Heading Home

Kathmandu, Nepal
May 31, 2011

Dear Family & Friends:

Today, I return home from Kathmandu.  It has been a long trip, and I look forward to the journey home to reunite with family & friends.  As stated in my last message, I am feeling really good, physically and mentally, and I feel that the trip was a success despite my disappointment at not reaching the summit this year. Every time I come to the Himalayas, I feel refreshed and so blessed to have the opportunity to experience the breathtaking beauty of this magnificent mountain range.

On May 29, I had a meeting with  Dawa Steven and Mingma to discuss what happened on my “Summit Night.”  Set forth below is a brief synopsis, and you can draw your own conclusions. But, the bottom line, is that I am coming home alive, all in one piece and quite healthy and happy, so that has to be kept in mind in evaluating the success of the trip.  Not every expedition leads to a summit (especially at my age!), and success has to be measured in the quality of the experience, not the distance traveled.  The 2011 expedition was a great experience, both in terms of my team and the mountain, and I am coming home with some great memories and stories to tell.  It also helps that I summitted Mt. Everest in 2009, so I have already been to the “Mountaintop,” so to speak, and I have to be constantly thankful to God for that experience.

Summit Night-May 19-20
We arrived at Camp 3 (27,500 feet) at approximately 4 pm on May 19, just after the Chinese had fixed the lines to the summit.  Our plan was to begin our push to the summit at 8 pm.  Mingma agreed with the Chinese team that we would not move up from Camp 3 until after the Chinese climbing team (as opposed to the Chinese line-fixing team) had departed for the summit so the Chinese could be the first to arrive on the summit.  We were out of our tents and ready to go at 8 pm, but, because we had to wait for the Chinese to move up, we did not begin our own move up the mountain until 8:30 pm.  The first leg of the journey is a vertical move straight up the North Face of the mountain to the Northeast Ridge.  The route is tough and difficult and involves both snow travel and rock climbing. My Sherpa, Fur Gaelzen, set the pace in front, I was behind him, Mingma was behind me and Doug and his Sherpa (Perba) were behind Mingma.  I was deploying a four-stroke breathing rhythm, meaning that I would take four short breaths between each step.  I remember feeling very pleased at how strong I felt moving up as my breathing was totally under control and I felt stronger and more confident than any other time I was on the mountain this year.  At no time did Mingma or Fur Gaelzen say anything about the pace we were moving or indicate that they thought we needed to move faster.

We arrived on the Northeast Ridge (28,100 feet) and made the right turn on the ridgeline and headed for the summit. I recall feeling elated that we had reached the ridgeline so early and it seemed that we were sure to make the summit early, even before sunrise.  Then, Mingma came to me and said we were moving too slow and might have to go down.  I was shocked and stunned to hear him say this, and I told him it was early, we had plenty of time to reach the summit and the weather was perfect, with no wind and a nearly full moon illuminating the route.  He just said “we’ll see.”

After traversing the Northeast Ridgeline for about another 30 minutes, Mingma stopped me and said we needed to go down because we were moving too slow. I protested strongly, telling Mingma that I was moving well and felt really strong and there was plenty of time to reach the summit.  Doug, who heard me arguing with Mingma, agreed with me.  He looked at his watch and told Mingma that it was only 1 am.  Although it did not register with me at the time, Doug’s watch reading indicated that we had been climbing for only 4-1/2 hours. This will be significant later in this report.  Mingma then told me that there was another problem in that the 4 Sherpas (including Mingma) did not have enough oxygen to reach the summit and return safely. He said they only had 2 extra bottles of oxygen, which I interpreted to mean that the 4 Sherpas only had 6 bottles of oxygen, which would not be enough for a successful assault on the summit no matter how fast the team traveled.  Each Sherpa needs a minimum of 2 bottles of oxygen on summit day/night.  At that point, my heart sunk, because I could not under any circumstance insist on continuing up the mountain if it would put any Sherpa in danger, and Mingma insisted that the Sherpas would be at peril if we continued. I thought about suggesting that he send one or two Sherpas down so the remaining Sherpas would have more bottles of oxygen, but I knew Mingma would not agree to this plan.  I had no choice but to descend with a heavy heart.  This was the low point of the trip for me because all was going so well and it ended instantly with reasons that just did not make any sense.

The move down the North Face was slow and mentally painful as it was still dark and I was in a bit of shock at this remarkable turn of events.  We arrived at Camp 3 in about 2 hours and I entered my tent feeling a combination of dejection, anger and bewilderment.  At daybreak, Mingma entered my tent and I asked him why he turned us around. He repeated his claim that we were moving too slow and said that we had taken 7 hours to move from Camp 3 to the turnaround point at the First Step on the Northeast Ridge.  He compared this to 2010 when I reached the Second Step in just 5 hours, which Mingma said was a good time and pace to reach the summit.  At the time he said this, I did not challenge his calculation of the time elapsed from Camp 3 to the First Step as I had not done my own calculation.  I just told him that, when we turned around, it was early, I was moving strong and it seemed to me that we had plenty of time to reach the summit before daybreak.  I also told him how disappointed I was that he had not sent the Sherpas up with sufficient oxygen, which appeared to me to be the real reason for our turnaround.

