Talks – Everest – 13th July 2010

Major Lien Choong Luen summitted Everest on 23 May 2010 via the South
Col Route with International Mountain Guides. He is an avid sportsman
and his past adventures include Gobi March in 2005 ( I have attached a
link to an article that he has writtten about the event below), numerous
triathlon and biathlon events, ironman, amazing race etc. Choong Luen
was awarded SAF overseas schoolarship in 1996 to pursue his
undergraduate study in Berkerly.

http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/publications/cyberpioneer/lifestyle/200
5/nov05_lifestyle.html

The Gobi March winds its way through the second lowest elevation on
Earth, and MAJ Lien Choong Luen, an SAF Commando Officer, decided that
it would be his version of The Amazing Race. We bring you the second
part of his account of the race, held from 24 to 30 Apr this year.

Day Four – The Flaming Mountains

Day Four included a particularly interesting cultural encounter, as it
had a climb over the Flaming Mountains of Journey to the West fame. It
was here that the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, encountered many devils that
plagued him and his master as they headed west to obtain the holy
scriptures.

It is my theory now that those demons were figments of their dehydrated
and heat-crazed imaginations, as I too began to have visions of
creatures waiting to feast on the bones of those crazy enough to wander
into this cauldron.

As the temperature rose above 50 degrees Celsius and after having
ascended and descended our umpteenth hill, I thought of my previous
holiday in Alaska, climbing the highest mountain in North America.
There, the temperature at night was -40oc.

The most ‘exciting’ moment was on the descent, when the howling wind
funnelled up the headwall while we were on the ridge with 30+kg packs.
It was an instance of sheer poetry as the elements were malevolent and
alive, trying to force us off the ridge. Out here, it felt as if their
cousins were trying to bake us alive.

The start of Day Four took a pleasant turn along a ridge-line, allowing
for comfortable footing only one step off to either side of the trail,
after which a steep drop-off followed. Some competitors had to give up
and turn around as they were intimidated by the thought of negotiating
this 3km stretch of ridge-line; others traversed it on hands and knees.

As for me, I was quite comfortable with ridge-lines, and so I took off
at a quick run. Rather overconfidently, I might add, as I took a spill
at one of the hair-pin turns. Luckily, I was able to stop myself from
falling off the trail by using my bottom as an emergency brake,
otherwise it would have been a several hundred metre roll and tumble to
the bottom of the hills. That would probably have ruined my day.

Day Five – The Long Day

The Long Day arrived and the competitors began what would be their most
painful stage. The end of Day Four had seen the mercury hit the 50 mark,
and this day would be no different. It began with a 14km stretch to the
ancient Tang dynasty city of Gaochang, after which we headed into the
vast expanse of the Turpan Basin.

As the day progressed, there were more and more racers who had to stop
by the wayside, but I could do nothing to help them. Unlike the military
ethic of ‘One for All’, out here it was every man for himself, as none
of us had any reserves to spare. Yet by the end of the day, I had given
away my meagre supply of spare hydration salts, as well as some of my
snack food.

One of the check-points in the Long Day was set in the middle of a small
village where we had a mandatory one-hour stop and were allowed to order
food. Given that this was the western-most part of China, where Asia
bumped into Europe, it was a given that all the people had Eurasian
features – black hair and blue or green eyes. The road signs also saw an
unfamiliar mating of Arabic and Chinese text. And I can think of no
better recommendation to study Chinese than to be able to order food and
drinks when in the middle of a small town in the middle of Xinjiang.

Throughout the Long Day, I walked by myself and after a few hours, there
was nobody in sight. The solitude was pleasant, but one of the concerns
was that sleep-walking alone in the dark, I might walk into a ditch and
sprain my ankle. My constant mantra was the Ranger’s creed, snatches
that drifted to me in my sleepy stupor. “Surrender is not a Ranger word.
I will keep myself physically strong, mentally alert and morally
straight.”

The final stages saw me walking across the tall sand dunes by the
moonlight. This was a surreal landscape, as the moon peaked through over
the top of the dunes, accompanied by the sound of heavy silence. There
was a sense of awe at the forces that had wrought such an alien
environment into being. Wonder is all around us, if we only take the
time to look.

By now, my mind was starting to wander, as I started to analyse the
self-organising critical angles of the sand dunes to see where the
footing would be best. To crest the dunes, you had to sprint up the last
part, otherwise you would just slide backwards in a futile effort. This
exertion got pretty annoying after a while, particularly when the
tendonitis that I had been dreading decided to re-visit me.

Crossing the sand dunes, the moment of truth was always when we crested
the top, only to be met with the sight of another series of dunes that
we had to go up and over. Again. And again. And again. I tell you, after
a while, I was mentally cursing and swearing at Ian Adamson, the race
director who had set the course.

Thankfully, I managed to complete the Long Day in just over 24 hours,
coming in just after sunrise, to avoid another heat cycle. Some other
competitors were not so lucky. There were those who had to suffer a
second day of heat, others who were evacuated owing to a massive
sandstorm, and some who were medi-evacuated because they had passed out
in the middle of the route and started convulsing. Not a pretty sight.
And given the distance between the first and last competitor, the safety
coverage was spread rather thin.

Honey, I’m home!

The highlight of each day was the approach to the campsite, where a
Uighur woman would beat on the drum to welcome the competitors. Before
long, we could see the national flags and the white tents of the
campsite beckoning us as our spirits lifted.

Of course, this could lead to delusions, as many competitors started
hearing the elusive drumbeats when there was none. In other settings,
this sort of psychosis would call for a thorough psychiatric
investigation. Here, it was all too normal.

There is a poem by Percy Shelley titled Ozymandias. It tells the story
of a grand and proud statue of a forgotten king that lies silent and
shattered in the middle of a lonely desert. This poem came to my mind as
I saw the small hands and signs of human engineering far from
significant habitation.

