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The Responsibility to Die Right

dave-hahn-mountaineerDave Hahn on the Columbia Crest of Mount Rainier. Courtesy photoBy any measure, Dave Hahn is a successful mountaineer. Consider his 275 summits of Mount Rainier, or 20 trips to the top of Denali. This May, he climbed Mount Everest for the 14th time, the most summits by a non-Sherpa. Despite these achievements, Hahn says he still makes mistakes in the mountains. When Mountain caught up with Hahn, he spoke about a life-threatening mistake on a recent hiking trip. He doesn’t self censor his stories from the mountains. 


I love mountains for different reasons. I love the Himalayas because they have so much history and culture. I love Antarctica because there’s so little human history or culture. I love Mount Rainier because you can stand on the summit in the morning, and have dinner at a great restaurant later the same day.


My 14th Everest summit was a milestone for me. But to me, any discussion of it has to remind people that the real record is held by Appa Sherpa, who has reached the summit 21 times. I’ve climbed alongside him, and he’s a nice guy. Now he lives in Salt Lake City. 


If I stay active enough, I don’t feel like I have to exercise. I just finished my summer guiding season, so I walked the Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates the base of Mount Rainier. It’s just over 93 miles, and my GPS says I did 24,000 feet of elevation gain. I did it in three days. I’ve climbed Rainier over 270 times, but it’s still a bigger mountain than I imagined. 


My dad was a Yosemite climber in the 1940s and 1950s. He understands what I do. But that doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to die right. 


When I screw up and I’m fighting my way back to survive, I think, “I have to get out of this, because I don’t want my dad to find out that I died this way.” On the Wonderland Trail, I got caught in the rain in a down sleeping bag. The temperature was hovering around freezing, so I got up and started walking. It was the only thing I could do to stay warm. If I screwed up—twisted an ankle, lost my headlamp—I would die of exposure. So I walked for eight hours before stopping to brew up a cup of coffee. 


There are no stories that I won’t tell. There probably should be, but I’ve always been open with my experiences. People respect my storytelling because my stories involve my weaknesses and my shortcomings. They can relate. 


I’m 50 years old. Logic would suggest that I think about an endgame. But I don’t feel that way physically or mentally. There’s a curve for experience that makes things easier, and there’s a curve with age that makes things harder. Things are still getting easier for me. —Charlotte Austin

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