Everest fans have been focused on Alex Txikon’s winter Everest attempt while many others are looking forward to the traditional spring season starting in a few weeks, but one man is working hard to climb his own mountain, literally.
Bill Burke is already in Nepal and well into the 50 mile trek to base camp of unclimbed Burke-Khang (BK). He hopes to summit on his 75th birthday. Let me start this article with Bill Burke is not your ordinary climber and what he is trying to do is extraordinary.
Burke is the oldest American to summit Mt. Everest at age 72. After six attempts on Everest with two summits, one from each side, Nepal became a second home for this retired corporate lawyer. He had established close relationships with many Sherpas and the Ministry of Tourism. When Nepal opened up 104 new mountains for climbing in 2014, much to Burke’s surprise, they named one of them after their western friend.
Straddling the border with Tibet, Burke-Khang is 22,775’/6,942m, about the same height as Aconcagua in Argentina but well under Everest at 29,035’.
This will be Bill’s third attempt of BK.
In his first attempt in autumn 2015 the Sherpas reached the summit ridge and found problems. Burke reported that as one of the Sherpas made his way along the cornice, he encountered dangers:
The route was blocked by double/opposing cornices-one facing South and one facing North. These twin cornices were intersected by a gaping, blackhole crevasse. In order to gain the summit, the Sherpa team would have to crawl up and over both of these highly unstable structures, fixing lines as they moved up. This imposing blockade was buttressed by an even more fearsome defensive placement just beyond the cornices–a nearly 100% vertical wall of ice that could only be scaled by the most accomplished ice-climbers. Adding to this treachery on the summit ridge was the fact the snow was deep and unstable and the exposure to fall was well over 10,000 feet down to the Tibetan plateau. Sid reported that every member of the highly experienced line-fixing team was moving in abject terror because of these conditions. One Sherpa bravely assaulted the first cornice and nearly fell to his death. Had he not been able to arrest his fall, every other Sherpa clipped into the line would have plunged with him into Tibet. Life and death decisions had to be made. The summit attempt was called off.
He returned in autumn 2016 with similar results. Bill summarized this attempt:
The Mountain never gave us a chance. The trip ended before it began. Such is the way of high altitude mountaineering. This great mystery and uncertainty are what bring me back to the High Himalaya year-after-year.
… Unlike last year, the Southeast Ridge was heavily corniced and the cornices were weak and fragile, making forward progress extremely parlous. One false step, and the cornice collapses, sending the Sherpas to certain death. Nevertheless, they pressed on, crossing the cornices ever so gingerly. After succeeding in this mission, what opened up before their eyes was an astonishing sight: a 600-foot long icefall blocking movement up The Mountain. This icefall was populated by massive crevasses, ice towers and fragile snow bridges. Naga Sherpa, estimated that it would require at least 15 ladders just to cross the crevasses. All forward progress was halted and the Sherpas retreated to Camp 1.
Naga Sherpa reported the ominous conditions on The Mountain and declared the Southeast Ridge impassable. To underscore his point, he observed “I was in constant fear of my life.” This sentiment was also expressed by the 2015 Sherpa team as they attempted to fix lines along the summit ridge.
And for 2017, this is what Bill posted in February 2017:
I am going back to climb Burke-Khang next month. This time I will be climbing solo. Just me, with Sherpa support. It took me 2 attempts to reach the summit of Mt. Everest from the South side in 2009 and 4 attempts to reach the summit from the more difficult North side in 2014. Burke-Khang is far more technical, difficult and wily than Mt. Everest. So why give up after just 2 attempts? Yes, Burke-Khang kicked my butt twice, with 2016 being a particularly ruthless and humiliating thrashing. But, I am beginning to understand its terrain and feel its personality. So, this year I will prepare and climb differently, but proceed with great hope and confidence.
Bill said the Sherpa team flew over BK with encouraging observations:
Note the crevasse in the lower right hand side of the photo extending to the rocks in the middle of the photo and the crevasses at the summit ridge head wall.
Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Shera Gyaljen Sherpa and Sonam Bhote boarded the helicopter on February 25 and flew over Burke-Khang. Naga, who is my Sirdar (head Sherpa) for the expedition, reported that they found a safe route up the mountain. The giant icefall above Camp 1 that blocked our progress last year has completely collapsed. Several smaller crevasses remain, but they can be crossed with ladders. The snow is in good condition with relatively few sections of blue ice. We will bring plenty of rope line, rebars and ice screws to traverse the blue ice sections. The massive headwall to the summit ridge is steep, but we can install ladders if necessary.
I reached out to Bill to ask some tough questions about his third attempt.
Q: In your previous attempts you had other westerners join the climb or trek to base camp. This time it is just you and a few Sherpas. Will you miss climbing without westerners?
BB: I thoroughly enjoyed my 2015 & 2016 expeditions with close friends. but, I also enjoy the freedom and tranquility of solo climbs. I would climb BK totally solo if that was possible. It’s not that I’m anti-social. I just love moving on my own, making spur of the moment changes and pondering life and living along the way in the beauty and solitude of this grand stage.
