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EYE ON SINGAPORE

Not too young to climb a mountain

Whatever one's age, scaling a peak is a lesson in conquering one's fears.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

I REMEMBER the night I fell in love with mountain climbing.

A good friend and I were hiking to catch the sunrise atop Mount Batur on Bali, when our guide stopped us in the middle of the peanut fields to place in each of our hands a freshly dug nut.

As far as mountains go, Batur, a 1,717m-high active volcano, is a pint-sized hill. But I was a much smaller 20-year-old, eating a tiny peanut, in the shadow of the biggest thing I had ever seen.

That was six years ago, but it remains one of the most humbling yet inspiring moments of my life. Since then, I have been a firm believer that Mother Nature's most majestic creations hold far greater lessons than any school classroom.

So I was dismayed that in the wake of the tragic news that 10 Singaporeans had died on an expedition to Mount Kinabalu, criticism poured in over a school's decision to take its pupils mountain climbing.

The 10 who died were among a group of 29 pupils and eight teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS), and three external adventure guides who were on the mountain when a magnitude-6.0 earthquake hit Sabah on June 5.

Many said the trip exposed the Primary 6 pupils, who were on an annual leadership expedition called the Omega Challenge, to unnecessary risk. A few called on the Ministry of Education to ban overseas expeditions outright - surely a short-sighted knee-jerk reaction. Thankfully, most people were more sober-minded.

Many of them wrote in to The Straits Times Forum pages, noting how their own school expeditions had given them "confidence, self-reliance and a love for nature" that endured long after they left school.

Valuable lessons

"THERE are things children read about in books that they need to experience in real life to understand," said physical education teacher James Tan, 49. "How do you tell kids what the roar of a big wave sounds like, how majestic a mountain looks? You must go and stand at the edge of that mountain."

It is clear Mr Tan's words resonate deeply with many parents, including those from TKPS who have had their own children go on the Kinabalu trek.

One of them, Dr Satya Tiwari, 50, was at the TKPS tribute centre two days after the quake hit. Her daughters had climbed Mount Kinabalu in 2012 and 2013.

"When my daughters came back, we saw a real change in them. They had more self-esteem, confidence, and they learnt how to cooperate with each other," she said.

Questions raised

HAVING said that, valid questions have been raised in the aftermath of the ill-fated expedition.

Some recognise the importance of outdoor expeditions, but ask if mountain climbing - with all its risks - was appropriate. Wouldn't activities such as camping or canoeing have sufficed?

But all outdoor activities have inherent risks of their own.

"If you canoe, your canoe can capsize. Even if you take a bus, you can get into an accident. There is no way to prevent all risk," said Mr Tan.

And is risk minimisation the way to raise the leaders of tomorrow? To cocoon them from danger, instead of encouraging them to push their limits, take calculated risks and dare greatly?

Others say that perhaps activities as strenuous as mountain climbing should be left to older children.

One primary school teacher, who has climbed Mount Kinabalu, said the climb was both physically and mentally taxing.

"If there was (an emergency), I don't think most 12-year-olds would have the awareness to handle themselves yet," said Ms Tan Shuyi, 32. "I would think Kinabalu is more suitable for students at the upper secondary level."

But age is not the sole gauge of ability, said Mr Rasip Isnin, secretary of the Singapore Mountaineering Federation (SMF).

"What is more important is proper training and knowledge," he said.

Indeed, when I was hauling myself up the slopes of Mount Fuji two years ago, children who could not have been older than eight or nine were clambering up the rocks quicker than I was.

Some of these city kids were tackling the 3,776m-high mountain with their wizened grandparents in tow. Me, I was left in their dust with a bruised ego.

And one size certainly does not fit all - age restrictions vary across different mountains.

You have to be at least 16 to summit Everest, while 10 is the minimum age to scale the 5,895m-high Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak.

Mount Kinabalu, standing at 4,095m and significantly less difficult to climb than Kilimanjaro, has a minimum age requirement of 10 years old - although this might now be raised by the Malaysian authorities after the quake.

Experts feel that as long as children are old enough to relate that something is wrong - for instance, if they feel a bout of altitude sickness setting in - they should be allowed to climb.

But with young children, all effort should be taken to mitigate risk - this involves proper training and briefings on what to do in case of emergencies, which the TKPS pupils had.

And all indications point towards the fact that the school had taken no chances. There were 29 pupils on the trek. With them were eight teachers, three adventure guides and seven Sabahan guides - 18 adults in total.

That is more than one adult for every two pupils. "That's very high," said Mr Rasip, adding that the standard ratio the SMF recommends is closer to 1:10.

Unforeseen disaster

IT IS important to bear in mind that the recent tragedy was wrought not of negligence, but of a natural disaster no one could have seen coming.

If the quake had struck a Sabah resort with the pupils, arguably lives would have been lost too.

Mountaineer Khoo Swee Chiow, who has climbed Kinabalu more than 10 times, hopes people will not stop climbing the peak.

"There are many risks in life. There is risk when we cross a road but we don't stop crossing," said the 50-year-old, who is perhaps the foremost of Singapore's mountain men.

Mr Khoo, who has climbed Everest and K2 - the two highest mountains in the world - and is currently on a quest to scale all 14 peaks above 8,000m, said mountain climbing is a risky endeavour but holds important lessons for people of all ages. These include those of perseverance, teamwork and leadership, as well as leaving one with an appreciation of the natural world, he said.

Mr Wong Yuen Lik, who runs outdoor adventure agency X-Trekkers, is of the same view.

The 44-year-old has taken his two children trekking overseas since they were seven and eight years old, hoping to imbue in them an adventuring spirit.

"There's this altruistic spirit closely associated with people who love the outdoors," he said.

In this age when children are more enamoured of their tablets and iPhones than the natural world, expeditions like the Omega Challenge are even more important.

They breed toughness and teach children that they have an inner strength to call on if they push their boundaries.

And these are the leaders society needs. Men and women who can brave life's hard knocks; who can stand before a mountain and see not an insurmountable barrier, but a worthy challenge.

In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, which, coincidentally, the TKPS pupils too had taken as the motto of their blog: "It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves."

dansonc@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Not too young to climb a mountain'. Print Edition | Subscribe