2016 Burke-Khang Recap

Prelude: this is a lengthy report followed by a 30-minute movie of our 2016 Burke-Khang expedition. After the movie, I have included interviews of Naga Dorjee Sherpa and David Liano. The movie and interviews will carry special meaning if you first read the report. So, find your favorite easy chair, stoke the fire in the fireplace, grab a soda, egg nog or glass of wine, and enjoy.

Costa Mesa, Ca.

December 28, 2016

Dear Family & Friends:

When I started the blog on my website over 1 decade ago, I made a commitment to be completely honest in my reporting. No overstatements, understatements or sugarcoating. Here is proof of that commitment: I am not happy with my performance on Burke-Khang this year.

In 2015, I made it to the Burke-Khang summit ridge headwall, less than 500 feet from the peak. It was brutally tough and incredibly dangerous climbing. We started with 7 climbers and ended up with just 3 who advanced beyond Camp 1 on the mountain. Opposing cornices, a giant black-hole crevasse bisecting the cornices and a concave ice wall on the summit ridge blocked our forward progress. We were forced to retreat to fight another day.

After my Achilles injury in December of 2015, I began intense physical therapy with plans to launch another Burke-Khang expedition in the Autumn of 2016. In March, I was well enough to resume my training regime–5-days in the gym for a 2-hour workout and bicycling for 30-40 miles on Sunday with my Training Partner, Ollie. This intense training continued until October when I departed for Nepal. I felt more than ready to give this beast of a mountain another go.

Some members of my family asked if I plan to complete another helicopter reconnaissance before our assault on Burke-Khang, circa 2016. I had considered this option, but felt it unnecessary because we had such a good look at the mountain in the 2015 helicopter reconnaissance and climb. All the issues were on the summit ridge, so that would be our challenge in 2016. When David Liano and I met with Dawa Steven Sherpa and Naga Sherpa at Asian Trekking in Kathmandu, our climbing strategy was laser focused on the summit ridge. Little did we know what was waiting for us much lower on the mountain.

The Trek to Gokyo

Everything went well on the trek to Gokyo. I felt a sense of gathering strength as we advanced from village to village, and my body steadily acclimatized to the altitude gain and concomitant loss of oxygen in the atmosphere. If you followed my blog, I’m sure you took note of this happy news.

After 7 days of trekking, we reached Gokyo, one of the most beautiful places on planet earth. David and I decided to scale Gokyo Ri mountain as an acclimatization exercise. The summit of Gokyo Ri is 17,575 feet above sea level, and the climb is safe and easy. David left in the morning, and I started up in the early afternoon. I was shocked at the fatigue I felt moving up this mountain. Typically, I move slow and steady and control my breathing with rest-stepping and pressure breathing. Inexplicably, this was not working on Gokyo Ri. I reached the summit, but my confidence was shaken. I wondered “what’s wrong”?

The next day we moved to Gokyo Lake # 5 and established our camp in the same place as last year. It was fun to recall the 2015 expedition in which 12 team members (climbers and trekkers) camped at Gokyo Lake # 5. We even celebrated Halloween, and team members donned costumes fit for a formal Halloween Ball in Newport Beach. Those warm memories boosted my spirits considerably.

Traversing the Glaciers

But, back to the reality of 2016: our next task was to traverse the massive Ngozumba Glacier and move up the Guarana Glacier to Base Camp. How can I describe the Ngozumba Glacier? It is the largest glacier in Nepal and is populated by boulders and rocks of all shapes and sizes, ice walls, ice cliffs, frozen glacial lakes, huge hills of dirt, rock and ice making for constant up and down travel and surface terrain ground to dust by millions of years of pounding as the glacier moves slowly, but inexorably, down the Gokyo Valley. To reach the glacier from Gokyo Lake # 5, we had to descend an 800-foot glacial wall. Imagine descending, hand-over-hand on a thin rope line into the Grand Canyon. Once we reached the bowels of the glacier, we faced a 2-mile trek across the most difficult terrain you can imagine. It was like crawling across the Sahara Desert on hands and knees. Every rock on the glacial moraine was unstable. One step forward and two steps back, as the rocks give way, impeding forward progress.

