“It was an audacious idea that a team of women were going to climb Mount Everest. Yet they did.
This book is a testament to their endurance and fortitude. All those who have trained for marathons and sporting events know the toll it takes.
I could feel myself shuddering in sympathy as they outlined their training in preparing for the ultimate event.
It’s truly ironic that the first test that every Singaporean out of the box idea must overcome is ” Where is the money?”
It’s almost like if you can find the money then you are committed to doing what it takes.
The book sounds like a treatise on how to navigate an obstacle course on the way to your goal.
Unlike many accounts of adventure stories, it provides a realistic gritty feel of what it takes to overcome Herculean odds and triumph. A great metaphor for a journey into adventure or even a business startup.”
I just did a quick read of your book “More Than A Mountain”.
I must say that it’s a joy to read and there are many awe inspiring moments in how the team overcomes the challenges & snubs in the 5 year journey.
And the photos are spectacular !!!! Definitely a keeper for our home & libraries!
I have just received the books with thanks. I unintentionally stumbled onto your team’s motivational story and book on the web a few months ago. I thought it has to be something interesting and I checked out the book at our local library. After browsing through the book I decided to get it.
I have been inspired by the motivating stories of how your team candidly unfold the challenges overcome to successfully summit Mount Everest, which is a testament to the strength and beauty of the human spirit. This book blessed me with the courage to embrace and confront my own mountains and vulnerabilities. That it is alright with not reaching the summit for every attempt. That failure is success in progress!
Applause to you SWET for putting this enchanting book together that are written from the heart, complemented by captivating photographs and illustrations. Definitely an inspirational book worth reading!
Thank you, SWET!
I’m having such an enjoyable read on your article. I can’t put down your book when I really should be clearing my work!
I completed SWET book within a day. I am very impressed by your team’s sharing and takeaway. It’s definitely going to be an inspiring book to many, so many valuable lessons you gals have shared in the book. Definitely a good book to have.
Preface by S.R. Nathan, Former President of Singapore
The world’s highest glass ceiling has been the ambition of many an adventurer over the centuries. Men, women – young and old – were driven by the challenge to reach the Summit or die along the way. Men outnumbered all those who have attempted to do this. Until recent times one rarely heard about women attempting such a feat. Now their triumphs and tragedy have attracted worldwide attention.
It was, therefore, something most unusual and unexpected to hear of Singapore women taking up the challenge of climbing Mount Everest. The story of a team of Singapore women embarking on such dangerous expedition came to many of us as something most unexpected – given the dangers of such an attempt. Unusual because our women, sheltered as they were to the comforts of their homes and womanly vocations, attempting such a dangerous mountaineering adventure, was unimaginable. It was not too long ago when the women in Singapore were typically portrayed as petit, demure, delicate even. This stereotype can be found in portrayals in movies and novels, epitomised in the Singapore Girl icon with her perennial smile and charm and their activities confined to sedentary ladylike pastimes.
Jane Lee and her all-female expedition must be congratulated for making history by being the first to embark on such a determined adventurous Everest mission and succeed. With determination each of them not only made the attempt, but indeed succeeded in reaching the world’s highest glass ceiling. This is their story.
It has been a long trek for the Singapore Women’s Everest Team, from the day the six of them became the final members of the team to the writing of this book.
They went through hours, days, weeks, months and years of training before setting off on that historic expedition on Everest. The publication of this book captures the lessons learnt in that arduous, monumental task but it is by no means the complete story of the Singapore Women’s Everest Team: That mountain was but one challenge – albeit an enormous one – in their lives. Their youthful vibrance, their enthusiasm and belief will come through in their individual stories here.
Even as they share that wonderful experience with us through their stories in this book and in the talks they have given before and after scaling Everest, the six members who make that team continue to experience mountains, literally and metaphorically, in the form of challenges in their daily lives as individuals and even now as part of the team.
I have had the great pleasure of know these brave young women and recall contacting them through the satellite phone to congratulate them when they had returned to the Base Camp after coming down from Everest’s Summit.
With this book, we have for the first time a harmony of their voices as they go into the depth and detail of their thoughts and feelings through the Everest experience. Indeed, they have captured the imagination of Singaporeans.
Today, the typical Singapore lady not only excels in contact sports. This remarkable group of women have taken this march to new heights. They have invaded another male preserve, that of mountain climbing.
They have made Singapore proud, and it is my wish for them that this book will continue to inspire many others as their ascent of Everest did.
