Saturday July 21, 2012
Commercial mountaineering expeditions
By CHERYL POO
Commercial mountaineering expeditions are helping more locals strike major mountains off their checklist.
FAMOUS peaks like Mount Everest or K2 entice only the brave because the journey to the top is fraught with risks, what with the challenges posed by the altitude, extreme weather conditions and tough terrain.
Depending on the height of a mountain, a climb up can last between 10 and 60 days.
However, over the decades, mountain-climbing has become commercialised and a lot more accessible as locals started to provide guiding and portering services, as well as food and accommodation, to visitors who want to conquer mountains.
However, a would-be climber still has to think of such things as logistics, communication with local people and fitness training, and this is where people like Singapore-based Khoo Swee Chiow and his wife Tok Wee Leng, and local adventure group, Persatuan Kembara Negara, come in. They handle all the preparations and make sure you are good to go when you embark on your tough adventure.
While there are foreign outfits out there that provide the same services, many people prefer local or regional companies.
“Having a ‘familiar face’ travel with them gives clients that added confidence that they don’t quite get with a foreigner,” says Khoo, who belongs in the elite list of climbers who have conquered the Seven Summits.
Khoo has also traversed the Philippine archipelago on kayak, set the world record for the longest scuba dive at nine days and visited both North and South Poles.
Khoo’s experience and survival skills are what clients need when they are out in inhospitable terrain. After all, he has survived many life-threatening situations, including a blizzard on an ice cap in Greenland, and another incident during his 8,000m climb up Mount Shishepengma in Tibet, where blustering winds made the air thin and extremely difficult for his team to breathe.
Another plus point is that Khoo works closely with local guides, with whom he’s well acquainted.
Lucas Lu, 44, was one of seven people who joined Khoo’s 15-day expedition to South America’s highest peak, Mount Aconcagua (6,962m), in January this year, where two men in the team suffered severe altitude sickness.
The local guides insisted that the two quit, and wanted to escort them downhill so as to prevent further harm.
“Khoo’s experience and judgement was critical then,” remembers Lu.
“Because he knew the men well and was confident in their capability, he insisted that they journeyed on with us. And they eventually made it to the top with us. Had it not been for Khoo’s persistence and discernment, my teammates would have missed out on the achievement,” he points out.
The home factor
Every climbers’ survival and success up in the mountains hinges on fitness, survival skills and determination.
“Adaptation is key on these isolated terrains. While there are Sherpas to help and guide us, it must be remembered that those people grew up in that habitat. We, on the other hand, are partial to hot weather,” explains 28-year-old Mohd Afnal, a committee member and trainer at Persatuan Kembara Negara, a local adventure organisation that trains and sponsors selected candidates.
This sponsorship is open to all Malaysians. and eligibility is based on a candidate’s ability and past climbing experience.
Although most local guides prepare internationally acceptable cuisines like pasta, Afnal points out that 60 days is too long a journey for anyone to undertake without “comfort food”.
“We need our staple food. We can prepare things like nasi lemak for them,” explains Afnal, adding that each mountain is unique and determines how they develop a team’s climbing skills.
“Mount Cook in New Zealand and Mont Blanc in France require that we learn and practise rope climbing; Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, stamina development; Gunung Tahan in Pahang, building strength. We learn and grow together,” he says.
As for Khoo, he prescribes his clients a rigorous workout programme after a quick assessment.
“It all depends on their fitness and the mountain we’re travelling to. A minimum of three months of intensive training is mandatory. For relatively simpler climbs like Mount Kinabalu, I would recommend practising at Bukit Gasing in Petaling Jaya,” he says.
Even physically fit candidates like Herny Suraya, a fitness coach who travelled with Khoo to Mount Everest late last year, was advised to increase her cardiovascular activity to prepare herself.
“You can be physically fit down here but ascending a mountain is altogether a different thing,” says the 37-year-old mother of two boys, aged 10 and 13. “As you climb up, so does your heart rate. Several months in advance, I committed myself to an intense weekly regime of running, cycling and swimming.”
Even so, Herny and several others in the party of 13 came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning on Mount Everest. This was unexpected but, once again, Khoo’s experience – plus a well-equipped medical kit – saved the day, and the team made it to the base camp.
“Little things like connecting the group together before the trip, and sending us detailed information on fitness and mental preparation, helped,” says Herny, referring to the emails that Khoo sent out to the team prior to the trip.
But sometimes members who are severely unwell have to be escorted downhill to recover. Those who do are guided back up. However, some remain at the recovery camps for weeks until they are allowed to ascend again.
“I know of a woman whose health didn’t improve. She was disillusioned, sent home, lost her ability to speak and think, and took several weeks to recuperate,” Herny remembers.
Of course, not everyone is keen to sign up for a “package deal”. Veteran climbers, for example, prefer to make their own arrangements and choose their own travel companions. Even so, there are experienced climbers like Lu, who has summited many mountains around the world including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, who see the value in guided climbs.
“When it came to a major mountain like Mount Aconcagua, I felt the necessity and comfort of travelling with a local. There’s no language barrier and the logistics are well-managed by someone who understands your culture and background,” he says.
Tips for novice climbers