Everest at dawn
Everest at dawn (Abrahm Lustgarten)

Summit Ready

Dave Hahn delivers the latest news from Base Camp

Everest at dawn

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Outside caught up with veteran mountain guide Dave Hahn at Everest, as he and his team—including former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson—prepare for a 2003 summit bid. Here, Hahn fills us in on the process of training for an ascent, and describes what it’s like to share Base Camp with the record crowds amassing for the mountain’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Everest at dawn Everest at dawn

Outside: So your whole team’s at Base Camp right now, and you’ve all been practicing on the Khumbu Icefall?

Hahn: Yeah, we’ve taken the climbers about half-way through the Icefall and before that we practiced at the foot of it, just working out on the first couple of ladders and getting used to the technique for the fixed lines and stuff like that. Hopefully we’re ready for the big push all the way through the Icefall tomorrow. I think we are.

Excellent. And you’ll spend the night at Camp I above the Icefall?

Yeah. We’ll spend about two nights there, actually. Then we’ll spend the night at advance base camp—Camp II. That’s about 22,000 feet. After that we’ll come back down to Camp I, spend another night there, and then go back to Base Camp. Not too long a push, but it’s still fairly early into the trip. We’re just breaking into it easy.

How are conditions up there?

So far so good, but there are a lot of people here. The Icefall conditions are somewhat better than last year. Fewer ladder crossings, not too bad so far. And we’ll just see on the upper mountain. It seems like it’s getting a little stormier. I don’t think that’s too significant yet, but of course if it continues it could be a problem. There’s been some snow almost every day.

Do you think the number of people attempting to climb this year will cause any problems up higher?

There are some big eager teams here—the Indian Army/ Nepal Army Team is a big aggressive team—and I think if the conditions are lousy, if the weather’s lousy, and nobody’s gotten up till the middle of May, then yeah, the crowding’s going to be a real problem because everyone will be heading for a window of just a couple of days. But if some of these big aggressive teams can push it through in the first days of May, and if people can start getting up early and getting up regularly, then the crowd will be to our advantage.

Do you have any idea how many people are at Base Camp?

I’d just be guessing. The word is there’s over 30 expeditions this year, and I think almost everybody’s here, but there’s still a few trickling in. A few smaller groups are coming in each day. With Sherpas, Base Camp staff, climbers and hangers-on and everybody there’s, I would guess, 300 or 400 people here.

Wow! How does that compare to years past?

It is more. It strikes me, looking out around Base Camp right now, there’s probably a third more people than were here last year, in a normal year.

I’m assuming everyone’s attempting the South Col route—are there other routes that go up from this side of the mountain?

There are, but most people are doing the Southeast Ridge, which goes through the South Col. If people are doing other routes like the Southwest Face, I haven’t heard of it. Or the West Ridge—you could do those harder routes out here, but I don’t know that anybody is. Now, of all those people that are here, some are heading for Lhotse and Nuptse, and that’s all out of the same Base Camp.

Okay, so not everyone there is heading for the summit of Everest.

Right. And you know, for the most part, people are pretty friendly toward each other. There seems to be a pretty good spirit of cooperation so far. It hasn’t really gotten to the stage where we need that spirit of cooperation yet though—that’ll be fixing the route from advance base camp up to the South Col, really. But I feel pretty confident that that’ll come off.

Is there anything special going on at Base Camp for the 50th Anniversary?

Well, today the Belgians hosted a big get-together where they took a photo of a bunch of people at Base Camp. We missed the photo—we walked in about 10 minutes late for it. But we hobnobbed with everybody. You know, there’s some awareness that Hillary and folks are getting together May 29th to celebrate the 50 years, and I heard someone saying they were trying to summit on the 29th, but I certainly wouldn’t be asking the mountain to be that kind to me.

When do you guys anticipate getting to the top if all goes according to plan?

We’d love to be ready for summit bids beginning in the mid-section of May, and going as late as the early 20s if we had to.

I’m assuming everyone’s fit and healthy?

Yeah, we’re doing pretty good. People are fighting off the normal coughs and colds and tummy problems. But with the trek in, we’ve been out here almost 3 weeks now, so I’d say there’s been the normal amount of bugs or a little less. We’re staying pretty healthy.

So, Dave, can you tell me a little bit about the trip up through the Icefall? Some climbers I know who’ve been on Everest say that it’s the most technical and difficult part of the climb. How has it been this year?

It’s not bad compared to last year. There were fewer ladders in the first half of it. The second half I find kind of frightening. There’s a sense that you’re in it a lot, like when you look up and there’s something over your head—that’s a problem. You know, the actual climbing in it is fun. It’s scrambling, and little vertical ice steps that everybody loves. And the ladders, you know, while they terrify you, you’re also kind of giggling while you do them. The whole thing—it would all be fun if it didn’t have such a good shot of killing you.

(Laughs) How long does it take to get through it?

Well, going through with the guides we did it in about two-and-a-half hours the other day. Tomorrow—realistically—making our move for the first time up to camp, it’ll probably take six hours or so. For perspective, our Sherpas can do it in about two hours. Some of them can make the round trip from Base Camp to Camp II with a load in about five hours.

Can you describe what camp is like up above the Icefall? What kind of surface are you on, what are the views like, what are you seeing up there?

