This is also about the time that the wind gets even stronger and changes direction so that it starts blowing into our faces which makes it really pretty chilly and we soon have frost building up on our jackets.
We get to the first major drop off point at about 02:45 and it is a sea of people and groups trying to organise themselves - given that it is still pitch black you can easily see that it would have been pretty tricky to try and join the two parts of our group here. We stop very briefly and set off again to make sure we are ahead of all these people. There is a mini repeat of this as we pass the second drop off point at about 5,100. It has been a real slog up to here and it has started hailing which the strong wind is blowing horizontally into our faces These are some of the worst conditions I have been through on a summit day as yet and I feel a bit exposed without my big down jacket to keep the elements out - we are also not really waking at a speed that creates a lot of heat for me so I am having a pretty chilly day. The only consolation is that at times we can see very long snakes of head torches stretching a long way down the mountain so these poor people have a long way to go.
At about 04:30 the sun comes up and there is also a brief break in the cloud allowing us to take a couple of photos and see our surroundings.
|The long files of other climbers can be seen in the background|
Visibility is reducing rapidly and soon we can't see one route marker from the prior one which is a bit worrying at times - we have spent all day in conditions which would see a summit attempt cancelled on all the other 7 Summits so it will be interesting to see how things fare from here on. We are still making good progress and have been overtaking all the other groups we have come across. After a while we have another break, eat some rations and then leave our packs behind as we enter the final approach to the summit.
Whilst we are doing this the guide potters off, when we look round for him a 20 seconds later to see what he is up to, he is a couple of metres to the side (really not very far at all) and squatting down still facing us. Given the visibility we are having to stare very hard to see what he is up to and it is only then that we realise that he has dropped his trousers and is having a quick dump - we refrain from asking whether this is some curious way of showing respect to the mountain gods.
After that, there are a couple of steep slopes and then for the first time in the day the route flattens out as we hit the top of the ridge
and shortly after that a small plateau with a few people standing on it. We get there at 08:40, 7.5 hours after leaving and whilst it is a relief to finally be at the summit the conditions remain pretty poor - very windy, cold and with almost no visibility.
|The Summit Stone|
As such we only stay for about 20 mins; our guide says his prayers (a slightly more usual way of showing respect to the mountain and, we guess, some of his friends who have tragically lost their lives on it) and we take some (about 3) photos before heading off again at 09:00. That is more than enough time and the next groups are now arriving for their turn.
By half nine the cloud lifts and we can see about 150 - 200 people stretched out in long lines all the way back along the saddle. As always the lift of having reached the summit and going downhill makes everything seem a lot better together with a significant improvement in conditions. As we descend it appears that the story that we have walked all the way has circulated as Vladimir is being congratulated by all the guides that we come across - one of them has the good grace to think of us as well and gives me a smile and a thumbs up.
As we get back to the main slope back to camp we are overtaken by some skiers. Whilst it looks a great slope to ski down, the rapid warming is turning the snow to slush and we later come across them struggling in the wretched conditions. As the morning wears on and we descend towards the Barrels, it really warms up and we are walking through deep, wet and heavy snow which is really quite a drain at the end of a long, tough climb.
We get back to camp at 11:30 (total trip of 10 hours, 7.5 up and 2.5 down) to bask in both our glory and the sunshine that has now arrived!
I give Dave a quick debrief on the route and conditions to help the rest of the group for their bid and then start making arrangements to see if we can head off to Moscow early rather than hanging round in the desolate barrels for another couple of days.
This all works out and having packed and said our goodbyes we start down the mountain at 3pm. Unfortunately at ten to three the clouds returned and it has started to rain heavily. The chair lift is still running but it is a miserable descent and the conditions in the valley are little better. This is not helped by our driver not being there to meet us so we spend a while trying to find him before heading to a cafe for a beer and shashlik. We make some calls and finally find out that despite having been told that he would be there to meet us and would recognise us, he is sitting in his van in a car park that is a 5 minute walk away. I go and find him, expecting that he would be apologetic and would drive back to the cafe (it is still pouring) but instead he appears annoyed that I have interrupted his chat with a friend and makes it clear that we need to walk to him. He can then conveniently not understand enough of my Russian when I suggest he comes to the cafe. Eventually I am just too fed up and tired to argue (or at least attempt to argue) and so walk back to the cafe to get Gus and our packs before we finally head back to Cheget and the hotel. There we have a quick shower and another miserable dinner before an early night in preparation for celebrations in Moscow!
The rest of the group planned to head up the next day but did not really get started. The day after (their last chance) they headed up again with 2/3 summiting and the rest turning back not long after getting off the snowcat.
Next up the adventure in West Papua and the Carstenz Pyramid which is the highest peak in Australasia