The final descent – South Col to Base Camp

The afternoon we arrived back to the South Col after the summit we were spent. Completely destroyed.

In the tent, we had a chat with Tim about the pros and cons of staying the night at the South Col vs descending to Camp 2 where our bodies would get a much better rest. The Sherpa wanted to leave. We all wanted to get off this mountain as soon as possible but it was not a question of what we wanted it was a question of what we were able to do. The three of us were tired, particularly Rory and myself. Our bodies wanted to do nothing but rest and go to sleep but our minds knew we should get down. At one point Rory laid back, closed his eyes and started to sleep. Without his oxygen mask. Dorjee was looking in the tent at the time and barked at Rory to get his mask on. “You can die like that” Dorjee yelled.

We all agreed that we will rest for an hour (masks on of course), recuperate where possible by eating and drinking and then pack up camp and get moving. One of the main influencing factors was the fact that our tents had been a quite damaged in the storm and now had holes in the fabric with some of the supporting poles bent in half. Although they were still standing up to the winds. Tim said he would have a Sherpa accompany me for the whole descent as I had previously requested as I do not trust myself on such steep slopes, some which require rappelling after being on the go for 15+ hours. An extra set of eyes would no doubt come in handy in the more technical areas. Tim went off to the Sherpa’s tent to inform them what the plan was. They immediately began the process of packing up.

While the Sherpa were getting to work we tried to eat the remainder of our food. I ate a few more Jelly Babies as it seems it was all I could stomach on this day. We started to get organised again in the tent, putting our boots back on, preparing our down suits and readying our packs. During this process, Rory and myself realised just how sapped of energy we were. After already laying down for 30 minutes, trying to even move in the tent was a massive undertaking. We had a chat and agreed that we should not descend the Lhotse Face in this state and instead, reluctantly spend the night here at Camp 4.

We called Tim back to our tent and let him know our thoughts. His eyes filled with rage. The Sherpa had begun packing up already. Tim accused us of ‘Holding everybody to ransom’ and the best he would offer is a ’30 minute extension’ on our departure time. This did not really help the situation what so ever, we were not looking for a delayed departure, we were concerned that we could not descend safely with such low energy levels. Not to mention we would end up descending in the dark as it would take a good 4 hours to get to Camp 2 and it was already 4:15pm. After a heated exchange the summary was ‘Tough, we’re moving’. Rory and I were disgusted with the way Tim handled this but so be it. I packed up my kit and got out of the tent leaving Rory inside with his gear still strewn about. Jon had already departed. Tim left as I got out of the tent. I put my pack on, zipped up my down suit, put my crampons on and sorted out my harness. I told Rory I would meet him on the trail but I wanted to start moving as if we were not spending the night, the sooner we leave the better. There was no Sherpa to accompany me. Another Mosedale promise not delivered. Not the end of the world, surely he – the guide – would be nearby to assist….right?

Last view from the South Col with the sky starting to clear. You can see the trail going from Camp 4 to the top of the Geneva Spur – the way home.

I left camp, found the fixed line, clipped in and worked my way along the trail which leads from the South Col to the top of the Geneva Spur. The first 10 minutes felt OK but I was already feeling like I was running on fumes.

When I got to the head of the Geneva Spur I looked down the huge open vista and saw Tim at the bottom of the Spur and maybe Jon way down by the Yellow Band.

I started down the Geneva Spur. Within 10 minutes I was at the bottom and I started the long traverse down to the Yellow Band. Tim all the while keeping well ahead of me.

Once I was off the Geneva Spur the winds had completely died and the high clouds had cleared with the sun shining down on me. I heated up quickly. Within minutes of the wind stopping I was pouring out with sweat. My hair dripping into my eyes. I was completely soaked in no time. My down suit now absorbing the moisture. I vented the legs and opened up the chest which helped a little and drank the last bit of cold water I had left from the summit push.