Camp I is… I find it not the most enjoyable camp to be at. But it’s certainly nice to reach it. It’s right where the Western Cwm kind of starts—the more gentle valley just at the top of the Ice Fall. It’s got spectacular views of Pumori and Lintren, and the walls of the Cwm, the western shoulder of Everest and Nuptse, they’re spectacular—but Camp I is not a terribly convenient place. You can’t walk around much because there are crevasses right around the tents. You’re on a glacier surface and there’s hidden crevasses. You have to hang out in your tent and it’s kind of a feeling of biding your time. It’s definitely a way station. When we get there mid-morning or so, it becomes unbearably hot. It’s just this incredible reflector oven there. It gets so hot you’re just about comatose in your tent, and just around the time when you’re getting sick of that, then the shadows come over and it gets unbearably cold. It’s not great that way. When you actually get to Camp II, that’s much more of a destination. There you’re on a morraine, you’re up against Everest. You can walk around and there’s much more room for setting up a good camp with a kitchen and everything.

And you’ll spend just a couple of days at Camp I before heading up to advance base camp?

Yeah. The primary purpose of this time up is just acclimatization. We’re not really moving anything up the mountain with this push. We just need to sleep higher and ease our way toward the next round, which will be sleeping at advance base camp.

And at what point does the altitude really begin to sort of kick in?

I think at Base Camp! Base Camp is at 17,700 feet. We’ve been here over a week, and people here are just now starting to sleep normally, so it’s a full hit by the time you’re at Base Camp. Certainly these first couple of nights at Camp I will be uncomfortable because of the altitude. No question that going up the Lhotse face to Camp III—that’s steep, constant, uphill—that’ll make everybody feel the altitude. You’re going to 24,000 there at Camp III. So then you’re getting into altitudes that people can’t really acclimatize to. You can sometimes get used to the discomfort and used to your disability up there, but you don’t really acclimatize when you’re up around 24,000, 25,000 feet.

So you’re not really pushing more than 2,000 vertical feet per trip up?

That’s right. We’ve come in early enough and we’ve got enough resources that we’d love to be able to do about 4 rotations here. A couple of nights at Camp I and come down, having hiked to Camp II. Next rotation: Camp I, Camp II, a few nights there, hike to III, come all the way back down and rest. Next rotation: Do I, II, and III, hike toward IV, and come all the way down. And then go for the summit. If we could pull that off, that’d be great, but you never know. The weather comes in, camps blow down, people get sick….

Have you met a lot of other Americans up there?

Yeah, there’s plenty, but it’s very, very international. There are some American groups. I know most of the American trip leaders here, but not all. We’ve got two British camps on either of our corners, we’ve got a Himalayan Rescue Association clinic set up right next to us. There’s a big American group by Bob Hoffman that just came in yesterday not too far from us. There’s– well, you stand up at the puja mast in the evening and you look around and there’s Japanese flags fluttering and Indian flags and French and Russians and Belgians and Koreans– you name it, it’s just the most incredible collection that way. And when you go through the Ice Fall, you kind of bump into everybody. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but usually it’s pretty cool. They’re pretty cool people.

Is there a high level of excitement?

I think so. It’s early enough in the season that people aren’t all feeling the pain so much yet. Although I should qualify that—there already has been a fatality here. I believe it was a 28-year-old French climber, who died of unknown reasons in his tent in the night. And there have been helicopters coming in, and they have evacuated people for other ailments. I think another Frenchman got evacuated yesterday for respiratory trouble and an American went out with some broken ribs suffered on the trek in. So, there’s definitely been the normal amount of troubles for this amount of people being here. But I think people are optimistic right now. There’s good reason to be—it’s the beginning of the trip, there’s a lot of celebrating that goes along with each team having its puja—its ceremony to the gods—and a lot of good wishes for everybody.

Now, Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico is with you. How’s he doing? Is he having a good time and still enthusiastic and in good shape?

Oh you bet. His leg—the broken leg—ended up not being too much of a problem. He had our 12-day trek in to stretch and work his muscles and I think he’s doing very well. He climbed strong in the Icefall and he’s proving to be a terror at chess and cards and any other game we can think of.

(Laughing) So, the injury is from something that happened about a month before you guys went on the expedition, right?

Yes, it was a skiing injury, a broken fibula.

And your assistant guide, Ben Marshal, he came close to the summit last year, I think. He must be excited to have another shot at it this year.

Yeah, you know this is a dream trip in a lot of ways for me. I’ve got Ben who was really spitting distance—250 feet—from the top last year, and Tap Richards, who turned around with me in 2001, 500 feet from the top on the north ridge performing a rescue. So both of these guys are extremely capable, and it’s definitely a comfort to me knowing that if I get sick or if something goes wrong with me, either of these guys could hop in and take the reins. But certainly I hope we all get up.

You’ve been to the top how many times?

I’ve been up three times; I’ve tried 7.

Does it feel different this time, having been there more than half a dozen times now?

Well, we’re not inventing the wheel this time. We’ve got a lot of things figured out, so yeah, in a lot of ways, this trip has been the easiest that I’ve done because we’ve got it pretty well organized this time. Of course it’s easy to say it’s easy now, before we’ve come to the mountain. But it’s a small team and a pretty cohesive group and I think we’re all pretty optimistic and ready to come to grips with the mountain.

So at this point, barring any unforeseen circumstances, it’s looking like the whole group will get to the summit?

Well, I don’t know. I’ve been on too many of these to hope for that much. I mean, I will hope for that much, but there are so many things that could happen between now and then.

Well, we’ll definitely keep our fingers crossed.

Lead Photo: Abrahm Lustgarten