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Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Latino Trilogy completed. 2/3 Andean mountains summited. 1 of them being a 1st Singaporean ascent!

The puna (high altitude desert environment as the locals call it) has been extremely challenging. Imagine being in an atypical desert. Sand dunes in one corner and with flamingos in the drying up salt lakes in the other corner. A flat barren landscape with snow capped dormant volcanoes popping out of no where like pimples on a rough bearded face. The sun will be shining bright but it would be freezing cold. The winds would churn up a sand storm in no time and the wind chill would cause the temperature to dip below zero in the middle of the day. Pablo, one of our guides told us that climbing a 6000m mountain here is comparable to climbing a 7000m mountain in the Himalayas due to the environment and the latitude of the place. I don’t know how true that is but indeed it was much tougher than I had imagined it to be.

Ojos del Salado (which means eye of the salt in Spanish) standing at 6893m, is the highest volcano in the world and the 2nd highest peak in the Andes. A simple ‘walk up’ as indicated by many books regarding the difficulty of the climb was utter nonsense as it turned out. Again my personal quote of never underestimating any mountain came true. The great thing about this peak was that you could drive straight to base camp at 5200m and if needed, it is further possible to drive up to the high camp at 5800m. For acclimatization’s sake we did not do the latter. There were no porters for this climb so we had to lug up all our equipment, food and water in 2 rounds of ‘cash and carry’ to high camp. Nat wasn’t doing so well by the 2nd cycle. He injured his lower back while trying to pick his heavy luggage at the airport and the heavy doses of painkillers he was taking (which included NSAIDs) might have triggered his wheezing. No known history of asthma but he had severe difficulty breathing and we decided that it was best that he did not go up any further as evacuation facilities were not available here unlike in Aconcagua.

Summit day was on the 23rd. Me and Swee Chiow with our guides set off at 5am in the blistering cold of -20 deg C and the winds did not make things any better. After consultation with Pablo, I had decided not to bring up my mittens as I did not use them in Aconcagua. This turned out to be the biggest mistake which cost me the summit. Just 2 hours into the climb, I could not feel my fingers due to the extreme cold winds. Pablo reassured me to keep going till the sun came up which would heat up my hands. Things just got worse and by the time the sun came up from over the neighboring peaks, it already had been 1.5h that my fingers had been numb under the 3 layers of gloves which did not make any difference. I was too afraid to carry on risking frost bite and decided it was best that I rewarmed my fingers 1st. Removing all my gloves and unzipping my down jacket I buried my hands under my armpits and left them there to thaw for 10mins. Rewarming really made my fingers painful and that was when I noticed that I could not feel the tips of my middle and ring fingers of both hands. 1st degree frost bite! At the moment, Pablo asked me to descend but being the stubborn me, I decided to carry on. Of all the climbs where I had my mittens with me, I had not used them and during the only climb where I needed them most, I was lacking them. Leaving my fingers exposed to the environment immediately numbed them again. I decided to throw my trekking poles into my backpack and place my hands into my pocket sheltering them from the wind. That was the last and only desperate measure that worked but climbing without the help of the poles was really difficult in the heavy snow that had prevented any summits for the past week before us. Now I knew why the phrase ‘blistering cold’ came about cos I know my fingers would be literally blistering very soon.

By the time this mini drama ended, Swee Chiow was already about an hour plus ahead of me. The slope was unrelenting. Every few steps and I had to stop gasping for air. My energy gels were frozen and the water than I had placed in the insulation pack had started icing up. Even the water in the thermost flask had gotten cold in abt 4h. The cold was terrible. At noon, the sun was shining down baking us but the temperature was way below zero and the winds were starting to pick up. One by one I saw members of the team that had set off ahead of us descending without reaching the summit; their reason – too cold. It started getting irritating when Pablo repeatedly started discouraging me from ascending each time we stooped for a break. It was as if he knew I wasn’t going to make it or he was not going to let me make it. I pushed on with extra fervour each time he asked if I wanted to turn back. After a grueling exhaustive 7.5h climb, we finally reached the crater rim of the volcano at 6800m which was less than 100m short of the summit. There we saw Swee Chiow and 4 other climbers from the other team ready to descend after having made the summit. 11 out of their team of 15 climbers had already descended without summitting by this time. As exhausted as I was, I mentally prepared myself to push on the last 100m up the rock formation by the side of the crater rim. That was when Pablo sternly said that I had to turn back that very moment. The winds were really strong by this time and he did not want to risk my fingers in any way especially when we were going to be the last ones on the mountain. On the other hand (no pun intended), I wasn’t going to give up the summit that easily especially since I was so near. We had a 10min discussion/argument up in that thin air. Pablo was not going to take the responsibility of brining me up with the winds esp with my fingers in a bad state. I could not carry on climbing without a guide. Very disappointedly, I had to descend. On hind sight, I think that was the wisest decision at that time. As I took my hands out of my pocket up at the crater rim to prove my point of not turning back to Pablo, they turned numb almost immediately due to the winds. Fingers any day over the summit! Now with more oxygen in my system, I’m able to rationalize this very simple logic but I sure hope that my brain works on Everest if I’m ever faced with a similar situation.