We finally crossed the Ngozumba Glacier and started moving up the equally challenging Guanara Glacier. After 5 hours of tortuous labor, starting from our camp at Goyko Lake # 5, I took a break with Naga, who was travelling with me. I asked how far we had to go to reach Base Camp, assuming it was, at most, 1-hour away. He replied “we are about half-way.” The wind instantly drained from my sails. I was totally deflated. Five more hours of this pain? We continued moving up until we ran out of daylight, just 30-minutes from Base Camp. Naga arranged for a tent to be ferried to me from Base Camp, and I spent the night on a lonely, but lovely, perch overlooking the Guanara Glacier. It was really quite pleasant. The following morning, I made it easily into Base Camp, vowing never again to set foot on the Ngozumba or Guanara Glaciers. I was elated to be back at Base Camp, but the spark of energy wasn’t there. Something was missing.

Despite disappointment with the physics of my performance, I stayed mentally strong and committed to success. Not once did my spirits falter or fade. I never considered quitting. I was sure that, if I took care of myself and doubled down my efforts, I would stand on the Burke-Khang summit with my teammates. For me, adversity was a strong motivator and only intensified my desire to achieve my goal. I soldiered on, confident that I would ultimately succeed.

Base Camp

On November 5, David and our 3 Sherpas-Naga, Shera and Sonam-moved up from Base Camp to the foot of the mountain, with plans to fix the lines to Camp 1. Unfortunately, they moved up the wrong colouir and immediately ran into impassable obstacles, including crevasses and near vertical ice and rock faces. David contacted me on the radio, and I redirected the group to the East Couloir that our team ascended last year. However, time ran out, so they left all the lines and gear on the mountain and returned to Base Camp. The following day, the 3 Sherpas fixed lines up the East Colouir to Camp 1.

November 7 was our Puja day. It was impractical to send for a Lama (Buddhist Priest), so Naga conducted the Puja and did an excellent job. After the Puja, I moved 5 miles  up to the base of Burke-Khang and a tent was installed so I could spend the night and have a head start for the move to Camp 1 the following day. David, Naga, Shera and Sonam arrived the following morning, and we all started our move to Camp 1.

The East Colouir

The move up the East Colouir to Camp 1 is an all day incredibly difficult and arduous journey. The colouir is long and vertical, reaching more than 75 degrees vertical at points. It is made even more dangerous by the fusillade of rocks and boulders that rain down from above without warning and at warp speed. More than once we ducked to avoid these missiles as we moved up this shooting gallery.

In the late afternoon, David, Naga and Shera reached Camp 1. I was at the halfway point, with the steepest and most difficult section still ahead of me. My body was wracked with fatigue and every sluggish step was a challenge. But, I continued moving up, propelled only by sheer will power.  Finally, I did a mental calculation of time, distance and speed and determined I would not reach Camp 1 before nightfall. There was no way I wanted to be moving up this section of the colouir in the dark, even with my headlamp. It would be impossible to see falling rocks, and, when the sun drifted below the horizon, the temperature would rapidly plummet, leaving me exposed to hypothermia and frostbite. Reluctantly, I descended to my tent at the foot of the mountain. My plan was to take a rest day on November 9, while the lines were being fixed to Camp 2, and ascend to Camp 1 to rejoin the group on November 10.

Day of Reckoning

November 9 was our day of reckoning on Burke-Khang. Naga, Shera and Sonam left Camp 1 in the early morning to fix the lines to Camp 2.  The route from Camp 1 to Camp 2 involves a long, steep climb to a ridgeline separating Nepal from Tibet and then from the ridgeline up to a large, open snowfield that leads to the massive summit ridge headwall where we were stopped last year. This year, however, the ridgeline was dramatically different as it was populated by multiple cornices overhanging the mountain. A cornice is a buildup of snow and ice formed by the action of the wind blowing over the top of the mountain. Cornices can be as large as 25 feet. Those encountered by our Sherpa team were 10-15 feet. All cornices have one thing in common: they are notoriously unstable. As the snow and ice melt in the afternoon sun, the cornice can break off and thunder down the other side of the mountain. This instability presents unique challenges to climbers who must pass over a cornice because the weight of the climber adds to the instability of the cornice. Last year, for example, the Sherpas encountered multiple cornices on the summit ridge. One Sherpa planted his ice axe in a cornice to gain balance and stabilize himself. The ice axe went clear through the cornice. When he extracted the ice axe from the cornice, it left a hole through which he could see the Tibetan plateau, 10,000 feet below. What a powerful way to focus attention and prompt a rapid retreat to safety!

