Racing against the dark on Mt. Kanchenjunga

I had to get to safety before nightfall or I’d be stuck high on the mountain in an increasingly fierce blizzard

Published July 21, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from "Master of Thin Air: Life and Death on the World's Highest Peaks" by Andrew Lock. Copyright 2018 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

"Master of Thin Air" by Andrew Lock is a riveting, often thrilling account of what it takes to challenge the Earth's highest peaks and survive. Lock shares experiences on his journey to scale all 14 eight-thousanders, the largest mountains in the Himalayas. It is also the inspiring story of what motivates a person to achieve an extraordinary dream, a story of passion, resourcefulness, self-motivation, and hope—even in the most dire moments.

* * *

I was in hell. I knelt on the snow, my head in my hands, desperate for oxygen and feeling completely crushed. Over the past few hours my stomach cramps had worsened and I was now vomiting frequently. I was nearly at the end of my tether. The sensible option was to go down. But what is “sensible” anyway? Resting when you are tired or feeling sick? Turning back because of pain or a lack of motivation? Is that sensible? Comfortable, maybe. But I wanted this summit. If I didn’t get to Kanchenjunga’s summit this time, I’d just have to come back and overcome all the dangers and hardship again. In that context, what was “sensible”?

Don’t give up. I pulled myself to my feet and, somewhat unsteadily, climbed on. To save weight, I shoved my backpack, water bottle, headtorch and one of my two ice axes into the snow. At least the angle had eased and the climbing was straightforward, so I didn’t have to concentrate as hard. You lose track of time in those situations and enter a kind of trance, placing one weary step after another, attentive enough simply to hold on to the mountain. Lost in that blankness of mind, I maintained a good climbing rhythm, actually overtaking two of the Swiss climbers to catch the rest of my team.

As we neared the top, the face steepened. We traversed beneath the summit pinnacle to avoid a rock chimney that looked too exhausting. Tricky and exposed rock scrambling on the far side required every speck of what limited focus we could muster at almost 8,600 metres (28,215 feet) without oxygen. After a final short, steep pitch, we emerged onto the summit at 5:00 p.m., four hours after climbing over that false peak just a short way below. Out of respect for the local religious beliefs, we stopped just a few metres short of the very top. Not all climbers follow this request to leave the mountain’s gods undisturbed, but I did and would later be glad of it.

Too tired to join in the celebratory backslapping, I sat and filmed the others, then enjoyed the vista for a few brief minutes. Cloud was all around us, like the view from a jet airliner. Except we were outside the plane. The wind had picked up to near gale force and darkness was fast approaching. It was time to get down to safety. The trickiest part of the route on the way up had been the steep rock and ice just above where we’d turned off the long ramp, so it was vital that we get below that section and onto the ramp in the last of the day’s fastfading light.

My reserves of energy were gone. Knowing that I’d be slowest, I started down first, but the others soon caught up and overtook me. Norbert, the leader of the Swiss team, paused as he caught me.

“Andy, do you want me to climb down with you?” he asked.

I couldn’t accept. I had climbed myself into this situation, made my choices and accepted the risk.

“No, you go ahead, Norbert,” I replied.

He quickly descended ahead of me into the encroaching gloom, and with him went a tangible link to my own survival. Even amid that gale, the desire to lie in the snow and sleep was overwhelming and I shouted at myself to keep going, the words whipped away as I voiced them. I had to find the ramp before dark or I’d be stuck high on the mountain in an increasingly fierce blizzard. That could only be fatal.

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With raw lungs rasping in the freezing wind so that I tasted blood and my heart thumping so hard that I thought I’d simply faint and fall off the mountain, I pushed down past the hump that had deceived me as a summit on the way up, through the steep rock and onto the snow slopes below:

We’d left the summit about 5:30 p.m. and then began a race against the oncoming dark. It was relief to reach the cache at the overhanging rock where I’d left my headtorch, as I thought I’d be okay to go down by myself. However, as the darkness came on, so the wind increased; by the time I reached the ramp in almost total darkness, the wind was a genuine gale and I had to hide my face from its furious lashing.

It was 7:00 p.m. and right on dark when I reached the top of the ramp. In the whipping snow and utter blackness I could see nothing. I turned on my headlamp, but the cloud was so thick that it reflected back to me, like car headlights in a fog. It was better to be in darkness than have that blinding light in my eyes.

The situation was more than a little serious. I crouched on the snow, buffeted by the storm, and considered my options. I’d bivouacked twice before on descents from 8000er summits, but those had been at least 500 metres lower than I was now, and in quite calm conditions. Although I’d survived, it had been marginal on both occasions. In my already weakened state, in this raging storm and at this higher altitude, I would not last the night.

