Costa Mesa, Ca.
September 20, 2016
Dear Family & Friends:
On May 23, 2014, as I was at High Camp preparing for my summit push on the North side of Mt. Everest, the government of Nepal opened 104 Himalaya peaks for climbing. One of them was named after me. Burke-Khang, located deep in the Gokyo Valley, is 6,942 meters (22,775 feet) high and, like Mt. Everest and Cho Oyu, sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet. Burke-Khang is situated directly between these two famous peaks. The mountain had never been climbed.
In October of 2015, I organized a team of 7 climbers to attempt a first summit of Burke-Khang. Four trekkers joined us for a trek to this mountain. After 10-days of trekking from Lukla, we reached Base Camp at Gokyo Lake No. 5. We rested at Base Camp for a few days and then moved across the massive Ngozumba Glacier and up the Guanara Glacier to set up Advance Base Camp near the mountain. The total trekking distance from Lukla to Burke-Khang was over 50-miles.
We began our first ascent of Burke-Khang on November 7. After 3 days of climbing, two of us reached the headwall leading up to the summit ridge. We were just a few hundred feet below the summit. This was the most difficult and dangerous climbing I have ever experienced–far more dangerous and challenging than Mt. Everest. The terrain was consistently vertical, often exceeding 70 degrees, and the route involved technical rock and ice climbing. The expedition ended on November 10 when the Sherpa team fixing the lines declared the summit ridge unclimbable. They encountered unprecedented double cornices, facing both North and South, a giant crevasse bisecting the cornices and concave ice walls blocking the route to the summit. To make matters worse, the snow was soft, sugary and unstable, creating a severe avalanche risk. The challenges on the ridge were more than physical:
“These were the physical challenges on the summit ridge. The mental challenges were even more daunting. Sid told us both he and every member of the veteran Sherpa line fixing team were terrified while trying to negotiate these challenges and fix the lines on Burke-Khang. One Sherpa planted his ice axe on a cornice to gain balance and footing. The ice axe went clear through the cornice. When he pulled it out, it left a hole in the cornice through which he could see the Tibetan plateau, 10,000 feet below. For each Sherpa, it was not a singular risk just to that Sherpa. If one Sherpa fell, or if either cornice collapsed, every Sherpa clipped into the line would fall to his death.”
When our climbing team returned to Kathmandu, we met with Elizabeth Hawley, the beloved and fabled keeper of the Himalaya Database. Ms. Hawley and her colleagues keep track of every Himalaya expedition that originates in Kathmandu. After delivering our report, she asked the obvious question: “Are you coming back to complete Burke-Khang?” Before I could answer, she remarked, “of course, you have to finish.” Apparently, she was reading my mind as there was no way I was giving up after just one attempt.
Next month, I will return to Nepal to complete my first ascent of Burke-Khang.
One of the first persons I called in organizing the 2016 expedition was my good friend, David Liano. David is a 36-year old self-described “mountaineer, pilot and sailor” who lives in Mexico. I met David while climbing Vinson Massif in Antarctica in 2006. David has been climbing mountains for 23 years and has summitted Mt. Everest 6 times. David and I teamed up in 2010 and 2011 to attempt an unprecedented “double summit” of Mt. Everest, meaning a summit of the mountain from both the South (Nepal) and North (Tibet) sides in the same season. In 2013, David accomplished this goal and entered the record books. He has participated in more adventures than most of us could experience in 5 lifetimes. A short bio is set forth below.
My 2016 Burke-Khang expedition will be markedly different from the 2015 expedition. The team will be small–just David, 3 Sherpas and me. There will be no guides. This will be a quintessential “private” expedition in which all members (climbers and Sherpas) share in the load carrying, route finding and line-fixing responsibilities. We plan to start the expedition on October 27 and take as much time as necessary to summit Burke-Khang. In anticipation of the climb, I have spent hours studying the photos and video footage from last year, especially as they reveal the challenges we encountered on the summit ridge. David and I believe the ridge can be climbed, and this year we will tackle it head-on.
The route we will follow will mirror last year’s route up to the summit ridge. But, this year, we plan to move up along the summit ridge well below the cornices that blocked our progress last year. The trekking and climbing routes are depicted below. The route is necessarily fluid, as the mountain changes with every season, and, in some cases, every day, and we will continually assess the conditions and hazards as we fix the route and mark our progress up the mountain. This mystery and danger are a huge part of the allure of first ascents of alpine mountains.
Since March of this year, I have been training 6-days/week–a 2-hour workout in the gym on Monday-Friday, and bicycling with Ollie on Sunday. Sixteen year old Ollie now weighs over 100 pounds, so it is a real challenge pulling him in his trailer behind my bike, especially on the uphill portion of our rides. But, we both love it, and I know my best buddy is doing everything possible to get me ready for the big Himalaya climb. In August, I completed a grueling 7-day backpack in the High Sierra, covering over 50-miles and gaining over 9,000 feet of elevation.
You may recall my freak accident on New Year’s Eve, 2015, when I tore my Achilles tendon. A good portion of my workout regime involves exercises to strengthen and repair my left calf muscle and Achilles tendon. Through intense training and personal physical therapy, I have recovered most of the loss suffered by my Achilles tendon.I am still not getting the proper push-off with my left foot because the tendon is stretched, and I have atrophy in my left calf muscle–a pity since I am a lefty. On the steep vertical sections of the climb in snow and ice, I will need that push-off and strength to plant my crampon firmly in the blue ice portions of the route. The good news is I had no problem with my left foot in the High Sierra backpack, and I am optimistic it will be ready for prime time in October and will not let me down.
As usual, I will be filing trip reports and posting photos of the expedition. David will be doing the same on his website. We are hoping to travel with your thoughts and prayers.
After completing Expedition 2016, my next project will be to write a book about Burke-Khang. I will also unveil my next big adventure, which will knock your socks off.
David Liano is a 36-year old “mountaineer, pilot and sailor.” David has been climbing mountains for 23 years, and has completed the “8 Summits”–climbing the highest mountain on every continent, including Kosciuszko in Australia and the Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua, New Guinea. David has summitted Mt. Everest 6 times and is the only person to climb Mt. Everest from both the South (Nepal) and North (Tibet) sides in the same season–2013. He has sailed offshore, mostly solo, for thousands of miles and run in over two dozen marathons, ironman triathlons and hundreds of road races. His latest passion is paragliding, and he recently competed in the X-PYR World Paragliding Competition in Europe, one of the toughest adventure races in the world. David is an avid motorcyclist and, in 2015, rode a motorcycle across India in association with the Live Love Laugh Foundation to raise awareness about the dangers of depression and mental health disorders. For more information, visit David’s website.