Almost 5 years have passed and I still hadn’t gotten down to writing the last segment of my climb. I’ve no excuses but would being busy at work be a reason good enough to spare me from assault?
As me and Gayathri returned from Nepal to Singapore on our silk air flight on the 3rd of June together with my secondary school teacher Mr Krishnan, I was in for a pleasant but embarrassing surprise. The captain of the plane welcomed everyone on board n something more. ‘A special welcome to Dr Kumaran Rasappan who is here with us. He has successfully scaled to the summit of Mt Everest and raised money for charity in doing so. Congratulations Dr Kumaran’. As the other passengers started clapping, I sank lower in my seat hoping that no one would realize it was me. It seemed that Gayathri and Mr Krishnan were more excited on the news than me.
I was surprised that only the 3 of us together with another couple were the only ones who got off at Singapore being their final destination. The rest of the passenger were in transit to Australia. Apparently Australia has a high Nepali population. As we were claiming our bags I noticed a huge crowd gathered at out the belt we were at. I didn’t tell anyone other than family abt my arrival. But there was no one else at exiting from there. Oh dear, it dawned upon me that my summit was something bigger than I ever expected. My mom was the first to greet me outside the gate. She hugged me with all her might and gave a kiss my cheek. Something that I had only remembered her doing as I was a young child. Following which media crew engulfed me with thralls of camera flashes. My title sponsors ‘Cerebos’ were present and the alumni and current members of 01 raffles scout group were also present. Sporadic pockets of friends formed the exterior of this group and the rest of my family was nestled quietly at the perimeter. I took to them first. It felt really weird being greeted by so many ppl. I knew it was just everest but I was made to feel like star and that I had done something extraordinary. The months following that memorable day would be filled with media interviews, photoshoots, enquiries from fellow aspiring everesters on everest and numerous talks and lectures to educational/medical / commercial institutions. Till today, I’m still giving talks. Its getting draining but every time I talk abt the mountains, it makes me feel as though I’m back on my climbs again and that gives me the motivation to keep talking. I live on the mountains through the memories and the passion of sharing my experiences.
What’s keeping me busy now? Life has a way of entangling people in the moment and keep them from looking back or forwards. It has been such for me. I’m training to become a fully qualified orthopedic surgeon in Tan Tock Seng hospital and it’ll take me another 2 years to fully qualify. This seems to be another mountain keeping me extremely busy all the time. The life of a specialist trainee is not easy at all. Sleepless nights, exams after exams, long hours, on calls, studying and doing research in the only free time you’ve got left. I love medicine but honestly, I’d rather be on the mountain anytime. Life was straight forward and simple. U take one step forward and you know you’re one step closer to your goal of the summit but in working life, no matter how much you struggle, the end product may not seem to be in sight. Another mountain to climb indeed.
Where did I last leave everyone hanging? On the final days of the climb during summit push. Let me take things from there and complete the loop.
It was 2am and my alarm clock rang. This time I knew that it was the last time I would be waking up early from base camp. Our last cycle and also our summit push! We ate breakfast, put our gear on and bid farewell to everyone staying behind. We had done this a couple of times now but there was a different feeling this time round, everyone was more solemn. There would be summits and there would be disappointment but what we were all worried abt was if everyone who bid us farewell would be seen again.
It was the quickest trawl through base camp. But as the sun began to rise, we clearly could see that the ice was certainly less stable as the season was drawing to a close. There were a lot of mini avalanches with ice drift spinning past us as we crossed the ice fall. I remember this scary moment where part of the western shoulder broke off in front of us and all of us ducked. After a few seconds till we waited for the wind to settle we realized that it had only been a small avalanche but it was sure damn scary. I was certain that this summit window would be the last for the season.
It was a quick rest in camp 1 and by the late morning on the same day, we were fast on our way to camp 2. It was a pretty scary experience trudging to camp 2 this time. Although I clocked the fastest timing, the route was sprawled with dangers which we had not experienced before. The season was getting warm and ice from either sides of the western cwm (Nuptse and western shoulder of Everest) had started breaking off. This made the section prone to avalanches and there were huge blocks of ice and rock spewed all across the cwm. Some parts of the straight forward route had to be modified as large crevasses had formed very close to the main route. We saw a few small avalanches along the way as well as a huge one which had us kneeling just to avoid the spin drift. I started wondering how the situation would be when we made our return a few days later.
