With nine ascents of Mount Everest, 25 ascents of Antarctica's Vinson Massif, 17 ascents of Denali, and 245 ascents of Mount Rainier--almost all with clients in tow--Dave Hahn may be the most successful mountain guide of his generation. To say he is at the top of his game is an understatement. The fact is, Hahn is a mountain guide who in the past few years has changed the nature of the game itself. He has demonstrated an aptitude not only to successfully climb each year marquee mountains all over the world, but he also manages to get his clients safely to the top and back down again. And in the process he's become a mountaineering journalist who has garnered increasing respect in the literary world.
Last year, while reporting for GreatOutdoors.com, Dave Hahn made his ninth ascent of Mount Everest. Stopping to call in every few hours, he made a live telephone call from the summit. His historic live call from the summit of Mount Everest was one of the most exciting moments of the season's coverage, with his vivid descriptions of the view from the top of the world. He continued to call as he descended the mountain in the glow of a rare, peaceful sunrise on Mount Everest (Hear Dave's live reports from last year).
But his ninth summit turned challenging later that morning when he descended past a feature called the Balcony at 27,500 feet. Hahn, who already has received the Sowles Award from the American Alpine Club for a rescue he made on the North Side of Everest in 2001, came upon a Canadian climber -Megan McGrath, attempting to aid a barely conscious Nepali climber -Usha Bista. Hahn, a licensed EMT and professional ski patrolman went to work, certain that Bista would die without quick action to reverse the effects of Cerebral Edema, Exhaustion and Hypothermia. Despite having just climbed the highest mountain on earth, he had to deal with the prospect of putting together a technical rescue from an altitude where any rescue at all is very rare.
Hahn administered crucial first aid and began struggling to drag Bista toward the 26,000 ft South Col camp. Many good climbers answered his requests for help and in particular, two other International Mountain Guide expedition members, Casey Grom and Mike Haugen took over leadership of the rescue after doctors at the South Col stabilized Bista. That afternoon, Grom and Haugen with Hahn's assistance, managed a technical lowering across the Lhotse Face to get the stricken climber down to Camp III, where British doctors from another expedition took over her care. At the outset of that complicated stage of the rescue, while rigging the litter case for a descent of the Geneva Spur, the rescuers watched an even greater tragedy unfold. They watched a climber fall from high on Lhotse, out of the Lhotse Couloir, more than 3,000 feet to her death. The rescuers in fact had to descend with their incapacitated climber very near where the body lay. As Hahn summed it up:
Well, that was certainly on our minds as we were working down eventually as we were lowering our victim through the Yellow Band we were only about a 100 feet from the remains of the woman who had fallen from the Lhotse Couloir. So it seemed like a pretty grim day to us. And with that we didn't finish with our litter case until well after dark. So trying to do the lowering on the Lhotse face with belays and lowering in the dark seemed pretty dangerous to us about then. We were able to get our victim to Camp III - our patient to Camp III, where she made a pretty good recovery with the help of the doctors that were there overnight. And we had already ducked down to Camp II getting there about 10:30 in the evening. And as I mentioned before we were pretty exhausted by then. Well that's a little bit about what's gone these last couple days. It's been a full few days.
His feat on Everest in 2006 was equally unusual: Hahn climbed Mount Everest twice, once in the spring pre-monsoon season, and five months later in the fall post-monsoon season. Everest remains the benchmark against which big-time guides measure each other, and Hahn's nine ascents are unsurpassed by U.S. based climbers. His successful ascent in 2005 with his neurosurgeon client was his sixth trip to the summit. Combined with his two ascents in 2006, and his summit in 2007, his nine ascents of Everest give Hahn even more summits than Pete Athans and Ed Viesturs, pretty good company indeed.
All those climbers have not only summitted the peak multiple times, they have guided less-experienced climbers safely up and safely down, without undue drama. That's the kind of resume you look for when you set out to find somebody to guide your vulnerable body up the highest mountain on earth, and make the right decisions to get you back down. But even when compared to some of the most famous Everest guides of the modern era, Hahn's resume may be more impressive.
