Master of Thin Air: Life and Death on the World's Highest Peaks

Master of Thin Air: Life and Death on the World's Highest Peaks

by Andrew Lock


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Named One of the Top Five Reads for the Summer by Backpacker magazine, a riveting high-altitude drama for readers of Into Thin Air.
Master of Thin Air opens with a fall down a three-thousand-foot drop that very nearly killed author Andrew Lock. The qualities that saved him then on K2—in addition to his mountaineering know-how and sheer good luck—drove his sixteen-year journey to summit all of the world's eight-thousanders, the fourteen peaks that exceed 8,000 meters (26,000-plus feet) and take climbers into the death zone. Incredibly, he accomplished that feat without the aid of bottled oxygen for every mountain but one. By preference, he climbed solo or in small teams, without Sherpas. During twenty-three expeditions, he spent a total of three years clinging to the sides of dangerous mountains. He lost more than twenty climbing friends and, in April 2014, witnessed Everest's deadliest avalanche.

His book is a riveting, often thrilling account of what it takes to challenge the Earth's highest peaks and survive. It tells of death-defying ascents and even riskier descents, the gut-dropping consequences of the smallest mistakes or even just bad luck, the camaraderie and human drama of expeditions, the exhilaration of altitude. It is also the inspiring story of what motivates a person to achieve an extraordinary dream, a story of passion, resourcefulness, and hope—even in the most dire moments.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628729108
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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. Visit his site at

Read an Excerpt

Master of Thin Air

Life and Death on the World's Highest Peaks

By Andrew Lock

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Andrew Lock
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-616-9



But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

"To Risk," William Arthur Ward

I wasn't born to mountaineering — far from it. With my two brothers, Dave (two years older) and Stew (six years younger), I grew up in the Sydney suburb of Killara. Our parents, Don and Margaret, sent us to the prestigious private school Sydney Grammar.

Dad was keen for his sons to get into careers that earned big money. As an only child who had grown up during the Depression, he had experienced genuine poverty after his own father had died when Dad was only five. Dad left school early and gained a trade as a fitter and turner. Desperate to build a better life, however, he put himself through night school, emerging as a manager and moving quickly into a career as a management consultant. Ultimately, he became a founding member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants — a "poor boy done good." Apart from his work, Dad also loved real estate. He excelled at identifying outstanding real-estate opportunities, buying beautiful but dilapidated houses on Sydney's north shore and renovating them. In this way he provided our family with comfortable homes, as well as substantial profits on each purchase.

I was different. I could never quite embrace a perspective that focused primarily on money and image. Indeed, throughout my life I have struggled to desire anything more than basic financial security. Life was what could be experienced after school and after work, away from career, family and society's expectations. This was the cause of lifelong tension between Dad and me, and I never bonded with him in the way my brothers did.

A teacher and then a publisher's assistant editor, Mum was the emotional rock of our family and kept us going through all the turbulence of life. It was left to her to raise the family as Dad spent considerable periods away from home on work projects. A strict disciplinarian, she was quick to reach for the strap any time it was needed. With three wild young men to manage, that strap had quite a workout! But Mum also saw that life was about much more than work alone and encouraged us to engage in the outdoors, the beach and sports. I think my outlook was much more similar to hers than Dad's, and I also believe I inherited her physical stamina.

At school, I just didn't fit in. Although I was athletic and had good physical endurance, I wasn't a big kid and was no good at the usual sports. Nor could I get interested in my studies. I dreamed constantly of escape, which I found in the Endeavour Club, an outdoor-adventure group headed by one of the teachers, Adrian "Ace" Cooper. I'd already spent some years in the Scouts, which I'd really loved, but the activities had mostly been daytrips. With the Endeavour Club, I did my first multi-day bushwalk over the Easter break of 1974, through the Budawang Range on the south coast of New South Wales.

