Climbing without Oxygen

When Robert stood on the central summit of Xixabangma (aka Shishapangma) on 16 May 2002, at 8012m, he realized that he had taken the first step to climb Everest and K2 without supplementary oxygen. Robert edged closer to this dream on 27 Sep 2004 when he stood on the summit of Cho Oyu (8201m). Both mountains were climbed without using supplementary oxygen.  They were the first Singaporean team and the first in South East Asia to accomplish what most thought was impossible. In mountaineering, summitting, or just surviving is never guaranteed, especially above 8000m, which mountaineers call the death zone (where nothing lives in the death zone for long due to the extremely low oxygen levels).




Robert at 8012m (Mt Xixabangma)
without Oxygen, 2002.

A worthy challenge

Robert's team   plans to Climb Everest and K2 without oxygen attracted the same non believers and nay sayers. Again, they are the first Singaporean team to take on the challenge. Robert believes that climbing high without oxygen is the way to go for serious high altitude mountaineers -- Mountaineers who wish to push their limits and take the mountain on its own terms. Robert is sure he can do it and the way to do it is to discover his own limits as he climbs higher, Step by step. Only then will he comprehend what it takes to climb high safely into the death zone without oxygen.

This challenge has been the motivation and focus for Edwin (Robert's climbing partner of many expeditions) and Robert since 2002. They adhere to a rigorous training programme to prepare them for the big one. Robert believes that passion accompanied with commitment is a powerful force towards success. He also believe that only through pushing limits and reaching for the heights can one bring about progress. There is an Everest in everyone.


Robert at 8201m (Mt Cho Oyu) without Oxygen, 2004
 

Importance of shared dreams

In 2005, Robert climbed Everest without oxygen as a team with Edwin. "We had a shared dream to reach for the top of Everest without supplementary oxygen. This dream practically galvanized us in all that we do on the mountain. The big picture of getting up there safely made us more tolerant of the nitty gritty differences that we may have. This tolerance in a highly stressed extreme environment is a critical guage of how well the team is together or not together." And this is not a given in every team.

Never give up easily

There were also many close calls during the expedition, including an avalanche which nearly killed Robert. Undeterred, but on the contrary encouraged by the challenges ahead, they pressed on the expedition with enthusiasm and caution as they acclimatized higher.

On the final push, Edwin and Robert were well prepared and acclimatized well. "We felt good and were raring to go for the summit on the final push. Unfortunately bad weather thwarted our attempt and we waited to the very last day of our permit for a break in the weather. It never came." That year saw six deaths on Everest. It was a huge set back for them and they were very disappointed, Although that is the nature of mountaineering. But Robert knew that he cannot give up; I cannot cave in at every set back. "As we depart from Everest base camp on 15 June 2005, I looked up towards the Everest and knew that I will return."


Robert (extreme right) with Edwin (second from right) at 8000m (Mt Everest, South Col),
without Oxygen, 2005.
 

Everest without O2 in 2007

Having so close to sumitting the mountain with Ed in the Spring of 2005, Robert could not take his mind off Everest. The passion and challenge of climbing on the upper slopes of Everest without oxygen kept ticking in his mind. He knew that with perseverance, determination, proper training and preparation, he could do it.

Philosophy of risk taking in the mountains

In 2007, Robert returned to Everest for another attempt without supplementary oxygen as part of his training for K2 in 2008. Although he had climbed to 8200m, he knew from reading accounts by high-altitude mountaineers that above 8500m, it was a different ball game and in the death zone (altitudes above 8000m), the margin for uncertainty is extremely thin. This is because any mishaps or rescue needed would first and foremost require the mountaineer to be able to survive in the death zone even without exerting himself assuming he can be evacuated. Secondly, help in the death zone is almost non-existence where every other climber is already climbing at the edge of their physical and mental limits. Therefore, a retreat by the climber is more likely where he has to be up to it. All these would depend how your body works up high where the experience of one can differ drastically from another. It was thus important to experience climbing in the death zone and learn to cope the difficulty before going to K2. This is because from the risk management point of view where returning from the mountain is mandatory, Robert believes that one must try to understand and overcome every possible physical and mental hurdle before it is too late.

To Robert, it is safer to push one's limits gradually within one's ability than to take too big a step and perish on the mountain. 

Teamwork

Due to work commitment, Edwin was unable to join him. Yau Choon, his old chum from the Antarctica Expedition in 2000 went with him to climb using supplementary Oxygen, Accompanied by two handpicked sherpas, Pemba and Jamling. The foursome got along like brothers from the word go. But teamwork is a different matter. It is a valuable asset but doesn't usually happen naturally. People bond through shared experiences during which the members' strengths and weaknesses are revealed, understood and accepted. Only then can the team focus on the big picture, leverage on their strengths whilst being sensitive to and improving upon the weaknesses. This is often overlooked even for an experienced leader.

