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The view from the top

Ginge Fullen still has more than 70 countries' mountains to climb. 'I am in no particular hurry,' he says.

An expedition to climb the world's tallest mountains

What do Sudanese warlords, Vatican Palace guards, Chechen rebels and wild African

elephants have in common?

They have all chased Ginge Fullen away on his mission to climb the highest mountain

in every country in the world. That adds up to 193 peaks on six continents. He had

already scaled 118 of them when he arrived in Cambodia last month. His latest conquest,

Phnom Aural in Kampong Speu province, was completed on October 4. The modest mountain,

part of the Cardamom Mountain range, rises 1,810 meters above sea level.

Fullen, once an explosives disposal expert in the British Royal Navy, called the

ascent up Phnom Aureal a nice climb "if you want to get away from it and see

no people". It took the 35-year-old two attempts and three days to make the

ascent.

Although the dense jungle cover at the peak of Phnom Aural prevented his satellite

Global Positioning System from confirming his location, Fullen photographed his ascent.

The pictures show Fullen and his sodden team of three on a rainy, forested mountain

top.

Fullen's quest began in 1990 after he broke his neck in a rugby match. He was critically

injured and required two months in a metal "halo," a head brace screwed

into the skull. He also underwent months of grueling physical therapy. He says it

changed his outlook.

Although George Mallory, the first man to attempt to climb Mount Everest, offered

"because it's there" as a reason to climb a mountain, Fullen sees more

to the endeavor.

"It is not because it is there," he says "It's because I like to."

The simple maxim has propelled him up two-thirds of the world's highest mountains.

So far, he says, the attempt has grown more interesting as the easier mountains are

ticked off his list.

In 1992 Fullen, a former clearance diver in the British navy, began to climb mountains

in Europe. The first was Russia's Mount Elbruse in 1992 which is 5,642 meters high.

In 1993, having already climbed mountains in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, he contacted

the Guinness Book of Records to check if anyone had attempted to climb all the highest

peaks of Europe.

No one had achieved it. The record keepers wished him good luck and he set about

breaking the record.

In August 1999, he achieved his goal after reaching the summit of Turkey's Mount

Ararat, the last of the 47 tallest peaks in Europe. It had not been officially climbed

for over ten years. Fullen found that many high mountains were havens for insurgent

groups and Mount Ararat was no exception. Fullen's record probably would have remained

a dream if a Kurdish rebel commander hadn't accepted a financial "donation"

in exchange for safe passage.

His second Guinness world record, the next year, was equally extreme, although in

a decidedly different direction. Fullen went scuba diving off a British Royal Navy

vessel in Antarctica in 2000. He was the first person to scuba dive at such low latitudes.

But the allure of mountaineering drew him back. Mount Everest, at 8,848 meters, was

the biggest attraction.

In 1996, after trekking on the mountain for six weeks, he reached Camp One at 6,100

meters. He had not even begun his final ascent when disaster struck. He suffered

a serious heart attack at the camp. Miles away from any medical facility, he made

a grueling six hour descent to a base camp. He was airlifted to a hospital the following

day. He says he "was a few breaths away from death".

That was seven years ago. He has not yet tried to climb Everest again.

The next continent he will tackle is Africa, where he still has two countries to

cross off his list. In October, he was negotiating with rebel forces in Chad to climb

Emi Koussi. The next country on his itinerary, Libya, presents similar complications.

Despite the obstacles, Fullen has managed to find sponsors, including the Prince

of Wales, willing to bankroll his expeditions. One of his main supporters for the

Africa leg of the expedition is the British-based humanitarian mine clearance organization,

Mines Advisory Group. They are also providing support for the Cambodia chapter of

his world record attempt. The conservation organization Fauna and Flora International

has also helped with logistical aspects of his expedition in Cambodia.

Fullen says the biggest difference between the Asia and Africa is the sense of security.

"It does not seem as dangerous in Asia," he says. "You can enjoy the

journey more than just watching your back."

And Fullen has grown adept at skirting authorities during many of his ascents.

Mr Sang, 60, Ginge Fullen's guide on Phnom Aural, was a hunter in his younger days.

In the Vatican City, a tiny city-state in the middle of Rome, home to the Pope and

headquarters of the Catholic Church, he climbed the "highest peak" by scaling

a 76-meter-high helicopter pad while evading the Palace Guard.

Indeed, in many countries, the highest peaks are actually quite low. The lowest in

the world is in the Maldives Islands where the tallest point of land is two meters

above sea level.

But it is not necessarily the height that makes the attempt challenging. In Gabon,

Fullen spent ten days in the jungle on his initial attempt to scale the highest peak.

He reached the summit only to find out it was 600 meters shorter than it should have

been. Inadequate maps and a lack of local knowledge meant two more weeks in the jungle

before he could find and climb the highest mountain. He found a bull elephant waiting

at the top.

"That was the most frightening time of any of the trips," he says. "Being

held up at gun-point is not that frightening. But coming face to face with a huge

wild animal, that's frightening."

He remains philosophical about his quest. Fullen acknowledges he may never achieve

his ultimate goal of scaling every nation's highest peak. In particular, Mount Everest,

which nearly killed him seven years ago, might forever be out of his reach.

"Because of the heart attack, there may be a height limit. I may never be able

to climb all of the mountains," he admits. "But there is more than a lifetime's

worth of mountains and I am in no particular hurry."

 

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