I couldn’t bring much of my mountaineering library with me when I moved to Rome, but luckily Edita had a book on her shelf that I was very interested in reading: Summit 8000 by Andrew Lock.
In 2009 Andrew Lock became the first Australian to reach the summit of all fourteen 8000m peaks. Summit 8000 is his autobiography, and covers all of those ascents and more. I wasn’t counting, but he must have made around thirty expeditions to the 8000m peaks for those fourteen successes (and one extra ascent of Everest).
His story was of a bit more interest to me than most people, because he makes a brief cameo in my own book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.
He climbed all of the 8000m peaks, with the exception of Everest, without the benefit of supplementary oxygen. In 2012 he tried to rectify this by climbing Everest from the north side without oxygen. That was the year I climbed Everest from the north, and Andrew spent many an afternoon at base camp sharing a glass of wine with us.
We found him good company and surprisingly unassuming for someone who had achieved a good deal more on the 8000m peaks than we had. He was as much a listener as a talker, and we all took turns to tell our stories, even though his were a lot more interesting.
Half our team were British, and one evening after more drinks than usual we talked him into telling us a story about Alan Hinkes on Nanga Parbat that had some of us gaping in shock. Alan Hinkes was the first Briton to climb all fourteen 8000ers, and is something of a mountaineering hero in the UK. He was also Andrew’s climbing partner on Nanga Parbat, where his summit day (as Andrew tells it) was somewhat less than heroic.
The first thing I did after picking the book off Edita’s shelf was to look up Hinkes in the index and read pages 133-43. The book is worth reading just for those eleven pages, though for an Australian Andrew is quite diplomatic (he manages to tell the whole story without using the words pommie and bastard).
On the front cover another British mountaineering hero Sir Chris Bonington describes the book as “honest, gritty and riveting”. I don’t know whether Sir Chris read the book (if he reads every book he writes a testimonial for then he would be the world’s second most prolific reader of adventure literature after Sir Ranulph Fiennes) but these three adjectives describe it quite well.
As regards honesty, Andrew doesn’t shy away from being critical of some of his climbing partners or tackling controversial issues, but he appears to do so without bitterness, often describing both sides of an argument.
An example of this is his first expedition to Everest in 1993, as part of a team co-led by Tenzing Norgay’s grandson Tashi. Andrew jeopardised his own attempt to reach the summit to look after one of Tashi’s inexperienced clients after Tashi showed no inclination to do so himself. While Andrew is critical of Tashi’s behaviour he has no hard feelings for the client. He describes this expedition as “the worst I have ever taken part in”, but there is no lengthy post mortem to apportion blame, as you find in many mountaineering books after a failed expedition. It’s water under the bridge, and he moves on to the next part of his story.
Gritty the book certainly is. For ordinary folk like me, climbing an 8000m peak with Sherpa support is hard enough. Climbing unsupported, and sometimes solo like Andrew did, takes a staggering resistance to physical discomfort, not to mention a calm acceptance that the following day could easily be your last.
Not only is he supremely fit, but he must have a physiology shared by only a few people. He is obviously super strong at high altitude. The length of some of his summit days – in terms of vertical altitude gain and the number of hours he stayed on his feet – would have polished off most of us before we were halfway through them. His resistance to extreme cold must also be unnatural. I’m pretty sure I would have lost most of my digits to frostbite had I endured some of the situations he found himself in.
Each chapter ends with a paragraph about the people who appeared in it who have since been killed in mountaineering accidents. On three of his summits – Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat and Shishapangma – he had to endure overnight bivouacs on freezing cold ledges.
On a less serious, but arguably more unpleasant, note the book is peppered with anecdotes such as this one, which makes me relieved (if you’ll excuse the pun) that I didn’t drink any white wine when Andrew was sharing base camp happy hour with us on Everest in 2012.
As for riveting, I can only give you a small taste, but here are three examples.
On K2 he had to arrest with his ice axe on multiple occasions while descending a precipitous powder snow slope that provided no real purchase for his crampons. Three of his four summit partners died in separate incidents while descending that very slope.
On Kangchenjunga he was so exhausted on the descent that he had to toboggan in darkness in order to get down, ever fearful of building up speed and sliding over cliff.
On Annapurna he took part in a climbers’ version of the Western Front, climbing hurriedly through a band of seracs which poured forth a fury of deadly avalanches every few minutes. One such fusillade narrowly missed him, but carried away some climbers ascending below. He descended to rescue them. One had suffered internal injuries and died before his eyes as they were evacuating him.
