Andrew Lock: life in the death zone

By Andrew Lock December 18, 2009
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Andrew Lock was the first Australian to climb all 14 of the world’s mountains higher than 8000m.

TEPID WATER LAPS SOFTLY at my feet as a barely noticeable breeze drifts gently overhead. The sand seems unusually warm today but that’ll be okay if I can just get the climbing rope to squash down underneath me a little more. And turn off that alarm. I snuggle down further as vague thoughts nudge me: “Climbing rope? Alarm?”

I open my eyes. It’s dark. And cold. Very cold. Ohhh. I’m not at the beach but in a brief dream as I doze in the claustrophobic confines of my tiny tent, high on a Himalayan peak. My altimeter is sounding the alarm to rouse me from the short-lived respite my climbing partner, Welshman Neil Ward, and I so desperately sought before the coming day’s efforts. We are at 7400 m on the north face of 8027 m Shisha Pangma, the 14th-highest peak in the world and the last in my quest to climb all of the world’s mountains higher than 8000 m – those peaks that reach into the so-called ‘death zone’.

‘Shisha’ is an underrated mountain and sees very few ascents of its true summit. Most expeditions choose to climb to its central or false summit and then claim to have summitted the mountain. It’s a bit weird, like climbing to the south summit of Mt Everest and then claiming to have made it to the top. Climbers wouldn’t get away with it on the world’s highest peak but, for some reason, it’s a very common claim on Shisha. In any case, on two of my previous attempts I’ve reached the central peak but it’s the real summit I want. It sits rather lazily at the end of a knife-edge ridge with precipitous drops on either side, several hundred metres away from the central summit but only 20 m or so higher in altitude.

For our attempt, Neil and I have decided not to try that ridge but instead traverse below the north face and follow a completely different spur to the top. Only a couple of teams have been this way in the past 30 years, and both took slightly different lines. Neil and I intend to take a route combining the best of both.

We’ve been on the hill for three weeks and to launch the bid now is extremely fast, but indications are that there will be a prolonged deterioration in the weather, so it may be now or never. If successful, I will finally achieve the real summit after five expeditions to the mountain; it will be the first Australian ascent of Shisha Pangma and see the completion of my 16-year quest to climb all the ‘8000ers’. I want that summit!

Oh, it’s so cold. Why on earth am I, a Canberra public servant, here and within hours of potentially achieving the grand slam of high-altitude mountaineering, the fourteen 8000 m-plus summits?

Mt Everest: World’s highest mountain

Mt Everest and Lhotse (Photo: Andrew Lock)

Mt Everest is, of course, the highest and best known of the 8000ers, but another 13 of these giants tower mightily above other peaks in Asia. Ten of them are in the Himalaya, stretching from 8586 m Kangchenjunga in the far east of Nepal to 8125 m Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, at the Himalaya’s western extremity. About 200 km north of Nanga Parbat, the Karakoram Range intimidates newcomers with the other four lofty summits including 8612 m K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.

I had my first look at the 8000 m peaks in 1988, while on an expedition to Nepal’s 7161 m Pumori. Pumori translates as ‘Beautiful Daughter’ and stands opposite Mt Everest, or as the locals know it, Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the World’. While it overwhelmed me with its size and technical difficulty, Pumori was itself overwhelmed by the giant massif of Mt Everest, with its faces kilometres wide and a summit perpetually shrouded in wind-thrashed cloud. It was entirely appropriate that Mt Everest loomed over that first Himalayan expedition, as my original motivation to take up mountaineering was born of reading and hearing stories about the 1984 first Australian ascent of that mountain. My own expeditions to ‘The Big E’ followed soon after, in 1991 and 1993. Neither was successful for me, although both contributed greatly to the development of my high-altitude skills and knowledge.

On return to Australia in May 1993, I received an invitation to join a small international expedition to K2. Although I didn’t know all the team, I accepted immediately, as one name stood out clearly: Anatoli Boukreev. I’d met Anatoli on Mt Everest in 1991 and had seen his extraordinary power at altitude. On K2, he was no less of a machine. The other members were all German: team leader Reinmar Joswig, Ernst Eberhardt and Peter Metzger. We attacked the Abruzzi Ridge and fought our way up over several weeks of appalling weather. Reinmar pushed us hard but it worked well for us, and while other teams sheltered in base camp, we established our camps higher and higher. After just 24 days we launched our summit bid and, despite dreadful snow conditions, made the summit at 5 p.m. on 30 July 1993. A harsh mountain lesson followed, however, when Peter and Reinmar fell to their deaths during the descent. What had been a magnificent success became a sobering, depressing retreat and it was a lonely trek out to civilisation.

