Mount Everest has always loomed as one of the greatest challenges for mountain climbers. For Sean Burch, 32, the challenge was welcome.
The Oakton resident and group fitness instructor at Lifetime Fitness in Centreville reached the summit of Everest on April 22, after almost three weeks of climbing. "This was a dream I've had for eight years. Just knowing I did it by my own, and not getting towed up by six Sherpas, is good enough for me," he said.
Burch made the trip up Everest over the course of several weeks, leaving on March 20 and not returning until June 8. He planned to climb with no companions except one Sherpa and not use any oxygen whatsoever throughout his climb, and he used oxygen only when he had no options but death or quitting. His funds came privately through donations from his own students and through small companies from around the area, when he was faced with almost $10,000 in charges to simply climb the mountain.
Four years ago, Burch had never climbed a mountain, but he had Everest in his sights nonetheless.
"It was always a goal of mine, and I knew I was going to do it no matter what," he said matter-of-factly.
“SOME PEOPLE ASK ME, ‘How do you train for something like this?’” Burch said. “I just tell them, the Dream High Performance Institute. It helps everyone reach their goals.” With the help of his institute and varying other forms of training, he was soon climbing small peaks and had enough skill within a few short years to take on such challenges as climbing Shishapangma, Tibet, and Aconcagua, Argentina. He even went on expeditions into uncharted regions of Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Soon he was ready to aim seriously at the pinnacle of the Himalayans, Everest.
Burch’s wife, Gabrielle, a teacher at Greenbriar West Elementary, was at home in Oakton when Sean Burch left but departed on April 12 for base camp so that she could be there during the entire climb.
“At first it was a worrying thing. But now that he’s been doing it for years and I’ve been witnessing all of his trips, I’m more at ease about his endeavors, because I know he’s a safe climber and that he won’t take any unnecessary risks when he’s up there" she said.
SHE WAS ALWAYS supportive of Burch's endeavors but became afraid when they lost contact temporarily at one point for two days, when Sean was at the summit. Gabrielle Burch has known her husband for four years, and he has been climbing the whole time
“The way I look at it," she said, "everyone's got their own dreams. He’s one person, and I shouldn’t stand in his way but support him and share in the glory of his accomplishments. His dreams make him who he is."
The couple stayed in touch via satellite phone to cell phone when Gabrielle Burch was in Virginia, and then between walkie-talkies and direct sat-phone contact when she was at base camp waiting for him to finish his climb.
Her first- and second-graders back at Greebriar West were under the care of a substitute teacher, but she made sure to call the class at least once a week and tell them about what was happening.
"I really missed them when I was out of the country, so it was great to just hear their voices and answer their questions."
The Burches finally returned home on June 8, with Sean in good condition and no injuries except some minor frostbite. Life returned to normal quickly, as Gabrielle resumed classes only a day later. Shortly afterward, the children finally got to meet the man they had been hearing about for over two months. He talked to them, answered their questions, and showed them some of the photos and video that he himself had shot during the climb, to their delight.
HIGH-PROFILE CLIMBS of Mount Everest have dominated the news over the past few months, from a completely blind climber to the successful ascent by the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to ever climb the mountain.
Burch, however, was one of only six Americans to climb the mountain without using oxygen regularly.
"That was one of my biggest goals, to not use the oxygen at all, so it was kind of a disappointment when I had to fall back on it near the summit, but I really had no choice.
He avoided death multiple times, including once when an ice fall collapsed behind him 30 seconds after crossing it.
"It was the closest I've ever come to death, and so it really helped me realize the importance of life," he said.
Burch's enthusiasm is shared by his sponsors. Besides private contributions from his students at the Dream High Performance Institute, he was assisted with grants from local companies such as the Baker's Breakfast Cookies Co., Project Advisors International LLC, Biomedtech Australia, and Iridium Satellite Solutions. "I'm heavy in debt now even so, but I'm working on it, and I'm not worried."
GO2ALTITUDE, A COMPANY that enables training for high-altitude situations and also a sponsor of the expedition, was fully behind Burch in his endeavor.
"We congratulate and support Sean in his mission to summit Everest the ‘natural way’ with a little help from GO2Altitude," the company said on its official Web site, www.go2altitudecom.
"I was very pleased to see the support from some of the sponsors, but it definitely wasn’t enough to cover all the costs," said Gabrielle Burch. "Nevertheless, was it worth it? Absolutely."
Sean Burch is not only an avid climber and teacher. He is also a personal martial arts instructor with a 4th-degree black belt in American/Shotokan Karate, a certified instructor of Jeet Kune Do, a certified instructor of Filipino Martial Arts, a certified instructor with the International Rape and Awareness Organization, a group seminar/workshop presenter for Women and Men's Self-Defense, and a personal instructor to Olympic and world-class athletes, FBI and CIA agents, local triathletes, adventure racers and working class professionals. He is also the only mountaineer in history to reach the summits of three different glaciers with 14 first ascents, two of them solo, in a previously unmapped and unexplored area within the Arctic Circle in Greenland.