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Opinion: Published in The Sunday Times, June 28, 2015

The tragic fatalities of trekkers and adventurers on Mt Kinabalu following the earthquake in East Malaysia this month has raised the question about handling risk, and the appropriateness of mountain-based adventure activities for children.

Every year, globally, thousands of children travel to high altitudes without any event. These includes trips to ski resorts, hiking in countries with developed emergency and evacuation; as well as to more remote destinations. In assessing “risk”, it’s important to separate what’s know as ‘subjective’ from ‘objective’ risks.

Subjective risks refer to risks that are known, and to a quite a degree, manageable. These include, but are not limited to rate of acclimatization; or upward progression of altitude. Often, the faster the ascent, the higher the risk of adults and children  being affected by acute mountain sickness (AMS) and the more serious extension of AMS, like fluids accumulating in the lungs ( high altitude pulmonary edema) or brain ( high altitude cerebral edema); both life-threatening conditions.  Only one study has shown that children are more susceptible to altitude based ailments, and this is also only when they have had prior or pre-existing upper respiratory tract illnesses. There is no conclusive evidence to indicate they are either more or less susceptible than adults to altitude problems; as outlined by Ad Hoc Committee of the International Society for Mountain Medicine in 2001.

However, there is an issue with what I term “competency reserve’ that is of greater concern where children are involved. Unless advanced in self-awareness and sufficiently articulate in the presence of peers or a mixed group of peers and adults, young children may have an issue articulating how they feel, or drawing attention to a specific health condition. This is less of an issue as children mature. But pre-teens or more introverted teenagers, may express problems like loss of appetite or poorly defined aches in a away that may mask more serious symptoms. In general, the larger the gap between existing competencies of a child or adult , experience and knowledge of a situation  in the mountains,  the greater the onus on a mountain or trip guide (formally contracted or otherwise) to ensure that the ‘controllable’ does not spiral downwards into an ‘uncontrollable’ situation.

In cases where children are significantly guided and helped to an adventure activity; the loss of the guide or access to such adult-based decision-making can render the individual confused, frightened. In 1996, during the infamous tragedy on Mt Everest, one obedient client of a mountain guide nearly froze to death because he waited far too long for his guide to turn-up. The guide himself, had disappeared in the storm that killed eight climbers that day. So, while ’competency reserve’ or lack thereof can impact adults, children who are largely under orders in some adventure activities may be more severely impacted by their lack of autonomy in such situations to save themselves.

Objective risks are risks that are present but are less controllable. These include but are not limited to assessing avalanche risk on a loaded snow slope (a science and art in itself), a well as being exposed to rock or icefall from an inherently unstable source; is another example. In such a situation of judgment, a group of adults who share similar skills and experience may have a debate about the route they take; less so if an experienced guide calls the shots when dealing with a group of neophytes. On Pisang Peak, a relatively straightforward 6000-metre alpine climb in Nepal, one mistake by a guide led to 10 deaths. His mistake: roping up a large group of inexperienced clients together. One fell and dragged the guide and the rest to their deaths. If the ‘competency reserve ‘ of the group had been greater, some questions might have been raised about this stupid move prior to the accident. The challenge in managing risks for any group leader is increased where you have a higher amount of objective risks on the journey.

Some practical considerations, especially with children and risk activities in a mountain situation might include

–    having a subjective and objective risk assessment of the activity – from the route, guides (if any), and competency of the party participating in the activity. The earthquake in Kinabalu was a highly exceptional occurrence, and few, if any of the internationally recommended safety procedures, could have protected anyone from a shower of falling rocks. One would be better off looking at the safety procedures and protocols that cover the other 99% of possible risks in the actual activity
–    the greater the gap between the goal and the competency of the group, the closer one should pay attention to the guides’ skills and experience
–    a conservative gain in altitudes, especially over 2500m
–    understanding that altitude illnesses are hard to recognize in pre-verbal children who cannot report classic symptoms

Managing the risk aspect of mountain activities will be an ongoing challenge. Some adventure-learning organizations in Singapore have touted their activities as “safe adventure”. My opinion is that there is no such thing. You can only control risks only so far. However, to withdraw from taking any risks is to deprive young people from experiencing rewarding, and enriching lessons of the outdoors. AS TS Eliot put it:” Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go”.

