Namche Bazaar
May 30, 2007

Reflections re Summit Day and my Miracle Camera

As promised I am putting together my thoughts regarding Everest summit day and the amazing recovery of my Canon camera.

Before beginning my report, I want to publicly thank my wonderful wife, Sharon, for transcribing and posting my reports over the last two months. This has not been easy for her since many of the reports were called in by satellite telephone and the reception was not always that great. Often, I had to make several calls to finish a report and Sharon had to piece together the information in posting the report. I cannot begin to describe how much I love her and miss her and my family. Maybe I should do this every year just so I have that annual reminder. Just kidding Sharon.

Summit Day-May 21, 2007.

First, I am disappointed that I did not reach my goal-the summit of Mt. Everest. I feel like I let you down. Myself too. But as more time passes, the disappointment subsides and I can put the whole experience in perspective and feel really good about it. A battle has been lost, but the war will be won. God has a plan for me.

My discussion of summit day begins at Camp III on the Lhotse face, not Camp IV on the South Col. The move from Camp III to Camp IV is steep, long and incredibly challenging. The pitch is so steep that fixed ropes are attached to the mountain with ice screws for the entire route up to Camp IV. An ascending device, called a “jumar”, is attached to the fixed rope. This device, when attached to the rope, will move up the rope, but not down. The climber attaches the jumar to the rope and then pulls himself or herself up the mountain, step-by-step. Because of the steepness of the route, I was taking about 6-8 deep breaths between each step.

The altitude gain between Camp III and Camp IV is approximately 3,500 feet. I started up the Lhotse face at 9 am and arrived at Camp IV around 5 pm, totally wasted. Four of us-Terry and I and our 2 sherpas-were crammed into 1 small tent with all our gear. There was no resting in this situation. We had to decide whether to make our summit push on that day or take a rest day at the South Col as some teams do. Needless to say, I lobbied for the rest day. I was outvoted as the weather looked great and my tentmates feared that it could turn bad if we waited. In fact, the wind picked up significantly on the South Col on the following day.

We “rested” in the tent from 5 to 9:30 pm and then started our summit push. The route from Camp IV to the summit can be compared to the route just described from Camp III to Camp IV-steep, long and challenging; and the altitude gain is approximately 3,000 feet. Unfortunately, I encountered problems with my sherpa which contributed to my fatigue as I moved up the mountain. I won’t describe these problems as I really cannot gauge their cumulative effect. As I moved higher up the mountain, my legs became weaker, my pace slackened and I found myself stopping about every 20 feet gasping for breath and digging deep for that last ounce of energy. However, at no time did I feel any form of altitude sickness–put simply, I was just tired from the long push starting at Camp III.

I reached the South Summit of Mt. Everest, which is at an altitude of approximately 28,750 feet, just a couple hundred feet short of the summit. At that point, I decided to turn around and return to Camp IV. This was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my life since I am not a quitter. Here is why I made this tough decision.

The route from the South Summit to the true summit involves an up and down traverse which does not involve much altitude gain but still takes about 2 hours. This traverse is called the “Death Traverse” because it is highly exposed (drops of more than 4,000 feet) and there are no fixed ropes attached to the mountain. Steady progress and sure footing are required. It is no place for wobbly legs. Most of the injuries and deaths on the big mountains occur on the descent. It has been said that 1 out of 5 climbers who reach the summit of Mt. Everest die on the way down. Many climbers who have reached the summit of Mt. Everest, including some featured in the book “Into Thin Air,” collapsed on the way down. Rescue at that altitude is difficult, if not impossible.

I considered all of the above carefully as I pondered my situation at the South Summit. If I continued to the summit and ran out of energy, I would put myself, my sherpa and any good hearted climbers who came to my rescue at serious risk of life and limb. I could not in good conscience take this risk. I was also very mindful of my promise to family and friends to be safe and conservative on the mountain. The image of the bodies of the 2 Korean climbers, tightly wrapped in their sleeping bags, being dragged down the Khumbu Icefall in sleds also flashed through my mind. Finally, I was promised a second chance to summit if I did not make it on the first attempt. I knew that I could make it to the summit if I returned to Camp II for a few days of rest.

I descended from the South Summit to Camp IV and the four of us spent a fitful night in our little tent with almost no sleep because of the crowded conditions. The following morning I spoke with Dan on the satellite telephone about my desire to make a second summit attempt. He agreed to make the arrangements and, to that end, we left our tent up at Camp IV for my second effort. We all descended the Lhotse Face to Camp II where I planned to rest for 2 days before proceeding up again. In the end, unfortunately, sherpa support could not be arranged for the second summit attempt.

So that’s my summit day story. Overall, I’m happy with my performance and I learned a lot from the experience. I am confident that I would have made it to the summit if I had taken a rest day at the South Col or if I had a little less weight in my backpack. I also take some comfort in the fact that most of the world’s famous climbers did not summit Mt. Everest on their first effort (for many it took 3 or more attempts), and they were a bit younger than me when they made their attempts. I certainly don’t put myself in their elite category, but their experience informs my first effort to climb this great mountain.

