-time descent is almost certainly deadly. Did he know he shouldn’t have been there so late? Hypoxia clouding his judgement? Was he another victim of summit fever (a delusional compulsion to reach the summit at all costs)? Why did Cathy and Ian let him pass by, when they would have known he wasn’t making sufficient enough progress to summit and descend in a safe time? God knows. Well, and Cathy, Ian and Bruce. But no one else.
Controversy for Cathy and Ian continues in 1998 when they attempt to summit Everest from the north side. Approximately 1000ft from the top, they discover American climber, Francys Arsentiev, barely alive, but alive enough to beg them not to leave her. But leave her they did. Which, to you and me, initially sounds spectacularly cruel, selfish and immoral. But our opinions are formed from our warm and comfortable lives 29035ft below the summit of Everest. Leaving someone to die in the ‘death zone’ of the world’s tallest mountain is not the same as driving past an injured and dying woman on the motorway.
Apparently (and I keep using this word, as I’m keen to convey the message that we shouldn’t be so darn quick to form immovable opinions on situations when we are not in possession of all of the facts), Cathy and Ian stayed with Francys as long as they conceivably could, but felt there was nothing they could do at 28000ft to help her. In temperatures of -30 and with air so thin, the risk of cerebral or pulmonary oedema increases with every minute spent in the death zone, staying with Francys would have surely resulted in their deaths, also. At what point does self-preservation trump morality? Surely that depends entirely on the context. Would I have left her? Would you? We cannot know the answer to that question until we face the same desperate situation. And if we did choose our lives over another, even if we repeatedly told the world, there was nothing that could be done, we would surely be judged for this decision.
Despite the vitriol engulfing Cathy and her husband, I am really looking forward to speaking to her tomorrow. Not least to hear how she became the first woman to summit both sides of Everest (following the encounter with Francys, she abandoned plans to reach the summit, returning successfully in 1999); as well as her countless other climbing achievements, including being part of the team who were the first to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat, but also to hear, directly, how events from the 1996 and 1998 expeditions actually occurred, and how they impacted her life, and of those around her. How do you plough on with life when others seek to remind you you ‘left a woman to die on Everest’?
I suspend all judgement when forming an opinion on Cathy’s perceived bad behaviour. I simply do not know the facts. I am not a mountaineer; I have never been to the Himalaya; I have never found myself at the same height of a cruising passenger plane; and, critically, I have never come face to face with a dying woman and found myself physically incapable and unable to help her. And, I suspect, neither have the tens on online commentators who condemn Cathy’s choices that day.
If you are reading this before 24th November, and you have a question you would like to ask Cathy, please do visit the Off the Ropes Facebook group and add your question.
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NB: Please forgive any inaccuracy in statistic or detail in this week’s Off the Ropes blog. The facts are inconsistent online. For example, on Google, the notorious death zone ranges from 25000ft to 28000ft, with one contributor claiming it doesn’t exist at all. Ironic, considering the subtext of this post is to remind us all to suspend forming opinions until being in possession of the facts!