On top of the world: John Burke on his plan to climb Everest

While Aoibhín Garrihy was rehearsing for Dancing with the Stars, her husband John Burke was training to climb Everest. As he embarks on his journey, he speaks to Colm O’Connor from base camp. 

John Burke

John Burke isn’t a man for letting the grass grow under his feet. In 2013 he let the world in on a little secret — he wanted to climb Mount Everest.

While the majority would then devote their time and effort into the excuses required to deflate, and then abandon such a stated ambition, Burke threw himself headlong into making the project a reality.

Now four years later, the Clare businessman, husband of Strictly Come Dancing star Aoibhín Garrihy, is counting down the hours to his attempt on the world’s highest peak.

He spoke to Weekend from his camp in Nepal, just days after his wife flew back to Ireland.

An Irish businessman decides to try for Everest. Sounds like the plot of a Hollywood film! Where has this urge come from?

For the past 10 years I’ve been enjoying great days and adventures on reeks and mountains around Ireland and Europe. I think the appeal comes from the complete contrast from my normal day-to-day professional life. I work very hard and commit much of my waking hours to my businesses where I’m surrounded by the luxuries of hotel amenities, good food, comfortable surroundings, and loads of company. So the time on the hills, for me, is a complete escape. The elements don’t matter — I’ve had days of blue skies, driving wind, and rain, even freezing snow and ice. Whatever the weather, it just feels so refreshing!

I work very hard and commit much of my waking hours to my businesses where I’m surrounded by the luxuries of hotel amenities, good food, comfortable surroundings, and loads of company. So the time on the hills, for me, is a complete escape. The elements don’t matter — I’ve had days of blue skies, driving wind, and rain, even freezing snow and ice. Whatever the weather, it just feels so refreshing!

The elements don’t matter — I’ve had days of blue skies, driving wind, and rain, even freezing snow and ice. Whatever the weather, it just feels so refreshing!

‘The plan will be to get back home as soon as possible and get time with the people that matter most to me, in particular my wife.’

Your main background is in tourism?

I’ve been in the hotel business since I was a nipper and I now work hard developing the Armada Spanish Point and Hotel Doolin which I am a partner in. 

I’ve also an involvement in a CrossFit gym and holiday home letting business. I love my work and the people I work with who inspire and challenge me. 

The dynamic nature of the tourism business, especially in terms of food and drink offerings, never ceases to challenge me.

Tell me a bit about your previous mountain climbing experiences?

Outside of some of my most memorable days in Kerry and Connemara, I have spent countless hours on many beautiful hills around Ireland. 

Every February I try and get to Scotland for some snow and ice climbing which is a great physical and mental test.

I’ve also spent time in the Alps tackling the likes of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn while I’ve undertaken technical climbs like the north face of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Gran Paradiso which is in the Graian Alps in Italy. I’ve had adventures on Kilimanjaro and other mountain ranges also. 

Last November I succeeded in summiting Ama Dablam which is a mountain in the Himalaya range of eastern Nepal. 

The main peak there is 6,812m (22,349 ft). Everest’s peak is 8,848m (29,029 ft) above sea level.

What is the reaction from people when they hear your story?

Most can’t understand the appeal or reasoning behind it. 

Others think it’s just stupid, while the minority love to hear about the climbs and the little details like dealing with the cold and going to the toilet at altitude!

So how does one set about planning an Everest expedition? I doubt if the local travel agent in Milltown Malbay offers packages?

I’ve been really lucky to forge links with an amazing group of Sherpas who have incredible experience on Everest; in fact their family are in the Guinness Book of Records for most siblings to have climbed Everest. 

Mingma, the company owner, has 19 summits and is nearing an individual world record. They co-ordinate all the logistics, overseeing things like food, porters, and yaks. 

That means that I can focus on training and my preparations in terms of equipment and research. It take a massive team to pull off an expedition like this — every bite of food I will eat will have to be walked in. 

It is an incredibly complex feat of organisation at the best of times — now imagine doing it at this altitude. Their talents and expertise are invaluable.

Aoibhín Garrihy joined her husband in Nepal before flying back to Ireland before he attempts his Everest climb.

Is it expensive?

Yes. But it is money well spent given the dangers and the challenges which lay ahead.

What sort of training are you doing?

Excluding the mountaineering side of things, I have undertaken a wide variety of training ranging from trail running, CrossFit, strength and conditioning, to yoga. 

Some of my favourite training days were on mountains. I did eight summits of Carrauntoohil in 24 hours along with carrying a 45kg pack to the top of Croagh Patrick in horrendous conditions.

Carrauntoohil? Eight times? In one day?

