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'My time on Everest was filled with amazing experiences... however there is a horrible side to the mountain too'

After two tragic Irish deaths in the Himalayas and images of queuing chaos near the summit, Co Clare hotelier John Burke writes in defence of the great mountain and recalls his own time at the summit

High life: hotelier and adventurer John Burke points out the summit of Everest as seen from Pumori High Camp in May 2017
High life: hotelier and adventurer John Burke points out the summit of Everest as seen from Pumori High Camp in May 2017
John at Camp 2 on his final summit push
Queue concern: the wait to the summit last week

By John Burke

I remember the 'light bulb moment' when I first dreamt of Everest. It was 2007, the height of the Celtic Tiger, a time of excess. At 28, I was unfit and unhealthy, having given up all sports at the age of 16. I was now showing and feeling all the signs of it. Something had to change. Perhaps the loss of my dad, who at just 62 had left us, was the turning point for me. Everest became my new horizon.

It's very hard for most to rationalise the climbing of Mount Everest and I can understand that. For me it was transformational. It introduced a health and wellbeing aspect to my life that was long missing. I know of course that I could have experienced that from running or swimming, but for me it's what I needed to keep me focused.

If I'm honest, I don't know if I could ever have said with certainty that I was going to climb it, but nonetheless, it was the big goal that I needed to dream of and keep me focused on the smaller goals in between.

When I needed climbing the most, it was always there for me, in the depths of the recession, after the loss of loved ones, when I just needed time away to clear my head, it was the perfect medicine. Time and time again I felt the benefits of the great outdoors. When it came time to make that big decision to go for it in 2015, I knew it was right for me.

Humans have the ability to achieve great things in all walks of life, for example, in education, sport, adventure, and in overcoming adversity.

We are pushing the boundaries for what is possible time and time again.

There are people surfing 50ft waves off the west coast, rowing across the Atlantic, cycling across Africa or running across America. Everest for some is their great challenge. The Everest journey brought to me many more benefits than risks, and I wouldn't change it for a second.

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Time on the mountain was filled with amazing experiences; the Sherpas and their culture, spirituality, the sights, the calm, the extremes of weather, the exertion of the body.

The climbing season each year is April to June and, during that time, climbers from around the world descend on base camp. It's a busy place for certain and the Nepalese government issues permits to all for a hefty fee of $10,000.

On my year there, we had a military team from the Gurkhas, Pakistan and India. Despite some big teams, and many expeditions, I didn't experience big queues or significant delays. But they can happen, a horrible side to the mountain.

Regrettably, this year there were only about four days when it was safe to stand on top. Outside this time, there was a jet stream that made it unsafe.

The first day this year, there were normal numbers moving on the mountain and, on the second weather window, this changed. Climbers, fearing there might not be more opportunities, moved together on pinch points on Everest. A backlog can occur in this scenario. At altitude, a ladder section that would be done in 20 seconds at home might take 10 minutes per climber. If a number of big teams meet at that point, problems arise.

More and more people reach now for great heights in their respective sport or adventure. I have been climbing Ireland's highest mountain Carrauntoohil for 12 years, completing roughly 250 summits. I've witnessed the rise in its popularity, where hundreds of people can summit on a great day now. I feel this is something we should celebrate.

If it takes the mountains to get people moving, then so be it. It's surely better to stay healthy, active and engaged with something that brings passion into your life than measure all the risks and challenges. The human body is capable of amazing things, and let's embrace it and celebrate when it achieves that. For some it might be a couch to 5k, for others Carrauntoohil, and for some it's higher again.

I believe changes will come about on Everest at some stage. They may bring their own consequences, but I believe the pressure is now on Nepal's government for better controls.

They may also limit the number of permits. On a typical year they issue around 300, of which estimates would say somewhere between 25-50% complete the task, so that is 75 to 150, along with a Sherpa support. I don't believe that these numbers are destroying the mountain. There is no evidence of rubbish en route outside of Camp 2, where they are still on clean-up after the camp was abandoned in 2015 because of an earthquake. Outside of this - and perhaps some discarded oxygen bottles up high - there was no sign of human waste or rubbish. Ultimately, we spend such a short number of days on the higher parts of the mountain, and the Sherpas feel the mountain is so sacred, that all contribute to the respect for the place.

Base camp is a busier place, but a place that can be tidied after all the teams leave in June, should anything be left behind. I've visited in down season, October, without seeing visible evidence of disruption.

This place is the livelihood of the Sherpas, the most amazing people in the world. They respect and preserve the mountain and I firmly believe it is in safe hands.

Control on permits by the Nepalese government and more coordination on weather windows at base camp would be two very vital improvements.

Everest is a hostile place, but a place which climbers often dream about for many years, as I did. It's a place where your greatest dreams or nightmares can be realised.

For me, it had a deep impact on my life, in particular on my journey to get there. My time is filled with special memories of great sights, amazing people and profound experiences. The views from places like Camp 3 were otherworldly as we perched up on the Lhotse face, looking down as the clouds moved in to cover the giant mountains below.

From the south summit, where I could see clearly my final steps to the top, and from the top of the world where I looked out across Nepal and Tibet and emotionally thought about all the people I loved and people who had helped me to get there, people who I felt incredibly proud to have in my life. It's a place I take immense pride out of experiencing.

For those that don't return, they have lived their life to the fullest, believed and reached higher than many dare to dream.

Families left to mourn as two Irishmen lose their lives on their way down from mountain top

It is a place of majestic, awe-inspiring beauty - and, more recently, also a scene of horror. Just this week shocking footage emerged of Sherpas hauling a frozen corpse from Mount Everest.

Four men are seen heaving the rigid body over the ice as its arm sticks into the air and its knees slide along the ground unnaturally.

The grim images follow the extraordinary spectacle of queuing chaos on the mountain which has claimed 11 lives in 13 days.

The identity of the dead person being brought down the mountain by the Sherpas is unknown.

Sadly, however, the families of two Irishmen are coming to terms with the news that their loved ones have both died on the mountain in recent days.

Kevin Hynes, a 56-year-old father of two, died during his descent down the mountain in the early hours of last Friday morning. He passed away in his tent at 7,000 metres (23,000 ft).

His death comes after university professor Seamus Lawless, went missing on the peak. Believed to have fallen, Mr Lawless was taking part in an expedition led by Noel Hanna, from Co Down, who has scaled the world's highest mountain nine times. Mr Hanna was also part of the search team that went back to try and find Mr Lawless, who had fallen in an area known as the death zone at a height of 8,400ft.

The conditions, however, meant the search had to be reluctantly called off last Friday.

Mr Hanna said that there were perfect conditions on the expedition and no queues as he and Mr Lawless reached the top of the mountain with two others.

He said everyone was in good form, the team spent 15 to 20 minutes on the summit taking photographs and then descended to the area known as the balcony.

At this point they shared oxygen while Mr Lawless, the strongest of the team, continued his descent with a Sherpa before he fell.

Mr Hanna said that Seamus had put in two to three years of training and may have been caught by a freak wind.

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