The Yellow Band was nothing too difficult to descend alone and when I got to the bottom I heard someone call out my name. Rory was not far behind me. I took this as a chance to sit down and take a break while he caught up.

We then descended the rest of the slope until we got to the top of the Lhotse face. I had been especially nervous the entire summit push about the descent of the Lhotse Face as it was was near vertical on the way up which means descent would be perilous plus no doubt would destroy my already dodgy ankle. People were talking of rappelling sections on the way down and although I know how to hook up the rope to my figure of 8 belay device and rappel, I don’t entirely trust myself to get it right especially when tired so having someone else nearby to double check gives me peace of mind. Once again, one mistake on the Lhotse Face and you’re going straight down into the gaping jaws of the Bergschrund crevasse waiting 1500m below. Where others may scoff, I had no qualms requesting a little assistance here.

Rory and I clipped into the ropes and started to move down the steeper parts of the Lhotse Face. Cloud was building in the CWM far below and the sun was starting to drop below them. It would be dark soon.

To my surprise the Lhotse Face was not as extreme as I envisaged. Rory and I moved down pretty quickly past upper Camp 3 which was mostly packed away with nothing but the skeletal remains of tent poles scattered about. We then moved down to lower Camp 3 where we had slept two nights before. This camp still had a few tents, some with people inside, they were settling in for the night. ‘A little late in the season to be headed up’ I thought to myself. Rory and I took a break at the end of lower Camp 3 on the edge of the next steep part of the Lhotse Face. After 10 minutes as the last glimmers of sunlight were fading we turned our head torches on and started to move down the final long steep section to the bottom of the face.

It was dark and quiet. Very peaceful but with an unusual feeling hanging in the air. I was concerned with the thickness of the cloud we were now moving into. In the darkness we could see a group of shadows on the face. They were people. Some were sitting, others were standing, none of them had head torches or appeared to be going anywhere. How odd. We both wondered what the hell was going on and kept descending towards them.

Another body team. This time they looked tired, unmotivated and obviously a little unorganised as none of them had head torches. The body was not wrapped up too well and the dead climbers face and hands were exposed to the air. This was the body of an Indian climber from last year judging from the state of him. He was clipped into the main line and we had to ever so slowly and closely inch past him unclipping and reclipping along all the straps and carabiners. My face was so close to his I saw all the details. His skin was wind burnt, completely black on one side and had the familiar shell like porcelain look to it. His mouth was agape, his teeth all in tact but his mouth packed with ice and snow. His beard looked like it has been clipped a few days ago. It was unnerving being this close to him.

We clipped past him and the rest of the clearly fatigued body team and moved down to the last part of the Lhotse Face. Now in complete darkness all we could really see was the beam of light in front of us, and two or three tiny lights moving through the CWM way below, more late descenders.

As we got to the end of the Lhotse Face there is a small 15m ice cliff which marks the end of the face and the beginning of the Bergschrund. There was a point to the side where climbers can get up but the best way to descend this feature was to rappel. Here we go I thought. I would have loved a guide or a Sherpa right about now. As it was just Rory and I, I was just going to sort it out myself but the small voice of common sense prevailed and I asked Rory to hook up my rappel. He offered to go first but I opted to do it, partly so he could ensure all was right before I reversed off the edge. Rory grabbed the rope and helped me thread it through my figure of 8 rappel device. All looked good. We double checked it supported my weight before unclipping from the main line. Perfect. I unclipped and backed off the cliff.