I had a mighty time there. Myself and a training partner, Trevor Slattery, set it as a challenge and we could have even beaten eight but snow and visibility slowed us a bit. I loved every minute of it and various people came and joined us at different stages. 

I want to try it again in the summer and aim for 10 times. It was a great boost to my mental toolbox for Everest. It wasn’t the misery I was expecting.

You are married to actress Aoibhín Garrihy. What does she make of it all?

She is very supportive although I know she would prefer if I had a new hobby. I think she sees how I love the training and preparation for an objective and the balance it gives me in life. 

I think Everest is a bigger one to accept but at the same time, after meeting the Sherpas and hearing how they operate, she is a little more comfortable. 

She spent some time out here in April and loved it. It was a great support to have her here.

It must have been a challenging few months with her commitments for Dancing with the Stars and your training?

It was tough as we had so much going on. We were both training six days a week but at the same time we both appreciated how much our individual challenges meant to us.

Tell me about the dangers you are facing?

The worst parts of Everest are at the very bottom and towards the top. The Khumbu icefall is incredibly hazardous and you tackle that straight out of base camp. 

You try to move through it in the dark when it’s most stable as it is a moving glacier with lots of crevasses and blocks of ice the height of a two-storey house. 

I will need to move quickly and safely. And all of this is taking place at an altitude of about 18,000ft.

Are you afraid?

I don’t have space for fear on this. I can only think about what I can control and my preparation and training has been perfect. 

I feel I have aligned all parts of this expedition as well as I possibly could and have done everything that I could control.

Once the actual climb begins what is the timeline — does it take days or weeks?

The expedition takes about two months in total. The thing about Everest is that you climb the equivalent of it about three times over the time here. It’s all to help the body adjust to the light atmospheric conditions at the top. 

The body would not survive up there without acclimatisation. So this involves a summit of Lobuche Peak (6,100m) and then sleeping high there. There will be two more separate trips up the mountain, sleeping at different heights each time. 

We will have camps at four different heights and each of those trips will be about five to seven days. After all that is done and the body has had time to recover it will be full steam ahead for a summit push. 

The last part will be waiting for a weather window — this is when the jet stream (generating speeds of up to 200km/h) moves from the top and enables us to survive up there. Traditionally this will occur sometime between May 10 and 25. 

The more days we get the better as it will give more options but at this stage it’s in the hands of Mother Nature!

What sort of gear are you wearing?

Up high it will be a full down-suit and fully insulated boots, three layers of gloves, and double socks. Temperatures at that stage are in the range of -40c. 

The boots are massive and took a lot of work to locate. I will have goggles to protect my eyes along with a face and oxygen mask. 

I’ve trained out the back of my house on ladders to test all the gear but it got fairly toasty pretty quickly.

You mentioned the toilet a little, earlier. Sorry but we have to ask….

We keep what is known as “a wee bottle” in the tent as it’s just too cumbersome and dangerous to move out at night particularly on high camps. When it’s full it also acts as a hot water bottle also.

When you get to the top, have you anything planned?

I have some flags and company logos but to be honest my focus will immediately turn to getting back down in one piece. Would you believe that most accidents occur on the descent? 

I’ve done some psychological preparation work and I’m very much focused at that stage to reset the brain and refocus my attention when I have to.

People often have dreams and ambitions but can’t fulfill them due to their day to day commitments or fears. What would you say to them?

I always think I’m privileged to be able to do this and to be of able body to attempt this. I think whatever your interests or goals are it’s important to take your best shot at them as someday your body or mind might not allow you. 

I think all of us have a natural tendency to get pulled into a comfort zone and it’s good, every once in a while, to pull yourself out of it and test yourself a little more.

Are you a religious, spiritual person? Do you think you will find yourself humbled by it all?

Yes for sure. Out here I’m surrounded by the Buddhist culture and it’s very moving to see their faith and trust in God. It is impossible not to feel like there are bigger forces at work. 

I have no doubt I will find myself having a chat with my own God at times as I have done in the past on the mountains.

There is a more serious, charity angle to this story. Tell me about that?

I am using the expedition to kickstart fundraising for a new organisation that I will be working on called Elevate, I hope that the expedition, along with lots of events through the hotels, will generate a nice budget to make wellness programmes available for schools and youth organisations in Clare. 

Research has shown that one in five young people now suffer from mental health issues and I think Elevate has the ability to fund lots of great work to help in this area. 

We will partner with leading organisations like SOAR to develop this project.

When it is all over, what’s the plan, once you’ve been to the top of the world?

The plan will be to get back home as soon as possible and get time with the people that matter most to me, in particular my wife. 

Long walks with the dogs, bacon and cabbage feasts… Oh, and lots of hard work!

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