This spring Sean Burch plans to climb Mt. Everest solo and oxygen-free, joining the elite ranks of only six other Americans.
Burch, 32, of Oakton, is an earthy, adventurous Leonardo da Vinci type of guy. By day, he is a consultant with Project Advisors International, construction management consultants. At other times, including the pre-dawn hours, he heads Centreville's LifeTime Fitness gym's extreme sports program, and is a personal fitness trainer, martial arts/self defense instructor, freelance photographer and writer.
Burch considers his goal of climbing Mount Everest alone without oxygen as "the ultimate fitness endurance challenge ... If you have a bad day, you can't give up. It's just me, the mountain and nature," he says. Burch will also attempt to break his high altitude jump roping world record on Everest's crest.
IN ADDITION TO PROVING his personal best, Burch will perform the important task of portering non-prescription first-aid supplies to Nepalese families living below the poverty line.
"Many of them have never had access to everyday items such as band-aids, aspirin, and Ibuprofen. Their average per capita income is only $220 per year," he said.
The trip will take place March 20 to June 7, 2003, depending upon weather conditions dictating summit time. The expedition will cost $70,000-$80,000. Much of the cost is for the distribution and handling of the supplies to the needy.
The money will support up to 50 porters who will help with the transport, and pay living accommodations for medical professionals in Katmandu and at base camp. Food supplies for an entire team are also needed at base camp. Burch has several corporate and individual supporters, but is looking for additional sponsors. Contact him at his Web site, www.seanburch.com.
Burch will be climbing alone, without a guide. He will have only one Nepalese Sherpa to assist in carrying his gear to the various high mountain camps.
To train for what he terms his "mind over mountain" quest, Burch will teach his classes and use a hypoxicator machine simulating high altitude conditions. He plans to gain weight in the last two weeks before the trip. The average Everest climber loses 25 pounds on an expedition.
There are still other risks associated with the climb including dehydration, hypothermia, hypoxia and dysentery.
BURCH'S ENERGY AND POSITIVE ATTITUDE are necessary and infectious. He says his greatest life challenge has been "reaching the summit of Shishapangma, Tibet — 17 hours round-trip at altitudes in the 'death zone.' Nothing else compared. Everest will probably be about 10-times more challenging," he says.
Supplies for the trip include a tent, portable stoves and high altitude equipment including an expedition outfit and heavy-duty boots. Burch will also take lightweight scientific gear to perform cutting-edge pharmacological and physiological research about athletic performance under extreme conditions. This will include oxygen saturation, caloric intake and output, and skin temperature studies. Burch plans to write a book chronicling his experiences.
In his spare time, Burch fits in two to four hours of high-intensity exercise. To keep up with his extreme sports lifestyle, he consumes 5,000 calories of food daily and has only 2.7 percent of body fat. On a typical day, he eats cereal, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a couple of Baker's (one of his sponsors) All-Natural Vegan cookies, then lunch with at least three fruits and Chai spiced tea or yerba matte, topped off by a dinner of chicken or fish — no red meat — and skim milk daily. The spiced tea — from Stash, another sponsor — reminds him of Nepal.
WHILE SCALING EVEREST, Sean plans to eat Nepalese cooked meals, as well as pre-prepared foods, such as powdered drinks, high-nutrition cookies and multi-vitamins. The foods from home will be especially critical as he gets to higher altitudes, where he wants to decrease the chance of any adverse reaction from new cuisine.
Each day, Burch will rise early, and climb up to 10 hours per day. On summit day, he plans to climb 20 hours straight from Camp Four to Everest's peak.
Burch is used to roughing it. Forget not being able to shower for two months. He's no stranger to adversity, suffering frostbite, gangrene and other physical complications during his 10 previous international climbing expeditions — in places such as Tibet, Greenland, and Alaska.
Burch points to his grandfather — Hans Schou, a Norwegian explorer — as his role model as an adventurer and romantic. The call of the Wild West led him to live in Arizona.
"He would tell wonderful stories about his travels in the Arctic Circle and South America," said Burch, who had an opportunity to name a mountain in Alaska “Mt. Schou” after his grandfather.
A lifelong resident of Oakton, and graduate of Oakton High School, Burch was always a highly motivated, capable athlete. From age 5, he played soccer and basketball. He was introduced to martial arts at Roanoke College, where he received a black belt alongside his academic degree. He participated in amateur kickboxing matches and is now a specialist in jeet kune do and Filipino martial arts.
His extreme fitness classes include intense jump-roping, plyometrics (exercising with explosive power), and stair-climbing. Burch's high-intensity spinning classes are performed to acid rock, amid his constant shouts of encouragement, "Whooo, come on now!"
BURCH MET HIS WIFE GABRIELLE when she was a student in one of his kickboxing classes. Always fit herself, she soon adopted an even more high performance lifestyle. Gabrielle Burch of Oakton, 28, is a multi-age teacher (grades 1-2) at Greenbriar West Elementary School. She will play an active role in the communications of her husband's daily dispatches to his Web site via satellite feeds from base camp. Gabrielle will also transmit information to students at her school via Fairfax Country's "Blackboard" Channel 21.
"I have mixed emotions. I'm excited but a little nervous. I know Sean has been training hard," says Gabrielle Burch. "I'm proud of him for following his dream and will always be there to support him."
The couple has been on many treks together. They married in 2001 atop Mt. Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada range.
Clifton resident Tim Dagata, 41, vice president of Eastern Mortgage Services of Fairfax, another trip sponsor, said, "I first met Sean through his association with extreme sports training. We are very proud to sponsor his pursuit of Everest. Sean's determination and drive to be the best make him an ideal representative for Eastern Mortgage Services." "His goal to summit Everest solo, without oxygen, is a true testament to his mental toughness and physical strength."
Bill Milano, 37, of Broad Run, a computer consultant with American Management Systems, has known Burch for over six years, through his classes and training. Milano said, "I think what Sean is doing is fantastic. I'm not a philosopher, but I think his trip is symbolic in certain ways. The older you get, the harder it is to stay in shape, just like the higher you go up the mountain, the less oxygen there is, and the greater the challenge. Plus the physical challenge is unique. When you play a sport against a person, they get worn down like you, but the mountain never gets tired."