Reach for the sky: British climber tries for death zone record

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The Independent Online
Alan Hinkes expects to spend the summer feeling scared, cold and tired, relying on his wits and strength to keep him alive while suffering crushing headaches and bone-aching pain.

The 42-year-old mountaineer is looking forward to it eagerly. "I'm not scared," he said last week. "I'm keen to get on and do what I enjoy."

Mr Hinkes, who sets off for the Himalayas this week, aims to be the first person to climb six of the world's 14 highest peaks in less than eight months - and so become the first Briton to reach all 14 of the "8,000ers", as the mountains over 8,000 metres are known. He is already recognised as Britain's premier high- altitude mountaineer. In the past nine years he has climbed the other eight 8,000ers, including Everest and K2, the world's two highest peaks. But only five people have so far climbed all 14.

To speed up his attempts Mr Hinkes, a former teacher from North Yorkshire, will be ferried by helicopter from mountain to mountain once he has completed each ascent and descent - "taking 10 minutes rather than 10 days". The operation will cost more than pounds 70,000, paid by his principal sponsor, the outdoor equipment company Berghaus.

His audacious itinerary will repeatedly take him into the "Death Zone", as the region above 8,000 metres is known. There, the body needs more oxygen than the atmosphere contains. That slows the brain down and makes the body use itself as fuel - a feeling, he once wrote, like "being crushed in a vice".

Even so, he will attempt each of the peaks alone and without supplementary oxygen. He has used that only once, on Everest, where he was filming for ITN. In such conditions the brain, starved of oxygen, can be slow, while muscles tire far more quickly than at sea level. But the weather and snow conditions are more treacherous, demanding quick and accurate decisions. "If you stop above 8,000 metres then you die, because you get more and more debilitated," he said.

His quest begins in Kathmandu later this week. He will make the 10- day trek to the base camp of Lhotse mountain (8,516m), where he will spend about a month acclimatising to the thin air before starting his solo attempt on the first of the six remaining summits.

If that succeeds he will go to Makalu (8,463m) and Kangchenjunga (8,586), before travelling west to Nanga Parbat (8,125m) and then east again to Dhaulagiri (8,167m) and Annapurna (8.091m). Although he has allowed seven months, the schedule could be tight. "On the 8,000s, there's only a handful of days when both the weather and the snow conditions are favourable," he said. A wrong choice can mean death.

He has already faced such situations. "In 1993, I was on K2, and only about five hours from the summit, at 8,400 metres or so. It was perfect weather. But I wasn't happy with the snow slope ... I had a big sponsor backing me and if I had summitted and returned they could have made me rich, a household name. I thought, `I could get very wealthy'. But I turned back."

A similar eye for conditions meant that he summitted K2 - known as the "deadly mountain" - in 1995 just days before Alison Hargreaves, the British mountaineer who subsequently died in a storm while descending from the summit.

He has wondered if he might succumb to the unreasoning drive of "summit fever" if the sixth summit seems in reach after he has completed the other five. "I hope not. I am always prepared to back off. To me, success is coming back alive. The summit is a bonus. No mountain is worth your life." Graphics Omitted.