Burke-Khang 2017

Pochara, Nepal

March 20, 2017

Namaste Family & Friends:

There I sat in the helicopter, hovering a few hundred feet above Burke-Khang Base Camp, negotiating the price for my return to safety, sanity and reality. In over four decades of practicing law all over the world, I have negotiated many complex transactions. But, never in such a weak bargaining position. Let’s first go back to where all the trouble started.

Tenzing and I left Machermo at 8 am on March 10, bound for  Gokyo. Everything was normal until 30 minutes into the trek. That’s when it began to snow really hard. I knew something was not quite right with my Winter, 2017 expedition plans. First, it was much colder than normal in Nepal, with some of the Kathmandu media reporting pre-Monsoon conditions in the mountains. Second, the terrain was covered with deep snow and all of the lakes were frozen solid. We arrived in Gokyo at 11:15 am.

The storm raged on for 2 more days. This was a low point of the trip for me as I was trapped in Gokyo waiting out the storm. As I stood beside the  cast-iron pot-bellied stove trying to keep warm, I watched the snow fall outside and the wind blast spindrift against the windows of the lodge. I could only imagine how my Sherpas were coping at Burke-Khang Base Camp with no shelter except their thin-skin tents. There was no way they could be fixing lines up Burke-Khang in these extreme conditions. I knew we were now behind schedule, and would encounter deep snow and unusually cold weather on the mountain.

The storm finally broke on March 13, and the helicopter arrived at Gokyo in the late morning. I flew over the dreaded Ngozumba and Guanara Glaciers, arriving at BK Base Camp in just 12-minutes. The Sherpas greeted me warmly, but there was a funereal atmosphere at Base Camp. Naga Dorjee Sherpa, the Sirdar and my good friend, reported that they suffered a lot in the storm with little protection and no way to keep warm. Adding to their misery, a freak wind storm blew down every one of their sleeping tents the night before I arrived and totally destroyed the cook tent. All this had to be repaired in the night and early morning hours. I felt so bad for them, but at least the sun was now out.

The following day, the Sherpas prepared to move up to the mountain and fix lines from Base Camp to Camp 1. I had a serious meeting with Naga and warned him that the team would experience deep snow in the East Colouir and potentially serious avalanche risk. I instructed him to come down immediately if these conditions presented unreasonable risk to life or limb. He agreed. The team left Base Camp at 8 am and did not return until 8:30 pm. The Sherpas spent 12-1/2 hours fixing lines and still had not reached Camp 1 on the snowfield at the top of the Colouir. Naga said the conditions on the mountain were deplorable because of deep, waist-high, snow, ice, rocks, rockfall and strong winds. He also said there was a large build-up of snow near the top of the Colouir that presented an avalanche risk.

Now, I was starting to give serious consideration to ending the expedition. On March 15, I called Dawa Steven at Asian Trekking to discuss the situation and ask for a weather report. Naga and the rest of the Sherpa team were strongly in favor of continuing the effort to fix lines to Camp 1. I wasn’t so sure this was a good idea. After a 3-way consultation between Dawa, Naga and me, we agreed to continue to fix to Camp 1, but only on one condition: I insisted that Dawa secure a weather report from Mike Fagin in Seattle. Once again, the team headed into battle at 8 am and once again they didn’t return to Base Camp until 8:30 pm. They successfully fixed to Camp 1, but it took 5 veteran Sherpas 25 hours over 2 days to put the lines in place and establish Camp 1 on the snowfield.

March 16 was a rest day for the Sherpas, and we took the opportunity to have our Puja at Base Camp. The plan for the next day was for 3 Sherpas to move up to Camp 1 and start fixing lines to Camp 2 and for 2 Sherpas to move with me to Camp 1. Still, no weather report. To make matters worse, my satellite telephone stopped working and Naga’s satellite telephone was working only sporadically, so communicating with Dawa in Kathmandu was nearly impossible.

