Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Shhhh ...it's a secret mountain adventure!

Two years ago we announced a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a first ascent of an unclimbed peak - the 22,775-foot Burke Khang on the border of Nepal and China. Many of you enthusiastically followed along as our team pioneered a route and we had the privilege to become the first humans ever to set foot on this majestic, untouched mountain. We now find ourselves with the good fortune to announce a "second" once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ...but first the rest of the story on Burke Khang:

As a refresher here's a link to our blog posts from 2015 with the blow by blow account and photos from our turnaround point roughly 500 vertical feet from the treacherous summit. Since that time our good friend Bill Burke has returned to Nepal three more times in attempt to settle the score and reach the top of his namesake mountain. If you follow Bill's blog Eight Summits you know that his 2016 and Spring 2017 attempts failed to reach the top, but just last week success was finally achieved! Although Bill did not stand on the top himself (his high point was with me two years ago on the "Fejtek Face") Bill's teammate and professional mountain guide Noel Hanna claimed the first ascent honors along with Naga Dorje Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa and Sonam Bhote. Congratulations to all!
2015 Burke Khang Expedition - Bill & Paul on the "Fejtek Face"
And now for our news. Although we could not join Bill on any of his subsequent attempts on Burke Khang due primarily to my mountain biking and skiing injuries from last year and cancer treatment for Denise's mom, we are now successfully through both of those ordeals! So we are heading back to the Himalayas next Wednesday night! 
Last year we began studying 3D images on Google Earth and with the help of our guides from two years ago Garrett Madison and Sid Pattison, we have identified another unclimbed peak to attempt.
Unfortunately we cannot reveal the name or location of the mountain at this time. As a complete surprise to Bill, just as he was about to begin his expedition last month, Bill learned that several well known climbers from around the world were planning to attempt Burke Khang. Fortunately Bill and his team beat them to it but the others were poised and planning to take a shot if Bill and his team were unsuccessful in this fourth try. Since the Burke Khang summit has now been claimed, we strongly suspect these teams are on the hunt for another first ascent. Therefore we need to keep our plans quiet until we get closer to the mountain.
Please stay tuned for the next blog posts with more details about our adventure and eventually the name, location and photos of this stunning and formidable mountain as the journey gets underway starting next week. If you aren't already subscribed to our blog, you can get email updates whenever (and only when) a new post is made. Simply enter your email address in the box at the upper right of the Summit for CAF blog page, then confirm through the automated email you will receive immediately after subscribing.  Check your spam folder if you don't see it.
Thanks and Climb On!
Paul & Denise

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Burke Khang Revisted

The last post I made about Burke Khang and our historic first ascent attempt, was from the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu around this same time last year. click here to read it This story begins at the same hotel, except Denise and I are not in Kathmandu this time, but instead we are cheering on our good friend Bill Burke as he sets out on an expedition to make another effort on his own namesake mountain.
After returning home from our epic adventure with Bill high in the Himalayas last year, where we reached within 500 feet of the summit of Burke Khang, Bill could not resist the magnetic pull to go back and try again. We enjoyed many discussions and debates about the feasibility of safely scaling those last 500 feet of this steep and technically treacherous 22,775 foot peak. And as much as we would like to be with Bill right now, the decision to join him again was made largely by fate. ...and influenced by the strong opinion of my orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kramer, who advised me that my rotator cuff and labrum repair surgery of four months ago was not yet ready for this kind of test. Although I am feeling much better now, I would have to agree with the assessment as I still have a long way to go to regain the strength and mobility of my left arm (which I desperately need given the limited function of my right arm). 
Burke Khang is a demanding beast of a mountain and IF the summit can be successfully reached, it will require every ounce of strength, skill, mental fortitude, and a good dose of luck too. Please send your good thoughts and prayers for safety to Bill, his Sherpa team, and his friend and climbing partner David Liano, as they are already in Nepal and beginning their expedition now. If you would like to follow along on Bill's blog Eight Summits he is already posting along the way. Meanwhile all the best to you and let's take a lesson from Bill and live life to the fullest everyday!
Farewell Dinner with Bill & Sharon Burke
Bill at Camp 1 with Burke Khang in background - 2015 Expedition

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Bumpy Ride - Surgery #2 Complete

Second surgery in two weeks is now complete!  Hopefully this will be the last update to my blog relating to the "Wow What a Ride!" injury reports, as I'm happy for this part of the bumpy ride to be over.  
Last Wednesday, June 29th (15 days after the installation of a steel clavicle plate on my right arm) I went back to have a "full thickness" tear of my rotator cuff and labrum repaired on my left arm.  The procedure went well but the post-surgery pain has been without question the most excruciating I have experienced in my lifetime. It was far worse than the post-op pain the week of June 14th after eight screws were drilled into my right collarbone.  After six days now, the ache and throbbing on the left side is finally subsiding to a point where I have been able to reduce the potency and dosage of the pain medications. Thank you Lord.  

