Sunday, July 03, 2005

Singaporeans conquer Mt Everest


FOUR days before mountaineer Ernest Quah left for Mount Everest on March 14, he handed over personal documents like his identity card and motorcycle log card to his family. The 25-year-old National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate also gave his sister the personal identification number to his bank account.

'It was really hard to do, telling your family what the worst-case scenario might be. My father was very upset,' he said.

When you want to scale Everest, you plan for every contingency - even death. The NUS Centennial Everest Team braced themselves for the possibility even as they prepared for their three-month expedition to scale the world's tallest mountain.

For instance, the five mountaineers from NUS had to sign 'body disposal forms'. These forms let the Nepalese authorities know if the climber wants to leave his body in the mountain or have it shipped home in case of an accident. All the climbers chose the latter option.

NUS associate scientist Lindley Zerbe, 27, remembered they joked about how their bodies would be 'garbage' if left on the mountain. The joke originated from the fact that there is a garbage disposal deposit of US$4,000 (S$6,750) which the expedition must pay as part of a permit fee for climbing Everest. Not only do litterbugs lose the deposit, but it can also be forfeited whenever a climber dies and his body is not retrieved.

Thankfully, they all returned to Singapore safely on June 15. And when interviewed last week, the upbeat team were none the worst for wear, save for streaks of darkened skin on some cheekbones caused by windburn.

'It's funny in a morbid way, but it shows the brutal reality of climbing,' said Zerbe, who hails from Carmel, California, and came to Singapore to do satellite imagery research three years ago.

Together with mechanical engineering student Teo Yen Kai, 24, and NUS alumni Stefen Chow, 25, and Ee Khong Lean, 27, Zerbe and Quah were part of the team sent to conquer the mountain as part of the university's 100th anniversary celebrations.

Three out of the five made it to the top. Zerbe was the first to reach it on May 31. Chow got there two days later. Teo arrived about two hours after Chow at around noon, making him the first Singaporean to reach Everest's summit. Chow is Malaysian and a permanent resident here.

The other two could not reach the peak. Ee almost got frostbite while Quah had to turn back when his oxygen tank malfunctioned.

BUT as Ee will calmly tell you, it's not just scaling the mountain that matters but also the two years of blood, sweat and tears that led up to the expedition. 'In a results-oriented society, the idea of success is that you must always get to the top. But the training also honed our fighting spirit and helped us become more determined and tenacious.'

Indeed, Lulin Reutens agreed that the adventure has changed the boys into men. The Singaporean journalist, 59, was the base camp manager for the climb and served as counsellor and coordinator for the team. 'They're mature and think before they act,' said Reutens.

Scaling the 8,850m-tall Mount Everest was certainly no walk in the park. Temperatures near the peak then were minus 50 deg C. A bottle of boiling water in an insulated pouch turned to ice in less than an hour. The air was so thin that they gasped for breath.

Chow said: 'Reality slowed down. Your senses were numb. And while you could see the flicker of the head torches of other climbers, you still felt very alone.'

The weather was also extremely bad this year, which meant that the climbers had to brave gusts of 60 to 100kmh winds while climbing. At heights of 8,000m, many also suffered altitude sickness, loss of appetite and nausea. Chow lost 11kg while another, who declined to be named, was down with such bad diarrhoea that he soiled his tent.

Quah even saw a dead mountaineer being pulled out of a crevice as he was climbing downhill: 'An avalanche also engulfed one of the camps. Luckily none of us was there.'

Research scientist and mountaineer Robert Goh, who trained the NUS team, summed up the quintet's life-changing experience: 'When the weather was bad and the summit chances were slimmed down, there were
almost tears in their eyes.'

There were more positive moments. The team mingled with people from all over the world at base camp. Zerbe even celebrated his birthday there with a cake made out of Milo powder.

He recalled a particularly sublime occasion: 'Sometimes you can see a lightning storm below you, and you feel as if you can reach out and touch it.'

So what's next for the NUS team? They plan to help out aspiring mountaineers, such as the Singapore Women's Everest Team who plan to scale the mountain in 2008.

And when asked if being the first Singaporean on Everest has improved his chances with the women, Teo, who is single, replied meekly: 'No lah. Everything is pretty much the same.'

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BEFORE the NUS mountaineers could even touch the heavens, they had to go through hell. Since December 2002, the mountaineers, who were handpicked from 100 applicants, underwent a punishing regime. This included 20km runs at MacRitchie Reservoir and scaling Block 21, a 30-storey HDB flat near Tiong Bahru Plaza.

They usually did the stair-climbing 20 times in a row, with weighted backpacks that were as heavy as 20kg.
The five would train up to three hours a time for six days a week: four together as a team, and two on their own.

Then they would do on-site training in mountains like Nepal's 6,012m-high Mera Peak and Pakistan's 8,035m-high Gasherbrum II.

The training left little time for anything else. Mechanical engineering student Teo Yen Kai took a year off from school. NUS alumni Ee Khong Lean and Stefen Chow, who graduated in 2003, did not take on full-time jobs so that they could focus on mountaineering. Chow said his studies actually improved despite such time-consuming training: 'My mind became more focused. When you have more time, sometimes you waste it without knowing it.'


by Karl Ho
The Straits Times Interactive
3 July 2005

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