I've been waiting quite a while to read Cathy O'Dowd's and Ian Woodall's Everest: Free to Decide. I had heard about it a couple years ago when I read Nick Heil's Dark Summit, a book about the 2006 Everest season. Free to Decide is actually about the 1996 South African Everest Expedition,`and it portrays a very different climbing season than many other 1996 Everest books. The South Africans get a bad rap in many books about the 1996 Everest disaster, including Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Boukreev's The Climb. In those books, the South Africans are portrayed as uncoorperative and hostile, and though they had the opportunity to save the day, they chose to do nothing. Free to Decide isn't written as a response to such criticism (It was published concurrently.), but I think it shows clearly how quite a bit of confusion on the mountain led to wrong impressions.
The book is set up with a mixture of perspectives. There are parts narrated by O'Dowd, some by Woodall, and also a third-person perspective that comes off sometimes as a decent mountaineering book, and occasionally as a cheap thriller. Also included are copious transcripts of radio conversations, though it's unclear if most of them are reconstructions or actual quotations. Overall, I found the prose tedious, yet dramatic. It perhaps shows a more truthful perspective of expedition life (bickering included) than the bestsellers, but a certain amount of restraint perhaps moves the plot along.
Free to Decide is the first Everest book I've read that covers the expedition from base camp forward. I think perhaps the authors are intentionally leaving out some unpleasant details from earlier in the trip, but I'm forced to speculate at the moment. The team members follow a similar schedule to many of the other expeditions on the mountain, and end up on the South Col on the same day as Rob Hall's and Scott Fischer's commercial operations. They arrive late, and chose to wait a day before heading to the summit. As a result, they get front row seats to Everest's most famous tragedy. Somehow, they end up being the only people high on the mountain besides Rob Hall who can maintain radio contact with base camp. Woodall makes two trips out of their tents during the storm to check on other expeditions and to try to organize a rescue and comes back with frostbite on his toes. The winds are enormous and the whiteout conditions and the cold prevent them from heading up the mountain to help. After the storm, the South Africans maintain communications with base camp, and render what assistance they can. They offer to go up the mountain to rescue people, but the Sherpas say that the South Africans will slow them down rather than help. After a frustrating day of being able to do little to help, they head back down the mountain. They later return to climb to the summit, putting two South Africans, three Sherpas, and a British teammate on the summit. Bruce Herrod, the British guy, does not return to the South Col, and after 24 hours is presumed dead. He was later found tangled in the ropes on the Hillary Step. It bothers me that Free to Decide states that he was sitting below the step, clipped into the rope, while Boukreev, the leader of the Indonesian expedition that was first up the mountain the next year, states in Above the Clouds, that he found Herrod hanging upside down part of the way up. It seems to me that the book contains a mix of fact and fiction, and it seems that the authors carefully control the information in the book.
I'm not going to provide more analysis of fact versus fiction just yet, because I know there is more information in Ken Vernon's Ascent and Dissent. Free to Decide makes no mention of Vernon, or anyone else who was dismissed or resigned from the original team on the trek into base camp. I think it's fair to see a different perspective and some critical analysis before I come to any conclusions, and I'll be reading Vernon's work soon. I don't think the South Africans were quite the villians others have made them. It seems more likely to me that they were too inexperienced to know what to do. For further reading on the authors' later adventures, see O'Dowd's Just for the Love of It, and Woodall's The Tao of Everest.