For four days I lugged a heavy backpack that contained a ludicrous amount of gear and food, while legions of leeches drained my puny body of much-needed blood. It rained most of the time, my tent leaked, my food was sodden and the mud was up to our knees — and I loved every single minute of it. Soaked to the skin and freezing, knowing that we had kilometres more to walk in the same conditions, I thrilled at the challenge. It gave me an inner sense of achievement that I hadn't felt in any sport or other activity. I felt a glow within me — I was hooked on "the bush."

For several years I threw myself at the outdoors every time there was a camping trip with the club. We bushwalked throughout the Blue Mountains near Sydney, and also took on more challenging activities, such as abseiling, caving, canyoning and cross-country skiing. The harder or more adventurous it was, the more I loved it — partly for the thrill of the adventure but also for the satisfaction of coping with the hardships it posed.

Adrian provided the opportunity for kids to experience the outdoors, but there wasn't much sympathy for those who found it tough. Generally the adventures were long and hard and pushed us to our limits. Adrian was famous for underestimating the length of any walk. If he told us we had an hour to get to the campsite, it would invariably be two, three or more. After a while, we'd stop asking how far and just push on until we arrived. This might have developed our mental toughness, but it also prompted me to learn to read maps so I could make my own judgements.

My first alpine experience — a cross-country skiing trip to the Australian Alps — was an epiphany. Led by Adrian, a few of us from the club started out from a place called Munyang, on the famous Snowy River in Kosciuszko National Park. My equipment consisted of woollen, army-surplus clothing, an oiled Japara jacket and a wafer-thin sleeping bag rated to plus 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), but I felt ready to face whatever the mountains could throw at me.

Wrong. Even Australia's low, scrubby mountains can be harsh environments. On the first night I probably should have frozen in my woefully unsuitable sleeping bag, particularly since the cotton tent I slept in had no floor. During the night, as the temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), which was way below anything I'd previously experienced, I kept telling myself to think warm, to stop shivering and to imagine I was feeling as comfortable as I really wanted to be. The shivering stopped and I slept.

At some point that night, the plastic sheet under my thin sleeping mat became a toboggan and, still asleep, I slid slowly under the door of my tent. When I awoke the next morning, covered in frost, I was about 10 metres down the hill.

A couple of days later the other boys and I set out for an alpine hut about 6 kilometres (3 miles) further into the mountains. We followed a track marked with orange "blizzard poles" and therefore didn't bother with our maps and compasses. Within an hour, the weather deteriorated and we were caught in a howling blizzard. Visibility was down to 40 metres, then 30, then 20. We lost sight of the poles and then the track. Unable to find our way back, we pressed on as the wind increased and the temperature dropped.

I tried to recall what the map had shown of the lay of the land and its key features, and I thought I knew where we were. But after another hour, by which time we should have reached the hut, we were still inching our way forward. We were all highly inexperienced, but in the freezing temperature we knew we had to escape the storm, so we agreed to look for a snow bank and dig a survival shelter. We turned off the track and moved down the slope and after 30 metres we skied straight into the side of the missing hut. We had been lucky. It was a valuable lesson about not taking anything for granted in the mountains, especially navigation.

Of course, it wasn't all freezing nights and getting lost in blizzards. That first foray into an alpine wilderness exposed me to the extraordinary beauty of the mountains: the pure silence, the freshness of a clear mountain sky, the sparkle of new snow and the pristine emptiness, which invited exploration of this magical white wonderland. I thrilled at the exhilaration of striding for hours, every muscle working hard, to achieve a rhythm that tired but didn't exhaust the body. Discovering the Alps had added a new dimension to the outdoors for me.

While these activities fulfilled my needs in the outdoors, they did nothing to help my education, or to win any favour with Dad, who quite rightly felt I wasn't focusing on my studies. Trapped behind an old wooden desk for hours each day, the endless monotone of my teachers unable to hold my attention, every muscle in my body ached to be marching hard through the bush. Outdoor adventure was such a magnet for me that I could think of nothing else. The more time I spent in the outdoors, the less I liked the indoors, and the more I wanted a career that would keep me outside.

