The Summit Day Descent
The descent got underway at around 8:45am with now Zakir leading the way, Hassan had again gone AWOL possibly a simple desire to get down to safety as soon as possible.
The plan was that on the abseils Zakir would descend each fixed rope until he passed each fixing point at which point I could follow as the tension on the rope would be released allowing my figure of 8 to move smoothly downwards. Early on we passed an Estonian Woman making the final stage of her solo ascent (she had been part of a group of 5 Estonian’s whose original aim was Gasherbrum I) I’m guessing that her 4 Male colleagues had summitted earlier in the day & had earlier passed me on their way down.
I navigated the tricky corner leading to the slope of my earlier fall carefully before making a long slow but safe abseil to the point of my fall itself. My sore ankle was not helping but abseiling was less painful than the forward walking un-roped descent that immediately followed it. Zakir & another climber (whom I presumed must be Hassan) watched on as I cautiously descended to them. Reaching them I was surprised to discover that the other climber was a young Australian whom I knew from BC & not Hassan, the Australian had reached his high point for the day & would follow our descent at a respectful distance into Camp 4.
Next up was an un-roped descent of firstly the ‘Elephant’ followed by the long Traverse under the summit pyramid to Camp 4. Under the heat & with tiredness mounting my pace was slow to say the least & whilst I initially encouraged Zakir to keep moving as he led us down it soon became obvious that I would need to stop & rest repeatedly. Clearly without fully realising any potential consequences I was getting very fatigued.
Zakir was moving quite a bit faster but kept turning his head to check on my progress & if he saw that I’d stopped he would do likewise to keep us within eyesight of each other, the Australian who was some way behind me would do likewise. The traverse’s fall to my left did keep me pretty focused but seemed a lesser worry than my physical weakness & ankle pain.
Despite this we reached Camp 4 where a significant rest & refuel were necessitated before the ‘final’ series of abseils could be tackled. Once again the plan would be Zakir abseil to each fixed point & I would follow once the ropes tension had been released. This would keep us together & allow me to focus on Zakir on a one section at a time type of basis.
There were a lot of sections & I was slow but felt safety coming closer all the time, my thoughts were slow & deliberate as I tried to focus on technique particularly ensuring that I remembered not to un-clip my safety line until the figure of 8 was securely back on the rope below the anchor points.
We finally got to the longer final abseil that would lead us onto a slightly less steep but un-roped snow slope which led back into Camp 3. So near & yet so far, then it all went wrong & big time!
I watched Zakir slowly abseil down the rope, almost out of sight he un-clipped looked up & seeing that I was beginning my descent, he turned began walking down the snow slope where he soon disappeared from my view. Not long after this I began to realise that this rope was very tight & at a fixing point it became so tight below I could hardly fix the figure of 8 onto it & could not feed the rope to abseil any further, basically I was stuck.
I un-clipped duly tripped over the rope & did a 180 degree spin hitting the ground (solid rock) hard on both elbows, that f…… hurt! I can remember standing back up telling myself ‘You need to be careful Paul, this is a very dangerous place’. However what I don’t remember is how I got to a place 15 Metres further down this mixed rock & snow slope. I clearly hadn’t taken another fall but I’d had a mental blackout which made no sense First thought was ‘am I still on the mountain or is this a dream?’ For reassurance I looked at my watch for the date & time to conclude ‘I’m still on it, I’m alone & exposed & I’m going to have a battle to get down from here’.
I re-tried fixing onto the rope, no joy, to make matters worse I now realised I was missing my Ice-axe. Fortunately I seemed able to weigh up things with a degree of logic & not being able to abseil decided to go back up find the site of my fall in the hope that I would find my axe. This paid off & it was soon back in my right hand. Next I tried the rope again, again no joy, at which point I looked up to see the Estonian woman who was 20 metres above & beginning to tie-onto the same rope. Despite my shouts to stop her she was soon down to my lower point whilst I had moved above to see if there were any other (older) ropes that could be used. There were a lot of pre-covid ropes, all frayed & useless & to cap it all I’d left my multi-tool in Camp 3 to save weight so couldn’t cut any free to help me use in a make-shift descent.
Eventually the Estonian found a way to halve the gap between the fixed rope & the safety of the snow slope before becoming stuck & unwilling to un-tie for the remaining descent to it. I decided our best chance was to work together which would mean me descending to her & on the way un-clipping her safety line whilst instructing her to stay put until I reached her. Thankfully this all seemed to work easier than it looked & she was soon following me albeit moving at a very slow pace. We reached the relative safety of the snow slope (the first stage of my ascent the evening before with a sharp fall-off to the left this time). It was by now well trod & only a tired trip was to be feared. As it turned to the right the steepness lessened, Camp 3 came into sight with a figure departing it & making his way towards us.
He stopped after a few hundred metres & waited for me to slowly join him. It was not Zakir or David but Yeossuf, who (again I’m guessing here) had either decided that Zakir had been back in camp too long with no sign of me so he’d come to look for me or had been sent by David to do likewise. Either way it was great to join him, he took my backpack & walked me back into Camp, it was now 3:30pm, I’d been awake for 37 Hours & on the summit climb for 17 of them. Joining David in the tent I was greeted by ‘I hear you took a fall, maybe we’ll descend to Camp 2, see how you feel in half an hour’, think my response was ‘O.K., can I have a cup of tea please’.
45 Minutes or so later we began packing, crampons were put on & we began a one & a half hour descent to Camp 2 (Rui & Luke had descended to it earlier that afternoon). My ankle really didn’t like this but again abseiling rather than forward walking made it more bearable. We reached Camp 2 at dusk (circa 6:30/7:00pm), Luke called out congratulations to which I responded with ‘I’ve got a bit of a story to tell but probably best for another day’. I then joined Rui in the tent where he made me a couple of cups of tea whilst kindly telling me ‘well done Paul’ among other kind words.
Not much rest for the wicked bedding down a little after 8:00pm ready for a 4:00am start for our further descent to Camp 1.
Enough for now the summit day was over but there was still a lot of work to do even if it went to plan & almost inevitably it didn’t! My ‘bit of an epic’ was to continue for another 4 days.
PS. The Estonian woman got down safely too.
PPS. Reflecting back on the trip has been a daily inevitability for me since I returned to the U.K. a little over 3 weeks ago (as I write this). After 2 weeks I thought I was beginning to come to terms with it as my emotions quietened into a more logical reflection of the positives of the experience (particularly those from Summit day to my arrival at the Camp at Saicho, a period of 5 days). However since beginning to write these blogs a week ago my mind is again scrambling into all kinds of what’s, if’s & really’s. Seemingly these could go on for weeks if not months so any plans to write a Postscript of these emotions in an acceptably (to me) definitive way may need me to be very patient with Myself. For now though a quick reflection of my ‘Black-Out’ above Camp 3.
In the initial days after it I began to think ‘was it altitude sickness?’ after all I had not acclimatised above 6,000 metres before the summit push & did it all without the use of Oxygen. My logic has argued, I think correctly, ‘No it can’t have been altitude sickness’. This is based on my memory both immediately before & after the ‘Black-Out’ being very detailed on all aspects of the descent. Cerebral endema would surely (from the many details I have read about it) not allow such memories as it’s effects on the mind cause incoherent confusion which can only be resolved by rapid descent or the giving of Oxygen. So based on this I can only conclude that it was lack of sleep & my tired exhausted state which caused it, possibly even a form of power-nap sleep walking. If anyone out there has any thoughts on this or better still knowledge of a similar experience I would welcome comments on it.