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At the summit of Orizaba. The Society for the Physically Disabled's flag flying high!

At the summit of Orizaba. The Society for the Physically Disabled’s flag flying high!

Does Singapore Deserve its Mountaineers? ( Published in The Straits Times June 2, 2009)

unedited version here:

Let me join in a growing force of  congratulations to the women’s Singapore Everest Expedition that successfully placed its members on the summit recently. There’s not much in terms of natural, God-given vertical structures in Singapore. So perhaps, in a nation sometimes short on heroes, such an achievement is widely admired. But this moment is also an opportune time to reflect if our young nation truly deserves its mountaineers. I tend to think not at times.

Since the landmark 1st Singapore Everest Expedition in 1998, which I had to privilege to organize and lead, Singapore has witnessed an amazing shift in terms of economic sophistication, and greater tolerance for risk-taking, failure and diversity. But have things really changed that much?

For a sport in which we excel on an Asian level, is not size-dependent, and is not gender biased, why does mountaineering and the those on the forefront of pushing standards here receive such a disproportionately modest amount of support to get the job done? Conversely, sports in which we perform at a mediocre level, and where success is often dependent of physical size, often receive far more political and commercial support.

Worse, many of these latter sports have regular scandals and controversies, and personalities that do not necessarily serve as outstanding youth role models. As with the recent climb, I too recall how on two separate Everest expeditions, we were multitasking as the fundraisers, community-builders, public relations spokespersons and the participants ourselves. I wonder how the Singapore football teams of the past might have fared if leading striker Fandi Ahmad, had to raise the monies to train, mow the lawns at the stadiums, run the youth skills programmes, train and play the matches as well.

One would have thought since the 1990s where anyone thinking of excelling at this sport had to seek mostly independent sources of financing and advice, things might have changed. Sadly, all, or almost all of the approved funding from the Singapore Sports Council to mountaineering’s national sporting association is focused on indoor competitive sports climbing, held in a controlled environment.  Medals over gumption and self-sufficiency, say some.

Worse, mountaineers with projects or ideas at the cutting edge of Singapore and Asian standards are directed to take their appeals to other council schemes where success in one project, is rewarded by a progressively reduced funding on subsequent applications.

I wonder how other Singapore sporting groups would feel that each successful venture, at an elite level, is rewarded with less and less support. When less than 15% of funding of the $1.1 million dollars over two Everest expeditions I’ve led were from government funds, I wonder what reasoning goes behind offering such modest funding to an inspiring, and often character-building sport, often played at the Asian standard.

Little wonder why the mountaineers here have all but abandoned seeking any significant support or guidance from official organisations, and have moved to relying on themselves and a network of veteran climbers for advice, direction and ideas.

On a national level, our education system produces people that have failed to embrace a wider scope of risk-taking outside of making money. I have requests for adventure-based programmes where the programmes had to be absolutely ‘safe’. There is no such thing! With the benefit of hindsight wisdom, I look at the challenges to get the recent Everest climb off the blocks, and do not see the situation changing much.  Some things have not really changed in the past 15 years.

Well-run expeditions have shown great value to sponsors in terms of product testing, showcasing, as well as sustained news coverage. It’s time sponsors consider stepping back from already crowded sporting events, and consider carving up new space through the value propositions expeditions offer.

The media has also often taken few pains to educate itself on the sport of mountaineering. Until it educates its reporters that mountaineering excellence has never been defined by an ascent of Everest alone, the sport is truly doomed. Our busy and time-starved public will never be able to fathom anything in mountaineering other then “Everest-ing”.

I encourage reporters to differentiate between climbs involving significant external support on the mountain, from those where the entire burden of equipping and executing a climb are on the climbers. I urge them to understand how, this truly great sport can encompass all ages, levels of excellence, and the multiple skills required depending on types of routes attempted,

There is a saying that to get more in life, you have to be more than what you are. In that light, perhaps the Singaporeans most deserving of our mountaineers are those who continue to grow and live greater lives by the examples, efforts and inspiring stories brought home by those who have gone to the high peaks, risked something, and returned.


David Lim was leader of the 1st Singapore Everest Expedition in 1998, and now works as a leadership consultant.






