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Mount Everest Climber Returns Somewhat Intact

By Tim Friend


Mountain climber and extreme fitness instructor Sean Burch is back from Mount Everest, where he reached the summit, perhaps at the cost of fingertips and toes.

Burch, 33, of Oakton, Va., was featured last month in a USA TODAY article on the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s historic climb. His plan was to climb without oxygen. But in a May 22 satellite telephone interview with Burch from the South Col inside the so-called “death zone,” he sounded disoriented. “Will … have … to … get … oxygen.” Then click, he was gone.

Burch’s premature exhaustion began with skipping rope at 26,000 feet. Maybe not a good idea: “I returned from outside my tent on the South Col, where I had been jumproping to break my old world record, and now lay comatose.”

Burch tried twice to reach the summit. High winds stopped him the first time. He began the second attempt at 9 p.m. May 21. “I started up the mountain to a slow steady rhythm – four steps, stop, breathe. … Finally, the dream stopped being a dream. I could go no higher because I was there, on top of the world. However, I felt no happiness, no desire to raise my arms in victory. I had used every ounce of strength and every emotion. I dropped to my knees.”

After five minutes, he headed down without oxygen. Oxygen-starved climbers should not stop moving. At the Hillary Step, climbers were backed up. Burch waited 30 minutes to descend on the ropes. He had frostbite on a previous climb: Once you’ve had it, you’re more likely to get it again.
“It was after I had moved down the Step that I realized I could not feel my toes. But now I was too tired to care or worry for my safety. But my brain would start clicking again, telling me to get up and move down to air, down to life.”

Burch returned to base camp May 24 with his fingers and toes turned various shades of white and black. Now he is home hobbling on the balls of his feet. But circulation is returning to the digits. He hopes to lose only a fingertip and a piece of a big toe.

Was it worth the cost? “Damn straight,” he says. “I would do it again for a finger or a toe. But not for a foot or hand.”

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