Andrew Lock has achieved something no Australian has ever done.
The 53-year-old is one of just 33 people in the world to have successfully climbed all 14 of the world’s 8000m mountains.
Everest, K2, the Annapurnas … Lock spent 16 years – and risked death – to join the exclusive club.
Wearing a collared shirt, shorts and sandals, Lock opens the door to his home in the nation’s capital. He looks fairly normal…he could be just another Canberra public servant. The only outward signs of a life lived in extremis are the exotic mementos that fill the corners of his rooms and the heaving bookshelf of classics in mountaineering literature.
“Why am I not known?” he says.
“I chose a sport that isn’t big on the sporting agenda. If I’d taken up cricket and been as successful there as I have been in mountaineering, maybe people would know my name.”
Mountaineering doesn’t get much of a look in on the national radar. Geography doesn’t help, Australia is the oldest and flattest continent, and Mt Kosciuszko – our highest peak rising to a modest 2228m – is more difficult to spell than to climb.
So in 2009, when Lock completed a 16-year odyssey he called Summit 8000 – to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000m peaks, the feat went largely unnoticed outside of Australia’s tight-knit climbing community.
The world’s 14 highest mountains are all located in two mountain ranges, the Himalaya which straddles the borders of Nepal and Tibet, and the Karakoram in northern Pakistan. Collectively, they are known as the ‘Eight-thousanders’.
Lock heard the call of the mountains in the most unlikely of places, a dusty pub in rural NSW.
In 1985, Lock was a country cop in Wagga Wagga when he went to a slideshow that would change the course of his life.
“Two guys [Tim McCartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer] came into the local pub and gave a slide show about climbing Mt Everest. I was one of 20 people who turned up and I was absolutely captivated by their story that I determined there and then that I would climb Mt Everest.”
Lock immediately moved back to Sydney and threw himself into the Blue Mountains climbing scene, leaving impressive deposits of skin and blood on its raw sandstone bluffs over the years. Trips to New Zealand to transfer his rock skills to an alpine environment followed, and the mountains he climbed grew higher in altitude each year.
By 1991, Lock believed he was ready to tackle Mt Everest, but the expedition’s failure left him humbled by the world’s highest mountain.
That early expedition taught Lock some valuable lessons about climbing into the ‘Death Zone’.
“I think I probably went a bit too fast to Everest. We were only a small team of four [in 1991] without oxygen or Sherpas and we were taught a fairly harsh lesson pretty quickly. We came close but made a few errors due to naivety and inexperience, we were probably lucky to get away with our skin.”
THE DEATH ZONE
Lock’s first success on an 8000m peak came on one of the hardest.
K2 is not only considered one of the most dangerous and technically demanding mountains, it is a killer. Only 299 people have reached the top (compared to 4000-plus on Everest) and 99 have died trying.
The last death was in July 2014. Spanish climber Miguel Angel Perez Alvarez, 46, died in his tent after descending to Camp 4. Some reports indicate that he made the summit, although others say he abandoned his attempt 300 metres from the top.
Lock summited with the German duo of Joswig and Mezger and the legendary Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev. But a magnificent success can turn all too quickly to sobering tragedy on an 8000er and during the descent both Germans fell to their deaths.
Over the next four years success eluded Lock. Failure again on Everest in 1993 and with a broken marriage at home, Lock had reached the point where he had to either start succeeding as a high-altitude mountaineer, or take up another sport.
That success came on an Australian Army Alpine Association expedition to Dhaulagiri (8167m) in western Nepal. Despite being buried alive by an avalanche at Camp 3 on the upper slopes, Lock was part of the first Australian team to climb the mountain.
Further success followed that season with a daring solo ascent with borrowed gear of Broad Peak (8051m) and from then on he walked the knife’s edge between life and death as he systematically ticked off the Eight-Thousanders one by one.
In 2000 Lock finally reached the summit of Everest as guide on a commercial expedition. It’s not the way he would have preferred to climb the mountain – with oxygen and leading a team of clients – but with the cost of climbing permits on the world’s highest mountain now in excess of $70,000, it was the only way he could afford it.
On 24th May, 2000 Lock climbed fast and broke trail from the South Col to the summit. In a rarity for modern day Everest, he had the summit to himself for ten minutes.
A solo ascent of Lhotse (8516m) in 2002 brought the commercialisation of Everest into stark contrast for Lock. The world’s fourth highest mountain is linked to Mt Everest by the South Col, a windswept vertical ridge. While Everest and Lhotse share much of the same real estate, the climbing experience couldn’t more different.
