There are many ways you can die on the mountain. High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema are common high-altitude related conditions that causes death. HAPE causes one’s lungs to be filled with water, which makes it difficult to breath “and as time goes by, you suffocate.” And one mistake can mean falling seven stories down to your death. You could also die by environmental factors like falling ice.
These are just some examples that 29-year-old Jeremy Tong shared when I asked about the possible fatal risks of climbing Mount Everest.
An avid mountaineer who has gone on two Everest expeditions, Jeremy has personally seen a friend die on the mountain. It was on the 22nd May 2019, which had been reported as one of the deadliest seasons on record, and Jeremy’s second attempt at Everest. The conditions on the route to summit that day were extremely challenging: the winds were strong and there was a long human traffic jam all the way to the summit.
“A few people died that day. One of them is my friend. He died after reaching the summit, he had a heart attack.”
When I asked if the death of his friend left a mark on him, Jeremy repeated the question to himself and paused for a bit.
“To be honest, the mountain is like that. It doesn’t discriminate. Even if you’re very fit or you’ve trained very hard or have years of experience, you can be the next victim, it’s really like that.”
As he continued on, stressing the importance of remaining confident on the expedition, I assumed that he probably chose not to dwell on the negative emotions that may have arose from seeing a friend die.
“You have to be confident. Be confident about your equipment, your guide, and yourself, and hopefully it wouldn’t be you [who bites the dust]. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Chasing A Dangerous Path
When Jeremy first attempted Mount Everest in 2017, he had to turn back when he was just 200m away from the summit, as his feet was getting too cold. Back then, he had trained one year for this expedition. But even before that, he had already been an avid climber. Everest is, in fact, his 44th mountain.
He had been climbing for 15 years, and started since he was 14.
“I climbed my first mountain, Mount Ophir in Malaysia. I thought it was interesting and I kind of like the journey of climbing the mountain and reaching the top.”
It was just a new-found interest at that point and it was a year later, after his second mountain, Mount Kinabalu, when the interest in mountaineering became a passion that he would later carve a career out of.
This passion was what pushed him to take up an outdoor adventure diploma in polytechnic, and Sports Science Management in NTU. The four years in university were crucial years for him, as he wanted to progress and to climb bigger mountains.
“So I started climbing 6000m, 7000m, 8000m. That’s when it sort of got serious because as the heights scale higher, the risks scale also.”
Advancing on to higher mountains made the dangers more eminent as each expedition is potentially fatal, but Jeremy roughed it out. The sporty streak in him continued through the years as he went for more expeditions and he even started running climbing trips for friends. Eventually, that grew into a business which he started in February 2018.
Jeremy co-founded JTRACE, an adventure company that provides “specialised and bespoke small-group trekking and mountaineering expeditions,” and team building programs—his area of expertise where he worked at full-time for a year after graduating.
However, getting there wasn’t easy, as what he does is both an unconventional choice of career and a dangerous one to chase.
“It’s scary at first, but I think the best way to do things is to put both feet in.”
Besides clocking experience at mountains overseas, Jeremy’s fitness training includes runs and “because there’s no mountain in Singapore, we try to simulate the climbing.” Together with his clients (if there are), he will climb the stairs to the top of a 40-storey HDB building with a backpack and ankle weights on, take the lift down, and climb back up again.
But even the years of mountaineering experience and fitness training will not fully replicate the varying conditions that one will encounter during expeditions.
70% Mental, 30% Physical
On the summit day of his second attempt at scaling Mount Everest, Jeremy faced condition similar to his 2017 attempt: It was quite dark, the winds were strong, and he was beginning to feel his feet losing energy from the cold, despite having battery-operated sole warmers.
The human jam didn’t help, as he had no choice but to wait in line in the threatening conditions. He found himself getting impatient, but he kept repeating the mantra of the three ‘P’s of his expeditions: Pace, Patience, and Mental Power
Eventually, Jeremy managed to push himself beyond where he last stopped, and reached the summit.
Homesickness was also something he had to deal with.
When Jeremy left for the expedition earlier this year, his wife had just given birth not too long before. A climber herself, Jeremy’s wife was fully supportive of his pursuit, but being away from them was still a big emotional challenge.
“Some of the days after you reach base camp, when you’re just resting, or just waiting to acclimatise before heading up, you start to think about family.”
On Jeremy’s phone is a folder of photos of his son, and he would avoid opening that folder too much, because “if I look at it, it’ll just make me want to go home.”
Climbing For Good
Besides climbing for leisure or business, Jeremy has also put his expeditions into a way to do good. He told me about how his uncle was diagnosed with stage 3 nose cancer when he was really young.
In 2017, Jeremy raised $13k for Singapore Cancer Society. And in the recent expedition, he has managed to raise $11k for Children’s Cancer Foundation, which he will continue raising funds for through his business.
“My uncle didn’t want to die because he’s got kids. [Similarly,] I don’t want to die. I wanted to fight this challenge. Everyday, I’m fighting to survive. There’s so many dead bodies at Everest, [the dangers and fear are] really real when you are there.”
(Header Image Credit: Jeremy Tong)