When I was about fourteen, my parents divorced. Dave and I stayed living with Dad, while Stew went to live with Mum in her apartment. My relationship with Dad only deteriorated in these circumstances, and I sought any opportunity to escape the friction. I pursued adventure whenever possible, regardless of the cost. The odd broken bone or wound needing stitches were just battle scars, and rather than scaring me away from risky activities, they convinced me that the human body could absorb a lot of punishment and would usually bounce back. Anyway, I wanted more of it.

* * *

At fifteen, I joined the 1st Killara Venturers (Senior Scouts) Unit in Sydney. Dave was already a member and, it seemed to me, he was having even wilder escapades than I was. The unit was incredibly active and as the youngest member of the group I had to learn fast to keep up with the older guys. More caving, abseiling, bush-walking, cross-country skiing, sailing, whitewater canoeing and general adventuring followed over the next few years.

As the older members left, they were replaced by guys and girls my own age. Some came and went but a core group developed, many of whom are still my closest friends today: Mike, Warwick, Steve, Mark, Paul and me — or, as we still know each other, "French," "Wazza," "Bergy," "Duds," "Leeky" and "Droid." The three regular girls, Meg, Kate and Julie, were spared such ignominy. We took on bolder and bolder adventures and, luckily for us, gained a leader named Bob King, who gave us great guidance. In fact, with his selfless patience, he probably stopped us from killing ourselves.

By the time I finished school I was convinced I needed a career that would keep me outdoors in the wild environments I'd come to love. I'd jackarooed on friends' farms a few times during my school holidays, so I decided on a career as a beef-cattle grazier and enrolled in Yanco Agricultural College near Leeton in country New South Wales. The classes about agronomy and laser landscaping didn't match my dream of a simple life mustering livestock, but I did enjoy the lessons about explosives and the mechanical sessions on old Land Rover engines.

Like most students I was always broke, so on weekends I worked at nearby farms, walking across paddocks and picking up sticks or piling rocks into heaps for the farmer to collect, so that he could plough his fields more easily. At two dollars per hour in 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) heat, the work was debilitating and, at the end of each interminable day, I'd crawl into the nearby hotel with a measly twenty dollars in my pocket, only to drink thirty dollars' worth of beer.

Things were not working out as I had hoped. By the end of my first year I was searching for something else. About that time, I saw an advertisement to join the New South Wales Police Force. I'd never thought of being a cop but was already in uniform part-time, having joined the Australian Army Reserve the year before. It seemed like a good stopgap measure while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

At my interview I was sent off for a physical examination and was promptly rejected — too skinny. Not to be defeated, I engaged in a solid program of beer, steaks and weightlifting, and two months later scraped through the physical with barely a gram to spare. I was the skinniest bloke in my class at the police academy.

In January 1982, after just three months of training, I graduated from the academy with a badge, a gun and a vision of saving the world. Reality was quickly thrust upon me when I was assigned to the police station in Redfern, which at the time was a troubled, inner-city Sydney suburb with a low socioeconomic status, significant unemployment and a high crime rate. Like any other suburb, though, the majority of its residents were good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and I enjoyed the worthy pursuit of trying to protect them and improve their lives.

At first I found the work itself stimulating as every day brought some new excitement. On one occasion my partner and I chased a stolen car at breakneck speed through back alleys so narrow that our big paddy wagon had only centimetres to spare on either side. When the driver dumped his car, I was out and chasing him on foot before we had even stopped. After finally running him to ground, we opened his bag to find a large amount of drugs and a pistol.

Another day, my partner and I drove to the nearby railway station to arrest a young man who'd assaulted a woman and tried to steal her handbag. As we pulled up, a second young bloke stepped out of the shadows across the street and hurled a bottle against the side of our police truck. He ran off but I was instantly in pursuit. I chased him around the dark and narrow streets, finally tackling him to the ground. As we fought and rolled in the street, I struggled to get the handcuffs on him while he yelled out for help.

