Expeditions: The Not-Quite-As-Terrible Burgess Twins

Outside magazine, July 1994

Expeditions: The Not-Quite-As-Terrible Burgess Twins

Reformed, sort of, the boys hit K2 with grit, desire, and beer
By Clint Willis

It's not so we can have big drunks down at base camp," insists British mountaineer Adrian Burgess. "The reason, apart from just liking the taste of beer, is to keep the team from getting homesick, to keep their minds on the mountain."

Burgess--who this month, along with his identical twin, Alan, is leading an expedition to climb 28,250-foot K2 via the rarely taken North Ridge route in China--is talking about plans to brew ale at their 17,500-foot base camp. Altitude and alcohol, of course, make awkward bedfellows, but brewing beer has long been part of mounting an expedition the Burgess way. Only now the Terrible Burgess Twins, as they're sometimes called in acknowledgment of a 25-year legacy of raucous behavior on and off the mountain, say they've discovered moderation.

"For starters, we don't fight like we used to," chuckles Adrian, who looks a little like an aging member of the Yardbirds. "You can get hurt fighting."

Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1949, the Burgesses cut their climbing teeth in the Alps. At 24 they drove a beat-up minivan overland to India, where they put up a difficult new route on an 18,000-foot Himalayan peak called Ali Rattna Tibba. Since then, together and separately, they've made more than 40 expeditions to the Himalayas, where Alan now lives most of the year. They have topped-out together on such peaks as 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri, and have come close to summiting on Lhotse (27,923 feet) and Nanga Parbat (26,650 feet), among others. Adrian successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1989. Still, their rowdy reputation and low batting average on big mountains have caused some climbers to question the twins' commitment to reaching the top.

Brad Johnson, a member of the current K2 team, recalls a 1992 attempt on 27,766-foot Makalu that he made with the Burgesses. "It was the most enjoyable trip I've ever been on," he says, though he admits that he was angry when the brothers decided to turn back shy of the summit instead of waiting for bad weather to clear. "We laughed for two solid months. But we didn't get to the top."

The Burgesses, of course, have a ready response to charges that their problem is a lack of commitment. "There's a very good reason we're alive," says Adrian. "You have to know when to pull your neck in."

On K2, which the brothers attempted via the Abruzzi Ridge in 1986 and 1988, there will be plenty of occasions to think about pulling their necks in. The North Ridge has been climbed only three times. The plan was for the Burgesses' six-person team to arrive at base camp in May, reach the highest of four high camps this month, and summit by early August. Roughly as difficult as the well-traveled Abruzzi, which is on the Pakistan side, the North Ridge entails a longer climb on summit day.

Whether or not the brothers' self-described serious approach will translate into a successful climb remains to be seen. But so far they've convinced a few people that they're trustworthy--or at least marketable. The boys say they got $100,000 in backing and a helpful hype barrage from Reebok, which is using the expedition to promote a line of boots. Why such confidence? "Look at them," says a company spokesman. "They've changed. They're level-headed."

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