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Hahn Kicks Off Summer Guiding Season in Northwest
Posted on June 29, 2009

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Flight 97 L, SEA-ANC
June 25, 2009
30,000-plus feet

By Dave Hahn

I last wrote about hanging at home in the Land of Enchantment, which seems long ago and far away already. As planned, I packed my car and drove out of New Mexico a little more than a week ago for a summer of guiding glaciers in the Northwest. My roadtrip was blissfully uneventful and necessarily dull as a result. There wasn’t going to be time for play in any of the mountains I cruised past in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. It was my 25th year of making this particular summer pilgrimage to Washington State and Mount Rainier.

I had chosen to spend as long as possible getting reacquainted with my home, post-Everest, rather than lingering on the open road this time. I showed up in Ashford (just outside the National Park entrance) on Friday afternoon with my windshield wipers waving. It had begun raining sporadically on me in Oregon that same morning, and I wasn’t surprised to find things wetter and cloudier as I crossed the Cascades. My inability to see Mount Rainier in the hour before I reached Ashford worried me some.

It is plenty normal for the big volcano to hide in clouds and it is extremely normal to get extended wet weather in Washington State in June, even though everybody I’d been talking to informed me that May and June had previously been perfect this season. I was only worried because I was going climbing on Saturday and Sunday, and I wanted the experience to be fun, easy, and successful. When I showed up at the guide service basecamp on Saturday morning to meet my clients and fellow guides, the forecast was for unstable weather and a relatively low freezing level.

And sure enough, we were in and under clouds for much of the day as we trudged steadily upward on the snowfields leading to high camp. But we busted out of the cloud deck at around 8,000 feet and were granted stunning views of Mount Rainier in all its glacial glory. Behind us, 40 miles to the south, 12,300-ft Mount Adams was the only other peak to find its way out of the sea of clouds.

During our five-and-a-half-hour climb to high camp, I mentioned to my nine clients that on Everest, we’d probably have already pitched a few camps so as to avoid such a burly gain in altitude. But my gang had no apparent trouble with climbing a vertical mile to reach Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. We all turned in early in anticipation of waking at midnight to climb. I’d warned the team to be ready for bad weather—and consequently some added difficulty and uncertainty for the already plenty-tough climb on the following day.

But when I checked the skies at midnight, things were holding pretty steady… no wind and no cloud cap over the summit. We set out at 1:30 a.m.: three rope teams with three climbers and a guide on each; wearing helmets, avalanche beacons, winter clothing and packs. It all seemed pretty familiar and enjoyable for me to once again have an ice ax in my hand and crampons under my boots.

It was summer solstice, June 21, and so things began to lighten up around 4:30 a.m. as we approached 12,000 ft by headlamp. But added visibility didn’t help much with the cold. My teams endured such discomforts for a few more hours before the rising sun did us any good. At seven in the morning, we reached the crater, and strolled across to 14,410 ft Columbia Crest, Rainier’s highest point. The entire team had made it to the top and I was proud and happy … and ready to get down before a storm moved in.

We made it down to 11,000 ft before clouds swallowed us up. It then snowed in varying degrees of ferocity for our final five hours of descent. I was pleased and satisfied to be relaxing in Ashford over beverages and grub at the day’s end with another happy crew of climbers and newfound friends.

Part of my satisfaction came from knowing that I was now back in the swing of things and good to go for a three-week expedition to Mount McKinley. I spent the next few days scurrying about Ashford and the Tacoma suburbs, gathering gear, and touching base with a number of mountain guides I’d last seen in cold, remote mountains or crowded airports around the world.

Yesterday, I went to a ceremony the National Park Service held in order to recognize its employees’ many fine accomplishments. This recognition carried over to honoring a few guide company contributions, and I was happy to be mentioned. An NPS climbing ranger and I were given awards by the Department of the Interior for our actions following the crash of our helicopter at 9,400 ft on Rainier’s Carbon Glacier in 2002. Predictably, this got me remembering that day—which also happened to be June 25—and how close I’d come to being killed … several times over.

Now, high over the Chugach Range and beginning the descent into Anchorage, I see all of this ancient history to be very much in my favor. Our Boeing 737 won’t have any trouble whatsoever in landing properly. Consider the odds against totaling yet another aircraft on the same calendar date … astronomical, I’m sure.

And if I should survive the landing in Alaska, I’ll soon get together with my team of seven climbers and three assistant guides and we’ll head up to the little town of Talkeetna to get ready for three weeks of climbing on Denali … trying to get to the highest point in North America—and back.

Author: - Monday, June 29th, 2009
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  1. nancy.janosko

    As I climb the ladder to the roof of my home here in the land of enchantment…to welcome the sunrise…I try to imagine what sunrise must look like from a glacier…and am glad to be here in my shorts reading about your adventures…Dave Hahn, thank you for your posts, letting me, someone who has no experience in “freeze your ass off climbing” to be able to dream of the adventure…Thanks for taking the time…it means a lot to me!


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