Life in the mountains: Former UB swimmer Dave Hahn discusses legendary mountain guiding career
The first time Dave Hahn stood at the summit of Mount Everest, he did not experience a feeling of elation.
Hahn only spent 10 minutes at the top before his focus shifted to the next task – finding a way back down.
“It wasn’t this moment for celebrating,” Hahn said. “It was this moment for focusing on the challenge ahead.”
The next challenge is always on Hahn’s mind. He is restless. When he’s not scaling mountains or going on rescue missions, he’s biking or hiking in his free time. He has had expeditions halted by avalanches, earthquakes, helicopter crashes and other unexpected disasters.
Yet, no matter how many times he’s stared down death, the 55 year old is still clinging to life the only way he knows how: leading expeditions up the largest and most dangerous mountains in the world.
“I think plenty of the people I work with as customers, they have a discrete list of things they want to accomplish in the mountains… they say ‘I’ve done what I set out to do, on to other things,’” Hahn said. “It’s not like that for me. It’s not going to be like that for me. As much satisfaction as I get from climbing a mountain, as long as I’m able there will always be more mountains, and inevitably that means some day, I’ll be in a storm I can’t handle.”
Hahn, a former swimmer and history major at UB, is one of the most decorated mountain guides in world history. He has summited Mount Everest more times than any non-Nepal native in history, reaching the top 15 of his 21 attempts. In 2009, Men’s Journal named him the best mountain guide in the world.
“He’s the premier climber in the world,” said Thomas Fabbri, an entrepreneur and mountain climber who summited Mount Vinson Massif with Hahn last year. “I like to call him the Michael Jordan of the mountain climbing world. He’s the best.” (pull quote)
Hahn graduated from UB in the fall of 1983 with a history degree after switching his major from aerospace engineering. When he graduated, he had no idea what he was going to do with his life.
“I ended up heading to New Mexico where my mother had grown up and where I’d always liked it, and found my way into the mountains,” Hahn said.
Hahn’s first job after college was as a ski instructor in Taos, New Mexico, where he still resides today. Soon after, he headed to Washington where he learned mountaineering on Mount Rainier. Within a year, he scored a job as a professional mountain guide. Ever since, he has split his time between being a ski instructor in New Mexico and a mountain guide across the world.
He has guided clients through 35 summits of Mount Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. He has also conquered 21 summits of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America and 275 summits of Rainier.
Although his individual achievements speak for themselves, Hahn says he’s most proud of having helped so many people achieve their dreams in the mountains.
“Sometimes people set out with the goal to climb say Mount Rainier or Denali, and they don’t know that much about what they’re getting into,” Hahn said. “Being there when you see their eyes open wide… the wonder on somebody’s face when they see Alaska from 20,000 feet, when they maybe didn’t even know that that world existed even though they were headed for it, that’s definitely what’s so satisfying about it.”
Kelsey Jurnett climbed Mount Rainier with Hahn as her guide last year and calls him the best guide she’s ever had. Jurnett works for a financial company in Washington but runs a travel blog on the side.
She was shocked to find such a legendary guide taking time to guide amateur climbers on Rainier.
“I asked him, ‘you’ve climbed Mount Everest over a dozen times, why do you keep coming back to Mount Rainier?’” Jurnett said. “And he said he really loved the nuts and bolts of climbing mountains and he comes back to Rainier every year because he can be a guide for people who aren’t professional mountain climbers, they’re not spending $60,000 a climb up to the top of Everest.”
Hahn says the moments that have pushed him most are the multiple rescue missions he’s been a part of.
In 2007, he was coming back down from the summit of Everest on the Nepal side when he came across a Nepali women unconscious at 27,000 feet. Hahn says he was able to use his authority in the climbing community to “trick other people into helping” in the rescue.
“Due to my experience and my training and my first aid skills, the fact that I was an expedition leader and guide, I had the communication skills to get a rescue because it was gonna take a bunch of people and to get drugs in this women, to get communication with doctors and to start physically dragging her down the hill,” Hahn said.
A few years after the successful rescue, Hahn was climbing Everest when a woman named Usha Bist came up to him and revealed herself to be the women he had saved.
“A couple of year’s later, when that same woman walked up to me on Mount Everest and introduced herself I was pretty overcome,” Hahn said.
A few years back, the National Parks Service enlisted Hahn for the rescue of a 19-year-old who had hit his head on a rock fall at 9,400 feet on Rainier. Hahn rode up to the scene in a helicopter, but the pilot did not have glacier experience. When the pilot lost control of the helicopter and hit the tail rotor on a glacier, Hahn was sure he was going to die.
“We ended up still pulling off the rescue, and in some ways that was even more frightening because the slope we had to get up to get this rock fall victim was getting peppered with more rock fall and it was a horrifyingly dangerous thing and we had way too much time to contemplate that,” Hahn said.
Hahn was awarded the Citizen’s Award for Bravery by the U.S. Department of the Interior for the rescue.
But the awards didn’t come without the worries.
Just last year, Fabbri found himself in a dangerous storm with Hahn on Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Fabbri says the storm lasted about 36 hours with winds gusting up to 80-90 miles per hour, knocking down the walls the team had built around their tents. Hahn stayed outside rebuilding the walls as they fell and told Fabbri and the other climbers they had to stay in their tents, even when they asked to come out and help.
“He did not let us leave our tents. He went out there in the weather and he kept working on the walls that were surrounding our tent, kept building them up as they were blowing down, putting up these snow blocks,” Fabbri said. “He would rather risk his life to make sure we were comfortable.”
Hahn doesn’t know if one more Mount Everest summit is in his future.
Hahn’s last two trips to Everest were halted by natural disasters that nearly cost him and his clients their lives. The experience led Hahn to question whether or not he can look a client in the eye and tell them Everest is a safe expedition.
In 2014, he was leading an expedition on Everest when an avalanche hit the Khumbu Ice Fall and killed 16 Nepalis. In 2015, he was guiding an expedition up Everest when a 7.8 magnitude Earthquake shook Nepal.
Hahn says he may never return to Everest again.
“I spent a lot of my career on Everest explaining to the people that weren’t on the mountain that it was a somewhat rational thing to do, because people had this image in their heads that climbing Everest was this ridiculous game of Russian Roulette,” Hahn said. “For most of my career, I was pushing back against that... The last couple of years have definitely put a dent in my ability to say that it can be done safely. Those things happening to me told me, told the world, ‘hey, you’re not in control of what goes on here.’”
At 55, there are still no signs that Hahn’s career is inching toward its end, although he is aware that he can’t climb forever.
“If at some point I have to scale it back, by then I hope I have the maturity to accept that I’ve had a good run and be satisfied with doing less,” Hahn said.
Hahn knows he has made sacrifices for his chosen career path. He does not have a wife or children. He admits that in many ways, he has been forced to put his career over his relationships, but he also knows his career is what allows him to live the lifestyle that he loves so much.
Hahn says that as he gets older, he may find more satisfaction in the legendary number of summits he has achieved on so many mountains. But for Hahn, it has never been about the numbers.
“The people that I learned from weren’t interested in becoming an overnight sensation and making a big media splash by climbing some ridiculously hard thing,” Hahn said. “They were people that I looked up to because they were figuring out how to live your entire life in the mountains. Not just to get something done that would stun everybody, some singular climb. It was much more about a life well lived in the mountains.”
Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org