My Miracle Camera

I own a Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera which I take with me on every mountain expedition. I took it with me up Mt. Everest. On the way down from Camp IV on the Lhotse Face, I decided to take a break. I sat down on my backpack and placed my camera beside me on the backpack. As I repositioned myself on the backpack, the camera was dislodged and fell off the backpack. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the steep Lhotse Face and faded out of sight. The memory stick had all my pictures from Base Camp to the South Summit. I was absolutely sick to my stomach.

I moved down the Lhotse Face in total dejection and ran into Vern Tejas, a good friend who was leading an Everest expedition for Alpine Ascents International. I told him about my camera and he offered his condolences. The following morning, Vern and his group passed by our tents at Camp II and he called out my name asking me to visit him at Base Camp as he had something to tell me. The following day, Vern came to our camp at Base Camp and handed me my camera. He said that one of his clients also lost his camera on the Lhotse Face so he decided to look for the camera at the bottom of the Lhotse Face where it joins the Western Cm. This is like finding a needle in three haystacks-a one in a million proposition. He climbed up the mountain and began searching for the camera. He found all sorts of mountain gear-ice axes, gloves, hats, etc.-and a camera. He knew it was not his client’s camera and he wondered if it might just be my camera. The only way to tell was to turn it on and look at the pictures-a one in a billion proposition. He turned the camera on and, unbelievably, the camera worked just fine. He saw my pictures and knew it was my camera!

The bottom line is that my Canon camera fell more than 3,000 feet down the Lhotse Face at Mt. Everest and was found in operating condition. The lens was damaged so it could not be used to take pictures but it nevertheless still worked and could display the pictures stored in the memory card.

All of this is further proof to me of God’s hand in our daily lives-He denied me the Everest summit (probably to save my life) but performed a miracle by giving me back my camera and pictures.

Reflections on the Trip

You may wonder-was it worth it? I loved every minute of this trip. It is by far my favorite of all the expeditions to the Seven Summits. I was blessed with a great group of fellow climbers with whom I have become close friends. I cherish all of my experiences on this majestic mountain and on the trek to and from the mountain. The Himalayan mountains are breathtaking in their stature and beauty. I have some wonderful memories that I will carry with me the rest of my life. My heart and prayers go out to those who lost their lives this year on Mt. Everest and Lhotse and to their families who grieve their loss.

What Now?

Upon my return home, I plan to take a couple of months off. Then Ollie and I will get back to serious training, and I will summit Mt. Everest in 2008. As Arnold (the “Terminator”) would say to Mt. Everest: “I’ll be back.”

My Gratitude

I will continue to file reports as events justify. However, I want to express now my deep gratitude to all of you who followed my progress and supported me with your thoughts and prayers. I thought of you often on the mountain and found my spirits uplifted. I hope you found my reports interesting and that they gave you some idea of the ups, downs, joys, sorrows, thrills and challenges of alpine climbing.

God Bless You and Your Families.

Bill Burke

Post Script on the Team

Here is how everyone on the team performed on Mt. Everest and Lhotse:

Mark Luscher-Mark is my good friend from Oregon. He was on the Everest team. We planned this trip together. He had to leave before making a summit attempt because he could not keep food down at high altitude. He is a super strong climber and a great person. He is 61, married and the father of 6 children. He just received an award as the National Ski Patrol person of the year. I guarantee you Mark will be back and will summit Mt. Everest.

Daniel Lee-Dan is a retired ophthalmologist who maintains a dual residence in San Francisco and France. He was on the Lhotse team. He left early without making a summit attempt primarily because of persistent headaches at altitude.

Phil Link-Phil is from Australia. He was on the Lhotse team. Phil decided he would not use supplemental oxygen while climbing the mountain. He turned around at approximately 25,900 feet. If Phil had used supplemental oxygen, I am confident he would have reached the summit of Lhotse.

Paul Fitzpatrick-Paul lives in New York and was one of our strongest climbers. He is also one of the most kind and gentle persons I have ever met. Paul was on the Lhotse team. He was the first to summit Lhotse at an altitude of 27,883 feet. He became seriously ill on the descent and, as previously reported, was eventually evacuated from Base Camp by helicopter. He has fully recovered in Kathmandu and I am sure is now planning his next mountain trip.

Bruce Manning-Bruce lives in the UK and was on the Lhotse team. He is an experienced and accomplished climber who was fun to have on the team. He summitted Lhotse at an altitude of 27,883 feet.

Dan Mazur-Dan was the overall trip leader and was on the Lhotse team. He played a supporting role on summit day, making sure the Lhotse team made it up and down the dangerous Lhotse summit ridge safely. He reached an altitude of approximately 27,550 feet.

Terry Schuck-Terry lives on a farm in Pennsylvania and was on the Everest team. He is a super strong climber. Three years ago, he summitted Cho Oyu. He summitted Mt. Everest at an altitude of 29,035 feet. Congratulations to Terry!

Bill Burke-I am guessing you know me and where I live. I was on the Everest team. I reached the South Summit of Mt. Everest at an altitude of approximately 28,750 feet