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Chris Burke and Lakpa Sherpa Kanchenjunga Summit Push

This week we celebrated the return of Chris, Lakpa and Chrriring to our shop for a good catchup. However with the first mention of the word "Kanchenjunga" you could see in Chris's eyes that this was truely a mountain beyond others. The below article, which first features on Chris's blog, is an absolute dramatic read. Both Chris and Lakpa have said this is their hardest expedition ever; harder than K2. Two things are worth mentioning in this for-word: It is hard to understand the enormity of this mountain and the scale of team needed to climb it. In todays climbing media we are inundated with stories of fast, alpine ascents. In the beginning of this article you could be forgiven for thinking that expedition climbing is unromantic or old-school. However, once you delve further down the shear scale of this climb becomes undeniably apparent. A 32 hour push from camp 4 - summit - camp 4 begins to explain it.  The team work needed to reach the summit required absolutely everyone to be at their limit and even then there were many uncertainties. This leads to the second point and that is the standout work and ability of climbers Chrriring and Pemba. Both of these guys have physical ability and talent beyond what most can comprehend and yet they still dedicate it to the team. These guys are willing and able to put in effort beyond what is their role in the expedition in order to get "someone" to the summit. Even when it sacrifices their own summit attempt. May they be granted many years of safe passage in the mountains because of this! - Matthew Eaton
Chris summit of Kanchenjunga

I can barely type. I am so exhausted my fingers don’t want to do this in haste. This expedition alone could fill a book. This is the hardest expedition for me, EVER.

We left for our summit push on 11th, intending to summit on 14th or 15th. The route setters assured us the ropes would be done for a 14th attempt – so we went. The ropes weren’t done so we held up at Camp 3 (~6,900m) for an extra day. On 14th, Lakpa then took 2 of his Expedition Base guides with him and climbed up from Camp 3 to Camp 4 and then Lakpa climbed way above Camp 4 to fix 400m more rope, before coming back down to Camp 4. His work was enough for the route setters to be inspired to do another 300m before they descended to base camp to rest. They had been fixing high for a many days.

Then, the weather caused a problem – we had lost the 14th and now the 15th was looking bad – Kanch weather changes every 6 hours at times so you have to take your chances when you can. Lakpa descended to Camp 3. The weather was deteriorating, 16th looked good but it meant waiting another day up high. Everyone at camp 3 had to battle with the decision on weather and sitting high. Two of us were pretty much going up or down, but not staying at camp 3 – too high to stay too long as the body weakens. After consulting several weather sources, we finally decided to go up and try to summit on the 16th. It was a touch and go decision. This was going to be a long push, being high for a long time – risky and concerning.

At 7pm on 16th, most members left camp 4 for the summit – around 30 people. The route was not complete so members of our team and another (SST), 4 in all, left at 5pm with some rope to go ahead and fix some more. They would soon discover to their distress that conditions would slow them down immensely. The job would not be finished.

I was tardy and left at 7.30pm, but it took me a bit longer to ensure all my fingers and toes were ready for what was about to happen. Chhiring and one of our team members were at the front of a long line and Chhiring was now breaking trail for many hours. When he stopped at times to let someone take a turn, the line behind him stopped – people would not pass as they knew it was too hard. Back further in the line, I could see Chhiring stomping to break through the crust of the snow then his foot would go down about 30cm. Step by very hard step. This, even though the route setters had been through only 2 hours before. On the very few occasions that one or two people took over, they were 80% slower than Chhiring, and people in the line started to get cold. By around 10am the next morning, Chhiring decided to descend. He was spent. I felt so bad for him because he lost a summit attempt for the sake of everyone.

Climbers in the line caught up with the route setters just as first light arrived in the morning. The route setters were slow, trying to find places to build anchors to fix the ropes to. Lakpa became concerned that the line was all too slow and on several occasions we pondered taking our rope and climbing alpine (rope) style, where the rope is tied to the person, not the mountain. It would most likely be faster but we would risk burning ourselves out, and there was greater risk of injury or death, especially at this altitude, as we were well over 8,000m on continual steep terrain. We waited. By around 8am, one of my team members decided to descend with cold issues. I said I would likely follow shortly after because I was having trouble managing the cold and none of us was interested in summits over keeping our fingers and toes.

A climber behind me whom I knew from other climbs was making uncharacteristically dour comments, which I ignored, except that he told me to watch the line of the sun to my left. The sun would be on us soon. Within 2 hours, we had some warmth. Though, more snow and mist would follow in the day.

[Update 21/05/18: turns out there was a reason for the comments, and possibly me not responding clearly might not have helped things!]

