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Leif Whittaker Recounts Everest Summit
Posted on June 9, 2010

By Leif Whittaker

Clouds collide, explode into 50mph winds that throw frozen bullets at the tent. Inside, the stove roar drowns out the mayhem, but it doesn’t warm our spirits. This is our second night of delay at 26,000 feet and the entire expedition hinges on the next few hours. If the unexpected storm finally calms, we will charge for the summit like it’s our last chance, because it will be. If the wind doesn’t abate, if the sky doesn’t clear, we’ll descend in failure, unsatisfied, discouraged by the fact that we didn’t receive even one clear shot at the summit. But I still have hope that our clear shot will come. We need to get lucky. We need to get lucky right now.

“Can we spend another night here if the weather doesn’t clear?” I ask Dave. He’s boiling water for hot chocolate.

“No. We don’t have enough oxygen or food. If this wind doesn’t die within the next few hours, we’re through.”

After two months of climbing up and down, up and down, we only have a two-day window to go for the summit. A human can’t remain sane or strong for too long without sleep, without sufficient oxygen. Nor is it feasible to carry enough food up here to sustain us for more than two nights. I know why our window is so short, but I’m wishing it were longer because the wind is still buffeting our tent, and it’s showing no signs of stopping.

How am I going to explain this? How am I going to get back next year? Why did this happen? Please Chomolungma, please Mount Everest, please give us a chance to climb. One chance. One decent shot. That’s all I ask. One decent shot.

These thoughts are tumbling through my head at about 8:45 p.m. when I doze off, the wind still gusting an armageddon outside. To have a chance at the top, we must rise at 9 p.m. to prepare hot liquids, eat “breakfast,” put on our harnesses and crampons before climbing towards the Triangular Face at 11 p.m. I awake at 9:10 p.m. and, to my extreme delight, I notice that the tent walls are no longer flapping. Miraculously, in a matter of minutes, our chance has arrived. Thank you, Chomolungma. Without saying a word to Dave, I pull on my summit socks—unworn since home—and lace up my boots. We’re going for the top.

Following Dave and Tendi’s footsteps precisely, the team ascends the steep Triangular Face. Fresh snow chills my toes, and I worry about frostbite, but I’m not stopping. Occasional rock steps require taxing moves that leave me gasping, scratching the atmosphere for breath. My excitement grows even as my energy diminishes because I know unless something catastrophic happens, we will make it, and I can hardly believe it’s happening.

After four steady hours pounding our feet into the soft snow, we arrive at the Balcony (27,500 ft), a perfect bench on which to rest in the still black night. This is the halfway point, as far as elevation is concerned, and here we switch to new oxygen bottles and steal a sip of water before continuing upward.

Ever so slowly, we push towards the near-vertical rock that culminates in the South Summit. The sky lightens, and the infinite Himalaya is revealed beneath us. I’ve never seen a sunrise so spectacular. Gleaming red, a line of warm color between the bruised clouds and endless black-and-white of the mountains. Like a gulp of hot coffee, the sunrise is invigorating.

It’s a good thing too, because the next thousand feet are the hardest of my life. Each step is a struggle. Each obstacle is seemingly insurmountable. We methodically continue upward, piece by piece, and eventually we are straddling the South Summit, staring across a narrow ridge of snow at the Hillary Step.

I imagine what this ridge must have been like for my father. With only Gombu for a companion. Without fixed ropes. Without a down suit. Carrying everything and having almost nothing. Completely exposed on the highest rampart in the world. Now more than ever, I understand the confidence and strength he must have had. I understand what an unbelievable feat it was to summit this mountain in 1963 and come down alive. It astounds me!

Even with all the advantages of modern gear and techniques, the Hillary Step is still hard enough. I jug my way up and over the rock, breathing hard with every move, until I reach the apex and clamber back onto the snow.

Now all that remains is a few rope-lengths of walking and, knowing we are close, this walking suddenly becomes easy. I hardly notice the bitter wind that bites my eyes. I’m too focused on the nest of prayer flags that mark the summit.

