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Sky is the Limit for the King of the Mountain

Jul 15, 2008

SYDNEY-He is just as casual about conquering the world's highest mountains, as he is about dying while doing so. That is Andrew Lock - one of the world's most accomplished high altitude mountaineers.

Mr Lock is determined to become the 15th man in the world and the first Australian to scale all of the fourteen 8000-metre peaks - a project he symbolically called "Summit 8000".

With just one to go - Mount Shishapangma in Tibet - and thirteen other 8000-metre mountains already under his belt, Mr Lock admits he is lucky to still be alive. But his matter-of-fact attitude and acceptance of the danger almost makes the adventures sound more enjoyable than deadly.

"In a mountain environment, I understand it's a very high risk activity.and there will be accidents and people will die. Hopefully it won't happen very often," he says casually.

While 12 men have stood on the moon, only 14 have so far successfully climbed all 8000-metre mountains and at least 20 have died while trying to do so. Known as the "death zone", the 8000m altitude puts the body into severe oxygen deprivation in an environment where atmospheric pressure falls to a third of normal sea-level reading. The heart races at up to 200 beats per minute and the air is extremely dry and cold, causing throat infections and perpetual coughing. The brain is starved of oxygen and must operate in a virtual fog with constant headaches.

However, for Mr Lock, the physical challenges come naturally. He believes his body is made for high altitude climbing and ever since first setting foot on the mountains in the 1980s, he knew that mountaineering was his passion.

For over 20 years he has trained, climbed and ascended to the world's highest peaks.

"I feel pretty proud of what I've done. I would not do it for anything other than love and a personal challenge."

ndeed, Mr Lock has much to be proud of. He is the only Australian to climb 13 of the world's 14 8000-metre peaks, including Mt Everest (twice), K2 and Annapurna. He is also the first Australian to lead a commercial expedition to the summit of Mt Everest and the only Australian to climb two 8000-metre peaks in one year. Even more impressive is that with the exception of the Everest climbs, all other ascents were completed without oxygen.

Mr Lock’s most recent expedition ended last month after he conquered Makalu in Nepal, the world’s fifth highest mountain towering at 8470m. Having suffered helicopter crashes, very cold conditions, ill health and numerous delays, his 13th 8000’er could have been the unlucky one.

Despite both his team mates abandoning the mission, Mr Lock persevered and reached the summit on May 21 to the relief of his family, who received the much awaited satellite phone call from Makalu’s summit.

For Mr Lock, climbing mountains is more than sport. It’s a passion and a spiritual fulfilment.

“I recharge in the mountains. I’m a spiritual person. I believe that energy exists in life and I find that I recharge with that energy on the mountains. I work with the mountains, because the mountains throw every obstacle at you.”

“When you reach the summit of a really tough peak, a really scary peak…it’s a fantastic sense of achievement. I come back a personally and philosophically and psychologically richer person for having done it.” 

However, some expeditions were less lucky. Mr Lock recalls the tragic circumstances of the 2007 Mt Annapurna climb, considered to be the most dangerous in the world. One in two people die trying to scale its summit, where avalanche risks are high and weather conditions unpredictable.

“On the first attempt one of my friends was killed, second attempt we got away with our skin.”

Ironically, he admits that death is not something that scares him. In 2006, while climbing Kanchenjunga in Nepal, the world’s third highest mountain, Mr Lock faced unparalleled weather conditions.

With visibility down to zero and suffering severe dehydration from food poisoning that meant he did not eat or drink for five days, survival chances were slim.

But Mr Lock’s focused determination once again did not deter him from reaching his own career summit, as he is set to complete the Summit 8000 project by mid next year.

So what’s next for the king of the mountain? Mr Lock plans to go back to Everest for the third time and climb the world’s highest peak without oxygen – something that only a very small percentage of Everest climbers have done.

While Mr Lock acknowledges that it is unlikely that he will give up adventure expeditions in the near future, he may step back from the 8000-m peaks.

“At some point I have to accept that I am incredibly lucky to have survived for so long and so many people have died doing what I have done.

“I have polar adventures, desert adventures, ocean adventure in mind. I would still like to go to 8000 mountains, but perhaps as an expedition leader or manager, managing from base camp.”

Of course, there is also his “normal” day job back in Australia. An accomplished key note speaker, risk management consultant and committed charity worker, Mr Lock says that minor dramas in life on the ground seem a little “less significant” after returning from being on top of the world.

“It’s a reality check in life – reminds me of how insignificant I am in the big picture, how lucky I am to experience the rawness of nature, and how precious life is.

“The funny thing is the more we put ourselves into danger, the more we appreciate life. And I come back wanting to live and to get more and more out of life. So I’m very lucky to have experienced all that.”

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