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Everest 2011: Lhotse Face, Sara For the Summit, A Death, Squalls and Avalanches

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Dave Hahn, Sara, Bill near base of Lhotse Face

Text and photographs by Dave Hahn, a guide for RMI Expeditions and First Ascent. In May 2010 Hahn reached the summit of Mount Everest for the 12th time, the most of any a non-Sherpa climber. This time, he is leading a Bill McGahan and his 16-year-old daughter, Sara, on a bid for the summit. Follow the team's Everest expedition in dispatches here. 

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A hot shower, cotton clothes, chairs with backs, an appetite, easy temperatures, brain temporarily free of icefall fixation….

Must be rest day #1. Still decompressing from the last week on high and not yet laser-focused on the coming week, which will be higher still. I'm tempted to call the past week a good one, since we each came down healthy and with some clarity and confidence as to what will be next, but to be honest, it was a tough week in several ways.

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Hike to base of Lhotse Face … ABC tents visible just left of climbers

While things went as planned for Sara, in that she got stronger and more acclimated with each day of the past rotation, that wasn't the case for her Dad. Bill, although strong and fit, was hitting some sort of personal limit in living at Advanced Basecamp and venturing to around 22,000 feet. Ultimately, we chose to get Sara the experience she needed on the Lhotse Face while her dad stayed below. We knew eventually that we'd need to reformulate a plan for going ahead with the expedition … or for ending it.

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Helicopter watching us on Face

Sara did climb well and strong with me to 23,000 feet a few days back. She didn't seem particularly fazed by the massive exposure and steep angles. She did a good job dealing with the distraction of other climbers (mostly Sherpas going fast up or fast down) needing to pass on the fixed ropes and a single set of steps chiseled in the ice. She didn't seem any more bothered than I was by the novelty of two helicopters hovering a few hundred meters away on some rumored film project. Sara kept concentrating on clipping her safety gear past anchors and on setting her crampons securely and on breathing steadily with each new step even though she knew a medical emergency had taken a man's life just the day before on these same ropes and in these same footsteps. Many of the Sherpas and guides we met and spoke with had some involvement in trying to mitigate the sad circumstances of the day before and it was impossible to be so high on the world's 4th highest mountain without dealing with some heavy and sad thoughts on mortality. This was balanced by the incredible beauty and expanding horizons we were granted as we climbed higher…. Everest, our next door neighbor for now, just kept getting more magnificent. Until it developed a bad case of snowclouds, as did Lhotse.

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Sara at turnaround point on the Lhotse Face (snowstorm moving in)  GPS reads 23,001 feet

Although we were in view of the first tents of Camp III, which would have made a fine goal for the day, it seemed best to turn and get a little experience descending the steep face with a little less snowfall and associated sluffs streaming down the face. At our highpoint, I pulled my GPS from a pocket and we established that Sara had just crushed her previous altitude record from her climb of Aconcagua several years back. We "arm rappelled" back down the face and tiptoed on crampon points to get across the steep bergschrund at its base. Then on easy angled glacier again, we made excellent time down to where Bill and Linden had come out to meet us above ABC.

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Wind over Lhotse

Yesterday morning we dodged a few more snow squalls and dodgy snow bridges and we even spied a spectacular avalanche off the side of Nuptse during our journey from ABC to base. It all seemed eventful and a little crazy and excessive, to be honest. Lam Babu and Uberaj joined us for the walk to base and Kaji and Dawa went all the way up to ABC with heavy loads and still caught us before we exited the Icefall on the way down. Tcherring and Tuck were in camp to greet us with smiles and handshakes and… even better, Kumar greeted us with lunch. We were tired but quite happy to be down.

Today, we sat together and developed that new game plan for the coming weeks. Bill won't climb up with us on these next rounds… he won't go for the summit and Sara will. It isn't what we wanted going into this expedition, but it seems like the smart plan under the circumstances. Bill will write of his thoughts on the matter in coming days.