The ropes on the Lhotse Face this year were much thinner than most years. Maybe 5-7mm instead of 9-12mm. This made it great for ascending with a Jumar as the rope slides nicely through the device and never gets snagged. When rappelling however it is so thin it is difficult to grip in the hand and therefore harder to slow the descent. I started off well, looking below trying to see the base of the cliff. I wanted to make sure I landed in the right spot as the Bergschrund’s mouth was nearby. I kept trying to find foot placements in the wall of ice to try and sink my crampon’s teeth in and step down where possible to control my descent but I started to move faster and faster. Squeezing the rope in my braking hand did not work, faster and faster I went. I had lost control. This is going to hurt. The rope whizzing through the rappel device then went silent. The rope was gone. But I was still falling. THUD! I smash into the ice below on my back and began to slide head first down towards the hungry mouth of the Bergschrund. It all happened so fast. The next thing I remember I am suspended upside down with my head a few feet away from the dark void below. My legs and oxygen tube are tangled up in another rope. A fixed line! The correct rope! I didn’t move. I didn’t know if I was secure in this position or one slight movement would release me and I would continue to the bottom of the crevasse. The one movement I did make was to put both my carabiners onto the fixed rope I was in. I should be secure now while I try to untangle. In pain and trying to catch my breath after the adrenaline surge, I looked up at Rory’s head torch at the top of the cliff. He was calling out something but I don’t know what. He started to descend. I yelled out “Wrong rope! That one has been cut!” He did not hear me and kept descending. I watched him move down while planning on catching him before he got to the Bergschrund but his descent was much more controlled. He did not go off backwards but kind of edged down sideways and never picked up the speed. When he got to the end of the loose cut rope, he fell a little but controlled the landing. He must have wondered what the hell I was doing in a web of ropes and tubing down at the mouth of the Bergschrund. I explained what had happened while carefully untangling myself from the ropes. I was surprised to find that an unlocked carabiner on my harness had accidentally clipped onto the fixed line during the fall. This is what actually stopped me. A freak occurrence which couldn’t be replicated even if you tried. I counted my lucky stars, unclipped the carabiner, carefully got to my feet and walked back up out of the mouth of the Bergschrund. That was close. Way too close!

I went to collect my trekking poles which I had left at the base of the cliff two days earlier. Some climbers will leave their poles there as they are of no use above the Bergschrund but incredibly useful in the CWM. They had been stolen. I kind of assumed that would probably happen and after everything it was the least of my worries.

Rory and I walked down the gentle slope into the CWM, crossed some random crevasses and made our way to the faint glow of Camp 2 in the distance. ‘I don’t remember it being so far away’ I thought.

Bizarrely there seemed to be a person just standing in the middle of the trail (middle of nowhere) with a head torch on. They were not going anywhere. The light was just suspended there looking around. When we got closer we realised it was our Camp 2 cook standing in the cold darkness waiting for us! He had a big pot full of cold lemon flavoured water (Tang). This was ideal as we were just talking about how thirsty we were now we had run out of water! We almost hugged him as he poured us two cups. We guzzled our drinks and savoured the moment but it was getting late and we needed to keep moving. After a long 22 hour day we arrived into Camp 2. Jon had already retired to his tent and Rory and I slumped in the mess tent where Tim had waited for us. We ate cold canned peaches and drank water. Eating other food did not appeal. We were ruined. Still buzzing from the endless march but fatigue was starting to set in..finally.

We retired to our tents for a surprisingly bad night’s sleep.

The next morning we left at different times. Jon and Tim set off at 7am while Rory and myself left around 8am. Coming down the CWM we were once again shrouded in dense cloud. It was very quiet with almost no one on the trail. When we got to the first crevasse – a massive one – I grabbed the ropes and started to move across the triple span ladder. About a third of the way across I realised I had forgotten about my clipping in my carainers. If I fell off this ladder I would once again disappear into a black apparent bottomless crevasse! “You idiot” I shouted, stopped in my tracks and ever so carefully edged my way back ladder rung by ladder rung.

The rest of the descent an exhausted Rory and myself stayed vigilant and doubled checked each others work every time we got to another obstacle. Luckily just as we were arriving at the end of the CWM and the beginning of the Icefall our Summit Climbing Sherpas caught up to us. They waited and escorted us through the Icefall all the way back to Base Camp. The Icefall had yet again changed significantly with a slightly different route, bigger crevasses and lots of melt water and icicles. Clearly it was the end of the season and this place would be ‘closed’ to climbers in a few days. Whoever was still on the mountain trying to summit better hurry up and get down. When we arrived at the entrance of Base Camp, Dep – a Sherpa who had been with us the entire expedition was waiting with bottles of Sprite! What a great surprise!