Reprinted with permission by The Sunday Times, Singapore, June 3, 2012
By David Lim

About 300 climbers on Mount Everest forming a long queue as they trek towards their ultimate goal of reaching the summit. Because there are only a few small windows of four to five days during the spring when climbers can reach the top in relatively good weather, the rush of mountaineers in these periods creates huge jams at bottleneck areas along the route, leading to people suffering from frostbite and other cold-related injuries while waiting. — PHOTO COURTESY OF RALF DUJMOVITS

Mount Everest is turning into a circus of danger as hundreds of climbers – including the ill-prepared – join the rush to the summit.

By David Lim
The writer Ernest Hemingway once said that there are only three true sports in the world – the rest being merely games – and listed them as motor racing, bullfighting and mountaineering.

But in the decades since the last of the giant Himalayan peaks fell to the boots of mountaineers, has the sport of mountaineering, at least where Mount Everest is concerned, changed irreversibly, and not necessarily for the better?

Each year, like part of a tick-list for driven people, Everest sees hundreds of climbers swarming its flanks, almost all of them attempting to scale it from either its standard routes from the south in Nepal or the north, from Tibet.

I applaud anyone who wishes to take on the personal challenge of the peak, as it is still not an easy accomplishment.

In its purest form, the sport of mountaineering is about freedom of expression. It’s about self-determination, route finding, working as a team, and challenging yourself in a pristine, harsh and remote arena.

And yet, climbing Everest has lost most of the elements that make mountaineering what it is. For Everest at least, the aim of the game is summitting, and sometimes at all costs.

Ask those climbers this season who were told to turn around but did not, and then died on their descent, largely due to exhaustion and mistakes made in a hypoxic state of lacking oxygen.

Veteran mountain guide Dave Hahn told me more than a decade ago on my second Everest expedition that ‘there is the sport of mountaineering, and then there is this thing called Everesting’. Mr Hahn should know; he’s climbed Everest an amazing 14 times.

In ‘Everesting’, it seems more and more people want to get to the top without investing in a long and often rewarding apprenticeship in mountaineering.

Even as recently as 1998, when I led the first Singapore Mount Everest Expedition , our aim was to climb the mountain with more than minimal experience, clocking up significant time on other mountains prior to tackling the peak.

That year, taking the standard route from Nepal, 45 people summitted. This spring season on Everest, nearly 400 people have done so. In 1998, none in Nepal died. In the season just ended, 10 have died.

It is clear from this, as well as some shocking pictures this year of more than 150 people jammed up in a queue leading to the final summit camp at the 8,000m mark, that the situation on Everest is fast becoming unsustainable.

In mountaineering, there are objective and subjective dangers, the former being risks which are difficult to control, such as encountering a teetering ice tower hanging over the climbing route and not knowing when exactly it might crash down.

But what is killing more people on Everest are the subjective dangers. These are the more controllable risks, such as climbers’ physical conditioning and training, their prior experience and their development of the mountaineer’s ‘inner voice’ that is uncannily correct in helping experienced climbers make the right call in difficult situations.

Here is what is making Everest a real circus of danger: For many of the less experienced climbers who have joined a commercial expedition, most of the key decisions are made by their trip leaders. A huge amount of logistics and decision- making is out of their hands completely.

As such, there is often a lack of mountain ‘awareness’ – knowing what is in place, understanding the limits of their bodies under stress, being able to be resilient when situations change. They also have a shallow experience and skill base on which to rely when things go wrong.

On a perfectly calm day in 1998, I was horrified to see two climbers stall above me. They waited until a third climber – a guide – joined them to demonstrate something as basic as how to thread a rope into a braking device to descend a fixed rope safely. This is akin to teaching a non-driver how the brakes of a car work after you’ve let him loose on the highway.

Worse, many outfits that operate on Everest are under-equipped and when a client gets into trouble, they do not have the resources to mount a coherent rescue.

As the window of summitting in relatively stable weather in the season is usually confined to just a few periods of four to five days at a time, when people decide to make a summit push, everyone else does so too, leading to huge jams at the bottleneck areas where there is a more difficult technical challenge to be negotiated.

I know of people who have had frostbite and other such injuries from cold because they were waiting for an hour at a choke point to get their turn on the summit. It’s a recipe for disaster if bad weather then sweeps in.

A third key factor is cognitive biases at work. Among the most common is ‘sunk cost’ – most wannabe Everest climbers have saved up the US$40,000 to $65,000 (S$52,000 to S$84,000) required to have their once-in-a-lifetime shot at the summit and are loath to turn back even when wisdom dictates that they do so. More experienced climbers are invested in their sport and lives, and often make the better decision.

