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Oakton Man Gains Right to Name Mountains

August 2, 2002

On Monday morning the tip of Sean Burch’s nose was still red and peeling, raw from the cold wind and beating sun. Since returning from Greenland last Friday, July 26, Burch was still recovering from a case of frostbite on a couple of toes. He limped slightly as he walked.

"I was on a mountain in Tibet last spring and I had frostbite on my fingers," Burch, an endurance trainer, said at his Oakton home. "A couple of my fingers were a little black. Right now I’m a little sore, but not bad."

He had just spent 20-plus days in the Arctic Circle, at zero-degree temperatures, climbing some previously unexplored peaks at Gronau Nunatakker, a mountain range in the inland of Greenland. Using aerial maps from the 1980s, along with a Global Positioning Satellite, Burch climbed eight or nine peaks of 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Two of them he climbed alone, with no one to turn to in case of an emergency. Now, as the first person to climb the mountains, he will get a chance to name them.

"This kind of polar exploration, in the 21st century, is almost unheard of," Burch said. "It’s like walking on the moon, where no one else has ever been. It’s extraordinary, the high you get."

Burch made the expedition with six other people, but scaled most of his peaks paired up with one other climber. He undertook the trip for two reasons: He was excited by the prospect of the unexplored peaks and he also wanted to get some training in for next spring, when he plans to climb Mt. Everest.

FOUR YEARS AGO, as he was arriving in Nepal for a business trip, Burch first glimpsed Mt. Everest from an airplane window. He had never done any high altitude climbing prior to that trip.

"I saw it and I said, ‘I’ve always dreamed about climbing. I’m going to climb it.’"

Now 32 years old, Burch estimates he has climbed a total of 40 mountain peaks. Some taller mountains have taken 45 days to climb while some lower peaks, like those in Greenland, he was able to do two in one day.

Mt. Everest, at 29,035 feet, should take Burch two and a half months. Much of that time will be spent climbing to base camp, where Burch’s wife, Gabrielle Burch, a schoolteacher, will stay in contact with her husband throughout his trek.

He plans to climb the peak with the assistance of two sherpas who will act as guides, and will set up Burch’s campsites during the climb. Burch will need to conserve his energy because, unlike the sherpas, he will be climbing the mountain without the assistance of an oxygen tank. There have been 1,500 total Mt. Everest summit climbs, but only seven people have attempted to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen. Six of those seven climbers survived.

Burch will undergo a regimen of high heart rate workouts in order to prepare for Mt. Everest. As a gym instructor, Burch teaches martial arts classes, spinning classes and other endurance-building exercises. He trains for at least two hours each day and will apply for grants to study the physiology of oxygen intake while he climbs the mountain.

It will cost between $50,000 and $70,000 to make the climb. Nepal charges a $10,000 fee just for authorization to climb the mountain. So Burch is currently looking for sponsors to defray the cost. As they make their way to base camp, the couple plans to distribute books and medical supplies to the Nepalese villages along the way.

"It’s just a matter of getting companies to support us," Sean Burch said.

SOME OF BURCH’S scariest climbing moments came during his recent trip to Greenland, he said. Usually people climb in pairs and tie a rope between each other so that if one person falls through a crevasse, or deep patch of unstable snow, his partner will be able to save him. On the way back down one of the Greenland peaks, Burch and his partner decided not to "rope up." The pair, wanting to get back to camp and climb some more peaks, decided not to take the time to tie themselves together.

"I was walking over a crevasse, heard it start to crack, and at first I thought it was small, shallow," Burch said. "But, I fell to my armpits. I extended my ice picks to stop myself from falling."

He slowly worked himself out of the hole, with the help of his climbing partner.

"If you’re tired, you won’t be after something like that," Burch said. "More people die going down the mountain than going up. Mentally, you think you’re fine. But you end up going too fast, and you’re not careful."

Gabrielle Burch said sometimes she is a little anxious about her husband’s expeditions. Even so, she trusts him.

"I know he’s safe, and that he’ll make the best decisions," she said.

There are so few climbers in the Washington, D.C. area that Sean Burch has never personally known anyone to die during an expedition He does know someone who knew someone who died while climbing, though.

"One reason I got into it is that it is life or death," Burch said. "You depend on yourself and your own resources. I like that feeling."

To contact Burch about high altitude mountaineering, upcoming expeditions, joining his base camp team on Mt. Everest, or sponsoring his trip, e-mail BurchAIE@aol.com.