Sixth President of the Republic of Singapore
May 15, 2013
Avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall
by Lee Peh Gee
The sound of rumbling thunder boomed across Everest Base Camp. Esther, Yihui and I looked across at one another in the team’s communal dining tent. We had been reading over breakfast, absorbed in our own worlds.
Sensing something amiss, we went out to take a look. It was not thunder, as we had thought. There was a huge commotion at Base Camp, and we soon realised what that noise was about – a huge mass of snow had slid off one side of the mountain, causing an avalanche. The impact of the rushing avalanche was the noise we had initially thought was thunder.
A cloud of snow formed where the avalanche landed. Slowly, it grew bigger and more intimidating, forming a thick envelope over the tents nearest to the Khumbu Icefall. The snow cloud eventually reached our campsite, which was one of the furthest from the Khumbu Icefall. Despite the distance, the approaching snow came fast and furious, indicating the magnitude of the avalanche.
This was the second time a major avalanche had occurred during the climbing season in Spring 2009, and these two were the biggest in a decade.
The first avalanche, which was just as massive, took place a day after our team descended from an acclimatization climb. At that time, we were deciding between staying an additional day at Camp 2, or making our way back to Base Camp earlier. Fortunately, we voted to return to Base Camp a day earlier, thus missing the first avalanche at 9.15am—the very same time we arrived at camp the day before—and so fortuitously avoided what could have been a disaster.
With the occurrence of the second avalanche, the relaxed atmosphere at Base Camp became fraught with tension. The radio crackled continuously with talks of a rescue operation.
This time, there was a casualty.
A pair of Austrian climbers and their Sherpa guide were making their way down to Base Camp through the Khumbu Icefall and they were caught in the avalanche. The Austrian couple was found hanging upside down in a crevasse, with only the rope between them holding them together. One of the Austrians later showed us his bruises, which were spread across his torso and face. He couldn’t remember much, as he had momentarily blacked out, only to find himself in a crevasse when he came to.
The Austrians were lucky. Their Sherpa guide could not be found.
Had the rescue team reached them just a little later, the Austrian couple would have perished from hypothermia. Another Canadian climber and his Sherpa guide were spared when they hid behind a serac, an ice block that shielded them from the impact of the avalanche. The Canadian recalled how he felt so suffocated when the snow whirled around him. He later pulled the plug on the climb and took a helicopter flight out early.
When this happened, we were just starting out on our first summit attempt. We were split into two groups to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, minimizing the risk that any sudden environmental changes might impact the group. Jane, Li Hui, and Joanne were in the first summit group. They were at Camp 1, having reached earlier than expected, and were lucky to have missed the avalanche.
It was to be my turn up the Khumbu Icefall with the second group the next day.
After witnessing the rescue operation following the avalanche, and coming to know about the first death that climbing season, I became increasingly uneasy and the fear of death loomed over me.
Yes, the fear of death, the fear of not returning home to see my niece grow up.
It’s More Fun Being a Female Climber
by Jane Lee
To date, over 5,000 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest, and of this number, less than 2% are female. Mountaineering has always been male-dominated, and it’s not difficult to see why the sport is stereotypically testosterone-driven: mountaineering involves long periods of exposure in the harshest environments on the planet, where showers are as rare as privacy, and where the adage “only the fittest survive” is usually pretty accurate. In other words, hardly a place for females, or at least, that’s the general impression.
When I first started telling people that we were planning to be Singapore’s first females to reach the summit of Mount Everest, it was as though I had become an instant stand-up comedian. My announcement was frequently met with startled laughs that were quickly chortled back with pretend coughs. The month after the team was formed, a cheeky cartoon appeared in the Straits Times, of a female climber on Everest wearing lipstick and high heels. While the cartoon did enrage some of my team mates with its derogatory undertones, I didn’t necessarily see the stereotype as a bad thing. It was a starting misconception that we could challenge. After all, I’ve always believed that women can cook and climb, be a mother and a mountaineer.
Many people assume that being female automatically put us at a disadvantage on climbs. We were presumably slower, weaker and less tolerant of suffering. We soon learnt to embrace the truism that the “mountain doesn’t care”. Whether we were male or female, the loads every climber had to carry were the same; we had to tolerate the same harsh conditions and push ourselves as hard as the next man. But even though male or female, we might all eventually get to the summit, I’d say that us girls, we had a lot more fun getting there.
We’re more colourful
The three most common colours you see on the mountains are blue, black and grey. That’s because most climbers are men and most men apparently hate colour and stick to the drab. Thanks to an increasing number of women playing in the outdoors, climbing apparel companies have recently come up with the prettiest of colours for climbing gear. I took, and still take, great delight in being perfectly colour-coordinated. Every single item of clothing I have is a complementary shade of pink or purple. Nothing brightens up a tough day on the hill better, than looking down at your own candy-coloured self.