“[From the summit of Lhotse] I could see the line of climbers on that day going for the summit…certainly, climbing something like that is far more satisfying than trudging up an easy slope with 100 other climbers.”
A dodgy tin of tuna down in one of the lower camps had caught up to him and during the final days of the summit push, Lock suffered severe nausea. “I was chucking up all the time, but the weather forecast was good and only my physical condition was stopping me, not my devotion.
We climbed up through the day into deteriorating weather and by the time we finally reached the summit I was so brutally exhausted.”
As the snowstorm broke around the summiteers, Lock told the rest of the team to go ahead without him. He was now descending alone in pitch black.
“I found I had no strength to actually stand up and down-climb and the only way I could get down was to glissade – sitting down in the snow using my ice axe as a brake. This was not a good idea – everyone I know who’s tried to glissade off an 8000m peak has died – but somehow, my inner voice came to the fore on that night and I managed not to slide off into the abyss to my right.
Learning to listen to that ‘inner voice’ kept Lock alive on many occasions during his project.
“The inner voice or sixth sense. I think most of us have it. For me, it became quite recognisable in the mountains. I learnt to listen to that voice because invariably when I did and took action accordingly, I survived as a result.”
In 2007, Lock braced himself to take on the mountain all mountaineers fear – Annapurna (8091m). It’s a technical challenge on even its easiest routes, and every route is severely threatened by avalanches. Annapurna has the lowest number of ascents of any 8000m peak.
Two years before, Lock had joined a number of climbers from around the world. However a short way above camp 2, the team was struck by a large avalanche, one of them – Christian Kuntner – had died shortly after in Lock’s arms.
Returning to the mountain with a different group, Lock once again ran the Annapurna gauntlet. For over two months the team worked up the mountain, with the threat of 80m high hanging seracs and endless avalanches literally hanging over their heads. Finally, on 24th May they reached the knife-edge summit.
Lock is adamant, “I shall never set foot on that mountain again. [Annapurna] was the climb of my career. It wasn’t the most technical, although it was tough. But it was far and away the most dangerous…I still regard my survival as an achievement equal to summiting.”
As 2009 dawned, only Shishapangma (8027m) remained on Lock’s 8000m bucket list. The lowest of the 8000ers had become a ‘nemesis’ for Lock – he’s failed four times over the years to reach its summit.
“A couple of times I hadn’t even gotten to the mountain because permits’ hadn’t come through, one time I didn’t get out of base camp due to storms. Twice I’d been to the Central Summit, but not the true summit…this mountain was causing me grief”
Shishapangma wouldn’t give herself up without one last fight and after finally reaching the summit on 2nd October, Lock and his climbing partner Neil Ward were forced endure a 12-hour epic bivouac at 7600m. Every once in a while the pair would prod each other to make sure the other was alive.
When finally crept its way onto Shishapangma’s icy slopes the next morning, Lock and Ward were able to see their way down, get off the peak and make their way back down to base camp.
“And that was the fourteenth of the peaks for me.”
After summiting Shishapangma, Lock became part of a very exclusive group of climbers. To date, only 33 people have climbed all the ‘Eight-thousanders’. They each have gone to war with the most dangerous mountains on earth – and survived.
“It’s a very small fraternity of people out climbing all those 8000m peaks. For the most part we’re very humble people, very supportive of each other. We did it for personal objectives and the love of climbing.”
Now officially retired from the big peaks, Lock has finally written a book about it his adventures. The delay, he says, was necessary, “A lot of international friends, who wrote books before they’d completed their climbing projects promptly got themselves killed on the mountains. I wasn’t going to write this book until I’d finished mine.”
Andrew Lock’s book Summit 8000 is available now at Andrew-lock.com.
(This profile piece as well as the accompanying videos for part of a long-form article I wrote for News Corp Australia in 2015. It’s a pretty cool layout, there’s interactive maps, videos & pics to go with the write up of the great man’s adventures.
After the 2015 Earthquake: Andrew Lock talks about his return to the Himalayas following Aprils devastating earthquake as part of an AHF relief mission.
Below is some test footage of a technique called Motion Control 3D, where you take still photographs (in this case, three) and add movement to them in After Effects. It didn’t make it into the final cut, but is a really cool idea that could work well with a bit more polish.