Who would come here I wondered? Such insignificant human effort set
against the backdrop of vast wilderness brought out the contrast of
isolation all the more starkly.

Life was reduced to a simple set of parameters and desires. Drink, eat,
look for marker flags and listen to the sound of the drum. In that
constancy, away from the immediacy of everyday concerns, it was possible
for a short spell at least, to challenge oneself, and focus on simple
things, such as food and self-preservation.

Am I going to make it, doc?

As the days went by, the medical tent saw more and more patients. Foot
injuries were particularly heinous, as if the racers had been subjected
to medieval torture. Blood blisters under the toe nails that had to be
popped with a heated safety pin pushed through the nail, massive
blisters that ran the length of their feet, in between the toes, and on
every other location conceivable.

Sometimes the skin was simply scrubbed raw, leading to profuse bleeding.
Abrasions from the shoulder straps and the backpack on the lower back
were also common.

Hearing my friends recite their litany of pain daily left me feeling a
little guilty that my feet were holding up just fine. A large part of
this was due to how I took care of my feet. I took the effort to adjust
my socks and apply lubricant at the first sign of hot spots. While this
was disruptive to my race effort, in the long run it spared me much
grief.

Necessity and invention

It is an old cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. The
corollary to that adage is that only when the situation is bleak will
you unlock your powers of creativity. As a young officer, I recall being
disheartened when my platoon sergeant told stories of his Ranger course
experience as I perceived an unbridgeable gulf in cunning and survival
skills between him and me.

However, when I was there, I surprised myself with my own ingenuity
during crises when things had gone wrong and I had to fix them or fail.
You never know what you can do till you are forced to do it. During this
race, the biggest crisis resulted from my decision to leave my trekking
poles behind as they were considered ‘optional equipment’.

click to enlarge image

I kicked myself mentally for the whole first day, as every missed step
and turned rock became a potential ankle-breaker. The footing on the
rocks was simply too treacherous, what with slippery terrain, over-sized
shoes and carrying a pack to boot.

When I finally reached the campsite, I was desperate and looked all over
for possible substitutes. I was inspired by the sight of the flags and
improvised a solution by fashioning trekking poles out of the bamboo
flag poles. With the help of the Chinese race assistants, I had a pair
of cheap, strong and lightweight poles to support my weight for the rest
of the journey. Another excellent ‘Made in China’ product.

The other major problem was sand in my shoes. If your kid complained
about sand in his shoes during an excursion at the beach, you would
probably scold him for being a cry-baby. But travelling 250km with sand
packed in between your toes, however, is a different story.

I tried all ways and means to sand-proof my shoes with duct tape and
safety pins, but no amount of ingenious tinkering solved that problem.
There were many other examples of improvisation, such as cutting up
water bottles to use as spoons, and scavenging for food that people
discarded in their effort to minimise their load (something so very
reminiscent of the Ranger course).

For me, the small annoyances, while troubling, were an enjoyment in the
race as I was forced to exercise my powers of self-reliance and
resourcefulness in a climate of deprivation and scarce resources. All
too often, I felt that I had become too comfortable in my own skin and
climate-controlled zone. It is all too true that transformation only
occurs when it is forced upon us.

The others

There were some real characters in the race. The top three places went
to ex-military personnel. The race winner was Evgeniy, a very thin
Russian who had spent his conscript service in the Xinjiang region
guarding the Russian border against a possible Chinese attack, hence he
was familiar with the area.

There was a large contingent of Britons from Hongkong. They were highly
commendable for the funds they raised for Operation Smile, a charity
that fixed children’s cleft palates, a disfiguring congenital condition.

However, the most inspiring person was a blind Korean man and his guide.
He was extremely fit, and ran along as if he had no disability. I
wondered how he managed to negotiate the river beds and rock-fields
without killing his legs, when I had difficulty enough with poles and
sight. I was also moved by the weight of responsibility that the guide
had to shoulder, particularly on the ridge-line, when any misstep could
have proved fatal.

Comfort soldier

As soldiers have a tendency to do, going out-field entails careful
selection and packing of comfort items. During the race, this was very
much in evidence, and an interesting question to pose was: If you had a
strict weight budget, what would be the one piece of comfort item that
you would bring with you?

Patrick, a Texan, carried a thin flat panel solar cell to recharge his
Ipod. The Singaporean pilots had ‘bak kwa’ (barbecued pork) and their
inflatable air pillows. Douglas, an Englishman, had Bovril in a glass
jar to season his bland food.

The Koreans were chain-smoking their way through the whole seven days.
For me, it was a double ration of wet-wipes. I allocated myself two
sheets per day to keep clean.

The end of the road

After resting most of Day Six, the final day was rather uneventful, and
the finish line was at the sand dune national park in the small town of
Shanshanxian. All I can say is I was happy to have completed the race,
about halfway through the pack.

The awards ceremony, held over a buffet lunch in the hotel, was both
moving and fun. The star was a little boy of eight who had been treated
at the Operation Smile clinic in Xi’an, for which some of the
competitors had raised funds. He was born with very severe facial
deformities, having virtually no palate and little by way of an upper
lip on one side. His family left him to die on the street.

A Chinese man from another family walked past him for several days while
he was lying on the street and decided that he had to help him. The
Chinese man took the little boy into his own home, much against the
wishes of his family. The Chinese man heard about the Operation Smile
clinic in Xian and the two of them walked 200 miles (320km) to Xi’an for
the little boy to be treated. The little boy now looks almost normal. He
helped to present the prizes.

While we were suffering on our perverse holiday, there were many people
for whom pain and hunger was a matter of default, not of choice.

Sometimes, it takes a long journey to gain a little perspective.

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