Sitting at the top of the berschund, the IMG camp site was the furthest and highest amongst all the others. Just when you think it you’ve reached C2, it would be another half hour climb just to reach our campsite. Even though I had been there a couple of times now, I really felt exhausted this time going for almost a full day from base camp straight to C2.
A quick and early breakfast the next morning and we were up the Lhotse face by sunrise via the new route, just to the right of the old one, avoiding the rock fall danger that the previous route possessed. I was fired up as I climbed. Somehow with renewed energy and motivation knowing that this would be the last time I’d ever be coming up this route again. The climb was also made easier from the foot-steps carved into the ice by all the many climbers.
As I climbed, I was relieved when I saw the first tents starting to appear but it would be another 1.5hours before we reached IMG’s C3. We were moving much slower up at this altitude but were happy that O2 was finally made available. We slapped on our O2 masks, set the regulator at 0.5L/min and started resting. I didn’t know it but my body was being recharged much faster as compared to resting without O2. For the first time throughout the expedition, I was going to sleep with O2. Drifting in and out of sleep, I was truly yearning for the next day to start as I forgot how uncomfortable it could get sleeping with O2 from my memory of Cho Oyu.
It was an early start the next day just as the sun hit the Lhotse face. For the first time in this expedition, I was climbing with O2 and it made a HUGE difference. I felt strong and was rather fast compared to ever before. We were soon scrambling up the yellow band in about an hour after setting off. The yellow band was a really tiring vertical 30 m segment where crampons had to spark and screech on rock. I could see the queue of climbers behind us waiting to clear the segment. Soon, we reached the Geneva Spur where we could see the branching trail which led to C4 of those climbing Lhotse. We carried on west towards the south col. Before I knew it, I got a glimpse of C4 perched delicately amongst the ruins of previous expeditions on the beautiful South Col at 7900m. It was a rather quick climb from C3 to C4 which took me about 3.5hours.
C4 was a very dry, isolated place with dead bodies hidden amongst the ruins of shredded tents and plastic and used O2 tanks from almost 60 years of expeditions. For the first time, I could see Everest, from a different angle, standing there right in front of me in all her glory. I was wondering how in the world I was supposed to climb that remaining 1 vertical kilometre towards the sky in just a few hours. I had reached literally the highest point in my life thus far and the scary face of Everest loomed in front of me. While I was eating and resting, I had to mentally prepare myself for what seemed how a soldier would feel before starting his strike on his enemies at war. I knew I had to give my 110% but didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive. It was a sobering thought that kept me from sleeping for the rest of the day. We rested from about noon till 8pm and then we were off on the same day.
With the O2 set at 2L/min, I was fast. The difference I felt with climbing with O2 was like night and day. We climbed past the triangular face and into the unknown. There I came across my encounter with my first dead body on the slopes. On the 19th of May which was the 1st summit window, there were over 200 climbers vying for the summit which caused a traffic jam. Many were asked to return due to their O2 tanks running low. 4 climbers who reached the summits died on their way down to C4 as their O2 ran out and they were left lying beside the main path up. There was this person lying still on the snow as I was climbing. Initially I thought he was resting but when he lay motionless for the next 10 mins as I passed him, it occurred to me that he was one of those who died on the 19th. I encountered all 4 of those who died. We had to literally go around and cross them as they blocked our path. It was a sobering experience and even though I had seen dead people as a doctor, this was different. I was reminded of my own mortality as I knew I was going to do exactly what they had tried doing a week back. Before my mind could sink deeper into this fear, I had to shake myself out of it and get my focus back on.
I reached the balcony at about 8400m where we had our first O2 tank change. My mask was only off for about 5 mins but within that time, my fingers and toes started freezing up and I started panting harder. It was -40deg Celcius and I was in the death zone where O2 levels were about a third of what was available at sea level. Sherpas choose to climb with O2 not because they can’t make it to the top without it but as it keeps them warm. I clearly knew what a difference it made with O2 that moment. When I was resting in the dark for that few moments, I saw this female climber getting dragged up the slope by 2 sherpas on short rope. The 3rd Sherpa quickly removed her pack, her down and made her comfortable. The climber looked like she was in a terrible state. She couldn’t talk, was gasping and before she knew it, the Sherpas changed her tank and got her back onto her feet even though she was pleading for a few more moments of rest. I really thought she wasn’t going to make it down alive.
