Summit Night 2014

In a normal season on Mt. Everest, there are 8-10 non-consecutive “weather-window” days during which teams can approach the summit. These weather-window days usually occur during the two-week period beginning May 17. During the rest of the early April to early June Everest season, the summit cannot be approached, either because the lines are not fixed, the teams are acclimatizing or the weather up high is brutally prohibitive.

In the 2014 season, on the North (Tibet) side, we had only 2 weather-window days–May 24 and May 25. The primary reason for this telescoped schedule was bad weather. Heavy snow and gale force winds, especially up high, kept the Chinese line-fixing teams from running lines up the mountain to the summit. In fact, the line-fixing was so delayed, that many of the teams, including my team, literally followed the Chinese line-fixers to the summit.

I arrived at high camp on the North Face on May 23 with 5 of my teammates. The weather was windy and cold, but there was no sign of any impending storm. The protocol on both the South and North sides of Everest is to rest at high camp for a few hours and then push on to the summit. This is because the thin-air at that rarified altitude is unsafe for sentient beings. Even with supplemental oxygen, the body deteriorates rapidly in the Death Zone above 26,000 feet, and the slow process of dying begins. Millions of cells expire with every passing hour. The situation is worse on the North side since high camp on the North side (27,224 feet) is almost 1,500 feet higher than high camp on the South side (26,000 feet).

Despite this protocol, I chose to take a “rest day” at high camp on May 23, because I felt the added rest would boost my chances for a successful May 25 summit. This formula worked well for me on the South side in 2009. When I arrived at the North side high camp on May 23, I collapsed in my 2-person tent with two Sherpas–Gyaluk Sherpa and Mingma Nuru Sherpa.* Meanwhile, 3 of my teammates left for the summit at 8 pm, as the weather deteriorated.

In the wee hours of the morning on May 24, I heard a lot of commotion outside my tent. It was 2 of my teammates who had returned after suffering a horrific beating from the weather. They only reached the Northeast Ridge, well below the summit, before the bad weather forced a retreat back to Camp 3. My third teammate managed to summit and return safely on May 24.

Meanwhile, the weather worsened, especially the wind, which was howling outside my tent. At 6 pm on May 24, I concluded my 2014 expedition was over and would not end in a summit. I relaxed in my sleeping bag, as a sense of calm settled in, and I prayed for good weather for the descent the following day.

At 9 pm, Gyaluk, shook me awake and told me a couple of teams were moving up. He asked if I wanted to do the same. I recall conflicting emotions, as I had little hope for a successful summit in this weather and yet an indomitable desire and will to succeed. I told Gyaluk, let’s give it a shot. We can always turn around and come down. I pulled on my heavy expedition boots, added a layer of clothes, affixed a fresh oxygen bottle and exited the tent into the darkness of the night.

The move to the summit from high camp involves an extremely difficult, vertical ascent up the steep and rocky North Face to the Exit Cracks at the Northeast Ridge. At that point, the route turns sharp right on the Northeast Ridge. There are three famous landmarks on the Northeast Ridge: the First Step, a 60-foot outcropping of limestone rock at 27,890 feet, the Second Step, a 140-foot outcropping of rock at 28,200 feet and the Third Step, a 60-foot outcropping of rock at 28,500 feet. The traverse along the Northeast Ridge was famously described by Nick Heil in his book Dark Summit:

Tricky as the traverse can be, it is not the technical difficulty that makes it so lethal; it’s the altitude. On the Northeast Ridge, you grind along above 28,000 feet for more than nine hours. To a height already at the limits of survivability, add wind, snow, cold, fatigue, dehydration, and fear. Successfully navigating the ridge ranks as one of the most formidable accomplishments in the annals of human endurance. “I never feel euphoric or elated when I’m up there,” said veteran guide and expedition leader Eric Simonson. “Just anxious. It’s like swimming as far out into the ocean as you can, then turning around and wondering if you can make it back.”

I reached the Exit Cracks with ease. Moving up the North Face to the Exit Cracks, I recall feeling exhilaration when our progress was halted by slow climbers ahead of me. It gave me a chance to recover from sheer exhaustion and realize that I was not holding anyone up and was not the only one suffering.

When I reached the Exit Cracks, I stood on a large rock and suddenly started suffocating from lack of oxygen. No oxygen was being delivered into my oxygen mask, and I could not breathe the ambient air because the mask covered my nose and mouth. I began to feel faint, like I was going to pass out. My Sherpa checked my oxygen system and told me everything was fine. I put the mask back on and still couldn’t breathe. Now, I was starting to feel a sense of gathering panic. If I can’t breathe, I will not be able to move up or down. Death is a virtual certainty. I again pointed out the problem to my Sherpa, and again he checked my system and declared it fine.