I am still happy that I managed to stand on the crater of the highest volcano in the world and that the experience was an excellent acclimatization training for my final goal – Everest. Our plans of doing Pissis (3rd highest peak in the Andes) didn’t come true as we did not have enough time left with our tight schedule. Instead, we decided to recharge a little back at Fiambala and head for another 6000m peak called San Francisco. It was another 100km into Chile from the Ojos base camp to get out passport stamped before we headed 100km back into Argentina. The ridiculous thing was that, in total, we travelled an additional 400km just to get stamps! Include all the other traveling distances and I’m pretty sure that we covered the distance that spans ,from Singapore to Bangkok.

Mt San Franciso was another one of the many volcanoes straddling next to the border between Chilie and Argentina. Towering at 6018m, it has never been climbed by any Singaporean before. After a relatively uncomplicated 6h climb (which was still much harder than it looked) Swee Chiow and myself became the 1st Singaporeans to summit this mountain on the 27th of Jan 2012 at 1215h. WeeHoo! We left the Singapore flag singed with our names in Fiambala, the dusty Argentinian border town halfway across the world. So next time someone walks into the office and sees our tiny nation represented in a huge way over there, they might just reflect that Singaporeans aren’t spoilt timid creatures who are afraid to venture out of their comfort zones.

With that, the Latino trilogy (something Swee Chiow had coined) came to a conclusion. Content with my 2/3 summit success and our 1st Singaporean ascent, I knew that this invaluable training and acclimatization process will definitely make a huge difference on Everest. Sad to part from this beautiful nation with friendly people and wonderful landscapes, it’ll be another epic 4 day journey back home. All is well.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Travels to the base camp of Ojos

Hiking in the Andes is turning out to be more pleasant than what I expected. When we started the hike, it was really hot and dry and there wasn’t any much surrounding mountains that we could could catch a glimpse of. Now has we’re reaching higher altitudes the view of the other Andean snow caped peaks are within sight and its getting immensely beautiful.

4 of us, Swee Chiow, myself, Nat and Benz were supposed to head down to Ojos after the 1st climb. Unfortunately, Benz suffered 1st degree frost bite on all his toes and bilateral big toe Subuncal haematoma during his descent down Aconcagua due to his nail hitting against the inside of his new boots. With the limited resources, I had to perform trephination (a simple surgical procedure performed by drilling holes into the nail to allow the trapped blood beneath causing the pressure and pain to be alleviated) on his toes in a hope that it would become better. Heating the knife portion of a Swiss army knife under a lighter flame and carefully drilling multiple holes in the freezing cold and using a hand sanitizer for sterilization wasn’t the easiest of tasks. The procedure worked well on Lucas who also suffered the subuncal haematoma but unfortunately, Benz was still unable to walk downhill due to both factors and had to pull out from the Ojos team.

We had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning of the 18th to catch our 1.5h flight to Bunoes Aries at 0630h. At the mendoza domestic airport, we met the Australian couple who were following almost the same schedule as us during our climb. Unfortunately they did not summit as they tried for the summit just one day after us on the 13th. We found out that no team mananaged to summit for almost a week after the 13th due to the heavy snow and terrible winds that started when we were at the summit. Only then did I count my lucky stars for all the moments that seemed to slip by without them.