Plus, the other great whimsical thing about being a girl, is that equipment companies throw in thoughtful details like tiny pockets on jacket sleeves just for lip balm, and add on embroidered flowers on shirt cuffs. There’s nothing like a technical jacket that’s storm-proof, but also comes with a hem of pink flowers. Colour-coordination is definitely one thing that the men don’t get.
Women make the best teammates
Imagine being on a three-month long adventure with your friends. It doesn’t get much better than that, except that these are also your best girl-friends. Being in a women’s team was the best experience of my life. I’ve been on other co-ed sports teams, but nothing comes close to the camaraderie of hanging out with your best girl-friends. I’ve been asked many times if being on a women’s team meant having daily cat-fights, and I honestly wonder what it is about the general perception of (unhealthy) female relationships that perpetuates the impression that a few women grouped together for weeks will eventually break down into chaos. On the contrary, I had five sister figures.
Besides commiserating on the usual battle scars and aches during climbs, it was comforting to just hang out together on rest days reading, or just to complete the most mundane tasks together. It was therapeutic to have Joanne braid my hair; we bonded over doing laundry in a dirty basin; and when any of us had to wash our hair, we’d set up an improvised hair-washing station with two of us wielding water bottles.
At Everest Base Camp, when we relaxed on our rest days off the mountain, we had so much fun in each other’s company, trading one used joke after another, and generally partaking in acts of hilarity, that our mess tent was always rollicking with laughter, to the point that we later found out we were secretly the envy of many other climbers who were stewing in the tense environments of their stressed out and competitive groups. What cat fights?
We surprise people
One of the most satisfying aspects of being a girl on a mountain, is throwing people off. A casual stroll through Everest Base Camp will quickly reveal the general demographic of Everest climbers: overwhelmingly male, mostly Caucasian and over six-feet tall. A group of diminutive Asian girls in bright, colour-coordinated climbing apparel (i.e. us) would be placed at the bottom of the pecking order, and we were. During the initial few weeks on Everest, when everyone started to head up the mountain, we usually brought up the rear and had to step aside while hordes of climbers blew past us. However, we weren’t unfit, and neither were we struggling. Kim Boon had simply trained us well to be patient and to allow time for our bodies to acclimatize gradually and efficiently. With no egos at stake, it didn’t bother us that we were overtaken by literally everyone during the early stages. After all, we reached the camps in good time and more importantly, in great shape.
By the time it came around for everyone to attempt the summit window, we noticed an interesting shift: while the macho men who had rushed past us a couple of weeks ago were burning out and had either gone home or were slowing down, we were getting faster and fitter. On summit day, we were out in the front of the pack, and thus avoided the much-dreaded bottlenecks on Everest. Coming off the mountain, it gave me great glee to be able to excuse myself to overtake men who had previously unceremoniously shot past us.
It was also a source of pride for me that we knew what we were doing on the mountain. Getting down the tricky and icy Lhotse face, our footwork was nifty enough that we could descend on controlled footwork, and saved time by not descending on an abseil. Joanne brought a story back to camp, of surprising a group of men stuck on a slow abseil line while she descended freely past them. Caught off guard, one of them uttered a cry, “Hey, that’s a girl!”
We’re emotional (and that’s a good thing!)
If it’s a cliché that women always talk about their emotions, then it’s something I’m pretty happy to be associated with. On climbs, tensions are often always high in an environment fraught with risk and danger, and when everyone is usually physically drained and mentally stressed from being confined to a small area. While we had heard horror stories of climbing teams breaking down due to politicking, in-fighting and character clashes, I’m glad that has never happened to us, and I think being open with our emotions had a lot to do with it.
Rather than wait for tensions to boil over and for slight misunderstandings to fester into resentment, we were open with voicing our frustrations and concerns, even if we irked each other in the short run. Being open with our emotions also meant that we were able to confide our personal insecurities and fears to each other. When we missed our families and boyfriends then, it was always a source of comfort to be able to talk it through with someone who shared similar feelings. I’d like to see a group of macho men hug it out over hot chocolate.
We win popularity contests
Being a minority female presence on the mountains had its benefits. If a female climber is rare, then a team of female climbers is rarer still, and thus we were always well known and popular wherever we went. Plus, I’d like to think that it’s also because we were also hospitable and friendly to everyone we met. Our coach and Base Camp manager, Kim Boon, in particular, enjoyed entertaining guests at his base camp kingdom.
