“I’ll never trust a mountain photo again” noted Bill Burke summing up his thwarted attempt to summit Burke-Khang in Northern Nepal.
Burke is the oldest American to summit Mt. Everest at age 72. After six attempts on Everest with two summits, Nepal became a second home for this retired corporate lawyer. He had established close relationships with many Sherpas and the Ministry of Tourism so when Nepal opened up 104 new mountains for climbing in 2014, much to Burke’s surprise, they named one of them after their western friend.
Plan to Climb
Straddling the border with Tibet, Burke-Khang is 22,775’/6942m, about the same height as Aconcagua in Argentina but well under Everest at 29,035’.
As soon as Burke was informed about the naming, he began hatching a first ascent plan. He hired a few of his Sherpa friends to trek as far up the Gokyo Valley as they could to provide a first hand evaluation of potential routes. Their conclusion: “Burke-Khang is unclimbable.”
Burke, not one to give up on a goal as demonstrated by his six Everest attempts and topping out on the 7 Summits after age 60; he contacted long time friend Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering who has taken more members to the summit of Everest than any other guide.
Wanting to see the mountain for themselves, they charted a helicopter in April 2015 for an aerial reconnaissance. With a professional photographer on board, they shot over 1,000 pictures and took extensive video of the proposed route during a 45-minute flight. However, they were unable to survey the final summit ridge as it exceeded the helicopter’s ceiling with so many on board.
Once they got back home, they analyzed the images and video plus used Google Earth as a research tool. Madison felt he identified a safe route and Burke began forming a team of seven climbers and four trekkers. Their team included six Sherpas plus Sid Pattison who had extensive technical ice and rock experience honed in the US Pacific northwest.
After meeting in Kathmandu, they trekked for about a week to their base camp at 16,500’ with 14 yaks in tow. Base Camp was situated at the confluence of the Ngozumba and Guanara Glaciers. They had a clear view of Burke-Khang.
Fixing the Route
Almost immediately, Pattison and the Sherpas established an Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 18,200’ and began setting fixed lines up the south wall of the lower mountains surrounding Burke-Khang.
By now, the climbing team had attrited to four after a variety of illnesses began taking a toll. Burke, Madison and team left Base Camp for ABC crossing the Ngozumba Glacier. Burke described it as arduous at .
“The move to Advance Base Camp was a horrendously difficult day that drained all of us of every ounce of energy. After 9-hours of torture, we finally reached Advance Base Camp where we all collapsed in our tents. Yet, even with all that time, distance and effort behind us, we were still 5 hours away from Burke-Khang, where the real climbing was scheduled to begin.”
Following the route Madison had identified during their helicopter flight, they began the assault on a 2,000’ snow and ice wall at a 75-degree angle according to Burke. The Sherpas had set a fixed line and the western team began climbing using jumars. They established their Camp 1 at 20,200’.
Based on seeing the proposed route for themselves, Pattison and the Sherpas modified the original plan to avoid deep crevasses but the change now required even steeper climbing. With the teams scattered between Camps 1 and 2, the crux of the first ascent began to develop.
Summit Push on Burke-Khang
Pattison reported the summit push as one with multiple surprises:
“I was up there with Phurba Sherpa, Karma Sherpa and Ang Di Sherpa and one other Sherpa. From C2 things got a bit more heads up pretty quickly. The access gully up onto the ridge was AI3+ I’d say. It was quite strenuous and sustained. After gaining the ridge there were really two options, to stay on the ridge crest or on the Tibet side. We chose the Tibet side that was quite exposed with deep, unstable sugar snow.”
The Sherpas ascended to the summit ridge of Burke-Khang anticipating one headwall then a straightforward walk to the summit. But what they found were opposing cornices created by the high winds off Cho Oyu and Everest instead of one long cornice, as is usually the case near summits. The winds had created two walls of unknown snow with a deep crevasse between them. The only route to the summit was along one of the cornices on the Tibet side of the mountain.
“After maybe 100m along the ridge it steepened considerably and developed into two opposing cornices. The ridge at this point was two steep to continue on the Tibet side and would need to be climbed on the ridge crest over the cornices. The first one was quite unstable looking and the one beyond was leaning towards us, overhanging and would have taken some very strenuous climbing to pass.”
Burke reported that as one of the Sherpas made his way along the cornice, he encountered problems:
“One brave Sherpa made an effort to climb up on the first cornice and fix the lines. When he planted his ice axe in the cornice to gain balance and footing, his ice axe went clear through the cornice. When he pulled it out of the cornice, it left a hole in the cornice and, as he peered through the hole, he could see 10,000 feet down to the Tibetan plateau. Another Sherpa made the same effort and started a death slide off the cornice which he was fortunately able to arrest.”
All Climbers Re!
At this point, Pattison radioed to Madison that even if they could cross the cornice, a near vertical ice wall stood between them and the summit. Madison made the decision to stop the ascent and called for a re over the radio to all team members.
Burke remembers it well:
“My emotions ranged from disappointment to relief. Of course, I was disappointed our team did not reach the summit of Burke-Khang. But, that disappointment was far exceeded by my sheer joy that no one was going to perish trying to climb my mountain. After hearing reports from Sid and the Sherpa team, I am 100% convinced our expedition would have suffered deaths on Burke-Khang had we not terminated the summit push.”
Pattison reflected on the decision to turn back:
“At this point the decision was made that the risk outweighed the reward and we couldn’t mitigate the hazard in an acceptable way to continue. As heartbreaking as it was to turn around so close to the summit, I feel we are more defined as climbers by the times we make the difficult decision to stop than the risky decision to keep going. Everybody in the team shared this philosophy and were content and proud with what we had done.”
In comparing “his“ mountain to Everest, Burke felt that it was harder as it has steeper walls, more objective danger and a lot of unknowns that comes with a first ascent. He said the he was surprised by the vertical nature of the climb and that the photos they took never really revealed the scale of the walls. “I was shocked and stunned at the consistently extreme vertical pitch of the mountain. Even now, I can’t reconcile this with the photos and video footage.”
As they all returned to Kathmandu, Madison posted on his blog:
“On November 10th we climbed to within about 100 feet of the summit of Burke Khang (22,775 feet), and did not feel that the snow cornice at the top was stable enough to climb upon, so we ‘almost’ summited the peak. We are calling this expedition a success, because even though we did not make it to the very top of the peak, we climbed 99% of the mountain and decided to turn back because of a potential safety risk involving unstable snow at the top.”
And will Burke go back? He said, “I would like to be the first person to climb my mountain. Within days of coming down the mountain, I was pondering new climbing routes and strategies. I have some ideas.”
Memories are Everything