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Burb's Eye View: Oldest Everest climber returns to his dream

February 07, 2012|By Bryan Mahoney

Bill Burke’s childhood home was carved into the side of the Verdugo hills. At age 70, he will attempt to carve a record on the tallest mountain in the world.

He remembers as a kid roaming the dusty paths and sun-beaten brush of his Burbank backyard on the east side of the Verdugos near Glendale. Burke, the son of former Burbank Mayor Earle William Burke, and his family eventually moved to another part of the mountain — from La Rambla in the east to Groton Drive near Stough Canyon.

At Burbank High School in the late 1950s, Bill Burke met Sharon, a girl he would marry while still in college. This June, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

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But first, there’s something Bill Burke must do. He must return to Sharon after he climbs Mt. Everest. Twice.

“She was originally nervous about it…she says it worries her most when I’m up high on the mountain,” Burke said. “But she knows I’m a conservative climber…so she trusts me. She’s been very supportive.”

In 2009, Burke became the oldest American to climb Mt. Everest and return alive. On April 3, he will begin a new trek up “the mountain of my dreams,” as he calls it.

This will be the sixth year in a row he has attempted Everest — a feat made more impressive considering he only started serious climbing 10 years ago, at age 60.

He has already reached the summit of the highest peak in every continent on the globe.

“Everyone seems to think the physical part is so important, and it is, but I always tell people the mental commitment is one of the keys to success: learning from your mistakes, and adjusting, not succumbing to the temptation to go home,” he said.

At the highest point on Earth, you’re about 29,000 feet up. It’s a safe cruising altitude for a flight from L.A. to New York. Not as safe for a human trying to breathe.

Atop Everest, it smells like any other cold winter day, Burke said.

“All you think about is how cold it is. If you’re skiing on a mountain, that’s what it smells like.”

He has experienced every emotion on the mountains. The heartache of missing home and family is ever-present; the disappointment of turning back is tempered by the bodies of climbers he must pass by along the way.

“At a certain altitude, they don’t bring down the bodies — too high. You don’t want to be one of them,” Burke said.

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