My next few expeditions were unsuccessful, although one of them, an attempt on the Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat (still unclimbed by anyone), was a highlight of my climbing career. With mountaineering icons Doug Scott, Voytek Kurtyka, Rick Allen and Sandy Allan, I attempted a new route and learnt more in a few short weeks about commitment, daring and pure alpine climbing than in all the years before.

In 1997, with a new-found resolve to succeed, I joined an Australian expedition to 8167 m Dhaulagiri, in Nepal. We were successful, and it was the first Australian ascent of that peak. Later the same year, I completed the climb that was probably the turning point in my mountaineering career. After my climbing partner Rick Allen and I abandoned our attempt on a new route on 8047 m Broad Peak, in Pakistan, Rick went home but I wasn’t done. I traversed to a different face on the mountain and launched a solo attempt. My only chance for success was to go light and fast, without tent or sleeping bag – just a stove to melt snow. It was highly risky but ultimately successful and I reached the top shortly before dark on the second day. A bivouac at 8000 m followed and became, at that time, the longest night of my life: bitterly cold, where I had to work fingers and toes throughout the night to ward
off frostbite and where I had to deal with the constant threat of oedema – fluid accumulating in my body tissues – and deteriorating weather. But it worked. With the dawn came warmth, dexterity and the ability to continue. By 8 p.m. I was at base camp. Those three days were a revelation, an insight into the inner strength we humans possess but so rarely draw upon in our regulated, sanitised, comfortable lives.

For the next few years, success on the 8000ers came regularly and, in 2000, I realised my dream of standing on the summit of the world’s highest mountain. I was leader of a commercial Mt Everest expedition with seven clients. Our first attempt on the top took us only to the South Summit at 8750 m. But later, as the other expeditions that had been with us departed for home, I convinced the team to give it one more go. We had time for only two days’ rest in base camp before launching our second summit attempt. Yet, despite our exhaustion, we clawed our way back up to finally reach the summit at 6.30 a.m. on 24 May 2000.

Mountain climbing: what next?

From there it seemed a natural progression to simply keep climbing the 8000ers. I loved going on expeditions, being at high altitude and the challenge of tackling new peaks where the outcome was never certain. At that time only 10 or 11 people in the world had climbed all 14 and while I’d never considered myself in the league of such men as Reinhold Messner – the first climber to top all the 8000ers – I just wanted to keep climbing.

And so I did. By 2008 I’d climbed 13 of the 14. Climbing at the very highest altitudes is unlike anything else. It’s extraordinarily difficult. Low atmospheric pressure means only a quarter to a third of sea-level oxygen is available to the body. This has a broad range of impacts: constant headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and breathlessness are the primary effects. It is almost impossible to get warm as the body struggles to burn enough oxygen to generate heat, despite the bulky clothing we wear. Impaired cognitive function, slurred speech, micro sleeps (that occur even while climbing) and the constant threat of oedema in the lungs or brain are continuous concerns. The body tries to compensate – to acclimatise – but you can never actually get used to 8000 m. What we try to do is acclimatise to the point where we can steal a brief moment on an 8000 m summit and then escape back to safer altitudes before it kills us. That alone takes weeks, which is why most 8000 m expeditions last for about two months. A complication of acclimatisation is that the blood becomes much thicker, making you more susceptible to frostbite, stroke and heart attack while high on the mountain. Add to this normal mountain hazards such as crevasses, avalanches, adverse weather, technical climbing and numbing cold – all of which are faced while forcing your body to perform for hours each day in such a rarefied atmosphere that each few staggered steps demand minutes of dizzy recovery.

So what motivates climbers? It’s a very difficult question to answer. But a significant component is that 8000 m climbing is the ultimate opportunity to challenge yourself to the core in an environment of brutal but unparalleled natural beauty. I thrive in expedition situations, where the commitment required is many weeks, or even months, at a time. The psychological demands, together with the sustained physical stress, make the rewards, when they come, all the richer. 

Shisha Pangma: the final summit

That’s why I’ve woken at 2.30 a.m. on 2 October 2009 in my tent on Shisha Pangma, the final peak in my quest to climb all the 8000ers. Neil, my climbing partner of three expeditions, stirs beside me. “Keep dozing, I’ll get the stove going,” I tell him, as I dig that uncomfortable rope out from under me and toss it into the corner of the tent. After igniting the lightweight propane/butane burner and stuffing the pot full of snow, I peer out the tent door. Our forecast told of light winds and clear skies but worsening weather the next day. It looks okay; countless stars are dazzling and an almost-full moon casts surreal shadows on the intimidating face above us.