Despite the tragedies and terrifying escapades, there is also quite a lot of humour in the book. Andrew’s preferred style is sarcasm. One of his favourite targets is the Chinese government. For example, if you want a brief description of Shishapangma, instead of looking it up on Wikipedia you could try Andrew’s summary:
Shishapangma is the only 8000er that sits entirely within the so-called Autonomous Region of Tibet – better known these days as China.
Shishapangma provides a setting for some self-deprecatory humour too. It’s one of those peaks with a fore summit that is rather more straightforward than its true one. Shishapangma Central is only a few metres lower than its main summit, and exceeds the magic number 8000, but the two peaks are separated by a dangerously avalanche-prone knife edge ridge. More than a handful of people have claimed the summit after reaching only Shishapangma Central, but not Andrew. After his fourth attempt he had this to say about the mountain.
Shishapangma 4, Andrew 0.
It eventually took him six attempts, and it was his last 8000m summit.
The book has a few surprises as well. It’s traditional for elite climbers when describing the Himalayas to launch into a lengthy diatribe about the commercialisation of Everest, presenting its impact only from their own point of view (which for elite climbers is mostly negative). I don’t know whether this is their choice, or whether their publishers demand it, but Andrew takes a different approach.
His first ascent of Everest in 2000 was as leader of a commercial group for the British mountaineering operator Jagged Globe. He used supplementary oxygen on this ascent because he was guiding clients and felt it was the responsible thing to do. He stood on the summit with three commercial clients, supported by a team of hired Sherpas.
Aside from elite climbers, three of Everest’s other stakeholders are Sherpas, commercial clients, and operators. His experience as both an elite climber and a commercial guide enables Andrew to present the commercialisation of Everest from the perspective of all of these groups. This is refreshing. In the last couple of years the media has shown willingness to delve into the Sherpa perspective, and this has taught them that commercial mountaineering is not purely negative. The perspectives of the other two groups are still under-represented (though not for want of trying on my part) and I welcome the nod that Andrew has given them. I firmly believe that a healthy future for Everest is dependent on the needs of all four groups being taken into account.
Surprisingly for a book describing the achievements of an elite alpinist who completed most of his climbs unsupported, the epilogue addresses commercial mountaineering on Everest in depth. It’s a well-balanced, well-argued chapter. He confesses that he is not a fan of the increasing commercialisation of big Himalayan peaks, but instead of simply whining about it as many do, he proposes a set of practical ways it can be regulated.
There are a couple of key quotes that summarise his arguments very neatly.
Banning all guided climbing in the Himalaya would safeguard the Sherpas and return the mountains to those who have the skills to climb them. But that is unrealistic, I know, and indeed the Sherpas themselves would protest the loudest. Theirs are the richest valleys in Nepal precisely because of the guiding industry.
This would appear to be a thumbs up to guided climbing, but apart from a few courses in the New Zealand Alps to teach him the alpine skills when he was learning to climb, his background and heart lies with the alpinists and independent climbers, and he reveals this in the very next sentence.
A balance must be found between guided climbing and private mountaineering. Currently, however, the commercialisation of the mountains is overwhelming all other interests, at the expense of both humanity and the spirit of adventure.
Whether this is true everywhere I don’t know, but on Everest I’ve been leaning towards this conclusion for a while now.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a book review, so I’ll get off my soap box.
The book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. He failed to reach the summit of Everest after we met him there in 2012, after hallucinating giant bats on the North-East Ridge and deciding it was time to turn around. Seven years after climbing his fourteenth and final 8000er his dreaming of climbing Everest without bottled oxygen remains unfulfilled. Several times he has announced his retirement from the 8000ers and then gone back to Everest.
Will he, won’t he? The final couple of pages of the book are far from clear on this. On the contrary, they are comically indecisive. I’m willing to wager a kangaroo’s pouch full of Australian dollars he’ll keep trying as long as he can still walk.
I agree with Sir Chris Bonington (if he read it): this book is honest, gritty and riveting. It’s also refreshing and humorous in places, and well worth a read if you can get your hands on a copy.
[Note: Summit 8000 was published in North America under the ludicrous title Master of Thin Air (as in, for example, The Beastmaster or Warlock Master of the Arcane). This appears to be a thinly-veiled attempt to capitalise on the success of Jon Krakauer’s mountaineering disaster classic Into Thin Air. But the book is nothing like Into Thin Air. That was about very inexperienced climbers trying to climb a single peak, with disastrous consequences. This is about a very experienced climber successfully summiting several 8000m peaks (hence the title Summit 8000). If you’re struggling to find it on Amazon.com then, it may be because somebody’s mistakenly filed it in the Science Fiction and Fantasy category.]
[STOP PRESS: In fact, I understand the book was only published as Summit 8000 in Australia and New Zealand. If you’re looking for it elsewhere it goes by the title Master of Thin Air.]