As we'd been told so many times before even flying out to Nepal, climbing a mountain is not about summiting - it's only halfway to the top, it's only a successful summit if you get down safely. With this in mind, and with the cold starting to chill the elation of being able to touch the roof of the World we didn't loiter, the weather had been kind to us so far, and we didn't much feel like pushing our luck.
Negotiating the descent at first was relatively easy. It felt nice to have the pressure off our legs, we could relax and actually enjoy the views, plus we were still pretty overwhelmed at the idea we'd just achieved what we'd been working towards for the past year and been dreaming of for most of our lives. Things started to get tricky, however, when we reached the second step. Both being fairly competent climbers and both being completely focused on the task in hand we'd had no problems coming up in the dark, but now things felt different. The ladder somehow felt less stable, and our tired, frost-nipped hands struggled to keep a tight grip. I'd made sure I was clipped onto as many of the fixed ropes I could find, and shakily lowered myself to the foot of the cliff face after Pete had very hesitantly done the same. As I turned to look at Pete, he'd frozen in his tracks. I turned to look at what he was looking at, a chill shot through my back. I'd missed it on the climb because it still would have been dark, but lying about 10 feet away from the foot of the second step was the familiar shape of a body, lying face down in the icy rock. He was wearing a yellow 'romper-suit' and red boots, almost identical to what Pete and I were wearing. I've got no idea about the details of this poor lad's death, when it happened or whether it happened coming up or on the way down, but it was obvious he'd clipped into the wrong rope and lost his grip on the ladder. I stark reminder to us, that this adventure was not over yet, and we needed to stay switched on.
For what seemed like hours we pressed on, forcing ourselves to make certain every time we un-clipped off the fixed-line, that we clipped back on again. It was a tough mental battle, and tiredness was starting to overcome us. Physically we were exhausted, but we had no time to spare as the oxygen in our final cylinder was dwindling away.
We finally descended off the North-East ridge, and down the valley into the high camp. It was a relief to see the campsite and our tent, but we knew we needed to push on further down the mountain. At 8300m we were still vulnerable to the altitude, especially in our current physical condition. Succumbing to the tiredness and spending the night at Camp 3 without Oxygen could have been fatal. We were greeted at our tent by Geordie. He looked in a bad way, exhausted, frost-nipped/sunburnt face and still struggling to talk. He told us he hadn't managed to make the summit and he explained to us his day. I was gutted for him, we both were. Over the course of the expedition we had come to know Geordie quite well, and had a lot of time for him. It turned out our tent was being used to shelter one of the members of the team who had gone down with a severe altitude sickness and very probably HACE. Stu, the team leader and a number of Sherpas were preparing to stretcher him down to the next camp. Unfortunately this meant we couldn't get on with our descent, so we took some time out at Camp 3 - by which I mean we (all 3 of us) went foetal behind the nearest rock!!
This was a big mistake! We ended up leaving Camp 3 far too late and had a real epic fighting through snow-storms and darkness getting to Camp 2. At 7800m it was safe enough for us to sleep here, but we had another problem now. It was pitch black, snowing, bitterly cold, we were utterly exhausted and we couldn't find our tent. Delirium had set in by now. The past 36 hours had been the hardest of our lives, we'd had no sleep and had pushed our bodies through some of the extreme conditions you could imagine, not to mention the emotional side effects of fulfilling a dream...I sat down and got on the radio. I was pretty confident that we were the last to make it down to Camp 2, at least if I could find the team tents, I'd be able to find one that was empty - ours! Pete and Geordie hadn't realised I had stopped to radio, and so kept heading down the mountain towards a group of tents at the bottom of the camp. As I reached for my radio, I paused, just long enough to recognise Simon's voice, in the tent I had stopped next to! Lucky for me, unfortunately, Pete and Geordie had gone about 50 metres too far down the hill. On a normal day it would have taken them about 2 minutes to walk back to where I was, but this was no normal day! Eventually we found a tent, crawled in, and just about summoned enough energy to boil half a pot of snow, drank and, still in or down suits, passed out.
It had been a long day. It was now 10pm and we'd been on the move since 6am the day before. We'd climbed and down-climbed in excess of 2000m and been through all the physical and emotional turmoil of an incredible summit day on Everest. It had been one of the longest and toughest few days I have ever experienced, little did we know what the next day held in store for us...
(To be continued...)