November 13, 2015
Dear Family & Friends:
We are all safely back at the Yak & Yeti celebrating another fantastic and magical experience in the Himalaya. This report will be brief because all 10 of my fingers are frost-nipped. They will heal quickly, but, for now, it is hard to type because the tips of my fingers are numb.
Physically, I am fine, but I am extremely weak and a bit woobly on my feet. I lost over 15 pounds on the trek and climb, almost all muscle mass. Burke-Khang put up one ferocious fight. I’m extremely happy about that.
Here’s a brief recap of what happened on summit day. Sid Pattison and I established our own Camp 2 on the mountain just 800 feet below the summit ridge. I felt this would give me an edge because it would make for a shorter summit day. The rest of the team (Paul Fejek, Denise Fejtek, Nick Logic and Garrett Madison) planned to move the next day from Camp 1 and catch up with us so we could all summit together. I left Camp 2 early in the morning and slowly moved up the extremely vertical South Face of the mountain. The pitch was over 75 degrees. Sid was just ahead of me.
When we were about 200 feet from the summit ridge, I stopped because the rope lines to the summit had not yet been fixed by the Sherpa team ahead of us. I watched in awe as Sid moved up and over the summit ridge, exiting the country of Nepal and entering the country of Tibet at an altitude of about 22, 500 feet. This required him to spread eagle crawl up a giant ice-covered rock face. One slip and Sid would be history. There is no way I could replicate that feat unassisted by a fixed line on the mountain. So, I sat on the lip of a giant crevasse and waited. The weather was crystal-clear beautiful.
After about 1-hour, I saw a figure moving up the fixed line from Camp 2 towards me. Eventually, I recognized that figure as Paul. Paul joined me on the lip of the crevasse and we discussed options, given our circumstance of complete and utter exhaustion and fear and uncertainty as to what was transpiring just above us on the Tibeten side of the summit ridge. Little did we know that a desperate struggle for survival was occurring among Sid and the brave members of the Sherpa line-fixing team.
Here is what Sid reported when he crossed over the summit ridge ahead of me. Upon gaining the summit ridge, the route turns hard left. The Sherpa line-fixing team was charged with fixing lines all the way up the ridgeline to the summit of the mountain. What they encountered, however, was unprecedented in their collective Himalaya mountaineering experience.
The route was blocked by double/opposing cornices-one facing South and one facing North. These twin cornices were intersected by a gaping, blackhole crevasse. In order to gain the summit, the Sherpa team would have to crawl up and over both of these highly unstable structures, fixing lines as they moved up. This imposing blockade was buttressed by an even more fearsome defensive placement just beyond the cornices–a nearly 100% vertical wall of ice that could only be scaled by the most accomplished ice-climbers. Adding to this treachery on the summit ridge was the fact the snow was deep and unstable and the exposure to fall was well over 10,000 feet down to the Tibetan plateau. Sid reported that every member of the the highly experienced line-fixing team was moving in abject terror because of these conditions. One Sherpa bravely assaulted the first cornice and nearly fell to his death. Had he not been able to arrest his fall, every other Sherpa clipped in to the line would have plunged with him into Tibet. Life and death decisions had to be made. Garrett answered the call.
As Paul and I sat on the Nepal side of Burke-Khang, contemplating our options, the radio crackled to life. It was the voice of Garrett: “all members of the climbing team come down immediately. I repeat, everyone come down now.” Although I had no realization of the high drama occurring just above Paul and I on the other side of the mountain in Tibet, the news was a welcome relief because the decision was no longer in our hands. Everyone was safe and all that was left was the long trip home to family, friends and loved ones.
Every member of the Burke-Khang Team is 100% sure of one thing-if we had continued up despite the demonstrated risks, our expedition would have ended with deaths on the mountain. Instead of enjoying a celebratory dinner tonight in Kathmandu, we would be dealing with reality of Nepalese and American families forever broken by unnecessary tragedy and grief. Our collective guilt would be palpable.
Did we summit Burke-Khang in 2015? No. Did we successfully climb Burke-Khang? Most definitely yes. We accomplished all that was humanly possible on the mountain and everyone lives to tell the story and savor the memories. By any definition of success, we succeeded.
I know I speak for the entire Burke-Khang Team (guides, climbers, trekkers, Sherpas and support staff) in thanking all of you for your unfailing interest, love, prayers and support.
God Bless You,
ps: one of the Sherpa line fixers filmed the double cornices on the ridgeline. I haven’t yet seen the footage, but I’m told it is dramatic. I look forward to sharing it with you when I return home