With a new tank, it was time to tackle the rest of the south east ridge. The sun began to rise around 4.30 am and it was truly an unforgettable sight. When people ask me now, what the most memorable part of the summit was. I undoubtedly always tell them that it was this moment when the sun rose and finally I could see how high I had climbed; to see the Tibetan plateau on my right and Nepal on my left with the shadow of Everest cast upon Nepal – unforgettably mesmerising. I was looking down upon Lhotse by that time and I knew the summit couldn’t be that far away. I finally reached the south summit and had a view of the true summit just a stone’s throw away but I knew it would be another few hours before I got there.
The knife edge ridge followed the south summit. There was already 2 way traffic by this time with people who had already summited returning back. The 1 way rocky face just before the Hillary step was extremely difficult to manoeuvre with this 2 way traffic. There were dangerous instances where we had to clip off the fixed lines for a sustained periods to allow climbers to pass. Soon I reached the Hillary Step. 10metres of vertical rock which stood between the summit and a climber achieving his dreams. It was harder than I had expected. I was panting so hard just after completing it and had to turn up my O2 to 3L/min just to catch my breath. I knew now why it was considered the crux of the climb.
As I passed the Hilary Step and climbed higher, I knew there was no further obstacles that stood between me and the summit now. I knew that 4 years of preparations and hard work was going to be paid off. Though a hundred thoughts tried running past my mind, I was just too tired to be excited. I walked till there was no further land to walk upwards. I knew that this was it. This was the summit of the world!
26th of May 2012 at 0655H (Nepal Time) I stood on the rooftop of the world. I was thankful for everyone who have seen me through till this moment and for God to have allowed me to achieve this feat.
Prayer flags covered the summit and there were about a dozen people at that moment celebrating their triumph. The walkie talkie sounded “Congratulations, now get down as soon as possible”. I knew the dangerous of staying atop for long. I quickly got down to business. I took out my sponsor flags, took videos and photos and had a few moments for myself. I had dreamt of this moment for a long time but when I was actually realising it at the very moment, I wasn’t as emotional as I thought I’d be. My mind was a blank and I was thinking about the perils ahead on the way down. The sense of satisfaction, elation and exuberation were emotions that I had dreamt I’d be feeling on the summit but none of that surfaced. I was extremely exhausted and the feeling became even more overwhelming when I knew that I was only halfway done. I had to go back down. Within 20 mins, I was climbing back down again.
Coming down was harder than going up. I had to give my fullest concentration to each step, else I knew the consequences. Slowly, I made my way down to C4. Had my first drink in over 12 hours. Picked myself up and made my way down to C2. I was totally exhausted and dehydrated by the time I reached C2 close to 7pm. It was a 23hour summit push no food and minimal water. I got a shock when I peed that night. There was blood in my urine! I realised that I had exhausted my body so much that it started breaking down my muscles in order to get energy and what I saw was a phenomena called myoglobinuria – where the red pigmented myoglobin from the muscles got excreted from the urine due to muscle breakdown as the body didn’t have enough energy stores. Scary but relieving as I had some medical background and knew that it wasn’t life threatening. I scrambled into my tent to get my much needed rest and nourishment.
The next day, with renewed energy, I was hurrying back to BC as fast as I could hoping that the rest of the melting ice would not crumble on me while I was passing. The celebrations awaited. It was indeed a much anticipated and welcomed event after the 2 months of hardship. Only then did it start sinking into me what I had accomplished.
My journey wasn’t over just as yet. Mr Krishnan had already made his way down to KTM and was awaiting my arrival there and Gayathri was waiting for me at Phortse. We still had to go to Gorkha to deliver the computers to the students there. I made a long 1 day journey from BC all the way to Phortse on the 28th and reunited with Gayathri after almost a month. We were back at Lukla by the next day but had to take a helicopter back to KTM. The weather was bad and we could not fly out by regular twin otter planes.
My Everest adventure concluded with me reuniting with Mr Krishnan and Netra Mani Kattel, the ex-headmaster of Shree Saraswothi higher secondary school in Gorkha, in Tibet Guest House in Thamel and then proceeding to Fire and Ice café to finally savour good city food after being away on the mountains for almost 3 months.
Many things have happened since then. With me updating my blog after 5 years, as you may have guessed, many more things are about to happen. I’ll disclose the information slowly over the coming weeks.
Currently however, there are 3 Singaporeans trying for the summit of Everest this year. The NTU-NIE team comprising of Yusrina, Jeremy Tong and Dr Sara. Let us all wish them the best of luck for this season!