It was then a 3h transit wait at bouenos aires domestic airport before our 1.5h flight to Catarmaca. We were only allowed 15kg baggage allowance as it was a domestic flight but not surprisingly ours was almost double that. To reduce our load and payment, I had to slip on my bright red and yellow 5kg Everest Millet boots with gaiters that went up to my knees. It looked absolutely ridiculous and got too much attention. I looked as through I was trying to smuggle something across the customs and it was a real pain that took almost 15min to remedy when they asked me to remove my boots for checking as the scanner beeped as I walked through it. I still had to pay quite abit which sucked for all that hassle I had to go through.

At Catamarca, a 45min taxi ride brought us to the cowboy town where you could literally see drift weeds floating past and the sand and the heat at high noon fill the air. All you needed was the gun slinging cowboys and there we would have had our own wild west movie in the making. Everyone only knew Spanish there. It was amazing that through hand gestures and with our vocab of the local lingo which was just limited to greetings and numbers, we managed to book our 6h bus ride to Fiambala. This was the ride that took us into the Atacama desert (called Pune in Spanish). Everything was barren sand dunes with red rocks and mountains in the horizon. It was amazing. We reached the smallest of small towns of Fiambala close to midnight and we slept close to 2am not knowing what was to become of us the next day.

Apparently everyone knew everyone and everyone was related to everyone in the town. We went to find our contact, Johnson,  in the security / tourist / police / information office. He arranged the car ride to the Argentinian Chilie border and introduced us to 2 groups of ppl. We were soon face to face with the Italian group of 4 men who were getting drunk on wine during dinner our previous night. These guys had actually tired Ojos from the same route we were going on and had to turn back halfway through due to bad snow conditions just 300m from the summit. Suddenly the easy ‘walk up’ peak was not looking so straight forward anymore. We were hoping for good weather and snow conditions while we were going to be climbing.

The other person that Johnson introduced was even more interesting for me. From far he looked like an Indian (as in a indian national and not a native indian). But how could it be in this part of the world? I concluded that it must be a badly sunburnt local. Swee Chiow somehow seemed to have uncanny familiarity towards this man and later we found out that he had met this South Indian from Andra Pradesh in 2006 on Everest while he was on his quest to finish the 7 summits. He eventually became the 1st indian national to complete the 7 summits in a time of 172 days. What even shocked me more was that this guy could speak Tamil! What are the chances of the 1st Singaporean to complete the 7 summits to meet the 1st Indian to complete the 7 summits in a remote town in the Andes completely out of coincidence. On top of that, what are the chances that another man in South America would look like me and talk the same minority language as me! I was totally thrilled and honored to have met him by pure chance. He was there by himself and was on a quest to climb the highest peaks in each of the South American nations. He was going to climb Ojos but from the Argentinian side which would take longer. We invited him to join us on Pissis if possible.

We had 2 guides for our Ojos leg of the expedition whom were very much different from the 3 guides we had on Aconcagua. They were so much more chill and down to earth. We were having a conversation while going to the hot spring (yes, this area is littered with hot springs from the volcanic geothermal activity in the region). I was telling the guide that I had taken a year off work to climb. At that moment, he added ‘…and to think’. That stopped me in my tracks and ironically got me thinking. He was the very 1st person who I had told my story to who had captured the essence of why I had taken the year off without me even mentioning the reason. To think. Absolutely right. More than to climb, to think. Even myself sometimes forget that when I get too caught up with my climbing. I’m so glad that these type of people who focus on the less materialistic aspects of life still exist hidden between us. You jut need to get a conversation started to discover them and to allow them to discover yourself.

Once we crossed the Argentinian border pass at 4725m (called San Fransisco pass) it was another 100km ride to the Chilean border post to get our Chiliean passport chop. Then it was another 100km back to the entrance of Ojos. This really didn’t make any sense as technically we were illegal immigrants in Chilie for 100km till we got the stamp. The locals are really irritated with the system and are trying to get the border post to be at the Chilean border where it rightfully belongs. It was then a really bumpy 4×4 wheeler ride to base camp at 5200m. It has been so interesting just getting to the base camp of Ojos thus far. Who knows what is yet to come and what is yet to be?

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

View during summit day. Just another snow capped Andean peak littered in the backgroud

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

From the Argentinian Chilean Border post. Amazing thing that they have connection here

At the exact moment this photo was taken, my pants split. But still an absolutely beautiful Andean range in the background

At Camp 2 of Acongagua (5500m) with the Singapore flag

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Acongagua Summited!!

