Burke-Khang Fall 2017

Subject: Burke-Khang Recap

Costa Mesa, Ca.

October 15, 2017

Dear Family & Friends:

I’m home, safe, sound and happy.

The Autumn, 2017 Burke-Khang expedition ranks among the top three of my Himalaya mountain climbs. The other two expeditions are the South side summit of Mt. Everest, circa 2009, and the North side summit of Mt. Everest, circa 2014. Burke-Khang was opened for permitting and was named after me on May 23, 2014, only two days before I reached the summit of Mt. Everest from the North approach. Just when I thought I was finished with the High Himalaya, they reeled me back in!


Gokyo to Base Camp

Let’s pick up where we left off in Gokyo. After enjoying a rest day in Gokyo on September 29, Micah, Jeff, Richard, Alex and I flew by helicopter from Gokyo to Burke-Khang Base Camp on September 30. The short 10-minute flight allowed us to bypass the long, enervating slog across the Ngozumba Glacier and up the Guanara Glacier. Everyone arrived at Base Camp in good spirits and fine fettle. The majestic Burke-Khang loomed large over us in the distance. But, I’m pretty sure I detected a slight nod of admiration from the mountain for my stubbornness and determination in the face of long odds and a poor performance history in three prior attempts.

September 30 was one of the happiest days of the expedition. Noel had been at Base Camp since September 25 helping the Sherpa team with route selection and line fixing. Now, we were once again reunited in our common effort to scale this Beast of the Himalaya. The High Altitude Sherpa Team, consisting of Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa, Samden Bhote and Tshering Tashi Sherpa, were happy to welcome us to Base Camp. Naga and Samden had been with me on two previous attempts to climb Burke-Khang and were both highly motivated to succeed in this last attempt.

Jeff and Richard stayed at Base Camp just one day for filming and enjoyment of the magnificent vistas in this remote, hidden valley nestled deep in the fabled Himalaya Mountain Range. They departed Base Camp by helicopter on October 1. Alex was our team photographer and videographer, so he stayed at Base Camp for the duration of the expedition. Alex also piloted our drone and captured some stunning drone footage above Base Camp and all the way up to Camp 1. Over the years, I have dreamed of deploying a drone to film my mountain climbs. Alex made that dream come true. Alex worked tirelessly and effectively as our team photographer/videographer. His photos are breathtaking in their beauty and composition. Most importantly, he bonded immediately with the rest of the team. Alex also proved to be a decent and wily card player during the long nights at Base Camp.

When I prepared the Itinerary for the expedition, I called for rest days upon reaching Base Camp, Camp 1 and Camp 2 before the final summit push. I made it very clear to the BK Team that I planned to take advantage of each one of those rest days. As you will see, this decision played a major role in the scheduling of the final summit push and in the selection of the summit team. Since Noel had been at Base Camp since September 25, the October 1 rest day did not apply to him or to the Sherpa team. So, on October 1, Noel and three of the Sherpas-Naga, Samden and Pemba-moved up to Camp 1 to continue fixing lines up the mountain. Tshering stayed at Base Camp so he could accompany me on my move to Camp 1 the next day. Micah found himself unable to resist the Burke-Khang Siren Call and opted to forego the scheduled rest day at Base Camp and instead move with Noel and the Sherpas to Camp 1. This decision may have played a role in triggering the altitude sickness that later beset him at Camp 2.

Before Noel and the Sherpas left for Camp 1, I reminded them that safety took first priority over all other objectives of the expedition. If weather or conditions on the mountain dictated a retreat to Base Camp, or even an end to the expedition, that was the judgment call that must be made. I could not have lived with myself if any member of the climbing or Sherpa team did not return safely to hearth and home. Everyone shared that view.


