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.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Burke's East Buttress a Beast

Saturday morning we set out from ABC to tackle a most formidable challenge - ascending 2,400 vertical feet up the East Buttress. The lower section of the couloir was a collection of loose boulders that was difficult to navigate without inadvertently launching rocks towards climbers below.  

Fortunately we all made it though this shooting gallery unscathed, only to take on the 70 degree snow pitch above. 

After 8 1/2 arduous hours we finally made it to C1 at 20,500' just as it was getting dark and temperatures started plummeting. We were shivering and depleted but thrilled to see the shelter of a tent already set up and waiting for us. 

Without question this has to rank as one of the most difficult things we have ever done. It was hard for Bill too, and there aren't many 73 year-olds in the world who have the physical or mental fortitude to even attempt something like this. Nonetheless with the expert and patient guiding if Garrett, who was with Bill every step of the way, they finally arrived at C1 at 8:30 PM completing a brutal rest of resolve. 

Yesterday was a much needed rest day here at C1 at an altitude that is higher than the summit of Denali, the tallest peak in North America. From here on out the original plan has changed a number of ways and for a number of reasons. It is still fluid but here's what we can tell you now. 

The original climbing route (red line from Oct. 12 blog post) from C1 to C2 had to be modified due to significant crevasse risk. Instead the route now goes significantly to the right up a steep ridgeline with challenging rock climbing. It is a safer route but much more technically difficult. For this reason the Sherpas felt it would be better to skip setting up C2 altogether and go for the summit from here.  This would be a similarly large vertical gain from 20,500' to 22,775' but with even steeper and more technically demanding terrain. In order to give Bill the best chances for success, Garrett decided to move ahead with a plan for setting up a limited C2 just for Bill, therefore shortening his summit day by roughly half. This morning Bill set out from C1 to C2 supported by Sid and Phurba Ridar Bhate aka "Mickey Mouse". The three of them will share one tent at C2. 

The plan for the rest of us: yours truly Paul & Denise and Nick, supported by Garrett and Phurba Sherpa, is to take another rest day here at C1. Then at apprx. 3:00 AM Nepal time tomorrow morning Nov. 10th, we will head up towards C2 (rendezvous with Bill, Sid, and Mickey Mouse) and continue straight on hopefully to the summit!  Once again that's the tentative plan for now, we'll do our best to keep you updated with the monumental challenge ahead!  
Thinking of you all!
Paul & Denise

Friday, November 6, 2015

Two More Helicoptered Out

Update from Advanced Base Camp (ABC): We made it here yesterday as planned but it was not without challenges. We started the day off early and rappelled 500 feet down a steep wall into the heart of the Ngozumba Glacier. Making our way across this mile-wide junk yard like collection of loose boulders stacked on top of moving ice, was an ordeal unlike we have ever encountered in all of our previous mountaineering experiences - and we have been on many glaciers around the world. 
Fortunately we managed to stay sure footed and avoid sliding down with the frequent rock slides triggered by our steps. It required a tremendous amount of concentration and mental energy but at least we were rewarded with stunning scenery of Everest and other giant Himalayan peaks towering above us the entire way. 
We were blazing a trail that few (if any) others besides our advance Sherpa team have ever traveled, and after nine hours we finally arrived at ABC.  The elevation here is 18,100 feet, a bit higher than we previously estimated, and it is cold!  (single digits at nighttime). The shorter days and longer nights definitely make a November climbing attempt more frigid than a typical Spring season expedition, when Everest is usually climbed. Nonetheless we are happy to be here at ABC and have front and center views out of our tent door of Burke Khang and our climbing route to the summit!
Unfortunately the taxing day required to get here took its toll on Kathy. She had been battling respiratory issues and yesterday's physical exhaustion only made it worse. Like Bud and John before her, Kathy made the difficult decision to abort her First Ascent attempt of Burke Khang and she asked Garrett to make a satellite call for a helicopter. Around the same time this morning Da Ongchhu Sherpa (who was our climbing Sirdar on Everest in 2010 and who we made a special request to be on this expedition) received some troubling news. His father was in the hospital in Kathmandu for a ruptured appendix and he was in critical condition. Da Ongchhu decided to join Kathy on the helicopter and we sadly waved goodbye to both as they lifted off en route to see their respective loved ones. 

Losing two more members of our team is difficult for many reasons, but fortunately we still have excellent support for the climb in Garret, Sid, and our remaining climbing Sherpas. 

We are still on the schedule as described in our last post and plan to leave ABC early tomorrow morning Sat. Nov. 7 Nepal time for C1.  This will be an extremely steep and difficult climb ascending the buttress and we will generally be following the red line as originally pictured in our blog post from October 12 entitled Burke Khang - Climbing Route. We may or may not be able to make another post from up high, but if you don't see one, you can always check Bill Burke or Madison Mountaineering's blogs as they may call in from satellite phone in the coming days (links on upper right side of our Summit for CAF blog site).  
Wish us luck!
Paul & Denise

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Good, The Bad and Looking Up

Hello from Burke Khang Base Camp, reporting first with the only bit of bad news. Unfortunately a second member of our climbing team had to be helicoptered out due to health/medical reasons. This time John Dahlem aka "Coach" was stricken by debilitating back pain that he couldn't manage nor conceive of carrying a heavy pack any higher up. 