My team was well below and would never find me, even if they had the energy to look. I was too tired to stand up and climb down the ramp. The only option was to glissade. This meant sitting in the snow and sliding forward, like on a slippery dip, using my ice axe as a brake by my side. It was fraught with danger because I could easily lose control, gain too much speed and rocket off the side of the ramp, out into the void. I recalled that David Hume, my teammate on the 1993 Everest expedition, had been killed on Makalu in 1995 doing exactly what I was proposing, glissading. And he’d tried it in daylight, in good conditions.

The ramp was not straightforward. From my position, it angled steeply down and to the left, but it also tilted sideways towards the massive abyss a few metres to the right. If I slid too far to the right, I’d shoot off the ramp and drop a thousand metres down the face. Not a good option. As well, there were those ski-jump steps that I would have to locate and down-climb, as they were way too steep to glissade. I’d be launched into eternity if I tried. Most importantly, all this had to be done in total darkness. There was no moon and my headlamp was worse than nothing. All in all, glissading was the worst possible way to descend the mountain.

I sat in the snow, put my ice axe by my side and started sliding down the slope. I could only guess at my speed. I could see nothing at all but was vaguely aware, more by sense than anything tangible, of the massive face of the mountain to my left, so I kept my direction parallel with it. I had no perception of the right-hand edge of the ramp or the abyss below it, but that was probably just as well. My biggest worry was the steep steps that I’d climbed earlier in the day. I recollected that they existed but had no idea of where I was in relation to them. I had to stop sliding before I reached them or I would be killed.

As I bounced and skidded my way down the slope, trying desperately to conjure up a picture of the ramp in my mind, I was suddenly overcome by the strongest awareness that I should stop right at that point. This was the same type of feeling that had saved me from a storm at 8,000 metres on Everest in 2004. I stopped immediately and rolled onto my front. I tentatively felt my way down the slope and, sure enough, found the first steep step beneath my feet. After carefully climbing down it for a few metres to the ramp below, I sat down and continued glissading. Somehow I was able to do this at each step—never able to see them, but always sensing them just in time.

I cannot explain how this worked but can only think that my inner voice was working overtime, or that the gods were giving me a helping hand for having respected their summit earlier that day. It was almost an out-of-body experience with my guide hovering over me—not another person so much as my own self guiding me down. It was an incredible but very real experience.

* * *

The risk I’d taken paid off. Within an hour I caught up with the others near the bottom of the ramp. They’d stopped because they were unable to find the exit point from the ramp that was the start of the zigzag through the rock buttress and the traverse back to our tents. It was imperative that we turn off at the right point—if we crossed the slope too high, we’d never see the tents below the ice cliffs, and if we descended too low, we’d fall off the bottom of the ramp. Had we planted the bamboo wands, or had any of us been carrying the GPS, we’d have found the way easily. As I wrote:

We were in pretty bad shape. No moon, the wind howling and freezing, lost, and exhausted. I was sick and had only drunk 200 millilitres of water since twelve midnight, twenty-one hours before.

As it was, we were 700 metres down from the summit but were still stuck in a wild gale at around 7,900 metres. We had at least descended out of the cloud and so could use our headlamps to see our immediate surrounds, but without moonlight we couldn’t identify our position on the mountain face.

Suddenly, in the distance, down and to our right, was the flash of a headlamp. It was João. The light lasted only for a few seconds, but it was enough to save our lives. We frantically set the bearing on our compasses and staggered desperately towards that point.

In my haste and absolute exhaustion, however, my concentration lapsed and I fell over a small ice cliff, about 3 metres high. The feeling of falling through space in the darkness, albeit only for an instant, was not particularly comforting. In the blackness I didn’t know if I’d started a long plunge to my death or if I would hit the ground immediately below. Luckily for me, it was the latter, and with my reflexes back on high alert I instantly rolled onto my front and plunged my ice axe into the snow to stop from falling any further.

It took us another thirty minutes to reach the tents. We arrived about 9:30 p.m., seventeen and a half hours after setting out that morning. The storm had raged in our absence and left only carnage. One of the tents had been blown away and the remaining few were bent and broken in the wind. But, still, they seemed like paradise. I collapsed inside, covered in ice, my down suit and mittens full of snow. I was frozen solid, and was lucky to get back in one piece!

My and João’s tent had been so buried by the snow that there was only room for one person inside, but I crammed in anyway. We were forced to sit back to back with our knees hunched up, our heads slapped constantly by the whipping tent walls. We couldn’t light the stove to melt snow, which was particularly terrible for me, because I’d drunk almost nothing since midnight the night before. But just being out of the storm and knowing that I’d somehow survived was absolute heaven.

