As the first and only Australian to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000 metre peaks, Andrew Lock has lived more adventure, hardship and near death experiences than most people can imagine.
But why does he do it? Why does anyone take on such a challenge, knowing that they will likely die? We sat down with the mountaineering legend to ask him about his death-defying ascents and what motivates him to keep climbing.
Your CV of ‘firsts’ is pretty impressive, is there one that you are particularly proud of?
Gosh, there were so many really difficult ascents and I’m proud of every climb I undertook, however my first Australian ascent of Annapurna (Annapurna 1) is right up there as one of the best. It is the most dangerous mountain in the world and has a fearsome reputation of one death for every two summits.
On my first attempt, we were avalanched with one dead and three seriously injured. My second attempt was a mind game, where the mountain threw every hazard at us and most of the team gave up but several of us overcame the dangers and our fear to reach the top. We had to risk assess every single step of the climb, had our hearts in our mouths for two months, and came psychologically shattered. I was as proud of myself for surviving as I was for actually climbing the mountain. That was in 2007 and it still hasn’t seen another Australian ascent. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it.
George Mallory climbs mountains “because it’s there” – what or who is your motivation to climb big mountains?
I suspect we had the same motivation but express it slightly differently. The peaks provide physical and psychological challenges. I want to know if I have the ability and motivation to overcome those challenges.
Of all your ascents, there are sure to be some hairy moments. What was the ‘close call’ that remains most ingrained in your memory?
Unfortunately there were many, but somehow I survived them where many others did not. On one occasion, I fell through a cornice at 8000 metres. I managed to stop myself but was left hanging four vertical kilometres above the glacier below. Now that makes you hang on!
Then there were the avalanches, crevasse falls, and various other incidents along the way. There’s no doubt I was lucky, time and time again. But I do think that I had a helping hand along the way, perhaps because I was always very respectful of the customs and belief systems in those countries.
I came onto the 8000 metre climbing scene a few years after Tim McCartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer and I wasn’t a part of a core group of climbing friends like they had. So, for me to climb all those mountains, which took 23 expeditions over 16 years, I had to find partners from around the world or climb solo. Sometimes there was tension and underhandedness by my so called teammates; other times, there was incredible camaraderie with like-minded individuals in the face of exceptional adversity. Always there was great adventure.
For most of my expeditions I climbed without oxygen or Sherpa support and in very small teams of two or three, but I also led commercial teams to the summit of Everest, filmed documentaries for Discovery Channel, climbed in large Army teams, and made solo first Australian ascents.
My climbing partners were generally international as I simply couldn’t find Australians who wanted to climb as regularly as me – in my light-weight style or on the tougher peaks. So, I climbed with some of the very best in the world, including Doug Scott, Voytek Kurtyka and Anatoli Boukreev. My experiences therefore were really diverse.
Overall, the book is a journey of discovery. Firstly, as I found my own inner strength and motivation to keep returning to these mountains where my friends and occasionally teammates perished, and where the mountains themselves sometimes seemed hell bent on stopping me from reaching their summits. Secondly, it is a discovery of the spirituality of the Himalaya and the magnetism that keeps drawing people back, and the wonderful alternative opportunities that life offers if we have the will to both recognise and seize them.
Do you find it hard to adjust back into the “real world” after months of life in harsh and inhospitable environments?
Certainly I used to, but not anymore. After more than 70 expeditions climbing, trekking, touring and adventuring to every continent on earth, I find it quite easy these days. That’s probably because I’m less ‘shocked’ by the cultural changes at each end of the spectrum and also because I love all those cultural experiences.
What food do you most miss while out on big expeditions?
Life can be pretty comfortable on expeditions these days. I confess to taking a coffee plunger to base camp and I always stock up on the local brew. Vegemite is a staple inclusion in my gear list, so with those two things I really don’t miss much. When I come home I usually gross out on fresh fruit and vegies. And, if the company is right, a glass of Cab Sav… Mmm…
Three most important items in your pack on any expedition?
That’s easy and it hasn’t changed in 20 years:
- My ice axe is my best friend on any climb – with it I can climb up, climb down, self arrest, dig a bivouac, belay other climbers and, most importantly, self rescue!
- My Goretex jacket is the first piece of clothing to go into my backpack and I never put it away – it lives in the backpack so that I can’t forget it.
- My Swiss Army knife. I never leave home without one (or two).
- Coffee plunger. Oh wait, you said three items.
Best place in the world to pitch a tent above 5000 metres?
Anywhere above 5000 metres is spectacular, but Camp 4 on K2’s Abruzzi Ridge at about 7900 metres is unbelievable. Extraordinary views over Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Golden Throne and much of the Karakoram range. Exquisite, but savage beauty makes humans pale into insignificance. Of course, it’s also quite chilly so one night is enough.
What is your advice to keen trekkers looking to take the next step into mountaineering?
You must decide if you want to be a climber or a guided client. They are completely different. If you really want to learn to climb, then do it the traditional way. Learn to rock climb (outdoors), do an alpine skills course and build your skills and experience. It takes years. Don’t rush it, enjoy it. If you just want to be guided up a mountain somewhere, that’s fine, but don’t make the mistake afterwards of thinking you are a climber. Keep employing guides unless you want to go through the process of learning to climb self-sufficiently. This is the only way to stay alive.
What are you most looking forward to on the upcoming treks you are leading for World Expeditions?
I like working with small groups to explore new and interesting areas. Bhutan Snowman Trek is internationally revered as one of the best in the world! Rich in culture, unspoiled wilderness and physically challenging. I love sharing those experiences with like-minded people. What more could I ask for?
If you were a mountaineering expert, where in the world would you like to explore?