As about 12-2pm arrived, Lakpa decided we were still moving too slow. I wanted to help with the route setting but knew Lakpa had other plans. He decided now he and I would move alpine (rope) style. I told Lakpa we could go down and return another time, although in my heart I knew I wanted to try and summit. The conditions underfoot were making things slow for everyone. Pema from our team, who had been route setting, said he was not going up – impossible, he said, and still the summit was more than 5 hours away. Lakpa said it was 12 hours away at the pace we were doing. He said with good weather, we could keep going but we needed to get in front. I turned to the climber behind me and said ‘do you know we are still at least 5 hours away from the summit?’ I can’t remember his reply but, at this point, many climbers were stopping and descending. Enough was enough.

Lakpa and I got past a few climbers, as we tried to get to the front end of the fixed ropes. We were nearly there when a bunch of about 6 climbers sat down ahead of us on a ledge waiting for ropes to be fixed. But, the fixed ropes were finished. Lakpa took an unfixed rope and he set 2 more anchors as I fed the rope from below. The climbers moved up again. Lakpa sat down, as did the other climbers. He explained that the fixed ropes were now finished (any other ropes were behind) and that he and I would be climbing alpine (rope) style with our personal rope. The other climbers, from the other team, appeared to be confused, not fully understanding the situation for them. Lakpa gave another of our ropes to our climbing friends and said they could use it to climb themselves. Another climber said later that 4 people had told him it was not possible to climb alpine style or to free climb on the upper sections of this mountain so he said he was grateful that Lakpa had shown him there were options, after seeing Lakpa and I climb ahead. Others had no rope and chose to descend. All but 5 of us turned around.

By now, a number of my team members had descended with cold or respiratory issues. I had pictured us all reaching the summit together. This was not to be.

Pemba Geljen Sherpa, from Expedition Base, reached the summit first at around 3pm in an (unofficial) world first climbing directly from base camp to the summit in a single push. He had descended with a client the day before from camp 3, and decided to go up again to the summit, bringing fresh food with him! Quite an outstanding young man with unbelievable talents, speed and strength. Two climbers (Russia / Germany) reached the summit next at 630pm, then Lakpa at about 640pm, and then me at 645pm. I quickly said to Lakpa that we had maybe 15 minutes of daylight so to quickly take photos and then I left the summit first, then Lakpa. I was conscious that we would be climbing around ledges in the dark and frankly, I was scared about that, due to exhaustion after nearly 24 hours of climbing, especially at this altitude. Lakpa remained composed and calm as ever. Of the summit, I remember doing a quick 360 degree turn in order to see what the view was like. There was not an ounce of wind and the sun was setting. Best weather ever. Beautiful.

On descending, I knew my job was to not slip on the snow and rock ledges, and not to put Lakpa at risk on our rope. My exhaustion took a back seat to us getting down safely. Once we were back down on the fixed ropes, I felt more relaxed to descend faster but exhaustion was trying to take over and I had to fight it hard. It would take us 8 more hours to get back down to Camp 4 – by 3am, more than 32 hours after we left, we were back at Camp 4.

(Unbelievably, Lakpa’s guides stayed up to await our arrival. They could see our head torches coming down. They had already boiled water for us to drink and use for warmth, arranged sleeping bags to get us warm quickly, had food ready, Pema arranged water for my hands and he warmed my feet. The guys knew that due to being out for nearly 32 hours [Corrected], we needed support quickly.)

About 2 hours out of camp we came upon a climber from another team, the climber who had been behind me at times during the climb, and we told him matter-of-factly to follow us to camp. He said he was heading up etc. We said several times to come with us and he then said he would follow behind Lakpa. We continued down. I turned around after 20 minutes or so (altitude time) to discover he was not behind us. I kicked myself that we had not waited for him to be on our heels. When we got to camp, I could see his head torch in the same place but I surmised (wrongly) that he just wanted to reflect on the climb and would come down when he was ready.

I woke up in the morning at around 745am to news the climber was dead, where we last saw him.

Climbing Kanchenjunga - Christine Burke

I was devastated by my failure to act. Although I questioned how he ended up there in the dark, in the middle of the night by himself without any of his team members, I questioned more how I could actually leave him there, regardless of my exhausted state. I ran his words and behaviour through my head and realised that the dour comments he had made to me earlier in the push were more likely symptoms of cerebral edema than him trying to be ‘annoying’, and the comments he made in the middle of the night and his behavior were most likely attributable to the same.

Then, within the next 15 minutes, we were then told he was STILL ALIVE.

[Update 21/05/18: I asked a lot of questions in the intervening period as there were some things not making sense to me...  a lot happened in that 15 minutes...]