When finally I could speak, I thanked João for shining his headlamp for us, as it had saved us. He didn’t know what I was talking about, and told me that he’d simply gone out of the tent to try to shovel away some of the snow. Our lives had been saved by pure luck! We’d been in the right spot and looking in the right direction at precisely the right time to see his headlamp flash. Was it luck, or were we given a helping hand? I can’t say, but I know what I’d like to think. Either way, we’d lived through a brutal event and survived by the skin of our teeth. And we’d achieved the summit of the world’s third-highest mountain, in a storm and without oxygen. It was a big day out.

By morning the storm had eased. We emerged from our shattered tents like the shell-shocked victims of war. I had never been so physically wrecked. Nor had the others and our faces showed it. We spent the day in a near stupor, packing whatever we could recover and then descending painfully to Base Camp, which we reached at dusk. We were alive.

It’s difficult to describe the physical impact of an epic like this. Rather than the gradual wearing down of the body’s reserves that occurs on a long overland or polar trek, to which the body has some time to adjust, high altitude ravages the body so savagely that it is common to lose kilograms of weight in just a few days. You put yourself through extreme cold, starvation, dehydration and lack of oxygen, not to mention endless hours of maximum effort, with your heart racing continuously. All this nonstop for days. The body has no time to adjust, so it strips itself. The line between life and death in those circumstances is as fine as silk.

I have no doubt that our survival that night was largely a result of our years of experience, which gave us the mental strength to cope with the extreme challenges. We took our chances to succeed, and fought to survive. But still we were lucky. Ironically, so great was my mental exhaustion that when I retrieved my thermos from Camp 1 on the way down to Base Camp, I didn’t notice it was full. Although dying of thirst, I carried a litre of water back to Base Camp!

For the next couple of days we rested at Base Camp, happy to lie for hours in our sleeping bags and enjoy endless hot drinks. Ralph, Gerlinde and Hirotaka had plans to climb another mountain, though, and needed to travel there quickly, before the season ended and the monsoon arrived. None of us was keen to make the long and tiring trek back out to civilisation, so we contracted a large Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter to pick up us and all our equipment from a point one day’s walk below Base Camp—the same place from which Tose had been evacuated nearly two months earlier. We flew parallel to major Himalaya mountains for nearly a hundred kilometres, passing peak after peak, including several 8000ers—Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and Everest. We were transfixed by the incredible vista. The callous savagery we’d encountered just days before had transformed into serene splendour, those majestic giants now slumbering peacefully in the sun. That vision alone was worth every hardship.

The chopper dropped Ralf, Gerlinde and Hiro at Lhotse’s Base Camp, and then took Veikka and me to Kathmandu. Ultimately, the others were unsuccessful on Lhotse due to their exhaustion, which was hardly a surprise. In Kathmandu I barely had the energy to catch up with friends and enjoy a celebratory beer.

I experienced on that expedition something I haven’t felt with such intensity on any other trip. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I had a heightened sense of the mountain spirit, a oneness with nature, a deeper understanding of my “self ” and my inner voice. I came away a far richer person for the experience, and whenever I reflect on it, I feel a more powerful sense of spirituality and inner calmness. I wonder also if that solo cross-country skiing trip all those years earlier, back in the mid 1980s, during which I’d virtually sensed my way through an eight-day blizzard, had been an introduction to this amplified, subconscious perception of the environment around me.

While I endured most of that epic descent on my own, I had shared an incredible journey with the whole summit team. There were no false agendas and there was no self-aggrandising after the event. We were all humbled by it, and once again I felt charged by the camaraderie that was wrought through great adversity. A post-summit photo at Base Camp with Ralf, Gerlinde, Hirotaka and Veikka remains one of my favourites.

Kanchenjunga was my eleventh 8000er. I knew that I’d pushed the limits of my physical endurance on this climb, and that I would probably have died had I not escaped the storm. Far from being scared off the mountains, though, I actually felt psychologically stronger and fully committed to continue my 8000er project. Indeed, I was on a high for months. While it took me a few weeks to regain my physical fitness, I’d never felt more capable of enduring what the mountains could throw at me. That is not to say that I’d become arrogant about the dangers or dismissive of the hardships, but I relished the challenges ahead and was anxious to face them. I was focused, motivated and confident.

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By Andrew Lock

Andrew Lock was the eighteenth person ever to scale all fourteen eight-thousanders, though he comes from the flattest country on earth. Awarded the Order of Australia for Services to Mountaineering, he has guided multiple teams to the summit of Mt. Everest and other of the highest peaks. A professional keynote and motivational speaker on leadership, motivation, teamwork, goal setting, and risk management, he lives in Campbell Act, Australia.

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