Right after the euphoria of summiting I always experience the slightest tinge of dread in my stomach. Now we have to go down. And someone once said, some crazy percentages of climbing accidents happen on the way down. Time to put my guard back up and practice that CONSTANT VIGILANCE that Mad Eye was always talking about. We turned around to go back the way we came.
All told the way down was a cake walk. The sun had risen right out of the smoke and was floating, red as a sliced tomato, right above where the horizon should have been. But the thick gray obscuring the distance acted like a murky ocean, hiding the horizon from view. Despite being a different color the sun was still as powerful as ever and things were heating up quickly on the mountain. The snow, which had been crampon worthy just an hour before was already soft and slushy. Parties coming up looked miserable in their layers and mountaineering boots and a number of them seemed to stare longingly at our trail runner-ed feet. We tromped down past them, feeling a little smug about our grand decision to wake up at 2am.
Rocks fell liberally off of the summit block and down onto the Cool Glacier. With these at our back we sped over the bergschrund and below Disappointment Peak, keeping our ears perked for the sound of cracking. At the bottom of the glacier crampons were stowed and helmets were stashed and we were off of frozen water molecules and back on solid ground. Like little road runners we powered down the dirt, eyes peeled for the wraith goat. Up the slippery snow, down to Glacier Gap, across the lost planes and back into camp we hiked. Once there we threw ourselves down on the most comfortable rocks we could find (something of an oxymoron) and filled up on snacks and water, swatting lazily at horseflies and staring back at Glacier Peak.
It already seemed like a distant memory, like a dream from another life time. How quickly your circumstances can change. We packed up our tent, our recent accomplishment staring at our backs as we hurried through the motions of putting everything away. One final salute to a place we may never see again and we were off, back across the muddy, boulder strewn flats towards White Pass where we planned to camp.
We had already decided our hike out would be one full of breaks. We stopped at every pass, fighting off black flies and horseflies to enjoy a little rest. At Sex Pass we got our last glimpse of the mountain, hazy with smoke, brooding darkly in its wilderness. A couple of steps down the trail and it was gone.
White Pass came quickly and we descended off the delicate ridge down to a couple of established campsites. Picking the flattest ones we set up and crawled onto our sleeping pad for a much deserved nap. Poor Sarah and Carl were using our old Zpacks tent, which has seen SO many miles of hiking I can’t believe the cuben fiber hasn’t shredded like tissue paper at this point. After almost one and a half long trails the zipper doesn’t work so well any more and so they got into their tent along with what sounded like 100 black flies. While Kyle and I lay in our tent snickering unkindly they sweated it out in their cocoon, waging a war against the thirsty little blood sucking bastards. Sarah exclaimed that it was the worst experience in her life. It had been a long day.
Eventually we determined it was cool enough to attempt dinner – Kyle and I repeated the night before’s devastating dance of rehydrating a meal we had never tried. Needless to say we weren’t hungry enough to eat it and suffered the consequences the next day when our packs were heavier than before. After dinner we hung out by walking around a ten by ten foot square of dirt to avoid being eaten alive by bugs. After putting in a few extra miles I had the brilliant idea that we should, instead, hang out in our tents and play Contact. Which we did. It was preferable to the walking. Our game petered out as our eyelids grew heavy and soon we were all sticking to our sleeping pads, tossing the night away.
Kyle and Carl had described the final descent to the cars as pure torture but I found it lovely. A downhill quad burner and then a meandering walk through the woods, the perfect way to end an amazing climb. Oh wait, that’s not true, the perfect way to end an amazing climb is always with Mexican food. And so after a bit of driving we found ourselves at La Hacienda, a little chain restaurant in a tiny strip mall, sipping margs and stuffing our faces with combo plates. Now that is the way you end a successful summit.