Over 750 climbers, including Nepali guides, were en route to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain on the morning of May 22, all with the same goal — conquer Mt. Everest.
Among them – 29-year old Singaporean, Jeremy Tong.
Between frostbite and hypothermia
CNA reported Tong’s story and experience in an interview with Aqil Haziq Mahmud recently. He said that on the way up, he had to spar and deflect the 35kmh winds and minus 40-degree Celsius temperatures, aware that every second that was unwisely spent could mean frostbite or hypothermia would set in. It could also mean instant death.
“Your fingers start to freeze, your toes start to become cold,” Tong said. “And you need to clip and unclip yourself to a safety rope, but you’re fumbling because you have mittens on. It is a very dangerous situation over there.”
Tong ended up spending more than an hour just letting other climbers through on the single rope-path barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side.
“I just flattened myself to the side of the rope so people coming down could pass me,” he added. “One misstep on the left side, you’re plunging 2,000m into camp 2. On the right side, you’re plunging 2,000m into China.”
Overcoming the point of failure
But Tong kept moving on and charging forward with the able guidance of his Sherpa guide Pemba, through the Hillary Step, past the point where he was compelled to turn back during his first summit attempt in 2017.
Two years ago, Tong only had about 200m to go when he was hit with hypothermia. However, this time around, he believed there was no turning back. “I was like well, this is it,” he remembered thinking. “It was the feeling of overcoming that point of failure.”
Standing on a ridge, Tong caught his initial sighting of the mountain’s pinnacle, enhanced with vibrantly vivid prayer flags ruffling in the wind.
“I was looking at it and I thought, well that is really the top of the world,” he said. “Since I was a young boy, I would be thinking about that top. But I didn’t imagine it would look like that.”
Tong “conquered” Everest at 6.14am, almost 12 hours after leaving base camp (5,364m) at 7.30pm the previous evening.
His “game plan” on the summit was to pose for three photos with three different banners: One of his sponsors, one of the adventure company he runs, and one dedicated to his wife.
But within minutes of taking off his oxygen mask and balaclava, Tong’s ears had gotten frostbite from the frigid winds slicing through the air. It was getting too windy, his guide said, and it was urgently necessary for them to descend back.
“In the end, the game plan totally failed,” he said with a laugh, adding that he only managed the first photo. “I only had 10 minutes on the summit.”
Despite the short-lived triumph over the world’s tallest mountain, Tong believed that what he has accomplished crushed the “black shadow” that hung over him since his failed attempt two years ago.
“Now when I wake up, I realise I have climbed Mount Everest,” Tong said with beaming pride.
Dealing with ‘climbers traffic’ on the way down
However, getting to the summit was only half the job. On the way down, Tong had to deal with the “climbers traffic jam” again, this time spending an even longer time being stuck on the steep and slippery slopes.
Tong said the most dangerous part of mountain climbing is the descent, when people lose focus after the euphoria wears off and fatigue kicks in.
“People just give up on life because it is a really different world out there,” he said, pointing to the “death zone” more than 8,000m high where oxygen levels are extremely low. “Without oxygen, you cannot survive for five minutes.”
“It was really steep and really scary,” Tong recalled, admitting he was mentally tired. “I was starting to get a bit fearful for my life, and I thought that the best way was to try and get down as quickly as possible, and just remain calm.”
Tong kept his focus and had to squint to ensure he didn’t miss a step. He conveyed his anxieties to his guide, who told him to go slow and not to worry. While Tong eventually regained full use of his vision, others were not as lucky.
Some climbers trying to scale Everest were clearly too inexperienced, Tong lamented. “This is not what I wanted to see,” he added. “It’s very saddening for the mountaineering community.”
Tong was back at base camp roughly 30 hours and immediately grabbed his phone to call his wife. He knew she would be worried, especially as he had been unable to check in after his satellite phone went dead before the final push to the summit.
“She was very happy, very relieved,” he said. “She had just given birth a few months ago, and of course she would love for me to be by her side, taking care of the baby and everything.”
However, Tong said his wife – who is also a mountain climber – has always been “very supportive” since he made it his mission five years ago to climb Everest. She even cooked ikan bilis and peanuts in chilli for him to eat on the way up.
“Even before we got married, she has been the one pushing me up this pedestal,” he added.
For now, Tong is spending some time recuperating in Kathmandu before going home at the end of the month. His face is still sunburnt and his ears still frostbitten, but he has already set his sights on conquering the seven summits in the next three to four years.
The seven summits refer to the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents: Everest, Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Kosciuszko (Australia), Aconcagua (Argentina), Denali (Alaska), Elbrus (Russia) and Vinson (Antarctica). Tong has scaled the first three.
But that would be later, for now, Jeremy Tong is looking forward to his wife’s cooking — Laksa, Indian rojak, soy sauce chicken, chicken rice and dory fish wrapped in banana leaf.-/TISG