Mountaineering is, like most extreme sports, counter-intuitive. Against ingrained notions of self-preservation, you pack your gear, leave the comfort of warmth and oxygen-filled lungs to go pit yourself against nature. At the start of the semester, twelve unknowing undergraduates decided to do just that. Our motivations varied. Some saw a video and thought it was cool. Some were looking for one last hoorah before the end of university. Some were looking for adventure.
With a vague idea of what we had just elected to put ourselves through, we began training for Baden Powell Scout Peak. From the Langtang Valley mountain massif, the peak rises to 5,825 metres. In the next few months, we would run countless kilometres, plank for longer than we would like, and go up and down Bukit Timah more times than we probably ever did in our lives. All that eventually culminated in the MIR Challenge, a longstanding rite of passage for TMC members. As arduous as it might have been, we found out something that day – that the end of MIR Challenge and training only marked the beginning of TMC itself.
Our trip was smooth-sailing for the most part. For a while, it seemed as if the only bumps we would experience were those that riddled our journey to Syaprubesi. By the time we reached Langtang Village, the snow-capped mountains began peeking from behind the luscious-green summer scenery. Our oximeter tests returned healthy numbers for most of the team, and the summer sun continued to keep us warm.
Eventually, we reached Kyanjin Gompa, the last village stop before we took on the mountain itself. Our sustained optimism was further fueled when we reached the top of Kyanjin Ri (4400 metres) during our acclimatisation trek. Back down in the guest house, we channeled our energy into card games and movies. Burrowed in our sleeping bags every night and greeted by nature’s magnificence every morning, the experience was a fresh one for most of us. Apart from the occasional headache and the usual chill in the night, everything was going as expected from such a trip.
After resting for a day, we left the comfort of Kyanjin Gompa and set off up the shoulder of Scout Peak for base camp. Accompanied by our thirteenth member recruited from Syaprubesi (she’s a dog and was born for mountaineering, so no prior training required), we put one foot in front of the other and trudged our way up to lower base camp. Two days later, we finally set foot in snow and ice to reach higher base camp. In the following days, we would all don crampons for the first time and find a reliable buddy in the ice-axes we had been lugging along since day one. It would also be in these days which we found out those bumps on the way to Syaprubesi would not be the only ones on the trip.
Natalie, whom we had jokingly (or maybe not) dubbed our “fourth mountain guide”, was struck by a dreaded episode of Altitude Sickness and diarrhea. On the second night at higher base camp, it was decided that she had to descend back down to Kyanjin Gompa. Together with Manu and Jasmine, the three of them scrambled toward the faint lights of Kyanjin Gompa in the dark of the night. (They would go on to describe that night as “something out of Final Destination”.)
For the rest of us, strong winds and heavy snowfall swept through higher base camp that afternoon. The scenery at base camp changed fast and along with it the mood and atmosphere in the mess tent. With two members down, the usual optimism that emitted from the tent dwindled.
Nonetheless, we pressed on with our last training the day before our planned summit attempt. As we revised walking along fixed lines, Natalie and Jasmine emerged from the crest of the hill. Somehow, they had decided and mustered the strength to make the trip back up to higher base camp, just in time for the summit push.
The night of the summit push would read like a clichéd adventure story. As told in countless tales, the strong winds and clouds cleared up for us after two days of trying weather. Our summit attempt was softened (quite literally) by fresh snow. The mountain, after shaking the morale of the team for two days, had decided to leave the rest up to us. At 9.44am Nepal time on the 24th of May 2019, the first of us had reached the summit of Baden Powell Scout Peak with Tulsi leading the way. An hour later, the last of us would reach the summit together with Samir and Manu.
Admittedly, our TMC was not the most arduous or life-defining mountaineering tale to exist. There was neither punishing hours of front-pointing nor battles with bone-piercing strong winds. There are better stories to tell from the history of MIR if one was looking to impress. Much of the struggle, however, took place within us. If we were to take anything away from Langtang Valley this summer, I would say there are two remarkable lessons to gain – that of the will of the mountain and will of the individual.
On one hand, the expedition tested all of us in our own ways. Between struggling with headaches and sacrificing luxuries we had taken for granted, we saw how far persistent willpower can take us. In particular, we saw this exemplified in two of our teammates. To capture the essence of this idea, I quote Ming Han: “The next time I find something too difficult, I will remind myself of what Natalie and Jasmine did.” On the other hand, we experienced for ourselves what we had always heard from legendary mountaineering stories. We saw that nature and the mountain ultimately decides how easy or hard a climb will be. Months of training and hard work can never stand up against the elements. To capture the essence of this idea, I quote Ming Han again: “The mountain always wins.” It may not be original, but it worked well as timely reminders.
Easy or hard, summit or not, I am sure we all learned something about ourselves this summer. We pushed ourselves far beyond what we had initially imagined ourselves to be capable of. As half the team graduates and leaves for uncharted pastures while half resumes the arduous life of university, I am confident that having faced the will of the mountain, our mettle had been sharpened. Despite varied motivations at the start, we have all gained something similar at the end of it – that if you push hard enough, there is hardly anything you cannot do. I find that a worthwhile epiphany to attach to an experience as absurd as mountaineering. Don’t take it from me though:
“There’s something about the mountains which makes rice delicious, the sun glorious, and a bed precious. I look back with utmost awe and respect, up there you play by its rules, you summit if it allows you to. Of being hungry, dirty and tired – it is truly at the edge of your comfort zone that life begins.”– Natalie Su (in an Instagram post)
MIR18 Summer 2019 TMC team:
Jasmine Chua Li Xian
Jonathan Seet Tian Ci
Ming Han Chng
Naveen s/o Chandra Segar
Siew Kah Hui, Savannah
Chew Jun Hui, Corey
Gawain Pek Zheng Yang
Kimberley Lim Ying Ying
Natalie Soh Hann
Nonis Keith Matthew
Sun Tian Yu
Thank you, team, for the great company and for honing my skills in Monopoly Deal and Mahjong.