Aside from a failed attempt at Taiwan’s Xueshan in 2015, I did not have any prior experience with mountains. I only had vague plans to go trekking for a post-graduation trip and that was when my friend Gerald, asked me if I wanted to go Kazakhstan with NUS Mountaineering.
Mention that you’re going mountaineering in Kazakhstan to anybody and most likely you will receive raised eyebrows.
“Where is that Kazakshtan? Is it somewhere in the Middle East?”
“Mountaineering? That sounds dangerous!”
These were some of the most common responses that I received when people knew that I was headed there to attempt Ong Teng Cheong peak (4743m) and Ong Siew May peak (4451m).
I was apprehensive. I did not know there was such a word as ‘mountaineering’. I thought trekking was the end of it. Given that there was a word specific to the sport, could it be something different altogether?
The team training at Bukit Timah Hill (164m). Photo credits: Wan Lin
Fast forward 2 months of training in school, technical lessons at the UTown rock wall and countless steps at Bukit Timah, I found myself on in a traditional Kazakh yurt with my teammates from NUS Mountaineering. We spent a night at Karkara Base Camp (2200m), where we were graciously hosted by Dr Kazbek Valiyev, the President of KanTengri Expeditions.
The lads (from left to right): Saken, Michael, Justin, Derek, Abishek, Gerald, Xin Han, Mr Lim. Photo credits: Michael
The ladies (from left to right): Caitlyn, Madhu, Priya, Chiew Hui, Rui En. Photo credits: Michael
The following day, we boarded a helicopter to Semenov Glacier (about 3900m), our home for the next 6 nights.
Photo credits: Michael
As I always had dreams of living in a mountain range and so when we arrived on the glacier, I was overwhelmed by just being there itself. When the helicopter departed, a surge of euphoria hit all of us and we cheered as we watched the chopper faintly disappear into the sky.
This was it, the moment we had all been waiting for.
We were brought back to reality by Mr Lim Kim Boon, our Singaporean guide, and Saken, our Kazakh guide. They found suitable ground for us to set up our base camp which came in the form of RedFox tents that we borrowed from at Karkara Base Camp.
It was my first time being in such a high-altitude area. It was unbelievably tiring because I was falling short of breath with every 5 steps I took. We spent the first few days acclimatising our bodies to the altitude with some short walks and crevasse crossings around the glacier.
Panoramic view from our base camp. Photo credits: Xin Han
Getting used to the cold and terrain. Photo credits: Xin Han
On the third day, we got up at 4am for our first summit push at Ong Siew May peak. We trekked until the sun rose and reached the base of the peak in about 3 hours. As we were roped up in 2 teams, one team went ahead to start the ascend ahead of mine.
Ong Siew May peak was where I battled with my worst enemy: myself. I remember wanting to give up half the time while I was climbing. The scree slope proved to be a formidable opponent that only became steeper as I ascended. Rocks were sporadic and came in all sizes. I found it hard to follow Mr Lim’s advice to stick to the bigger rocks, as they were more stable and less likely to crumble under my own weight.
Looks tough, definitely tougher in reality. Photo credits: Michael
3 hours into the summit push, Mr Lim told me to turn around and descend. The first party (Abishek, Chiew Hui, Justin, Michael and Saken) had reached the peak. The rest of us had to turn around as grey clouds were looming in, indicating an impending storm. I was crestfallen at not being able to reach the top, but most of all I was mentally and physically exhausted.
Ong Siew May Peak (4451m) From left to right: Abishek, Chiew Hui, Justin and Michael. Photo credits: Michael
The descent was equally, if not more, challenging than the ascend. We assembled at the mountain base and Mr Lim explained that the first party was not going to wait for the rest to come up because it simply was not safe to do so. Most of us were disappointed, but we learnt a lot from the experience. I quote Mr Lim loosely:
“The mountain will always be there. 5,000 years later, it will still be there. You can always come back.”
We took the rest of the day off and mostly relaxed and cooked in our tents. The following day, Mr Lim and Saken took us out to practice ice climbing. This was where we put into practice the jumaring we learnt at the UTown wall and sharpened our front-pointing techniques.
Photo credits: Michael
The summit push for Ong Teng Cheong peak did not go ideally as well. We got up at 3am to find ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm. I remember wanting to lay in my tent and not go out to feel the -6 degrees air on my cheek. At around 4am, the storm subsided and it was go time.
Armed with our ropes and ice axes, we were ready to head North and attempt Ong Teng Cheong peak. This time the journey was a little different. The terrain we were crossing had more crevasses and the snow was deeper. It was increasingly hard to even walk because with each step I took, the feet sunk into the snow above my ankles. I was leading the second team and was thankfully able to follow the first team’s footsteps.
En route to Ong Teng Cheong Peak. Photo credits: Xin Han
3 hours into the push and we received instructions to turn around. Saken had deemed the terrain prone to avalanche and with the consensus of the first team, made the decision to head back down.
Look closely and you will see six figures (the first team) approaching Ong Teng Cheong Peak. Photo credits: Xin Han
I may not be able to speak for my team, but personally I did not regret this trip at all. Despite not making it to any of the peaks, I learnt invaluable lessons, experienced some of the highest and lowest points in my life and made unforgettable memories. Despite having the best trip of my life coming to an end, I am still positive for what lies ahead because I know that this is only the beginning of my mountaineering adventure.
Photo credits: Michael
MIR 17, Kazakhstan
The amazing sunset on our last night. Photo credits: Xin Han
Checked into a million-star hotel on our last night. Photo credits: Michael
Before (top) and after (bottom) the trip; our skin became significantly darker. Photo credits: Michael
One more for the team. Photo credits: Michael