Move to Camp 1

On October 3, Tshering and I began our move up the East Couloir to the snowfield at the crest of the Couloir where Camp 1 was installed. The route is incredibly long and steep, with most of the snow and ice pitch at 75-degrees vertical and higher. The Couloir is also extremely dangerous because of the fusillade of rocks and ice constantly raining down at warp speed from above. It is for this reason, I named this section of Burke-Khang the “Shooting Gallery.” It lived up to its name as more than once Tshering and I had to duck to avoid deadly collisions with rock and ice missiles hurtling down the Couloir. All of my teammates and the Sherpa team reported the same harrowing experience.

The move to Camp 1 was painful and difficult. The worst part of the experience was dealing with the desperate hope and expectation that Camp 1, and the safety of a tent for rest, hydration and nourishment, were just over the next ridgeline on the horizon. Time-and-time again, I would reach that ridgeline and see nothing more than another ridgeline hours away. After 8-hours of this torture, I finally asked Tshering “how many more minutes before we reach Camp 1.” His reply: “about two more hours.” I was crestfallen! All I could do was drop to my knees and bury my head in my arms as I gasped for breath and tried to come to terms with this horrific news. Finally, after 10-hours of this arduous climbing, we reached Camp 1. I collapsed in my tent and do not recall much of what happened until I awoke the following morning.


Move to Camp 2

On October 4, important decisions had to be made. 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 at Camp 1, but I was not going to move until I completed my scheduled rest day at Camp 1. Noel expressed concern that recent weather reports were projecting significant winds from the jet stream at the higher elevations on Burke-Khang. He asked if I wanted the team to wait for my arrival at Camp 2 before any final summit push was undertaken. My answer was unequivocal. If Noel and the Sherpas saw an opportunity to move to the summit before my arrival at Camp 2, they should take advantage of that opportunity. Of course, I wanted all members of the climbing and Sherpa team to reach the summit together. But, my primary objective was to put at least one member of the climbing team and the Sherpas on the top of Burke-Khang. If that did not include me, I would be happy and content to know that we proved that Burke-Khang could be climbed.

October 4 was a bluebird day with bright sun and clear skies. Noel, Micah and the Sherpas began their move to Camp 2, while I rested comfortably at Camp 1.


Summit Day

On October 5, Tshering and I began our move to Camp 2. Within minutes of our departure, I received a radio call that Noel and the Sherpas were on their way to the summit. Micah was suffering from altitude sickness, so he remained at Camp 2. With this news, I decided to return to Camp 1 to await the results of the summit push. If Noel and the Sherpas failed to reach the summit, but determined that a second push could be successful, I would move up to Camp 2 the next day and be part of the second summit effort. If Noel and the Sherpas 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 Camp 2 at 6 am on October 5. Their first assault was a direct move to the summit up the 80-85 degree summit ridge headwall. This effort was deemed far too technical and dangerous. So, they changed course and moved to the right of the summit headwall where they could gain the summit ridge at a less extreme vertical pitch. Once they reached the summit ridge, they turned left and moved up to the summit along the Southeast ridgeline. This involved negotiating unknown terrain populated with deep, hidden crevasses and unstable cornices. Forward progress was slowed by a combination of deep snow along the ridgeline and soft sugary snow atop a hard layer of ice, making foot placement and crampon grip on the mountain treacherous and uncertain. Burke-Khang’s distinctive double camel hump summit proved to a final challenge for the summit team. When they reached the top of the first camel hump, they realized it was a false summit. The true summit required another significant move up the second camel hump. This was accomplished, and Noel, Naga, Samden and Pemba stood on the summit of Burke-Khang at 12:05 pm.

Noel, Naga, Samden and Pemba were jubilant in their celebration on the summit of Burke-Khang. The Sherpas hoisted Buddhist prayer flags as a sign of thanks for the safe passage up the mountain. Noel brought out my American flag and my Burke-Khang flag and photos were snapped. Then, Noel dug into his backpack and retrieved a bottle of Moet champagne so the team could toast their success. Every aspect of the celebration was captured in photos and video. Even Alex was able to shoot a long-lens photo of the summit team from his vantage point at Base Camp. As word of the successful summit spilled out to the rest of the BK Team scattered throughout Base Camp and on the mountain, we were overcome with joy at this epic accomplishment. No one was more thrilled at the news than me.