We had done it. Officially climbed through the Icefall for the last time and survived the mountain. Now I could relax. Now I could celebrate.

We got into Base Camp and we were told that we may have a chopper to take us out of here in 1 hour! Fantastic I thought. I quickly ripped through my tent, packed up all my gear and got my bags ready. Unfortunately the weather had other plans. Thick cloud was covering Base Camp but worse Lukla – where the helicopters are – had zero visibility. We waited in hope but then got the news that a flight arriving into Lukla and come in to low and crashed nose first into the small dirt cliff just before the runway. All on board died instantly. All flights grounded.

We settled in for ANOTHER night on the mountain. The boys cracked a few beers pilfered from a nearby clientless camp and got a bit glazed. I hit a wall and completely crashed so took myself to bed. The last night in my tent which had been my home for the past 6 weeks (apart from the ‘Ankle Intermission’ in Barcelona).

The next morning there was cloud floating around Base Camp. I got a chair and stubbornly placed it in the middle of camp facing down the valley. I stared at the clouds for a good couple of hours willing them to part. (much like the delusional people trying to ‘Cloudburst’ in the film ‘Man Who Stare At Goats’).

Eventually the sky cleared up in Base Camp and also down in Lukla and the choppers swarmed in to rescue all the stragglers left in Base Camp. The flight was awesome. The sky wasn’t completely clear in the valley so the chopper flew very low, peeling through the hills and skimming the rocky glacier below.

Jon and I waiting in Pheriche where we were dropped by our chopper with some bags and then picked up again (multiple journeys required due to weight/altitude).

As we came into Lukla we had a first hand view of the plane wreckage from the day before. It was a mess with the whole front of the plane smashed flat and the body compressed in a zig zag shape. Those poor people.

We were dropped in Lukla and had to wait for the standard helicopter baggage delays as some kit bags were left at Base Camp due to weight limitations.

We eventually were back on board with all our bags and flew to Kathmandu. Upon arrival I made some calls and sorted some alternative accommodation as the Hotel Manaslu was not fitting our current requirements of ‘The best hotel in Kathmandu’.

We checked into the Hyatt Five Star hotel and enjoyed its massive king size bedrooms, amazing showers, cold beers, pool and excellent hamburgers.

We went out that night to eat at ‘Fire and Ice’ (one of the few great restaurants in Kathmandu which serves excellent pizza). Afterwards the plan was to hit the booze but we all crashed not long after and retired to the hotel.

I caught my flight at 7am the next morning back to Barcelona. Alejandra was waiting at the airport. It was great to be back with her. We raced home to see Charlie who jumped out of Alejandra’s arms when she saw me and yelled ‘Daddy!’. She had not forgotten me. She then spent the next hour just lying on my chest in a perpetual cuddle not saying anything. Cute!

I lost 12Kgs (25lbs) over the two months and two weeks afterwards I am still exhausted. A fantastic adventure but I am glad it is all over.

Its done. Everest is now a memory. Finally!

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So whats next you ask? Mount Vinson in Antarctica of course! Just need to work on a permission slip from the boss.

5 thoughts on “The final descent – South Col to Base Camp

  1. Doug Hesse says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your full, detailed accounts. Sounds like your “guide” left tons to be desired. Glad to hear the Sherpas came through and that you persevered. Appreciatively, from Colorado. –Doug

  2. p2 says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Amazing account of an amazing adventure. Glad you are home safely…. Well done, mate.

  3. Cheryl Penson says:

    A fabulous ending to a momentous and arduous journey! What a story Blake! Looking forward to the journals of the next adventure…hopefully not such a cliffhanger as this one! So proud of you Blake!

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