The first hot drink takes an hour but others follow more quickly as we contort ourselves into our oversized double-thickness boots, harnesses and down-filled suits while the walls of the tent constantly dust us with a miserable frosting. At 4.45 a.m., with the first cold grey of dawn, we crawl from the protective cocoon and face our destiny. The summit stands more than 600 vertical metres above us – not an overly large climb but we’ll be treading virtually unknown ground. First we must complete a traverse across the north face before starting the climb to the top. Inaki Ochoa de Olza, my climbing partner on an expedition to the most dangerous mountain of them all, 8091 m Annapurna, made a solo traverse here several years before. But he is no longer alive to tell us of that experience. Like so many others, his life was claimed by the mountains.

We rope up for protection against the crevasses and I lead the way into disappointingly deep snow. It takes nearly two hours to complete the traverse but it’s a relief to escape from under the avalanche-prone slopes of the massive face above. We drop the rope and thread our way through a serac barrier, a line of broken ice cliffs that tower 50-100 m over us. This is a key point on the route and our survival will depend on finding our way back through this gap, so we mark it with one of our few precious bamboo wands.

Neil takes the lead and a day of seemingly endless step-kicking begins. Hour after hour we slog our way up, alternating leads every 50 m, sometimes knee to thigh deep, sometimes tip-toeing delicately over crust that echoes ominously under us like a drum. This is a high-risk avalanche ‘slab’ and we’re forced to veer closer to a rib of rock to avoid it. We gasp raggedly in the low oxygen and cough constantly, our throats raw from the cold, dry air. To save weight we carry only 500 ml of water and our first drink won’t be until late in the day, so we press on. In the afternoon, snow and cloud blow over from the south side of the mountain and we know we are getting close but still it’s another two hours until we roll, seal-like, on to the broad summit ridge.

With visibility down to 50 m we take a GPS altitude reading: 7950 m, about 80 m below the top. It’s 4 p.m. and we know we’re in for a long night but there are no thoughts of turning back now, so a sip of water and a sachet of energy gel complete the day’s meal. The ridge above is steep and sharp and we climb precisely, as any slip would end in a 3 km freefall to the southern base camp and we’ve no permit for that side. Finally, having forced our way under some cornices right beneath the top, we pull ourselves on to the summit block. We walk the last steps together. It’s 5.05 p.m. There is nowhere else to go. We shake hands, get a few quick photos and start down.

It’s a race against time now. We’ll have both darkness and the deteriorating weather to cope with, and our best chance is to get as low as possible in the remaining light. We descend as our lives depend on it but at 7600 m the conditions defeat us. The wind has buried our tracks and it’s snowing heavily, which reflects our headlamps so we can’t see our bamboo marker wands. We’re a short distance above that key path through the ice seracs but we just can’t see it and we’re reluctant to climb into the seracs lest they fall, or we fall off them. The alternative is to bivouac, to stop and cut an ice ledge and sit out the night. It’s a miserable but safer choice and we resign ourselves to the interminable dragging of minutes and hours through the bitter cold of a high-altitude night  in the open. We sit on our packs for insulation, shiver violently as the snow covers us and dream of endless hot drinks. From time to time I prod Neil and ask if he’s still alive. He is.

No words can adequately describe such misery but the world turns and finally a new day arrives. Light brings survival and by 8.30 a.m. we are at camp 3, stove purring, blessed warm liquid our salvation. We can barely put one foot in front of the other but must get to a lower altitude. So we pack the camp and stagger down the mountain like drunkards. Two days later we are at base camp. Alive. Successful. We’re greeted by back slaps and teary hugs from worried friends, but I need solitude and retire to my tent.

I should sleep for days but I’ve been running on adrenalin for too long and my mind is working overtime. In reaching Shisha’s summit I’ve completed a 16-year project and become the first Australian to climb all of the world’s 8000ers. But that isn’t why I’m wired. It wasn’t about the project; it was about the climb. Shisha tested us to the core, made us fight for her secrets and for our own survival. Far from feeling like a survivor, though, I am reborn. The reward is a self-awareness and inner peace to which I am addicted – and the mountains are my fix.

End of a project? No, just the starting point for another.

Source: Australian Geographic #97 (Jan-Mar, 2010)