Dave Hahn not only guides every year on Everest, he routinely guides every year on Denali, on Rainier and on Antarctica's Vinson Massif, not to mention other specialties, such as guiding the Shackleton Crossing on South Georgia Island, and working ski patrol when he's at home in Taos, New Mexico. In some ways, his 12 years of guiding on Vinson (25 ascents), 22 years of guiding on Rainier (245 ascents, one helicopter crash, and a number of rescues) and his 22 years on Denali (where he was named the "Denali Pro Mountaineer of the Year" by the National park Service in 2001) is as impressive as his career on Everest. To lead those disparate groups of clients--the inevitable assortment of skilled climbers, gung ho novices, quietly capable beginners, and unprepared wanna-bes--into the maw of the beast again and again, and bring them back safely, is a demanding, high-risk job where a lot can go wrong. It's work that requires good judgment as much as climbing prowess.
But when Hahn guided Salt Lake neurosurgeon Doug Brockmeyer up Mount Everest in spring 2005, a quirky season marked by endless storm and disheartening delay, suddenly Hahn found himself being referred to as either the "main man" on which the other climbers all keyed, the "veteran" guide or the "overnight sensation." All three monikers brought the predictable easy grin to Hahn's features.
"The fact is," Hahn says, "successfully guiding Everest is in large part a matter of patience and the willingness to accept the fact that it might not happen. The primary weakness I sometimes observe in guides who have not been to the summit before is that they are perhaps a little too anxious to go for it. Now, that may work for them, but it won't necessarily work for their clients. Because here's the deal: To guide the client you need better conditions than you would need to climb the mountain yourself."
Hahn's comments go right to the essential truth about what he does: guiding is way different from climbing. "Guiding can be more difficult than simply climbing," he told GreatOutdoors.com "And I like that. I guess I like the combination and the variety that comes with it, but I do enjoy the challenge of guiding, of trying to help somebody safely reach a lifelong goal that might be out of reach if they were left to their own devices." To his detractors, those who say he doesn't put up new routes or push the limits of technical mountaineering, Hahn just shrugs. "Hardcore climbers might not appreciate the difficulty of the routes I climb," he said, "but pure difficulty doesn't interest me as much as the introduction of new climbers to those places-and seeing them safely to the summit and back down. I find that honest work, I'm just wired up that way."
To be fair, it should be remembered that Hahn has put up important new routes, such as the Hahn Headwall on Mount Vinson, climbed while filming a PBS documentary with Jon Krakauer. But he may be best remembered for his role in finding a long-lost British climber who disappeared high on the slopes of Everest's north side. Working with climbers such as Conrad Anker on an expedition lead by Eric Simonson, Hahn and the 1999 Mallory & Irvine expedition stood the mountain world on its ear when the members found George Mallory's body where it had lain for 75 years.
Everest had long been a magnet for Hahn, but it didn't come easy for him. Now, with nine successful summits--six via the South Col from Nepal and three via the Northeast Ridge from Tibet--it's easy to forget his earlier struggles.
"I made my first try in 1991," he remembered, "and I've turned back four times within a thousand feet of the summit." He reached the top in 1994, 1999, in 2000, and then, five years in a row: 03, 04, 05, 06 (twice) and 07. He failed to reach the summit in 2001 because he abandoned his own summit attempt to assist other climbers in trouble high on the North Side Route.
For that, Hahn was the recipient of the David A Sowles Award for unselfish valor from the American Alpine Club. Hahn has other Himalayan summits to his credit, as well, including two trips to the top of Cho Oyu with clients. But, in the end, Hahn may be remembered for his writing as much as for his climbing. A journalist and expedition correspondent, he contributed to the book about the discovery of Mallory's body, The Ghosts of Everest, and became a widely read internet columnist as he climbed around the world in the late '90s.
For the 2008 Everest season, Hahn will report exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com beginning in April.