Q: It seems that your team has figured out the lower sections but the final summit ridge is the problem. Will you consider putting in a high camp so the Sherpas can take this section slow and easy?
BB: Yes, that is the plan. We will put in camp 2 as near to the summit ridge headwall as possible. Also, the sherpa team will be fixing lines while I trek to the mountain so they will have plenty of time to assess conditions and fix a safe route.
Q: Is climbing from Tibet an option?
BB: Previous recons in person and from the air render this highly unlikely. The Tibet approach is highly exposed and dangerous all the way up. Plus, I can’t get a permit from the Chinese. We will probably be traversing into Tibet on the way up & down.
Q: What are your 4 markers to turn and go down?
I don’t really think about u-turns in this way. I have turned and gone down many times. Four on Everest and both times on BK. If the climb moves into the “too dangerous” zone, I don’t hesitate to go down. I just count myself privileged to have had the opportunity to try. My “too dangerous” assessment can’t be narrowed down to just 4 markers. There are too many variables in the mountains.
Q: BK is dangerous. You have turned back twice after determining it was too dangerous and someone could die. What is different this time?
BB: I would never intentionally put lives of Sherpas, or anyone else (including me) at risk. That’s why this year I commissioned a heli recon to make sure we could find a safe route. If the answer came back “”no,” the trip would have ended before it started. Fortunately, conditions on the mountain changed and Naga is confident he has identified a safe route for all of us. Under the circumstances, I don’t see how my expedition is different that hundreds of other Himalayan expeditions in the spring and Fall. It is certainly safer than K-2 and most other 8000’ers. I have also put in place other safety measures this year, e.g., oxygen, just in case I need it, and extra Sherpa support.
Q: Where do you expect to encounter the most severe challenges on Burke-Khang this year?
BB: The move from the base of the mountain up the East Colouir to Camp 1 on the upper snowfield will be extremely difficult. The move is long, exposed and very vertical. Most of the gradient is 75 degrees or more. Also, there is the constant threat of rocks and ice hurtling down the Colouir at warp speed. That’s why I call it “The Shooting Gallery.” I expect this segment of the climb to be an all-day journey.
I am also concerned about the summit ridge headwall and the summit ridge. As I sat on the headwall in 2015, waiting for the lines to be fixed, I was stunned at how steep it is. The helicopter reconnaissance that was completed last February confirmed this assessment. The actual summit ridge is still a big unknown as the bird was not able to fly up and over the summit. So, I am a little nervous about that. But, that’s why we are allowing plenty of time to fix the lines ahead of the climb.
Q: Bill, this is a tough question. Are you being emotional instead of objective in trying to summit your peak?
BB: The subtext seems to be “have you let common sense, good judgment and concern for safety be overcome by emotion?” Every trip to Nepal and Tibet has been an emotional journey for me. So, in that sense, I plead guilty as charged. But, I believe I have put in place extraordinary measures to promote safety on this trip. Yes, the mountain and the climb are dangerous, like most other Himalayan peaks. But, I don’t feel that alone counsels staying home, unless it’s something personal to me.
Q: Bill, your family has seen you on Everest six times, 12 times in Nepal and now twice on Burke-Khang. It must be tough on them.
BB: Every member of my family is opposed to this expedition. I didn’t help myself by announcing last Fall that I was through with Burke-Khang and would leave the mountain alone. That was a real time emotional reaction that I quickly came to regret. When I announced my return, circa 2017, I got the anticipated response, and the ensuing discussions are too tender and private to repeat in public. We are a very close family. I know the opposition is heart-felt, and I understand the emotional toll these climbs take on my family.
If my wife, Sharon insisted, I would not have returned. While opposing the trip, she eventually concluded she could never stand in the way of my pursuing my dream. That loyalty and support is why I married her 54 years go. Over the years of big mountain climbing, I have tried to earn the support and respect of my family by climbing with safety as a first priority. I have made many more u-turns in the Himalaya than round trips to the summit and back. This year, I will climb with the same attitude.
Q: Bill, thank you for your candidness. Just one more question. Can you tell us what motivates you? What is behind your passion and love of mountain and the drive that keeps you going at age 74 when others are happy to sit in a chair or play 18 holes at their local course?
BB: I have always loved the mountains. They are always the same and never the same. Someone once said “no man steps in the same river twice, for he is not the same man, and the river is not the same river.” It is the same with the mountains. When I venture into the mountains, I feel like I am on a spiritual journey. All cares and concerns wash away. Life is put back into perspective. God is in control. And, I always come home refreshed and a better person.
I especially love the Himalaya Mountain Range and the fabulous people who populate its environs. Every trip I have made to Nepal and Tibet has been an adventure that left me yearning to return. I have never experienced a failure in the mountains of the Himalaya.
If my experience motivates even one person to set major goals in life, work hard, overcome obstacles and handicaps, learn from mistakes and achieve satisfaction and success, then my life will have a lasting and enduring meaning and purpose.
We are all cheering for you Bill. You can follow Bill on his website where he posts frequently before, during and after his climbs.
Memories are Everything
Thank you Alan for a great interview!