News & Politics

The First Virginian to Scale Everest Made a Documentary

The meditative film is about Sherpa guides.

Adventurer Sean Burch on Mount Everest. Photographs courtesy of Sean Burch.

After completing his solo ascent of Mount Everest in 2003, Sean Burch, then 32 years old, realized that reaching the peak hadn’t brought about the sense of self-fulfillment that he’d thought it would. “Once I climbed Everest, the whole world opened up for me,” he says. “It was like, Well, if I can do this, what else can I do?

As it turns out, a lot. Since becoming the first Virginian to summit Everest, Burch has established eight world records, including the fastest ascents of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji. But lately, he’s taken on a less frostbite-inducing challenge: making documentary films.

The idea first struck him on Everest back in 2003. While climbing the Khumbu Icefall, one of the mountain’s most perilous routes, Burch met a group of Sherpas known as “the icefall doctors.” Bridging deep crevices with ladders and securing the hazardous route with rope, the expert climbers are a vital part of many visitors’ trek to the top. Yet “a lot of people don’t know who they are,” he says. “Sherpas are always the unsung heroes.”

So Burch decided to tell their story, and the result is a four-part docuseries called Icefall Doctors. The first-time filmmaker, who lives in Warrenton, has been showing it at film festivals, and now it’s finally available to watch at home on Vimeo. Burch has no formal film training, and making the documentary was a “learn as you go” experience, he says. “But the beauty of life is that you can wake up every day and learn something new.”

With little dialogue and long-take shots of the Sherpas’ tedious work on the glacier, the meditative series unfolds at a leisurely pace. “The idea is to bring you into the life of an icefall doctor,” he says, “including the painstakingly slow process of going into the most dangerous part of Everest every single day.”

Now Burch is working on another documentary, this time on the Raute people, considered the last truly nomadic group living in Nepal. And what about his next outdoor challenge? “I usually keep that to myself until I’m there and I’m doing it,” he says. But he’ll almost certainly do something, which is why he still trains for at least two hours every day. “If I have to leave tomorrow on an expedition,” he says, “I can.”

This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor