In 1996, Deshun Deysel celebrated her 26th birthday at the foot of Mount Everest, a long way from her hometown of Uitenhage. She had travelled there with the vision of planting the flag of a hopeful new democracy on top of the world’s highest peak. What awaited her team was deceit, disorganisation and death.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, on May 17, her friend Saray Khumalo became the first black African woman to summit Everest. It was her fourth attempt. Deysel could not have been more thrilled. “I’m very pleased with Saray. She has the mind of a champion and is the epitome of determination and focus.”
Deysel, a busy mother of two and a businessperson, is ready to take on the mountain one more time. In 2020, Deysel and her teammates, Alda Waddell, Tumi Mphahlele and Lisa Gering, hope to become the first all-women African team to get to the top of the Goddess Mother of the World (Chomolungma), also called Sagarmatha (Peak of Heaven).
Although initially hesitant — her children are five and eight, and she will be 50 next year — Deysel remembered how much she loved travelling the world and climbing high peaks. She was raised on the stories her grandmother would tell her about Edmund Hillary who, with Tenzing Norgay, were the first to reach Everest’s peak.
“We didn’t grow up knowing mountaineering was a sport for us — you couldn’t even explore the possibility.”
Deysel’s pioneering role in showing black people that they have a place in the sport is important to her.
“I was just pursuing what I enjoyed. For a long time I would be the only black person on an entire mountain, whether it was Everest or McKinley or Mont Blanc. And now the sport has grown tremendously. Even in South Africa we have a huge, burgeoning, diverse climbing community. It’s not a white sport, it’s a sport.”
Deysel’s inclusion in the trailblazing team of 1996, which had received the patronage of Nelson Mandela, was tinged with controversy. Some at the time referred to her as “the victim of a cynical experience in political correctness”. Although the schoolteacher was an experienced hiker, her inclusion — out of a shortlist of six, from hundreds of applications — was criticised, with some suggesting that someone who was a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa would be a better option.
“When the team was selected in 1995, South African black/coloured/Indian people were not allowed to be in the Mountain Club of South Africa,” says Deysel. “Like many institutions back then, it was exclusively for white people. People argued that there were more ‘worthy girls’ than me, who were members of the mountain club. What they meant was there were more white girls.”
The 1996 expedition would disintegrate before it even began its main assault on Everest and, in retrospect, appeared ill-fated from its conception. Bruce Herrod, a British photographer and second-in-command, would die after the remnants of the team pushed on and he got separated in an ill-advised summit attempt.
Ken Vernon, the journalist assigned to cover the attempt by the Sunday Times, its primary sponsor, lays the blame firmly at the feet of the organiser and leader, Ian Woodall. In his subsequent book, Ascent & Dissent, Vernon paints a picture of Woodall as a narcissistic schemer who lured the country’s biggest newspaper into trusting him with the promise of being at the forefront of a young democracy’s bid for history. “The highest mountain on the planet brings out the best in people — and the worst,” writes Vernon.
Deysel and Cathy O’Dowd were the women chosen, through a Sunday Times competition, to join a group of experienced mountaineers.
After practice climbs in the Pilanesberg and up Mount Kilimanjaro, they joined the rest of the group and departed for Nepal. They would be climbing alongside Herrod, who was from London, and Woodall. The senior mountaineers who were to form the backbone of the group — Andy de Klerk, Andy Hackland and Ed February — as well as the team doctor, Charlotte Noble, pulled out of the expedition while in Nepal after they clashed with Woodall.
Patrick Conroy, who was at the time covering the expedition for 702, another sponsor of the expedition, writes that Vernon “chose sides early on and tried to unseat Woodall as expedition leader”.
Deysel was caught in the middle of the drama, but decided to continue. “Ian Woodall’s choices and leadership became criticised, but he saw my potential and was willing to give me a chance to live out this dream I had my whole life,” she says.
They set off on the three-month journey in early 1996, starting by walking up from very low in the Nepalese valleys. By the time the four were on the mountain, Deysel was the only one who had not yet been cleared to climb with a permit.
“Deysel lacked experience in ice and snow,” Conroy writes.
When Deysel finally got the permit two months later, she climbed 6 500m up the mountain, making it through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, but the delay meant that her body didn’t have time to acclimatise to the altitude. She returned to base camp, which is where she was during one of the most fatal climbing seasons in Everest’s history — 12 climbers from different expeditions, including Herrod, died.
In 2003, Deysel went back to Everest. This time she made it to the notorious “death zone” at 8 300m — about 500m short of the summit — to the region known as the South Col. She was ready to push on, but a storm was threatening.
“I started having flashbacks of the ’96 expedition, when people tried to ignore the weather, and I thought to myself — I know how this turns out.” Also faced with the prospect of frostbitten toes — “my feet were absolutely rotten” — she turned back.
“I did try to get back into it after 2003 but I got married and had children, which put a hold on my climbing career for a bit. Having done both, I can categorically state: being a mum is more difficult than climbing Mount Everest.”
Deysel is now preparing for 2020. Since declaring their intention in April, Deysel and her teammates have been working hard to secure funding for their expedition, projecting a total budget of R5-million. They want to climb for female entrepreneurs and highlight the enormous effect they have on South Africa’s economy.
“Three of us on the team are in the entrepreneurial space. And we want to highlight that hustle,” Deysel says.
Climbing Everest costs nearly R1-million a person, but they also have to pay for their training climbs: in September in the French Alps and South America’s Mount Aconcagua in January next year.
Locally, they plan to practice climbing with crampons in Waterval Boven, Mpumalanga, which they are funding themselves.
Should everything go to plan, Deysel will find a very different mountain to that when she last visited. Commercial climbing tours have grown exponentially since the 1990s and can now offer relatively comfortable experiences to the more casual climber. The result has been traffic jams forming at key passes. This climbing season striking images of snaking queues of climbers at the top of the mountain have emerged. With oxygen at a premium at higher altitudes, these queues can be deadly.
Deysel is ready for third time lucky, come what may. “Everest is never without its drama,” she says wryly.
As Khumalo told those who gathered to welcome her home this week: “If you don’t succeed the first time, try and try again. The summit is just a step away.”