To the Top of the World

It took Sean Burch eight years to gear up for his ascent of one of the world’s most intimidating mountains. Reaching the summit changed his perspective forever.

Eight years ago, Sean Burch was looking for a goal, any goal. He had just worked for five years to earn his black belt in martial arts and was casting about for his next achievement. Then he picked up the book Into Thin Air and found one: Mount Everest. While others might have seen the book’s tales of death and disaster as a warning against choosing the giant Himalayan peak as a target, Burch found only inspiration.

“I loved the idea of people who choose a goal and then go through trials and tribulations and dangers to achieve it,” says Burch. An accomplished athlete and fitness trainer, Burch had never done any technical climbing but didn’t let his lack of experience faze him. Everest seemed the ideal goal. For Burch, then and now, waking up is only worthwhile if there is something to be accomplished that day. “I realized that what I needed was the objective, not the expertise,” he explains. “If I stuck to my goal, and aimed for it, and refused to give up, I knew I would achieve it.”

He was not mistaken. In May 2003, the 50th anniversary year of the first ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary, Sean Burch reached the summit of the world’s highest peak. His journey proved to be both physically and emotionally grueling. But it was also rewarding. It wound up teaching him lessons about willpower, courage, patience and stubborn resilience – the essence of goals themselves.

It familiarized him, too, with some of the sport’s more esoteric points: “I learned,” says Burch with a rueful laugh, “that if you get frostbite, you’ve got to make sure no one steps on your toes. Otherwise they’ll squash like grapes.”

Learning the Ropes

Burch’s trip to the top of Everest began in earnest four years ago, when he first began his training as a mountaineer. “I know people are often afraid to take on new challenges because they don’t know how to start,” he says. “Well, I’m proof positive that you can learn. I didn’t know anything about mountain climbing.”

Being confident but not foolhardy, Burch knew he couldn’t head directly to the Himalayas. He took classes at mountaineering schools and started climbing low, easy peaks in the United States. “When you’re aiming for a big goal, you need to have manageable, intermediate steps,” he notes. “Succeeding at those creates positive energy, and that energy is like an avalanche. It builds on itself and pushes you along to greater things.”

Burch learned fast and became so adept at climbing that in 2002 he was asked to join an expedition making several first ascents in Greenland (for more on that trip, see “Thrill Factor, Chill Factor” in the Nov./Dec. 2002 Experience Life). In Burch’s mind, however, even these advanced treks were merely preparatory. “I had my heart set on Everest, and I knew I wouldn’t be content with anything less than reaching my ultimate goal,” he says. Finally, in April 2003, Burch reached the base of the big mountain.

Setting Sights

For many climbers, their first glimpse of Mount Everest is breathtaking. Literally. Everest Base Camp, where all ascents begin, sits 17,600 feet above sea level. At this height, the oxygen supply is so limited that most people find the smallest exertion painful. Many spend their days sitting quietly in their tents. Not Sean Burch: Every three or four days, he would jump rope.

“The jumping was something I’d decided to do for my fitness-class students,” he says. “They’d cheered me on and supported me while I trained. I wanted to send them a message.” The sessions weren’t easy. “I wasn’t quite prepared for how hard it was just to breathe,” says Burch.

Then began the real work of getting used to the altitude. Acclimatization requires a weeklong period of struggling partway up the slope, staying at an established camp for a few hours or a day, then returning to Base Camp. Only in this way can a climber adapt to the altitude and hope to survive. But it is not the ideal way to build momentum for a big assault on the summit. “The first few weeks on Everest, it felt like for every step forward I took 10 back,” Burch says. “But I kept reminding myself it was all part of the plan.”

Turning Back

Finally, the time came for Burch’s attempt at the summit. The decision about when to make that final push is never taken lightly. Climbers first must make their slow, laborious way up to Camp 4, at 26,000 feet above sea level, the highest of the established sites on Everest. This is well into the so-called Death Zone, an altitude at which the oxygen is so thin that climbers risk death if they stay for longer than 48 hours.

On the morning of his summit attempt, Burch rose at 4 a.m., setting out into deep, aching cold. The wind picked up. He struggled on for hours, but then, says Burch, “the conditions turned deadly. I had to turn back.”

That moment was one of the biggest disappointments he’d ever experienced. Still, Burch was philosophical. “You have to be willing to accept some changes to your overall plan,” he says, “as long as the changes never include quitting.” He rested at Camp 4 that night, desultorily jumping rope as well as he could, just to raise his spirits. His time in the Death Zone was drawing to a close: If he didn’t reach the summit the next morning, he’d have to head down without ever seeing the top.

Last Attempt

“When I set out on that last attempt, I was really determined,” Burch says. “There was nothing short of fatal conditions that was going to stop me.” Conditions instead proved fine – if you can call temperatures hovering around 80 degrees below zero “fine.” But at least the winds had slowed. Burch slogged to the top, always reminding himself, “one more step.” The last 100 yards took him hours.

Then he was there, at the highest point on the globe. He looked around in awe. And saw nothing but storm clouds. “I was so exhausted and so happy to have accomplished what I set out to do that it didn’t matter,” he says of the view. Burch spent five minutes at the top, then began his descent. “I couldn’t linger,” he explains. “Getting back down from the summit is every bit as hard as going up.”

On May 24, 2003, Burch arrived back at Everest Base Camp, intact, if a bit bruised and battered. Because he’d developed frostbite in his fingers and feet, a news crew evacuated him to the Nepalese city of Kathmandu for medical care.

Burch was lucky. He kept his toes. Many less fortunate Everest climbers have wound up paying permanently – with the loss of nose, ears, limbs and life. Which leads less extreme types to wonder: Can any elective experience possibly be worth that risk? Burch doesn’t romanticize the feat. “Anyone who thinks climbing Everest is going to be fun should stay far away from the mountain,” warns Burch. Instead, he says, it was his goal that mattered, especially the intensity that having that goal added to his daily life in the years leading up to his climb. Burch now finds himself driven to help other people change their lives, clarify their priorities and challenge themselves.

Back at home in Virginia, Burch is working as a trainer and giving motivational speeches. “Being on that mountain, facing life and death, you realize what matters,” he says. “It’s not money or fame. It’s challenging yourself – becoming the best and strongest person you can be.”

Burch is already well into the planning for his next adventure: He’ll ski, alone, to both the North and South Poles, pulling his supplies in a sledge. If he succeeds, he’ll become the first American to stand at all three poles, including the tip-top, Mount Everest. “Motivation and momentum go hand-in-hand,” he concludes. “Succeeding at one goal gives you the energy and enthusiasm to start thinking about the next.”

Gretchen Reynolds lives in New Mexico, where she hikes, bikes and writes about adventure for many national magazines.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions