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Two Times to the Top

By Dave Hahn - January 11th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Mountain guide and correspondent Dave Hahn climbed to
the summit of Mount Everest last May--and did it all over again last
October, as he guided a group of climbers and skiers to the top of the
world's highest peak. A pre-Monsoon summit combined with a post-Monsoon
summit, both via the South Col route on the Nepal side, is a guiding
accomplishment of genuine rarity. But for eight-time Everest summiter
Hahn, who routinely guides Everest, Denali, and Rainier when he's not
ski patrolling in Taos, it's all in a long day's work. Here are Hahn's
thoughts on his 2006 Everest 'two-fer.'

It has been pointed out to me that climbing Mount Everest twice in five months time is noteworthy. I don't quibble. After all, I worked hard to accomplish it... and "noteworthy" is ambiguous enough that I'm satisfied that those into trivia would duly note it while those with more important things to think about would rightly dismiss it. In any case, getting up twice was an oblique goal for me... by which I mean that climbing it each of those two times was my only real goal. Afterward, the linkage can be made and I'm happy to declare victory in that quest as well.

This was not, by any stretch, a record of particular moment. Others have tagged the summit twice in a week: Danuru Sherpa from Phortse did it twice in four days, and several of the Sherpas that I was up with on October 19th had similarly been to the top the previous May. But it was a record for me. I'd never attempted the mountain in the Autumn, or "post-monsoon" season before. Others had, but trying to go up Everest post-monsoon has definitely fallen out of favor. There are a number of reasons, but chief among them is that there is less chance for success in the Fall. Everest climbing these days is all about maximizing chances for success and so the pre-monsoon, or Spring season is a better bet for most folks. The fact that we were the first in six years to make the summit from Nepal post-monsoon would seem to confirm that. For me personally, my reluctance to try in the autumn had more to do with my aversion to premature death. There is generally conceded to be more risk of avalanche in the post-monsoon season, which really is more aptly called the late monsoon season. The monsoon brings big snowstorms to the Everest region, big snowstorms cause big avalanches. And of course, another good reason that I avoided the September/October window was that it gets hard to live much of a normal life when combined with the spring Everest season and a few of the other lengthy trips I specialize in. Going in the spring means leaving in March and coming back in June, while going in the Fall means leaving in August and coming home in November... time-consuming when added up. But I said yes to doing it all this year.

I said yes in the latter part of June, when the feeling persisted that I'd been strong and acclimatized at the end of the spring season and that I was disappointed that I couldn't use that strength in the arena it was designed for--Everest. And I said yes because I'd been given a very good offer for employment--a chance to work with three accomplished professional athletes. I wanted to be around Kit and Rob DesLauriers and Jimmy Chin. I wanted to see just how they intended to go about skiing from the summit of Mount Everest. And crucially, I knew and trusted the expedition leader, Wally Berg.

One of the reasons I wanted to go in the autumn was to experience a quieter version of the Everest game. I've consistently stuck up for the "crowd" that climbs each spring, pointing out that there are a lot of good people on the mountain with worthy goals and with ample respect for Everest and each other... but being around even a good crowd is not really why I go to big mountains and I have always dreamed of having the place to myself as my heroes did.

When we flew into Lukla and began our trek to Basecamp in late August, I was amazed at just how quiet things were and by how much I enjoyed the absence of trekkers and porters and yak trains full of gear and provisions for the tea houses. As our Berg Adventures International team wandered up-valley, I was continually delighted to see what summer had brought to the Khumbu Valley. The temperatures were warm and pleasant in places where I had only been used to experiencing the cold of late winter. Grass was green and growing, flowers were in bloom. As we got a bit higher, I thought I detected another great advantage in my coming in the "opposite" season. I'd left the States directly from my summer job of guiding on Mounts Rainier and McKinley. I couldn't possibly be in better shape for Everest and I believed my acclimatization from the Spring trip was still with me to some extent. Most practitioners of high altitude medicine would dispute that such a thing could be possible, but I gained confidence from the feeling, none-the-less.

