First Ascent of Burke-Khang

On May 23, 2014, as I was hunkered down in my tent at high camp on the North side of Mt. Everest, the government of Nepal opened 104 Himalaya peaks for climbing. One of them was named after me. That began a 3-year odyssey, which some friends and family members have characterized as an obsession, to be the first person to climb my eponymous peak.

Burke-Khang is 22,775 feet high and is located in a deeply remote region of the Gokyo Valley. It is situated about 9 miles from Mt. Everest, and, like Mt. Everest, is a border peak since it straddles Nepal and Tibet. I made three attempts to climb Burke-Khang–in the Autumn of 2015, the Autumn of 2016 and the Winter of 2017. All were unsuccessful either because of conditions on the mountain or weather.* I decided to make one last attempt in the Autumn of 2017. I was joined by my good friend from Ireland, Noel Hanna, an accomplished climber, guide, and extreme adventurer, and Micah Kershner, an alpine climber from New Jersey. We were accompanied by Richard Adler, a trekker, and Andrew Buisse, a professional photographer and pilot of our drone. We were supported by four Sherpas–Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Shepa, Samden Bhote and Tshering Tashi Shepa.

The 50+ mile trek to Burke-Khang Base Camp was infused with fun and adventure, including impromptu musical jam sessions on the trekking trail and in the tea houses. The scenery was stunningly beautiful. We arrived at Base Camp on September 30. The Itinerary I prepared for the expedition called for rest days upon arrival at Base Camp, Camp 1 and Camp 2. I informed the team that, at age 75, I would not deviate from that program. Noel, Micah, Naga, Pemba and Samden moved up to Camp 1 on the following day. Noel and the Sherpas had been at Base Camp fixing lines up the mountain, so they did not need a rest day. Micah decided to forego the rest day and move with them. This may have contributed to the altitude sickness that beset him at Camp 2.

Tshering Sherpa and I began our move up the East Couloir to Camp 1 on the morning of October 3. This was the toughest climbing of my life since the route is incredibly long and steep, with most of the vertical pitch at 75 degrees and higher. The snow was soft and sugary, making boot placement and crampon grip difficult. The Couloir is also extremely dangerous because of the fusillade of rocks and ice that constantly rain down at warp speed from above. Ten hours after I began my move up the Couloir, I arrived at Camp 1 (20,500 feet). I was exhausted and pretty much collapsed in my tent.

On October 4, important decisions had to be made. Our weather forecast warned of heavy snow and high winds in the next few days. Noel, Micah and the Sherpa team planned to move to Camp 2 and continue fixing lines to the summit. I felt strong and invigorated from my night of deep sleep, but I was not going to move up without taking a rest day. Noel asked if I wanted the team to wait for me before leaving Camp 2 for the summit push. My answer was unequivocal: if the team saw an opportunity to summit, they should take advantage of that opportunity and not wait for me.

Noel, Micah and the Sherpas made good time, reaching Camp 2 (22,200 feet) in just over 3 hours. But, the climbing was difficult and challenging because of the vertical pitch, technical rock climbing and crevasse fields. On more than one occasion, Noel had to cross fragile snow bridges over gaping crevasses while roped up to the rest of the team. Other sections required sideways traverses of steep ice walls, always a terrifying and exhilarating experience.

On October 5, Tshering and I began our move to Camp 2. Within minutes of our departure, I received a radio call advising me that Noel and the Sherpas were on their way to the summit. Micah was suffering from altitude sickness, most likely pulmonary edema, so he remained at Camp 2. I decided to remain at Camp 1 and await the results of the summit push. If Noel and the Sherpas did not reach the summit, I would move to Camp 2 the following day and be part of the second summit push. If they successfully reached the summit, the expedition would be over because I would not ask Noel and the Sherpas to summit Burke-Khang twice in just two days.

Noel, Naga, Samden and Pemba left the tents at Camp 2 at 6 am on October 5. The entire route was studded with deep crevasses, making navigation difficult and perilous. When they reached the summit ridge headwall, their plan was to move up on a direct line to the summit. That proved to be impossible because the headwall was nearly 90 degrees vertical. So, they moved to the east and attacked the headwall where the distance to the ridgeline was shorter and the pitch more forgiving. Still, most of the terrain up the headwall and to the summit was 75-80 degrees vertical or more. Along the ridgeline they encountered more crevasses and unstable cornices overhanging the ridge and leaning into Tibet. These cornices were studiously avoided. Forward progress was slowed by either deep snow or soft sugary snow. Finally, they achieved the first camel hump and what they thought was the summit. Alas, not so. It was a false summit. Onward to the second camel hump and, at 12:05 pm, Noel, Naga, Samden and Pemba stood on the summit of Burke-Khang. Noel reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of champagne so the team could toast their success.  It was a truly joyous moment for everyone on the Burke-Khang team. No one was more pleased than me.

Every inch of this expedition was captured in photos and video, including truly stunning drone footage. We came back with over 10,000 photographs and hours of video. We are currently working on a documentary of the expedition.

Bill Burke

* For stunning video footage of Burke-Khang taken from a helicopter after the Winter, 2017 expedition, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDVazyjdLKU&t=295s