What has also been an interesting first-in-a-lifetime experience for me has been the harsh realization of the difficulties functioning without the full use of at least one arm. With the brachial plexus injury to my right arm at birth, I have figured out a way to do most things with my left arm. Now, with both arms seriously impaired I am HOSED ...at least I would be without Denise to feed me, help me get dressed, go to the bathroom, shower, etc.  The best way I can describe this is to imagine (or even experiment) putting both hands in your pockets and see how many times you would be forced to take one or both of them out (or ask somebody for help) in order to simply get through your day! ...or perhaps even 15 minutes of your day!

The good news is that I am slowly regaining the ability to do some of the aforementioned things on my own, and I have been training my right arm and hand to perform certain tasks I have always done with my left. Unfortunately the rehab and recovery time for a rotator cuff surgery is a long one, so I won't be driving for at least 12 weeks - that's right 3 months of Denise's taxi service and interesting Uber drivers.  Full recovery can be up to 6 - 9 months. As a result it will likely be some time before I am able to make another post about an exciting climbing adventure, which by the way I am convinced is a much safer activity for me than skiing or mountain biking!  

Thank you for all of the healing and encouraging words, I appreciate them immensely and send you many positive wishes in return.
For those of you interested in the science and mechanics of a modern shoulder arthroscopy, I found this short animation to be educational and pretty cool to watch. In my case I had three anchor screws and five sutures, also done by Dr. Warren Kramer using Arthex products (like the collarbone surgery on June 14th).   

Saturday, June 18, 2016

"Wow What a Ride!" - 2 months later

As an update to my last blog post "Wow What a Ride!" this past week has been a whirlwind of change, pain, and practicing acceptance. What started as a simple orthopedic doctor visit on Monday afternoon to follow up on the healing progress from my skiing accident in March and my mountain bike crash in April, turned into a One-Two Punch of bad news. Just after 5 PM Dr. Kramer studied the x-ray of my broken right clavicle, which he had hoped would be mending on its own by now. It was clear from the picture that the bones were still disjoined, so he asked "How do you feel about surgery?" And then came the question, "How do you feel about surgery tomorrow?"

After gulping, but before answering, I asked about the MRI I just had on my left shoulder from my skiing accident on March 19th.  I have been going to physical therapy regularly and experiencing some improvement, but went for an MRI after still having limited range of motion and sharp pain at night. And my left arm is my "good arm" (non-brachial plexus injury arm) that I rely on for everything.  After studying the MRI, Dr. Kramer wound up for the second blow; "Your rotator cuff and labrum are both torn and you definitely need surgery on your left arm as well."

I've been fortunate to make it through my 4½ decades of life so far without a single surgery, and now I am preparing for two! So back to the question about surgery tomorrow…?  Sure, why not. Let me just look at my calendar and start re-arranging my schedule for the week, next month, and the rest of the year to allow for recovery. :-) 
Post-op w/clavicle plate (Jun 17th) Pre-op (Jun 13th)
Arthrex Distal Clavical Plate installed with 8 screws on June 14
No more mountain bike races or triathlons this year and my hard-earned spot into the Leadville 100 in Colorado this summer just evaporated, but at least I have my coveted belt buckle from completing the race last year. Although some other plans and international travel adventures will have to be canceled, I feel incredibly grateful for everything I still can do and for all the good things in my life.

First and foremost is my amazing wife Denise. She has been an incredibly positive and caring nurse and I will be even more lucky to have her when her Florence Nightingale aura shines twice as bright after my second surgery on my left arm, sometime in the coming weeks.

There are so many other things I am grateful for especially my friends and the inspiration from countless CAF athletes who have far more significant injuries to overcome than mine.  On Tuesday after the surgery "waking up" from a general anesthetic (a first for me) felt like a small miracle and made me appreciate life even more. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you, and for the continued support.
Jun 18 - four days post-surgery, far less pain.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Wow What a Ride!

Big Bear Valley Hospital - Sat. Apr. 16, 2016
Today I find myself with some unplanned free time as I rest in bed with two icepacks on both shoulders and an ample supply of Tylenol on the nightstand. During the last 14 years of mountain climbing adventures on the highest peaks around the globe, I have been blessed with the good fortune of always returning without serious injury or broken bones.

And now this past Saturday, exactly 4 weeks after I injured my left shoulder in a skiing accident, I was mountain biking in Big Bear and had a near run in with a truck, leaving me with a serious injury to my right shoulder! To be exact it was a complete fracture of my right clavicle. As a bonus I bruised my ribs, hyper-extended my left thumb, and lacerated my thigh.