Return to KTM

Noel, Naga, Samden and Pemba descended from the summit to Base Camp on October 5. Micah, Tshering and I descended to Base Camp on October 6. Noel, Micah, Alex and I flew from Base Camp to Lukla on October 7. We were all able to fly from Lukla to Kathmandu on October 7.


Celebration in Kathmandu

On October 8, I hosted a celebration dinner at the Chez Caroline French restaurant in Kathmandu. The dinner was attended by Ang Tshering and Dawa Stevens of Asian Trekking, Namrataa Shrestha, Dawa’s girlfriend, who is a famous Nepali actress, Billi Bierling, keeper of the Himalayan Database, Billi’s sister and her friend, Noel, Micah, Alex and me. It was a splendid evening of celebration and remembrances.


Concluding thoughts on the Summit of Burke-Khang

The press reports and news coverage of the Burke-Khang expedition have been supremely positive. Ang Tshering and Dawa Steven of Asian Trekking believe the publicity associated with the climb and the successful summit will provide a significant boost to more attempts to complete first ascents of Himalaya peaks. This is a major goal of the Ministry of Tourism and the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Here is a recent article reporting our success on Burke-Khang which was published in the Himalaya Times. https://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/first-ascents-of-mt-burke-khang-larkya-lha-south-east-wall/

One of the greatest sources of satisfaction to me coming out of this climb is the overwhelming happiness and pride felt by the Nepali Sherpa community over their success on this mountain located in their home country. The Sherpas are a tight knit community of family and friends who are deeply spiritual, friendly and humble. They receive very little credit for what they do on the big, well known 8,000 meter mountains, like Mt. Everest. I’m proud to move them front and center for the success we enjoyed on Burke-Khang.

My special thanks to my teammates Noel, Micah, Jeff, Richard and Alex for the unfailing kindness they showed me on this expedition. We will be friends forever. I want to single out Noel for special recognition. We have been good friends for over seven years. We are also bound together by our Irish roots. He hails from Ireland, and I recently discovered I am 47% Irish. This expedition started when Noel called and asked if I plan to return to Burke-Khang in the Fall of 2017. When I told him “yes,” he expressed interest in joining me in this last quest to reach the summit of my eponymous mountain. It all started with that conversation and led to this crowning achievement. Noel is the strongest climber I know, and is a born leader and high achiever. He played a major leadership role in selecting the route up this treacherous mountain and in fixing lines to the summit. He would not have topped out on Burke-Khang without the Sherpas, and they would not have topped out without him. Together, they worked seamlessly as a integrated, singular whole, truly all for one and one for all. Thanks to every member of the BK Team for your companionship and friendship.

On of the great sources of pleasure from the Fall, 2017 Burke-Khang expedition is the filming that was completed by the film crew that joined us on the trip. Virtually everyone on the team, except Noel and me, was an expert photographer and videographer. Every inch of the expedition was filmed from the United States to the summit of Burke-Khang and back. We have truly stunning drone footage showing a unique perspective from above looking down. We have almost two terabytes of media stored in backup drives. Now, Jeff has to organize this media into a documentary film project for national and international distribution. That is our immediate focus, and we are all meeting Southampton, Long Island next week to begin our first ascent of this new mountain.

Anticipating your question, no, I do not plan to return to Burke-Khang to attempt a personal summit. The team already accomplished that goal for me.

Thanks to my family, especially my bride of 55 years, Sharon, for supporting me over the years. I love all of you to Burke-Khang and back.

Thanks to GG (my Sainted Mom) for watching over my family from above.

Most importantly, I offer my profound thanks to the Lord for the safe trips to Burke-Khang and for the many blessing showered on my family and me.

Blessings and thanks to all of you for following my trips.

Bill Burke