The Khumbu Icefall in September seemed far better put together than it had been in late May when I left it. Ang Nima, the venerable icefall doctor, initially put in fewer ladders and I had high hopes that it would remain "easy." In the end, however, I think the route wound up just as horrifying and ridiculous as ever with the passage of six or seven weeks.

I'd had the mistaken impression that climbing in late monsoon conditions would mean being out there every day in new-falling snow... sort of one long storm. In reality, we enjoyed better weather than I'd gotten used to in spring when the end of winter makes one pay for drier conditions with greater cold and persistent winds. We just had one big five day snowstorm in the latter part of September. That storm did demand that we take notice. Luckily we were in Basecamp at the time, due for a rest anyway, but even so I was in awe of the storm's power. When it ended and sunshine and calm returned, the roar of avalanches pouring off surrounding peaks became nearly continuous. Our Sherpa team found that they had to refix nearly every inch of the route as up to five feet of snow had buried the Western Cwm. If we'd been up-mountain for the storm, things could have gotten desperate in a hurry.

The solitude we'd expected was not complete. There was a small Korean team camped nearby. But when it came to getting the route re-established, we might as well have been alone. Two teams at Basecamp as opposed to the normal twenty in spring was ok with me. This was vastly different to what was happening on nearby Cho Oyu just then. Dozens of teams had been ready to summit before the storm, dozens of teams punched their way to the top after the storm, reducing the load on any individual team. In that way the storm had set us back significantly. Ironically, it had snowed so much that the skiing had been ruined. My clients/partners had chosen autumn because the ice that is so much a part of Spring climbing would stand a good chance of being covered by early to mid-October. Instead, the Lhotse Face had been scrubbed down to ice again by a major slab avalanche during the storm. I found this massive scar to be mesmerizing and humbling. I was well aware that it had made our climb safer, ultimately. There was no instability left as the avalanche had taken everything away. Had it not stormed enough to trigger the slope, we'd have had to wonder and worry about the Lhotse Face. But of course the consequence was that my skiers would be taking on the great risk of falling down a giant skating rink.

Climbing for the top in October had a very different feel to it. Stress of waiting and of trying to pick a weather window is just plain stress, no matter what the season, but it has slightly different origins in Fall. With each day, one suspects that the jetstream winds are encroaching and that days are getting colder. Patience won't necessarily be rewarded. In May, when days are getting longer and the jetstream is easing northward while temperatures moderate, there can be substantial advantages to dragging one's feet (provided that the monsoon doesn't slam in and end things).

In the end, the summit itself was like the summit normally is... spectacular in every respect. More satisfying because we'd done it alone (the Korean team never made a try) and more visually stunning because this time (as opposed to my spring ascent) we'd managed to get up in broad daylight. But the summit was possible in the end because of the same reasons that we'd had success in the spring. We had a fine team with strong and experienced Sherpas. We had well-prepared climbers possessed of patience and determination. We had good luck. What's not to like?

So then back to the numbers. It turns out that it was my second summit in five months and my fifth Big E summit in a row. Unless I've managed to lose count, I've tried to climb Mount Everest twelve times now and have succeeded on eight of those occasions. I never imagined such stats when I began attempting big mountains and I'm proud of them.

But I try hard to keep numbers in their proper perspective. Apa Sherpa helps me greatly in this. He is the king of modern numbers, having tagged the top of Everest 16 times now, and I doubt that he worries much about my overtaking him. When Tenzing Norgay got to the top with Ed Hillary back in 1953, he'd been in both Spring and Fall of the preceding year. He'd reached the expedition high point on both of those Swiss attempts and he'd been the Sirdar as well, basically the manager in charge of logistics for what were massive teams of climbers, sherpas and porters. All three of his expeditions in that single calendar year had walked every step of the way to and from Kathmandu, so the trips were a lot longer than the 10 week ones that I was on. And there was the little detail that they were climbing a mountain that had never been climbed. Statistics don't tell that story so well.


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