Later that morning of May 20, I moved from Camp 3 to the North Col, where I spent the night.  It was at the North Col that I began to think more clearly about our summit attempt, and I realized that Mingma had badly misjudged the time we spent climbing from Camp 3 to the First Step.  We spent 4-1/2 hours climbing from Camp 3 to the First Step (8:30 pm to 1 am), not 7 hours as Mingma told me at Camp 3.  I returned to Advance Base Camp with Fur Gaelzen on the morning of May 21.  When Mingma rejoined us, I met with him and asked about the miscalculation.  He denied telling me at Camp 3 that we took 7 hours to reach the First Step and said the actual time was 6 hours.  I told him that the time was not 7, 6 or even 5 hours, but was 4-1/2 hours, and I was concerned that his miscalculation had affected his judgment about whether we were moving too slow and whether the Sherpas had sufficient oxygen.  At this point, he went to great lengths to explain to me how dangerous the mountain is, how many lives are lost every year and how he didn’t want me to be a casualty of the mountain.  He also talked about my family and how he was thinking about them too.  These were kind sentiments, to be sure, but his words were not reassuring or responsive to my questions about the decisions he made on the Northeast Ridge at 1 am on May 20.

At the May 29 meeting with Dawa Steven, Mingma provided some additional clarification as to his decision to end our summit attempt.  For the first time, he admitted that our elapsed time was 5 hours, not the 7 hours he calculated on the Northeast Ridge.  I still maintained that the time was 4-1/2 hours as Doug checked his watch when we began the move up and started the move down.  Mingma also said the Sherpas had the necessary 2 bottles of oxygen each so that was reassuring. He explained to Dawa Steven and me that he made the decision to turn around and move down because he estimated that it would take us an additional 15 hours to move from the First Step to the summit.  Even assuming this estimate was based on Mingma’s belief that it took us 7 hours to reach the First Step, the estimate is utterly preposterous.  The move from the First Step to the summit is a traverse across the Northeast Ridge, with about 800-1,000 feet of elevation gain, most of it occurring at the Second Step-a rock face that is scaled with a ladder-and the snow field leading to the summit.  The climbing is long and difficult (especially at the Second Step), but there is absolutely no way it would take 15 hours at the pace we were moving.

The team on the mountain with the most experience and the best success rate on the North side is 7 Summits.  I spoke in Kathmandu with the two most senior guides for 7 Summits and the Sirdar for 7 Summits, who has summitted from the North side 7 times, and they told me that, at the pace we were moving from Camp 3 to the First Step, it would have taken us approximately 5 additional hours to reach the summit from the First Step, which would have put us on the summit before sunrise.  This would have put our total time from Camp 3 to the summit at 9-10 hours, which is almost exactly the time it took me to summit from the South side in 2009.

Would I have made it to the summit if we continued on May 20?  Based on the pace I was moving and how I felt when I reached the Northeast Ridge, I believe I would have summitted easily and made it down safely.  But, I cannot be 100% certain because I haven’t experienced the terrain above the First Step.  I do know with 100% certainty that, if we continued up and safety became a concern, I would have turned myself around as I have done on 2 previous occasions.  Maybe I’ll have to answer this question next year.  I don’t like unfinished business.

Double Summit
As you know, my plan this year was to attempt a double summit of Mt. Everest, first from the North and then the South.  This plan became impossible because the Chinese did not fix the lines to the summit on the North side until May 19.  I have come to the conclusion that the only way to succeed in this attempt is to start on the South side first because the lines are fixed by the climbing teams on the South side and, as a result, they are fixed much earlier in the season.

Thanks
I want to thank all of you for your interest in this adventure and your support.  Despite the disappointment I felt at being turned around short of the summit, I feel great about the trip and I am coming home healthy, content and happy.  I believe all things happen for a purpose and God’s hand is in every outcome of every action that I take. There is a reason I did not reach the summit this year, and I accept that as the basis for everything that happened on the mountain, even including the decisions that Mingma took on the mountain.

I especially want to thank my family for supporting me in my mountain trips over the last 8-10 years.  To my bride and life partner-Sharon-I say thanks and I love you. I spoke with Sharon by satellite telephone almost every day, and her voice sustained me on the mountain.  Sharon and I met in high school and married in my first year of college.  She then put me through college and law school.  In June, we celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary.  Sharon has given me 4 beautiful children, and these children have given us 14 beautiful grandchildren.  I have lots to be thankful for and lots to live for.

Life is good.

God is good.