David Lim was the leader of Singapore’s 1st Mt Everest Expedition and a leadership speaker and consultant

Photos of success rarely show the work that went before to get it. In the short video collage below on Youtube, I’ve included some clips of the climb, the changing weather, and of course the summit; never guaranteed:


Watch the video collage of the climb up Kinabalu (1:43) on Youtube: Straits Times were also kind to cover the story a couple of days later in The Sunday Times newspaper. NB: This climb is in aid of the good work of the Society for the Physically Disabled. Please support this cause by going to the specific “Kinabalu” link and make a donation. I  dont get a cent. It all foes to the SPD. We donated $4095 a dollar fro every metre climbed. Hope you can give generously! Thanks.


After leaving Magesh at Laban Rata – he looked so whacked, it would be cruelty to have asked him to continue – I went up with Ananias Mukim, a friendly Parks guide. The most tiring part of the clinb then began, tackling one steep set of cut steps or stairs after another, as the vegetation began to give way to more alpine shrubbery. It was past noon, and the weather was still holding. Friday, that day, was deemed by the weather forecast to be the worst of the week, with heavy rain expected. So I kept crossed fingers. img-20130823-lows-peak-webFamiliar landmarks from past trips came and went. Finally, the ropes began. The start of the Panar Laban slabs just below the 3660m Sayat Sayat Hut have these thick white ropes that are fixed all the way t0 the summit. Most of the time you won’t need them, and they serve more as a marker. The first section was a traverse up some 60-degree slabs, than a steeper, more sustained bit. This was just around where two climbers fell in two separate incidents in 2013.  I was pretty tired by then, and what should have been a doddle in the old days became a task demanding far more concentration than usual. I had slowed down a lot by the time I cleared the steep bit below the last hut. Emerging over a rise I saw a new, green building. What the %$£@??  Turns out it’s the new set of toilets, built just above Sayat Sayat. A new checkpoint shelter was also built. No sign of any rangers, but I met a few Austrians and Bulgarians attempting some technical routes.I soon drank the last of my water (from the original 2.5 litres), ate a GU gel, and continued up the summit slabs. At about 3pm , the weather inevitably began to turn. From an ascent rate of about 375m per hour, I had dropped to about a climb rate of 230m per hour. The cramps that started at 3400m had eased off -proabbly because of my slower climb rate, so that was good. It began to drizzle, and then rain. Bugger. Time to put on my rain shells. By the time I had finished, the rain had eased somewhat. And then the plough up the summit pyramid block.  Ananias’s main help was to be there to have some chit chat with me – anything from climbing gear to his dreams and ambitions. It broke the monotony of the final stretch.

IMG-20130823-KK2013 summit WEB

At the summit of Mt Kinabalu – Low’s Peak. First single-day ascent by a mobility-impaired athlete

It was good to practise my Malay that day. Just before the top, the clouds came in again and it began to hail. Well, not very big balls of ice – more like graupel. Finally, the summit – at 1555hrs, just about 8.5 hours after setting off that morning. At the summit, I took some snaps, unfurled the Society of the Physically Disabled flag, which I have had since 2000, and the began to pack to head down. The flag  has been on Everest, summits of virgin peaks, Aconcagua, Orizaba and host of other mountains. Bear, the stuffed toy from Maureen was, as on many of my climbs, strapped to the outside of my FirstAscent Bacon pack. best of all, the focused training to build balance in one-legged stances, and the high intensity circuits had really helped; and wil probably be the new normal for me , instead of the turgid Bukit TImah hill staircase sessions of the old days.


Clouds come and go over the summit block

Some quick calculations confirmed that this was surely my biggest one-day ascent of any summit. Even the long days like my ascent of Mt Blanc from the Italian side in 1992 – only involved an 1800 vertical gain day. This was a 2250m gain day by comparison – and no wonder I felt crappy and tired. Pretty soon, it was down, down and down. It began to rain. A lot. As the rain began to slide down my rain pants and into the top bits of my boots, I whipped out some cheapo home-made gaiters. To save weight, I had cut some black bin liners that I could stuff into the top of my socks so that they would extend to the soles of my boots. Rain coming off mypants would then runoff the binliners and over the waterproof boots. This old trick had worked a treat in the past, and did so again that afternoon.

The sky began to change as the sun began to set, filling the horizon with some really interesting hues of blue, and amber. I got into the Laban Rata cafeteria at 630pm, just in time to see Magesh forcing down some food. The “buffet” dinner, which I normally really looked forward to – had lost it’s appeal. I was just too tired to enjoy a big meal. A serving of noodles, veg, and some meat was enough for this weary hiker.

