We are attached to the fixed rope as we descend. Lavern and I have experience of this, but the other two do not. Vladimir is attaching them to the top of the rope, which is awkward because there seem not to be enough belay points, the rope seems to lie tight to the ground and we if we had each been using two karabiners on short rope lengths the manoeuvre would have been far easier. He says “Who did I give my gloves to?” I wonder why he asks this question and then notice a pair of mittens gracefully sliding and then whimsically gambolling down the slope towards the saddle. Yet another vital piece of personal equipment gone and a temporary glove keeper left mortified.
Once at the end of the fixed rope we rope up together and Vladimir asks if I will lead down towards the saddle – which I am happy to do. After 10 or so minutes Vladimir bounds past us and heads at break-neck speed down towards the saddle and I realize that he is after a spare pair of gloves left in his rucksack before his hands seize with frostbite.
We’re traversing, un-roped in a slow descent below the saddle. Vladimir is leading, followed by Moegammad. Then me followed by Ganief and as directed by Vladimir, Lavern is bringing up the rear. We are in a white-out conditions and visibility is between 10 – 15m and the there is no discernible distinction between snow and horizon. I am struggling to see the footprints left by Moegammad in front of me and I am following his progress almost by intuition along a traverse that is probably at an angle of 40 or so degrees. I hear Lavern shout “Steve.” I turn and see Ganief face down in front of her in the snow. He is immobile. I know he has been taking tremendous strain and am somehow not surprised. I shout “Vladimir!” Vladimir who is barely visible, immediately turns back.
Initially Vladimir ropes himself to Ganief, but I am concerned about the poor visibility, the steep slope that we are traversing and the fact that we had already become uncomfortably strung out before Ganiefs temporary collapse. I ask Vladimir how long this traverse is likely to take – and he says a long time. I suggest that we should be roped together, and after much agonising manoeuvring and shouted instructions from Vladimir that’s what happens.
Clouds are pretty amazing wherever you are and if you can be bothered to look up for long enough. For probably obvious reasons clouds seen at altitude have a greater clarity. It is not I think just because the air quality adds to cloud photogeneity but romantically because one is closer to the point where clouds are actually forming.
As we are descending I promise myself to remember the cloud forming above me. I am too tired and cold to stop and take out my camera. The cloud above me is performing slow gambols that are begging to be described in terms of earthly experiences. Forests are standing on their heads, pigs are smoking their own socks, wistful fairies are leaning down towards me, and gilded mushrooms are reaching out . . . . Jet stream winds are conspiring with temperature gradients and saturation points to create filigree intemperate and wild ephemeral sculptures that only I (and my companions) can and ever will see.
These are private moments; a very personal gallery that is unique and ever changing. Earlier I've watched a classic lenticular cloud formation settle into the middle horizon, extensive and embracing, defining the horizon; somehow solid even though it is ‘merely’ cloud. In contrast the cloud above us now is small and contained, almost insular as it clown dances within its own defined space, creating its own shape within its own time; the sock smoking pig loses its wig and transmogrifies into stand of pine trees . . .
And as I now write this I am oddly glad that I have no photographs because my now sharpened memory would be dulled and adulterated by poor two dimensional visual reminders . . . . and the trip would have been badly misremembered.
We have descended to 5,000m or so. Vladimir has phoned for a skidoo to pick us up. We are variously sitting and lying in an area of broken snow and ice that has been churned up by previous skidoo activity. We are terribly tired. The roped frog march to this point has been agonizingly slow and the incidents of missed footings increasingly frequent. It is late on Sunday. Most of the Skidoo drivers have knocked off, and who can blame them?
A second phone call confirms that the skidoo will not ascend this high. It (they?) will meet us at 4,700m. Another 300m agonizing descent looms. It is late afternoon, which after a 5am start means that this has been an achingly long day already. Below us as we stumble down the snow slopes we see a skidoo progressing across the snow towards the 4,700m mark which is at the top of the Pastukhov Rocks. Ganief has found new energy and is surging ahead following Moegammad and Vladimir who are well in front. Vladimir has placed Lavern at the rear of the group as sweeper. From above I see that Moegammad reaches the skidoo first and obviously instructed by Vladimir mounts the vehicle along with a spare rucksack and the skidoo takes off. From above I watch Ganief stop 50 or so metres away from the departing skidoo. From 100m behind him I feel that his back is expressing absolute dejection, perhaps even despair as the skidoo speeds away down towards warmth and safety. But perhaps I am merely imagining how I would feel in that situation.
I don’t know how long we wait before I suggest to Vladimir that he might like to phone again to find out what is happening with the skidoo. I feel the cold beginning to invade my clothing I have been in colder conditions but never have I felt so exposed –and despite (but perhaps because of) the surly unyielding presence of Vladimir so alone; and I begin to worry about hypothermia. How long does one wait before taking some sort of action? What sort of action? I cannot face walking another faltering downhill step. Downhill snow walking is at that moment the most exhausting activity I can think of and I cannot, I will not keep doing it. The colours of the landscape are becoming sharper as dusk grey blues and sunset pale yellows and oranges surge across the sheer mountain walls across the valley, chased by swift and lowering clouds. The sharpness of the canvas is reflected in the dropping temperature. The cold is beginning to seep into my soul.
Vladimir says that we must walk down to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. “This I cannot do,” I complain. He gives me his spare walking pole and ignoring my whimpering he sets off down the further 100m descent to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. My thighs, buttocks and knees are a dull mass of pain and my mind is numb. On later reflection it was far better that we were actually moving although at the time I was detesting everything about my condition and was swearing at Vladimir’s rapidly descending back.
I have survived the most bone crunching skidoo ride imaginable. The vehicle arrived as I stumbled down the last few metres to the base of the Pashtukov Rocks. Vladimir told me to mount the machine – as if I needed any encouragement – and said he was going to walk down the remainder of the way by himself.
I stand at the Barrels and look up at the mountain, which looks benign, almost gentle – certainly unchanging. From 3am this morning to now, 8pm this evening, it’s been a full day of intense effort, hardship, emotional extremes, and all sorts of other disjointed experiences.
It’s okay. We've achieved what we set out to do, and are better for it, but it will be some time before it all comes into focus and makes sense; probably much later. Now is the time to get food, hot liquid, lots of talk; and rest.