When Nepali tourism officials opened 104 new peaks to climbers last year, they had to name some of them. One of them, a 22,775-foot mountain between Everest and Cho Oyu, was named for 73-year-old Californian Bill Burke, the oldest American to have summited Everest. (Which he did it at age 67.) He didn’t find out about his namesake mountain until months later, while having dinner with a mountaineering friend.
“I was floored,” says Burke. “It was a total shock to me and a huge honor. I had no idea they were thinking of doing it.”
The government was in need of revenue and opening new conquests to climbers appeared to be a simple way to boost tourism. Two other peaks on the government’s list in addition to the newly christened “Burke Khang” (Khang means mountain) are 23,608-foot Tenzing Peak and 25,200-foot Hilary Peak—named after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to summit Everest, in 1953.
Burke has donated money to charities in Nepal and has climbed with Asian Trekking for nearly a decade. He didn’t start mountaineering—or even really exercising, he says—until he retired from a high-profile international law firm at age 60. After claiming the American age record on Everest in 2009, he became the oldest non-Asian to do so last year (at 72). He completed the Seven Summits, reaching the highest peak on every continent, in seven years (he finished in 2014). “They call me the Energizer Bunny: moves slow but never stops,” says Burke.
At the end of October, Burke is going to try to become the first person to climb the mountain that bears his name. Burke commissioned a small team of Sherpas to scout the mountain for him, but the initial report wasn’t promising. “They said it was in one of the most beautiful regions of Nepal they’d ever seen, like heaven on earth, but the peak was unclimbable,” Burke says. “They said it was technically gnarly, had steep vertical, was covered in crevasses, and ultimately recommended against attempting it.”
But the warning didn’t stop him. Instead, he reached out to Garrett Madison of Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering for a second opinion. Burke and Madison surveyed the peak by helicopter in between expeditions last April and found that the route calls for ascending a treacherous couloir, steep technical climbing that will require fixed lines, and traversing a crevasse-heavy glacier. On Thursday, Madison and fellow guide Sid Patterson began leading Burke and six other clients on an expedition that’s somewhat of a rarity: a commercial first ascent.
Opening new peaks doesn’t necessarily portend climbers turning their backs on favorites like Everest and Ama Dablam, but it does open the door for more clients to venture off the beaten commercial path. First ascents are more often attempted by small, self-supported groups of climbers, not pioneered by commercial guiding companies with paying clients. But by providing the know-how, support, and logistics for the expedition Madison is making this type of opportunity accessible for Burke and others. If he’s successful, Madison hopes other commercial guides will follow his lead.
"I hope we're successful and inspire more people to look for undiscovered peaks and that whole spirit of exploration,” says Madison. "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time.”
There are plenty of first ascents to be had in Nepal and the country hopes people will come attempt them, which will generate much-needed revenue generated by climbers and trekkers. The tourism industry–a huge sector of the economy–has been slow to recover following the devastating earthquake and subsequent landslides and avalanches that struck Nepal in April.
There already have been a handful of first ascents on these new peaks by independent expeditions, but they were done by small expeditions of professionals, not commercial guiding services with paying clients like Burke. In November 2014 Melissa Arnot, a guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Ben Jones, who guides for Alpine Ascents International, and photographer Jon Mancuso climbed the 20,600-foot Mustang Himal. In September Ryan Waters and Eric Larsen of Mountain Professionals made a first ascent of a peak in the Rolwaling Valley called Jabou-Ri. Then, in early October, three Sherpas—Nima Tenji, Dawa Gyalje, and Mingma Tashi—climbed three of the peaks in the Rolwaling Valley, becoming the first all-Nepalese team to make a first ascent in the Himalaya.
Paying clients, by comparison, tend to focus on climbing the Seven Summits, Madison says, because other climbers have successfully come before them and the support infrastructure is already in place. The toughest part of leading privately-guided first ascents is simply finding clients interested in attempting these unclimbed mountains—people with “a high degree of competence and independence,” says Adrian Ballinger, owner of Alpenglow Expeditions, who led a private client on first ski descent attempts on both Makalu and Manaslu. (They were successful on Manaslu, but not Makalu). "The unknowns are super high, and that means increased risk for everyone involved so clients need lots of experience, and to be a competent teammate in all aspects of the expedition."
Which is precisely what attracted Burke to the mountain bearing his name. Once he heard about Burke Khang, he pretty quickly made up his mind to make the first ascent. “I thought that I should be the first one to climb it,” he says. He also persuaded six of his climbing buddies to come along. The team will depart Lukla for Burke Khang on October 22 and is aiming for a climbing window starting around November 1.
"My wife told a reporter that at least on Everest she knew when I'd be up high so she knew when to worry, but with Burke Khang it's hard to know when to worry,” Burke says. “There's a lot of anxiety that comes with the unknown, where the risks are and what to expect. It could even be harder than Everest in many ways because of the technical climbing. It’s not the highest mountain in the world, but it will be challenging. It’s going to be an interesting climb.”