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Everest 2011: Dave Hahn on the Summit (Photos): “Eventually We Had the Top to Ourselves and Enjoyed the Quiet”

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Everest Summit from South Summit

By Dave Hahn, a guide for RMI Expeditions and First Ascent; Photographs by Dave Hahn and Linden Mallory

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Dispatch #14 – The Summit

Our hope was to make the summit bid short and sweet, not so much because going for the top of Mount Everest is an awful and onerous chore, but more because dragging it out can be. Besides, we believed we were shooting for a discreet patch of calm weather and forecasts for such a patch are generally only reliable a few days in advance. It was to our advantage to cover big chunks of the mountain in a relative hurry. Leaving base camp and relocating to ABC in one push was our first real test in this effort and that went quite well. Even so, we'd planned a full rest day at ABC in order to get recovered, rehydrated, and ready for the real test—all of the Lhotse Face in one shot—about a vertical mile which would take us to 26,000 feet.

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Group shot at summit

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Kaji and Tshherring on top

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The rest time was dull and frustrating though, to be honest. Most of our friends were already up poised for the summit and, in fact, a fair number had already made the top and were coming back down. Hanging a day at ABC required patience—and patience two months into an expedition required discipline. I drank absolutely as much water as I could and fretted over whether I'd be strong enough to keep up with my partners. Tshherring, Dawa, and Kaji would each be carrying a bit more than me. Linden would be venturing into new terrain, so perhaps I'd eke out advantages here and there. And if all of those advantages failed, I'd rely on an old guide trick: specifying that my pace was the only one that would get us to our goal with strength intact … only fools would go slower or faster.

Yellow Band, 25,000 feet

The five of us got out of ABC at 2 a.m. and as usual, walking on a glacier in the dark cleansed my brain of concerns about competing with my partners. It was a perfect night with the peaks all lit by a giant moon. We all seemed to be climbing strong, making it to the base of the Lhotse Face in about an hour. Then we were across the bergschrund and moving steadily up the ropes with our headlights picking out steps worn into the ice. A few hours labor as the world got lighter and we cruised on into our Camp III site at close to 24,000 feet.

We each added a ten-pound oxygen bottle to our load at this point, but the big advantage was that we got to turn those bottles on and start breathing right. Linden and I joked during the next hour on steep ice, heading up toward the Yellow Band, that it was the easiest climbing of the entire trip due to the introduction of the Os. Sunrise on the face helped a little as well, pushing back the cold. We'd begun the Face with only a few other Sherpa teams out and about, but by the time we passed Camp III we were in full traffic as plenty of Western teams were getting out of their camps and heading up. Sure enough, we also began to see folks coming down from the South Col (the day before had been a big one for Everest summiting and this same day, the 20th of May, was going to be even bigger). Eventually, as we climbed through the Yellow Band, we ended up in less-busy space and we were able to stop for a little water, food, and photography. It was plain that we were enjoying perfect conditions and this made us pretty optimistic for the climb ahead. The Geneva Spur was to be our final obstacle of the day, guarding access to the South Col. Easy snow conditions and reliable fixed ropes on the Spur made it a cake walk.

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Linden and Tshherring topping out the Geneva Spur, 25,900 feet

We were excited to link up with friends and fellow guides at the South Col and to hear their stories. And then we were excited to dive in our tents and get eating and drinking and resting for the evening. Winds actually increased during our afternoon at the Col and clouds and snow moved in, but we were pretty sure things would ease by the time we were ready for climbing. Linden and I shared a tent and kept reminding one another of things we needed to pack or prepare for the climb. We touched base regularly with Mark Tucker down at 17,500 feet and tried to find out if he had any updates about the weather and the whereabouts of other climbers.

As it got dark, we pulled sleeping bags over our down suits and tried to shut our eyes, but it was pretty miserable rest. There were plenty of climbers around us on different schedules, coughing, moaning, yelling to one another, and testing their radios. There was our own anxiety and desire to get moving, and there was the cold and the noise of the wind. When Tshherring gave me a yell at about 9:40 p.m., I was happy to get out of the tent and look at the weather. There was already a great string of about 40 headlights moving up the Triangular Face below Everest's Balcony. I was pleased to see we were the only team shooting for a midnight start. The clouds had blown away and the wind was in the process of quitting. It was another beautiful night, and it was time to get after some strong cups of coffee.

Just before midnight, we wrestled ourselves into harnesses and crampons out in the cold and wedged Oxygen bottles into our packs. Kaji, Tchherring, Linden, and I said goodbye to Dawa, who'd remain at the Col in case of problems, and we checked each other over pretty good before turning toward Everest and the Triangular Face.

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Kaji in front of Makalu

Kaji took the lead and set an easy but steady pace. In other years, I'd climbed over broken and loose rock on this steep and continuously difficult section of the climb, but this time we found good steps kicked in snow. Eventually we came upon other teams, but passed these without too much trouble since we were only four climbers and we were very capable of unclipping from the fixed ropes and putting things into "four wheel drive" with our crampons and ice axes.

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Dave Hahn nearing South Summit

We were at the Balcony (27,500 feet) in just about three hours and were by then ahead of all but about a dozen climbers. Now on the Southeast Ridge, we negotiated a narrow track on a crest of snow bordering the immense Kangshung Face. Winds came up, but not steady or greatly worrying winds… just irritating gusts that blew powder snow all over us for 30 seconds at a time. These quit a little after sunrise when we were coming to grips with the steep and rocky flanks of the South Summit. In the process, we passed a few more climbers and then got onto the South Summit by ourselves. This point allowed clear radio communication with Mark Tucker down in base camp and we took advantage, letting him know just how perfect everything was up top.

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Summit seen from the Hillary Step

Then we got going on the thrilling traverse to the Hillary Step. The ropes were fixed perfectly, steps were well-kicked in the snow and the winds were non-existent… so when combined with the lack of traffic, it all had me thinking to more difficult and stressful times in these same places. We each felt lucky and happy to swing up and around the boulders of the Hillary Step. We made the top shortly after, at around 6:55 a.m. There were a number of climbers there when we arrived, but most had climbed from Tibet (via the Northeast Ridge). Temperatures were moderate and easy, and so we didn't rush our own summit celebration. Eventually we had the top to ourselves and enjoyed the quiet. After months of life in deep valleys or on steep mountain faces, it was a welcome novelty to experience gigantic and open 360 degree views.

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View back along ridge to South Summit from Hillary Step

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But not for long. We needed to climb down to safety. This turned out to be a snap with three strong and experienced partners. In fact, we were back shaking Dawa's hand at the South Col in just a couple of hours. We ate, drank, and broke down camp, getting ready to complete the last stage of our blitz. If we could get all the way down to ABC on this day, our bodies would be subjected to far less altitude related stress, and we'd recover from the climb a good deal faster. But ironically, we'd have to work much harder in the short term.

Linden Mallory and Dave Hahn back at base camp

We hoisted big and heavy packs and climbed down the vertical mile … sweating like crazy in our down suits (but now in cloud and new-falling snow). Our arms were getting tired from thousands of feet of rappelling; our toes were getting jammed forward in our boots; and our throats were getting parched from altitude and bottled oxygen. But we were getting lower and safer with every step. We rolled into ABC by mid-afternoon, glad to see Uberaj, and glad to see our tents. I was exhausted but confident that I was exhausted in the very place I wanted to be. We were safe and the monkey was going to be off our backs for just a little while.

Of course, the last trip down through the Khumbu Icefall would be in the morning… but worrying about that could wait until real sleep and real food had a chance to kick in and work their magic.