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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 7:36 a.m., Friday, February 20, 2009

Frostbite and a GPS: Virginia man claims Mt. Fuji record

By JOSEPH WHITE
AP Sports Writer

WASHINGTON When Sean Burch decided he wanted to break the record for the fastest winter ascent of Japan's Mt. Fuji, he knew he had to do it alone.

After all, the temperature was well below freezing. The winds were so strong that he had trouble standing upright. The frostbite on his swollen hands a problem he's had since winning the North Pole Marathon five years ago made the conditions even more unbearable.

The 12,388-foot (3,776-meter) peak, one of the world's most popular tourists climbs in the summer, is so treacherous in the winter that authorities distribute a yellow flier featuring a drawing of a big frowning mountain with all kinds of warnings to discourage any and all attempts.

Yep, this would definitely be a solo trek.

Thank goodness for GPS. Using his handheld device, Burch was able to verify his speed, location and altitude. Wearing snowshoes, Burch recorded an ascent time of 4 hours, 5 minutes, 42 seconds on Jan. 16.

"I knew it was going to be intense, but I didn't know it was going to be that intense," said Burch, who lives in Oakton, Va. "I got blown off my feet three times, which never happens to me."

Carrying an ice ax, trekking poles, hot water, energy bars and covered with snow goggles, a full face mask and skull cap, Burch jogged the early part of the trek but the severe wind and deep snow forced him to slow down and stop a few times. He wore heavy gloves but had to take them off worsening his frostbite to take photographs at the summit, where he also waved a banner to commemorate the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

"My hands are still swollen," Burch said. "I still can't feel three of my fingertips."

Burch returned from the summit and showed his GPS and photographs to officials in nearby Fujiyoshida.

Andrew Smith, coordinator for international relations at the Fujiyoshida City Hall International Affairs Desk, confirmed the time but could not officially sanction it as a record because officials want to discourage winter ascents. Smith, who advises potential climbers of Mt. Fuji's dangerous conditions, said there are several fatalities on the mountain every winter.

"I was very impressed with his accomplishment," Smith wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "It's the fastest climb up Mt. Fuji in the winter that I've heard of."

The summer ascent record is 2 hours, 32 minutes, set in a race in 2006, according to Mt. Fuji ranger Keita Akiba.

Burch, 38, has been doing this type of thing for years.

In 2005, he set the record for fastest ascent of Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. Those were his pre-GPS days, when he had to hire rangers to be with him at the start and finish to verify his time.

He also won the 2004 North Pole Marathon that's right, it's run on ice at the top of the world and in 2006 climbed 63 remote mountain peaks in 23 days in Tibet. He attributes his feats to a fitness program he calls "Hyperfitness."

"I always shoot for something totally different," Burch said, "that's going to stimulate the mind and body."

Burch is not saying what's next for him, but the chronic frostbite appears to have caused a shift in his choice of climate.

"Every time I go out there, it gets worse and worse," Burch said. " I'm thinking the next one I'm going to do is the desert."