Interview: Oldest Everest Climber Goes for Virgin Peak Named For Him

Bill Burke just landed in Nepal
(Tina Sjogren) He’s been to Nepal 8 times in the last 8 years, climbed on Everest 6 times, summitting from the South side in 2009 at age 67 and from the North side in 2014 at age 72.

Married for 53 years with wife Sharon, the Costa Mesa, California resident loves Mexican food and says he’s read just about every book written about World War II. Most of the couple’s children and grandchildren live close, “so, we have lots of family gatherings.”

We caught up with Bill Burke last week, just as he was leaving it all for Nepal. He is about to attempt Burke-Khang (6,742 meters/22,775 feet) named after him and never climbed before.

Here goes the interview.

#Pythom: Nepal just opened 104 new Himalaya peaks for climbing. One – Burke-Khang – was named after you. Why?

*Burke: This great honor bestowed on me by the Government of Nepal came as a complete surprise. Burke-Khang was named after me on May 21, 2014 (4 days before I summitted Mt. Everest from the North side), and I didn’t find out about it until several months later when I was back home in California. I was never given a reason for this generous action. (Additional note below)

#Pythom: This will be a first ascent: how does the excitement of this fact compare to the excitement you felt when you decided to attempt Mount Everest?

*Burke: My first attempt to climb Mt. Everest was in 2007. This was a “First Ascent” for me, and it was beyond exciting because the mountain is legendary and everything was fresh, new and fearsome.

The First Ascent of Burke-Khang takes this excitement to a new level because the mountain has never been climbed. The mystery surrounding this mountain is its great allure. I know from my April helicopter reconnaissance trip that climbing Burke-Khang will present significant challenges, including technical climbing, massive crevasse fields, overhanging ice seracs, avalanche prone couloirs, bergschrunds, route finding, glacial travel and ridge climbing.

I expect this climb to be as difficult as climbing Mt. Everest, perhaps even more difficult. I am also excited because this will be an Autumn expedition in the Himalaya, which is a first for me.

The 2015 Autumn expeditions in the Himalaya have not gone well, and many teams have cancelled their expeditions because of heavy winds, deep snow, soft snow bridges, crevasses and avalanche risk. We are hoping for better weather and snow conditions on Burke-Khang. One thing is for certain: this is a big league mountain that will make us earn our way to the summit.

# Pythom: The trek goes past the pictoresque Gokyo Lake and the valley was described by your scouting sherpas as a “paradise”. Have you been in this area before?

*Burke: I have never traveled up the beautiful Gokyo Valley, so this is an added dimension of excitement and anticipation.

#Pythom: How did you decide your climbing strategy for the peak?

*Burke: I had been told by Sherpa friends, who did a foot reconnaissance of Burke-Khang at my request, that the mountain was not climbable–too vertical and technically gnarly. So, I contacted my close friend, Garrett Madison, who owns and manages Madison Mountaineering in Seattle, Washington. Garret is one of the most successful and accomplished high altitude guides in the world. Garrett and I studied the mountain on Google Earth and thought we had found a safe climbing route. We completed our helicopter reconnaissance in April and confirmed this assessment.

#Pythom: Who’s on your team?

*Burke: I was fortunate to assemble a climbing team made up of accomplished high altitude mountaineers and very close friends. This makes the trip even more attractive to me. Garrett will lead the climb, assisted by Sid Pattison, an accomplished snow and ice climber. We also have 4 trekkers who will travel with us to Burke-Khang Base Camp and then return home. The team is described here:

#Pythom: You are 7 climbers led by Madison. How many Sherpas are involved and how much rope are you bringing to secure technical sections?

*Burke: We will have 6 Sherpas, a cook and about 2,500 meters of rope to fix lines on the steep sections of the mountain.

#Pythom: Aren’t you too old for this? One Nepali politician recently proposed Everest should be closed to climbers past 75 years old. At 72 you became the oldest non-Asian to summit Mount Everest last year (breaking your own record from five years prior). How do you feel about the proposed age limit?

*Burke: The Chinese set similar age limits on the North (Tibet) side of Mt. Everest in 2010. These age limits are not being enforced. If the Nepalese set age limits on the South (Nepal) side of Mt. Everest, I suspect they, too, will be honored in the breach and not the observance. I’m not in favor of arbitrary age limits for climbers, especially at the upper end of the age scale, but, of course, I’m biased.

#Pythom: You started climbing only at 59, what kicked it off?

*Burke: I retired from a demanding and stressful international law practice at age 60. I practiced in Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York. Being an “A” type personality and an adventure addict, I set about finding a post-retirement hobby that would keep me active and healthy. After considering fishing, golf, tennis and lawn bowling, I settled on high altitude mountaineering.

#Pythom: You went for Denali and then to Everest where you spent six attempts and two summits. At a time when most people shut down business you did a complete turnaround from sedentary attorney to hard-training athlete – running, weightlifting, jump roping and cross-trainer elliptical 6-days a week and bike riding on Sunday, plus spending almost every year at high altitude. Which years were better – before or after 59 – and do you wish you had started earlier in life?

*Burke: Great question. Both “halves” of my life have been rich and satisfying in very different ways.

I had a great career in the law, practicing law in offices all over the world. I was given 4 Lifetime Achievement Awards by different legal organizations for my work in legal writing and law reform. I handled complicated and ground-breaking international capital market transactions and argued cases in federal and state courts, including successful appearances in the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court.

Post-retirement has been equally satisfying as I have traveled to every continent to climb mountains, summitted Mt. Everest from both the South and North sides, and now have a mountain named after me in the fabled Himalaya Mountain Range. What could be better than that? Honestly, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, and the best is yet ahead!

#Pythom: What plans do you have for your 80s?

*Burke: Here is my current “bucket list”: (i) complete a “First Ascent” of a Himalaya Peak, (ii) pull a sled from the ocean to the North and South Poles, (iii) run the Alaskan Iditarod Dog Race and (iv) complete the “Triple Crown” by through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

#Pythom: Why is your blog named eight summits?

*Burke: There are 7 continents on the planet and each continent has its own highest peak. There is some disagreement as to whether Australia is a continent or is part of the continent of AustralAsia. The highest mountain in Australia is Mt. Kosciuszko, and the highest mountain in AustralAsia is the Carstensz Pyramid, which is located in West Papua, New Guinea. I climbed both mountains in 2006. So, I have reached 8 summits on 7 continents. Thus, the name of my website:

#Exweb: Any advice for young people contemplating time?

*Pythom: Dream big and follow your dreams.

#Exweb: You have 4 kids and 14 grandkids, any of them following in your footsteps?

*Burke: I have taken many of my children and grandchildren to the summit of Mt. Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the continental United States. But, my children are pursuing careers and raising families, which is difficult to reconcile with high altitude mountaineering. I’ll have to see if any of my grandchildren decide to follow “Papa’s” footsteps.

Bill Burke will be posting expedition reports in the link below (sign up for alerts). Photos and video of all his mountain trips, along with several long-distance solo motorcycle trips can be found in the Gallery.

Note: Burke says he has done charitable work in Nepal, made close friends in the Sherpa community and spoke to their honor at the annual Mt. Everest Day celebration in Kathmandu. He believes some of these things could have contributed to the naming of “his” peak.