Letters to the Editor
It had been one of the worst post monsoon storms in more than 30 years. The entire Indian Himalaya had received a huge dump of rain and snow which paralysed day to day life in widespread areas. Delhi was flooded and the Zanskar region in which we were in, normally a high altitude desert, had the first rain in thirty years.
That was autumn 1995. We were barely 2 weeks into our first training expedition to Kun (7137m) in preparation for Mt Everest in 1998. Not a very auspicious start I thought, as I surveyed the snowy landscape around us. Our team had beat a perilous retreat from a 5000m pass a few days ago and were now attempting to climb our objective from the opposite side of the mountain. The unseasonal weather had exacted a heavy toll on the villages around us. Shepherds and sheep had been swept away by avalanches crashing down laden slopes. There were fears that the unharvested crops might be ruined. When word went round that there was an expedition “in town”, villagers visited our camp to seek medical aid and handouts of food and clothing. Although we were primarily a climbing expedition, we felt duty bound to aid the people of whatever region we were passing through. I used some of our limited supplies of medicine to treat some of our “visitors”. It is always difficult for a hospital based physician to be confronted with a situation such as this. On the one hand, our resources were finite and indeed my basic responsibility was to the climbing team, on the other hand, as a doctor, I could not turn away requests for help. As transients, we could not institute and supervise courses of therapy which some ailments required and were limited to providing one off treatments. There was also a real problem of leaving multiple doses of drugs which may be hoarded and used inappropriately at a later date.
Fortunately for me, most of the problems that presented in that particular instance were readily treatable, ranging from conjunctivitis, snow blindness and simple coughs and colds to toothaches, cuts and lacerations. There was another expedition when I had paid a house visit to a very sick toddler and had been unable to save its life.
In that wet and snowy autumn of 1995, although unsuccessful in the attempt on Kun, we managed to climb Stok Kangri (6153m) Alpine style, in the final 4 days of the expedition. This last minute success encouraged the team and we added Dhaulagiri Vll (7246m) in September 1996. Even as I write this, our team is away in Tibet on the final practice expedition to Cho Oyu (8201m). These have been exciting years, seeing the project take shape, the months and years of hard work, training and fund raising since 1994 when we were granted a permit by the Nepalese Mountaineering Association. It is ironic that in those early days, when we were most in need of funds and support, most big companies we approached would not even “give us time of day”, but now, when the actual expedition is approaching, we have more companies offering us support.
Now, with the Everest expedition barely 6 months away, I look back at the events that had lead me into this exciting venture. l had spent some years away in the United Kingdom during my years of training as an anaesthetist. This period gave me the opportunity to indulge in hill walking, primarily in the Lakes which led to rock climbing and a winter mountaineering course in Scotland. In 1992, I ventured to the French Alps and cut my teeth, so to speak, with climbs on several alpine peaks culminating in Mt Blanc (4807m). In recent years, I have been to Nepal five times on several treks and Himalayan climbing expeditions. Memorable were the climbs to Mera peak (6476m) and Chulu West (6400m) during which I sharpened my climbing skills. In particular, Mera was memorable for the extreme cold which we encountered, sometimes down to - 30°C within our tents, which froze the water vapour from our breaths into a fine hoarfrost coating the inside of our tent. Any movements would send fine showers of ice, which would eventually coat everything in sight.
Mountaineering or to be more specific, expeditioning has given me more insight into my own character. Whilst rock climbing is usually a short one day outing, expeditioning usually means being away for long periods of time in remote and isolated regions, living and working in close quarters with a small group of people. Although the surroundings are beautiful, climbing is often done in adverse conditions of thin air and extreme cold. It requires much more determination and conviction of purpose to see the project through. The physical aspect of climbing is but one component of Alpine or Himalayan climbing. Mental strength and discipline is equally important to enable success.
Shortly after my return from the United Kingdom, I learnt of the launch of the Everest Project and offered my services as expedition doctor. Since then, I have been involved in many aspects of expedition organisation, fund raising and of course training, and training not just in the physical sense. I have attended conferences and courses on Trauma, Wilderness and High Altitude Medicine and have broadened the scope of my professional experience. On expedition one is able to see the various physiological adaptations to high altitude which one normally only reads about in text books. In turn, back home in Singapore, as the Secretary of the Mountaineering Society of Singapore, I have been able to advise various groups in the form of pre - trip briefings and Mountain Medicine lectures during the biennial Mountain Festival organised by the Singapore Mountaineering Federation. I feel that this is a small but important aspect of the Everest expedition - being able to better prepare and equip groups of Singaporeans heading out to remote regions on high altitude trekking trips. This has been often sorely lacking in the past, with many trekking groups being poorly prepared for the high altitude environment.
I am glad to be given this opportunity to stray as it were, from the normal path of career development for it has opened doors to experiences otherwise not possible and to other areas of service as well.