I reluctantly accepted this assessment and continued moving up along the ridgeline. Within just a few feet, I knew I was not receiving oxygen and would surely die. I made a desperate suggestion to my Sherpa: let’s change oxygen systems. You use my system and I’ll use yours. If my system works for you, we’ll make the switch permanent. He agreed, and we swapped systems. Everything was now fine. I have no idea why this worked. I just know I could not breathe. Maybe in the course of the swap, an ice chuck in the oxygen hose or mask broke free. I’ll never know.

Much of my move along the treacherous Northeast Ridge in the early hours of the morning on May 25, is a total blur. I wish I could remember more. More than once on the traverse, Mingma asked if I wanted to turn around and return to camp, warning “it’s a long way back to Camp 3.” This was Mingma’s first ascent of Everest from the North side and I could sense he was a little nervous. I didn’t know if his question was meant as much for himself as for me. But, I was moving strong and felt good, so the question was left unanswered. After several hours moving in the darkness, I looked to my left over the ridgeline and could see daylight emerge as the sun rose on the eastern horizon. This was truly a glorious sight. But, I found myself repeatedly wondering if I would survive the move up and down the ridgeline.

When I reached the First Step, I was shocked at the challenge of this 60-foot vertical rock outcropping. At the apex of this bulwark of rock was a slight wedge of rock that protruded slightly from the outcropping and offered some purchase for my right boot. I placed my boot on this wedge and hauled myself up with all my might. As I pulled myself up and looked over my right shoulder, I could see a sheer vertical drop to the glacier below. If the rock wedge broke loose or my boot slipped, I would take the grand ride down to the glacier, 7,000 feet below. Viewing this drop brought sheer terror to my soul. Fortunately, I made it up and over the First Step.

The First Step-27,890 feet

The First Step-27,890 feet


The next challenge was the Second Step-a famous 140-foot vertical rock wall that acts as a second bulwark on the way to the summit. The ascent up the Second Step is so dangerous that 3 aluminum ladders have been installed to assist climbers. When I stepped on the first ladder, it pulled away from the mountain, and I was overcome with shock and fear. After I ascended the first ladder, I reached the second ladder, which was useless because it had turned horizontal. I free-climbed to the third ladder, which was the longest of the ladders. The climb up the third ladder was relatively easy until I reached the top of the ladder, which, inexplicably, was several feet below the platform above. I hauled myself up and over the third ladder and stood on the platform of snow and ice leading the way to the summit.

The Second Step-28,200 feet

Just after I moved up and over the Second Step, I began to see the bodies. My friend, a guide from one of the major North side expedition companies, told me he saw 15 bodies on the Northeast Ridge in 2013. In 2014, I saw only 3.** Still, I will never forget these images of lost souls on the mountain. It never leaves your mind and consciousness. These brave climbers were living their dream and they lost their lives in the endeavor. All of them left behind bereft and broken families, suffused with the knowledge their loved one is forever on the mountain. I said a prayer for their souls and their families and continued to move up.***

The final obstacle on the Northeast Ridge is the Third Step, just before the Summit Triangle. I had been told the Third Step is the easiest to climb. I thought it was the hardest. There are no ladders, and, at this point, the body is wracked with exhaustion. Somehow, I summoned the will and strength to move up and over the Third Step. Now, I could see the snowfield gently moving up and around the famous Summit Triangle. At the same time, I could see climbers ahead of me, moving up and down the Summit Triangle. They looked like tiny marching ants. At that point I realized I was going to succeed in 2014. This was going to be my year!

The Third Step – 28,500 feet

Approaching the Third Step with the Summit Triangle and the snowfield in the background

The route up the snowfield bends slightly left to right and then disappears behind the Summit Triangle. At this point, the summit is hidden from view. Once the climber arrives on the back side of the Triangle, the move is directly up for a short distance and then a right turn leads to the summit. I arrived at the summit at around 9:45 am on May 25. I was met by a gaggle of climbers celebrating their ascent. I dropped to my knees, clasped my hands and said a prayer of thanks. Then, I sat down to savor the experience.

