Andrew Lock is the most accomplished high-altitude mountaineer in Australian history. He is the only Australian, the first person in the Commonwealth, and just the 18th man in the world to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000-metre mountains, including Everest – twice.
Here, sports scientist David Bishop talks with Lock about “grit”, the psychological and physical stamina required for 24-hour days of climbing, and how he digs deep enough to achieve such incredible goals.
Andrew Lock appeared at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival for Great Journeys: Mountains on Sunday August 24 at 1pm.
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David Bishop (DB): My name is David Bishop from ISEAL at Victoria University and welcome to this The Conversation podcast. I am speaking with Andrew Lock, the most accomplished high altitude mountaineer in Australian history, who has recently written a memoir about his experience, Summit 8000, and will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival later this month.
Andrew, welcome. Let me start by asking, which was the greatest challenge, climbing all of the world’s 8000-metre mountains or writing Summit 8000?
Andrew Lock (AL): [Laughs] It’s a fair question. I think at the time they both seemed the harder of the two. This is my first book and it took a couple of years and a few false starts. It was certainly a challenge, although a very enjoyable challenge and just as enjoyable as climbing the mountains themselves.
DB: Great, because everyone I speak to says it’s one of the most difficult things that they’ve ever done in writing a book.
AL: Yeah, I’m not a particularly introspective person, and what I found is that the book forced me to be that. I had kept very comprehensive diaries through all my expeditions. I had really detailed notes to refresh my memory but the perennial question of course is: “Why do you do it?” and “What did you feel?” and I needed to answer that question as best I could in a book. For that I had to dig quite deep and also, I’m actually a very private person so revealing a lot about myself was quite an emotional challenge. But my publisher and my agent kept cracking the whip and I think I managed to do that for them.
DB: I’ve just finished reading another book, its called The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler and it talks about how extreme athletes have redefined the limits of the possible. It seems to me that you are superman and your achievements must have seemed impossible not that long ago. How do you think you’ve been able to redefine the limits of possible?
AL: Look, I definitely would not consider myself to be a superman, I am very much an average person from an average background. But I do think that it’s the very lucky people in life who discover their innate ability and love doing that. For me that was mountaineering and because I already had an affinity for the outdoors, when I discovered mountaineering, I took to it like a duck to water and absolutely loved it. For me the adventures in the outdoors have always been about taking on challenges where the outcome is uncertain. Because if it’s guaranteed then for me there’s no point in doing it.
In order to then achieve those challenges and overcome the obstacles both internal and physical, that forced me every time to draw deeply upon my own motivation and physical stamina. The 8000 metre mountains – every single one of them is an enormous challenge every time.
I went on one of these expeditions and I had to dig deeper and deeper each time and when I finished I achieved one particular objective, then I set my sights on a more difficult one so I had to dig deeper each time and I think all of us have that capability it’s just a matter of identifying the process of what’s forcing us to draw upon it.
DB: This author, Steven Kotler, discusses how athletes have been able to achieve the impossible by tapping into “flow”. Which is an optimal, almost effortless, psychological state that allows us to be our best. Is this something that you get often when you are climbing or when you are falling?
AL: Well actually, that’s very interesting that he said that because I would agree wholeheartedly. I probably don’t feel like I’m flying when I’m falling but the state that I’m trying to achieve when I’m climbing is a physical and mental state where I am pushing really hard, but not to the extent that I’m going to burn out in a short amount of time. Because climbing on these mountains can be 10 hours a day for weeks and weeks and weeks, and a summit a day is invariably at least an 18-hour or 24-hour day of climbing. You’ve got to get into that zone where you keep going despite the pain and the misery and waning motivation. Just find that zone where you just keep on going, and of course as you see the mountains dropping away below you and the distance of the entire planet opens up before you, that’s a great motivator to keep on going.
And when I achieve that zone, and it isn’t on every mountain because weather conditions and difficulties can stop it. But when I do achieve that zone I find that I can just go and go and go and I think it’s a bit like long distance running – you just click into that zone.
DB: I guess why I mentioned falling is because he describes it as when everything is happening very quickly around you but there’s also this – it’s kind of like the world slows down and you can see all of the options – yeah I need to grab here and I need to grab here, I need to open my legs I need to do this and that and I was just wondering whether you also get to that physiological state when there is maybe a more dangerous instance during your climbing?
AL: Well, I am very focused, I certainly find I am extremely focused when I climb and in fact I liken it to almost being meditative because you are so focused and it’s a prolonged state of meditation because you are focused for weeks and weeks.