God bless you,

Bill

ps: my brief was filed in the United States Supreme Court on May 26.  I finished writing the brief before I left for Nepal at the end of March, but I delayed filing it as long as possible so I would be home when the Court acts on the brief.  I hope to be busy with this when I arrive home.


Comments

25 thoughts on “Heading Home

  1. Bill I am also disapointed for you but thankful that you are well and happy and are still able to enjoy the wonderful experience and mountain. I would ‘assume’ you will be back to complete this summit. Until then, come hike at Grand Canyon!

  2. Bill I am also disapointed for you but thankful that you are well and happy and are still able to enjoy the wonderful experience and mountain. I would ‘assume’ you will be back to complete this summit. Until then, come hike at Grand Canyon!

  3. Bill I am also disapointed for you but thankful that you are well and happy and are still able to enjoy the wonderful experience and mountain. I would ‘assume’ you will be back to complete this summit. Until then, come hike at Grand Canyon!

  4. Bill, God Bless You and your family!

    Indeed life is good! and I am certainly grateful for you allowings us to be part of your adventure!

    Julian Buitrago
    Union, NJ

  5. Bill, I’m happy to hear you are on your way home-safely. I too am disappointed you were not able to finish your quest but the mountain will always be there for you to attempt again. There is reason in all decisions made although we may not agree at the ti

  6. Bill, I’m glad you’re ok, albiet disappointed. At least you have a previous summit behind you. For those considering future trips, all-in-all, what’s your assessment of your expedition providers performance?

  7. Hey Bill.

    Sorry it didn’t work out but I’m very glad that you’re healthy and able to consider another summit attempt next year. And yes, it certainly seems like Mingma was operating on a completely different wavelength. I imagine it’d be next

  8. Bill…super effort and so glad to hear that you were going strong on the summit day…I sure wished you would of had your ‘Burke rest day’ before your summit push, but maybe ‘next time.’
    Glad to have you back in the O.C. and let’s get together for l

  9. Mr. Burke:
    you wrote: ‘Not every expedition leads to a summit (especially at my age!), and success has to be measured in the quality of the experience, not the distance traveled’ this line will be a critical component of the book you will write. Suc

  10. Hi Bill,
    I have been following your journey and have a heavy heart for you… BUT…you are coming home safely to your family and that is what is most important! God bless you!

  11. BIll I don’t think you know or remember me but my parents live on La Rambla up from your old home. I have known Sharon since jr. high. I’m so impressed with your ‘guts’ and love your stories. Please consider giving the Burbank Historical Society a talk wi

  12. Dear Mr. Burke,

    You are indeed right that you have lots to be thankful for and lots to live for. We,HANMI alpine hiking club members are so very much grateful for you allowing us to be part of your incredible journey and looking forward to hea

  13. The most important part of this journey is that you are safe and have yet another batch of knowledge to add to your Everest climbs. This, no doubt, won’t be the last you’ve seen of Everest— I feel it in my bones 🙂
    Congrats and safe journeys home.

  14. Excellent synopsis of the events around summit day, and though your disappointment is palpble through this account, you are returing to those who love you most, the ultuimate yardstick of success.

  15. I have read this post several times and it strikes me that whatever happened, it is obvious that Mingma was trying to take care of you. Seems like may not have explained it very well except there is certainly an undercurrent of him feeling something that

  16. Bill….your account of the summit push is heartbreaking. I wish I could be as positive as you are…but I think it’s tragic they didn’t bring enough oxygen up, that you had to wait to allow for the Chinese to proceed ahead of you, that you had to wait so

  17. every climb story i have read always seems to have ‘murphy’ with…aka murphy’s law…sorry! he showed up and did not allow your double to happen…welcome home, ed

  18. So many mixed emotions when reading about the miscalculations that thwarted your attempt to the top. I can only imagine your disappointment! But, as you said so well, God’s hand has been guiding you so well all along and I’m certain was on this trip, as

  19. So many mixed emotions when reading about the miscalculations that thwarted your attempt to the top. I can only imagine your disappointment! But, as you said so well, God’s hand has been guiding you so well all along and I’m certain was on this trip, as

  20. Mingma’s confusion about the time and pace at the Northeast Ridge makes me wonder if his poor judgment could have been attributed to some altitude sickness or sleep deprivation? Where did he get the idea that there was a shortage of oxygen bottles? From

  21. ‘success has to be measured in the quality of the experience, not the distance traveled’

    Beautifully stated… words to live by, no doubt.

    Sounds like a serious blunder on Mingma’s part… but like you said, you are returning healthy

  22. God is in Control all the time. Glad you are ok tho after hearing of few deaths up there not worth summitting if it will propose danger.

  23. Bill, The statement that you made in the opening paragraph is prophetic: ‘Success has to be measured in the quality of the experience, not the distance traveled.’ I concur and will leave other thoughts until our next meeting.

    Rock Man

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