It was hard to get out of the sleeping bag the next morning for the final walk down the icefall back to Base Camp. It was the fifth long hard day of climbing in a row and I was still drained from the whole experience. The walk was also compounded by the fact we had to bring down everything we had in Camp 2, so our packs were heavy. Not usually a problem but I’d lost so much strength in the last few months that loads which were easy during training now placed a good deal of stress on my body. Fortunately Thunang offered to carry a few items of mine down for me, which really helped me out.
The Western Cwm was filled with thick cloud as we set off, coating us in a cold white silence which was accompanied only by the crunch of crampons on the ice. The experience was wonderfully peaceful and I was reminded again of why the cwm is sometimes called the ‘valley of silence’. The only other noise we could hear was a faint roar of what sounded like river rapids in the distance. I thought it was meltwater beneath us in the glacier, but I asked one of the sherpa and he instead pointed up. It was the winds of the jet stream raging high above us at the summit of Everest. It was a final and fitting reminder of the harshness of this unique and special place.
The walk to Camp 1 was serene, yet interspersed with quite scary crossings of the cravasses. My favorite moment was when a random idiot pushed in front of our line of waiting climbers to cross a ladder. Because he was just too cool, with his jacket covered in sponsor patches and his designer grizzled beard, he crossed quickly and without clipping into the safety rope. Watching him lose his balance half way and very, very nearly fall into the bottomless pit below made me chuckle. Yeah I know I shouldn’t have laughed but it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. I gave him a hearty round of applause when he made the other side, which I’m certain he appreciated.
The descent of the icefall was similarly surreal in the dense cloud, and again the silence was palpable. It was probably better in the cloud; generally harder to see just how much danger you were in. My favorite part was when the route passed directly beneath a string of 10ft icicles, a real ‘sword of Damocles’ moment! Progress was slowed a little by my wrist, but it was healing well and didn’t give me too much trouble. Soon enough we had descended the final vertical ladder and crossed the 40ft wide cravasse, which hadn’t been there on my very first rotation.
The final fixed rope appeared in front. Taking care not to fall – it would be the ultimate fail to stumble now! – I climbed down and then continued along the flatter ground until Crampon Point. We took off our spikes and I beamed with a big smile! A couple of small ice ridges to negotiate and we would be back in Base Camp.
Walking into our camp, I admit a few tears began to flow as I subconsciously acknowledged I had essentially achieved the impossible. I had both summited without Os in my first proper attempt (and as an amateur) AND returned safely. I felt a huge sense of pride, accomplishment, satisfaction and frankly relief. The harder and longer the adventure, the greater the odds and the more difficult the personal challenge, the greater the emotional reward. For me at least, everything is bottled up during an expedition and released at once in those final few moments when you know, you KNOW, that you have actually done it. Or when you have certainly failed. Those last few minutes of each adventure are as profound as any I have experienced in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. To smile until my cheeks hurt and to cry with happiness, those are the moments I will remember for a lifetime.