BY NEREESHA PATEL, August 12, 2017

By his own admission, Patrick Conroy was far too young to cover South Africa’s first expedition to Mount Everest in 1996.

Photo courtesy/Patrick Conroy

At the time, he was a 23-year-old reporter, enthusiastic and jovial – “gung-ho”, as Talk Radio 702’s then-Marketing Director Cecil Lyons called him – and determined to document the event that would later become controversial. He was the only one who applied for the task.

A more experienced journalist should have gone on the expedition,” says Conroy. “The fact that they didn’t want to was my good luck.”
Twenty one years after the expedition, Conroy – now a seasoned journalist with a vast amount of experience under his belt – still maintains an infectiously upbeat attitude. Presenting a workshop titled “Protecting Your News Brand: Lessons from the Everest Tragedy” at the Menell Media Exchange 2017 (MMX17) conference, the current managing director of Platco Digital engages with his audience in a light-hearted manner. His youthful exuberance is surprising to me.
That’s not to say that there is a lack of sombreness on his part. Sharing his perspective of the tragedy, which saw the death of a member of the South African team, photojournalist Bruce Herrod, the graveness in Conroy’s voice is evident. From playing frantic radio recordings of expeditioners – himself included – to explaining the circumstances that led to divisions within the South African team, the irrevocable damage done to expedition leader Ian Woodall’s reputation, and Herrod’s death itself, he paints a chilling picture of his overall experience.
But for him at the time, all Conroy wanted was to create an incredible story. The expedition was his opportunity to do so. Using the powerful radio-set at Base Camp, he would file his reports to Talk Radio 702’s newsroom. However, the flow of communication was one-way, meaning that management could not reach out to him and pass on their comments or concerns.

I was prepared to go and get the story,” Conroy explains. “But I think I would have been a betterjournalist if I had a guiding hand from above that would give me some advice and

Photo courtesy/Patrick Conroy

help bring out the best in me. The problem was that I flew 6,000 miles, trekked through the Himalaya mountains for nine days and had to function on my own, hoping that whatever I was doing was good enough for management.”

I was expecting too much of myself at 23 to deliver Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism,” he says. “I’m sure even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists talk to their editors a few times a day.”
Returning to South Africa, Conroy was blamed for getting close to his team and not being critical enough of Woodall’s leadership abilities. It left him feeling angry, disillusioned and disappointed in himself to the point that he left the company the following year. Herrod’s death, as well as the additional loss of eight people in the same year from other commercial expeditions to Everest, also greatly affected him.
There was no trauma counseling afterwards or any kind of debrief,” he recalls. “For a long time, I carried [these feelings] with me.”
It was in 2016, exactly 20 years to the day that his plane touched down in Nepal, that Conroy was able to expound on the emotions he has borne since the tragedy occurred. Having a kept a diary of his Everest exploits, he posted the first diary entry on Facebook which detailed his arrival in the city of Kathmandu. The response was overwhelmingly positive, as was the response to the subsequent 44 entries that he was prompted to post. Conroy then realised that he had enough material to compile a book.
I quite literally wrote my book [Everest Untold] by accident,” he jokes, chuckling.

Photo courtesy/Patrick Conroy

Published by Jacana Media, Everest Untold provides insight into South Africa’s first attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest and its repercussions as seen from Conroy’s perspective. It also includes personal reflections, transcripts and a brief history of the world-famous mountain. Thought-provoking and resonant for those who read the book, it was a cathartic process for Conroy to put it together. It allowed him to come to terms with everything that he went through all those years ago.

It’s an honest account of a young journalist who got into a big story and how a lot of s*** wentdown,” he states. “I made mistakes, as did management, so it’s a behind-the-scenes look at what went on during the expedition. There were good experiences and there were bad experiences, and that’s what happens in journalism.”
With the experience he gained on the Mount Everest expedition and the many prominent roles he has attained in the South African media industry, Patrick Conroy has come a long way. Bearing the liveliness of his past 23-year-old self, there seems to be nothing that will ever break his stride.