I was still apprehensive about our situation as we turned to come down, the wind was as strong as ever and I wondered what it would blow our way. I soon found out. The wind started whipping small clouds at us and visibility quickly decreased to right around 30 ft, which was an easy measurement as Matt was at the end of the rope, 30 ft in front of me, and when it became difficult to see him, I knew we were in the soup. The high winds kept everything in motion so visibility remained greatly variable, though Matt remained confident he could spot the upcoming crevasses even when it got thick, so we continued on.
The farther we got down the hill, the better the weather got, until at about half way the sun seemed to burn through the intermittent clouds and it seemed almost balmy. The snow underfoot really softened up and we both shed a few layers, loping down the hill. Matt took a few unscheduled shortcuts down the side after losing footing, but I managed to arrest his fall and belay him over to the trail below us. At this point the only thing left to consider was getting off the hill before it got really slushy, so we stopped and snapped pictures of some of the snow features we'd passed on the way up.
Finally we got down to the cleaver, negotiated it and ditched our crampons, and the slid and skated down the rest of the hill toward the flats. I was really looking forward to collapsing in our tent safe and sound and forgetting the idea of moving down to Muir that day. I didn't think the rangers would raise any alarms if we didn't' show up right away. We had spotted our tent from higher up earlier in the day and ever since I'd been eager to crawl in my bag and get some sleep.
As we arrived on the flats a man popped out of the lone tent on the field and inquired, "you two weren't the one's camped up there were you?"
I turned to glance up at our campsite and realized that the tent was in fact not there anymore. This is not good.
"It blew away a bit ago in a particularly violent wind gust. We managed to toss a rock on it when it landed in this pit."
It seems our tent stakes in the snow routine was insufficient for the day's wind, and we found our tent in the bottom of a hole in the snow, broken tent poles bristling. Luckily Matt had tossed everything in camp back inside the tent before we left. [Aside: out of the 110 lbs we were collectively carrying, we only took the rope, our rescue gear, a bit of food, 3 liters of water, and whatever clothes we weren't wearing. I'd say that left at least 50-75 lbs of gear in the tent. That must have been a serious wind "gust."]
So, we emptied out the tent, repacked all of our gear, roped up, and set out for Camp Muir. The thought at this point was to either see if we could find a spot in the public shelter at Muir since our tent was hashed, or if possible get to a pay phone at the bottom of the mountain if the visitor's center stayed open long enough. The trip to Muir was quicker going back, being mostly downhill, though Cathedral Gap was still a dirt skating rink. We beat feat across the rock field in the warm afternoon sun, hoping nothing melted out an fell on us. The rangers at Muir told us that the Hotel at Paradise had a payphone in it, so we could call my parents whenever we made it to the bottom. So after a quick break, we set off down the hill to descend the rest of the way to Paradise.
And so the hunt for glissading tracks began; we spread out looking for the best ones, and found more than a few. It made the trip down a lot shorter, at least on the snow, and we had a great time. I patented a new sliding technique where I used my ice axe to pull my heels up off the snow while I leaned forward to distribute the pack weight across my legs, which seemed really get my going down the hill quick.
At Pebble Creek we left the snow and started along the path. The beautiful alpine meadows that were so inviting on the way up were now shrouded in mist and cloud, and the whole scene was gray and oddly quiet with all the tourists evidently gone from the mountain in the inclement weather. After descending 8,000 ft from the summit, the last several hundred feet of lost elevation on the paved trail seemed particularly bothersome to the knees and ankles, Matt's plastic boots were once again working against him.
Finally we made the bottom of the hill and walked over the the Paradise Inn. We dropped our packs and went inside to find the phones. After a quick collect call to Mom we set about waiting outside, since I was fairly certain they didn't want two highly smelly backpackers stinking up their family friendly lounge. We sat outside on their patio, and squared our gear away. While we waited various and sundry tourists happened along to ask us about our trip, a curious vacationer from Minnesota, a bored father trying to escape his children, and a nicotine addicted army communications officer killing time during a smoke. The conversations were actually pretty entertaining.
After a 2 hour wait, Mom and Dad finally arrived, we tossed the gear in the car, and collapsed in the back. Another 2 hour drive back home and a hot shower and it was Midnight, making Monday a 24 hour day.
Sleep came very quickly.