Undaunted, Naga, Shera and Sonam managed to achieve the ridgeline and pass over the cornices. What they then encountered was both unexpected and breathtaking. A 600-foot icefall blocked passage to the Camp 2 snowfield.  As a glacier moves down a mountain and reaches steep sections, the lower portion of the glacier begins to move faster than the upper portion and the glacier begins to break up and self-destruct. The process of deterioration creates massive, bottomless crevasses, ice blocks and ice towers the size of office buildings and unstable snow and ice bridges. It resembles a bombed out mountain war zone. The most famous icefall in the world is the Khumbu Icefall at the foot of Mt. Everest. To manage this obstacle on Mt. Everest, teams of Sherpas, affectionately known as “Icefall Doctors,” install rope lines up the Icefall and place aluminum ladders over the crevasses and up the ice towers. The Burke-Khang Sherpa Team had rope lines, but no ladders. Sadly, they concluded the Burke-Khang Icefall was impassable and returned to Camp 1.

Naga reported his findings to David at Camp 1. To underscore his point, this veteran Sherpa told David “I feared for my life the entire time I spent above Camp 1.” He also told David it would take at least 15 ladders to negotiate the Burke-Khang Icefall. David immediately radioed the grim news to me as I waited in my tent at the foot of the mountain. We decided I should stay put until he could check out the situation the following day. On November 10, David started up the route to Camp 2 with Shera and Sonam, Naga having politely declined the invitation to join the group. Naga’s findings and assessment were confirmed. Although David was confident the route was impassable, he decided to test one of the ice bridges in the icefall zone. Shera belayed David down a steep ice face to an ice bridge connecting 2 crevasses. When David gently placed his boot on the ice bridge, he heard an ominous cracking and groaning sound, signaling a fragile bridge and a huge vacuum of space under the bridge. The slightest additional weight and the bridge would collapse, hurtling David and Shera into the imponderable medium of space below the bridge. David, Shera and Sonam returned to Camp 1 and David radioed his report to me. We concluded the trip is officially over. I returned to Base Camp and David, Naga, Shera and Sonam joined me the following day.

As I gazed at the dreaded Ngozumba and Guanara Glaciers from the back seat of the helicopter on November 11, I reflected on our 2016 expedition. Despite the misgivings about my performance, I was overcome with thanks and joy that God had given me the opportunity to revisit this tiny little corner of paradise in the spectacular High Himalaya. David and I and the entire Sherpa team considered this expedition a complete success. We bonded as a team and worked as a single unit. We considered ourselves privileged to enjoy never before seen vistas. We knew we were standing on sacred ground thanks to the goodness and generosity of the Nepalese people.

Post-Climb Reflections

Since returning home, I have beat myself up searching for answers to the fatigue I experienced on this expedition. Was my training insufficient? Was my Achilles not adequately healed? Was I suffering from a bug contracted in Nepal? Has my age finally caught up with me? Or, is this symptomatic of all athletic endeavors: sometimes an athlete has a “bad game.” A baseball player goes 0-5 at the plate. A quarterback throws interceptions. A marathon runner records a poor time. I still haven’t come to terms with this self-analysis, but I’m leaning towards the bad game scenario. One thing is for sure: I will not let this hold me back or slow me down.

My eponymous peak beckons my return. Burke-Khang is alluring because it is remote and challenging. Most of the terrain we traversed beyond Gokyo Lake # 5 is virgin territory rarely seen by humankind. Naga aptly described Burke-Khang as a “hidden mountain” nestled deep in a “hidden valley.” The mountain is incredibly difficult to climb because of its crevasses, cornices, icefalls, exposed ridgelines and extremely vertical rock and ice faces. By way of comparison, Mt. Everest is a walk-up. If I had been given a choice by the Government of Nepal, this is the mountain I would have selected to bear my name. Like all unclimbed mountains, Burke-Khang is also alluring because there is no established route to its apex. Success is never assured. Every day on the mountain is a venture into the unknown. Route finding is critical to success, but is made enormously difficult as the terrain changes from year-to-year, month-to-month and even day-to-day, as we discovered this year. I have enjoyed my 2 expeditions on Burke-Khang as much as any other mountain I have climbed.

I remain convinced that Burke-Khang can be climbed. But, I will not launch another expedition unless I have a rock-solid game plan for success. In the meantime, in January, I will ramp up my training and return to the mountains to see what messages my body sends to me.

I have prepared a 30-minute movie of the 2016 Burke-Khang expedition. I hope you enjoy the photos and video. I also hope you will watch my 10-minute interview of Naga Dorjee Sherpa and David Liano, which follows the movie. Be sure to watch the movie in full screen mode.

I offer my sincere thanks to all of you who followed my expedition this year. I am especially grateful for your thoughts and prayers which, as always, sustained me on the trip.

Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and God Bless You.

Bill Burke