Gyaluk hauled out my large bag of flags and banners, which I had totally forgotten about in the arduous ascent to the Top of the World. One-by-one, Gyaluk handed me flags, banners, t-shirts and memorabilia, and photos were snapped by Mingma. My favorite photo shows me holding the American flag, which is the same flag I have taken to the top of the highest mountain on every continent. We stayed on the summit for about 30 minutes and then started the long descent. I was ever mindful of the fact I was only half-way to my destination and most of the injuries and deaths on alpine mountains occur on the descent.

On the summit

Now, a word about the weather. Accurate weather reporting is crucial to success in alpine climbing. But, as you will see, weather reporting is not foolproof, and the weather can sometimes be a wily adversary. Mike Fagin, my meteorologist in Seattle, delivered daily weather reports to me once I started my summit push. No other member of my team was receiving these reports, so they depended on me to keep them informed. Since I did not have e-mail access on the mountain, the reports were delivered to my wife in Costa Mesa. Every day, I would call her on my satellite telephone and she would read the report. I would then read the report to my teammates.

As I was departing high camp on May 24, Mike spotted a major storm in the region, which had started as a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. The storm was moving directly away from Mt. Everest, so he decided not to call it to my attention because he did not want to cause undue worry or concern on my part or the part of my teammates or family. As I was approaching the summit on the morning of May 25, he noticed the storm made a hard left turn and was heading at warp speed directly for Mt. Everest. At this point, a warning would come too late, so he did not report this change in direction.

I detected the weather change immediately while I was on the summit. When I sat down on the summit, dark clouds had filled the sky, and I had no view in any direction. It was 2009 déjà vu all over again. A light snow had begun to fall, giving a sense of urgency to our need to descend. Just 45-minutes earlier, my 2 Indian teammates had reached the summit and enjoyed relatively clear weather. They snapped photos, shot video and descended as the storm raced towards the mountain.**** As I descended from the summit, the weather continued to deteriorate. The snowfall increased and visibility decreased.*****

When I reached the top of the Second Step, the crisis I feared the most unfolded. A climber was lying prone on his back in the snow as his teammates attended to him. After waiting 15-20 minutes, I got up and moved down to investigate. The stricken climber was telling his teammates he was out of oxygen. At that altitude, I knew this was a death sentence. One of his teammates pulled off his oxygen mask and put it over the face of the climber lying in the snow so he could draw fresh oxygen. This seemed to help and the climber sat up and got to his feet. The teammate then offered to give him his only oxygen bottle. The stricken climber refused. I had an extra oxygen bottle, so I moved toward the group to tell them I would give up my bottle to help him descend. Just as I approached the team to make this offer, the climber disappeared over the ledge and descended the ladder at the top of the Second Step. I watched him arrive at the bottom of the Second Step where he sat down in the snow to rest. At that time, I made a mental commitment to keep him in sight for the rest of the descent. He made it down safely.

We returned safely to high camp on May 25, and, once again, I collapsed in my tent. Typically, teams descending from the summit on the North side do not stop at Camp 3. They descend all the way to Camp 1 on the North Col. In a second violation of high altitude protocol, I spent the night at Camp 3. As I drifted off to sleep in my tent, I felt no sense of joy or celebration, just overwhelming relief that I survived the Northeast Ridge. During the evening, the storm increased in intensity, and, by morning, the entire mountain was wrapped in its full fury. Rapid descent was essential to survival.

The descent from high camp on May 26 was hell on earth. The storm dumped tons of snow on the mountain and visibility was reduced to near zero. Avalanche was a constant fear. All the while, the winds were increasing to gale force strength. Communication among the climbing team was difficult because of the overpowering noise of the wind, which sounded like a fleet of jets overhead. In order to be heard, you had to cup your mouth with your hands and scream into the ear of your teammate.

Descending in the super storm

When we finally reached Camp 2, the winds had increased to hurricane velocity and the snowfall was unrelenting. As we descended through Camp 2, I searched for any remnant of a tent that could offer some shelter. Finally, we came to a broken Asian Trekking tent. I insisted that we take refuge in this tent, telling my Sherpa that it was a very long way to the North Col and it was not safe to continue moving down in the storm. He reluctantly agreed, and five of us took refuge in this broken-down, two-person tent. After waiting in the tent for an hour, it became obvious there would be no let-up in the weather. We had to move down. We exited the tent into the raging storm.

