Sunday, 20 June 2010
The Long Journey Back Home...
(continued from Matt's "Getting back down to Camp 2)
We were abruptly awoken from our sleep coma by one of the Sherpa team shaking our tent violently. It was 6am. We initially thought it was the start of some strong winds until a friendly voice said “hello, good morning, you need to start moving further down the mountain now…”
We woke feeling dazed, groggy and extremely tired, with our oxygen bottles completely depleted. The summit day had clearly taken a massive toll on our bodies, but the thought of what we had both experienced at 07:20 the previous morning brought massive smiles to our faces. The muscle aches and pains seemed to fade into the distance as we reminisced in disbelief on what we had just accomplished. I remember having to pinch myself to remind me that it wasn’t a dream, we have just both stood on top of the world. With what little physical strength we had left, the next painstaking four hours were spent getting ourselves prepped and ready for another long hard day ahead. Everything took 6x longer than usual and the fact that we were not safe off the mountain was a pressing thought on our minds. You would anticipate the descent being a lot easier, but the route ahead would be as precarious as the assent. This was not going to be a straight forward climb down to advanced base camp.
Eventually we surfaced from our tent and ventured out into the snow blizzard that had set in. We found Geordie sitting with the Sherpas not far from our tent. There was quite a bit of banter about how long we had taken to get ready, even Geordie tried to join in which was pleasing as the condition he was in when he arrived last night was quite alarming. It seemed we were the last of the group to leave camp 2. With a fresh oxygen bottle we were ready to start our climb down to the North Col camp.
We were the last of the whole group to leave the camp and the three of us set out on what proved to be another precarious descent, collapsing every five minutes against the nearest rock as we were all extremely physically tired. It was unbelievably slow progress. The terrain down to the start of the snow slope is fairly rocky, not ideal with crampons. Concentration on every foot step was paramount, made that little bit harder when you're totally fatigued.
Finally we reached 7500m and the top of the snow slope. The weather conditions had deteriorated further, with over a foot of fresh snow now on the ground and increasing. It was a true white out, with strong winds! We had to get down quickly as this wasn’t the environment to hang around in. The pace down the snow slope was slow and relentless, but an easier more efficient way was soon discovered. Sledging! Well not quite, but simply sit down, check your safety line, adopt a safe sliding position and let gravity do the rest! The next 400m of descent was probably the most fun we had on the mountain.
The last part of the route, however, crosses a few crevasses before you reach the North Col camp, so we got to our feet and reluctantly started walking again. We had seen the Sherpas that were a few meters ahead of us, detour of the fix line route. It seemed that the weather conditions and heavy snow had covered the exact locations of where we had to cross, and the risk of falling down had dramatically increased. The Sherpas were precariously using walking poles to test the stability of the snow one or two feet in front of them. With the risk being so high, and to avoid the crevasses completely, the new line the Sherpas took, meant we had to hand rail the edge of the ridge, almost stepping off the snow slope trying to avoid not falling down the mountain. We waited whilst they went ahead to find and prove a new path.
Thankfully the fixed lines had enough slack to allow us to attempt this, we gingerly made our way along the new proven route. I was leading, with Matt and then Geordie close behind. At this point the weather had closed in even more, with visibility now reduced to around 2m. Following the exact path we had seen the Sherpas take would prove difficult in normal weather conditions, let alone a complete white out!
I managed to find traces of the Sherpas footsteps, but the was weather massively against us and was fast covering up their tracks. Soon there was no evidence at all where they had been. I hand railed the rocky edge on my crampons, carefully edging further down the ridge, to a rocky feature where I remember the sherpas crossing back up to join the normal route. Lightly placing my left foot, I stepped back onto the snow, it held. I then proceeded to place my right foot on the snow, it took my body weight. I cautiously started to make my way back up to centre of the snow slope, each time dreading that at any moment my footing would find the start of a crevasse. I made it. I then waited for Matt and Geordie to join me. Five minutes past and still no sign of Matt, but I knew he would be taking his time like I did. Ten minutes passed and still no sign of either of them. At the 15 minute mark I could tell something was wrong. It was then I tried to retrace my steps back down to the edge of the snow slope.
Peering through the blizzard, my eyes suddenly caught sight of Geordie sitting down on the rocky ridge, scanning further around I saw that Matt's shoulders and head were protruding out of the ground….Bo%^%ks he was in a crevasse. Managing to cautiously make my way over to him, I found Matt in a frantic state. His foot was stuck in the ice below and every time he moved he sunk deeper in. Getting him out was not going to be easy…
My initial reaction when I finally got him was he had broken a leg, due to the manner he was frantically moving his arms around and cowering over into the crevasse. Shouting at each other so we could hear over the weather, he assured me that he was in no pain, but I couldn’t tell if it was just the adrenalin or not. I could see in his eyes he was deeply worried that we wouldn’t be able to get him out. I reassured him that I would never let them happen. Attaching another safety line from my harness to the fixed lines, I precariously lay down onto the snow and crawled up to the edge of the crevasse to peer in for a closer look. I could see his left foot was encased in ice and at an awkward position. With a reassuring thumps up, I conveyed with Geordie a plan to dig him out. He would watch my safety lines as I leaned into the crevasse to dig him out with my ice axe. After about 30 minutes of chipping away I finally got his foot loose. Making sure his foot was okay, I hauled him out away from the crevasse. We all fell into a heap by the edge of the ridge and rested.
We all knew we had a lucky escape. Checking his body over and moving his foot around, Matt was confident that nothing was broken, but the adventure wasn’t over yet. We still had to get back onto the normal path of the snow slope, then descend the North Col to reach ABC.
After a few minutes rest we set off again to find a safer way back across. Leading again and using my ice axe to check the snow in front, we found a route to bring us safely back to the centre of the snow slope. We continued our decent down to the North col camp, at which point the weather had changed and blue skies were now upon us. We couldn’t believe it! What was left between us and safety, was the North Col…
Not taking any chances, a fast but safe descent was required. However, with the weather now being kind to us, we made sure we savoured the breath-taking views and our last time on the slopes of this magnificent mountain. We eventually made it back down to ABC at 10pm, totally exhausted, both physically and mentally. It had been one hell of a day. Sleeping was not a problem as another coma was entered once we reached the mess tents and finally had some real food!
We spent the next day trying to recover from the arduous couple of days on the mountain. It had certainly thrown everything at us, but we had survived and more importantly completed it as a team.
The mountain wasn’t going to let us escape easily, so after finally managing to summon up enough energy to make the 15mile trek to Base camp, we endured another blizzard for the whole day.
With our final foot steps taken on Everest's rocks, we had our last meal with the group before we departed the following morning for Kathmandu. The 14 hour drive back was made bearable with the knowledge that a beer and shower (in that order) were waiting for us in our hotel. We had been through so much on the mountain the last few months we weren't even phazed by the start of Nepal's infamous 'Monsoon Season' which was triggering river banks to burst, roads to flood and landslides all over the place.
Our last few days in Kathmandu were all about recovery. The mountain had certainly taken its toll on our bodies, both Matt and I losing a significant amount of weight, in total 4 stone between us! It was a shock to see. We could also finally make those important phone calls home to the parents to let them know we were finally safe and well (if a little underweight…)
Before we flew home we visited the famous Rum-Doodle Bar to sign the 'Summiteers Log Book' and backboard of the bar, joining the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Ranulf Finnes and Bear Grylls, it was a great moment. We also, now officially have free food and drink for life there if we ever return…
When it finally came to getting on the plane back to Blighty, it was sad to leave, but we were both very happy to be going home. Little did we know of the total surprise that awaited us at Heathrow...