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1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition, 1998

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MonsoonMaiden

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In early 1998, we heard that a team of mountaineers from Singapore was planning to try climbing Mt Everest. They were hoping MSS could provide them with weather data, & I remember two of the team (I think Khoo Swee Chiow & Johann Annuar) coming to our office to have a look at what was available. Unlike the days of Edmund Hillary, things are so high-tech now that we were able to email the data to them every day.

Since that first expedition, there have been many others, but at the time it was a novelty especially as Singapore is a tropical island & does not have an alpine environment. Public interest in mountain climbing was limited to nearby Mt Kinabalu & Mt Ophir, & although a lot of Singaporeans do go trekking in Nepal, something like a full-scale climb of a mountain like Everest was unheard of.

The media gave the team quite a lot of coverage, & at that time the Singapore Omnitheatre also decided to feature the film "EVEREST - The Movie". It was interesting discovering how gruelling the climb can be. I also approved of the respect our climbers showed for the mountain - when the press kept harping about how we were going to "conquer Everest", one of the team finally said, "We do not conquer Chomalungma (as the Tibetans call the mountain). Chomalungma, if she is willing, allows us to climb her."

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Edwin Siew & Khoo Swee Chiow at the summit

Since we were providing them with weather data, I was more than a little interested in the team's progress, & was glad when two of the climbers, Edwin Siew and Khoo Swee Chiow, made it to the summit on 27 May 1998. I think a lot of people didn't really believe they would make it. There was, however, quite a furore when it was discovered that the two who planted the Singapore flag on the summit were Malaysians (Singapore permanent residents). David Lim, the team leader, has given answers to this and other objections. (Incidentally, both Edwin Siew & Khoo Swee Chiow have since taken up Singapore citizenship).

After their success, the team was grateful to those who had supported & believed in their cause, & posed with various sponsors' banners for photos. They asked MSS if we had a banner (we had sent them the data free of charge) but it hadn't occurred to us to have one made. When I later contacted Johann Annuar to ask for a few photos for our Annual Report, he was most helpful.

Johann was an undergrad at NUS at the time & I met up with him at his hostel (Eusoff Hall) to look through the photos. I asked him for an account of the weather conditions there, & came up with this report :

"One of the major obstacles to the expedition’s success was the harsh weather conditions the team would experience. The timing of the expedition was scheduled with this in mind, taking place from early March (the end of winter) to late May (late spring) when conditions are mildest. At over 8000 metres above sea-level – almost the cruising level of most commercial aircraft – air is extremely thin; team members risked the danger of mountain sickness, and had to spend several weeks acclimatizing as they ascended from Camp 4 to Base Camp. With only a thin layer of atmosphere as a shield against radiation from space, sunlight, and in particular ultraviolet radiation, was very intense, so much so that temperatures during the daytime at Base Camp tended to become quite hot; a thermometer in one of the tents was known to have recorded more than 40oC at one time. During the nights, temperatures inside the tents would plummet to –20o C, while outside the tents, with windchill and other factors, it reached as low as –40oC.

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Khoo Swee Chiow showing two extremes of temperature

Base Camp was mostly sheltered from the more severe forms of weather, being surrounded on three sides by mountains at the end of a valley. The weather there followed a diurnal cycle, with mornings starting off fair and temperatures becoming quite warm in the afternoons. At around 4pm, conditions would normally deteriorate as katabatic winds would start to blow down from the higher peaks, bringing extensive snow with them.

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Strong winds blow snow off the summit

The team suffered a setback on 1 April when a violent windstorm swept down upon the camp around 2am, sending team members scrambling for cover as tent poles snapped and tents collapsed. Nearly all the Singapore team’s tents were destroyed. Team members estimated the winds ranged between 120-150 km/hr, while the sherpas present claimed that winds of such force are usually only encountered at much higher altitudes. The incident set the expedition back for about a week as new tents and equipment had to be obtained.

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Aftermath of the windstorm

A bad spate of weather also occurred during the second week of May, when heavy snowfall reduced visibility to 200 metres and winds of up to 180 km/hr were whipping the mountain. The weather was so severe that the team built a helicopter landing pad near Base Camp in case they needed to be evacuated at short notice.

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Another threat to the expedition came from farther afield in the form of Tropical Cyclone “01B” which formed in the Bay of Bengal on 18 May. Its presence caused the Singapore team some anxiety as after making landfall, the remnants of the cyclone could easily track over to the Himalayas and cause heavy snowfall over the Everest region. This might have been so had the storm tracked north-northwest; fortunately, it chose to follow a more northeasterly track, making landfall near Chitaggong, Bangladesh, before dissipating on 20 May with minimal effect on the expedition."

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