Ah, Everest. The ever-controversial “ultimate,” the tallest mountain in the world, and a lifelong goal for many mountaineers. If you’ve ever wondered what it might take to get yourself to the summit, Dave Hahn is the man to talk to. The 55-year-old Taos patroller and RMI guide holds the non-Sherpa record for most Everest summits; out of 21 attempts, he’s made it up 15 times. And as a guide, he’s climbed with Everest hopefuls of many ages and from many walks of life (not to mention the hundreds of clients he’s guided up Vinson, Denali, and Rainier, among other peaks). So we called him up to find out what, exactly, it would take to get up the world’s most infamous peak. A quick note: much of his advice is related to what you need to do if you’re looking to climb with a guide, not on your own.
What was your first experience on Everest like, and what did you do to get there?
I first went to Everest in 1991. I first started as a professional mountain guide in 1986 at Mount Rainier and that led to working on Denali, so by the time I’d gone to Everest I’d already been on Denali seven times as an expedition leader and guide. So I had pretty good experience when I went off to the Himalaya for the first time.
It was a group of friends but we were all guides. Back in 1991, it was the end of one type of trip over there and only just the beginning of the commercial trips. There was still debate about whether the mountain could actually be guided.
It was still a climbing trip in the old mode of things. We sold a bunch of t-shirts to make it happen and I felt like I had a little bit more freedom over there. In fact, I chose to try Everest that first time without oxygen, partly because I didn’t have guiding responsibilities. I felt like it was an effort I could make, pass or fail, and that it was my business.
If a casual climber with a couple volcanoes under their belt wanted to climb Everest, where would they start?
You’ve got to go climbing, which I never feel bad telling people to do because it’s pretty fun. You’ve got to go out rock climbing, you’ve got to go ice climbing, you’ve got to do more volcanoes, you’ve got to do an expedition seminar where you learn crevasse rescue and ice climbing and expedition techniques. You’ve got to climb Denali, or try to, and Aconcagua, you’ve got to get over to the Himalaya and do something else over there like Cho Oyu. Do another 8,000-meter peak.
There are a number of ingredients to being an Everest climber. And some of it you can only learn on Everest. But a lot of those skills you can learn somewhere else in the world, cheaper and more conveniently. So it’d be a shame to wait until your summit day on Everest to pick up your rock climbing skills. It’d be a shame to pick up your ice climbing skills on that same day. If that’s the first time you’re dealing with extreme cold and keeping your goggles from fogging up in a difficult environment, well then, shame on you for not getting out and learning that on Mount Rainier or Mount Hood or at any ski area.
If the first thing you’re learning about fitness is on your summit day on Everest, wow, that’s a big mistake. You could have learned about that kind of punishment and extreme fitness you needed to build up with Denali expeditions and Aconcagua. If the first time you’re putting on oxygen and learning about oxygen systems is on your summit bid, it’s…well, a lot of people do learn that then and there, but you might have picked that up on a lesser peak like Cho Oyu without quite the consequences.
When I line out for somebody this couple-year process, my natural way of saying this is: hire guides to pick up these skills. Oftentimes while somebody is doing that they might decide, “Ah, I don’t wanna do this stuff.” Or they might decide “Oh, I wanna do this with these other guides that I’ve met on these other mountains.”
How many years in advance would I need to start planning, preparing, and training?
It depends where you’re coming from. If you’ve already climbed Aconcagua and Denali and you’ve got a handful of days on rock and waterfall ice under your belt, then maybe next year or the year after that. It might be three or four years if you’re starting from ground zero at age 23 and you can devote your life to it. Which is still, I should point out, a hell of a lot less than it would have taken you back in the 1980s, 1990s. The means are there now, the methods are there, things are set up.
If you’re coming off the couch at age 43, or 53, well then that gets a little tougher. Maybe you’re racing the clock against your old age and you’ve got to reach that level of fitness first. But to be quite frank, 23 isn’t necessarily an advantage when it comes to Everest. The original Everest climbers were men in their mid-30s and that was because it was that combination of not just physical fitness but life experience. There’s some tough-to-quantify maturity, physical and mental maturity, that Everest requires.
As a guide, what does your ideal client look like?
We tell folks, and other services do as well, come in the best shape of your life. And I’m not really sure what people hear, whether they blow that off, or come in whatever shape they are. But obviously the best case would be somebody who showed up in the absolute best shape of their life. It’s a gun fight, don’t bring a knife. Fitness is not something you get extra credit for when you go to Everest. It should be bedrock, the starting point, that you’ve come there strong as hell. Not nursing some old injury, not dealing with some handicap, not apologizing because work was really hard the last six months and you couldn’t prioritize working out. So fitness is huge, and that just gets you in the door.