That night, I stayed up long after others had gone to sleep, trying to rehydrate myself with several mugs of lukewarm tea and water. And even when I had hit the bunk, some idiot was snoring like a buzz saw. -for hours!  I really slept around 230am after Magesh and several hundred other people got up to go for the summit in the usual pre-dawn procession. I awoke at 630am, checked my messages (of the joy of network coverage) and enjoyed looking at the shadow of Kinabalu thrown down the side of the mountain.  I relaxed over the great Pendant Hut “2nd” breakfast ( the 230am start offers only hot drinks and toast) of beans, boiled eggs, tinned sausages and more toast with jam. Magesh came back with his summit success around 0930hrs. We left for the descent at about 11am. I felt strong, heading down and began to pick up speed. By the time I reached Layang Layang at 2700m, I began to toy with the idea of beating my own best time down the mountain (not that I had  ever raced down in the old days) of around 3.5 hours.


Carson’s Falls

Just around 1:40 or so, I heard the oh-so-welcome “whooshing” sounds of Carson’s Falls, a landmark that tells you that you are pretty close to Timpohan Gate. Then a few minutes later, you climb the totally pointless 120 steps UPHILL to the Gate, and your trip is over – this time. Time: 2hours 51 minutes. Magesh and Ananias arrived 45 minutes later. A good time for Magesh. The rest of the trip back to Kota Kinabalu was uneventful. Lots to enjoy later – the Gaya Street market on Sunday morning, lots of eating, and a massage. A comfy life is a good life. But you learn more by suffering every now and then.

Also think of those who can’t enjoy many of things that we do.  Support the work of the Society for the Physically Disabled by making a donation today. Thanks for your help.

IMG-20130825 murtabak

Only in Kota Kinabalu: A sardine and veggie murtabak.Traditional Indian fried flat bread stuffed with the fish and vegetables, together with some fish curry.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu in A Day

For veteran Everest mountaineer and leadership coach, M.I doesn’t mean Mission Impossible, but rather Mobility Impaired.  This MI athlete will be attempting the first known single-day ascent of 4095m high Mount Kinabalu, by an MI athlete.

While most people trekking to the summit cover the ascent over a 2-day period, David has been preparing to make the ascent of Borneo’s summit, in a single day. Several ascents of the popular peak have also been done by other disabled sportsmen, but none, to the best of our knowledge, has done in a single push from the base of the peak (Timpohan Gate at 1866m asl) to the top.

Climbing in aid of the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), David’s  climb will begin on August 23rd, 2013. Weather permitting, he aims to make it to the top on the same day, and descend to the Pendant Hut at 3300m; before a descent to the base of the peak on Aug 24th.

Media opportunities include:

–       interview with David Lim

–       photo/ video opportunities of the ultra light weight kit he plans to use on the ascent

–       use of HD clip of training ( in Singapore)

A media briefing will be held on Tuesday, Aug 20th at 11am at:

SPD Ability Centre
2 Peng Nguan Street
Singapore 168955

This climb is made possible with the partnership of:

Mountain Torq Sdn Bhd
Society for the Physically Disabled

Web and Social Media:
David’s expedition website



David Lim
Mob: +65-97492076

Expedition Dispatches:


Four days to go to Kinabalu – it’s been quite a busy period focused on training; especially on strength-endurance wokouts for my weak right hip and leg. Lots of functional training work, repetitions in the 20-25 rep range, and doing a nice mix of that, a run a week, and 2 staircase sessions. It feels like I’m training harder than for the Qinghai virgin peaks climb in 2012!

The plan so far:

Aug 22: flight to Kota Kinabalu followed by a transfer to the national park.
Aug 23: Early start ( critical) at 7-8am to push to the summit, and descent to Pendant Hut at 3300m
Aug 24: further exploration and descent
Aug 25: Return to Singapore

The climb will begin at Timpohon Gate ( 1866m a.s.l) and end (weather permitting) at the summit ( 4095m), 13.6km, and 2400 vertical metres of height gain later.  We’ll then make a slower descent down to Pendant Hut by the late afternoon


mountaintorqEstablished by long time mountaineer, friend and expedition partner Wilfred Tok, Mountain Torq provides a unique mountaineering thrill and challenge. Consider it mountaineering for non-mountaineers. Mountain Torq is a string of routes comprising steel rungs, footplates and cables strung alongside steep cliffs and slopes of Mt Kinabalu. This is a via ferrata (or iron road) first created in the Italian Alps nearly 100 years ago. Since then, these methods of climbing up and traversing mountains have spread throughout Europe. MountainTorq is not only set in Mt Kinabalu,a UNESCO heritage site, but is also the world’s highest via ferrata. Find out more here.