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Reflections on Everest 2006

Everest Correspondent Dave Hahn takes a moment to reflect on the Everest season just finished
By Dave Hahn - August 23rd, 2006

Editor's Note: 

GreatOutdoors.com Everest Correspondent Dave Hahn reported from Everest
daily during the climb. He returned from Everest last month to do what
he does every summer, which is to guide climbers up Mount Rainier and
Denali. Before the summer season got busy, Dave took a moment to
reflect on the Everest season just finished.

A frustrating aspect to the end of the average Mount Everest climbing season is that just when everything has been packed and yakked, one is finally in great shape for climbing to the top of the darn thing. Contrary to popular belief, eight weeks on the big hill doesn't leave one in the "superb condition" that is shown on all those magazine covers dealing with shapely abs and pecs and butts, but it does whittle one into a specifically useful combination of air-moving, blood-pumping and leg-lifting ability... but then it is a shame to simply take such hard-won fitness and cram it into a lousy airplane seat for the endless ride back across the Pacific and away from the mountain that it is all designed for.

On the other hand, it sure is nice to come back into a world of comfort and to relax at home and forget about summit obsessions for a little while and to reflect on the past few months.

It seems bizarre now to remember that when, in the latter part of March, we went into Nepal, the country was on the verge of chaos. Very few people thought that the political situation there would get any better without getting a whole lot worse first. We were betting that we could slip in to our mountain before Katmandu reality intruded too heavily and that turned out to be the case. But it seems amazing now that while we were up there climbing away in April, the people took to the streets and changed their government and their nation forever. They accomplished this with some sacrifice and some suffering, but it was largely done peacefully and when we came back out in late May, most Nepalis we spoke to were quite optimistic about their future. All of this made our mountain seem a bit smaller in the greater scheme of things.

It hadn't seemed small, back in April, when it took an "extra" week or ten days to get the icefall route in. This job was being done by the icefall "doctors" of course, rather than by the mass of summit hopefuls that were accumulating in base camp. Most of us just had to spin our wheels for a time and be patient, which I don't remember finding to be all that difficult. Personally, what became difficult for me was that just as the icefall route was declared "in" and ready for use, I nearly broke my leg while trying to exit a technically difficult tent door. So I had to wait through a few more weeks of swelling and bruising and wobbling around without a leg to stand on. This was nearly unbearable to me on the morning when the icefall collapse occurred, killing three Sherpas. My instinct that morning was to run up through the icefall to the scene of the burial and I couldn't. It wouldn't have helped the victims of the ice avalanche in the least, they were dead immediately and buried deep... but it would have helped me to cope with the loss of my friend Ang Phinjo Sherpa. Phinjo died while working very hard on our behalf... a fact which couldn't help but make mountain-climbing lesser-still in any overall perspective.

When I was able to start hobbling up and down the mountain again near the end of April, and was able to stand in the Western Cwm and gaze up at Everest's bulk and majesty, its "worth" began to grow again for me. Sure enough, as I got a bit higher and my leg got a bit stronger with each new foray, I began to grow hungry again for a try on the top. Witnessing, from ABC, the sad aftermath of a Czech climber's accident on the Lhotse face did not do so much to discourage me, I'll admit. I believe I already knew well the consequences that would await me if I ever made a mistake on the Lhotse Face.... Instead, I was encouraged and inspired to watch the reaction of the Chilean team that went to the man's aid. They and many of our Sherpa team that were carrying to the South Col that day, did all they could for the man, ultimately administering care and staying with him in difficult circumstances on treacherous terrain until inevitably, he died of his injuries.

The wonder, as May began to stretch on a bit, was that we were not dealing with the jet-stream winds that normally make Everest climbing so challenging in the Spring season. A consequence was that we normally had a little snow every day, and sometimes a fair amount of snow, but generally our weather was good and we all hoped for even better weather to come. On our South Side of Mount Everest, there was excellent cooperation between the major "commercial" teams and the climbing route was fixed bit by bit and the way opened for the first summit teams on May 17th. This was several days after the major dramas, much publicized later, occurred on the North Side of the mountain. I'd like to think that we were benefiting from increasingly good weather and warmer temperatures. Even so, the first teams up had to do the hard work in trail-breaking and rope-fixing. In the week that followed, the weather and the route just kept getting better and in many ways, at least for the South Side climbers, it was a dream season for summiting.