The truck was coming uphill (on a fire road closed to vehicles nonetheless) while I was descending and rounding a corner. I reacted with excess vigor in applying my new hydraulic disc brakes, locked my front wheel in a classic rookie move, and went over the handlebars and into the dirt hard. 

Denise caught up to me after I collected myself from the impact, and I asked her to do something a husband shouldn't have to ask of his wife. Thinking my right shoulder was dislocated since it wouldn't move properly, I asked her; "Hold my arm steady while I pull hard and try to get the shoulder back into the socket." It didn't fix the problem but the ER doctor later told me after examining the x-rays, that I probably helped field set the bone into a better position.
It was a long and painful 7-mile ride out to the trailhead but it gave me time to reflect and come to the following conclusion:

Even though we are bound to encounter unexpected setbacks in life, it's worth a certain amount of risk to pursue your dreams and those things you love to do.

I love mountain biking and so did my friend Doug Fletcher, to whom I am dedicating this blog post. Doug passed away last month at the age of 83 after living an enthusiastically full, active, and purposeful life. His wife Mary sent me this quote which truly personifies Doug's life ...and after my recent skiing and mountain biking injuries, I think I'll adopt it too!  

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow What a Ride!'"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Part II - Burke Khang Unclimbable: Friendship & Love Unbreakable

Namaste from the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu, where we have been enjoying the luxury of a shower, bed, and especially the all-you-can-eat buffet! Apologies for the delay in concluding our story, proper nourishment was necessary for writing, and long meals catching up with many of our friends here have taken precedent.  

...after climbing several hours through the pitch dark of night, by 5:15 AM the lonely black sky began fading slowly into dawn, and with it brought the light of hope. It also illuminated the full extent of the extreme steep drop off below, and confirmed the certainty of death in case of a fall here. Looking down the tents at C1 were now merely tiny dots in a row. Denise, for all practical purposes, was half a world away. She had no radio or satellite phone and there was no way I could contact her, but I knew she was keeping vigil watching us.

I continued to climb through the piercing wind, temperatures were well below zero Fahrenheit, but I had to keep climbing. My mission was to reach Bill.  Lakpa and I finally reached the lone tent at C2 at approx. 21,900 feet, but of course it was empty.  We crawled inside to take shelter from the assault of the wind, but we couldn't stay long, I told Lakpa we need to keep going to catch Bill.

It was easy to spot the three figures moving ever so slowly on the slope above: Sid Pattison, Phurba Ridar, and Bill.  However with the deep snow it wasn't so easy to close the gap and catch them. Now above 22,000 feet my lungs were working in overdrive to extract a tiny amount of oxygen from the thin air in order to propel my quad muscles into continuous action.  When I got within ear shot of Bill I yelled to him, telling him I wanted to talk. (He later told me he went into 'lawyer-mode' upon hearing this, perhaps preparing his defense knowing that I knew the seriousness of the situation.) 

As soon as I secured myself on the rope next to Bill and studied his face, I could tell he looked even worse than when I last saw him the day before.  I was convinced if he were somehow able to haul himself up this 85° blue ice face to which we were attached, it would require every bit of energy left in his body. And then he would be hard-pressed to get all the way back down under his own power.
I told Bill I worked my tail off to catch up to him so I could convince him to turn around and come down together with me. He didn't want me to go down, but rather he wanted me to continue on to the top. Of the original seven climbers, we were the last two to reach this high on the mountain.  Now at over 22,200 feet, we were within 500 feet of the summit.  Did I have the strength to continue on to the peak?  Perhaps.  Did I have the strength to leave my friend behind in his current state?  Definitely not.  

As part of my convincing, I told Bill that Denise thought the risks on this mountain were too high and that's why she wasn't with me and instead stayed at C1. I stressed the importance of us getting back down to our loved ones, to his wife Sharon and all of his kids and grandkids. After my emotional plea he told me he would have to think about it!

Meanwhile, as I was contemplating my next negotiating point to this seasoned barrister who has argued cases in the US Supreme Court (and won), the radio crackled to life.  It was Garrett calling from down below at C2.  He just spoke with Aang Phurba on the radio, who was above us beyond the top of the steep face where we were sitting. Phurba, Ongdi, and Karma are turning around and can't go any higher up, they have determined it's too dangerous. (And by the way these guys are young, gutsy, and top notch technical climbers - but they were scared too.) The top has a double-corniced summit ridge, separated by a large crevasse, unlike anything they had ever seen before. It was very unstable, the entire lip could crack or slide off carrying everybody with it, thousands of feet down to meet their maker.  
Dangerous double-corniced summit ridge of Burke Khang - Aang Phurba photo
And with that, the case was closed!  We were finally going down!  