The following morning, March 17, I awoke in subzero weather and started dressing and packing for the move up the East Colouir to Camp 1. But, there was still no word from Dawa about the weather forecast. After a light breakfast, it was decision time. Once again, Naga and the Sherpa team were strongly in favor of continuing the expedition. I finally reached Dawa with my inReach Explorer satellite device and received the weather report. Mike Fagin’s report applied to conditions at 18,000 feet, which was the elevation of our Base Camp. He reported a deterioration of the weather over the next 10-days as the jet stream repositioned itself directly over Burke-Khang. We could expect precipitation and winds of 45 mph, with stronger gusts greatly exceeding those wind velocities. Adding a multiplier for higher altitudes, this was truly devastating news. Plowing through waist-high snow in extremely vertical 75 plus degree terrain at high altitude is one thing. Doing so facing winds exceeding 75 mph in subzero wind-chill temperatures would be an act of suicide. With the full concurrence of Dawa and Naga, I called off the assault. The trip was over. I asked Dawa to arrange a helicopter flight to Lukla the following day. I reminded Dawa that I wanted the pilot to first take me up Burke-Khang for a closer, and maybe last, look at my mountain.

Now back to where this story started. The chopper arrived around 10 am on March 18. I said my goodbyes to the Sherpas and the 2 cooks, and boarded the bird. We lifted off and hovered around 300 feet above Base Camp. The pilot’s voice came through my headphones with this question: “where are we going?” I pointed to the mountain and said first there and then to Lukla. He looked surprised and informed me there would be an additional $1,500 “mountain tour” charge for the flight. I thought this had all been arranged so I replicated his expression of surprise. He said “okay $1,000” and asked “are we agreed?” After considering my poor options, I said “yes.” Good thing, because this was one of the best decisions of my life. The flight over Burke-Khang was life-changing and exhilarating for both the pilot and me. And, guess what: I have it all on video to share with you when I get home.

Keep in mind, helicopters in Nepal rarely fly above 18,000 feet and only in cases of rescue or recovery. In addition, flights into Tibet are strictly forbidden by the Chinese. Burke-Khang, like Mt. Everest, is a border peak, so we had to be careful not to stray into Tibet. As we approached Burke-Khang, the pilot asked “why this mountain?” When he heard my story, he was shocked and impressed. He slapped my leg 3 times and said “you are famous, and I’ll take you anywhere you want to go, but just don’t ask me to fly into Tibet.” We made several passes over the mountain, and he kept asking me if I wanted to go even higher. Of course, that question elicited a positive response. Then, he asked “do you want to fly over the summit?” Another immediate “yes.”

During the whole flight, the pilot was pronouncing “oohs,” “aahs” and “wows.” Despite being a veteran Nepali pilot, he had never seen such magnificent vistas. If you listen closely to the video, you may hear our dialogue. Of course, I was experiencing the same emotions, only more so since I have a special connection to this mountain. I was sorely tempted to ask the pilot to fly around the summit so I could get a good look at the Tibetan approach to Burke-Khang. I resisted because I suspected he would comply and we would be blasted out of the air by Chinese anti-aircraft artillery. So, I never saw the North side of Burke-Khang, and I never will.

This was the trip of a lifetime. The mountain is fearsome, awesome, magnificent and very dangerous. I saw massive crevasses, icefalls, cornices and towering seracs. The rounded summit is flush with these features and appeared almost impossible to scale. This is definitely a big-league mountain suitable only for extreme mountaineers with the right experience and equipment. To add to the immense emotional impact of the mountain’s complicated structure, the pilot clocked the summit temperature at -90 degrees Celsius! I had to ask him to repeat this temperature reading because it seemed so impossible and unreal. He repeatedly confirmed the reading. All the while, my hands were shaking with excitement and emotion.

After touring Burke-Khang, on the way back to Lukla, my pilot pointed out other major Himalaya peaks and passes, including Mt. Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho-Oyu, Pumori and Ama Dablam. All this is on film for you to see. When I returned to Kathmandu, Dawa and I watched the video on a computer screen. It is beautiful. It is unreal. It almost looks 3D. I can’t wait to share it with you. Dawa was blown away. What a birthday present for a 75-year old!

I am spending a few days in Pochara to rest and recuperate. I’ll be home on the 29th of March. That’s when I’ll process the video and post it on my website.

Great, great, great trip. They all are, but this one is special. I will carry it in my memories forever.

Thanks for accompanying me on this venture. I’m sorry it was cut short by weather, but I knowingly took this risk when I scheduled the Winter assault. Spring was out of the question because my preferred Sherpa Team will be working on Mt. Everest in the Spring. Naga, Shera, Sonam, Lhakpa and Tenzing are the very best. We bonded so well as a team. In my departure talk, I quoted from Shakespeare: “We few. We happy few. We Band of Brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” We were truly a Band of Brothers.

God is good. God is great. He sustained us through this expedition and brought us out whole and happy. Now, I need to think about what’s next. How can I possibly top this experience?

I love all of you,

Bill