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  Mount Everest South Side Expedition
Sean Burch

Summit Day: [The following is a more detailed account of Sean's Everest summit. It is a small taste of what will be coming in the book Sean will be beginning soon about his dream and how he realized it.]

I had returned from outside my tent on the South Col where I had been jump roping to break my old world record and now lay comatose. At 26,000 feet, even the minor physical effort of jumping rope requires a Herculean effort. I could not believe I would soon be leaving the relative security afforded by the tent's thin layer of fabric to go out into the howling winds for another attempt on Everest's summit.

I had arrived at the South Col a day earlier after a 2-day stay at Camp 3. My original plan had been to climb from Base Camp to Camp 2, climb the next day to Camp 3, climb the next day to Camp 4 (South Col), and then leave for the summit that same night. Everest, however, had different plans. High winds on the summit slowed my progress up the mountain. You have to limit your time in the Death Zone above 26,000 feet so that your arrival at the South Col coincides with an immediate summit attempt. So I waited at the lower camps. Even so, when I got here, Everest was slamming the Southeast Ridge with 60 mph winds. Hoping for the best, I headed out last night on a summit attempt. I had reached half way to the Balcony before the winds nearly blew me off my feet. I was forced to turn around. I felt doubtful that I would have the strength to make it to the top of the world if the winds continued like this.

I was not resting on supplementary oxygen like the others at the South Col. I began to feel guilty because I would need to use it this evening due to the high winds. My breathing were short and rapid. I had powered down as many calories as possible in Camp 3 knowing my appetite would be nil at the South Col.

So, for my second summit attempt, I stepped out of my tent at 9:00 PM on the night of May 21 - 22. It was eerily quiet. No wind. I placed my oxygen mask over my nose and mouth and began breathing in the artificial air from the bottle within my rucksack. Immediately, my mind began to clear, my extremities began to come to life, and I felt my thoughts were being pulled together from all areas of my brain. I was completely focused on a single goal: summit Everest.

I started up the mountain to a slow steady rhythm - four steps, stop, breathe; four steps, stop, breathe. Focus on the rhythm, focus on steady breathing. Push the exhaustion, the lack of strength, the pain aside. One cycle at a time. Four steps, stop, breathe. This continued for an hour, then two. Whenever I encountered a rock band and I had to pay attention to each step and test it before putting any weight down, my breathing would become erratic and uneven. I would find myself huffing and puffing like an out-of-shape runner. Calm down, focus on the rhythm. Four steps, stop, breathe.

I made it to the Balcony before sunrise. The sky was clear and bright stars were perched high above me. My headlamp battery had run out about an hour before, but the light of the half moon and the torches of other climbers made it possible for me to keep moving.

With the dawn, spectacular views of the surrounding peaks began appearing. It was a clear and cloudless morning. But with the dawn, the wind returned. I paused for my first drink of water. As I removed my mask, the cold air immediately slapped my face causing me to cover up so as to preserve the heat within.

Climbing over rock where you're unsure of your footing is much more tiresome than climbing through snow. Fixed lines are placed almost to the summit taking away much of the technical challenge. However, with the high winds, mixed climbing on rock, snow and ice, plus the high altitude putting you into anaerobic exercise mode the whole time, you use up all your physical reserves long before the summit. By the time I got to the most difficult portion of the climb, the Hillary Step, I was stretching the boundaries of my human capabilities. I pulled myself up the fixed lines, scraping my crampons on the rock trying to bite on any cracks. The winds had increased to 40-50 miles per hour, and I was doing my best to stabilize and not fall off the face. To the left and right of me were shear vertical drops down thousands of feet. We were all using jumars to better grip the ropes. It's basically a handle for grabbing ropes. It slides easily when you push it up but grabs the rope when you put any weight on it down. I was holding onto the rock with one hand and my jumar with the other while hoping that my crampons spikes would hold my weight on the little icing nubbins of rock under my feet, all while my whole body was screaming "enough." At this point, it's not about how strong you are or how fit you are. Now, it's all about your strength of will. I pushed on.

At the top of the Hillary Step I hunched over and breathed heavily for a few minutes to try to feed my pounding heart a little oxygen and refocus my strength. Now it was a ridge walk before the summit would be under my boots. Looking toward the top, I could see the summit prayer flags. A few climbers were on the summit, staying low out of the wind. I pushed on. My boots felt like lead stones. Making each step I took an extraordinary effort. It seemed like an eternity.

Finally, the dream stopped being a dream. I could go no higher because I was there! I was now on top of the world. Eight years of dreaming and four years of dedicated training had culminated in this moment. However, I felt no happiness, no jubilation, no desire to raise my arms in victory. I had used every ounce of strength and every emotion I had to reach this point. I dropped to my knees and tried to relax my erratic breathing. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I thanked God for giving me the strength to succeed in my endeavor.

I pulling out my disposable camera and handed it to my Sherpa, Pasang Temba, to document the moment. I raised my goggles and stared into the lens of the camera. I was one tired puppy. A picture with the American flag signed by supporters came next and one last of me holding Steve LaMantia's photo, a college classmate of mine who worked on the 105th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and was killed on 9/11.

Five minutes in exaltation and I was ready to head down. I decided to descend without bottled gas, so pulling off my mask, I started down. More climbers die on the descent than on the climb up. This had been burned into me as fact, and since the winds were showing no mercy and I was inhaling only the thin air, I knew I had to be extra vigilant.

At the Hillary Step there was a traffic jam of climbers. I waited almost 40 minutes before being cleared to descend. It was after I had moved down the Step that I realized I could not feel my toes. I was so drained of energy that every rope length of fixed lines required that I pause for a rest. At every break, I tried wiggling my toes to keep frostbite at bay. Mentally and physically, Everest was taking everything I had. The wind kept up its fury, but now I was too tired to care or to be scared or to worry for my safety. It would be very simple for me to lie down in the snow and die. I was that tired. It seemed like such a pleasant way to pass. I knew there are more painful ways to meet your end and falling asleep with numbness overtaking me would be an easy solution. But then my brain would start clicking again, telling me to get up and move down the mountain. Down to air, down to life.

I finally reached the South Col at 7:00 PM on the 22nd of May, 22 hours after leaving my tent the night before. I had no feeling in any of my toes or in my fingertips. I dropped in my tent and could barely muster the strength to remove my boots. Once inside, I began the melting process to re-hydrate my exhausted body. I lit my stove to melt a pot of snow. An hour later, I woke to the feeling of warmth on my face and condensation on the walls of my tent. The water was boiling. The hot water melted some more snow until the pot was full of water. I drank it dry for the warmth and the moisture. I went through this routine twice more before I finally extinguished the stove, collapsed, and slept.

When I rose the next morning, I knew I had to move further down. My toes and fingertips remained numb. It was slow going without full use of my hands for the ropes and without full use of my feet for balance. After what seemed like days, I stumbled into Camp 2. I climbed into my sleeping bag and slept. I didn't bother to take my boot liners off to look at my toes because I was already sure they would need medical attention.

I made it back to Base Camp on May 24 and went straight to the camp clinic to evaluate my hands and feet. Frostbite had set in and affected all of my toes. My fingertips were white and black as well. I was exhausted. Finally I was able to stop driving myself and let someone else take over. Only then did I reflect on what I had accomplished and the torture I had endured to make my dream come true. Sean


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