On May 23, 2014, as I was at high camp preparing for my summit push on the North side of Mt. Everest, the government of Nepal opened 104 Himalaya peaks for climbing. One of them was named after me. Burke Khang (“Khang” means mountain in Nepalese) is located deep in the Gokyo Valley. Burke Khang is 6,942 meters (22,775 feet) high and, like Mt. Everest, is a border peak since it sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet. The mountain had never been climbed.
In October of 2015, I organized a team of seven climbers to attempt a first summit of Burke Khang. We began our first ascent of Burke Khang on November 7. After three days of climbing, two of us reached the headwall leading up to the summit ridge. We were just a few hundred feet below the summit. This was the most difficult and dangerous climbing I have ever experienced–far more technical, challenging and dangerous than Mt. Everest. The terrain was consistently vertical, often exceeding 70 degrees, and the route involved technical rock and ice climbing. The expedition ended on November 10 when the Sherpa team fixing the lines declared the summit ridge unclimbable. They encountered double cornices, facing both north and south, a giant crevasse bisecting the cornices and concave ice walls blocking the route to the summit. To make matters worse, the snow was soft, sugary and unstable, creating a severe avalanche risk. Every member of the veteran Sherpa line fixing team said they were terrified while trying to negotiate these challenges and fix lines on Burke Khang.
In October of 2016, I returned to Nepal to make another effort to climb Burke Khang. My good friend, David Liano, as well as three Sherpas, joined me. We were unable to progress above Camp 1 on the mountain because of a giant icefall that could not be traversed or avoided. I returned to Burke Khang for a solo winter climb in March of 2017. I was supported by five Sherpas. Because of consistent and brutal snow storms, waist high snow on the couloir leading up to Camp 1, winds exceeding 75 mph and sub-zero wind-chill temperatures, we were not able to set up even the first camp on the mountain.
My last Burke Khang expedition was in September of 2017. I was joined by Noel Hannah, Micah Kershner, Richard Adler and two filmmakers. Noel is a young, strong and highly experienced professional guide from Ireland who has summited Mt. Everest eight times. I met him in 2010 on the North side of Mt. Everest while he was guiding climbers for another expedition company. We became good friends. When Noel heard I was returning to Burke Khang for a final assault on the mountain, he asked if he could join the team. I gladly accepted his request. Micah is a veteran mountaineer and Richard was along just for the trek to Burke Khang Base Camp. I recruited four seasoned Sherpas to assist us–Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa, Samdem Bhote and Tshering Tashi Sherpa. Naga and Samden were part of my earlier Burke Khang expeditions and Samden was with me when I first summited Mt. Everest in 2009.
Noel, Micah, Naga, Pemba and Samdem left for Camp 1 on October 1. I decided to take two rest days at Base Camp before beginning my summit push. On October 3, Tashi and I began our move up the steep couloir to Camp 1. This was the hardest climbing I have ever experienced in my life. The route is incredibly long and consistently steep, with most of the snow and ice pitch at 75-degrees vertical or higher. The couloir is also extremely dangerous because of the fusillade of rocks and ice constantly raining down at warp speed from above. After 10-hours of this tortuous climbing, we finally reached Camp 1. I collapsed in my tent and sucked on oxygen for two hours to warm my body and allow it to recover from the ordeal.
On October 4, Noel, Micah, Naga, Pemba and Samden left for Camp 2, just below the summit ridge. My plan was to take a rest day at Camp 1 and begin my move up to Camp 2 on October 5. Because a severe weather front was moving in, I encouraged the team to make their summit push on October 5 even if I had not yet arrived at Camp 2. 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.
On October 5, Tashi 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. As word of the successful summit spilled out to the rest of the Burke Khang team, we were overcome with joy at this epic accomplishment. No one was more thrilled at the news than me.
The press reports and news coverage of the Burke Khang expedition were 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. One of the major 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.
Here are videos of two of my Burke Khang Expeditions.