When we are 50 feet from the top, Dave stops and turns around. He shakes my hand, congratulates me, and ushers me onward. Words insufficiently express the gratitude I feel for what he has helped me accomplish. My simple thanks is snatched away by a gust of wind, but I imagine he understands how much this moment means to me. There are tears in my eyes as I kick hard for the top. Then I am there. I am hugging Tendi Sherpa and Seth Waterfall and Michael Brown and we are all there together on the summit of the world. It is impossible to describe how it feels.

Perhaps because my eyes have suffered some slight damage from the cold, or perhaps because I’m in tears, or perhaps because I’ve dreamt of this moment for so long, everything is blurry. There is the flapping of the prayer flags, the smiles of the sherpa, the blood orange color of the sky, the shrunken peaks below us. They are so far below. We spend less than half an hour on the summit, but it could be forever. I’m lost in a euphoric haze of disbelief that has yet to snap. I’ve realized a dream and accomplished a goal that has been generations in the making. It seems unreal. It is one of those pure moments in life when time stops, when everything around you freezes and you could be lost forever, lost exploring the details of such a special instant, an instant that I feel so blessed to have experienced.

Eventually though, time does begin again. A gust of frigid wind slaps at my face and brings me back to reality. From here, at the top of the world, there is only one direction we can go. I clip into the fixed rope and begin retracing my footprints and the footprints that my father left 47 years ago. Thanks to him, thanks to Dave Hahn, thanks to the RMI guides and our team of sherpas, thanks to all the pioneers that have been here before me, I already know the way down.

Author: - Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

  1. Dianne & Jim

    We are so proud of you all! Congratulations on a fantastic ascent. Mom & Dad

  2. Kristin Sackman

    Thank you for sharing your climbing experience and photos that now adorn many computer screens as the latest, coolest wallpaper! Equally significant is your ability to share your tender, innermost feelings which is also bravery in and of itself.

  3. T-Dawg

    What a fantastic ending to an epic adventure. Thanks Leif for taking us all on the journey, following your father’s footsteps to the top of the world. Thanks to Dave, Tendi, Seth, and the rest of the F.A./RMI team for helping this happen and keeping everyone safe and informed. Thanks to your dad, Jim for starting it all! You are all superheros!

  4. Richard Glaubman

    Congratulations. That was an incredible accomplishment. Your writing put me on the mountain and I was touched by your appreciation of your father’s ascent, your team and the generations of previous climbers that led the way for you. Thank you for sharing that. May your climbing and writing continue.

  5. Dave and Linda Derrick

    12 years ago we spent 5 days on Mt. Rainer with Dave Hahn as one of our guides; and we fondly remember our awesome experience on Rainer. Listening to Dave share some of his many mountaineering experiences back then added much to the experience. It was an adventure of a lifetime for us 12 years ago, and we could see then that mountaineering was Dave’s passion. Since then, we have enjoyed following Dave’s career of continued accomplishments. The best to you Dave Hahn, from Dave and Linda Derrick in Wisconsin.

  6. erika reigle

    congratulations on your success to the whole team.
    but with DAVE HAHN as the leader, there was no doubt in my mind that you ALL would summit.
    i am a armchair mountaineer and pretty old, BUT ever since my son summited Mt. Rainier with DAVE HAHN, august
    23rd 2010 i am DAVE’S most ardent supporter [after my son.] friends, family etc. “seeing avalanches raining down,
    left and right” on my sons attempt, left ME cold. all i kept saying was:” not when DAVE is guiding.” and so, our son made it to the top.
    he was full of praises how KIND and professional DAVE
    had been and he hopes to climb DENALI with him in the future.
    Yeah, nothing but the best, like DAVE, will do.
    thank you DAVE and ALL at RMI it was a experience even for an “elderly mom.” who never even has SEEN a almost 15 000 high feet mountain! in real life.
    erika reigle wyoming DE

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