Lakpa and I quickly told the other team’s members who were present to get oxygen up to him and we gave them a big dose of altitude medicine to get up to him, and told them how to administer it. I called down quickly to Chris (USA) Warner at base camp on our radio to double check the dose of medicine, as I was conscious I may not have all my brain cells working and he confirmed the dose. Chris also switched straight into rescue mode knowing a lot of people had been at this altitude too long and the risk of injury or death remained high for a lot of us. He also knew all the right words to say to me to make sure that Lakpa, myself, and other people in our team did not put ourselves in more danger. Chris knew I wanted to go up to the stricken climber, but at the same time my legs were reluctant to go anywhere. Chris said all the right things so that my brain focused on self-preservation and for us to ‘assist’ the other team with the stricken climber, but that we packed up to go down ourselves – I still had 7 hours ahead of me back to base camp from Camp 4. I kept watching movements up the mountain and it was more than ~3.5 hours after being told he was dead before the climber moved 5-10 metres. I descended at the point where a Sherpa guide reached the climber with the altitude medicine. He was evacuated by his team to Camp 3 yesterday and was evacuated further today by heli to Kathmandu. We also left the other team oxygen for the rescue mission. [FYI, our team members – foreigner and Nepali – carry altitude medicine in our backpacks].

(Whilst still at Camp 4, I asked the other team how one of their other team members was as I had not seen her. I was told she was fine but was only still sleeping because she was back into camp late because she had tried to get [the stricken climber] back to camp. Then, I realised just how many things had gone wrong. At the time of me writing this she is still high on the mountain and is being accompanied down. I’m hoping she is ok. Word of caution: check on your team members regularly and please don’t assume they are ok.)

[Update 21/05/18: it has been an interesting experience meeting up with Kanch climbers in Kathmandu and debriefing on the summit push.  Some have incredible recollections of the push, and specifics.  Piecing things together from where I and others were on the mountain has been really enlightening.  It can all only be helpful for everyone for future climbs. ]

As we descended to Camp 2, we met the leader of another team, AT, that plans to go up for a potential weather window of 21-22 May. We downloaded our experience to him, re conditions and taking more rope and wished them the very best of luck. Their team had been watching us climb through a high powered lens so they could see us summit, he said. As we passed Sherpas heading up they were so lovely to Lakpa, knowing all that he had done to make summits possible. I was so happy for him to be recognised for his efforts as he is very low key when it comes to these things. Lakpa and I reached base camp at 645pm yesterday and our bodies are wrecked. We need to re-hydrate and rest. We are taking things slowly. I’m soon to check the toes on my left foot again in daylight today to hopefully distinguish cold damage from bruising. I have some frostnip on some fingers – manageable. Huge thanks to Pema who, at Camp 4, helped me to manage this quickly in the middle of the night.

[Update 21/05/18: AT advised that it had numerous Sherpas available to complete the route setting - a section which by alpine (rope) style was about 2.5hrs for their push making the route safer and faster, with summit success on 20/05/18 with more updates to come, AT advises.]

So much more to this story than I can put here. Kanch, I think, is a mountain much harder to climb than K2 via the normal routes on each mountain, especially when you put together technical difficulty, distances, time to summit, conditions, weather etc. Kanch is somewhat ‘lost’ in the discussion as (only) the 3rd highest mountain in the world. I knew the distances to cover were huge but they are in fact HUGE! When you are sure the summit must be near, it is not. Even when Pemba Geljen from our team was describing the last section to me as he descended, it seemed like 20 minutes. I’m sure it took me another 2-3 hours. Of course, on his own terms, Lakpa would have been to the summit much faster.

Originating from a small town in NZ you would think I could say I was the first person from my town to summit. But, nup, I’m 63 years too late to be first (Ha ha). I follow in the big steps of Norman Hardie from the first ascent team in 1955 and I salute him for his amazing trail-blazing achievement. He will have known forever just how hard this mountain is to climb.

[Update 21/05/18: to date, 3 NZers including the late and great Marty Schmidt and 5 Australians have climbed Kanch.]

I have to thank my lovely partner and husband, Lakpa, for making this summit happen for me. I could not have done it without him. We both know each others’ limits on this kind of thing, his limits are far beyond mine, and he knew I had the stuff to keep going and that we could get up and then get down safely, even in the dark. We had a weather day that was a gift of the universe – one like no other for a climb of that duration.

Everything aches at the moment. Time to go and eat, drink and rest, and to process everything. I’m still a bit overwhelmed and finding it hard to move too far.

And, out of the blue yesterday, a dog appeared in base camp and today it climbed up on the snow to the ice wall just below camp 1, where it started crying because it could climb no further. The dog just returned to our base camp wagging its tail madly. Time to feed the dog too.

Huge thanks to Lakpa and the amazing Expedition Base team, to the wonderful foreign team members from whom I have learnt so much. Thank you to Kanchenjunga for allowing us the privilege of climbing safely on her slopes. May all climb safe for the remainder of this season.


By Chris Burke

Lakpa and Chrriring Sherpa return from Kanchenjunga

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