And yes, one becomes hyper-vigilant for all the dangers and the threats that are around you. But you are also very focused on the immediacy of what you are doing so as you say, looking for the right hand hold or the right placement of your ice tool? Or crampon points or whatever and that is a very tunnel-visioned focus, which does last for days and days and weeks throughout the expedition.
DB: It’s obvious that it takes great mental strength to do what you’re doing. Is there any specific training that you do in this regard or is just something that you think you have naturally?
AL: I do have a natural physiology that allows me to cope with high altitude but of course I have to train. I don’t train psychologically other than the fact that I love having epics so whenever I go for an outdoor adventure it’s always one that tests me as much as I can.
But in terms of physical training for the mountains, high altitude, particularly legs and lungs – it’s all about stamina and as I get older I have to train more and more, running and mountain biking and building that stamina. Because that explosive power that we have when we are young isn’t what you need at high altitude it’s just long days for ten or so weeks.
DB: And with that training, is that self-directed at the moment or do you consult with a sports scientist for example?
AL: No, I’ve never gone down the sports science track, I’m completely self-directed. I’ve joined gyms in the past and not enjoyed them so I do it under my own guidance. But I’m quite a, perhaps not an introvert, but I’m very comfortable with my own space, so I’m happy to train hard by myself and in fact I think I enjoy it more when I’m training by myself. But I like to have adventures with climbing partners. I don’t climb solo all the time but I don’t struggle for motivation to get out into it on my own.
DB: And what about, I guess in the climbing world, you know right at the beginning, we were talking about the limits of possible and I guess as we get closer and closer to those limits, is climbing becoming more professional, with other climbers using sports psychologists or nutritionists or sports scientists etc.?
AL: It may well be, I haven’t come across that, but it’s certainly becoming more commercialised and more available to less-experienced people through the use of guides and supported Sherpas. It may well be extreme athlete climbers who do seek that sort of professional scientific support, but I’m not actually aware of it.
DB: I was surprised that in your book you described yourself as not a supreme athlete, but even though you might not see it, I see a lot of parallels between you and other great athletes. For instance, there’s a controversial theory that you need 10,000 hours or about ten years to become an elite athlete and this seems to match pretty well with your training for your first 8,000 metre ascent and I was wondering if you could maybe just explain just a little bit of your nine years of preparation to climb K2.
AL: Yeah, that’s a very good point. When my dream to start mountaineering was born, I had seen a slide show about climbing Mount Everest and I was so inspired by that vision that I decided I’d climb with myself. But you couldn’t be guided in those days, and I’m not the sort of person who would want to be so it really became a matter of project management. So whilst the end goal for me was climbing Mount Everest, I had to break that down into achievable chunks, the first of which was to learn how to rock climb, which I did in Australia and I climbed fanatically in Australia for a year before travelling to New Zealand and transferring those rock skills and rope skills to the alpine environment and I climbed for successive years in New Zealand building my alpine skills then climbing around the world building my altitude skills. And then, finally, taking on 8,000 metres.
But in fact my first two 8,000 expeditions, which were to Mount Everest, were unsuccessful and partly because I was drawn into the rescues and assisting other people on the summit pushes but also I think there was probably some poor decisions made which I needed to learn from. So I decided to step back from Everest and then to go and climb a few other 8,000 metre mountains and build some more experience before I came back to Everest, and as you say, the first successful summit was actually K2 about nine years after I first started climbing. And ironically, that is generally considered to be the hardest mountain in the world but I guess I developed sufficient skills to get me up there although it was a desperate, very difficult ascent and a desperate descent.
DB: It’s interesting, and I guess this ability to take small persistent steps towards a long-term goal has been described as “grit” and there’s a researcher in America, Angela Lee Duckworth, who thinks it’s one of the most important determinants of elite performance. How important do you think this grit has been in enabling you to achieve your incredible feats to date?
AL: It’s been absolutely vital. As I mentioned, the descent from K2 was desperate and in fact two of my climbing partners were killed in that fall. Another climber from another team also died. And whilst I didn’t actually identify it at the time, I think I was affected by those deaths and my motivation waned a little bit for just for a couple of years, and I still kept climbing but I then didn’t succeed on the mountains I went to.