Great news! The highest mountain in the American continents and the highest point out of Asia has been summited. 6 out of my team of 8, including myself, summited Mt Acongagua, 6962m on the 13th of Jan at 1500h. There was equal south east asian representation on the summit with 2 Singaporeans, 2 Malaysians and 2 Thais and it was an incredible moment when each of the countries’ flags was held up high and proud on the summit by their respective country men.

I’m glad i’m finally able to share this piece of news and update my blog after having gone without internet and phone reception for more than 2 weeks. I think this has been the longest period of time that I’ve been absolutely not in contact with the outside world. Even money could not buy this connectivity cos that was how remote this mountain was. We’re finally back in the hotel in Mendoza with the most basic of human rights, which is readily accessible communication with family and friends.

This was the mountain that started it all. Claudia, my rock climbing team mate and exchange PhD student from Romania during my days in NUS climbed Aconcagua with her Romanian mountaineering friends in 2008. My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped when I saw her expedition photos on flicker. That was when I decided, if someone that I knew could experience all this beauty and excitement 1st hand, I could try doing it too. With that, my Kilimanjaro trip was organized and the rest was history (or maybe still in the making). It was one heck of an experience setting foot on the mountain that inspired it all. I could only imagine how Claudia was feeling at her moment of glory as I was retracing her steps to the summit. One never realizes how much even their smallest of actions can affect someone else in tremendous ways. Unknowingly, Claudia’s passion ignited something within me and made me want to do something with my life. If you’re reading this Claudia, thank you so much for your inspiration which has changed my life forever. And for all the others who reading this, I hope that I could be of some inspiration to at least a couple of you.

Our team of 8; 3 singaporeans, 3 Malaysians and 2 Thais, led by our very own south east asian climbing and adventure veteran, Khoo Swee Chiow started off the journey to the other side of the world on the 31st of Dec 2011. Below is a brief description of how we got to the base camp of Acongagua. It took us nearly 1 week of flying, bus rides and trekking to finally reach the base camp on the 5th of Jan.

We departed singapore changi terminal 2 at 2120h on 31st dec 2011. Flew to KL and had a 3h transit there. Then it was a 11.5h flight to cape town. Stop over for 1.5h. Followed by a 8h50min flight to boeunos aires. Landed at 1300h local time (11h time difference bet sin). Then it was a 1.5h bus ride to the domestic airport. We took the 1720h flight to the city of Mendoza for another 1.5h and finally another half hour bus ride to reach the hotel at about 8pm.

The very next day, we took a 4 h bus journey to Puente Del Inca (2725m). A half hour bus ride on the 3rd of Jan to entrance to the Vacas valley. Then a 6h trek to Pampa De Lenas (2800m) in an extremely hot 44deg celcius which made all of us sick in one way or another. On the 4th, another 6h trek took us to Casa De Piedra (3200m). On the 5th, a final 7h trek took us to the base camp of the Vacas Valley route, Plaza Argentina (4200m).

Phew, technical details are over. Now, I continue with the more interesting descriptions of what happened. Never under estimate a mountain no matter how easy it may seem. This was something I took away from my experience on my 1st mountain, Kilimanjaro. Although Aconcagua is deemed the highest ‘trekking’ peak in the world, it sure posed a lot of challenges when we were there.

Winds were terrible. A Canadian female team of 2 had to return to base camp as their tent got blown away due to the wind. We saw alot of shredded tents at camp 1 as well. The whole night at camp 1 was filled with noise of tent flaps hitting hard against the tent. We just hoped that the fly sheet wouldn’t take off in the middle of the night.

Cold and snow. It was summer in Argentina but night temperatures were way below zero every night and it would snow almost certainly every afternoon. As we got higher, it got colder and it seemed that no matter what I wore, I was still struggling to fall asleep in the cold.

Old injuries. Somehow, I tend to fall sick each time I am about to depart for a trip. I caught a flu just 2 days before departing. The flu disappeared soon after the hike began but my torn left meniscus problem flared up and I couldn’t straighten or bend my knee fully and it was a truly painful affair squatting for the toilet or even when sleeping, when the inflammation was the greatest. My previously dislocated right acromioclavicular (the joint between the collar bone and the shoulder) also gave problems as we had to carry heavy loads from camp to camp as there was a tight restriction on the load that the porters would carry.

