PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am

THE INCESSANT wind howls in your ears as you gasp for air. Your skin is turning blue as your oxygen deficiency - hypoxia - worsens. The pulse in your head is pounding, the dehydration rasping, and you're struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The temperature is averaging minus 40 degrees Celsius. One slip and you could plummet thousands of metres to your doom. You haven't slept in three days, thanks to long nights spent holding onto your tent in the driving snow. House-shaped rocks tumble around you, while hidden crevasses, avalanche-prone snow shelves and frostbite await.

At this point, you're entitled to ask yourself what the hell you're doing halfway up a mountain. It's a question Robert Mads Anderson - solo conqueror of the highest peaks on each of the seven continents - has asked many times. And each time he's come away smiling.

'You constantly question yourself on a climb,' he says. 'There's plenty of down time, when you're waiting for bad weather to clear or you're acclimatising to the altitude changes. The longer you wait, the more you question what you're doing. That can be hard because oxygen depletion makes you emotional. When you're feeling good, you're feeling far more optimistic than you should be. But when you're down, you're really down, thinking that you're not going to make it. You generally lose about 15 pounds [6.2kg] in one climb.'

This year, Anderson made his 10th - and, finally, triumphant - assault on Everest, the world's tallest peak, and achieved his goal, set in 1991, of scaling the Big Seven. As an expedition leader on an Everest 50th anniversary climb in May, Anderson - a senior vice-president and group creative director at the Foote Cone & Belding advertising agency in New York - guided nine others to the top, including South African Sibusio Vilane, the first black to scale the summit. Hong Konger Chung Kin-man reached the peak on May 31, completing his own seven-summits challenge.

'Hopefully, 80 or 90 per cent of the time that you're climbing, you're having a good time,' says the 45-year-old Anderson, at the climbing wall of the Salisbury Road YMCA, where he announced the launch of On Top Of Lion Rock With Kiehl's Charity Climb. Cosmetic company Kiehl's is a long-time sponsor of Anderson, who uses its products to stop sunburn and blistering when he's climbing.

'People talk about the extremities of climbing Everest, but if you have a good day up there there's nothing better. It's the other 10 per cent that comes into it afterwards - the time it got too dark, the time you couldn't put your boots on and get out of your tent fast enough to go pee because the lack of oxygen slowed your motor functions. And you think, 'Oh man, that was miserable.' But it makes a good story.'

To grin and bear your way through is the mark of an unflinching sportsman. In 1988, Anderson and a small team took a new route up Everest without bottled oxygen, radios or Sherpa support. He made it to within 100 vertical metres of the summit, but lost his left big toe to frostbite. Sir Edmund Hillary describes Anderson as 'the great wandering albatross drifting around the world and popping up in unexpected places ... a formidable and innovative climber'.

His solo attempts include Mount Acongagua in Argentina, Alaska's Mount McKinley, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Europe's highest, Mount Elbrus, in the Russian Caucasus. He has made two ascents of the Vinson Massif, Antarctica's tallest mountain, and scaled Indonesia's Cartensz Pyramid. In 1993 he went solo up Everest, again without oxygen - and again stopping just short. 'Rock cimbing is like gymnastics without rehearsal. The only way to ascend the seven summits is to define yourself by where you are going, not where you have been.'

In the process, he has developed an evolving relationship with the world's giants. 'They have their own unique atmosphere,' he says. 'Compare Kilimanjaro to McKinley, and they're two completely different environments. At the bottom of McKinley, you've got grizzly bears, whereas Kilimanjaro has leopards.' Great. Even if you don't fall to your death, there's still a chance of being eaten alive on your descent.

How does Anderson conquer the loneliness of solitary climbing? 'The seven summits aren't that hard,' he says, as if he's describing a trip to the supermarket. 'If anything, I'm quite a sociable person. But being able to do them quickly with new routes made it a lot more interesting, as a challenge, and that's the essence of mountaineering. And I had a photographer travelling with me at the base camps, so I wasn't completely alone.'

How does he justify a potentially deadly sport to himself, his wife and two young children? 'My wife's so encouraging,' Anderson says. 'If you don't have support like that, then you'd be too miserable up there. You wouldn't go.'

He says climbers build their experience gradually. 'You don't start out by saying, 'Right, I'm going to do Everest next year.' I started climbing when I was 15, and wasn't ready to do Everest until I was 30. It takes a long time to get the experience and become comfortable with the environment. Secondly, when you're in really dangerous situations, your decision-making process goes into overdrive. You stay in focus.'

Anderson says personal faith is one of the most important aspects of successful climbing. 'If you're up 8,000ft [2,666 metres] and you think about how lousy you feel up there, you'd simply turn around,' he says. 'So you have to transcend the rational, and that's where you get your reward. It's amazing how many people fail to realise how far they can expand their horizons until they actually do it.'

Anderson has few unrealised dreams these days. But his appetite is as big as ever. 'Every time you get to the top of a mountain, you look out, and then ask yourself what else lies out there,' he says. 'You think about all the different routes you could have tried. And the view will always bring you back. On Everest, you really know that you're on top of the world. What photos don't show is that the wind is blowing at 70mph [112km/h] and you're digging in tight so that you don't get blown off. You've got a tiny ridge where you have one foot in Tibet and one foot in Nepal. At the top, you see the shadow the mountain casts as the sun rises behind it. You get a perfect pyramid cast onto nothing but the horizon, imprinted in the air - and it's one of those sights that you never forget. It's sheer elation.'

On Top Of Lion Rock With Kiehl's Charity Climb is a one-hour event on January 11 involving four climbers. Proceeds to Hong Kong Mountaineering Athletes' Development Fund. For details, call 2828 1378




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