Bill Burke has arrived in Nepal for visa processing and will soon embark on a quest to become the first person to climb Mt. Everest — at 29,035 feet the world’s tallest peak — twice in one season. Making this more remarkable is that Burke, who two years ago became the oldest American to summit Everest and live to tell about the experience, is 69.
“It’s going to be quite an epic journey,” says the mountaineer, who lives in Costa Mesa, Calif., with his wife, Sharon. “It’s going to be a little bit like threading a needle, though, because everything has to fall into place just right. But that’s part of the fun — setting a goal and trying to achieve it, and at the same time being safe and smart, because I’m not out to get myself killed.”
Drawing inspiration from a severely disabled grandson, whom he describes as “my training partner,” Burke intends to scale Everest from the north side via Tibet, after an unsuccessful attempt last year, and then from the south side, via Nepal.
His itinerary also includes an ascent of neighboring Mt. Lhotse — at 27,940 feet the world’s fourth-highest mountain — after his second Everest climb.
Not everybody is as confident as Burke about the likelihood of attaining such an ambitious goal. Renowned mountaineer Ed Viesturs said via email, “The key factor is the physical endurance that will be required. I’ve pulled of a few doubles in my career, and everything has to fall into place — health, endurance, perfect conditions, etc. Take it one climb a time and see how it goes.”
(Viesturs has not doubled Everest but has climbed Everest and Lhotse in the same season.)
Burke’s successful summit of Everest from the south side in 2009 marked the culmination of a Seven Summits campaign — attaining the highest peak on each continent — that began when Burke was 60 (see note at bottom).
He enjoys the support of his wife, four children and 14 grandchildren, but concedes that, because of his age, some of them are not as enthusiastic as they were before his previous climbs.
But the spiritual mountaineer, who harbors a deep passion for the Himalayas, points out that he has never had a serious mishap and prides himself on being overly cautious.
For example, he abandoned a south-side Everest attempt in 2007, from just 300 feet beneath the summit, because he was fatigued. He quit during a north-side attempt last year while even closer to the summit, because severe weather was predicted to move in.
Two climbers died close to the summit during the next two days, after foul weather arrived. “That confirmed to me that I made the right call,” Burke said. “I’m not out there to break records at all costs. I try to be smart, conservative and safe.”
Burke has not used a commercial guide service for his Everest campaigns. He has gone with local Sherpa porters, though, and this year he’ll also be be accompanied by a much younger Mexican climber, David Liano.
In the months leading to his adventure he trained in a gym and on Southern California peaks such as Mt. Whitney, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto. More enjoyable, he said, were his 50-mile Sunday bike rides with Oliver, his 10-year-old grandson.
Oliver, who rides in a customized bike trailer, suffers from an undiagnosed condition believed to be Angleman Syndrome, a neurological disorder whose symptoms include developmental delay, lack of speech and balance disorders.
“Oliver is is my hero and inspiration in life,” Burke said, explaining that the child’s plight has helped him achieve a greater perspective about life and the importance of family. “He has made me a better person in ways that are too numerous to describe.”
For now, though, majestic Everest and the spectacular beauty of the snowy Himalayas beckon once more. Burke can feel the mountain’s pull with the advent of every new season.
“I feel like I’m almost addicted to the Himalayan range and Mt. Everest to the point where I just really look forward to going back every year,” he said. “It’s just an awesome sight and every minute I’m on that mountain I’m standing on sacred ground. It just draws me back, year after year.”
– Burke will update his progress whenever possible via his blog. Facebook users can follow the expedition on the climber’s page.
– Photos: Bill Burke is pictured at the top, with Mt. Everest in the background, and at bottom right, on the summit of the world’s tallest peak. Middle image is of climbers nearing the summit during one of Burke’s expeditions. Images are courtesy of Burke.
– Editor’s note: Climbers consider Mt. Kosciuszko on the Australian mainland and the Carstensz Pyramid, an Indonesian peak on the Australian continental shelf, as interchangeable. Burke has climbed both, technically making his Seven Summits campaign an Eight Summits campaign.