And I made a conscious decision that I would either start succeeding or take up a different activity and with that conscious decision that I would simply not give up when I was tired, sick, exhausted, scared, or whatever, I would force myself through those stages and only allow myself to turn around when it was, you know, simply too difficult for me or the risk was no longer acceptable. That developed in me a new psychological approach of simply – grit is a great word for it – that I would keep going no matter what until either of those two things stopped me, the risk was too great or it was beyond my ability.
And, with that newfound psychology, if you like, I started to succeed very regularly in the mountains. That didn’t make the mountain climbing any easier, I still had plenty of epics and a few close survival experiences, but I found myself time and again in situations where I was really very, very tired and just wanted to get down, and get back to warmth after being on the mountain for weeks or in blizzards or trapped to very difficult climbing conditions. But I just would not let myself give up and I think grit is probably the right word.
DB: How do you think you have been able to push yourself to the very limit, but also quite accurately assess the risks, so how do you think you’ve been able to do that maybe a little bit better than some of the other climbers?
AL: To be honest I was lucky in the first instance to be able to survive the accidents, of course of deaths of those three climbers, but I learnt from it and I very quickly became a good risk manager. Now, I continued to be lucky, there were incidents that occurred where others were killed and I could have been and I was just purely lucky, but I certainly chose to take a very risk-management focus to all of my climbs so it’s always about calculated risk.
And there were plenty of times when I deemed it too dangerous to go on and that I needed to turn around or just on a particular day the conditions were too cold and I needed to turn around, but just come back the following day just to fight off frost bite on that particular day, and so that drew the process of climbing those mountains out for a number of years.
One particular mountain took me five attempts because on several of those attempts the conditions were too dangerous and it was my own risk assessment that caused me to turn around and go back down and come back another year.
It was always a great disappointment because it delayed my objectives and cost a lot of money and affected all of the other aspects of my life, but that was very, very important to me because at the end of the day they are just lumps of rock and ice.
DB: So that comes back to the “grit” I guess and the key to keep pushing on with that long-term goal in mind.
AL: Yes that’s right. The long-term goal of climbing all the peaks evolved from when I eventually summited Mount Everest in 2000, that was my seventh successful 8,000 metre summit and as I mentioned before, I like challenges where the outcome is uncertain, and the end of one challenge is always the starting point for the next.
So having climbed Mount Everest, I licked four of the next big challenges and at the time only half a dozen of the world’s elite climbers had climbed all 14 of the 8,000 metre peaks so that seemed an appropriate challenge. I didn’t really think that I would be able to achieve it because all of those other climbers were in a completely different dimension as far as mountaineering elitism goes. But therefore it made it a worthwhile challenge and a project to focus on and to push towards no matter how many years it took.
DB: And the way you described it, I guess climbing often seems like a solitary pursuit, but I was interested to read that you like climbing in teams so I’m just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the team sport aspect of climbing a mountain?
AL: Oh look I think adversity shared is – makes the achievement – far more enjoyable. I don’t like climbing in big teams, I don’t tend to enjoy the dynamics of big teams, but small teams of like-minded individuals – two or three – to me that’s an ideal size where you can work together. The leadership in those sort of circumstances is generally shared and if you’re climbing with people of similar experience and philosophy as to the approach to the climb then it can be a very enjoyable experience and I found that relationship with two or three other climbers over the years, where we almost didn’t need to speak when it came to a particular challenge, a cliff that we had to climb or a crevasse we had to cross or whatever, we just knew what we had to do and we did it to the satisfaction of the other members of the group.
But you know, it is psychologically very supportive to have team members to share the fears and the adversity with when times are really tough. And so of course we share the elation of success at the end of those expeditions.
I have climbed solo on some of them and that’s a completely different challenge. That’s more of a psychological challenge and whilst there’s a great sense of satisfaction, at the end of it you don’t have anyone to share it with, it is not as much fun.
DB: One of the hot topics of sport is talent identification. If we were to try and find the next great Australian climber, what sort of characteristics do you think we should look for?
AL: Hm, gosh that’s a good question. I’d be looking for people who are under the radar, are out climbing interesting, technically challenging peaks in ranges of little expeditions and exploration and who are doing it off their own bat without sponsorship because they tend to be the ones who have that grit to take on the really big challenges without the need for kudos or a camera in their face.
There are Australian climbers out there doing great things in remote and barely-known mountain ranges so Australia already has great climbers out there doing things. I just happened to get a bit of publicity because of the particular peaks I was climbing, but those high-achieving Australian climbers are already in action.
DB: Well thanks for your time today Andrew, good luck with the book and also your appearance at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival later in the month.
AL: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for that.