When at last I had him pinned him to the ground, I looked up to see a circle of twenty or more local residents around me. Most were holding lengths of timber, steel pipes or bricks. I was in deep trouble and had nowhere to go, but I had no intention of releasing my prisoner.

There was no point panicking but it was likely I was about to be killed, so I pulled out my revolver, pointed it at the crowd and shouted at them to back off. They stopped advancing but waited menacingly for an opportunity to get me. I desperately hoped that my partner would appear with the police truck, but I suddenly realised that I still had the keys to the vehicle in my pocket.

To my relief, I heard a vehicle racing around the nearby streets, gradually getting closer, until it charged into my street. Out jumped my partner from a truck that he'd commandeered from a passing motorist. In an instant we'd tossed the prisoner in and were racing back out of that street, all the time being pelted with bricks, bottles and stones. Needless to say, my partner counselled me about running off on my own, but it turned out that the guy I'd caught was an escaped prisoner with years still outstanding on his sentence — probably why he'd fought me so hard!

Not every shift brought that kind of excitement, but policing the streets meant that we never knew what to expect when we came to work. On a good day we might find a lost child, locate some stolen property or capture a wanted felon, but a bad day could see us fighting drunken mobs, notifying distraught and uncomprehending family members of the death of a loved one or handling the rotten corpse of a lonely pensioner who'd passed away, unnoticed by their closest neighbours until the odour caused someone to complain. Drug overdoses, violent assaults and drunken accidents kept us busy. Death was a constant reality in that area, probably due to the high-density government and rental housing that contained mostly elderly pensioners or people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

The most dangerous and least pleasant jobs of all, though, were the domestic arguments, when emotions were at their peak and former lovers vented their frustration at the loss of their relationships through brutality towards each other. Until the police arrived. All too frequently, they would see us as the common enemy, a focal point for that anger. Tears could turn to attack in an instant, and "domestics" had one of the worst statistics for injuries to police officers.

Policing is an incredibly challenging profession and I don't for a minute regret having signed up. The men and women with whom I worked were generally of the highest moral calibre and were dedicated to their task. I was proud to do a job that sought to improve the lives of others. I believe very strongly in fairness, and crime, in my eyes, was unfair. Being a cop enabled me to help correct that. I'd certainly had my share of mischief as a youth — perhaps even a little more than my share — but with maturity came a desire to "do the right thing" in life, and an expectation that others should also be fair-minded. A breach of that standard is a betrayal and I can be very slow to forgive.

Despite my enjoyment of the work, I became increasingly frustrated with the impact the job was having on my life. I was city-bound, for one thing, and I had to do shifts, which often meant working on weekends and missing out on my re-energising fix of outdoor adventuring. After two years, I needed to get out of the city, and so in 1983 I transferred to the New South Wales country town of Wagga Wagga. The more relaxed country lifestyle — and crimes of a generally less serious nature — was much more to my liking, although life's traumas were just expressed in a different way, most often through horrific high-speed car crashes on the country highways.


Excerpted from Master of Thin Air by Andrew Lock. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Lock. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The 8000ers vi

Map vii

Foreword Sandy Allan ix

Introduction Peter Hillary xiii

Prologue: July 30, 1993 1

1 Beginnings 5

2 A Taste of Thin Air 23

3 The Savage Mountain 49

4 Frustration 76

5 Turning the Key 92

6 Summits and Betrayals 126

7 A Dream Realised 148

8 A Higher Goal 163

9 High-Altitude Hollywood 191

10 Good Days and Bad 205

11 A Big Day Out 225

12 The Most Dangerous Mountain in the World 240

13 Getting Close 256

14 Finish Line 273

15 The Next Step 291

Epilogue 305

Acknowledgements 311

Glossary of Mountaineering Terms 313

Index 319

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