In addition to our guides Garrett and Sid and our Sherpa team, we are now down to five climbers: Bill, Nick, Kathy, and yours truly Paul & Denise. 

We just received some very good news from Sid and our Sherpa team via radio from ABC. Conditions are good and they have successfully finished setting 750 meters (apprx. 2,500 feet) of rope up one of the steepest and what we believe will be one of the most difficult sections of the route. The top portion of this buttress is reportedly quite extreme with a 70 degree pitch. Immediately above this section our Sherpas have established Camp 1 and have graciously carried up tents which are awaiting our arrival. 

Meanwhile we have been taking daily acclimatization hikes above Base Camp, the most interesting of which was yesterday's hike to near the border of China. We reached the south side base camp location of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. 

We have also been enjoying the use of our very cool Oakley Airwave Snow2 goggles and Recon Jet sunglasses - both of which have cutting edge heads up display screens. The technology enables us to monitor our time and altitude without looking at a watch buried under a down jacket and glove, and it also tracks and records our daily altitude gains. The goggles even connect to our smartphones via Bluetooth so we can view and control music playlists (and even text messages if we were in cell range) without having to take our phones out of our pockets or take off gloves. Any skier or snowboarder can appreciate that convenience nowadays. 

The Recon Jet glasses have a built in camera for taking video and still shots to capture whatever you see at the touch of a button. Thank you Recon Instruments for sponsoring us and being a part of history in the First Ascent of Burke Khang!  

As far as Looking Up and ahead, our plan is to leave for ABC early AM Nepal time on Thurs. Nov. 5th. On Nov. 7th after a rest day at ABC (apprx. 17,500') we will head up the steep buttress utilizing the 2,500' of rope fixed by Sid and our Sherpas, and with luck we will reach Camp 1 before dark. Nov. 8th will be our planned move from C1 to C2, and Nov. 9th will hopefully be our summit day! 

This is all subject to the weather, our continued good health, and of course the unknown factors of a route and a mountain that has never been climbed before!  Our team is excited beyond belief!

P.S. Here's a shot of Everest taken from outside our tent at Burke Khang Base Camp in the afternoon. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Made it to Burke Khang Base Camp!

We made it to Burke Khang Base Camp!  Lots to report on since our last post five days ago, as the snow and heavy cloud cover have made satellite communications difficult.  (We have been out of cell range for six days now.)  We left the village of Gokyo on Friday Oct. 30th and as we made tracks in six inches of fresh snow, we waved goodbye to the last semblance of civilization we would see from here on out. Very few human beings venture beyond Gokyo so every step takes us further into a pristine and untouched frontier.  

Our current Base Camp location at 16,500 feet is remarkably beautiful, overlooking a sea foam green glacial lake to the west, and views of Burke Khang and Mt. Everest to the east. Our tents are situated adjacent to the massive Ngozumba Glacier, the largest in the entire Solu Khumbu Region and far bigger than the Khumbu Glacier that flows down from Everest. Words and even the highest resolution wide angle lens cannot begin to do justice to seeing this awe-inspiring natural wonder in person. This monster size ice flow is more than a mile wide and we will need to cross it in order to reach our Advance Base Camp (ABC) - but more on that later.  

In order to celebrate Halloween and our arrival to Burke Khang Base Camp, we decided to have a costume party in our spacious and well-equipped dining tent.  

Complete with a delicious meal and even red wine, it was a fitting way to end a memorable day that was preceded by a wonderful Puja ceremony.  The Puja is performed by a Buddhist Lama (which we happen to have on staff in the form of one of our climbing Sherpas) and the purpose of this ritual is to ask the Gods for safe passage on the mountain.  

The next morning we said farewell to the members of our trekking team: Rebecca, Daniel, and Martha who are continuing over the Cho La Pass to visit Mt. Everest Base Camp, as we begin the technical portion of our climb of Burke Khang.  It was sad to see them and their positive spirits go, as it was similarly difficult saying goodbye to Jenna in Gokyo along with Bud Allen, one of the members of our climbing team who was airlifted out by helicopter.  Bud had a persistent flu and cough that wasn't going to get better at this altitude, so he made the tough decision to go home.  Bud was extremely disappointed to leave and miss out on this opportunity to make a First Ascent of Burke Khang.  We will do our best to get to the summit and will carry Bud along in our hearts and minds.

Our current plan is to acclimate here at BK Base Camp while our Sherpa team and assistant guide Sid Pattison (presently at ABC) attempt to fix ropes up the steep headwall to reach and establish Camp 1.  Depending on their progress the rest of our team lead by Garrett will cross the Ngozumba Glacier and make our way to ABC on or before Nov. 6th.  We will update you again when we can, meanwhile we are well and enjoying the beauty and relative comforts of Burke Khang Base Camp at 16,500 feet! 
Paul & Denise