Pain for Happiness

Adventurer Sean Burch, the first Virginian to climb Mount Everest, thrives on testing himself.

The next time you get out of bed and complain about your sore calf, think of Sean Burch. The Warrenton resident, age 40, is one of the world’s top adventurers—a man who likes big, some might say crazy-hard, outdoor challenges. In 2003 Burch climbed Mount Everest by himself, with no help from an expedition or sherpas.

Since then he’s undertaken a variety of treks and climbs aimed at testing his physical and mental fitness, including many so-called first ascents of various mountain peaks around the world. He claims the Guinness World Record for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, making it to the summit in 5 hours and 29 minutes. (Most people who make that climb take days). Burch has also got the Guinness record for the fastest climb of Mount Fuji in Japan, and in 2004 he won a marathon race to… the North Pole, dodging ice breaks, polar bears and stray bullets shot from drunken Russians supposedly hired for security.

Burch’s most recent feat took place late last year in Nepal. He trekked from one end of the country to the other, covering the 1,250 miles of the Great Himalaya Trail in a record 49 days. (The previous record had been 68.) He says the average elevation was 12,000 feet (topping out as high as 20,000), and that during the trip he suffered through a landslide, snowstorms, a monsoon and an attack of leeches on his feet. “The obstacles that I went through made Everest seem tame,” he says of the expedition that he undertook partly to create awareness of remote regions in that country. “Overall, it was absolutely the toughest expedition I’ve had.” For his effort, the government of Nepal named Burch a goodwill ambassador to the country, an honor he was given during a recent dinner at the D.C. home of Nepal’s ambassador.

Burch, a native of Fairfax, says that he’d long been fascinated by Everest—and while in his late 20s, his late grandfather gave him the nudge he needed to tackle it, telling him to go out and chase his dreams. Burch trained for four years, climbing various summits, before climbing Everest—the first Virginian to do so. And he’s been on a personal mission ever since. “I’m trying to live my life to the fullest,” he says. “Some people say I’m tough, others would say I’m stupid. But the idea is, how close can I come to being happy?”

These days Burch, who is married and has a 6-year-old son, is a wellness instructor at a club in Middleburg, and gives motivational speeches. He recently wrote a book titled Hyperfitness, and he’s spent a couple of years trying to develop a reality TV show around the concept of “helping people achieve their dreams—I’m living proof of that.” He’s in the early stages of planning his next expedition, a process that involves an extensive amount of logistical research and a search for a good local cause. Says he: “To me there is no point in doing this if you are not trying to help other people. I’m doing it for myself, but taking [local] culture with me. That’s what I’m about.”

Adventure does not come without a price. “I’ve had the fortune or misfortune of having a lot of life-or-death experiences,” says Burch, noting that he’s got “a lot” of frostbite in his hands and feet from previous expeditions. “My hands are always cold, and the nerves, once damaged, are damaged for good. My hands and feet can’t take much more—they can, but it’s painful.” That doesn’t mean he’s going to stop challenging himself—he’s just going to look for warmer places to do so.

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