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Climbing closer to heaven

FR Morgan Batt of Brisbane is hoping to find where heaven and earth meet when he scales Mt Everest this month.

He will set off this weekend for a four week expedition to climb the world’s highest peak.

Fr Morgan will return to Brisbane on May 1, just in time for the opening of the archdiocesan Synod Assembly at St Stephen’s Cathedral that evening.

‘I’ve actually cut the trip short to make sure I’m at the opening,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘I’m pushing myself but it’s worth it because I think the synod is important.’

Not that the expedition isn’t an important one also, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Fr Morgan, whose duties include chaplain at Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) McAuley Banyo campus, military chaplain at Enoggera Barracks, state spiritual adviser for St Vincent de Paul and work with the Archdiocesan Youth Office, developed his passion for climbing over the past decade.

‘I always loved bushwalking and being in the outdoors but about seven or eight years ago I decided to do something about climbing a serious mountain and I did,’ he said.

‘I went and climbed Mt Kosciusko and found I enjoyed it immensely.

‘Now my dream is to climb the seven summits – Kosciusko (Australia), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Elbrus (Europe), Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), McKinlay (North America) and Vinson (Antarctica),’ he said.

Fr Morgan tackles these expeditions on his annual leave and so far has completed the Australian and African climbs.

‘Priests don’t get weekends, unlike everyone else in the world, so the bit of time that we do get away I like to use it as something very life-giving for me,’ he said.

Given his penchant for altitude it is surprising Fr Morgan has never climbed with Archbishop Bathersby, Brisbane archdiocese’s other noted mountain enthusiast.

‘I would like to but we can never seem to get our schedules together,’ he said.

‘When I get back I have invited him to come up the north face of Mt Tibrogargan (in the Glasshouse Mountains) with me.’

People who might find the connection between priests and the challenge of mountain climbing a curious one would do well to go back to the ‘good book’.

‘Any number of references in the Bible can show you that mountains are pretty special – the place where heaven and earth meets,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘Jesus Christ preached on a mountain, he prayed on a mountain, he was crucified on a mountain and finally ascended from a mountain.

‘Mountains teach me about life because they always present different scenarios to you and you have to rely on your whole accumulated life experience of body, mind and soul to survive them,’ he said.

In preparation for the trip, Fr Morgan’s fitness regime might even make a Brisbane Broncos rugby league player wince.

It consists of a daily 40km bike ride (on a stationary bike), a one and a half hour gym session and finally a sunset hike around Mt Coot-tha hauling a backpack loaded with 30kgs.

‘It’s funny because I’ve got to put on six kilos between now and when I leave so I’m having to eat all sorts of cake and pizza,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘If you don’t go up with some sort of extra fat on you then your body will start to burn vital muscle and at 7000 metres that’s dangerous stuff.

While he isn’t the first priest to make it to Everest he will certainly be the first to say Mass there.

Through a small fraternity of fellow mountaineering clergy, he has learnt of a Polish priest who did make it to base camp but he definitely did not celebrate Mass.

‘Being a priest, I have very graciously been given the gift to celebrate Eucharist and I love to do it on those mountains and give thanks to God,’ he said.

Not surprisingly Fr Morgan is usually amazed at the reaction he gets when fellow climbers ask him what he does for a living.

Late last year on New Zealand’s Mt Cook he helped explode some of the myths the locals held about what priests can and can’t do.

‘I was sitting at a bar at the bottom of the mountain when some people came up and congratulated me on the climb and asked me what I did,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘When I said I was a priest they went ‘get out of it’, but when I maintained it was the truth they just looked at me and said ‘wow’.

‘It’s certainly an entree to evangelisation to a lot of people who we usually don’t touch.

‘Just to be able to witness to them through mountaineering, through a sport thing, is quite a powerful medium for the Gospel message,’ he said.

Although he will not get to the summit of Mt Everest, Fr Morgan will be more than pleased with his 7600 metre ascent.

He maintains the summit is only half the climb.

‘People can get summit fever and that’s why a lot of people have died on Everest,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘There is a turnaround time for summiting and a number of people have died because they haven’t adhered to it.

‘One of my heroes is Michael Groom, a Brisbane climber, who got to the turnaround time only 30 metres from the top of the world’s 4th highest mountain.

‘Although he was so close he still turned back, for safety’s sake, and I admire him for that,’ he said.

Fr Morgan will carry two books up the mountain in his pack.

One is a study book for his Masters of Philosophy degree at ACU and the other an anthology of climbers’ stories.

No doubt it will include stories about two of his great heroes, Mallory and Irvine, who died climbing the North Face in 1923, as well as those of Norgay and Hillary.

‘There is a reason why it (the ascent to the summit) only happened 50 years ago,’ Fr Morgan said.

‘We didn’t have the technology back then, so when Norgay and Hillary reached the top it was pure, raw talent.

‘It requires you to be a finely tuned person, aware of your body, mind and spirit.

‘You can’t climb a mountain unless those three are balanced,’ he said.

Fr Morgan Batt leads Petros, a Christian climbing community in Brisbane archdiocese, and is organising weekend retreats in late August and November. To find out more about the retreats phone (07) 3332 6042.

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