'Survival becomes more important'

'Survival becomes more important'

While most of us can only dream of climbing Mount Everest, local adventurer Khoo Swee Chiow has scaled it three times - in 1998, 2006 and 2011.

And the memories came flooding back as he watched the upcoming adventure thriller Everest, and seeing the world's highest mountain in Nepal come to life on the big screen, in IMAX 3D no less.

Mr Khoo was one of the special guests at the movie's charity premiere at Shaw Lido on Wednesday. It was held in support of the YMCA Singapore's Rebuilding Community Programme to build temporary shelters in Kavre, Nepal, for the victims of the April earthquake.

Opening here on Sept 24, the movie is based on the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, focusing on the survival attempts of two expedition groups - one led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the other by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke).

"The first time I climbed Everest with the Singapore Everest Team, I had been married for two years, but didn't have any kids yet," Mr Khoo, 51, an adventure consultant and motivational speaker, told The New Paper after the Everest screening.

So was his wife, Ms Tok Wee Leng, 48, a housewife, worried about him?

In the movie, Hall inadvertently leads his team to disaster when a severe snowstorm hits the mountain, leaving behind his pregnant wife, played by Keira Knightley.

"Did you worry about me?" Mr Khoo teased Ms Tok. She responded with a calm smile.

He explained: "My wife is also a climber, so she understands what I do. It's easier to support me, and she doesn't worry as much."

On his subsequent expeditions, Mr Khoo had more at stake as he had two children by then.

On his second Everest trip, his son was three years old and his daughter just a few months old.

He said: "I did think about them during the dangerous moments when I was climbing. Survival became more important. There were times I had to turn around because of storms, or avalanche risks. I learnt to trust my instincts to stay alive.

"Climbing mountains is my passion. Just because you have kids doesn't mean you should stop doing things. I just have to make sure I put things in order before I leave, in case I don't come back!"

Mr Khoo added: "I could really relate to Rob Hall, as I was also an expedition leader during my second and third Everest trips. It's a very sad story as he was a talented climber and great guide."

He praised Everest for being "very real and in-your-face", with "superb cinematography".

"People were crying all around me during the scene where Rob Hall talks to his pregnant wife for the last time. That was definitely a very sad scene... I don't ever want to experience that myself.


"The movie may scare off people who dream of climbing Everest, as it shows the real dangers of mountain climbing.

"On the other hand, it may motivate people to train harder and take greater care with their preparations."

Mr Khoo shared that some scenes in Everest resonated very deeply with him, such as those showing the fatalities that occurred during Hall's expedition.

Hall had decided to take a client to the summit, even though the client was clearly struggling. Both men eventually died.

Mr Khoo recalled: "Last year, when I was climbing Makalu (the world's fifth-highest mountain in Nepal), a French friend of mine died on the mountain.

"He had what we call 'summit fever', where climbers are so determined to reach the summit that they disregard safety. He had altitude sickness and was coughing, but insisted on continuing rather than turn back. Eventually, he didn't make it.

"Watching the movie reinforced the importance of safety for me. As a guide especially, it's important that I bring my clients back alive."

Despite the gruesome deaths and graphic depictions of frostbitten fingers in Everest, Mr Khoo cheerfully declared that he is "still alive, with all 10 fingers and 10 toes".

He said: "People will always want to climb Everest. Human beings want to test their limits; that's what being human is all about.

"But for me, I've already done Everest. Three times is enough! These days, I climb other mountains, instead."

Watching movie was 'emotional'

Three of the six-member Singapore Women's Everest Team were also at the premiere: Miss Joanne Soo, 45, an adventure business owner, Miss Lee Peh Gee, 39, and army officer and Miss Sim Yihui, 32, who is currently between jobs.

The Singapore Women's Everest Team was the first all-female team from the Republic to reach the summit in 2009.

Reeling from the emotional impact of the deaths portrayed in Everest, Miss Soo said, jokingly: "If we had watched the movie before this, maybe we wouldn't have gone!

"It brought back so many memories, like when Peh Gee and I experienced a bad storm. The sky blacked out, just like in the movie, and it was so dark we could barely see a metre in front of us.

"My heart was also throbbing a bit during the scene where the teams cross a deep crevasse using a ladder attached to ropes. I was like, 'Wow, I did that!'"

Added Miss Lee: "I can still feel the pain of the climb and the wind lash. I also realised how painful it must have been for my family to wait for me while I was at Everest."

Everest also portrays the anguish of loved ones, frequently cutting between mountain scenes and those from the climbers' homes.

Local professional athlete and inspirational speaker Shariff Abdullah was also "emotional" after watching Everest, as climbing the mountain is his "dream".

The 46-year-old, who's known as "Singapore's Blade Runner" because he was born without a left foot and runs with a prosthetic blade, is planning to visit Everest next year by participating in the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon.


Mr Shariff has scaled Mount Ophir and Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia. However, he cited the financial difficulties of special prosthetics and not wanting to burden his team with his physical limitations as reasons for running the Everest marathon instead of attempting to climb it.

"I now have a good idea of the terrain and how to prepare for it. At first, I was totally scared seeing the dangers of what can happen up there. But now I feel more motivated to see Everest for myself."

This article was first published on September 18, 2015.
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