I want somebody that has done their homework, that has studied Everest, that knows its history and the features of the mountain, knows the height of the balcony, the height of Camp Four, knows the nature of the Lhotse Face before they see it for the first time, knows the history and danger of the Khumbu Icefall.
What do I do to get in Everest shape?
There’s no substitute for getting outside and walking uphill with a big pack on your back. If you can do it in the cold, even better. If you can do it in the rain or the snow, better still. For so many of us in modern life, a workout is one hour or two hours, a couple times a week. And that’s great, but remember the kind of days that we’re talking about for a Denali summit day–12 to 15 hours out there in the cold. Or Vinsson, where I just came from, at high altitude in the cold on summit day for 12 hours. Wow, that’s pretty tough for one hour a day to prep you for that. So I always want people to mix in to their workout an entire day out being miserable now and then.
What does a trip to Everest cost these days?
It’s hard for me to answer this without editorializing. If you’re going for $20,000 then you better be one hell of a climber already. $11,000 right off the top goes to the Nepal government if you’re on the Nepal side. And it’s similar permitting on the north side, the Chinese side. They don’t necessarily charge the same things for a permit but they get their money in other ways. So if that much is going to the Nepal government, then that doesn’t leave a whole lot, if you’re going for $20 or 25,000, for a responsibly outfitted expedition.
RMI is in the $70-$75,000 range, and that’s a guided group climb. When I go on those trips, it’s 2.5 months away from home, two months on the mountain. For somebody that’s newer to the game, they might be shopping for trips and see one that’s only six weeks and costs a lot less. I don’t think it’s so strange that, you know, if you’re less experienced you’d look at that and go, “Well, six weeks works a lot better for me than eight weeks or ten weeks and look at that, it costs half the money.”
The trouble is, if you haven’t been to extreme altitude much, and you haven’t been in the Third World much, you may not realize that it takes a little longer for a less experienced climber. It’s going to involve some setbacks. Getting sick and being on a bare-bones trip that didn’t leave very much time, well, once you’re sick you’re basically just going home. Whereas on a more full-featured trip that’s there for a more realistic time period, that’s planned into it, there’s time to have some setbacks and recover from them. But as I say, it’s tough to compete with that, for less experienced climbers to try to get them to sign up for a longer more expensive trip, but I personally am done competing for the economy climber.
Let the buyer beware, you should know where that money’s going. Is it going into the infrastructure of the trip? Is it going to be a trip that’s got good tents, good communications, good backup if something goes wrong? Is it going to have not just Sherpas but experienced Sherpas, who speak English? Access to medical care? Because two outfitters can both charge a lot and it doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t just pocketing the money while the other is plowing the profits back into the trip.
How should someone go about making a decision about his or her guide?
That’s one of the extremely important things somebody has to figure out when they set Everest as their goal, who they’re going to go with, who they’re going to trust with it. Learning how to choose a guide and outfit that you’re going to go with, that’s not to be underestimated. It’s not quite like picking out a set of speakers on Amazon.
There’s certainly a lot of homework that you can do on the internet these days, you can find out somebody’s reputation, find out what other people in the industry think of this or that outfit. Ideally when you’re going to go with an outfitter, you’ve been with them before. Maybe you’ve gone to Antarctica with them, gone to Denali, been with the guides that you’re going to trust and depend on so much on Everest. That would be the best case.
What about the mental and emotional side of things? How could someone prepare themselves for what it’s like to climb in the Himalaya?
I’ve tried Everest 21 times and gotten up 15 times. I’ve failed at it more than almost anybody out there these days. That’s not so common anymore. An important part of going on any of these big consequential climbs is getting used to the idea that you don’t always make the top.
People will tell me at the drop of a hat how much Everest means to them and how important it is to get to the top, but being ready to deal with a little adversity on the way has always been a big part of it. If you’re not skilled or lucky enough to get up Everest on your first time, maybe it was totally unfair. Maybe there was the Icefall avalanche in 2014, or the earthquake in 2015, maybe you got shut down by forces completely beyond your control. But if you’re still talking about how important Everest is to you, maybe it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Maybe it’s not going to be convenient. Maybe you’re going to have to prioritize Everest above your work and your relationships. If it truly is important to you, maybe you shape your life around it like a number of us have.