Summitting at around 6am on the highest point on the planet was an amazing experience, so overwhelming after such a feat of endurance to reach it that it was hard to take in but one thing I knew for certain that hadn’t escaped my mind was that getting to that point was only half way and key to this being a successful expedition was making sure I got back down in one piece. We spent maybe 20 to 30 minutes on the summit taking our photos, looking at the views and chatting with fellow climbers before it was time to leave and as I gather my belongings and untangled my feet from the prayer flags I could see not far away coming up the final slope towards the summit a steady queue of climbers all eager to get their photos and do the same.
Mingma and I started to make our way down, my thoughts on the distance we needed to cover, my tired legs, the dead bodies - all sorts of things. We got about 100m from the summit before we hit the queue and came to a standstill, same point as coming up and same stand off with no one really moving or giving any ground to pass, stood over the dead body we waited for the log jam to ease but it took well over an hour as climber after climber made their way up without giving us space to go down and a slight panic started to set in as my legs ached and tiredness came over me, some vey slow useless climbers who really shouldn’t have been on the mountain at all made the wait even longer as they could barely use their crampons to move forwards and other climbers, probably unaware how long we’d been waiting came up all smiles doing a little dance as they saw they were near the submit only to be greeted by me suggesting in a rather ‘colourful use of the English language’ that perhaps they might hurry along and get out of the way! Eventually they did and we were able to get down, over the body again, across the rock and around the south summit, much to my relief, this was far and away the most difficult section so once this was out the way it was just a hike/rappel all the way down that I could mange fairly easily.
As usual Mingma didn’t give me any quarter and we moved swiftly down the mountain, no breaks or stops, abseiling where it was extra steep but in the main just arm wrapping the rope and going down each of the sections, after the balcony we reached the oxygen exchange point high above camp 4 and quite a few members of the team took the opportunity at this point to get some water and Nims sat watching over us, seeing his team all summit and come down, giving words of encouragement and high fives and planning what to do next.Ten minutes at this point and then Nims was instructing us to get down, take a quick break in Camp 4 but push on to Camp 2 - a hell of a descent after our summit but it was n’t really a request it was a directive - if Nims says you go to Camp 2 you go, end of discussion, Mingma David stayed with Nims to sort out some logistics stuff (as you do at 8,000m - some office!) and I headed down eventually reaching camp 4 about an hour later and falling into my tent, out of water and food and barely able to move, neither could anyone else, Sherpa’s included - the place looked like a war zone with people laid out all over the place, unable to move as exhaustion set in.
I got to rest for maybe 90 minutes before Mingma David was shaking me awake telling me to get my boots back on and be ready to move in 10 minutes, it took all my energy to get my stuff together and to will my legs to start moving as we headed out of camp 4 and back down the route we had come the previous day, fortunately traffic was light and we made good progress down over the Geneva Spur, past Lhotse Camp 4, over the yellow band and then onto the Lhotse face towards Camp 3, gaining some much needed energy as we went further down and reduced our altitude, the sun was high and strong making our progress hot and sweaty as we descended and as we swept into Camp 3, out of water again, I managed to grab some juice from a Sherpa and half a bottle of coke which I necked immediately and then violently threw up - oh well it was nice on the any down at least.
Progress down the steep Lhotse face was rapid as we rappelled quickly down but it had still taken all day to get down to this point and by the time we reached the bergshrund vertical wall at the bottom of the face the light had gone and darkness was now upon us, I didn’t have time to get my head torch out of my pack before Mingma had me on the vertical wall trying to abseiling down in the dark, my legs blindly searching for footholds as I descended down, hoping I was going to hit the lower ground below and not disappear down the crevasse that I knew lurked right around the tiny footholds at the bottom and then without a word we were onto the Western Cwm and heading across towards Camp 2, Mingma suggested I lead (in the dark) and we had a short ‘discussion as I pointed out I couldn’t see anything, the path was now snowed over and the numerous crevasses were hidden from view so I whilst I was happy to lead I’d prefer him to go first prodding away with a walking pole and his boot looking for a crevasse than me - I couldn’t help feeling like I was walking across a mine filled of sorts as every so often he’d stop, go left or right or jump forwards to avoid an obstacle but we made progress and eventually the lights of camp 2 came into view but it still took another hour to reach our camp 2 tents.
I fell into the dining tent, catching up with other team members who were ahead of me and we celebrated and laughed and joked about the day before climbing into our freezing tents to sleep, too tired to do anything other than take my big boots off I slept as I was in my tent, relived the summit had been conquered, I’d survived and I was now one more hike from safety.