Another factor which can affect anyone is ‘confirmation bias’. The well-reported 1996 tragedy where eight climbers died in a single incident happened because their expedition leaders looked at the weather reports and chose to interpret the facts to merely confirm what they wanted to do – to reach the summit on a specific date, even though that date was far too close to a likely change in weather for the worse.

For years, there have been calls by some of the most respected climbers in the community to restrict the numbers going up Everest. But in a dollar-poor economy, this is unlikely to happen, at least on the Nepal side.

In addition, who would have the unenviable task of deciding who qualifies to climb and who does not?

The very ethos of the ‘freedom of the hills’ held by most mountaineers would work against any of us wanting to be the competency police on Everest.

But until some systemic changes are made to how people approach their preparation for Everest, who organises the climbs, and who are allowed to climb it, the view from Everest, for at least a few unprepared or unlucky ones, will be a view to die for.
The writer is a leadership coach and a veteran of over 60 alpine and expedition ascents.


Since the first ascent on May 29, 1953, by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, about 10,000 people have tried climbing the world’s tallest peak. Almost 4,000 have succeeded in reaching the 8,848m summit.

German statistician Eberhard Jurgalski, who has chronicled Everest activity since 1981, notes that the record number of ascents in one day was 170 on May 23, 2010.

The most treacherous part is above 8,000m, the ‘death zone’. It is almost impossible to survive the biting cold and lack of oxygen for more than 48 hours.

Warnings of potentially lethal overcrowding in the ‘death zone’ this year did not deter climbers. The BBC reported that more than 300 had official permits to go up from the Nepali side, not counting locals assisting the climbers.

Popular Nepali news portal said more than 350 people reached the summit.

Among those who succeeded was Dr Kumaran Rasappan, 28, the only Singaporean in an expedition of 30 people. He joins other Singaporeans who have and Malaysia-born Mr Edwin Siew did it in 1998, while Ms Jane Lee led the first women’s team from the Republic in 2009.

Since 1953, more than 220 climbers have died at Everest, half of those in the past 20 years. The deadliest season was 1996, when 15 died, eight of them on a single day.

Nepal’s tourism ministry says six climbers died this year, but unofficial sources such as mountaineering websites estimate the number of deaths to be at least 10.


These pages, for the first time since all the 1996 – 1998 online dispatches and expedition information were accidentally deleted in 1999, aim to archive the story of this landmark 1998 expedition. This landmark Singapore expedition was led by David Lim. The idea of a Singapore Everest expedition was first mooted by the then President of the Mountaineering Society, Lawrence Lee, and supported by a small group of climbing enthusiasts in 1990. This was after the first successful Singapore expedition to scale a 6000m peak – Lobuche East, in November 1990.

The interest raised was so significant that a local politician was quoted in the press as follows:

When we celebrate National Day in 15 years’ time, our flag should be flying not only in every home but also on the top of Mount Everest

Mr Matthias Yao,
Political Secretary to the First Deputy Prime Minister, July 1st 1990.

However, within a couple of years, the idea died as the rules laid down by the Nepalese government dictated that any expedition to Everest had to be endorsed by a national alpine association – which Singapore did not have until 1993. Suffice to say, after David Lim’s own passage into Himalayan mountaineering in 1993, the idea was revived, and David then took reins of the project. In October 1993, he applied for, and obtained the permit for the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition; with a preference for climbing the peak in Spring 1998. On 20 Aug 1994, the first official meeting of the group that hoped to be part of the project was established

This was not an easy project, least of which was a) there are no mountains in Singapore on which to train, b) the initial stages were almost a mess when various parties of well-meaning, but committee-types wanted to take charge of a project David had initiated. c) a team had to be found, financed and equipped, and 4) after the expedition, the team returned to face fresh controversies over the nationalities of our team members. The “us-and-them” friction between many Singaporeans and new immigrants may seem strange in a nation full of immigrants, but the challenges  faced by the nation at the time of writing this in May  2012, still seem to challenge and confront Singapore and Singaporeans.

These webpages will be slowly populated over the next few weeks in June 2012 with the dispatches, stories, and the journey of the team from 1994 to 1998; including the successful ascent of Mt Everest on May 25th 1998.