They had constructed toilets at base camps so that wasn’t really a problem. But up in the high camps, what I feared most was indeed true. We had to do our number 2s inside plastic bags. But the greatest relief was that there were porters to consolidate these plastic bags and carry it on our behalf. Literally shitty work. As we got to camp 3,the procedure changed and were asked to use newspapers instead of plastic bags. Hmmm… Wondering how? Drop on the newspaper and then clear into the trash bag. Of my greatest heaven luck, the diarrhea that I was hoping would not return had to come back with vengeance when I was at camp 3. So you can just imagine how messy everything was. But I wasn’t complaining as I said earlier. I just began to pity the porter a lot more then.

After our cash and carry and our 1st acclimatisation cycle to camp 1, we set off for our summit push to camp 1 on the 9th. We had been extremely lucky with the weather even though it had not been too favorable for the other climbers. On the summit day, we left in the bitter cold of the morning at 5.30am. White rocks, black rocks, the destroyed independica hut, the finger, the cave and finally the canalata. After a grueling and extremely tiring 9.5h climb, we finally reached the summit. However the moment on the summit was short lived as heavy winds and snow forced us down the mountain as quickly as we got up. We struggled back to camp 3 in a white out for another 4h. No views on the summit due to the thick snow. Extremely cold, wet and miserable when the summit day ended.

Somehow I tend to leave a part of myself on the summit of each mountain by puking, either due to exhaustion on Mt Chola or due to coughing too much on Mt Ama Dablam. I was trying terribly to resist this trend on this mountain but unfortunately I circummed to my legacy once again, but this time due to a rather strange reason. I was extremely exhausted but elated on reaching the summit – no nausea yet. Then there was this Chillean couple who came up to the summit around the same time as us and they started crying in joy upon the completion of the ordeal. I saw them and started getting emotional myself and somehow the vomit centre in my brain was activated and there I was uncontrollably leaving a part of myself on the summit once again. Emotion and nausea?? New area for research perhaps.

Unfortunately 2 of my team members couldn’t summit. For the very 1st time with my very own eyes, I had witnessed someone getting HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) in my own team. Siang Beng eventually got evacuated by helicopter to a lower altitude. The other, Andrew, started developing breathing difficulties and mild confusion and was lagging behind from the main team quite significantly on summit day and was turned around before anything major could happen. The oldest of the lot, 58 year old Yee Choi who has ran 45 marathons and 3 ultra marathons (1 of them being 100km long) also did not escape the wrath of the mountain. He had coordination difficulties upon walking and using crampons on the summit. He also lost consciousness for brief moments towards the last leg of the summit. The guides really wanted to turn him back but somehow he dangerously persisted and reached the summit; something which he claims was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Himself and another team mate, Lucas, had to be cautiously escorted down to camp 3 by the ends of ropes with the help of the guides so that they would not fall off the ridge of the mountain due to exhaustion as they descended.

Luckily, the only thing I took back from the mountain was becoming darker and thinner. We’re resting at Mendoza now for a day. After which, the 2 Thais and 2 Singaporeans, Natapol, Benz, Swee Chiow and myself will be leaving to Chille via a long round about route to climb Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano in the world and also the 2nd highest mountain in the American continent. The rest will be flying back home.

Ojos isn’t going to be any easier than Aconcagua even though it’s about 100m shorter than its counterpart. As i dread now on why I am doing this to myself, I hope that this feeling will soon turn to eagerness from the fact that I’m going to a new country and that this is extremely good training for Everest. I don’t know if I’m getting too burned out from climbing too much but i’m loving every moment of it!

If everything goes well or not well for that matter, we’ll be climbing Pissis, the 3rd highest mountain in South America. Looking at things, our schedule is looking very tight after the cancellation of the South American service of Malaysian airlines from Feb which is forcing us to return home earlier. We’ll see how things go. Either way, I couldn’t be happier than the way things are turning out. I’ll keep updates coming in as and when I’ve connectivity although I’m afraid I’m going to a more ‘ulu’ mountain in a more ‘ulu’ town.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Off to base camp

After traveling over multiple time zones as we invite the New Year, Kumaran has reached Argentina. The weather is good. He has now set off for base camp of Aconcagua. Tentatively, he should be able to reach civilization by 17th January.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Uncategorized