Before leaving, Bill Burke by virtue of authority on his namesake mountain, made an official declaration.  The name of the face upon which we had our emotional and teary-eyed discussion, and the point at which we turned around in favor of life, shall be called the "Fejtek Face". 
The "Fejtek Face" on Burke Khang.
Eventually after safely retracing our steps back down, I was elated to stagger back into C1 and see Denise waiting for me with open arms. The feeling of her embrace was like stepping into the gates of heaven.

Upon returning to Kathmandu many days later we met with Elizabeth Hawley, the famous "Keeper of the Mountains."  As the official chronicler of Himalayan mountaineering it is her job to record summits on Everest and other Himalayan peaks. First ascents are of particular interest to her and even though we didn't make it all the way to the top, she spent several hours interviewing us, looking at maps and photos, recording dates, elevations, and camp locations.  
Maybe the name of the "Fejtek Face" will even make it into the official record on Burke Khang, for reference by future generations of mountaineers?  Or will there even be further attempts on this beastly Burke Khang? I hope not, I feel like the mountain gave us all a free pass back to life, but she might not be so generous to others?  

Nonetheless, the entire adventure provided us with a profoundly rich and unique experience that simply cannot be repeated, and will be forever etched into the memories of each and every member of the 2015 Burke Khang First Ascent Expedition!  Thank you for following along and for your interest in our journey!

Paul Fejtek and Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering, at C2 with Everest in background.

Steep descent from C1 - Aang Phurba photo

Friday, November 13, 2015

Burke Khang Unclimbable: Friendship & Love Unbreakable

First and foremost on our Himalayan First Ascent attempt:  All remaining members of our team are safely off the mountain, happy, healthy, and hungry!  We made it within 500 feet of the summit and despite some of the best guides and Sherpas in the world supporting our effort, it would have been suicide for any of us to attempt the final corniced, seraced stretch to the top. Perhaps Burke Khang will never be climbed and maybe it's meant to be this way? Nonetheless this has been without question, the most exciting, challenging, nerve-racking, emotional - yet fun, meaningful and memorable adventure of our lifetimes!

The nitty-gritty, blow-by-blow since we last left you at Camp One, 20,500 feet on Monday, Nov. 9th:

The wind was violently shaking our tents all night at C1 and presumably the same for Bill, Sid, and Phurba Ridar who were all hunkered down 1,400 feet higher in a lone tent at C2.  The planned summit departure for Garrett, Nick, Denise and me was 2:00 AM Tues. Nov. 10th.  At 1:30 AM I awoke to see a noticeably disturbed and tormented look on Denise's face. She told me she had been wide awake all night and felt the risk wasn't worth the reward and she decided she wasn't going up.  

I was devastated, we had always climbed together as partners. Was I supposed to stay too? Forgo this once-in-a-lifetime first ascent summit attempt? Meanwhile Bill was at C2 and I was concerned about him as well.  He didn't look good at all when he left the day prior, he wasn't nearly as sharp as usual, and it took him all day struggling to get from C1 to C2.  
I know how determined of a man he is, and he might likely keep climbing until he used every ounce of fuel in the tank. If he ran out near the top, he might never come back. At least that was my fear, especially with the extreme technical, steep, and dangerous climbing on this mountain.

I had to go, and leave Denise behind. It took nearly an agonizing hour for me to make this decision. Meanwhile Garrett and Nick had their boots, crampons, climbing harnesses, helmets, and headlamps on.  They started up the route around 2:30 AM.  Before he left, Garrett told me Lakpa would climb with me.  I didn't know Lakpa, I knew and trusted DaOngchhu from climbing together on Everest, but he was gone, helicoptered out because his father was sick. The entire situation was less than ideal (it sucked). 

At 3:12 AM I said my emotional farewell to Denise, gave her a hug and kiss and promised her I would be safe. My gut was wrenching as I turned away from the tents at C1 (leaving Denise as the only person occupying this desolate high-altitude outpost).  I began climbing up towards the most difficult, rocky, icy, exposed terrain I had ever encountered on any mountain in the world. For perspective this includes Everest and all of the Seven Summits, along with the Matterhorn and the highest mountains in 13 countries.

The wind continued to blow as it had been all night, it was pitch dark, there was no moonlight, my crampons scraped against the rock and struggled to bite hold.  Even though Lakpa was climbing behind me, I was effectively alone. I was legitimately scared. Without Denise by my side I was no longer climbing for fun, no longer motivated by making an historic First Ascent of Burke Khang. I didn't care about Burke Khang at all.  I did care about my friend Bill Burke, and I cared about my own survival, and making sure I would return to C1 and be reunited with Denise again.

...sorry for the overly lengthy update, we are going to go eat now, I'll share the rest of the story in another post.

Lakpa & Paul shortly after sunrise, Everest in background.
Burke Khang view from C1, notice two climbers near top of corniced ridgeline.