This interview with Bill Burke is part of an ongoing series of interviews I do each season with Everest climbers. Not the famous, sponsored ones who get plenty of publicity but the regular people, who have full time jobs, full time families in many cases and climb for the love of climb. Please send me your suggestion for an interview. Now here’s Bill:
I have come to know and admire one Everest climber for several years now, Bill Burke. He epitomizes determination and optimism like few other climbers. Here are some stats: 69-years old, has been to Everest every year since 2007, summited from the South in 2009 at age 67, thwarted three times–once on the South and twice on the North–well you get the idea. Oh, and he is returning in 2012 at the ripe young age of 70 not for one summit but for TWO!
As if all this is not enough, in 2008, he rode, solo, round trip from Southern California to Banff Park, Canada on his Harley Davidson Road King Classic–a 37-day trip of over 6,200 miles.
Who is this wild man? Bill calls himself an “amateur mountaineer”. He started climbing, well how do I say this–let’s try “late in life”, after reaching age 60 and has now climbed the highest mountain on every continent making him the only person to climb the 7 Summits (8 if you include the Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea), after reaching age 60. The rock in his life is his wife Sharon, whom he has been married to for 49 years and the inspiration for his training is his grandson, Ollie. More on Ollie later.
His quest on Everest, and perhaps a double summit next year, does border on obsession and I mean that in a good way. In 2007, Bill attempted the summit from the South but was stopped by fatigue less than 300 feet from the top. In 2008, he took ill on the trek to Base Camp and had to end his trip. Bill made the summit from the South on May 23, 2009 becoming the oldest American to reach the summit and return alive.
But that was not enough, he set his sights on a traverse–leaving one base camp, summiting and ending at the other. But the Chinese refused to grant anyone a permit for a traverse so in 2010 and 2011, now in his late 60′s, he set his sights on a “simple” summit from the North, with plans to then travel to the South and summit from that side too. In 2010, he turned back at the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge because of weather and fatigue and in 2011 he turned around at the First Step on the Northeast Ridge because of a miscalculation by his Sherpa. In both trips, he was less than 1,000 feet from the summit.
So now for 2012, he is back and wants to summit from the South, drive to the North and summit again from that side–as far as I am aware, no one has ever done this in a single season, much less at age 70!
Q: OK, lets get the age question out of the way. You will be 70 when you go to Everest and this will be your sixth straight year to be on the Big Hill. What is your overall motivation to keep climbing Everest? Has it become an obsession?
I fell in love with Mt. Everest during my first trip in 2007. When I am on the mountain, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground. It has become part of me, part of who I am. As far as this being an obsession, perhaps so. But, I don’t let it interfere with good judgment. Remember, I summitted once, but I turned around very close to the summit 3 times. So, if it is an obsession, I think it is a controlled obsession. Having said that, 2012 will probably be my last year on Chomolumna as there are other adventures that interest me.
Q You have climbed from both sides with a south summit in 2009. How do you compare the two sides?
On my website (eightsummits.com), I describe the difference in some detail. The South (Nepal) side is the most popular route and entails a 35-mile trek to Base Camp, which is one of the highlights of the trip. Summit day on the South side involves a steeper and longer climb, which makes it more challenging, but it also allows a climber to get back to the safety of lower altitude faster. The South side has the deadly Khumbu Icefall. There is no Icefall on the North side. The North (Tibet) route has much better views of the mountain and Base Camp can be accessed by vehicle. Climbers on the North side spend a lot more time at higher altitude than climbers on the South side. This takes a huge toll on the body. I also think the weather is worse on the North side, especially the wind, which can quickly reach hurricane force. A climber in extremis on the North side will find it takes longer to get back to safety if he/she is high on the mountain. Finally, there is no helicopter evacuation on the North side which is available up to Base Camp on the South side. Which side is harder? Flip a coin and let me know.
Q: What has been the hardest part of your Everest experiences?
The long waits at Base Camp for the lines on the mountain to be fixed or the weather to clear. Also, after the 5th or 6th week, the bland food can be pretty difficult to look at, much less put in your mouth.
Q: In 2012 you will attempting the never before accomplished double summit from both the South and North sides of the mountain in the same season. What is your motivation for this given you have already summited in 2009 from the south? Why not just tag the summit from the North and call it good?
My plan for 2012 is to attempt a double summit from both the South and the North sides of the mountain. Double summits from the same side of the mountain have been completed in the past, but, as far as I am aware, no one has completed a summit from both sides of the mountain in the same season. My original plan was to complete a double traverse–S/N then N/S. But, the Chinese will not issue traverse permits, so this plan had to be scuttled and replaced with the more difficult challenge I am undertaking. My motivation is to see what I am capable of accomplishing on the mountain. It is very tempting to focus just on the North side since I have already summitted on the South side. I know the odds of a S/N double are long, both from a physical and logistical standpoint. I also know that I will be threading the needle to pull this off. But, I like to dream big and then commit myself to make my dreams come true. I like my chances for success in 2012 or I wouldn’t be taking on this challenge.
Q: Who will you be climbing with and which side will you first climb and how will you get to the other side?
No one is crazy enough to join me in this endeavor. My close friend and teammate in the past, David Liano from Mexico, has decided to attempt a solo sail around the world. I get seasick, so that adventure is out of the question for me. However, my other good friend, Bud Allen from Columbus, Georgia, will be joining me for the South side climb. I am also hopeful that some family members and friends will join me for the trek to Base Camp on the South side.
Allan Smith of DreamQuest Productions will be going with me to film the expedition and produce a documentary. He won’t be climbing with me and will use my photo and video footage above the Base Camps. I’ll be starting on the South side first because the lines on the mountain are fixed earlier on the South side than the North side. Once I come down from the South side summit, I will travel by land rover from Kathmandu to Chinese Base Camp in Tibet.
Q: You have a short window to climb the other side after your first summit, any concerns?
This is a big issue. There is a short weather window on Everest to access the upper reaches of the mountain. Usually, the window opens around May 17 and closes in the last week of May or the first week of June. My plan is to summit early on the South side and then take a helicopter from the village of Pheriche to Kathmandu. From Kathmandu, I will drive to Chinese Base Camp on the North side. I will not need to re-acclimatize for the North side climb, so, weather permitting, I can head straight up to the summit.
Q: Your expedition will be filmed by DreamQuest Productions’ Allan Smith, to create a documentary titled “8 Summits: The Bill Burke Story”. When will this air and what is your goal with this film?
DreamQuest Productions will prepare the documentary and will distribute it nationally and internationally via television and DVD. The company also plans to present the documentary at film festivals. The company is targeting the Fall of 2012 for release of the documentary.
Q: One of your inspirations is your grandson Ollie who suffers from symptoms similar to Angleman Syndrome. You often take him on bike rides. How is Olli doing these days?
Thanks for asking about Ollie. He is now 11-years old and is attending special education classes in school. He also has intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy to help him reach his full potential. He is my hero and my inspiration as he climbs his own Mt. Everest every day of his life. He helps me train with bike rides every Sunday. I have some new video of Ollie posted on my website under “My Training Partner.” He and I are best friends, and I am blessed to have him in my life.
We are all cheering for you Bill, especially as you descend from that second summit! You can follow Bill on his website where he posts frequently before, during and after his climbs.
Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He just completed his 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's project to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.