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Sunday 25 August 2019

Mount Everest: A place where dreams, and nightmares, come true

After two tragic Irish deaths on Everest, Clare hotelier John Burke writes in defence of the mountain and recalls his own time at the summit

On top of the world: John Burke from Spanish Point, Co Clare, approaches the summit in May 2017
On top of the world: John Burke from Spanish Point, Co Clare, approaches the summit in May 2017
En route: John Burke points out the summit of Everest as seen from Pumori High camp in May 2017. Photo John Burke Instagram

John Burke

I remember the 'light bulb moment' when I first dreamt of Everest. It was 2007, the height of the Celtic Tiger, a time of excess.

At 28, I was unfit and unhealthy having given up all sports at the age of 16. I was now showing and feeling all the signs of it. Something had to change. Perhaps the loss of my dad, who at just 62 had left us, was the turning point for me. Everest became my new horizon.

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It's very hard for most to rationalise the climbing of Mount Everest and I can understand that. For me it was transformational. It introduced a health and wellbeing aspect to my life that was long missing. I know of course that I could have experienced that from running or swimming, but for me it's what I needed to keep me focused.

If I'm honest, I don't know if I could ever have said with certainty that I was going to climb it, but nonetheless, it was the big goal that I needed to dream of and keep me focused on the smaller goals in between.

When I needed climbing the most, it was always there for me, in the depths of the recession, after the loss of loved ones, when I just needed time away to clear my head, it was the perfect medicine. Time and time again I felt the benefits of the great outdoors. When it came time to making that big decision to go for it in 2015, I knew it was right for me.

Humans have the ability to achieve great things in all walks of life, for example, in education, sport, adventure, and in overcoming adversity. We are pushing the boundaries for what is possible time and time again.

En route: John Burke points out the summit of Everest as seen from Pumori High camp in May 2017. Photo John Burke Instagram
En route: John Burke points out the summit of Everest as seen from Pumori High camp in May 2017. Photo John Burke Instagram

There are people surfing 50ft waves off the west coast, rowing across the Atlantic, cycling across Africa or running across America. Everest for some is their great challenge. The Everest journey brought to me many more benefits than risks, and I wouldn't change it for a second.

Time on the mountain was filled with amazing experiences, the Sherpas and their culture, spirituality, the sights, the calm, the extremes of weather, the exertion of the body. The climbing season each year is April to June and during that time, climbers from around the world descend on base camp. It's a busy place for certain and the Nepalese government issue permits to all for a hefty fee of $10,000.

Pinch points

On my year there, we had a military team from the Gurkhas, Pakistan, and India. Despite some big teams, and many expeditions, I didn't experience big queues or significant delays. But they can happen, a horrible side to the mountain.

Regrettably this year, there were only about four days where it was safe to stand on top. Outside this time, there was a jet stream that made it unsafe.

The first day this year, there were normal numbers moving on the mountain, and on the second weather window, this changed. Climbers, fearing there may not be more opportunities, moved together on pinch points on Everest. A backlog can occur in this scenario. At altitude, a ladder section that would be done in 20 seconds at home might take 10 minutes per climber. If a number of big teams meet at that point, problems arise.

More and more people reach now for great heights in their respective sport or adventure. I have been climbing Ireland's highest mountain Carrauntoohil for 12 years, completing roughly 250 summits. I've witnessed the rise in its popularity where hundreds of people can summit on a great day now. I feel this is something we should celebrate.

If it takes the mountains to get people moving, then so be it. It's surely better to stay healthy, active and engaged with something that brings passion into your life than measure all the risks and challenges. The human body is capable of amazing things, and let's embrace it and celebrate when it achieves that. For some it might be a couch to 5k, for others Carrauntoohil, and others it's higher again.

I believe changes will come about on Everest at some stage. They may bring their own consequences, but I believe the pressure is now on Nepal's government for better controls.

They may also limit the number of permits. On a typical year they issue around 300, of which estimates would say somewhere between 25-50pc complete the task, so that is 75 to 150, along with a Sherpa support.

I don't believe that these numbers are destroying the mountain. There is no evidence of rubbish en route outside of Camp 2 where they are still on clean-up after the camp was abandoned in 2015 because of an earthquake. Outside of this - and perhaps some discarded oxygen bottles up high - there was no sign of human waste or rubbish.

In safe hands

Ultimately, we spend such a short number of days on the higher parts of the mountain, and the Sherpas feel the mountain is so sacred that all contribute to the respect for the place.

Base camp is a busier place, but a place that can be tidied after all the teams leave in June should anything be left behind. I've visited there in down season, October, without seeing visible evidence of disruption.

This place is the livelihood of the Sherpas, the most amazing people in the world. They respect and preserve the mountain and I firmly believe it is in safe hands. Control on permits by the Nepalese government, and more coordination on weather windows at base camp would be two very vital improvements.

Everest is a hostile place, but a place where climbers often dream about for many years as I did. It's a place where your greatest dreams or nightmares can be realised. For me, it had a deep impact on my life, in particular on my journey to get there. My time is filled with special memories of great sights, amazing people and profound experiences. The views from places like Camp 3 were otherworldly as we perched up on the Lhotse face, looking down below as the clouds moved in to cover the giant mountains below.

From the south summit, where I could see clearly my final steps to the top, and from the top of the world where I looked out across Nepal and Tibet and emotionally thought about all the people I loved and people who had helped me to get there, people who I felt incredibly proud to have in my life. It's a place I take immense pride out of experiencing.

For those that don't return, they have lived their life to the fullest, believed and reached higher than many dare to dream.

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