Personally, I had a little trouble, at first, believing that the weather was going to be good enough. I aborted my first try at Camp III on the Lhotse Face because I trusted forecasts of bad weather and didn't like what I thought I was seeing in the clouds and wind above. Just a few hours later, from basecamp, I could see that the weather was getting better instead of worse... and sure enough, the forecasts then came around... far from being angry at fickle forecasting, I was just happy that good weather was settling in. By then I was healed and healthy and eager to climb. I showered and ate and drank at base camp and then moved directly to Camp II in a quick morning. The next day I went to Camp IV without great difficulty and that night, joined by my friend and hero Danuru, I went for the summit. Danuru had just been to the summit four days before and I was quite thankful that he had interest in going up again.

We walked out at 11PM and we barely exchanged a dozen words all morning. Danuru let me set the pace and climbing up through the dark on the steep triangular face, I barely looked back. I knew he was always one step behind and I drew strength and confidence from him, as always. Our only stop during the ascent was at the Balcony at 27,500 ft. and there we both knew we didn't want to waste any time. We were both all business and efficiency in grabbing a drink and changing out an oxygen bottle. We were off and climbing again in no time. Things dragged just a bit as we got caught behind slower climbers on the steep stretches below the South Summit, but eventually we got past and got moving steadily enough again that we could build up heat in the cold and dark conditions. We barely hesitated as we passed the last climbers on the South Summit itself and got right to work with careful steps across to the Hillary Step. It was novel to be doing this delicate traverse in pitch-black darkness, but it made me chuckle a bit to remember that visibility on this section doesn't really do one much good... it normally scares the stuffing out of me to be able to look down either the Southwest Face or the Kangshung Face from this little trail along a knife edge.

When we got to the Hillary Step, I was not at all sorry to find it in fabulously easy condition. A snow ramp nearly filled the chimney at its base and made it so that one only needed to take two steps on rock to get up the steep pitch of the Step. Similarly, thanks to the many climbers that had gone before us in the preceding days, there was an easy trail in the snow from the top of the Step to the top of Mount Everest. By then I was laughing just a bit to realize that we were going to be up top in total darkness at 4:20 in the morning. I tried to offer Danuru the lead for the last steps to the top, but he wouldn't take it. We walked up the final bit together and I was thinking, "Sometimes Hillary... Sometimes Tenzing," which is the amusing and practical way that many of the Sherpas answer the silly question of who actually got up there first in 1953.

We took flash pictures of each other on top, his eighth summit, my seventh. And then we got on down just as first light was leaking over the horizon. It was a beautiful and different summit day, after all. By around 6:30 in the morning we were safe and sound at high camp and that night we were getting fed, watered and well-looked after at ABC, nearly 8000 feet down the hill and a lot closer to home.

In reflection, I think I'd say that it was a hard expedition and an easy summit from my standpoint. I didn't expect such wonderful conditions in the end and I didn't expect to feel so strong and healthy and ready for more climbing as I packed my bags for home. Silly to be done then, but the monsoon was coming and perhaps it was just best to graciously accept a little good luck from Mount Everest once in a while.

By the time we were re-entering the world, we became aware of all the "furor" over what had gone on up North on the Tibet side of the mountain. It seemed that the yearly struggle to make Mount Everest climbing a parable for any and all bad changes that had occurred in the world since 1953 was underway and unstoppable. It didn't matter that few knew what had actually transpired those days at 28,000 feet. A few rumors and some gossip on the web would again stand in for facts and substance. The media and the public needed villains and needed to believe the worst about modern day climbers... and yet I suppose that it is all fair game if attention can be diverted for a few moments from bombs and wars and the real disasters of the planet.


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