...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.
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".
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!