The route from Camp 2 to Camp 1 on the North Col descends a very long and exposed snowfield. We had absolutely no visibility because of the heavy snowfall, and the wind made it extremely difficult to stay upright. Some climbers had dropped to their hands and knees, with their back facing the full fury of the wind and their heads buried in their hands. They were hoping for a surcease in the weather. It never came. In these extreme blizzard conditions, the fixed rope on the mountain became our lifeline. As long as we stayed clipped in to the rope and kept moving, we knew we would arrive safely at the North Col. If we became detached from the line, or lost sight of the line while transitioning from one line to the next line lower on the mountain, one of two outcomes was certain: we would become lost in the storm and freeze to death or we would walk off the face of the mountain.

The descent took many hours, with a lot of stopping and starting, but we finally reached the North Col in the early evening. The place looked like a war zone with tangled lines, broken tents and tents buried deep in the snow. We were able to find one tattered Asian Trekking tent that was barely functional. The platform of snow below the tent had hollowed out from melting snow, so it was like 3 people sleeping in a small bathtub. But, we made it work.

The North Col

The following morning it was still snowing really hard, Now we were faced with the most harrowing and dangerous part of the descent-the move down the steep North Col headwall. Tons of fresh, unstable snow covered the entire route. This made foot placement difficult and greatly escalated the risk of an avalanche that would sweep all of us to our death. Delaying the move down was not an option. So, we clipped into the line and started moving down slowly. A good many times, I lost my footing and slid down the rope until I could arrest the fall. After several hours of effort, inching down the headwall, we made it to the bottom and were able to unclip from the line for the last time. What a thrill as we celebrated with shouts of joy and high-fives.

Safely down from the North Col

Advance Base Camp, once a bustling village of climbers, was deserted, as the teams had already moved down to the safety of Chinese Base Camp with the approach of the storm. Most of the tents were buried in the snow. Those tents that that were not destroyed were being dismantled as the season was now over. The yaks that had been summoned up to ABC to carry loads down to CBC could barely maneuver in the deep snow. Still the snow steadily fell.

Advance Base Camp

On the final leg of the expedition from ABC to CBC, the weather delivered its final blow. We left ABC on the morning of May 28 in blizzard conditions. Approximately three hours into the descent, the clouds parted and the sun came out with guns blazing. Neither Gyaluk or I had thought to bring sunscreen, so we had no protection as the ultraviolet rays bounced off the white snow and baked our skin like a summer steak. For seven hours, we traveled in these conditions. When I arrived at CBC and looked in the mirror I was horrified at what I saw. My face was lobster red. I was certain I had suffered second or third degree burns. To make matters worse, no one at CBC had lotion or face cream.

Sunburned at CBC

On the ride back from CBC to the Tibet/Nepal border, I called Asian Trekking and asked Dawa Sherpa to send face cream up with the driver who was picking us up on the Nepal side of the border. I lathered up with this face cream during the entire ride to Kathmandu. When we arrived in Kathmandu, I asked the driver to take me directly to a medical clinic. Fortunately, the doctor told me my burn was not that serious.

Once again, I extend my sincere condolences to my dear friend, Mingma, whose father was killed in the collapse of the ice serac on the South side. I also extend condolences to all of the families that suffered losses in the 2014 Everest season. The 19 deaths on the South side of Everest in 2014 left 16 widows and 28 children without  husbands, fathers and sole breadwinners.****** Please keep these fellow human beings in your thoughts and prayers and consider donating to one of the many relief funds that have been established.

Mingma & Bill at CBC

Bill Burke

*Mingma Nuru Sherpa should not be confused with my friend, Mingma Sherpa, who was Sirdar for the 2014 expedition.

**Apparently, the Chinese have decided to clear the bodies along the Northeast Ridge, much like the process followed on the South side. Even the body of “Green Boots,” the Indian climber who perished in 1996, has been removed from “Greenboots Cave” on the Northeast Ridge.

***In 2011, one of my teammates was very close to the summit on the North side when he encountered a deceased climber directly in front of him on the route to the summit. The climber was in a sitting position, slumped forward, with a bag over his head to keep the Goraks (black birds) from pecking out his eyes. My teammate recoiled from the sight and could not move up even one inch further. In tears at Chinese Base Camp, he told me he turned around and came down. He vowed to never climb an alpine mountain again.

****Many of the clear sky photos above Camp 3 that you see in my photo and video collection were taken by teammates who enjoyed better weather.

*****Mingma told me this was the worst storm he has seen on Everest in over 15-years.

******In addition to the deaths on the mountain, there is the sad story of young Chhewang Sherpa. This teenager survived the ice serac collapse and was declared fit to return home to his family. After a 4 day trek down from the mountain, as he approached his grateful parents in his mountain village, he was struck by lightning and killed instantly.

*******Click here to watch a 36-minute documentary of the 2014 expedition.