Robert planned 2 weeks for the team to bond before the climb. Robert used the video camera and digital camera to get the team working on a theme along the trek. As we were all new to the equipment, we have had many discussion and sharing of views that brought out the character of the members of the team. As there is no absolute right or wrong in filming and taking photos, there were many gung ho shots with criticisms and praises revealing the side of a person required for bonding. Robert also used climbs on lesser peaks along the trek to help members appreciate everyone's level of competencies on the smaller hills before going for Everest.


Robert at Camp 2 after descending from 8400m (Mt Everest), 2007.
 

Perseverance

Even before the climb on Everest, there was a 10-day to trek from Lukla, a small village by air from Kathmandu. Along the trek, the team climbed more than a dozen minor peaks, each pushing the body's limit to acclimatize at every new altitude gained. Teams usually bond well when they successfully overcome targets that really stretch their abilities. The trek, which helped to acclimatize to Everest base camp, was afflicted by headaches, loss of appetite and nausea as the attitude increased and mod cons became non-existent. The daily diet whittled down to beans and rice up in the harsh highlands where everything was cooked with the same spices and seasoning. In the believe that food was fuel, Robert not only got used to the food, He cultivated a liking for it. "To climb well, you must eat well," He would tell young climbers. "So enjoy your food, whatever it may be.

The trek though was not very demanding, bonded the team very well where they arrived in Everest base camp on 17 April 2007. They were greeted by Mark Tucker and Ang Jangbu Sherpa, two stalwarts of the International Mountian Guides (IMG) for Spring 2007 and the rest of the IMG clients with climbers from Mexico, USA, Canada, UK, South Africa and Alaska. Base camp was all abuzz when the team arrived, as most other expeditions had already settled in and preparing for their acclimatization climbs.

The acclimatization from base camp to camp 4 is a serious undertaking especially when climbing without oxygen. Everest base camp at 5500m is already higher that Mont Blanc (4880m) in Europe and Camp 4 is at the brink of the death zone at 8000m and above where nothing lives. Acclimatizing to camp 1 (6000m), camp 2 (6300m), camp 3 (7200m) and camp 4 (8000m) over a period of one and a half months involves a series of lcimbs, each ascending to increasingly higher altitudes. It is a gradual and difficult process often plagued by physical limitations of the body as it is being pushed to the extreme under conditions that are increasingly hostile.

Robert was not spared. First, he got a nose bleed from the freezing dry air. Then his nose started to drip non stop throughout the expedition. At 7200m in camp 3, eating and sleeping became a problem. Appetite dropped tremendously to biscuits and tea, and sleep was sporadic, with frequent awakenings when the body was suddenly jolted by insufficient oxygen and Robert found he had to breath consciously and hard. At 8000m, the oxygen level was less than half that at sea level and the effect on the body was dramatic. Food was again biscuits and tea but in meager portions.

Despite all this,  Robert was feeling strong and optimistic of summitting, even visualizing the team up there that night. 

At 9pm on 20 May, Pemba and Robert set off for the summit from camp 4. Robert felt strong but climbed slowly without oxygen. After three hours, breathing became more difficult and the air was much drier. He found himself gasping for oxygen as if the air around him was "disappearing". After hours of rapid breathing through his mouth, his throat felt dry like parchment, causing some irritation. He tried to breathe through this balaclava to moisten the air but it had little effect. The rawness of the throat triggered a violent cough. Robert thought nothing of it until he reached te Balcony (a landmark at 8400m on Everest). The breathing had become harder and faster and he could feel the pain in both sides of his chest, which meant only one thing; he had cracked two ribs. The pain was excruciating but bearable. However, fearing that the cracked ribs would break and puncture his lungs if he continued, Robert battled against his desire to summit and descended with Pemba.

Yau Choon and Jamling, who were moving faster as they wre using oxygen, summitted Everest at 8am on 21 May.

Never give up spirit

At 8400m, the Balcony was the highest that Robert had climbed without supplementary oxygen. It was a personal best in his mountaineering adventures. He now knows that one of his physical limitations is the rib-cracking cough sustained by the exception combination of cold, dry and "disappearing" air above 8000m. He must find ways of preventing this in future climbs. "At the Balcony, the air just got thinner and drier and seemed to disappear completely as I gasped," he said. "This was an interesting discovery and a new experience for my body. It has given me a deeper understanding of what is required to climb even higher." 

This and other lessons learned on Everest will be put into practice in 2008 , when Robert and Edwin will attempt K2 at 8611m-- without oxygen. Though the world's second highest mountain, it is arguably the world's most dangerous.

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