We Never Had a Chance
November 13, 2016
Namaste Family & Friends:
I am safely back in Kathmandu, now making plans to return home.
Thanks for following the expedition this year and for your warm thoughts, words and prayers on our behalf. I am constantly sustained by your love and support.
As usual, I will be transmitting to you a full accounting of what happened on “The Mountain” this year. In the interim, you deserve more information than was provided in my last brief and opaque post. Here are some Cliff Notes.
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.
About this time last Autumn, Paul Fejtek and I sat on the massive headwall leading up to the summit ridge of Burke-Khang. We were well above Camp 2 and less than 500 feet from the summit. All that remained was the fixing of lines and we would stand on top of my eponymous peak.
Burke-Khang had other plans. Opposing cornices, concave ice walls and a massive crevasse bisecting the cornices blocked our progress to the summit. The Mountain sent us home, unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
This year, David and I bent our minds to solving the problems encountered by Team 2015 last Autumn. Our focus was therefore on the summit ridge. How could we fix ropes around the cornices and the crevasse to avoid the obstacles last year? Could we avoid these obstacles by moving up well below the cornices in a more direct, albeit much more vertical, approach? Could we reach the summit by traversing (illegally) on the Tibet side of The Mountain?
What we did not know is that The Mountain, in a very clever chess move, shifted its defensive emplacements much lower on its flanks in anticipation of our 2016 assault. We were caught completely off guard.
On November 9, Naga Sherpa and Shera Sherpa set out from Camp 1 to fix the lines up the mountain and establish Camp 2 on the snowfield near the headwall leading to the summit ridge. The weather was bluebird perfect, and everyone anticipated a tough, but uneventful, day. After several hours of climbing, Naga and Shera gained the Southeast Ridge, which leads to the snowfield on the upper reaches of The Mountain. Just like last year, Camp 2 would be installed on that snowfield.
At that point, everything changed in a dramatic way. Unlike last year, the Southeast Ridge was heavily corniced (see definition of “cornice” below), 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 (see definition of “icefall’ below) 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.
David wanted to see for himself, so he organized a reconnaissance the next day. He was hoping to find an alternative route around the icefall. Shera Sherpa and Sonam agreed to join him in this mission impossible. Upon reaching the icefall, his worst fears were realized. The icefall could not be bypassed, and there was no safe passage through the icefall. Twice, he had Shera Sherpa belay (lower on a rope) him to a snowbridge in the icefall, just to see if the snowbridge would support his weight and could be crossed. As his feet touched the snowbridge, the ice cracked and he heard an ominous hollow, groaning sound, indicating a large vacuum of space below the snowbridge. More weight, and the snowbridge would collapse, hurtling both David and Shera into the deep and dark abyss.
At this point, expedition 2016 was over. All that was left was to descend, pack and head home. We never got to establish Camp 2 or enjoy the challenge of finding a way to negotiate the infamous summit ridge.
Round 2 goes to Burke-Khang. In political parlance, this was a landslide victory. In military terms, it was a crushing defeat. Closer to home, the surfing community would label it a big wave “Burke-Khang wipeout.” Honestly, I don’t think our presence even disturbed The Mountain Spirits from their solemn slumber. Certainly, no alarms were sounded. We were simply here today and gone tomorrow.
As I record my thoughts, I have a huge smile on my face as nature should alway triumph over humankind. This is the natural and normal course of events. It is also God’s infinitive and perfect plan.
I speak for David, the Sherpa team and myself in declaring the 2016 expedition a complete success. We bonded and worked together as a team. We were privileged to enjoy vistas never before seen by our fellow travelers on planet earth. We stood on sacred ground. Naga Sherpa described Burke-Khang as a “hidden mountain ” nestled deep in a “hidden valley.” How aptly put. How appropriate. How perfectly described.
In my last post, I announced my intention to “leave Burke-Khang alone.” In my farewell talk to the team in the dining tent, I stated this would be my last alpine climb. Why do I make such foolish pronouncements in the heat of the moment? Now, with the benefit of reflection, away from the hardships imposed by The Mountain, here is my current thinking.
I do not believe any mountain is “unclimbable.” This diminishes too much the spirit of humankind infused by our Maker. Burke-Khang can be successfully scaled at the right time in the right conditions. The challenge is discerning that right time and those conditions. I do not want this to become an obsession or a crusade. In addition, age is taking its toll on my body and other adventures beckon. So, for now, I have no plans to launch another Burke-Khang expedition. But, I will never rule out another attempt.
I love all of you,
*cornice-a cornice is a build-up of snow and ice on a mountain caused by the force of wind passing over the mountain. Cornices typically overhang the mountain. They are often very fragile and cannot support much weight
*icefall-as the glacier moves down steep sections of a mountain, it often breaks up, creating huge ice blocks, ice towers and massive and deep crevasses. When snow falls in the icefall, it creates snow bridges connecting the ice blocks and ice towers and traversing the crevasses. These snow bridges typically collapse under the pressure of weight. The most famous icefall in the world is the Khumbu Icefall on the South side of Mt. Everest