On Everest, as well as on Cho Oyu in Tibet and elsewhere, we had a steady stream of visitors to our campsite, bringing entertaining company and food. The food was always very welcome, since we were eternally hungry, but always bored of our own snacks. Sometimes, our guests brought interesting conversation and we’d get coveted information, like which teams were moving up when, what the latest weather report was, or what the latest happenings were higher up the mountain. These little titbits of information sometimes came in handy when we were planning our own climbing schedule.
We were also invited to a lot of dinners with other teams. Two of such dinners that are still brought up with awe and fond memories, happened at Cho Oyu base camp in 2007, when we were invited to a meal that included prawns and seafood, and at Everest base camp, where the memory of mutton herb soup still makes my team mates’ eyes glaze over.
While some might perceive women to be the weaker sex, I think being in the mountains has a way of equalizing everyone, humbling even the strongest of men, and bringing out the best in an “emotional female”. Climbing Everest was awesome; but being part of the tiny 2% is even better still.
The Juggling Act
by Esther Tan
People often ask us: How did we manage to hold down full- time jobs, train six days a week, source for sponsors for the expedition, maintain ties with our respective families, and still have a semblance of a social life on top of all that? My answer: For five years on our journey towards Everest, I lived every day like a time trial.
A typical day for me would look like this:
6.45am: Wake up for morning spin class in gym
9.00am: Bathe, rush to work
12.20pm: Gym session if work schedule allows
1.50pm: Rush back to office, grab lunch on the way back
6.30pm: Leave office
7.00pm: Reach home, wolf down dinner
7.30pm: Reach Tiong Bahru housing block with backpack for stairs climbing
10.00pm: Head back home, bathe. Check email and handle miscellaneous team stuff like design publicity collaterals, banners…email potential sponsors
1.00am: Knock out. Repeat every thing the next morning
I would wake up early for a morning run (if I was not running again in the evening), or hit the gym for an early spin class. Then I’d go to work, and if my work schedule for the day wasn’t too tight, I’d squeeze in a gym session during lunchtime. I’d grab something quick to eat on the way back to the office, and continue working till 6pm or 7pm, before going for stairs climbing at Tiong Bahru Block 21. By the time I got home (thankfully, I lived just 10 minutes away from the block where we did our stairs climbing training), it’d be just after 10pm, and I’d wolf down a late dinner before checking my email for any updates from potential sponsors, and settle team administrative and marketing matters before hitting the bed (or in my case, my sleeping bag on the floor at home) at almost 1am where I’d be comatose for the rest of the night. The cycle repeated with the dawn of each new day.
Was I tired? Yes, but I didn’t get a chance to slow down and feel the fatigue set in. Sure there were days when, in my sleeping bag, I prayed to God that when my eyes opened, there’d be a thunderstorm across Singapore, and training for that day would be cancelled (I remember doing a victory dance in my sleeping bag once when I was woken up by the pitter-patter of rain). There were days when I overslept in the mornings, and days when I really didn’t feel like going to climb stairs after a long stressful day at work. But on those days, I knew that there would be five other people, just as tired as I was, waiting for me at the bottom of the block to train together. That knowledge was an immense encouragement. It was also a major source of guilt that stopped me from skipping training!
I suspect that at the back of our minds, we all had it ingrained in us that training would help increase the likelihood that we would come back alive from the mountains. It wasn’t a guarantee, as nothing is guaranteed on the mountains anyway. But making sure that we were physically fit would help us cope with the altitude and strenuous climbing schedule up on Everest.
I got married quite soon after returning from Everest, and people have wondered at how I found the time to date when I was training. The truth is, I didn’t. My boyfriend then (who is now my husband), in order to spend time with me, would climb stairs with me. Even though we couldn’t really talk during the session because we’d be out of breath most of the time, we could at least manage some semblance of a conversation when we reached the top-floor landing on the 30th level and took the lift down together. He would also go on long runs with me, and we would chat along the way. You could be corny and call our courtship “speed dating”, because almost everything we did during that period was done while I was training, as that was the only way we could see each other and spend time together!
I tried to reserve Sundays for church and my family, because technically Sunday was the only non-training day. Thankfully, my sisters and parents were very understanding. They knew that every training session I spent away from them increased my likelihood of coming back safe from the mountains. It also helped that my sisters are night owls and would often still be awake when I came back from my training sessions at night.
The team has often joked that we spent so much time training together that we saw more of one another than we did our family members. There’s much truth behind this, but strangely, at the end of five years, it seemed that instead of growing apart from my family, I felt like I gained five more family members.