Helping S'poreans scale new heights

You could call him the Buzz Aldrin of Singapore mountaineering - historic, yet unsung.

Just like the second man to set foot on the moon, management consultant Lien Choong Luen, 37, is unknown to most Singaporeans.

But he is one of only two Singaporeans who have scaled the world's two highest mountains.

On July 27, he climbed to the top of K2, located on the border between Pakistan and China. At 8,611m, it is second only to Mount Everest, and more dangerous.

One of his team members, a 46-year-old Spaniard, died. Mr Lien himself diced with death when a rope slip left him momentarily hangingover a crevasse.

Mr Lien made it to the top of Everest, the world's highest peak, in 2010.

But just as most people remember only former Nasa astronaut Neil Armstrong as the first on the moon, many Singaporeans know only adventurer Khoo Swee Chiow, who bagged both peaks before Mr Lien and has become a familiar face in the media.

This anonymity, though, sits well with Mr Lien. Despite having reached the North Pole and climbed the highest peaks in Europe and the Americas, he has been quite content to be in the shadow of Mr Khoo and others.

But Mr Lien has now chosen to step out, to shine more light on other local mountaineers proudly flying the national flag.

For example, an Everest expedition next year of five friends and siblings, aged 26 to 40, intends to reach the top of the world to mark the nation's 50th year of independence. Mr Lien is advising them.

If successful, they will be the 12th to 16th Singaporeans to summit Everest.

Singapore's mountaineers - there are only a handful - have left foreigners impressed with their competence and level of preparedness wherever they have climbed, said Mr Lien.

"I think that is a reputation which is consistent with who we are as a country," he said.

At K2, he became his international team's de facto medic, as he was the only one who had packed full medical supplies.

"We should be proud of ourselves. We go out and do things (climb mountains) that people think we can't do. And we do it well."

Mr Lien, who is single and based in Shanghai, climbed his first mountain, Mount Shasta, while studying in the United States in 1999.

The former Singapore Armed Forces scholar studied mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Cambridge University. He later worked at the Defence Ministry, then obtained a master's degree at London Business School before joining consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Some foreign climbers, said Mr Lien, are surprised that a small tropical island like Singapore can produce mountaineers.

"There was this guy who lives in Florida. He told me, 'It's very warm, it's very hard to train'. I looked at him and said, 'What are you complaining about, friend? I come from Singapore...'

"The point is: let's exceed our limits. If we have stairs, then we use stairs. If we have a gym, then we use the gym. If we don't have a mountain, that's fine, we do what we can. And Singaporeans have done well."

This article was first published on August 11, 2014.
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