Safely Back in Kathmandu

November 13, 2015
Kathmandu, Nepal

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,

Bill

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

Here is the first of Paul’s 2-part report on the final summit push


Comments

19 thoughts on “Safely Back in Kathmandu

  1. THANK GOD!!!
    that is all I can say…. I am chilled from head to toe reading this account… and I know this is the short – frost bitten version of the adventure! You are an amazing man Mr. Burke. I count this ascent as a complete success… thankful for the wisdom of your team and the brave Sherpas who risk their lives making history most will never read about.

    God speed to you on your journey home. Sea level is calling… I hope it gives you a nice long (insert MANY years here) hug.

    so thankful you and your team are safe… I’ve never known anyone to make history happen!
    Blessings,
    Debra Hall

  2. Small wonder this mountain has never been summited. Just like the Eiger North Face, it’s often enough not a matter of altitude which makes a mountain deadly.

    You all did fantastic; now it’s time to come home.

    Paul

  3. Wise decisions were made by the team on summit day. The mountain will always be there. Who knows, maybe at some point it will become a little more climber-friendly. Even if it always remains the same unclimbable peak as it now appears to be, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps some mountains are just not meant to be summited. Congratulations to the entire team! I’ll bet you had fun (at least some of the time)!

  4. Courage is truly grace under extreme conditions i.e. pressure. The courage to make the proper decision, the only decision, was to decend immediately.

    All of you are very brave indeed!

  5. Huzzah! Hooray for the team and the wisdom guiding their actions. A great ascent and experience and more summits to come (not necessarily mountaineering). Grateful you are all safe. God bless!

  6. All I know about cornices is as decorative shelf supporters, so I eagerly await the photos. What a thrill it must have been to climb your mountain! I’m so glad everyone is safe.

  7. I have sat here, on the edge of my seat, reading the varied blogs, emails and posts over the last month, with my hand over my mouth and my eyes in wide wonder as they darted across your words, never able to find the words to make a coherent and intelligent comment afterwards. This entry makes the other ones sound tame….and i can’t wait to read what is still to come. I am in awe of what you all accomplished. I’m in awe that you even attempted it and i’m stunned to read what Sid and the Sherpas did on the Tibet side of this beautiful behemoth. It does not sound like it’s peak is summit-able. That you all came so close would count in anyone’s book as a summit. I hope the time passes quickly on your long trip home. You can bask in the glory of this stunning feat forevermore.

  8. Sounds like the Nepal government named the correct mountain after you. It is tough, resilient, unstoppable. It’s peak may never see the footsteps of man, but one name does claim it.

    It sounds like the view from it is amazing and sits proudly among the world’s giants.

    Safe travels home to you Mr. Burke and your team.

  9. Your exciting journey has taken you from the possible to the boundary of the impossible….and EVERYONE is coming home…thanking the Lord for this successful climb and the safety of the entire team….I am shedding emotional tears of gratitude for the guidance and safe keeping of your courageous team……. Thank you, once again for ‘taking me along.’

  10. Bill and team,
    You have given a whole new meaning to courage and perseverance. Your story reads like a Pulitzer prize winning epic. So glad you are back in Kathmandu enjoying dining at the Yak and Yeti. Travel blessings.

    Rockman

  11. Bill, well done to you and the team. Epic climb given the circumstances and good decisioning all around — a great memory was made. Looking forward to seeing what this looked like — can’t imagine Hope to see you when you’re back — Sparks with the family for the holidays seems appropriate!!!

  12. I can’t find the words to truly describe my feelings right now except that I am extremely glad you are on your way home, safe & almost whole (perhaps by the time you get here). You have accomplished what no other has. Thank God the most gracious decision was made. Your success lies in the journey & in your loving, caring, positive attitude & indeed you all were successful! Love & Blessings, Betty

  13. I am thrilled to know that you and your team are all safely off the mountain and consider it a very successful trip. We all look forward to seeing you again and hearing your stories at the upcoming HPS Banquet. May God bless you and give you a safe trip home to your family.
    Winnette

  14. Bill, such a compelling narrative. It could only have been written by a brilliant lawyer and intrepid mountaineer! Most important of all, wise and alive. Congratulations to all of you on the team. Such incredible courage and skill. Bravo! and thank G-d!

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